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En plein air. (Adapt or Die.)

Aug. 28th, 2012 | 12:14 am
music: Walking on Sunshine - Katrina and the Waves

Oh, this old world / keeps spinning round
It's a wonder tall trees / ain't layin' down

Neil Young, Comes a Time

It happened casually, as so many of my significant adventures have happened. Friends Peter Miller and Valerie Gardner were staying with us in Sutton, and picked up a tourist book, and thought they might like to try zip-lining at Arbre Sutton, would I like to come along?

I’d never tried it, but I knew that a zip-line was a wire you could hook to and slide downhill. I said yes without a second’s hesitation.

This is pretty much how it also happened in older/younger days that I found myself parasailing in Mexico ... and climbing on my own between tourist maps in the Swiss Alps ... and trudging up to the base camp of Everest ... and, most recently, biking down Bromont. It wasn’t ambition; it just felt like a neat idea during the brief opening of a window of opportunity.

It didn’t always prove to be a good idea.

Arbre Sutton turns out to be a cooperatively owned playground in gently rolling woods near Mount Sutton.

After we found one of the last places in their acre of parking lot, and discovered that since we hadn’t thought to make a reservation, we had a two-hour wait, and gave them a hundred dollars and change for the experience anyway, and filled out a medical questionnaire, and signed our agreement that nothing that happened would be their fault, and that yes they could use any photos or videos they took of us for any reason they liked ... all of which seems pretty standard these days ... has anybody besides me actually read the 28-pages of the latest iTunes agreement you have to say you’ve read (and approved) in order to download a tune? ... after all that, we rambled up and down several of the trails they maintain for cross-country and snowshoeing in the winter, and caught glimpses of what we were in for. Sliding down wires between trees wasn’t going to be the half of it, not even the half of a half.

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At 1:30 we joined a group and were fitted for harnesses with carabiners (hooks that spring closed).

At 1:45 we walked up to an assembly station for a bilingual introduction to what instructors called “the game”, and were soon training on a ground-level practice area, attaching and detaching ourselves from pulleys and pivots and wires, being habituated to the rituals of redundancy (so that we would always have a secondary support if the first gave way).

By 2:15 we three, friends for many years, all now in our 60s, had let the younger and gung-hoer move along smartly, and were on our own, completely delightedly absorbed in making our own discoveries about how to surmount problems in three-dimensional space.

“The game” requires the players to move between platforms in trees, following paths that usually have gaps of different kinds. The paths are in sequences that have four levels of increasing difficulty (five if you count the level that allows children to be undisciplined and still live), but even the first adult level ... well, let’s say that when I had to grab hold of a thick rope and step off a platform 20 feet in the air, and swing over to a vertical net, and climb up it and along it to a higher platform, I made a mental note that I had to work on my upper-body strength.

Vertigo would be a problem if one had it, but the canopy of trees wasn’t threatening, and the pressure of the harness was a steady reminder that there was no rational fear of falling ... very far. Some paths on higher levels are pretty slack, or involve logs that can roll under your feet, or require you to step into stirrups that hang free from lines on either side of the path, or invite you to swing around oblique obstacles, or crawl through a slatted cylinder, or climb over the lip of a platform to handholds (or footholds) hidden below, or zip-line backwards from a platform and haul yourself up to the next if you haven’t kicked off hard enough. Always, except for the reprieves of standard zip-line slides, there was something bracingly new. What made this particularly enjoyable for us was the opportunity for mutual support and collaboration, both mental and physical.

After several hours, the challenges were starting to feel rather a lot like hard work, and an instructor, who had been monitoring us from below, added suggestions (and encouragement) to help ease us to the end of the third level. Maybe there will be a next time to complete the course, but we felt pretty proud of ourselves.

What made the experience feel so significant to me was a sense of four-dimensional connection with the natural world — the world of my primate ancestors who made homes in the trees, the world of my human ancestors who survived by adapting to changing circumstance, and the world of my long-past childhood, when I would examine every tree to see if it was worth climbing.

It also felt valuable because it was such an empowering way of taking some control of my life. We live in fraught times financially, politically, and even culturally, beleaguered by the pace of change in areas that used to feel constant. A professional critic is almost as obsolete as a chimney sweep today when being Liked thousands of times is a standard measure of cultural merit. And who needs a writer when it seems as if everyone is writing all the time? But this walk in the trees was a reminder that I can adapt. I will find new ways to contribute.

I was also inspired by the instructor who started us off and helped bring our journey to a satisfying conclusion.

She was a young woman named Silke, who had spent most of her adult life manning a desk for Hewlett Packard in her native Germany ... until last year, when she was impelled to make the huge leap to Arbre Sutton ... and metamorphosed into a Jane for wannabe Tarzans ... and discovered that she was a really happy person.

I pray that we can all achieve that flexibility. I am confident that we can all be that happy. Both choices are ours to claim. Many times the choice of our ancestors was “Adapt or Die.”

I recall that we are all descended from those who adapted.

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Occupy TV-Watchers

Jun. 6th, 2012 | 03:06 am

"There is, especially in the American media, a deep belief that insincerity is better than no sincerity at all."
- Christopher Hitchens

"A government which robs Peter to pay Paul can always depend on the support of Paul."
George Bernard Shaw

Remember when TV used to chill in the summer? when even the news was on snooze control, and the big attraction was getting together to watch rich pros playing with their balls?

Well, ballgames continue to be prevalent, but the cutting-edgers are giving the imminent season a distinctive whiff of urgency. And by remarkable coincidence, the primary source of the pungency is politics.

Jeff Daniels leads a noteworthy cast to television for the summer in support of Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom (HBO, starting June 24th). Daniels plays News Night anchor Will McAvoy, who has found safety in sucking up to power ... though that is about to change.

Sorkin established himself as TV’s most distinctive writer when he created The West Wing, but this behind-the-scenes series is shaping up to be more like a cross between his Sports Night and his Studio 60 ... a West-Winged wordfest with moral spine and political teeth.

Sigourney Weaver takes on her first TV role, the lead in Political Animals, a six-part USA miniseries starting July 15th. She plays a Secretary of State who happens to be the ex-wife of a philandering ex-president.

This is fiction (note the “ex”-wife) and should not be confused with HBO’s Veep (Julia Louis-Dreyfus as the Vice President), which is satire. Veep winds up its first season on June 10th, and will be repeated, and has been renewed.

The gutsiest entry, though, may well be a reported shift to politics in the summer-long fifth-season focus of HBO’s True Blood, starting June 10th. Seems there is a conflict between the vampires who want to live peacefully among humans and those who, in Entertainment Weekly’s felicitous phrase, “want to suck them dry.”

Which reminds me: Here is an even greater synchrony than mere subject matter — Why are all of these shows running on Sunday???

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Music-Variety Elimination-Competition Reality-TV Series

May. 21st, 2012 | 01:31 pm
music: You Can Get It If You Really Want -- Jimmy Cliff

As a TV network sage once observed, while a fool may be born every minute, there is an amateur born every second. And nothing benefits a budget better than talent you don’t have to pay.

We are at the deepest prime-time confluence of amateur-talent revenue streams since the last Olympics.

One week ago, Canada’s Got Talent anointed the winner of its first season — Sagkeeng’s Finest, an engaging trio of teen male clog dancers from a Manitoba reserve. On the same night, America’s Got Talent began its 7th season with four hours of auditions. (My favorite was the duo of Magician and Concert Pianist — the former sawed the latter in half, then dragged the upper half to a baby grand, which the upper half played, quite well indeed!, from below, with his hands over his head. I’m not sure what they’ll do next time.)

Gone for now is Cover Me Canada in which pre-selected barbands from across the country competed with fresh interpretations of Cancon hits for celebrity judges, including some of the original hit-makers (winner decided by viewer voters). But newly booted up last weekend was Canada Sings, a performance competition between workplace gleeclubs which duel for prize money for their respective charities. The deciders in this series are rapper Vanilla Ice, singer Jann Arden, and Laurieann Gibson, choreographer to Lady Gaga and other stars.

Earlier this month the American version of The Voice wound up a much-improved and much-commented-on second season. Next year we’ll also have a Canadian version on CTV with judge/coaches Anne Murray, Bryan Adams, Nelly Furtado and Trevor Guthrie ... and a Quebec version on TVA, judges TBA. Eight more countries set to launch in the year ahead will bring the total number of Talent franchises in televised operation around the world to 40.

The last hour of Dancing With The Stars’ Season 14 performances tonight on Fox/CTV will be followed tomorrow by two hours devoted to “Results”. American Idol Season 11 (ABC/CTV) has its last hour of performance the same night, an hour earlier (8-9 p.m.), and will announce the winner on Wednesday’s two-hour finale (Rihanna has promised to sing if there’s time.)

Then it will be Thursday, and networks are ensuring that no one will have to go through withdrawal. So You Think You Can Dance (Fox/CTV) will begin showing the auditions for the new Season 9 from 8-10 p.m. before moving to its regular Wednesday timeslot next week. Competing at the same time is the two-hour premiere of a new American series called Duets (ABC/Global). Kelly Clarkson, the first American Idol, and three other vocal stars — Jennifer Nettles, John Legend and Robin Thicke — prepared individually by taking what ABC, grandly but dubiously, calls “a journey across America” to find two (2) amateur singers worthy of being their Duet Partners. One of these eight singers will win a recording contract.

Duets were also a big factor in The Voice, of course, — the “Battle Rounds” were made up entirely of competitive duets — but no voice-competition TV I’ve seen has used duets better than TVA’s Star Académie. Most of you outside of Quebec won’t have heard of the series, which combines elements of Big Brother (weeknightly highlights of life and training at the residential Academy’s mansion) with elements of American Idol (a three-hour big-stage, big-audience performance show every Sunday), but our Jean-Marc Couture last month became the 100th singer in the world to win a contest in the Star Academy format and will, along with our other Francophone graduates, launch a 30-concert tour at the end of this month with six performances at the Bell Centre, Montreal’s largest indoor venue. But what may be unique about our version is that after superstar Céline Dion came home during the previous Season 4 to do some really supportive coaching and singing with all the finalists on one of the Sunday shows, this year every guest performer from Mes Aieux to Lionel Richie incorporated every finalist into their sets as collaborators.

Clearly this is a more cost-effective format than that of Celebrity Duets, a nine-episode series from Simon Cowell in 2006 that had Little Richard, Marie Osmond and David Foster as judges, 30 duet partners with gold and platinum records to their credit, and contestants from other walks of fame who stepped out of their comfort zones to sing with them. (Cheech Marin of Cheech & Chong, for example, got to perform with Peter Frampton, Randy Travis, Clint Black, Aaron Neville and Al Jarreau before he was eliminated, and Xena: Warrior Princess Lucy Lawless likewise with Michael Bolton, Smokey Robinson, Kenny Loggins, Dionne Warwick, Richard Marx and Bonnie Tyler. All of whom probably expected to be paid and expensed.)

The newer formats, though, are gold-chip businesses. Each of the four famous coaches on The Voice made $75,000 an hour in their first season; NBC will be giving them all substantial raises for Season 3, but Christina Aguilera will take the cheese/cake with a salary of some $10 million. (Remember that this is part-time work!)

Industry folk call this the “the J. Lo effect” after American Idol agreed to pay Jennifer Lopez about $12 million to replace judge Simon Cowell, who was leaving the show he created to launch his next show (The X-Factor) ... and the ratings remained solid. Idol host Ryan Seacrest, who was getting by on an annual salary of $5 million back in ‘09, is completing the first of his three years at $15 million.

America’s Got Talent (a franchise also nurtured by Cowell) upped the ante by signing an American judge named Howard Stern to sit at the right hand of British judge Sharon Osbourne for what Canadian judge Howie Mandel let drop as $16 million. NBC also agreed to spend about that much again to relocate the show from Los Angeles so that Stern could continue doing his New York-based radio show. (His five-year deal with Sirius XM is worth an estimated $400 million to him.)

Meanwhile the million-dollar prize to the winner is typically paid off over 40 years, which isn’t even $500 a week, even if you’re a soloist. But gosh, think of the glory!

Now insiders report that Cowell is offering a newly record-breaking salary for a newsmaking new judge for X-Factor USA. (While I found the first season to be a ponderously unpleasant variation on the theme of Idol-atry, the concept is coming on strong and will soon be operating no fewer than 36 franchises of its own ... without any help yet from Canada.)

Cowell has also been stirring up ‘controversy’ (aka ‘free publicity’) by claiming to the BBC that The Voice is a rip-off of The X-Factor, but he hasn’t put his lawyers where his mouth is. So when X Factor USA comes back in the Fall for Season 2 on Wednesdays and Thursdays, it’s partly because The Voice pre-empted Mondays and Tuesdays for Season 3.

As a result, though, there’s not enough room left for the brilliant a cappella groups of The Sing-Off, which NBC cancelled in its prime last Sunday. As well, CTV’s So You Think You Can Dance Canada will not be back for a fifth season this summer, and its Canadian Idol continues suspended, presumed cancelled, since the end of the sixth season in 2008.

Of course, all this is just the shiny tip of the reality-TV iceberg, most of which concentrates on losers (sometimes with cruel mockery, often justified, sometimes with big-hearted, tear-jerking sympathy). But this is where the 99.9% can come to surrender their dreams to the lofty benevolence of the 0.1%, for whom all is business as usual.

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"Hungering for a female hero"

Apr. 27th, 2012 | 03:55 am

This headline appeared in the Detroit News the day before the opening of The Hunger Games movie. In the article that followed, Tom Long observed that among the “top 200 worldwide box-office hits ever ($350 million and up), not one has been built around a female action star.”

Now there is. One. The headline has already proved prophetic: The box-office of The Hunger Games surged past $350 million last week, its fourth. That's in North America — worldwide, it’s well over half a billion. To put this in current perspective, it has already earned as much in theatres as all nine of the 2011 films Oscar-nominated for Best Picture combined had earned when the list was announced January 24th.

I think this is not a flash in the pan but a conflagration. More than most trendy phenomena, this one is finding resonances far from its youthful target demographic, inspiring social activism, political rhetoric, sports metaphors, sitcom and sketchcom quips, a Mad Magazine feature and other parodies, editorial and other cartoons, colorful Hunger Games make-up (!) and other unlikely products, and did you hear that Olympic-style archery will be introduced this fall into New York public schools? Yes, it’s thanks to The Hunger Games, which is so much in the cultural air we breathe now that people who knew from the start that this movie was not for them are checking it out.

Talk about timely! Like the hit novel on which it is based, the movie takes place in an Americanish country (Panem) where the rich have long since conquered and divided the once-rebellious poor. The streamlined narrative of the film (sampled in this “sneak peek”) suggests that the principal function now of the poor’s 12 districts is passively to serve up annual “Tributes” — one teenage contestant of each gender, conscripted by lottery — to be trained in the Capitol [sic] for the title show, a live reality-TV marathon.

The Tributes learn how to survive in the wild, how to fight, and how to attract sponsors (popularity can be very helpful). The winner is the one left when the other 23 have been murdered by their rivals or — to keep things exciting as the numbers dwindle — killed by reality-show challenges (fireballs, insects with psychotropic stings, even computer-generated carnivores with a craving for flesh-and-blood contestants).

Now I never thought I’d say this about any movie, but I enjoyed The Hunger Games despite having to see it on a big screen. While the story and its heroine are compelling, they would be just as compelling on your phone ... and the directing of Gary Ross would be far less distractingly defective.

The best thing Ross did was to ask actress Jennifer Lawrence, who was so beautifully contained in last year’s Winter’s Bone, to repurpose that Oscar-nominated performance to the role of Katniss Everdeen. And he serves her well, allowing her luminous presence to be felt in almost every one of the movie’s 144 minutes ... without requiring her to voice-over any of her character’s narration from the book. So while she says little, she is the moral core of the movie, the reason why the its muting of so much of the novel’s violence isn’t a total betrayal — we can feel her fierce ambivalences and anguish, even when they are suppressed for safety’s sake, as clearly as the fear and fury that leaks out. (The rest of the Tributes, like most reality-show contestants, are restricted at best to one or two caricaturistics each, so there is no chance that anyone will be sorry if Katniss lives to be in another movie.)

Ross, previously best known for not totally betraying Seabiscuit, did well with the casting in general — minor characters can disappear for an hour or more and still be remembered without hesitation on their return — but I question the decision to make so many of the Capitol’s residents so cartoony. Donald Sutherland (in a cameo) is the only fearsome grownup we see, and this bleeds much of the terror out of the outrageously glamorous TV presentation of dead kids walking, makes it more Alice In Wonderland than Schindler’s List.

Another good thing for the movie is that not being restricted to the narrator’s focus opens it to elements Katniss neither knows nor imagines — arguments between the Games Masters, for example. It also, secondarily, becomes a story of the making of the most elaborate reality show on earth ... and this aspect required mightier suspension of disbelief than I could muster.

Indeed, some of the content seemed quite arbitrary, or utterly nonsensical, and I was confused enough about whom to blame for my confusion that I bought and read the ebook ($5 from Amazon on their free Kindle for Mac), doing my bit to help Suzanne Collins become what Amazon celebrated last month as “the best-selling Kindle author of all time.”

Sure enough, the book’s implausibilities are far fewer, if only because what doesn’t seem to concern Katniss in the book is less likely to concern the reader than it does the viewer (the technology, for example, that can record every move of every Tribute intimately from multiple angles — how could it be invisible to them? Well, it sure becomes a question when it is invisible to us.)

Eventually, I thought that maybe the reason I can’t recall seeing a single TV screen is because the Panemites haven’t yet invented television. It’s hard to know what to expect of a fascist feudal world so dependent on coal that it virtually enslaves its miners, but travels on smokeless high-speed trains and (according to the book) ruthlessly controls the Games’ climate... conducts surveillance with dirigibles and rips the tongues out of children caught saying the wrong thing, but loves the tear-jerking human-interest stories of Hunger Games teens in peril ... fires off a cannon at the exact moment of death of every Tribute so that (again according to the book) the bodies can be collected fresh and made to look as lifelike as possible for a hero’s burial ... and never that I recall reveals anything like a camera, not even in the pageant and the subsequent interviews that precede the Games ... but makes watching the 24/7 public screening of the Hunger Games in each District a compulsory exercise in humility, a renewal of surrender.

While the writing has the unfussy style of Katniss, who relates the story, it is meticulously crafted by author Suzanne Collins, so that the details of Who and Where and, above all, Why??? become clearer and clearer to the reader ... only after our curiosity has been ratcheted up, along with the suspense. The movie trades in this steadfast perspective for an inconsistent mess of multiple realities, with Ross lurching between directorial styles and genre referents as if this were an audition reel ... and ignoring the expectations inculcated in our culture ...

* * * * *

Moviegoers all over the world have grown up with the ‘Hollywood’ language of cinema, which has conventions, as all languages do, and allows exceptions for artists (which, if I haven’t made myself clear, Gary Ross is not).

A Film 101 convention that is even more familiar now from drama series on commercial TV is the Establishing Shot, the wide/distant view that orients us, allowing us to be absorbed into closer-up experiences.

Less familiar to most viewers, but just as important subconsciously, is the convention that when two characters are talking (or fighting) face to face, the cameras through which we are observing them, from no matter how close or far away, are all on the same side of the line between them. (A shot from the other side would suddenly reverse our sense of right and left.)

The Hunger Games has so many violations of these basic principles that for most of the movie we don’t know where characters in the same scene are in relation to each other or in relation to their environment. Even when Katniss takes refuge from the Games in a tree, for example, Ross refuses us the perspectives we need for what’s coming — how high is she? what all can she view? can she be seen from below? do contiguous trees give her a possible escape route? Ross keeps his close-up lenses in place; he’d rather read poetry in her motion, and haikus of feeling on her face, neither of which is a totally terrible alternative, but still ...

Only the few fragments of the live-TV show that we get to see on big screens — always obliquely — seem crisp, clean, composed ... like a traditional movie. (The enormous studio audience, though, gets to watch on screens that for some reason are tall and vertical, maybe it’s a décor thing.) What you get from the movie itself in the theatre is aggressively in-your-face, a style that could be described kindly as ‘subjective’ or clinically as ‘schizophrenic’. The latter seems an ever-more-fair assessment as the movie wears on.

* * * * *

At the beginning, Katniss is shown to be a caring sister, a dutiful daughter, a gifted archer-hunter, and a model pal for a great guy. This is Ross at his most efficient, and aside from the gloomy grainy greyness of what is apparently a typical day in the Districts, the only problem is his resolute refusal to establish a horizon line — we’re almost always looking from above or below whatever we’re looking at, or from too close to tell. (The flashbacks to come will return to this drab palette, and the obscurest of them — someone left a loaf out in the rain? — will be repeated until we get told what to think.)

The District 12 conscription sequence that follows introduces the shaky-cam, Ross overwhelming the scene’s cruel pageantry with jerky, claustrophobic penetrations of the crowd and jump-cuts between extreme close-ups. Then it’s time to herd the ‘winners’ onto the train, and he pulls back a bit, using (I presume) the digital equivalent of film stock that has been drained of almost all color, and pushes the Holocaust analogy so far that one starts to look around for swastikas.

Another crowd-scene borrows from Ben-Hur the chariots that bear the contestants, waxed and buffed and fabulously costumed, to be examined by the wildly colorful studio audience and the unfathomable TV audience. Spectacular stuff! but Ross’s peaking ADD dissipates every aspect of the spectacle, most especially the 12th-and-last entrance — Katniss in a long, swirly skirt with cool flames that will get her dubbed “The Girl On Fire”.

Eventually we do get to the Games and — finally! — a free-for-all scene that is meant to be chaotic. Even here, though, it wouldn’t have been hard to come up with a staging more dramatic than having Tributes running in and out of focus across the front of the cameras.

What’s really insupportable, however, is what happens afterwards, when things get acutely alarming for Katniss in the artificial wild, and suddenly it’s as if we were watching The Blair Witch Project or Cloverfield or TV’s The River, all of which could justify their amateur blurry twitchiness because terrified characters were recording the bad things for themselves. But here the multiplicity of points of view betrays the scary isolation of a girl alone with the unknown in the dark. For you cannot see this scene without imagining a team of paparazzi videographers that cannot possibly exist in the world of the story.

* * * * *

Why blame the director? That too is a convention. The buck usually stops somewhere else, somewhere up the producer chain, but for artistic choices, ultimately the director is the designated decider. And while he (usually) may or may not himself be contractually obligated to publicize his work, he is certainly contractually forbidden to disclose matters that might sabotage the $u¢¢e$$ of the production. So we must feel free to speculate. And I want to understand what, besides inexperience or incompetence, might have caused this director to make so many bad decisions.

Much of it may have been the result of certain constraints. The paramount (for Lionsgate) need for a PG-13 rating, for example, may necessarily have been achieved at the cost of clarity. We are obviously used to the kind of insanely violent terrorism that permitted The Dark Knight a PG-13 (though the Parental Guidance should have been “Don’t even think about letting your pre-teen see this film!”), for this was about grownup who lives in a comic-book world. The very idea of letting children watch children killing children, however, must have caused doubt to seethe in the boardrooms of The Hunger Games backers ... until maybe Ross (or somebody) said, “Well, what if we don’t actually see it, quite?!”

Or think about the fortune that must have been saved on sets by letting us see a few small parts only of one District only, and the Capitol only at such a distance that it could be fully faked on an iPad ... and in the Capitol only one non-generic room ... and then set the Games themselves in woods and fields so ordinary that no one would desire (or by now expect) to see more of them. The only disadvantage to the backers, as it turns out, is that it’s going to be very very hard to hide the profits.

This rich reward, and a Rotten Tomatoes approval rating of 85% from both critics (252 of them) and amateurs (170,211 of them to date), would have put Ross, who was paid $3 million to direct and co-script the movie, in a prime position to seek improvement in his contract for the three (3) sequels. Instead, two weeks ago he apparently shocked Lionsgate by saying he would not return to direct Catching Fire. "As a writer and a director, I simply don’t have the time I need to write and prep the movie I would have wanted to make because of the fixed and tight production schedule." (One factor: The sequel requires a summer start because Jennifer Lawrence had previously been contracted to reprise her supporting role as Raven/Mystique in X-Men: First Class for a sequel that starts shooting in January.)

Last week, Lionsgate announced that the helm will be taken over by Francis Lawrence (no relation), a hugely successful director of big-deal commercials (Pepsi and Coke) and big-star videos (Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” won him a Grammy). He made the move into movies with Constantine (Keanu Reeves), I Am Legend (Will Smith), and Water for Elephants (Reese Witherspoon); most recently he also did the touching pilot for Touch (Kiefer Sutherland), about a single dad whose mute 11-year-old makes urgent connections between people through numbers.

So I’m uncautiously hopeful. Here is a guy who clearly has hip sensibilities and traditional big-screen values, gets along with artists, and enjoys making things look good.

Meanwhile, The Hunger Games returns today for a week in IMAX theatres across the continent. I'll be listening instead to the all-star 'soundtrack', a tribute I can watch on the back of my eyelids.

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Oscars in context

Feb. 26th, 2012 | 02:37 pm
music: Hurting You Kind - Chris Velan

The most compelling observation I’ve read in advance of tonight's Academy Awards came this week from Vulture, NYMag’s daily culture briefing:

“How ironic. This competition boils down to one between a group of mostly French filmmakers who made a loving and elaborate recreation of Hollywood during the silent film era [The Artist], and a group of mostly Hollywood filmmakers who made a loving and elaborate recreation of Paris during the silent film era [Hugo].”

Vulture was talking specifically about front-runners for the Art Direction Oscar. But the coincidence is even richer if you consider that also Oscar-nominated in this category, and also competing with the front-runners for Best Picture, Best Director, and the Best Screenplay awards, is Woody Allen’s most successful movie, Midnight in Paris, in which he too takes us back to silent-era Paris ... mostly to meet iconic writers and artists and musicians, but also to remind us of some important things about love (and charm).

“What a great story!” ... Is there a more enticing recommendation for a movie? Acting awards get way more attention than writing awards, but acting awards tend to honor emotional extremes — tours de force in films that often challenge one’s tolerance for misery ... while writing awards tend to honor the core pleasures of narrative craft.

So if widespread appreciation of the screenplay is, as I believe, the most reliable predictor of movie enjoyment, you might be surprised by my list of the year’s Most Promising Films (based on the number of critics associations and industry groups that credited a film with the best screenplay):

1. The Descendants (Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon & Jim Rash) (12)
2. Moneyball (Steve Zaillian & Aaron Sorkin) (10)
3. Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen) (8)
4. A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, Iran ) (6)
5. The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius, France) (5)
6. 50/50 (Will Reiser) (4.5)
7. Margaret (Kenneth Lonergan (4)
8. Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami, Iran) (3)

* * * * *

If Midnight in Paris wins Woody Allen an Oscar tonight, it will be only the third of his 42 movies to do so. (Who knows how much this has to do with the virtual certainty that he won’t be at the ceremony to accept it.)

But last Sunday his keenest rivals, the members of the Writers Guild of America, gave him the award for the year’s Best Original Screenplay, as they had done in previous years for Crimes and Misdemeanors, Hannah and Her Sisters, Broadway Danny Rose, and Annie Hall. (He has Oscars only for Hannah and Annie, though the latter film also won for his directing and earned him his only Best Actor nomination.)

The Writers had also nominated him in the same category for Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Mighty Aphrodite, for Alice and Radio Days, for Bullets Over Broadway and Husbands and Wives, and for The Purple Rose of Cairo ... and prior to 1985 (when Comedy was integrated with Drama) they nominated his Interiors for Best Original Drama ... and Zelig, Stardust Memories, Manhattan, Sleeper, Bananas, Take the Money and Run, and What’s New Pussycat for Best Original Comedy... .

That leaves 22 Woody Allen movies for which the Guild did NOT nominate his writing, but for a couple of these — Match Point and Deconstructing Henry — the Academy DID.

Both outfits must be in awe of his discipline ... and jealous of his freedom. What writer has to go less far to win the approval of his director?!

* * * * *

John Williams, who has his 46th and 47th nominations for original score this year (for Stephen Spielberg's The Adventures of TinTin and for Spielberg's War Horse), must be the only nominee to have been disappointed more often than Woody Allen, having won only five: for Schindler’s List, E.T., Star Wars IV, Jaws, and uh ... Fiddler on the Roof.

His three rivals this year have their own director champions: Howard Shore, who has scored David Cronenberg movies for 33 years, turned three nominations into three wins for Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings, and is now nominated for Martin Scorsese's Hugo. Alberto Iglesias is Pedro Almodovar's go-to composer, but has won his three nominations for Swiss director Marc Forster's The Kite Runner, and adaptations of John Le Carré novels by Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles' (The Constant Gardener) and Swedish director Tomas Alfredson (this year's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy). And front-runner Ludovic Bource is a first-time nominee for composing almost everything we hear in The Artist, his second score for writer-director Michel Hazanavicius.

Meanwhile, Trent ‘Nine Inch Nails’ Reznor and Atticus Ross won the British Academy Award for scoring the American remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo; they teamed up to win an Oscar last year for The Social Network by the same director (David Fincher), but failed to be nominated this time out.

Small world: According to Amy Verner in the Globe, Reznor and Bource have something in common — their agent is Amos Newman, son of Randy, who has two Oscars and 18 other song and score nominations to his credit.

And while we’re thinking about music: Why are only two songs nominated this year? Entertainment Weekly has the most compelling explanation for this unprecedented Academy anomaly:

“After several years of weak and obscure song nominees, the Academy’s music branch introduced a rule change in 2009 demanding that tunes receive an average score of 8.25 or higher (out of 10) from branch members to earn a nod. And if just one song hits the 8.25 mark, the track with the next-highest score gets a nomination. This year, it’s entirely possible that musicians in the Academy thought only one song was good enough for recognition....”

That song, though, isn't the song that won the Golden Globe last month: It turns out that Madonna’s “Masterpiece,” from her movie W.E., was not submitted because “it appears too late in the film’s final credits to be eligible.”

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Fantasy (the Genre) — The Best are Magical Exceptions

Dec. 29th, 2011 | 09:04 pm
music: Bohemian Rhapsody

Is this the real life?
Is this just fantasy?

The former, I hope. I am entertained best by exploring real life.

Sure, much of this exploration is mediated — guided by artistry and enhanced by narrative (and sometimes a good soundtrack). But “just fantasy” I don’t ever want. Even from fiction, I seek something imaginatively and emotionally true.

So when my friend Rose, who’s reading a lot of hard stuff at McGill, asks if I can recommend some Fantasy, I think of Bored of the Rings, a paperback Harvard Lampoon parody I enjoyed far more than the original Tolkien tome (1954-55). The latter, hugely influential, became a million-seller more than 150 times over and really defined for our time (in Oldish English) the genre’s durable dragons, demons, witches and warlords, and the lost or hidden worlds where the rough armies of Id do battle with the outnumbered heroes of Ego, at some cost to the innocents who motivate the heroes and heal them and empower them with beautiful Good Magic against the ugly Dark Forces.

And then I think of the Harry Potter series, which took these tropes and transcended them so playfully and (later) so passionately that it would seem to repel parody. But it’s over now, and I turn to my teenage friends Amalia and Dafna, who grew up with the series (initially in Hebrew) and loved them at least as much as I: Had they found something memorable to fill the void? .

Of course they had, many different things, but they were united in urging me to try Elantris, which turned out to be an improbably powerful chessgame of a novel, the 2005 debut of a storyteller named Brandon Sanderson, who brings to the board an embarrassment of imaginative riches that honor Fantasy traditions by refreshing them.

The world Sanderson creates here includes half a dozen cultures, each with its own distinct social, religious and political structures, versions of history, ways of speaking, and ways of making magic. And we get to know a few individuals from each well enough to have expectations of them, and to be surprised by what they actually do and say when push comes to shove, which it does often over the novel’s 600+ pages.

The improbable part is how suspensefully it leads these individuals into the endgame when everything around them is going to hell.

* * * * *

However, it’s only when I look at the books the World Fantasy Conventions have nominated since 1975 for their annual awards that I realize that I have read and admired scores of Fantasy novels — among them more than a few I wouldn’t have thought to include (most especially D.M. Thomas’s The White Hotel, an amazing kick in the head, and the only other novel besides Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf that I think important to read in one sitting).

So feeling freer now, I nominate to my personal Fantasy Writers Hall of Fame, in addition to the above ...

Clive Barker for Imajica, and Frank & Gillian for Luminosity. Both are seductive stories that become fully wondrous, haunting invitations to consider limitless possibility. If you still have my copy of the latter, please send it home. No other book I love is so rare.

Italo Calvino for If on a winter’s night a traveler, which is a whole suite of such invitations, deliciously surreal.

Mark Helprin for Winter’s Tale, which features an immortal white horse in an alternate New York and moves in profoundly subconscious/spiritual ways.

Salman Rushdie for Midnight’s Children, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez for One Hundred Years of Solitude — the best of magic realism.

Marion Zimmer Bradley for The Mists of Avalon, the story of King Arthur and the rise and fall of Camelot powerfully re-imagined from a feminine (not feminist) perspective. And Guy Gavriel Kay for The Fionovar Tapestry, in which the Arthur legend is only one of the resonances brought to bear on the startlingly moving transformations of a group of Toronto college kids in a world where their whims have life-and-death effect.

David Grann for The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon, a first-person page-turner, a non-fictional surrender to the extraordinary power of Fantasy. (Was there some Truth at the core of an explorer's viral Legend?)

Douglas Adams for parts one, two, three, and five of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy Trilogy, and Robert Shea & Robert Anton Wilson for The Illuminatus Trilogy — strangely cheery paranoid fantasies, the former bitingly funny, the latter barkingly mad. Likewise Firesign Theatre for I Think We’re All Bozos on This Bus, brilliantly absurd, must be heard to be disbelieved.

And, speaking of theatre, William Shakespeare for The Tempest, still being reinterpreted by the greatest of actors for the bravest of directors in its quadricentennial.

Finally, last but most, three Fantasy authors of multiple favorites, cult novelists I celebrate for whole bodies of addictive work — Jonathan Carroll, starting with Land of Laughs; John Crowley, starting with Little, Big; and, consistentest of all, Charles de Lint, the Canadian folksinger whose writing has been nominated 17 times for World Fantasy Awards.

Beaux rêves, chères amies ...

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Potter — Harry Potter

Aug. 31st, 2011 | 03:26 am
music: You Only Live Twice, Nancy Sinatra

Hard to believe I’ve been going back to school (and into battle) with Harry Potter for the better part of 17 years. Seven novels (my favorite the overflowingly imaginative fifth) and now eight densely entertaining movies ... the most successful entertainment franchise of all time ... until you think to adjust the success of James Bond for inflation (and product placement).

Even harder to believe that I was in school when Bond was outwitting, outplaying and outlasting the Russkies and other baddies in the canonical Ian Fleming novels. I devoured all 12 in paperback, though none of the 40+ Bond books subsequently licensed to other authors, and have managed to see every one of the 24 Bond films in their first runs (1962-2010).

So I feel I can speak with some authority when I say of these two heroes that despite their superficial differences, they have a remarkable amount in common:

— Both lost their parents when they were school kids, and were placed in the care of relatives.

— Both were endowed by their authors with scars.

— Both are reckless games-players and skilled fighters who face overwhelming odds at least annually.

— Secret organizations reinforce both with arcane knowledge and cutting-edge technology. Neither hero could have survived without this help ... and even so, their survival would have remained highly improbable without firm support from their respective authors (and without a whack of luck supplied at crucial junctures by every one of their directors.)

— Fleming dismissed his kinetic thrillers as “pillow-book fantasies of the bang-bang kiss-kiss variety." His Bond appeals to the teenage boy in every fan and embodies a pre-Beatle teenager’s idea of masculine confidence and sophistication. J.K. Rowling was famously a single mother on welfare when she created Harry Potter and his world, and he embodies the insecurity and vulnerability of a real schoolkid of either gender. The fact that he has to find heroism in himself seems to have appealed to most anyone who was ever a child.

— As their series progress, both heroes turn cool, shrewd, calculating, manipulative ... and unforgiving (unless there’s an ulterior motive). As well, both love their friends, but are not very good friends to their lovers.

— Nonetheless, both have inspired loyal followings not only among masses of readers and filmgoers, but also among stars who have built their lives around inhabiting even minor roles in the lives of Harry and James ... year after year after year ... decade after decade after decade in the case of Desmond Llewelyn, who played Q the MI-6 gadget guy in 17 Bond films (1963-99).

So ... can it be mere coincidence that Ian Fleming, who started writing his fantasies in retirement, died in the south of England just months before J.K. Rowling, who started writing fantasy stories at age five or six, was conceived there?

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AWWWARDS! The Big Picture. The Big Sounds

Apr. 18th, 2011 | 01:58 am
music: Won't Be Back (feat. Eric Clapton) - Robbie Robertson

My my, hey hey
Rock and roll is here to stay

Three-time Hall-of-Famer Neil Young withstanding, rock’n’roll is on a downward spiral.

Sure, summer festivals and PBS fundraisers continue to showcase the genre’s surviving stars. Veteran critics are responding warmly to new work by veterans Robbie Robertson and Paul Simon — albums whose eclectic branches do not entirely obscure their rock’n’roll roots. Neil himself — thanks again to director Jonathan Demme — has another visceral, intimate rock’n’roll-band concert-movie DVD on premium cable and in Canadian theatres this month (Neil Young Trunk Show, trailered here. And Internet economies predict that ever-thinner slices of the audience will continue to be served archival rock’n’roll pie.

But the fact remains that rock’n’roll songs and albums were less of a presence on the Billboard charts last year than in any of the previous 50. The big awards shows reflect that, of course — old-timers are invited to present and to be praised, and once in a while to perform on a verse or two of a golden oldie. But there aren’t many replacements up-and-coming. The cast of Glee can’t do it all by themselves. (Oh, wait, maybe they can.)

So ... whatever happened to the commercial groove of the rock’n’roll that will never die?

The answer was the biggest surprise of my awards season. More than at the Grammys, the Junos and the BRIT Awards combined, rock’n’roll was all over the Academy of Country Music Awards show, which kicked off at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas this month with a kick-ass reunion performance of southern rock by Alabama and fellow guitar-slingers.

After that, crossover session-vets promptly swung into gear, Nashville style, to support Toby Keith and then Carrie Underwood, and the energy level on stage (and in the audience) was such that no adjustment had to be made when Underwood was joined by rock icon Steven Tyler of Aerosmith for duets — one of her songs and then one of his (Walk This Way!) ... and there was backbeat and groove aplenty among the 18 performances that followed, ending mellowly with James Taylor/Zac Brown duets (before the Entertainer of the Year presentation to Taylor Swift.

Another surprise was the climactic performance of a rousing original anthem by a developmentally challenged choir and its catalyst — Darius Rucker, the lead singer of Hootie & The Blowfish, who recently became the first African American to hit #1 on the country charts since Charlie Pride ... 28 years ago. Given how racially integrated rock’n’roll has been since the very beginning, it seemed surreal that the only other black face I saw on stage (or in the visible audience) was the fabulous face of the singer on the cover of the current Rolling Stone. R&B diva Rihanna had sold more than 60 million records and turned 23 six weeks before coming to Vegas ... to give Jennifer Nettles of hot country duo Sugarland a different duet occasion to rise to (which she sure did!) ... the first performance of Rihanna’s latest single, California King Bed.

* * * * *

Let’s go downtown and watch the modern kids ...

For all three of the other big music-awards shows, the story was Arcade Fire, who rock mightily, imaginatively, memorably ... but are on the wrong side of the generation gap to play rock’n’roll. They don’t have the elasticity — they tend to divide each bar as precisely as they can.

In the previous generation gap — the one carved out in the 60s by the Boomers, the one that liberated us from all limitations and became the hugest generation gap, like, ever — both sides respected the elasticity of feel / groove / swing. The musical difference that most bugged the parental establishment was our reckless embrace of immersive sonic power — the kind celebrated most prominently recently by Neil Young with producer Daniel Lanois on the Juno-winning album they called Le Noise ... which also generated the Grammy-winning Best Rock Song, Angry World. You can see the album here.

Boomer cohesiveness was shattered by the mid-Seventies confluence of two very different counter-rebellions — punk anarchy, which vilified the rock’n’roll machine and eventually freed performance from the need for musicianship, and disco, which strait-jacketed R&B suppleness and eventually freed dance from the need for partnership. The combination — and the DIY explosion of ever-cheaper computer/recording technology — created the gap that still affects us ... the gap between the new-wave rock generation that grew up with the hypnotic comforts of pounding drum and digital Beat ... and the retro-rockers who grew up with groove. No judgment here — both of the most durable chart-toppers in rock history (Dark Side of the Moon and Thriller) partook of this hypnosis, and both were about as universally loved as anything since the Beatles. But while mainstream music-awards shows continue to honor the formerly disorderly, it is the new-wavers who do most of the honoring ... and most of the other performing too.

At the 31st annual BRIT Awards presented by the “British Phonographic Industry” (Feb. 15) Quebec’s Arcade Fire roused the punters with Ready to Start before being named Best International Group and credited with the Best International Album for The Suburbs. As well, Ontario’s Justin Bieber, who has finally turned 17, was presented with the award for Best International Breakthrough Act by Ontario’s Avril Lavigne, a BRIT winner when she was almost as young.

Two days earlier we had the 53rd Grammy Awards, where both Bieber and Arcade Fire had performed, and where The Suburbs shocked Americans by being named the Album of the Year. Bieber lost Best New Artist to Esperanza Spalding (!), and Best Pop Vocal Album to The Fame MonsterLady Gaga — but I’ll bet his versatile performance won him a whole lot of converts. Funny, I’d assumed he was a rock’n’roller at heart, but it turns out that only his hair is groovy.

Less of a surprise is that these Canucks went head-to-head for Album of the Year at the 40th Juno Awards. Or that Arcade Fire won, also taking home the awards for Songwriter, Group, and (oh yes) Alternative Album, giving the most energizing performance of the night (see Rococo here), and displaying an acceptance-speech modesty and spontaneous enthusiasm matched only by Artist of the Year Neil Young, who took time out to marvel at how good Arcade Fire was. (Bieber did win for Pop Album; Matthew Good for Rock Album, Young also for Adult Alternative Album, whatever that is, though I think we can guess. Host Drake, who came in with the most nominations, went home with his credibility intact.)

Most of the 40 Junos awarded were handed out the night before the telecast, which focused on performance. As with the similarly streamlined Grammys, this is good for ratings but bad for diversity. The Juno flashback montages celebrated musicians who felt distinctively Canadian. The present-day performers (aside from A. Fire) demonstrated how well Canadians can adapt to corporate culture. We used to be famous for our lyrics, for our harmonies, for our inventive rock, and we still do those things really well (Barenaked Ladies, Great Big Sea, Karkwa, Loco Locass, many more), but mostly what was happening on stage was high-tech spectacle with a high-tech soundtrack, as at the Grammys.

And the Americans spend money on ordinance better than anybody. The Grammy show was as spectacular as any I’ve ever seen on television. Lady Gaga, though, wasn’t the lightning rod this time. The reigning queen of aggressive spectacle shocked me this time with a choreographed production of Born This Way that was beautiful and vulnerable and ultimately moving; she left over-the-topness to Katy Perry, to Fuck You! by Cee-Lo Green with Gwyneth Paltrow & The Muppets, and — most successfully, to the astonishing construction and destruction of four virtual stages for Muse and its Uprising, passably captured here
My prediction is that the show will be the big winner in its small category at the Emmys in the Fall.

And that all four music awards shows will be back again next year. Along with the Oscars, the Emmys, the Tonys, and the Golden Globes, they are among the most successful of annual live-television events ... for a reason that generates much complaint: They all hand out trophies without sufficient regard to either critical opinion or the popular vote (sales, texting). This allows them to take flak from both sides ... and to remain entertainingly unpredictable.

(This is also true — on a much smaller scale — of the Genie Awards for Canadian film; the big surprise of the one-hour telecast March 10th was the excitement of the music — when did that last happen at the Oscars?! I’m thinking of Quebec’s Karkwa singing Leonard Cohen’s Dance Me to the End of Love with a stylish pair of pas de doers from the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, but even more of the drop-kick start of the show with Melissa Etheridge joining Serena Ryder on a rocking Broken Heart Sun.)

Also in March, by the way, one of the funniest, most moving, and most thrillingly theatrical performers I’ve ever seen was inducted (by Neil Young! — he’s everywhere!) into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, to the great delight of the celebrity audience. It has been 25 years since I last had a chance to see Tom Waits live, but this wonderful profile/performance clip suggests that nothing important has changed.

And while we're at it, let me add a shout-out for the 25th Anniversary Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame Concerts DVD that finally came out last year. There are a few longueurs, but the long sets by Paul Simon and friends, by Jeff Beck and friends, and by Bruce Springsteen and friends in particular are always revealing, often mesmerizing, and rise in each case to occasions so ecstatic as to resurrect one’s faith in the power of rock’n’roll.

* * * * *

Okay, a few words I haven’t read elsewhere about the Oscars: The most interesting thing about them this year was that all the winning Actors were winning Academy Awards for the first time ... and so were the winning Directors (including for Documentary Feature and Foreign) ... and likewise the winning Cinematographer, Writers, Composers, Editors, Art Directors, Sound Mixers and Visual Effects team-members ...

By rare contrast, The Wolfman was giving Rick Baker his seventh Oscar in 12 nominations for makeup design. And Toy Story 3 earned Randy Newman his twentieth nomination, and second win, for Best Original Song ... even though most of the songs on his own albums are vivid audio roles that feel waaay more original.

Appropriately enough, young actors James Franco and Anne Hathaway were first-time winners of the job of Oscar Host. Unfortunately, they were given little to do except play dress-up.

I find it fascinating that the ceremony this year was once again tarred with the epithet ‘predictable’, usually by the very people who had spend months devoting acres of print and hours of telecast to divination and divulgence. The show is as much a ritual as any church service — newsworthy novelty is not what is being prayed for by the faithful. And calling the awards themselves predictable in the final days is like anticipating the winners of the Indy 500 from the perspective of the 499th lap.

Let me remind you that as the Awards Season began, it was clear that The Social Network had a lock on victory. 29 film critics associations had named it the best movie of the year. The runners-up, with 1 vote each, were 127 Hours, Black Swan, Inception, The King’s Speech, and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. So don’t believe anyone who tells you they foresaw 10 nominations for the remake of True Grit.

* * * * *

it’s hardly an exaggeration to say that what distinguishes our culture from all previous cultures is its saturation in entertainment.

-- Jonathan Franzen in the ‘Journeys’ issue of The New Yorker

We call this the end of the Awards Season. The congratulations and thankyous aren’t about to stop, but from here on in, it will include work done (or at least showcased) this year. By media tradition — which is what counts, of course — the new season begins in a few weeks with the Cannes Film Festival. This isn’t the first big film festival of the year (that would be Sundance in January), or the most influential (that would be Toronto in September), but in the old days when newspapers made news, Cannes earned a reputation for being exotic, controversial, star-studded, and photogenic — hence attention-grabbing — that it has never lost. Robert De Niro will preside over the jury for the main competition. More details will trickle out (be carefully leaked) in the days ahead. Winter-worn journalists like going to work on the Riviera in the spring.

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Not Fade Away Figures

Feb. 6th, 2011 | 09:26 am

3 — hat trick scored by Montreal’s Arcade Fire, who are performing at the Grammy Awards (Feb. 13), the Brit Awards (Feb. 15), and the Juno Awards (March 27), after winning multiple nominations from each for album #3, The Suburbs.

6 — books contracted this year to Simon & Schuster by Bob Dylan. Two will be follow ups to Chronicles: Volume I, another is to be based on dialogue from his radio show on Sirius/XM, the remainder are TBA. (Rolling Stone)

69 — age of Chubby Checker, who limberly performed one Limbo and two Twist songs last weekend on Téléquébec’s weekly concert showcase, Belle et bum. He had recorded the three hits between the ages of 18 and 21. (At 17 he was still Ernest Evans.)

17 — other singles he charted in those four years.

69 — age of Bob Dylan, 88 days older. At 17 he was still Robert Allen Zimmerman.

94 — age of Ernest Borgnine. Born Ermes Effron Borgnino, he won the SAG (Screen Actors Guild) lifetime-achievement award for achievements that followed his name change.

164 — movies he acted in when he wasn’t busy in America’s Navy for ten years and in McHale’s Navy for five, and in other TV series (Airwolf, The Single Guy) for another five. His most recent movie is the all-star action-comedy Red; three more are slated for release in 2011.

89 — record age of first-time SAG Best Actress Betty White, who won for Hot In Cleveland. (She got her lifetime-achievement award from them last year.)

65th — birthday this year of stars who seem to have come from different eras ...
Jimmy Buffett and Patti Smith,
Patty Duke and Sally Field,
Peggy Lipton and Diane Keaton,
Liza Minnelli and Cher,
Bill Clinton and George W.,
Candice Bergen and Cheech Marin,
Dolly Parton and Naomi Judd,
Susan Lucci and Susan Sarandon,
Stephen Spielberg and John Waters,
Sylvester Stallone and Tommy Lee Jones,

11,500 — Americans turning 65 every day, on average, for the next 19 years, according to CBC-TV’s tyro of talk, George Stromboulopoulos. And 1,000 Canadians a day.

* * * * *

$62 million — estimated earnings last year of Lady Gaga, according to the Feb. ROB. That may be more impressive if you think of it as 170 thousand-dollar bills a day, including weekends and holidays.

$25.3 billion — total earned last year by the 25 top hedge-fund managers. Or an individual average of 170 thousand-dollar bills every twenty minutes of a 40-hour work week.

24.4% — decline in attendance at North American concert tours from 2009 to 2010, according to Billboard Boxscore.

13% — decline in album sales, which were led by Eminem’s 3.4-million-selling comeback album Recovery. None of the top-10 was a rock album.

14% — increase in vinyl album sales, to around 2.8 million, led by Abbey Road and The Suburbs. All of the top-10 were rock.

67% — Increase over last year in the average cost of secondary-market Superbowl tickets the weekend before the game.

$200 — face-value tickets this year for the plaza outside the stadium

69.6 million — avocados that will be consumed tonight by people watching the Superbowl. According to the Hass Avocado Board, that’s enough to cover the Cowboys Stadium field to a height of almost 27 feet.

82% — American followers of at least one sport who prefer professional football to baseball, the runner up. Add college teams to the stats and football is two and a half times as popular as baseball. To watch.

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Need to come up with a title

Feb. 4th, 2011 | 03:32 pm

Ahmondieu, Achmeingott, Omygod, so busy! I’d better stop thinking about it and actually DO something. Maybe something relatively unimportant that I can accomplish quickly.

It occurs to me that in the absence this week of my organizing principal — she who has replaced the daily deadline of the columnist with the daily priorities of the husband — the option field is a thicket.

Probably I should seize my scythe and thresh something so vital that I will not be deflected by the weeds and wildflowers that clog one’s available time.

Curious how unhappy Word is with verblessness, as it is with verbosity.

So I’m writing a piece that will require me to think about getting organized enough to get something accomplished. So I won’t worry about why the dog is barking, the dog usually doesn’t need much of a reason. The bills can stay unpaid today; the cat’s away, my mouse can play. Which is the kind of couplet that could make for a fresh lyric, with a bit of editing and a bunch of followthrough, but I’ll bet I could think of a better after I get some food into me. Creativity requires fuel, and I won’t even have to stop thinking if I bring a fresh, list-free pad with me and don’t put it down just anywhere. Some music might help too, something with flowing energy and no words. Now the day can begin properly if I don’t answer the phone or check emails or think what might be happening in the world with me unaware.

Hmm. Not being introspective of body, I tend to assume that a lack of accomplishment Is a failure of will. Which it is, of course. “What must be done to feed the children” [The Invitation] is sackcloth to the ashes of my momentum. Not that I have any children. Though I do have the aforementioned dog who is barking. Could be the mice. We have an unprecedented invasion of mice this year, unless someone is coming along nightly and strewing mouse droppings on our countertops. For sure, dealing with that is on my to-do list. Having the mice barked at is not proving sufficiently effective.

It occurs to me that a lack of corporeal insight is probably genetic, or more likely genderic. Women who ignored ailments probably didn’t reproduce, and men who devoted too much attention to ailments probably didn’t survive. One of the rewards of writing is making such discoveries for oneself, when the time is right. But I guess I am feeling lousyish, and this gets support from my observation that I have mild symptoms of a potentially fluish nature, and that makes me feel somewhat better about doing this somewhat less than well, which is something, when the time is up

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