Tuesday, September 30, 2008
Of course, I wasn't alone in that. Front page obits were everywhere, including apparently the state newspapers in Iran and North Korea -- places that don't have time for much that's American, let alone something as out of step in those societies as a Hollywood star.
That got me wondering just what it is that connects us with someone we've never known who's usually pretending to be someone who doesn't exist.
I have snippets of memory that recall Paul Newman's first movie, "The Silver Chalice", but I was too young way back then to know who its stars were and most likely saw it at a drive-in dressed in my Roy Rogers PJ's and was asleep in the back seat of my parents' car long before the final credits rolled.
He was on the periphery of my awareness through the early 60's, starring in movies like "Hud" and "The Hustler" that I couldn't see back then because they were restricted and wouldn't see in an uncut form until VHS tape arrived.
I probably saw "Left Handed Gun" and thought it was a too-talky western. "Exodus" might have registered, but my Mom was reading the book when the movie came out and it looked long and important. "Paris Blues", "A New Kind of Love", "What A Way To Go" -- has ANYBODY seen those?
I liked "Harper" but mostly because I was into detective stories. Although the opening scene of down-at-the-heels Private Eye Lew Harper making morning coffee with yesterday's grounds still resonates every time I need to figure out how to establish a character immediately and wordlessly.
My high school steady and I broke up waiting in the line to see "Cool Hand Luke". I'd already bought the tickets and her brother was coming to pick us up after, so we decided to see the movie anyway. By any measure of Teen angst and alienation, the pain of that night should be the stronger memory. But it isn't.
Any number of film critics have reasoned theories on what made Paul Newman a star, from his looks to his talent, grace and intelligence. I really don't know anything about all that. But I do know seeing "Cool Hand Luke" had a profound effect on me.
Newman's "Lucas Jackson" taught me that no matter how much you beat a man up, it's up to him whether he's also beaten down. And while most people remember the line, "What we got here is failure to communicate." the one that stayed with me was "Callin' it your job don't make it right."
When you're 17 and searching for both a path and a mentor, lessons like those stick and you start looking for whatever else the guy has to say. But having an actor for a sensei is tough. He's got to make a living doing less significant things and writers like "Cool Hand Luke" scribes Don Pearce and Frank Pierson don't get to pick their leading men the next time they hit creative paydirt.
So I suffered through "The Secret War of Harry Frigg" and "Winning" before William Goldman's inspired muse melded with Newman in "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid". And once again the message was "Never Quit" and "Listen to your Heart". Does that get any clearer than, "I got vision and the rest of the world wears bifocals"?
Oh yeah -- and remember, while kicking against the pricks, that there's always time to laugh and laughing in the face of death is the best laugh of them all.
Maybe it's unkind to speak ill of him right now, but Paul Newman made a lot of really crappy movies. "WUSA", "Sometimes a Great Notion", "The MacKintosh Man". But then along would come "The Sting", "The Drowning Pool" or "The Verdict" to remind you of his overarching message, "Never Give Up. Never Give In."
Much as he deserved the ultimate acknowledgement of his talent many times over, winning the Oscar for "The Color of Money" still feels like a cheesy Hollywood make-up move to me, almost on a par with Al Pacino's sorry-we've-kept-fucking-with-you win for "The Scent of A Woman".
Those Academy guys. How come so many people who are supposedly in the business of knowing creativity so seldom recognize it? How hard is it to see what audiences have so clearly embraced with their hearts as well as their wallets?
And don't even get me started on the most perfect portrayal of a hockey player ever captured on film. If you are a Canadian male, every quip, wicked gesture and warped plan of Reggie Dunlop in "Slap Shot" is indelibly engraved.
The outpouring of affection for Paul Newman isn't just out of respect for a great actor and philanthropist. It's for someone who, through his work and the artists he associated with, kept reminding us all that the things you hope for can be achieved simply by not letting the powers arraigned against you succeed.
Next to Lucas Jackson, Newman's most powerful performance was as lawyer Frank Galvin in Sidney Lumet's "The Verdict" particularly in this segment of David Mamet's script as he sums up an almost unwinnable case to a jury:
"You know, so much of the time we're just lost. We say, "Please, God, tell us what is right; tell us what is true." And there is no justice: the rich win, the poor are powerless. We become tired of hearing people lie. And after a time, we become dead... a little dead. We think of ourselves as victims... and we become victims. We become... we become weak. We doubt ourselves, we doubt our beliefs. We doubt our institutions. And we doubt the law. But today you are the law. You ARE the law. Not some book... not the lawyers... not a marble statue... or the trappings of the court. See those are just symbols of our desire to be just. They are... they are, in fact, a prayer: a fervent and a frightened prayer. In my religion, they say, "Act as if ye had faith... and faith will be given to you." IF... if we are to have faith in justice, we need only to believe in ourselves. And ACT with justice. See, I believe there is justice in our hearts..."
It's moments like that which forever make a place for a guy like Paul Newman in your heart; no matter if you're from Iran or North Korea or just some kid from Saskatchewan.
Monday, September 29, 2008
Tough one for me, because I never intended to be a writer and even now spend most of my time pursuing the craft of producer in order to support and protect the writing of myself and others.
I don't talk about the writing process much. Mostly cause it's kind of personal and, in my opinion, different for everybody. I also don't think my approach replicates most of the ways writing is "manufactured" these days.
But in simplest terms (quite honestly the only ones I understand) it comes down to putting the audience into the shoes and experience of the people your stories are about and making them feel and understand the how and why of what your characters feel and understand.
Somebody once said, "Our great books are those that reinforce our own prejudices". But I don't believe that's true. I think the best stories make you question your core values and rethink those people you've pigeon-holed or stereotyped.
I come from Cowboys and grew up learning that the most impactful insight came when one of those hardly-ever-speaking guys would offer a different take on current wisdom through a story taken from personal experience.
So for me, it's just about being yourself as well as a story teller. That's probably why I'm such a fan of Country music and therefore I'll offer this from George Strait, who may be Country's finest story teller or in that world's parlance "Troubadour".
Sunday, September 28, 2008
The premiere process isn't exactly like it used to be. Television debuts are pretty much a continuum now, a combination of upstart and wannabee channels targeting gaps in the broadcast schedules of the majors and the big players trying to speedily replace what didn't work when it was launched at the traditional time.
When I was a kid, October brought an extra thick edition of TV Guide with glossy pages describing each of the new series, arranged either night by night or network by network. In a less PR pervasive world, it was your first look at who and what would be on the tube for the next months.
And even though TV Guide isn't publishing anymore, local papers and online sites have taken up the slack, offering the same posed group photos of the new shows' casts.
Several years ago, I noticed something about those photographs. I started to have trouble telling them apart.
All the guys seemed to be wearing the same suit. The women were all identically hot in a balanced mix of blondes and brunettes. There was always somebody Black, Asian or Hispanic posed on the fringes, silently sending the message "we're here, but not enough to make a difference -- and look, I'm wearing the same suit as they are..."
The cast photos also got more populous, exhibiting either a network preference for "gang shows" or that they were hedging their bets on who might not work out.
But they also gave me the feeling that I'd seen all of these people before.
I've never seen an episode of "Boston Legal", excellent as I hear it is, simply because I looked at the massive first season photo and didn't think I had time to meet that many new yuppie lawyers. Same thing with "Brothers and Sisters".
And then I started wondering if something else was at work...
Actors began turning up at auditions dressed like the characters they wanted to play. If your script included a US Senator, you walked into the waiting room to see four six foot tall guys with prematurely white hair. Write a one line part for a Judge and the photos that crossed your desk were all attractive, middle-aged Black women.
Somebody wanted everybody on television to be exactly the same. But why?
This week I discovered the answer.
I'm sorry if you find what follows disturbing. But sometimes the Truth is hard to accept and unless we address what is happening in our industry, what has befallen our actors will rapidly spread to other crafts. Writers may start typing virtually identical act outs and directors could be forced into endless wobbly cam shoots to imply reality.
I'm leaving now to run through traffic screaming "They're here. They're here." In the face of all this, try to enjoy your Sunday.
Thursday, September 25, 2008
If Stephen Harper and the federal Conservatives are "the killers of Culture" Calgary must be a thoroughly unwelcoming place where Artists and their Art die lonely, broke and unappreciated.
That would sort of make sense, wouldn't it? I mean, the town is Mordor Central to modern Canadian Conservatism and the righter-wing, even more scary Fundamentalist Evangelical Reform movement that fathered it. Big Oil lives here with all its tax perks and untouchable government subsidies. Evil media Baron Jim Shaw is lurking close-by too, right in Steve's own completely safe, rather-die-than-vote-Liberal riding, for all I know.
Yeah, Calgary must be a place where Art better not show it's pretty little face if it knows what's good for it.
So what am I doing here shooting a documentary on not one but two gallery openings featuring Canadian artists that are attracting critics and collectors from all over the world? And how come those events aren't even considered the local Cultural highlights of the week?
Which doesn't even include either the Flames pre-season games or the two week long film festival...
Have I been sadly misinformed about the impact of Arts cuts and Cultural funding or the Conservative malice toward us creative types that's apparently behind it all?
Well, yes and no.
No matter how the Prime Minister and his sidekicks spin an overall increase in the Budget of the Heritage Department, little of that money is going to Canadian Artists.
But then little of it ever has.
Having served on the Boards of a couple of theatre companies, I can tell you that much of the money that arrives from the Federal purse (and Provincial ones as well) comes with strings attached. Those strings might require improvements to infrastructure such as safer lighting grids or wheelchair access. Sometimes the money has to be spent streamlining the ticketing system or to pay consultants to study how audiences are changing.
And while all of those things are important to the day-to-day operation of a theatre, trust me when I say that a cheque from the Canada Council never arrives with a Post-it note attached saying "Do bigger shows with more actors".
Lately, a lot of Toronto companies have been getting by on subsidies they are granted for doing shows with an "educational" component; meaning that teacher-artists host workshops for school age audiences, or there's a production or two in the season that local school boards deem appropriate for their students to attend.
Not the kind of atmosphere that's likely to breed challenging or Adult work, however necessary to anyone hoping to mount a full season.
But that's how creative endeavours have traditionally been funded in Canada. The emphasis is less on the final product or what an Artist really wants to say than the social, regional or political gains that can be made in the process.
That's why casts and crews commute to Hamilton or anyplace "more than 150 clicks" from the CBC building in downtown Toronto to shoot in warehouses converted into studios instead of the state-of-the-art studios taxpayers have already paid for on Front Street.
Maybe it's also why nobody in Ottawa defends popular successes like "Trailer Park Boys". What politician wants a cameo opposite a shirtless drunk filmed in a location where he might also come face to face with his Birth mother?
So, I have to say that I was somewhat disheartened by seeing so many of our finest actors standing up at ACTRA yesterday and demanding that things stay as crappy as they already are for Canadian artists. It was like welfare recipients campaigning to continue subsisting on cold gruel instead of demanding a real opportunity to realize their talents.
The cut programs are justifiably dead (IMHO) and I'll wager that not one of those eloquent and passionate artists who spoke ever got a buck from any one of them nor would benefit in future if they were reinstated.
Brothers and Sisters, the enemy is not "without". It resides in the network and studio offices of those who, while profiting enormously from your talents, won't pay for them unless the lion's share of the cost comes from the CTF or Telefilm (ie: Public Funds).
Maybe somebody in charge of those budgets is finally realizing that the people who've managed our industry for the past couple of decades are the only ones living large while the Nation's story tellers and those wanting to hear their tales are starving both literally and metaphorically.
Isn't it interesting that the media they control can find lots of broadcast time for you when you're bashing the guys who are closing their door into the vault but have precious little available when you want to act, write, direct or practice whatever art you embrace?
No Canadian network has bought the documentary I'm shooting in Calgary yet, although an American and two European channels are on board. And that's despite the fact that the artists involved are so well known two guys with little blue "Harper" buttons just asked if there was any way I could make some introductions so they could meet them.
You see, ordinary Canadians, including some on the Right it would appear, do appreciate the Arts. Maybe its up to us to find ways to eliminate those who have forever been getting between us and our audience and using our talents and the money earmarked for our use to further their own agendas.
Sunday, September 21, 2008
Cheap as hell and filled with the promise of addressing any of my current interests as well as introducing me to future ones, I always scooped up a handful to accompany breakfast -- although I was usually still working my way through them sometime the following Saturday.
Toronto didn't have a Sunday paper when I first arrived. We had three reliable choices in the Globe & Mail, the Star and the Sun the rest of the week. The saying back then was that the Globe was read by people in power, the Star by people who'd like to be in power and the Sun by those who didn't care who was in power, as long as she looked good in a bikini. And they all got thicker on Saturday, but only by doing a little more of what they covered regularly.
That led me to the New York Times on Sundays, and besides always being full some and diverse in its offerings, I began to notice that the Times was always pushing the envelope in terms of seeing just how much a newspaper could do. Maybe they'd had a peek at the world that was to come.
Newspapers today are struggling in their print editions as they not only compete with online news services but try to expand their better known imprimaturs into cyberspace. Unfortunately, most online versions of newspapers merely copy the print version into pixels. But some are exploring new ways of providing the information and analysis that is their primary purpose.
Some have added news video, sports tickers and columnist blogs. But a few are going much further.
The New York Times has a rapidly expanding Multimedia section that offers everything from interactive graphics to its own in house classical music station. Now you don't have to haul 4 pounds of newsprint down to a bench in Sheridan Square where you can read the Arts section to a busking string quartet. They've brought that experience into your home.
I'd really like the Times to up link about ten minutes of breakfast ambience from the Carnegie Deli, complete with clattering china, yelling waiters and showbiz jokes from the next table, so I can peruse their front page the way it was meant to be read.
Over in London, where your Sunday paper now often comes with a paperback, DVD or even Prince's newest CD glued to the front page, the London Times has initiated not only its own online television station but a handsome piece of eye and cyber candy called Luxx where you can recreate the page turning process of a real magazine, while linking through to embedded video, audio and advertiser's online stores.
You don't have to be trendy and wealthy to enjoy Luxx, but I'm sure it helps.
However, to find an example of a newspaper doing its most important job, bringing you into the story and helping you relate to it, you don't have to look any further than our own Globe and Mail.
This week, I discovered a remarkable photo essay by Globe photographer Charla Jones called "The Long Summer". It could've been one of those stories you've seen a hundred times about the nomadic lives of traveling carnies. But Jones and her newspaper have transformed that into one of the most moving and engaging pieces of documentary journalism I've seen in quite some time.
There are eight separate profiles in "The Long Summer", every one completely unique and filled with its own fascinating stories. If this is where smart newspapers and the Internet are going, a lot more people will be spending a lot less time in front of their televisions.
You can find all "The Long Summer" videos here. My sincere thanks to Charla Jones and Jayson Taylor of the Globe for making it possible for me to post a sample to introduce you to their work.
I hope you like meeting "Ace" as much as I did. But please check out "Frenchie", "Pops" and all of the others as well. And enjoy your Sunday.
Monday, September 15, 2008
When I arrived in Toronto in the early 1970's to pursue an acting career, Richard was already well-known for his 1968 Crest Theatre performance as "Hamlet". It was a piece of work still described with awe and endlessly compared to the Geza Kovaks and Stephen Markle Hamlets mounted shortly thereafter. To my generation of Canadian actors, tackling "Hamlet" was how you made your name -- sort of on a par with landing the guest lead on "Flashpoint" these days.
Richard had grown up in a blue collar family in Montreal, attending Stratford at the age of 15 and realizing in an instant that he wanted to become an actor and one who was good enough to perform on that stage. After studying theatre at Loyola College (now Concordia) he went right to work on achieving his dream and never let up.
The play that made him a star was Michel Tremblay's remarkable theatre piece "Hosanna", the story of a drag queen coming to terms with his sexuality and his true self. The English language version of the play debuted in the spring of 1974 in Toronto's Tarragon Theatre, then an intimate 150 seat space. It was an instant sensation.
It's hard to describe what it was like seeing that production because even decades later your memory is overwhelmed by the sheer power of the text and the masterful performances of Monette and co-star Richard Donat as Hosanna's biker lover Cuirette. The final revelations and climactic nude scene were like a finishing body blow to the senses after the emotional pummelling that had preceded it.
I was fortunate enough to appear in the English language premiere of another Tremblay play, "Bonjour La, Bonjour", a year later and for an actor, being handed that kind of writing was like being tossed the keys to a Ferrari. It was dramatic text that leaned perfectly into all the emotional corners and charged down monologue straight-aways with all the power you could want -- or had the courage to test.
Monette's performance was the kind that makes stars overnight. When the play ended, I knew I'd been in the presence of greatness and held back when the actress I was with offered to introduce me to Richard. I had no idea what I would say to him or why he would even have time for somebody like me.
My assessment of the man couldn't have been more wrong. He was warm and funny and completely self-effacing. We immediately connected, recognizing each other as working class kids who shouldn't have been in this artsy theatre world -- but were.
Six months later, the same production of "Hosanna" opened on Broadway. I was in New York that fall, finding an agent, studying and making the rounds of auditions. And I managed to cadge a ticket to opening night. As a testament to how important the play had been to Canadian theatre, several Canadian actors, directors and critics were also there to lend their support.
The play was just as electric the second time around, but in the much larger Broadway theatre, some of its nuance and impact was inevitably lost. The theme of coming to terms with one's sexuality was also old news in a town that had become a safe haven for Gay America, while the sub theme of Quebec identity didn't even register. By the time the curtain came down, you knew the reaction would not be good.
Therefore, the opening night party was subdued as we all did like they did in those old Broadway movies and waited for the first newspaper reviews to come out. When they arrived, they were tepid at best.
We were all disappointed. Even though Richard made the rounds of all the downcast and, in his endlessly positive way, assured us the notices could be overcome; it still felt like the chance to make New york take note of the theatre revolution happening in Canada had not been missed so much as casually overlooked.
Urjo Kareda, then the theatre critic for the Toronto Star (and later artistic director of the Tarragon Theatre) spotted me sipping a beer on the sidewalk as a friend I was talking to had a smoke. He asked me what I was doing in New York and I started to run down the auditions and -- He suddenly grabbed me, dragging me off the ground and slamming me into the wall of the restaurant. "You can't leave!" he screamed, "You're not allowed to come here and be like them!"
I said okay, mostly so he'd put me down. But some part of me believes one of the reasons I've stayed in Canada is Urjo made leaving feel like an act of treason.
That's the kind of passion and belief that typified Canadian Theatre at the time and it was a feeling that Richard Monette never lost.
A short while later, he joined the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, becoming its staunchest defender in its darkest hours, challenging everyone from fellow cast members to the Theatre's Board of Directors to share his unwavering passion for the importance of the work done there.
In time, Richard moved on to directing and eventually returned to Stratford to take up the mantle of the Theatre's Artistic Director. By then, the place was at its lowest ebb, nearly bankrupt both artistically and at the bank. Most who take over theatres of that size and with that many problems and competing agendas last a couple of years at most. Richard stayed for fourteen seasons and when he left, Stratford had been returned to its former glory and was making a profit.
Our paths last crossed a few years into his reign in Stratford. I had written a script about the Festival's founders, Tom Patterson and Sir Tyrone Guthrie and visited to do some final research.
Richard showed me around the main stage, then under renovation, like a kid with one of the world's biggest toys. He showed me an unearthed part of the original foundation where the now-legendary members of the original company had scratched their initials into the just poured concrete. Then he told me about his first experience of Stratford when he was 15.
As he talked, he seemed to become that teenage boy again, brimming with the excitement of discovering his true calling in life. He also remembered meeting Tom Patterson on the night train back to Toronto. Tom had been the first person to whom he'd revealed his epiphany and they had shared a sip or two from the flask Patterson perennially carried on his hip.
To some that anecdote might sound a little unseemly. But those would be people who don't understand the camaraderie that develops among we fellow travellers in the Arts. There's an understanding of how infrequent the spark takes in another and how essential it is to celebrate the moment and make it memorable.
Having known both Tom and Richard, I can clearly picture them sitting on that night train, passing a chrome hip flask and talking about their love of theatre. It was a moment of mentoring that Richard never forgot and offered to others for the rest of his life.
Richard Monette died last week in Stratford, but the work he did and the artists he inspired will continue to carry his spark to other artists and move audiences for years to come.
"Good-night, sweet prince; And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest..."
- HAMLET ACT V Sc. ii
Sunday, September 14, 2008
Nope, "Sugar" is a tough guy, an enforcer -- to some a "goon". He made his rep not by scoring goals or defending his Goal but primarily by pounding opponents into the ice.
Like it or not, fighting is an integral part of professional hockey. And Brandon Sugden is universally acknowledged to be one of the best there is at what he does. By all accounts, he'd have made the top rung of hockey, the NHL, long ago. But Life intervened. First there were problems with drugs and alcohol which he overcame, then a lifetime suspension from one Minor League for tossing a stick at a fan harrassing him about his former demons.
And then, Sugar's father was diagnosed with Cancer. And in the Sugden clan, family had always come first. They'd been there to support his dream and now he had to be there for them. Brandon played his last pro game in 2007, retiring to help run the family business.
Recently, however, Brandon's father was given less than a year to live and he decided to make a last run at his life-long dream, hoping to let his dad see him in one NHL game before he dies.
He went to back to the rink and last month won a ticket to the New York Islanders’ training camp.
But there was one small problem...
Because he retired, Sugden needed the approval of all 30 NHL teams to come back. And when the vote was taken, three teams (10% of the league) said "No" to his dream.
The names of the three dissenting teams remain anonymous and they are not required to give any reason why they vetoed his reinstatement. But it would surprise nobody if they're the teams in the Islanders' Atlantic Division who'd have to play him most often -- and would therefore have to deal with his enormous pugilistic skill.
For "Sugar" is a legend among fight afficianados and among the biggest draws to the many websites that feature hockey brawls. He's seldom been defeated, often has knocked opponents out cold and is noted for taking on multiple opponents at the same time or entire opposition benches.
This guy is a firey and formidable opponent. He's paid his minor league dues and doesn't deserve to have his last chance to play for his father taken away from him by some front office guys worried that their own players (or enforcers) can't take care of themselves -- or maybe want the Atlantic renamed the Pussy Division.
This week, "Sugar" will take his appeal to the offices of the NHL and the NHLPA. And you can help him get a hearing and maybe a chance to play. Sugden's supporters have started and online petition you can sign here. And you can get the whole story, plus links to his fights and how this whole thing will turn out here.
Here's Sugar at work (in the dark jersey) -- and I'm sorry, but this is gonna hurt a little. Hey, give the kid a shot! And enjoy your Sunday.
The NHL has finally cleared Brandon Sugden to play in the league.
Thursday, September 11, 2008
Over the last couple of months the ruling Conservative government in Canada has slashed over $60 Million in Arts funding. Coming on the heels of backing a tax amendment bill (C-10) which would have gutted the film and television industry's ability to finance production and an ill-conceived copyright bill (C-61) intended to protect corporate interests more than those of content creators, many in the Culture community began predicting an all out assault on the Nation's artists.
The immediate startle-response reaction in the Arts community was to mobilize protests, issue dire press releases and proclaim that Stephen Harper and his gang don't want us, don't care about us and we're the first casualty in a process intent on turning Canada into a right-wing Christian, anti-Abortion state that will back the rapacious greed of Big Oil and emulate the worst foreign policy excesses of the Bush regime in Washington.
Well -- okay -- maybe. But frankly, most of that felt like the recycled "Hidden Agenda" fear-mongering that didn't stop them from being elected last time around. And let's be honest, can you look at this government and really believe they're:
a) that smart
b) that organized, or
c) that out of tune with most Canadians?
If you ask me, what we're really seeing here is the beginning of a long overdue examination of the way Culture is supported in this country.
And that isn't being handled very well because these guys really don't have much experience at running anything more complicated than a cattle prod.
And it also isn't being done in consultation with those most affected because they feel (perhaps with some justification) that we aren't going to be on their side no matter what they do.
Let me be clear on a couple of things from the get-go. First, I think all politicians are Junkyard dogs. No matter how much you believe they're looking after your interests, they'll turn on you the minute they get a better offer.
Second, I'm completely in favor of Arts subsidies. Over my career, I've benefited hugely from any number of the support systems we have in place.
But I've also seen those systems abused and witnessed artists victimized and marginalized by the very funding that was supposed to help them to succeed.
Thirty years ago, I was an actor performing in Canadian plays. Travel grants to the companies I worked with allowed us to take some of those plays all over the world and to parts of Canada that had never seen a play of any kind. Being part of those programs was of enormous benefit to me (both economically and artistically) but it also exposed me to how much of those meagre funds were not actually being utilized to assist artists.
On any number of occasions in Europe, you'd meet fellow Canadians visiting foreign capitols on Canada Council grants for a "writing sabbatical" or to "see British plays". I knew most of them as "wannabe's" from back home. People who'd never actually written anything or managed a theatre company, but who were very good at constructing grant applications and annually found a way for the Canadian public to finance a couple of months elsewhere.
Among the members of the company they were known as the "inbred children of the wealthy". Folks without discernible talent or marketable skills, who mostly aspired to be artistic directors and dramaturges because they knew how to read and had opinions. To the best of my knowledge, few, if any, ever made a contribution to Canadian culture beyond buying season tickets to their local theatres.
Meanwhile, a lot of artists who were making profound contributions fell by the wayside or left the country because no matter their talent or abilities they simply weren't able to crack the cultural funding vault that could have sustained them here.
The sad, unalterable truth of Canada is that our legendary 19th century aberration, "The Family Compact", the country's original ruling Oligarchy, has never really had a stake driven through its cold, cheatin' heart.
We've always been a place that's traded away our natural resources through systems where a powerful, interconnected few unfairly benefit from the labor of the many because they've been born to or bought membership in the ruling cabal.
And that's just as true of how we manage our greatest renewable resource, the imaginations of our artists.
Our redistributed public largess goes first to established corporate entities through CTF, Telefilm, the Canada Council, etc. then to the "favorites", the players who keep being funded no matter their lack of success and then to the rest in demographics that are endlessly parsed by race, region, sex, sexual orientation or debutante status so that we seldom see any new or challenging voices nurtured to maturity.
Back in the 1980's, shortly after a then Liberal government killed the tax credit system that had spawned an explosion of film making, I bumped into a director who had done one "famous" film in the early 70's and not much since. I asked how he was getting by and learned he'd been receiving a $35,000 Senior Artist's Grant for years from the Canada Council while never actually producing anything.
Around the same time, I was doing a two hander for a Toronto theatre (because that was the largest cast they could afford) and a CBC casting director came backstage after the show. She gushed about the performances, wishing CBC had enough money to hire us to do a show. It had been a year since any of the seven, publicly subsidized casting assistants she had on staff had actually cast a program. In fact, she was worried that if something didn't break soon, she might have to let one of them go!
Now, the stories of CBC producers who never produced anything are endless. Like the Quebec dance company that was publicly funded for years without ever hiring a dancer, they are examples of a system built to benefit those who control artistic output over the artists themselves.
In the same "trickle down" mindset that has always guided the Family Compact, there's a belief in Ottawa that by giving money to "those who know how to run things" you create a culture.
How's that been working for all of you artists so far?
I'm wondering if what we've really got here is a Government with a support base of historically alienated Western Canadians starting to go after a revenue stream that's benefited the Family Compact that originally alienated them?
I found it interesting to see the recent cuts being spun as an attack on artists of the Left in newspaper quotes that only reference an un-named (and perhaps about to lose his job) source working in one of the deceased programs.
I haven't seen the film(s) Avi Lewis was funded to showcase in Argentina and Australia or heard exactly what Tal Bachman was presenting at music festivals in South Africa and Zimbabwe. But the reality is that nobody's ever going to be holding a 'tag day' for either of these descendants of extremely wealthy families who've also been quite successful at what they do themselves.
So you've got to ask if the money they were granted needed to be requisitioned in the first place or could have been better spent elsewhere. And you have to ask that question a little louder when you notice that $18,000 from the same travel program went to a foreign policy think-tank to fund attendance at a conference in Cuba that didn't even have anything to do with the Arts.
In the same way that CTF production money has become a slush fund for our television networks, allowing them to replace or reduce their own financial contributions to creating programming; it seems obvious the cut programs had devolved to serving needs other than those for which they were intended.
And I'd also point out that our tax dollars continue to support such Left leaning drivel as this insulting spew on the CBC website.
So let's maybe start seeing what's happening as not an attack on artists or people of the wrong political stripe, but on those who may have unfairly benefited from what artists do at our expense.
I agree that any experienced manager would have just demoted the idiots who approved those grants and moved on. But when you examine how the money from PromArt, Trade Routes and the New Media Fund were actually being spent, it makes you realize that the abuses of the system were endemic.
Peruse the list of those receiving funding from Trade Routes to sell Canadian Productions abroad and you'll find a lot of names of individuals and corporations who've never had anything to sell.
Critics have also trotted out degrassi.tv as an example of the fine work that was accomplished through grants from the New Media Fund. And I don't disagree. But I gotta ask why one of the most successful shows ever produced in this country and our most successful broadcaster need public assistance to create a web presence -- and continue to need it, year after year after year...
And while we're asking, how come all the subsidy money being poured into our industry and the rest of the Arts hasn't gotten much to stick with the Canadian public?
Enough of our artists leave and find success elsewhere to prove it's not the talent that's lacking. And that would seem to place the blame on all those minions who currently run our broadcasters and other Arts corporations.
The simple truth here is that the kind of movies and TV programming they've been making aren't sparking anybody's enthusiasm, theirs or ours.
The day after Paul Gross' film "Passchendaele" opened the Toronto International Film Festival, the following reader comment was appended to the National Post review...
"How can we say this clearly without being unkind? Paul Gross is a good actor. However, he writes and produces his own work and performs the star role, and all this puts him on the payroll three times, and is there any independent check on quality? Across town, Atom Egoyan produces yet another vehicle for his unemployable wife, thereby putting his own family on the payroll. What could possibly be more Canadian than this. O Canada, the cultural welfare state."
Now that sentiment is unfair on a whole raft of levels. But it's also a prevailing attitude across the country. As is this comment somebody left on this very blog a while back...
"Every time I see Robert Lantos' island up in Muskoka, I wonder just why his productions need all that tax money. And if, as a taxpayer, I can come swim off one of his docks some day."
Virtually every time one of us Creative types complains about funding the newspaper reports include an endless stream of bile against our "whining" that voices a clear desire to stop giving us any money whatsoever to live our "cushy and privileged" lives.
Since most of the working creatives I know do not lead either cushy or privileged lives, I firmly believe those letters get written because the commentors don't feel we're giving them anything back for their hard earned tax dollars.
And does it really make any sense that a producer who's never made a profitable film keeps getting millions from Telefilm to make the next one? Do you think hostility isn't bred when people waiting in line for an unavailable MRI see millions going to a filmmaker who has never offered them even one moment of escape from their over-taxed and over-burdened lives and yet keeps being favored with more money for more boring movies?
There's a middle-management elitism in our system that is hurting all of us, artists and audience alike.
This week, any number of spokespeople at the Toronto International Film Festival have used that forum to blast the Tory tax cuts while showering tax-payer money on shrimp platters and champagne for wealthy Hollywood stars and corporate sponsors.
Don't you think that sticks in the craw of people working two jobs to make the mortgage and maybe their dissatisfaction gets noticed by somebody seeking public office?
A friend who attended the premiere screening of a Canadian feature film at the Festival told me of seeing the Director begging Festival staff to allow some of the hundreds waiting outside to buy tickets inside to fill the remaining empty seats in the auditorium. But no, those seats were being held for the sponsors and elite insiders who might or might not turn up.
Folks, our subsidy system is broken because it serves neither the artists of the country nor the audience while allowing and encouraging the money to be siphoned off by those who are mostly hanging around for the wine and cheese party.
We need to start considering a system that works for the rest of us. Because if we don't, things are only going to get worse.
In the 1990's, I had the opportunity of shooting a couple of films in Hungary, shortly after the fall of the Communist system. There had been a strong, state-funded Arts system there and we had a number of very talented local artists working on the films. But working with them wasn't that easy. A system that had looked after all their needs had also robbed them of all initiative and accountability. Many sleep-walked through their tasks, their artistic flame smothered by living too long in a welfare state.
And you can see the same thing happening in this country. The more Government has subsidized (and thereby controlled) our ventures, the less we produce in terms of both final production numbers and work that inspires our audience. Our television drama is a shadow of what it was 20 years ago and our feature film industry has gone from one of the busiest in the world to one of the least productive.
Telefilm spends hundreds of thousands of dollars developing scripts no local production company even deigns to read. Writers, directors and actors stick with series none of them would be caught dead watching because it pays the rent. And the phrases you most hear at industry soirees are "what're you gonna do" and "it's what they're making".
It makes you wonder if what we've got is really worth preserving. Surely there must be some way to kick-start a new financing formula that would attract venture capital or reward private contribution instead of hanging on to one that isn't creating anything we're really proud of.
Statistics lie, so I don't know if the 19.7% increase in Arts funding the Harper Government claims it has made in the last 2 years is true or not, nor whether it offsets the cuts that have been made.
Rumors are just as unreliable, so I'm not sure if this has all been done to put that money to "better" use under the Arts umbrella as some "insiders" are whispering.
What I do know is that there's a good chance these guys could be re-elected, maybe with a majority this time. So rather than throwing poo at them (or perhaps naively obeying the non-artists calling for poo throwing) maybe we should start thinking about engaging those who could be running the show for some time.
Maybe it's also time to let them know that we don't like a lot of the films and TV we're making either, but we don't have any control over that -- and won't as long as the real money keeps going to non-artists with a record of failure.
Sunday, September 07, 2008
I started thinking maybe I'd caught some kind of preview. Maybe the song wasn't even on an album or the album wasn't out yet. Maybe it wasn't the first song the record company chose to release if it was. All I know is, it wasn't around.
A couple of other Paisley albums came and went and this song just never seemed to take hold. And that bothered me, because I knew it was good and something people should hear.
That happens a lot with good stuff. Films that floor you at film festivals never find a distributor. The best TV show you've seen in ages debuts in a dead-zone time-slot that kills it. A play opens on a rainy weekend and immediately closes. Nothing in this business is certain -- except that the wheat often gets blown away with the chaff.
I'm not sure why that keeps happening. But there's a saying that Artists live five years in the future, the audience lives five years in the past and nobody lives in the present. So maybe that natural disconnect is why this song is suddenly everywhere on Country radio.
Y'see, artists who know something is good don't give up and eventually their work finds its rightful place, often by finding other artists who enhance the original concept.
I understand Brad Paisley waited a long time to make this video. And some part of me now believes that if everybody involved had jumped on the song right out of the box, its production and presentation would have had a whole different quality and perhaps a less profound impact. For this is a music video you know required thought and care and sharing among the artists involved.
I hope you find it as special as I do. Enjoy your Sunday.
(Some clicks get a commercial first, so just skip to the title link below)
Friday, September 05, 2008
There was a Screenwriters gathering in Toronto Thursday night, organized by Ink Canada's irrepressible Karen Walton to coincide with the opening of this year's Toronto International Film Festival.
A couple of hundred professional scribes were gathered, happily partying, serene in the knowledge that none of them would have to take the rap for "Passchendaele".
Yet, I noticed one forlorn face in the crowd.
It belonged to Will Pascoe, a fine writer and show creator I only know as a rabid fellow hockey fan and the winner of this year's "Infamous Writers Hockey Pool".
I thought the cuts in Arts funding might've gotten to Will or maybe he was down because Mats wasn't coming back to Leaf Camp or such hometown favorites as Wellwood and McCabe had been banished to distant coasts.
But, no. It seems the cause of Will's gloom was -- me.
"You said there'd be swag," he offered disappointedly, "You said when I won your hockey pool all those famous writers and TV types would shower me with sport and showbiz booty. But..."
His voice trailed off and I could see the hurt in his eyes. The kind of hurt that comes from hurrying to the mailbox every morning filled with hope; but finding no bulky packages of memorabilia among the returned scripts from Global and another copy of Canadian Screenwriter that didn't have room for your "Kidney for Sale" ad.
I hung my head. Even the producer side of me had never treated a writer this cruelly. "I lost the list," I said. "I've been travelling, using a lot of different computers. Somewhere along the way, my contact roster for the players got deleted. I couldn't send them your address."
"It's okay," he muttered bravely, "I knew it was too good to be true. I heard last season Askwith got a Wilf Paiment bobble head with his stuff. Oh, well. A fella can dream, right? Maybe next year, huh?".
He shuffled away, stopping briefly to retrieve a 'free drink' ticket somebody'd dropped on the floor and disappeared into the crush at the bar.
I felt like I'd just told Brando it wasn't his night.
But, honest, what I had told him was the truth. But I know he doesn't believe me. Right now, in Will's mind, I'm right up there with the CRTC, Telefilm and everybody else who keeps promising to make things right for Canadian writers and never does.
We can't let this happen to one of our own!
If you were a Pool player, please send me your email address again (at email@example.com) so I can forward Will's address and you can send him all the great crap you would've binned long ago if it wasn't for this contest.
It may be useless clutter to you, but to Will it's an affirmation of the goodness in Humanity and a reminder that happy endings don't just happen in the movies.
Do it now! You know who you are! And if you don't -- I put the final standings at the bottom of this post.
Scotty William and John Callaghan, you especially need to get in touch because you won stuff as well.
C'mon, boys (and Juniper)! Training camps are opening! The Rangers play Ottawa in less than two weeks! Now is the summer of our discontent made glorious winter by these sons of....
You know what I'm trying to say. If your name's on the list, write me. Let's go into the new season with a clean slate and the knowledge that we can make dreams come true!
INFAMOUS WRITERS POOL 2008 - FINAL STANDINGS
1 Will Pascoe 196
2 Scotty William 191
3 John Callaghan 184
4 Jeff Martel 181
5 Laurie Nyveen 176
6 Wil Zmak 170
7 Denis McGrath 165
7 Brian Stockton 165
9 Peter Allen Rowley 163
10 Will Dixon 162
11 Michael Foster 157
12 Mark Askwith 155
13 Juniper 153
14 Mark Farrell 141
15 Larry Raskin 136
16 Robert de Lint 121
17 Jim Henshaw 81
Thursday, September 04, 2008
I've always been intrigued by that phrase -- "A Captain of Industry". If it's meant to describe someone with great corporate power, how come the middle-management rank? Are there no Generals or Admirals of Industry? These days, Captains fly commuter routes, haul in lobster pots or point to which guy's going to carry your bags to a hotel room. Is that all it takes to run a company?
Or do I think that way because I'm Canadian?
We have a lot of big and important companies in this country -- or we think we do. The interesting thing is, when you take a close look at how they do business, you notice the chinks in their armor and realize how petty, bereft of class or propped up they really are.
When you walk into a Tim Horton's in the USA -- and yes, they're are a lot of them now and not just in places where little boys play hockey -- you'll notice that when you order your traditional large double-double, it comes in the cup an extra large comes in in Canada. You're paying the same price, but getting 25% more bang for your buck than all those commuters lined up at the drive-through back in your hometown.
And when you sit down to enjoy that coffee in the US, you get free wi-fi, something that also isn't available to the Canadian customers who built Timmy into who he is today.
A few months ago, pundits had a field day pointing out that the bulk of Tim Horton's "Roll Up The Rim" contest prizes were going to folks in the border states and weren't turning up in the hands of the hockey moms and dads who've been loyal daily customers since they deep fried the first Honey Cruller. Apparently Tim was attempting to build his Southern market share at the expense of the his Canadian base.
But enough about Tim -- except for the lids...
How come a company that makes Billions still can't come up with a coffee lid that doesn't leak? It's a feat of engineering that Seattle's Best, Van Houte and Starbucks long ago accomplished stateside. I'm not sure if their lids are patented and unavailable or Tim just feels they're offering a public service on chilly mornings by warming your hands with slopped over brew.
Now, before you think I'm turning into Andy Rooney here, there's a point or two to this (related to the TV business eventually) -- and one of them is that Tim's an example of how Canadian companies seem to take us consumers for granted. They don't consider (nevermind sweat) the small stuff because we're more or less a captive audience.
Take Toronto's Pearson Airport. No free wi-fi there either unlike so many of their American, European and Asian counterparts. And it used to be that if you needed to swap currency at the airport, you could deal with a real bank and get exchange rates more or less comparable to what you'd get at any local branch.
Either because they can get a higher rental fee for the kiosks or a better kickback, the currency exchanges at Pearson are now run by people who (with a Canadian dollar hovering around 94 cents US) sell US dollars for $1.14 and buy them back at 96 cents Canadian. I'd call these people bandits, but I kinda feel sorry for them. I mean, Jesus threw them out of the temple for a reason. They know they're not going to heaven. Honest, they're not!
But let's say you're coming home and figure "Screw it, I already took a hit buying US dollars and I'm not letting them screw me again selling them back", and you go to an ATM. The Toronto Airport doesn't have bank ATM's anymore either. So even if you only want twenty bucks for a gypsy cab, they'll ding you $2 for the transaction.
It's a wonderful way of introducing visitors to the Canadian way of doing business and of reminding Canadians you're back in the land of being milked, honey.
Let's move on to some of our best milkmen, our mobility providers. I got a wonderful insight into their inability to see the customer relationship as anything other than a one-way money stream when I tried canceling my brother's phone after he died last Spring.
In all, I had to speak with 9 different people at Telus Mobility to cancel his service. Four of them used the opportunity to try to sell me new features or improve his long distance package. Admittedly, I didn't help matters by making comments like "What part of 'He's dead' don't you understand?" or "Boy, this job is so much harder than Special Ed, isn't it!?!".
Now, I'm told by several Western Canadians that Telus hires the dumbest people on the planet. But I don't actually believe that's the case. These folks had simply not been trained to deal with the death of a customer. In the same way they can't get their heads around concepts like taking their current number to a new service provider or reducing their service options -- because to Canadian Captains of Industry, the Customers is only there to provide his monthly tithe -- and that stays the same or increases. It never goes the other way.
So, I'm sure Telus customers weren't surprised when they learned last month that the "unlimited" mobile internet options they'd purchased were being discontinued. Over at my guy, Bell Mobility, they didn't discontinue "unlimited" service, they just promised it and didn't provide it in the first place.
Although I swore last month that I wasn't going to switch over to the Samsung Instinct to punish them for sponsoring China's Olympics, my phone started sputtering and I had to make the change.
Okay, technically, I didn't have to get the Instinct, but my only other option was a Blackberry and I knew if I gave Jim Balsillie 200 bucks he'd just use it to pry Nashville's hockey team away from the rightful owners. So between supporting Chinese Communist thugs or a Greedy Canadian CEO, I chose the lesser of two evils.
The smiley guy at Bell Mobility was all too eager to show me all the cool things I could do on my new phone with my "Unlimited" internet package. Although, once operational, it seems email isn't included in "Unlimited". Even though it's coming over the same internet, picking up spam will cost an extra $8 a month. Same with many of the other services you access through your Bell Mobility "Unlimited" browser.
The capper was that one month after renewing my services, the nice Bell Mobility minions sent a lovely note letting me know that "Unlimited" service was now being provided at an additional $5/month rate.
I'm sure somebody's thinking of suing them for false advertising or filing a complaint with the CRTC. But the former will cost you more than you'll win and the latter is pointless since the CRTC is an owned and operated affiliate of the phone companies.
And you have to accept that as the reality of the way Canadian Captains of Industry operate. While their entrepreneurial spirit is lauded and used to horsewhip groups like Artists who need to learn to function in the "real marketplace", that real marketplace is as fake as our corporate icons' image of competitive success and customer service.
In Canada, nobody is apparently able to succeed without being handed, purchasing or bribing their way to a captive audience. Phone companies and cable operators have designated turf. TV channels receive genre protection from their competition. Hell, even the richest hockey teams in the world need hundreds of mandated miles between them and the next professional rink.
Ted Rogers has learned this "corner and gouge" strategy so well he gets to ding me $9 for a beer, $5 for a hotdog and $25 for a baseball cap because he owns the Blue Jays and the ballyard. The sad truth about our Corporate moguls is that Ted would be just as much a struggling minimum wage serf as the next guy if he had to be on the street on equal terms and hawking his dogs and caps for less than half those numbers.
No wonder these guys are only lowly Captains. Not one of them is capable of building an industry without a little help. And no wonder they and the politicians they champion hate seeing Artists get a little assistance. Because some people might start noticing how little they could accomplish without all the help they get.
Tuesday, September 02, 2008
I've been in a lot of American cities this summer as we get that project rolling and many of them aren't doing very well economically. Plants are closing. Jobs are exported overseas. Homes are being foreclosed. But Nashville is thriving.
There are line-ups outside the Belcourt and Cadillac Ranch. The Broadway patios are packed. And, as always, music flows from every open window on 2nd Avenue.
Nashville long ago earned the "Music City, USA" moniker and while the massive Bell South tower lets you know its no longer a one industry town, it used to be and the people who built it into the vibrant, bustling place it is today were writers.
The heart of that industry, "Music Row" stretches a good mile on both sides of 16th and 17th Avenues and down every cross street along the way. Office tower upon office tower is stamped with the names of the writers who wrote the songs that made Nashville famous -- and rich.
Roy Acuff. Chet Atkins. Mike Curb. Names of writers now inscribed on brass plaques or stainless steel signature script to let you know this is a place that writing built and because of publishing and royalty and licensing deals that resulted from that writing, the place will continue to prosper long after the men who owned those names are forgotten.
As I left one of those offices on Friday evening with a couple of well-known Country songwriters, we noticed the hundreds of lawyers, literary agents, artist managers and assistants bailing at the end of their day and the start of a long weekend.
"Look at that," one said, "All those people getting in cars and going to homes paid for because people like us write songs."
It was a moment I wished some other Canadians had been around to witness. Most notably those who argue against the importance of funding the arts.
Despite the massive contribution that the Arts make to our economy, few of our movers and shakers (both in the public and private sectors) seem capable of grasping just how that works and why it's essential to a prosperous future.
I'd recommend all of them stop off in Nashville and take a look around.
Country music started to get popular in the 1920's with the likes of Jimmie Rogers and the Carter Family, all of whom wrote their own songs. The form was popularized by singing cowboys like Roy Rogers and Gene Autry in 1930's Westerns and through the weekly live concerts broadcast from the Ryman Auditorium by Nashville's WSM Radio as "The Grand Ole Opry".
And while that drew more and more musicians to Nashville, it also drew hundreds of men and women with song lyrics scrawled on napkins, envelopes and the lingerie page of the winter Sears-Roebuck catalogue.
Those writers soon begat publishing houses and recording studios and nightclubs, followed closely by artist management, literary agents and guys who printed sheet music and "One Night Only" flyers.
In a country still struggling to overcome the Great Depression, it wasn't unusual for a single song to earn hundreds of thousands of dollars and that money was pumped right back into the Nashville economy.
Ernest Tubb's record store is still in operation. There are car dealerships and hotels and hardware stores that still bear the names of the country stars and songwriters who bankrolled their establishment.
Most artists I know are of the belief that you share your good fortune, that the purpose of money is to get something new started or help a friend realize their dream, whether that dream is producing a low budget feature or operating a day care center.
In less than two generations, this writer generated largess built not only a multi-Billion dollar music industry, but a thriving community that just keeps growing, attracting new businesses and spawning new ventures.
In addition to being "Music City", Nashville is now home to high-tech giants like Dell and rides the cutting edge of Medical research, telecommunications and bio-tech.
All because some writer scrawled a few words on the back of a napkin. What a shame that Canadian politicians and venture capitalists just can't see how simple it all really is.