Wednesday, April 29, 2009
It was the current state of American journalism at its finest. Sensationalism mixed with dubious research and a slice of political bias on the side.
There always seems to be a way for people blinkered by their preconceptions to mutate the day's events into a convenient diatribe. I'm sure by tonight, Geraldo Rivera will have traced the virus to a Mexican Druglord swineherd sympathetic to the Taliban.
The Fox guy then began interviewing a "confirmed victim" of the Swine Flu, ignoring the man's chipper insistance that he was actually feeling a lot better, to ask if his neighbors were afraid to come near him.
I punched the CBC News button and got a doctor involved in monitoring the current status of the outbreak calmly offering a list of what you could do to lessen your chances of infection.
It was a nice example of how our two countries are different.
I parked and walked into the parcel place, discovering that the girl at the counter was already wearing a surgical mask. Actually, it wasn't a surgical mask, it was one of those dollar store jobs you buy when you're clearing out the basement or garage. I gave her the slip for my package and asked if she thought it was doing any good. She said something, but I couldn't make it out because of the mask.
When she brought my package, the cloud of pollen I'd walked through to get into the place finally got to me and I sneezed. She reacted as if I'd pulled a gun on her. So I got her down off the ceiling fan by telling her a joke I remember from the last time Swine Flu came around in 1976....
The symptoms of the disease are fever, aches and a tendency to roll around in mud.
Because of the mask, I'm not sure if she laughed or even smiled. The guy next to me said he didn't think the joke was very funny.
I told him it wasn't -- but at least it wasn't making things worse.
Look, I don't know if this is the end of the world or just a sign that the End Times have arrived. But beyond washing my hands more often and not taking a tour of the agricultural outskirts of Cancun, there's not a lot I can do.
But please stop asking me to be afraid, because that doesn't do any good at all -- and it also makes me go looking for pictures like this...
Laughter really is the best medicine. If you find something, send it along and I'll stick it up. It may not help. But it sure won't hurt.
Sunday, April 26, 2009
I've never understood celebrating the failure of somebody else. But then I've never understood the value in shorting stocks or betting against your home team either. I know those practices have made some people rich or famous. To me, they're just inadmirable weasels.
Great success usually means you took a chance on something. So does failure. And win or lose, taking a risk adds value to your life that is not only special in the moment, it's special forever after, no matter what the outcome.
Because in the end, Life always fails. Nobody gets out of here alive. But those who took chances have less to regret in the final moments.
Last week I had the honor of accompanying my father to an Air Force reunion. There wasn't a man there under the age of 85, guys who had been Spitfire pilots in the Battle of Britain, once young men who had flown Hurricanes over the Jungles of Burma, boys who had taken Lancasters deep into the Heart of Darkness.
They arrived walking with difficulty, wheeled in chairs or moving slowly because of old war wounds or growing frailties. But the moment they entered the Mess Hall that was their meeting room, they transformed, becoming 18 and 19 again, full of purpose, defiant of authority, laughing and drinking and telling bawdy stories and exaggerated tales of combat.
Several had been shot down. Some more than once. Several had been wounded. Some more than once. One had spent so long in a Japanese prison camp he still can't buy anything made in that country. All had lost a few friends back then, and all but a few of them by now.
But they had never admitted defeat, which is the only time you truly are defeated. How often you fall doesn't matter as long as you get up just one time more.
I tried not to look shocked as they described their growing frailties to one another. A kidney removed. A heart re-circuited. Eyes that had winked out. Ears now fitted with hearing aids. As the Bartender pulled pints, one turned to me and said, "The Brits used to put Saltpeter in our beer to reduce our libidos." He smiled. "Unfortunately, it's starting to work."
I started to wonder how I might feel if I reach their age. What will keep me able to laugh at my infirmities, the loss of strength or perception or dignity? And then I realized the answer was all around me.
At some point or another, all of them had dealt with horrific failures. But they'd had the courage or simple forethought to believe their path was the right one, to pick themselves up and refuse to be broken by what had happened.
The courage to take a risk had rewarded them with the courage to go on. When you don't quit, give up, give in or knuckle under, there are no regrets. Then, there is only success.
Enjoy your Sunday.
Friday, April 24, 2009
I honestly can't remember the last time so many teams were swept in the first round of the playoffs. And it could just as easily have been an even higher number. You get the feeling some true powerhouses are in the running this year. And all of them will inevitably have to go head to head in the coming rounds. Does it get much better than that?
I had the good fortune to be in Vancouver the night the Canucks swept St. Louis, in one of the most exciting games I'd seen all season. The euphoria in the city was palpable. But you can't take anything away from the Blues. They fought hard, definitely sending the message they'll be back next year.
Columbus also deserved better than having to face the worst team they could possibly draw in their first taste of playoff action. I got a feeling they'll be back too.
Montreal? I know there'll be an official story. But the writer side of me definitely senses a massive untold and even better one behind that debacle. I wonder if it'll ever come out? I wonder if the Canadiens will ever be the same if it does?
Next year for Montreal? I guess miracles can happen...
By this time next week, we'll either be debuting Round two or down to one final series that has gone the distance. Either way, the pool standings are likely going to undergo a seismic shift by the time former basement dweller, Uncle Willis, updates on Monday.
The Standings as of this morning, while most of us can still look relatively prescient are:
1 Will Pascoe 61
2 Michael Foster 60
3 Moviequill 58
4 Mark Wilson 57
4 Peter Mitchell 57
6 Larry Raskin 54
7 Barry Keifl 53
7 John Callaghan 53
7 Denis McGrath 53
10 Brian Stockton 52
11 Scotty William 48
12 David Kinahan 47
13 Allan Eastman 46
14 Daryl Davis 38
14 Will Dixon 38
16 Jim Henshaw 36
16 Wil Zmak 36
18 Jeff Martel 32
Sunday, April 19, 2009
The thing that sets the inner tubes apart from virtually all other forms of media, maybe except for talk radio, is its ability to be interactive. Oh, you could always write a letter to the editor, that might or might not get printed, maybe or maybe not in an unedited form, sometime sooner or later – and often well after your point or the issue that prompted it had dropped from the Public consciousness and even your own list of things you actually gave a shit about.
The internet is different. You can be getting your two cents out there before whoever posted their own opinion has had a chance to get up from the computer, stretch and take a pee.
And not only do you get to comment on the original writer’s opinion, you get to comment on the other comments as well as the commenters, their friends, their family, their life style choices and whether or not they should have access to what’s obviously you and the planet Earth’s personal private stash of Oxygen.
It’s been often said that “Opinions are like a**-holes, everybody’s got one.” and when you start writing a blog one of the first things you notice is how many a**-holes there really are in the world.
Not you guys reading this, of course! You people are just about the smartest, kindest, most personable and apparently good-looking audience a guy like me has any right to deserve. Among fellow bloggers, I regularly refer to you as “All that Heaven will allow”.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Differences of opinion (and just about everything else) are a fine thing. They make life interesting and/or challenging. And hearing somebody else’s take on a position you’ve taken can be enlightening or humbling in a lot of wonderful ways. The more we honestly intermingle, the sooner we’ll reach a consensus that probably works mostly well for most of us on anything.
Last week, I had a couple of guys respond in the comments thread to a video I posted on a fairly high-minded topic. And then they responded to each other in a way that was entertaining and enlightening not only to anybody reading their thoughts, but to the writers themselves. And that was very cool.
And I’m sure that’s the way the guys who invented the inner tubes thought it would all go.
But make the mistake of clicking on the comment threads of any newspaper story on even something as mundane as pet ordinances and before you’ve gone down half a page, you discover it’s all connected to and/or the fault of the middle east, homosexuals or The Obama. Empowered by anonymity and untethered from any need to be civil, people are capable of creating bile the stomach of a Vulture couldn’t secrete.
It’s a situation that could cause you to lose your faith in humanity, or what remained of it after you’d spent the day moderating the hate speech out of what gets submitted to your own blog comment threads.
A couple of days ago, the dependably sophomoric guys at College Humor released one of the most brilliant insights into our inability to use this amazing interactive tool to actually interact.
I hope it restores your faith in humanity’s ability to at least laugh at itself as much as it did mine.
Feel free to comment. And enjoy your Sunday.
Friday, April 17, 2009
Okay, so there's only been one game in each series and the numbers don't mean much yet. But it's Friday report time and who knows if Dixon will be in any shape to post anything Monday after his big weekend in the big smoke.
Fittingly, the first guy who entered the pool is leading. I'm not sure if that means Michael Foster really handicapped this thing and couldn't wait to get started or simply has a better flutter kick than the rest of us. But he's currently the man to beat.
McGrath's frankly bizarre picks have him solidly in second place and guys like me, Martel and Zmak are quietly waiting in the weeds, sipping our morning coffee and knowing our time will come.
I got a very nice letter from David Kinahan to let me know how much fun he's having. Apparently, we've got him hopping out of bed first thing in the morning to check on his picks. So if I've finally done something to wake up a member of the Writers Guild staff my work on this blog may be done.
Have a great weekend watching what already looks like some of the best hockey of the year. Uncle Willis will update you in a few days and I'll probably be reporting the first to fall back here this time next week.
The Current Standings:
1 Michael Foster 15
2 Brian Stockton 14
2 Peter Mitchell 14
2 Denis McGrath 14
2 Barry Keifl 14
6 Mark Wilson 13
6 Moviequill 13
6 Will Pascoe 13
6 Larry Raskin 13
10 David Kinahan 12
10 John Callaghan 12
12 Allan Eastman 11
12 Daryl Davis 11
14 Will Dixon 8
15 Wil Zmak 7
15 Jim Henshaw 7
15 Jeff Martel 7
Thursday, April 16, 2009
For the most part, I’m still a shit-kicker from the poorest area of Saskatchewan. A red-neck. A Hillbilly from a land without hills. “Hill William” as we would re-coin the term at the University of Saskatchewan since we were now “edumacated”. Life, luck and perhaps some talent led me to work in the Canadian Arts, travel the world to hone my skills and receive validation at my craft through success in America.
Also for the most part, and I don’t see recent indigenous successes like “Corner Gas” and “Trailer Park Boys” causing a sea change in how Canadian audiences assess Canadian Artists. We just still aren’t considered truly successful in our own country until we’ve been Validated by Americans. Those of us who’ve “been there” know that American studios and networks don’t care (or mostly even know) what credits you’ve accrued up here. That body of achievement means nothing to them. Prove yourself to their audience and it’s a different story.
And when that happens, the Canadian media is all over you. “Ohmigod, Rachel Macadam is in a movie with Russell Crowe”, “Elton John married a Canadian guy”, “The Office mentioned Winnipeg in an episode.” Suddenly, because one of us has been Validated and accepted, all of us have been Validated and accepted just a little bit as well.
“They like us! They really like us! We must be worthwhile!”
Last week, a fellow Hillbilly named Billy Bob Thornton was in town with his recently formed Country band.
Billy Bob has achieved more success and Validation in America than pretty much any Canadian actor, screenwriter or director has on either the Hollywood or celebrity scales of Validation. Certainly, he has achieved far more than any Canadian triple-threat combination of those talents. But last week, he appeared on our national broadcaster, the CBC, in a widely discussed interview in which he was cranky, rude and insulting to the host. And in describing Canadian audiences as “unresponsive” and “All mashed potatoes and no gravy” he did the one thing we don’t allow Americans to do…
Billy Bob IN-VALIDATED us.
And immediately the media was full of outrage and the censorious nature commonly ascribed to “red-neck” Western Canadians was now on show from the audience at Toronto’s prestigious Massey Hall, amid the trendy bars on Queen Street West and within the hallowed halls of the CBC.
Bud the Spud wanted revenge.
In less than 15 minutes of bad behavior, the guy our Art House crowd had taken to their bosom with “Sling Blade” was now decried as just another “Ugly American”, a spoiled Hollywood brat and an ignorant, insensitive a--hole. He was the new Greg Gutfeld of Fox News (That other American who Invalidated us a few weeks ago). It was front page news here a few days later when Billy Bob chose to end his Canadian tour and “High tail it for the border” as one paper chose to describe the departure.
What Billy Bob had failed to understand in his interview was that CBC host Jian Gomeshi had been trying to help him over one of our major cultural hurdles.
By explaining to his radio audience that while Billy Bob had not yet been Validated as a musician by the American media, he still retained his Validation as an actor, writer and director, Gomeshi was assuring those listening that the man should still be afforded a few minutes of consideration. What Billy Bob also didn’t understand is that until he receives his musical Validation by the American media, those Canadian audiences will continue to sit on their hands at his shows.
But he didn’t and it was the sharper side of the double-edged Validation sword that cut us so deeply.
The fact that we’re a reserved bunch in public is no surprise to any Canadian who’s ever been to a hockey game in Boston or New York or Philadelphia finding a seething mass of drunken, partisan excitement that wouldn’t be allowed out of the parking lot in Toronto.
My first Dodgers game at Chavez Ravine included an all out beer fight between two sections in the stands, one white the other predominately Mexican. Nothing more lethal than a 32 oz. tub of beer or popcorn was ever launched at the other side and everybody had fun including the laughing, soaking wet cops who ultimately came between us.
On the other hand, I’ve seen guys escorted from Blue Jays games for suggesting the Umpire was a “bum” and a scene like the one in LA would inevitably lead to cancelling the ballgame and page long editorials on public intoxication and the need for racial harmony in our press.
Yet we see little wrong in clubbing baby seals, like having a Quebec kid hold aloft the Ultimate Fighting belt and live for a bench clearing brawl.
We are an odd bunch.
About 30 years ago, I was part of a group of Canadians who tried to hijack the traditional American Validation process. There were maybe 25 or 30 of us at the beginning, all little “Energizer Bunnies” in the Canadian film business, fed up with the staid, boring, unwatchable and mostly pointless “Canadian Film Awards” and convinced that Canadians would begin to embrace their own artists and go to see Canadian films if they were Validated in a meaningful way by their own kind.
It took us about a year to wrest the Etrog statuette away from the original owners and mount our own event, but we did and it was a huge success. Thousands of members of the film community kicked in a few bucks for a membership card that allowed them to see all of the eligible films, nominate the members of their own craft and cast a final vote for those who would be honored. The first Genies were presented in 1980 with all the Klieg lights, limos, red carpets and glamor made mandatory by the Academy Awards.
Millions watched the television broadcast on the full network of the CBC (Yes, I used the multiple ‘M’ word in describing a Canadian TV audience) and the winners’ faces graced the front pages of newspapers from coast-to-coast, their acceptance speeches and beseeching the audience to give Canadian films a chance made it onto real newscasts and not just the hokie gossip shows.
A few days later, that original clump of now bedraggled upstarts gathered in a room over the old New Yorker Theatre on Yonge Street to crack one last bottle of Champagne and congratulate ourselves. We had done it. Canadians were now Validating themselves. There was even a baseball cap that read “Fuck LA! This is how we do it in Canada”.
But a Leopard can’t change its spots and a Beaver NEVER swaps its pelt.
And although the US Immigration Department scored Canadians who’d won or even been nominated for a Genie with more points on any work permit applications, winning that trophy didn’t put the recipient in greater demand up here or increase ticket sales at the box office.
Validation from America was still a requirement.
A week before Billy Bob suggested that Canadian audiences suck, that was the theme of the 29th Genie Awards in Ottawa.
The running joke of the show was that NOBODY had seen the films. Only one of the nominated features had received a National release and the Host of the evening admitted he’d screened DVDs of the work he was there to celebrate in his hotel room – after arriving on the red-eye from his real showbiz job in LA – the self same Validation which qualified him to act as Host in the first place.
The buzz was so insignificant the swag bag presented to the nominees and presenters included a We-Vibe vibrator, perhaps in the hope it might arouse someone – anyone - to appear at least a little excited. The television audience totalled 113,000, which when you subtract the casts and crews of the films, their families and friends and the staffs of all of their multi-level funding agencies that backed them, amounts to – what? Maybe 4 – 5 real film goers? Tops?
And even though the network no longer broadcasts this home grown celebration of Canadian film and most of the films nominated for the evening will never even play on the CBC, further financial support for the public broadcaster was the political sub-theme of the evening. Artist after artist slammed the government for not giving the CBC more money and chanted the mantra that putting money into the Arts invariably creates jobs.
That must’ve been news to 70 former employees of the Art Gallery of Ontario who had just been laid off despite a government investment of $300 Million into their just opened new facility.
Look, maybe it’s time we start being honest with ourselves.
The reason Canadian audiences are “reserved” is because we haven’t been good enough at entertaining them. And the reason they look Southward for the Validation is because our own Validation process has often been an outright lie.
The whole point of the Genie Awards was to pack Canadian audiences into Canadian theatres to see Canadian films and that has been an abject failure.
Because way too often the Canadian Academy has marched in lock step with the Institutional funders who bankroll the industry. If they put money in something that was dull as dishwater, boring as an early morning piss and mostly made to serve some regional or social agenda, it still had to be celebrated, Validated and foisted on the public.
And when the membership of the Academy (also audience members themselves) wouldn’t co-operate with that process, their franchise right was replaced with the compliant Juries that had so undermined the original credibility of the Canadian Film Awards. The “right people” were once again telling you who mattered and who didn’t.
Most film people knew that to reach an audience you needed to create something that those folks might spend real money to see. But that wasn’t the agenda of the Gala attending, film festival circuit crowd the funding bureaucrats were a part of -- and on whom the Academy of Canadian Cinema also depended for support. The audience took a back seat to the private party.
Therefore, in those ensuing decades, millions of taxpayer dollars have been spent on the Genie Awards themselves. Perhaps that money could have been better spent on making actual films, or in making sure the films we did make had adequate marketing budgets or could even hire a decent publicist.
But instead, the money went on another lavish party that 99.99% of the country wasn’t invited to attend.
And they weren’t there because, like most film and television and Arts endeavors in this country, it ultimately wasn’t about them or their need to be entertained and enriched.
Any politicians along the way, be they Prime Ministers, Ministers of Culture and/or Heritage or whatever, who also chose not to attend were derided as uncaring “Philistines” who didn’t ‘get’ the value of the Arts – or perhaps more accurately, the self-importance of its IN Crowd.
This private party syndrome spread from the Genie Awards to film and television awards in all parts of the country. Some of those are tied to local film festivals. Many are just there to imply that the Region or city hosting them has a flourishing Arts community. But in all cases, few but those attending the party have any awareness of the work being celebrated.
A few years ago, I was asked to go back to Saskatchewan and present an Award at one of their local events. The ballroom was filled with representatives of all kinds of Arts organizations named SaskFilm and SaskMedia and other similarly “Sask” branded outfits. None of them thought it was funny when I suggested they should amalgamate into one big bunch they could call “Saskwatch”. Nor were any of them dismayed that the film I was presenting an award to had only ever been seen by the five person jury who had decided to honor it. I hope it’s had wider distribution since, but I have a feeling its audience never encompassed many beyond those who were in that ballroom.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I think a certain amount of celebrating our own is important and I know the Arts aren’t the only Canadian industries receiving boatloads of taxpayer support. Yet I never see Award ceremonies for “Best Roughneck” in the Oil Patch or “Most Valuable Riveter” at Bombardier. Maybe they have them and I’m just out of that social loop.
But when so many exist within the film and TV industries recognizing so little the public actually sees or even has access to, it widens the gap between us. And it also begins to feel like they’re little more than a photo op for politicians and funding bureaucrats who could just as easily be turning up at the local Mission to serve soup to the homeless. Somehow the process continues to make them appear noble, caring and in-charge while reminding everyone that we’re actually doing quite well living on Welfare.
You also wonder if any money would be there at all if the Government class weren’t the honored guests at these soirees.
A few weeks from now, the Governor General will host another party in Ottawa and hand out medals to Canadian artists considered to have greatly contributed to our culture. Among them will be playwright George F. Walker and film actor/director/writer Paul Gross. For better or worse, they will likely be the two honorees most familiar to Canadian audiences. Gross wrote, directed and starred in this year’s Best Film Genie Winner “Passchendaele” and Walker writes and produces TMN’s “The Line”.
But “Passchendaele” was received as a mediocre film at best, earning only $4 Million at the Canadian box office (meaning fewer than half a million Canadians went to see it). Meanwhile, “The Line” isn’t exactly setting the television world ablaze or even a-flicker as far as “Must-See-TV” goes. And yet these two men will receive the official government stamp of approval as valued Cultural icons.
Although both are being honored for their body of work, would it surprise anyone if the average audience member sees this, recalls their supreme lack of enjoyment of those last offerings from both and shakes their head at what gets recognized as Canadian culture? Does the fact that they then look elsewhere for Validation of what’s worth spending their money on not start to make some sense?
Could it be that the very fact that we appear so cozy with and doted on by our elites be what keeps our audience wary of what we’re selling?
In the interest of full disclosure, I need to say that I appeared in about a dozen of the first productions of George Walker’s plays, consider him a friend and wish him nothing but success. But I find “The Line” about as derivative, pointless and boring as anything on television. The series is based on a group of plays collectively known as the “Suburban Motel” cycle George has created over the last decade, all set in the same seedy motel room and all pretty great evenings – on stage.
I’ve always felt George was Canada’s greatest playwright (living or dead) and have found it profoundly odd that the plays which made him internationally known and once packed Canadian theatres, plays like “Bagdad Saloon”, “Beyond Mozambique”, “Theatre of the Film Noir” and “Zastrozzi” still haven’t been translated to film. While the Suburban motel cycle became both the hideously failed feature “Niagara Motel” and “The Line”. My own theory is that Canadian producers see those one-set, small cast, mostly nihilistic pieces and say “Hey, cheap and depressing! I can sell that to Telefilm!”
It’s odder still that after two generations of Canadian audiences making it clear that “Cheap and Depressing” aren’t what they want to see at the movies, the recent slate of Genie nominees indicates that’s still what the powers-that-be consistently fund and feed them. I keep hoping I’m wrong in assuming this is because it keeps the parties private.
George, please do us all a favor, check out of that motel and have a new idea. Let’s be honest here, your earlier funny stuff was – well, earlier (as in ahead of its time) and funny.
Let me finish by telling a couple of stories I probably shouldn’t tell about our apparently culturally important CBC. Because for me they exemplify why that particular corporate culture may not serve either the audience or artists of this country well and why the people we all say we want to reach continue to look elsewhere for their seals of approval.
I’ve written and produced multiple pilots and a couple of resulting series for all of the major American networks. I’ve also developed two pilots at CBC that never went to camera.
Maybe that’s because they ultimately weren’t very good or what the network decided their audience wanted in the final analysis. Maybe they felt my American influences had poisoned me as a purveyor of Canadian content. That all goes with the territory and is a reality you have to accept. Sometimes, it’s just your turn in the barrel.
But part of me thinks there might be something else at work as well.
My first failed attempt at a CBC show followed hard on the heels of the final episode of “Top Cops”. CBC wanted a gritty cop show and I had just run one for 4 years. An established CBC producer approached me with a development deal and I jumped at it.
Following the “Top Cops” research approach, I spent a few months embedded with the Toronto Homicide Squad, learning what made them tick, how they differed from American cops and finding what I felt would endear characters like them to a Canadian audience. My producing partner and I hammered out a detailed concept to present to the people who would ultimately decide the show’s fate.
Now, one of the first revelations I’d gotten working on a US series was how few people actually worked for the networks there. The executive offices of CBS in Television City were half the size of any single floor at the CBC’s Toronto tower (gaping Rotunda hole in the middle and all). It was clear that 30 or 40 people managed the entire television operation. An operation that programmed more original content in a couple of nights than the CBC did in a week.
The supervising CBS executive on “Top Cops” also ran “Northern Exposure”, “Evening Shade” and “Designing Women”. Two dramas and two comedies. One executive. I had two very precisely scheduled note sessions, Wednesday morning at ten (7:00 am in LA) and Sunday nights at eight (5:00 pm in LA). The phone would ring. The notes would be direct and curt and then he’d sign off with “Gotta go. Northern Exposure’s waiting.”
This same guy handled network scheduling, took one full day a week to listen to pitches and was familiar with every line item in your budget.
I’ve never understood the behemoth proportions of CBC staff that seem necessary to keep that operation afloat and when Bill Brioux pointed out that their recent layoff of 800 did not include any of the corporation’s 553 Senior managers, I remember wondering if CBC even had 553 separate shows in need of management on all of their multiple platforms put together or why some of those many managers, all apparently deserving of hefty annual bonuses, couldn’t handle 2 or 3 shows on their own so maybe there could be fewer Senior managers and more series, episodes and people who worked on them.
I mean, isn’t what CBC produces more important to the country than how many people have comfortable jobs there?
Anyway, the day arrived when we were to pitch our cop show to Senior management. Well versed in the rigors of an American network pitch, I’d spent days rehearsing, covering all the possible questions and concerns the people who could green-light it might have. If there’s one thing I will toot my own horn about it’s that when I’m in the room, you get the heat, the curve, the slider and the knuckleball. I can fuckin’ pitch!
We walked in to meet three very lovely people, all happy to see my CBC producer and meet his new “find”. They didn’t have much time as they had to leave for the airport, Amsterdam and some TV conference or sales market. I got out my notes. They asked if I’d ever been to Amsterdam. I had. Could I recommend any restaurants. I could not. Oh, well. I laid out the 25 words or less concept of the show. They nodded. Somebody looked at a watch. They had to go and gave us a “Go” as well.
I was dumbfounded. It had never been this easy. Then I realized they were all shaking my producing partner’s hand. He was one of them. Of course it was okay.
A script got written and made the approval rounds. Then I got a call from my agent. My producing partner needed to adjust our agreement. Instead of being a 50-50 deal, the CBC needed him to have final say on all creative matters. They knew him. They needed “Their guy” in charge. I pointed out that “Their guy” didn’t know the first thing about running a series and had openly admitted as much. That didn’t matter. I said, “No.” The show died.
A while later, I sat in another CBC office with a writer and two terrific network development execs who had shepherded a piece we all had high hopes for to what we also hoped was the last hurdle we had to clear. The CBC Exec we were meeting had some minor reservations and then stunned us by saying, “You need seven good actresses to pull this off and I don’t think you can find seven good actresses in Canada.”
We were speechless.
If that Exec had said the material just didn’t make their ass tingle like Harry Cohn said it should, we all would’ve understood. But this was so far beyond ignorant, so far above arrogant that it was almost unbelievable. No arguments could dissuade. We were done.
Now, to the best of my knowledge, none of the 800 people who will be walking the plank at the CBC in the coming weeks were included in those anecdotes. They still have their jobs and will continue to decide what is presented to the Canadian public as the shows they really should be watching.
And one wonders if such superb Canadian actresses as Wendy Crewson and Sarah Polley and others who regularly speak with heartfelt eloquence and passion on the importance and necessity of the CBC know how they (and other capable artists) are sometimes regarded within that air-tight building they’re defending.
None of this is to say that there’s an over–arching conspiracy to keep good work from appearing on the CBC. The network has any number of exceptional people who do exceptional work. But there is a bureaucracy and attitude present in their midst whose apparent embrace of culture is so tight it actually strangles some of it.
It’s an attitude born of attending those parties and galas and private screenings. One that doesn’t even consider the needs of the wider audience because it’s so aware of what those at the private party want.
And perhaps even those executives (who I’m certain some feel I’ve maligned here) were all trying very hard to do the best job they could.
But when only 1 in 12 Canadians now invites the CBC into their lives each day, I think it’s safe to say their best isn’t good enough.
Which brings us back to Billy Bob. For whatever you may think of the man, he’s doing something most of the Artists in this country aren’t. He’s stepping outside the safe confines of what others have decided is his “box”, risking ridicule, lost income and the occasional flying long neck bottle of Lone Star to reach an audience with something he personally believes in.
With 10 minutes of research, one of the (however many) Senior managers supervising “Q” could have learned that Billy Bob Thornton is attempting to revive a musical fusion that can be traced back to Buck Owens and The Beatles. A fusion of styles which became so profound that following Ringo’s rendition of Buck’s signature tune “Act Naturally”, the country star had to take out ads in the Nashville trades assuring everyone he wasn’t abandoning Country music. That research would have also pointed out that Billy Bob was playing in bands long before he was a movie star, including one that ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons called “The best damn cover band in Texas”.
Maybe they did and things just got derailed before the train got that far. And there are no legitimate excuses for Billy Bob’s petulant behavior. Perhaps all we can find that’s positive in this sad affair is the consummate professionalism of Jian Gomeshi. There are moments in that video where you can see him straining to be civil, perhaps, as a musician himself, aware of that old country lyric requesting that we always show extra kindness because everybody’s strugglin’ with somethin’.
Or maybe he was just aware of his own struggle to reach an audience, knowing this meltdown was just going to make it harder. As I’ve said before about Ghomeshi, “Q” and the CBC “…it'll take better brains than the ones who appear to be running the place at the moment to find him the audience he deserves”.
But overall, we need to finally start admitting that if our audiences are quiet, when they even bother to turn up at all, that’s OUR fault. And it’s mostly the fault of those Canadian Artists who don’t hold those who “approve” their work to an appropriate standard or demand that the shrimp trays and open bars be put away until we have an industry in which the people we’re trying to reach decide they want to throw a party for us.
Until then, we’ll constantly be catering to a different crowd, the one that continues to ride on our backs and decides through meeting their own needs what our audience will be and what they will be served.
Like it or not, Billy Bob spoke a difficult to accept truth. This Hillbilly’s just trying to help you to understand how we got that way, hopefully in a less rude manner. You need to forgive us country boys sometimes. We don’t always remember to take our boots off when we get up to the Big House and our manners ain’t as proper as the folks who know which one’s the fish fork.
Seriously. It’s time to put our Genies back in the bottle until we do work that truly earns them.
Wednesday, April 15, 2009
Just hours until the first puck drops to start this season's Stanley Cup Playoffs and still plenty of time to get your picks in for the "3rd Annual Infamous Writers Hockey Pool". Details down the page. Just scroll down until you see a hockey player...
A male hockey player...
Tuesday, April 14, 2009
There must be something in the water in Kansas City.
I long ago learned that if I wanted an intelligent take on any major issue in the sports world, my first stop was Jason Whitlock, the Kansas City Star sports columnist who writes with more grace and integrity than almost anyone else in that genre.
When it comes to television and thoughtful insight into the TV trade, one of the most reliable sources is Aaron Barnhart, author of the Kansas City based blog “TV Barn”.
And for the truth about the economy, there are few with more credibility and courage than William K. Black, professor of Law and Economics at the KC campus of the University of Missouri and America’s senior bank regulator during the Savings and Loan scandals of the 1980’s.
Black literally wrote the book on financial fraud. It’s called “The Best Way To Rob A Bank Is To Own One”. And he is now utterly convinced that many of America’s most esteemed and important financial players need to go right to jail for what they’ve done to the world economy. He also believes they are getting away with their crimes with the help of politicians from all parts of the political spectrum.
Last week, he sat down with PBS’s Bill Moyers for 29 of the most shocking minutes I’ve ever seen on television. It’s impossible to come away from the interview without the grim realization that what’s now bad is going to get impossibly worse and that those who profess to have our best interests at heart have a completely different agenda.
No matter what end of the political bench you call home, this is chilling stuff that will give a whole new meaning to who you consider “us” or “them”. And Black’s message is all the darker because he fits nobody’s tidy definition of a wing-nut and unlike the so-called financial journalists of the Main Stream Media, he knows of what he speaks and isn’t afraid to name names or call out somebody you thought was perfectly respectable for what they really are.
This video needs to be seen by and shared with everyone you know. If it resonates with you the way it did with me, please pass it on to every journalist, union member, recently unemployed friend and politician that you know. Pass it on to those who are afraid of losing their pensions and homes, or who have already lost their investment nest eggs.
These are far from issues “too complicated” for the average person to understand or that can be dismissed as “unforeseen” cases of individual greed and corruption. As Black makes clear in the opening moments, “Bernie Madoff was a piker. He doesn’t even get into the front ranks of the Ponzi schemes”.
As Black also makes indelibly obvious, all this talk of bailouts, belt-tightening and credit crunches is just so much BS to keep us distracted from what’s really going on. Keep those torches, pitchforks and tumbrels handy. We might need them after all.
Does anybody remember a little riff that went something like, “No Taxation Without Representation”? If there’s another American Revolution, I’ve got a feeling it might get its start in Kansas City. And given the quality of some of the people who seem to live there, that might be a good thing for all of us.
Monday, April 13, 2009
The Stanley Cup Playoffs, the greatest spectacle and the toughest trophy to win in all of professional sport!
This is where we separate the men from the boys, the wheat from the chaff, the real heroes from the wannabes and poseurs. This is where those with hockey smarts and the courage of their convictions can also shine. Because next to getting stitched up on the bench and playing with a broken leg, the most venerable tradition in the quest for the Stanley Cup is the "Hockey Pool"!
AND NOW YOU CAN BE A PART OF IT!!!
Will Dixon and I have been in hockey pools at least as long as we've known each other. No matter where we are or what we're doing, we have honored our on-ice warriors season after season by picking who we feel are the best among them and putting a little money on their sweaty asses.
I remember the two of us ending up in LA one season with the Leafs (our beloved team) making a run for the Cup. Hockey wasn't on TV down there back then (and seldom if ever even now) and the playoff games could only be had with access to an ANIK-B satellite. We drove all over LA until we found a bar called "Yankee Doodle's" in Santa Monica that could rotate its rooftop dish to access that particular Deathstar.
But the owner didn't want to upset his regulars, who came in to watch pansy sports like basketball and golf while sipping their light beers and wine coolers, so we made him a deal. In return for NHL access on the big screen in a basement back room, we'd drag in all the ex-pat hockey fans we could find and not only eat him out of chicken wings, but empty every case of Molson's and Moosehead he had languishing in the fridge.
By the time we were done, we had up to 40 rabid hockey fans there every night cheering so loud, the guys on the Golf Channel were having to speak in a normal voice to be heard.
Two seasons back, being thousands of miles apart and with most of the people with whom we regularly communicate passing through our blogs, we cooked up this little plan to hold our hockey pool online. It was an astonishing success! Year two was awesome. And this year it's going to be even bigger and better.
HERE'S HOW IT WORKS
You join "The Infamous Writer's Hockey Pool" by sending me an email at email@example.com with "POOL PICKS" in the subject line between 8:00 AM EST Monday (today)and 6:00 PM EST Wednesday night (April 15/09). The Playoffs begin an hour or so later.
In your email, list the 10 skaters and 2 Goalies who make up your team. They can be members of any of the 16 teams competing in the opening round. The scoring is as follows:
For every goal or assist scored by your skater you earn 1 point. Every time your goalie wins you also earn a point and seven points each time he earns a shutout. Shutouts in Stanley Cup play are rare and skaters will always earn more points than a Goalie, but this is a way of evening things up.
The 12 players you choose are yours for the entire tournament. As the teams your players represent fall by the wayside, they cease earning you points, but their totals remain a part of your total. In the end, the poolie with the most points wins.
I'll post your team online. From then on, you can check your progress by going HERE. All players will be provided with a password so they can check their progress throughout the playoffs.
Once you're inside the pool site, you'll see all the information on the poolies and their teams. You'll also receive a twice weekly update of the pool standings, which either Will or I will post for all the world to see on our blogs.
See -- easy and fun! The only thing missing is the chance to share the beer and wings and make fun of each other's choices. Anybody who wants to open a Facebook group to handle the trash talk or Twitters their opponents has our blessing.
Now, playing in a hockey pool is very simple but a certain amount of strategy is involved. I've seen poolies pick players from teams that exited early still win because those players racked up so many points in the early going. I've also seen poolies with terrible picks come out on top because they had a hot goalie in their pool.
Like everything else in the game, it's ultimately up to the hockey gods.
If you're new to pools or the game, you can learn more on who you should pick by visiting TSN or Sportsnet.
But let me give you a few tried and true pointers of my own.
1. You absolutely don't want the guys who are scoring leaders in the regular season. Especially if they're from Russia, Sweden or the Czech Republic. Remember -- it's a Canadian game! The regular season is full of games nobody really cares about and games against terrible teams where those wussy European scoring leaders rack up most of their points. You want guys whose stats indicate they've barely scored at all. This means they're DUE.
2. Look for guys who are injury prone, particularly players who've suffered head injuries. There's an old hockey adage that guys who win are playing like they're "unconscious". Pick skaters who have had recent concussions.
3. Also look for a stat called PIM, that stands for "Penalties In Minutes" and it denotes the roughest, toughest customers in the league. The Stanley Cup is won by the team with the most grit. This means lots of fights for a team wanting to stay in it for the long haul. Fighters are the guys who rack up the biggest PIM numbers. Grab them first!
4. Never pick a first string Goalie! These guys have played 82 games of the regular season and they're tired. You want the back up Goalies, particularly the guys who play "third string". They're fresh! And they've had the most time to practice the art often repeated in the old adage "to win the Goalie has to stand on his head".
Just to make things even more fair, I promise not to take ANY of those guys, to give you a better chance at winning.
And what do you win?
Well, since gambling is technically illegal, and the entrants are going to come from a lot of disparate currencies, we've decided that your entrance fee must be something either related to your career or a sports souvenir you've gathered along the way.
Once the winner is decided, all entrants must ship he or she a DVD of a film they made, an autographed script, their Bobby Orr lunchbox or even that old Honus Wagner baseball card that's just gathering dust in grandpa's desk.
There will also be very special pieces of honest to god NHL memorabilia for the poolies finishing 2nd or 3rd.
There are no other restrictions to participating. Just join up, pick your players and set aside your victory swag.
Looking forward to playing with with you! Game on!!!!
Sunday, April 12, 2009
When I was in high school, my youngest brother was addicted to “Thunderbirds”, the British kids series filmed in “Supermarionation” a fancy way of saying “We’re not even trying to hide the puppet strings”.
“Thunderbirds” achieved and maintains a special cult status among kid shows. It was bigger and more ambitious than almost anything else on offer at the time – and yet – some of its strongest appeal lay in the impression that its rocket ships, massive sets and characters with visibly hinged jaws were something any four year old could throw together from what happened to be in his sandbox.
Almost every FX whiz kid I’ve worked with has waxed rhapsodic at some point or another about “Thunderbirds” or one of the other Gerry & Sylvia Anderson creations for AP Films, such as “Fireball XL5” and “Stingray”. For many, those wooden astronauts and their dry ice spewing Rescue Rockets were what set them on the road to creating movie realism with models and camera tricks.
But while thousands of these people have perfected their craft to the point that virtually anything a writer imagines can be executed with realistic perfection on screen, there’s always gotta be somebody going in the opposite direction.
Australian photographer and filmmaker Keith Loutit is that guy. And he has achieved enormous success at reducing real people and machines to the FX level of the “Thunderbirds” using a technique known as “Tilt-shift”.
For the technically adept among you, "Tilt-shift" is a simple application of the Scheimpflug principle.
For those muttering -- “WTF is the Scheimpflug principle?” The short answer is that, while totally beyond me, it’s something an Austrian army Captain named Scheimpflug invented during WWI to overcome the distortion of aerial photographs. And when you apply it to sights and situations we’ve all stopped paying attention to – you see them with completely new eyes.
Here’s one of Ken’s films, made with the help of the Westpac Rescue Helicopter Service in Sydney, Australia -- which like many of Australia’s lifeguard services depends on public donations to save lives. Donations you can make here.
Other than that – there are no strings attached.
Enjoy your Sunday.
Bathtub IV from Keith Loutit on Vimeo.
Tuesday, April 07, 2009
This Blog got it’s first job offer last week. Two years of blood and sweat and primary career sacrifice finally paid off with the arrival of a nice letter from an obviously just as nice woman in England, very generous writing contract already drawn and attached. The British just do this stuff right, don’t they? No need for multiple meetings and mulling of other options. They simply sense Quality and have the Solicitor pop a letter in the Post.
This is how Byron and Shelley got hired.
Anyway, she’s a regular reader of “The Legion” and commended me for my intelligence (“Thank you”), the quality of my writing (“You’re too kind”) my sophistication (“Practically my middle name”) and most of all, my maturity (“Uh, …are we reading the same blog here?”).
She got quite chatty, now that I was suitably complimented, and detailed her business, which is supplying scrupulously researched and thoughtful essays on topics on which I felt I had some knowledge at $40/page and 50% of Gross receipts. A sum I have to admit is much higher than what I’ve received from any of you Plebes coming here on a daily basis for all the Insight and Wisdom you’ve been carting away for Free!
My interest was piqued and I quickly perused the attached contract and support documents – realizing my writing skills would be well rewarded by people without the brains or initiative to get a University degree, but still in desperate need of earning course credits. I’d supply the intelligence and diligence they were lacking – and hopefully never end up in the ER where they were interning after Graduation.
Supplying work University students can falsely claim as their own is apparently a big business. A simple Google search will turn up literally thousands of sites, some charging as little as 5 bucks a page for post graduate Calculus and Atomic science term papers -- implying that my essay on such a topic would be sold a lot more than once.
This would additionally imply that a lot of people are tacking diplomas on their walls that they might not even know how to read. And when you think about it, that means I could be contributing to another coroner who can’t tell the difference between an abused child and one who died of natural causes, a financial advisor who doesn’t know a toxic asset when it crosses his desk or the next College team suddenly able to field enough players to win a Bowl game.
Sort of explains the current mess the world’s in, doesn’t it?
My first instinct was to bin the nice lady’s letter. Nobody tracks integrity much anymore, but I’ve always taken some pride in the fact that I don’t lie, cheat or steal – traits that have often made it hard for me to explain how I’ve managed to have a career in the Canadian film business.
And then I read a study that hit the newspapers yesterday saying that the vast majority of University freshmen are hideously ill-prepared for that level of education. Many don’t have anywhere near the abilities to read, write or do arithmetic that their High School Diplomas say they do. Most rely heavily on sites like Wikipedia for reliable information and almost all “expect to be rewarded without the requisite effort”.
Now, I’m not gonna go off on a “Damn Kids! Get off my lawn!” rant here. Because I’ve started noticing that we all seem a little less interested in putting in the effort required.
When the film version of Frank Miller’s graphic novel “300” was released, I read some cultural essayist decrying it for one reason or another and recommending Steven Pressfield’s “Gates of Fire” as the definitive historical version of the Battle of Thermopylae.
Now, Pressfield’s “The War of Art” is absolutely required reading by anyone intending to make a living in any creative field and I’d loved his novel “The Legend of Bagger Vance”. But I didn’t know he also had such a vaunted academic pedigree. When I read several other reviews of the film that also referenced Pressfield’s historical acumen, I went out and bought his book.
But you only needed to get as far into its pages as the Thespian General telling his troops to “Just go out there and have fun”, about as theatrical (as in that kind of Thespian) an in-joke as there is, to realize “Gates of Fire” was a helluva good novel that made no pretense to being the height of historical accuracy.
So, how come so many journalists and columnists and critics and bloggers all said it was?
Because they hadn’t read the book.
And they were all getting their original source information from that first guy.
And about half of them have written or will write a column dumping on Wikipedia for being unreliable.
It’s incredibly easy to put something out there these days and have it accepted as fact. Why? Because unless you’re some Conservative blogger out to disprove the stance of a Liberal pundit or vice versa, nobody calls you on your Bullshit anymore. Because nobody really checks.
Or maybe thinks checking is even important.
In my post-“Beastmaster” days, having learned how to stage battle scenes with about 8 guys and a wardrobe budget that never got into triple digits, I toyed with writing a film about Hannibal. And I read quite a few real academic studies on the Punic Wars.
It’s a little known fact that the First Punic war was triggered when Heiro II of Syracuse depicted the Carthaginian King as having an undersized set of genitals on five clay amphorae of wine intercepted by the Carthaginian Navy after one of Heiro’s ships wrecked off the African coast.
That’s complete horseshit.
But while you were reading it, Google was linking those phrases for some kid at NYU one credit short of his political science degree.
And if the teaching assistant assessing his paper because the Professor is on sabbatical bicycling the Loire Valley, doesn’t know anything about the Punic Wars, much less cares, that student gets his degree and goes to work for the State Department.
That’s how easy it is.
We all “expect success without the requisite effort”.
It’s why thousands of people entrusted all their assets to Bernie Madoff, why so many Canadian artistes who have never made a film anybody will pay to see used last week’s Genie Awards as a soapbox to demand more public funding – and maybe why food doesn’t get inspected properly, helicopters with faulty parts fall out of the sky and the kid at the coffee place never gets your order right.
None of the people involved in these things either knew what they were doing or followed the lead of folks who were even less qualified than they were.
We’re getting dumber.
And that means we’re getting easier to fool and more likely to be used. Be that by a politician, a theologian, a demented environmentalist – or a screenwriter looking to make some quick money on the side.
As my Cowboy Grandfather used to say, “Everybody wants to get to heaven. Nobody wants to die.” And if we’re unwilling to do our own homework or demand a level of accountability from others and ourselves -- and the people placed in the positions to help us got there on falsified credentials as well, then we’re all in danger of going over a cliff.
The Barbarians really are at the gates. Only this time – they’re us.
Sunday, April 05, 2009
She said she always had a pound of hamburger ready to go in the fridge. Whether somebody was grumpy, hyper-active or sulking, her prescription was always the same -- cook 'em a hamburger.
A little rare if you needed to perk them up. Leaning toward well done if you wanted to calm them down. She swore it never failed.
Odd as her response may sound, it triggered an immediate recognition of absolute truth in me. How could anyone not know this? The way to a man's heart is already accepted as being through his stomach.
But the vehicle is not some tricked out culinary masterpiece or exotic feast of the senses.
It's a burger.
Ladies, us guys will always struggle with the eternal question of what you want. But what men want is no secret at all.
Ask us what we're thinkin' -- and if we actually do happen to have a thought goin' on up there, it'll be of one of two things -- sex or food. And giving us one will ultimately lead to thinking about the other. Ping Pong us between those two paddles and you'll have your way with us forever.
As proof, I offer the following commercial. Some may say the guys who created it are marketing geniuses. I say, they're just bein' honest.
Enjoy your Sunday.
Friday, April 03, 2009
I was never a fan of “Star Trek” because I always felt the people making it cheated.
Somewhere in Act 1, the crew of the “Enterprise” would get in some kind of bind and there’d be this inevitable scene where Scotty would go to work on the damaged Thrusters or Shields, making it clear that they weren’t designed to take whatever abuse was being meted out or they needed to operate at some capacity beyond scientific possibility for the ship to survive. But, in the final minutes, some futuristic feat of engineering that’s explanation sounded totally made up on the spot would magically allow them to do just that.
It was science fiction where all the science remained fictitious and I just never bought it.
Good drama always depends on the “Willing suspension of disbelief”, meaning at some level we know what’s going on doesn’t track, but we’re having a good time so we let the illogical things slide, playing along to be entertained. And like the old “Star Trek” series, an awful lot of enormously successful movies and TV shows have logic holes you could drive a truck through.
“Jurassic Park” is one of those great thrill rides of a movie. But scene after scene doesn’t follow the logic the filmmakers use to construct their story. Luckily, there’s a lot of dinosaur eye-candy to keep us distracted while we’re repeatedly told one thing about the world being created and then the action requires us to believe something completely different.
We’re told a T. Rex has a top speed of 30 miles an hour and then treated to an elongated chase between one of the dinosaurs and a speeding Jeep. Earlier, the T. Rex easily climbed over an enclosure wall that Dr. Grant and the kids later hurtle down in a truck to treetop level and then further descend at great peril.
Near the end, the park’s warden, Muldoon, played by the late British actor Bob Peck, who has spent the entire film educating us on the dangers of Velociraptors and specifically their ability to hunt in packs, walks into just such a Raptor trap, facing his attacker with a respectful -- “Clever Girl…” before he’s torn to pieces, as if the animal’s intelligence were a sudden revelation.
It’s a completely bogus moment. But one that’s required for the rest of the story to play out. In other words, it’s a writer’s trick based on cleverness rather than dramatic truth.
I don’t write a lot about writing. Mostly because I don’t have any formal training in the craft. I learned by doing and watching other writers do, becoming one of those guys who realized I didn’t know what the hell I was doing around the time I was making too much money at it to quit. But every now and then, I’m frankly astonished by some of the things supposedly intelligent and trained writers try to get away with.
On my first TV series, we had one guy on staff who’d been on practically every hit series since television began. He’d write himself into a corner, smoke a cigarette and then rattle off a couple of pages that brought the episode to a conclusion. I used to read his stuff and, as diplomatically as I could, point out that his resolution didn’t actually make a lot of sense.
“Don’t worry about it. It’s a Refrigerator moment,” he finally told me.
“What’s a Refrigerator moment?” I asked. Thinking I was about to glean some well-kept Hollywood secret.
“It’s when the show ends, the credits run and the guy watching gets up to get a beer. He opens the fridge, pops the cap, takes a drink and then, thinking about the show says, ‘Hey, wait a minute…’.”
According to this writer, by that time, we’d lived up to our part of the “Willing suspension of disbelief” contract and could not be penalized. Checks had been cashed. Ratings numbers had been achieved. Detergent had been sold. No harm. No foul.
I never bought that either. And over the season I watched him paper over so many Refrigerator moments with distracting dialogue, contrived actor business or set pieces that he often achieved what he termed “Jacuzzi moments”, meaning you already had your beer and were in the Jacuzzi before “Hey, wait a minute…” hit.
Rightly or wrongly, and trying hard not to sound like a disgruntled Fanboy here, I’ve always believed that you have to live by the rules of time and space and character you create for your series or movie. Of course, you can make wholesale changes as the thing progresses as long as you do it in a believable way. But you always have to be aware that you told your audience you were taking one direction and if you’re now going somewhere else they need either a respectful heads up or a heartfelt explanation.
But lately, I’ve been noticing a trend toward writing in which “Cleverness” trumps what writers know they should do.
Being “Clever” in it’s cagey, shrewd or cunning form used to be the purview of Network executives, more interested in staying ahead of the audience than sharing the story telling experience with them. Don’t get me wrong. Every writer has the duty of keeping his audience wondering what might happen next. But there’s a cult of network think that believes you need to constantly be catching the audience unawares and leaving them with absolutely no idea where things might progress from here.
Unfortunately, it’s the kind of strategy that leads to the ever declining numbers for “Lost” and mass dissatisfaction with “Heroes” not to mention any number of new series cancelled after 4 episodes because that’s as much time as their overly “clever” premises could sustain.
Audiences are incredibly forgiving. But if you want them to remain loyal, you can’t lie to or trick them – unless that was part of the original covenant you both agreed to pursue.
This “Playing by the rules” thing becomes even more important when you are bringing a series or a series character to their end. I’ve had to do this a couple of times and you soon realize you’re writing a one or two hour eulogy that needs to respect not only the characters and the series but what the audience has invested in them.
Near the beginning of the 2nd season of “Friday the 13th” one of our leads decided to end his participation in the series. Whether that decision was professionally motivated, a personal decision or the result of a contractual dispute might be of interest to the truly rabid fans and gossip columnists, it can’t play into how the departure is handled in the fictional world of the show. Egos may be hurt, the weeks of work on season arcs may have been wrongly trashed, networks may want retribution for what they perceive as a sleight. But the writer has to do what’s right for the show and the audience, making sure that the best possible use is made of the inevitable moment.
When these situations are handled well, the viewer is treated to the emotional rollercoaster ride that was Jimmy Smits final episodes of “NYPD Blue” or the remarkable final episode of “Six Feet Under”. When it’s done wrong you have the final four episodes of “Arrested Development” tossed away opposite the opening ceremonies of the Olympics, a network “Fuck You” to everybody concerned.
When it really doesn’t work – you get last minutes of the American version of “Life on Mars”.
“Life on Mars” second incarnation wasn’t a success on a lot of levels. Its pilot had problems and was remade. It was constantly compared to the British original and in the end it had to cram two seasons of story telling into less than one. The show was a red-headed step-child at ABC from its first outing and you had the feeling the network would have been just as happy if it had taken its own life early on.
And more and more lately, I see writers who believe that the network’s need to distance itself from a loser or otherwise service its corporate image is their prime reason for being. But network needs, while deserving consideration, are not a writer’s primary concern, because their needs ultimately have little to do with what is bringing and holding your audience.
I had a network executive on “Beastmaster” who constantly peppered me with notes insisting that lead characters get involved in questionable sexual liaisons or pondered the use of words that would not be invented until centuries after our story supposedly took place. The fact that our pre-historic peoples were somehow speaking perfect English was less a concern than that we be etymologically accurate. Her notes arose from a boardroom belief that kinky sex would attract male viewers watching the football games that competed in our timeslot and the word science might appease educators who liked the environmental message of the show but questioned its historical context.
The fact that our audience clearly wanted action, animals and awesome abdominals was less of a network concern than that they appear irreverently cutting edge and yet intellectually responsive. They went bankrupt not too long ago. What a surprise.
Similarly, “Life on Mars” was not serving the image ABC had of itself.
But the show gathered a following that (loyal or not) outnumbered more successful Sci-Fi outings, including “Battlestar Gallactica”. It also had one of the most impressive ensemble casts of the past television season. If I was running a network, “Life on Mars” alumni like Harvey Keitel and Michael Imperioli would be starring on any show they wanted – which probably goes a long way to explaining why I’m not running a network.
“Harvey Keitel encounters a beautiful woman during a routine traffic stop on a very special ‘Bad Lieutenant’ -- Thursday at Nine”
That ensemble cast inhabited a precisely created reality that (for good or ill) had been embraced by its audience. Not a large enough audience to justify its continued existence, apparently, but an audience none the less. And an audience that deserved to be respected and entertained to the end.
Yet, in its final five minutes, somebody decided to contrive a series ending for “Life on Mars” that kicked any investment anyone had made in it to the curb. In the end, it was all a dream, didn’t matter, just a computer generated way to pass the time. All the moments that had seemed so important to the characters, all their struggles, ambitions and pain were just so much nothing. Everything the audience had cared about was a cruel joke.
Somebody had decided to be clever. To do something completely unexpected. To be way ahead of the curve. To show they hadn’t taken the show all that seriously all along. Not our fault. We were just too smart for the room.
And in that moment, ABC sent a very clear message to anyone watching any of their shows. Our needs matter more than your commitment.
Would it surprise anyone if a large part of the “Life on Mars” audience decides not to bother with another ABC show? Nobody likes to be told ‘the joke’s on you’, “It was all a scam’, ‘Gotcha’ or ‘We’re way smarter than you.’.
A truly talented team of writers would have done what was right for the show and concocted something within its world, no matter the constraints of time and available options. Even if the audience was disappointed, they’d still have the warmth of moments they’d loved, the knowledge that they hadn’t completely misplaced their trust.
But the “Life on Mars” writers wanted to appear ‘clever’. They wanted to let the network know they hadn’t meant to make them look bad. They really were bright enough to have a crack at another show. They climbed into the network executive’s lifeboat and scuttled their own ship instead of letting it slip gracefully beneath the waves and maybe going down with it to keep their integrity and their respect for the audience intact.
Instead they decided to be ‘clever’ betraying everything they’d created, openly admitting it was worthless shit that shouldn’t have been written in the first place and they’re not sure why they even bothered.
Unfortunately, the people they proved they were more clever than are feeling the same way.
Wednesday, April 01, 2009
This will be all over the Main Stream Media later today, but I wanted to weigh in early because -- well, because I’ve been harshly critical of Leonard Asper and the CanWest Global Television Network in the past for their lack of commitment to Canadian drama and local news. Indeed, for a while there, it looked like Asper’s management style might bankrupt the company and take a healthy chunk of Canada’s television industry down with it. But the programming shift CanWest will be officially announcing today has to be recognized as sheer broadcast genius.
Over the weekend, Asper and his closest executive advisers hammered out a deal to purchase Naked Broadcasting Network Inc. owner/operator of the online presence “The Naked News”. But instead of simply adding NBN to his vast stable of media companies, Asper intends to bring the Naked News format into the mainstream, integrating the concept of nude reporters and anchors into all of CanWest's national and local newscasts.
“While other networks may keep their viewers abreast of the news,” Asper states in a press release leaked to this site, “we will be offering them several breasts while revealing yet another impressive dimension of our Executive Editor and National News anchor, Kevin Newman.”
Indeed, I’m informed that Newman, a recognized fitness fanatic and serial hydrator seldom photographed without a water bottle in hand, is also a long-time practising Naturist and eagerly embraced the new format.
Shown here flanked by Foreign Editor Stuart Greer and Washington Bureau Chief Eric Sorensen, Newman was already well known for showing up for work wearing only a Bluetooth earpiece and flip flops. Global News crews claim he did most newscasts dressed only from the waist up and they were forced to keep a sharp eye on the lower frame whenever he chose to move around the, ostentatious for a money losing operation, Global National studio.
Apparently, a year end one-on-one interview between Newman and Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty was the catalyst for McGuinty’s staff imposing its notorious “five foot rule” to keep journalists a safe distance from the Premier.
While there is no doubt Global will see a huge ratings spike with this initiative, one which will clearly set them apart from the clothed-person-behind-a-desk offerings of CTV, Rogers and CBC, there are on-camera anchors and correspondents uncomfortable with the new format. One Weatherman has already resigned after being informed that he no longer needed “a pointer” and several CanWest sportscasters have chosen early retirement rather than revealing they’re not quite the Man’s men they’d led their fans to believe they were.
But this was all expected and many “faces” familiar to the online subscribers of the Naked News will be moving in to take their place and Global will also be conducting a cross-Canada talent search for open minded journalists (until now a rarity in the CanWest empire) that will be showcased across all of CanWest's media platforms simultaneously increasing the broadcaster’s level of Canadian content and its access to public funding.
In one fell swoop, Asper appears to have solved both his ratings and financial issues. And it has apparently inspired him to immediately expand the concept.
This photo was taken this morning as Global News Videographers departed CanWest's Don Mills studios, fanning out across the city to cover the news, spreading the new “CanWest has no clothes” motto while also becoming the country’s most environmentally conscious network.
Whether the other Canadian networks copy-cat the innovation is anybody’s guess. Although I’m reliably informed that CBC Radio 2 tested the idea a few months ago but abandoned it when they saw no substantive increase in listeners.
I’m under a crushing deadline at the moment, but you can get updates through the morning here and here. And don’t touch that dial if it’s set to Global TV. Their next News flash will have a whole new meaning.
Thanks for playin’.