Jocko Benoit's Writing and Pop Culture Spot

Perspectives on the arts and popular culture from Jocko (Jacques) Benoit. Scattered thoughts on poetry, books, film, television, and other cultural intersections.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Satire and the Importance of Being Mean

With movies like Thank You For Smoking and American Dreamz in theatres at the moment, I feel a little bit of relief that satire as a form is not dead. It bristles and crackles even on late night TV with The Daily Show and The Colbert Report where politicians, pundits and pop culture icons are caught in a crossfire of precisely aimed barbs and zingers and much broader flatulence that is the mustard gas of humour. Satire reminds us that it’s war out there and we are the targets. No one is safe in the camouflage of their innocuousness. Satire is the anthology of all the thoughts that have crossed your mind that you hope no one will ever hear.

It’s always been one of my favorite forms, despite the fact that people in literary circles tend to think of it as a ‘lower’ genre. Why this is, I’m not sure. I think it has something to do with its apparent lack of seriousness and its abundant mean spiritedness. After all, if you’re going to attack a social ill, you have to do it with the air of grave concern and at least a little good will. And if you’re going to look deeply into the human psyche, you have to show the full depths of feelings and memories of your characters. Satire, meanwhile, starts with the premises that nothing is not funny, being mean is a human right, and that humans are not all that deep.

But the satirist is not an idiot. He tries to come as close to reality as possible – like a kid staying inside the lines in a coloring book. Every now and again, the satirist has to cross the line – like Jonathan Swift suggesting that perhaps eating Irish babies is a solution to Irish poverty in his essay “A Modest Proposal.” But up to that point, his line of reasoning is quite reasonable. In fact, many satirical stories are based on perfectly reasonable lines of reasoning – that’s why they’re so funny and so frightening.

The short of it is, though, that satire is a victim of our times. In the age of irony (the 90’s) satire didn’t quite fit because sarcasm is not satire. Satire is tragedy with a vicious smile on its face. Sarcasm doesn’t require the same amount of effort. And with the increasingly earnest new millennium, satire has little room to grow – unless in the form of rebellion against the earnest attitude it is most antithetical to.

An absence of satire is always a bad sign for me. At the moment, though, TV is safe with the likes of Jon Stewart and The Simpsons. Film, while not wholly embracing the form, does bow to it regularly. Think of 1999 and three partial satires such as American Beauty, Fight Club and Being John Malkovich.

The form that is suffering most from satire’s absence at the moment is poetry. Remember poetry? The earnestness levels are high. And there are plenty of angry performance poets. But there are no real satirists out there – people who can combine anger with restraint, realism with the absurd, tragedy with comedy, hatred of humanity with moral concern for the species. A ‘lower’ genre. Right.

When the poets (even just a handful of them) can take their contempt for the form of satire and re-direct that hatred at their fellow man, the world will be a better, funnier place.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Jane Jacobs: Seeing the Trees and the Forest

I was recently involved in an online discussion among poets about the relevance of landscape poetry. Some poets involved just didn’t get much from reading poetry about landscape. I would have to lump myself in with those poets. But there is often the shared assumption among many artistic types these days that nature is more important than human beings and their creations and that humankind is merely imposing its will on the natural world. A friend of mine argues that, to the contrary, man is part of nature and everything man makes is a part of nature. It’s when we forget that when we get into trouble.

I think Jane Jacobs, who died today, understood that. From The Death and Life of Great American Cities up to Dark Age Ahead, her books show that she persisted in believing that it is our ideologies about what human nature should fit into that causes many of our problems. Her approach to city planning was to not have an overall grand design but to let the city grow according to what the people who actually lived there wanted. A city developed by its use. It’s the kind of thinking that can alienate those on the left who think no good can come out of cities and those on the right who feel that people must be more strictly controlled or else chaos will break loose. Her plan was to let natural chaos happen and see if it was such a bad thing.

There are so many things about her attitude that I like. Primary among them is that she didn’t immediately write off cities as the embodiment of humanity’s worst impulses. My own work is about cities and about the places where cities meet ‘nature,’ so I liked knowing that Jacobs was around to step into the fight for better cities. And she was pragmatic and Taoist in her approach. Yes, cities should be better, but there was no ‘should’ as to how that could be accomplished.

In fact, her approach allowed for cities to grow naturally, as if humans were a part of nature and the cities were simply taking shape the way a beehive or a seashell takes shape. We have cities because we can’t help but have them. It’s part of what we are and nature itself made us that way.

Yesterday, I was cycling through one of the many green areas in Edmonton and I heard a loud rending snap and crash. I kept going and only on my return trip did I see what had happened. A tree had fallen. And I had heard it. (I almost felt like it had waited for someone to pass before it fell so that it wouldn’t become the tree in that stale philosopher’s paradox about sound and the unheard falling.) This is one of the things I value about this city – the feeling that non-human nature is a part of everything here. I can look from my balcony (I have an apartment precisely because I don’t want my own piece of land that I have to groom and maintain according to arbitrary standards of grass height) and it’s only from a height like this that you can appreciate just how many trees there are in this city. During the summer, all the houses for miles around are blocked or partially blocked by green. I don’t see the war against nature from this vantage point.

Today when I cycled past the fallen tree again, I couldn’t help but think of Jacobs, giant that she was in her own neck of the urban woods. And I hope not unheard.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Scrawl In Favor of Good Penmanship

A while back I had an exchange with a student of mine who had just handed in an essay on why students should no longer be taught writing – how to write by hand, that is. Her argument (and she herself was definitely a strong writer) was that since kids are using text messaging, IM, the internet and various word processing programs, handwriting was redundant. It is, according to her, an outdated technology. And the capper for me was that she is a teacher.

My mind scrambled to refute her. All the handwriting I’d never been able to read in my life flashed before my eye. There were all the margin notes I received from teachers on my assignments. I eventually decoded the blurred pencil jottings that explained how my handwriting was not the best. There have been countless prescriptions that but for a doctor and dentist decoder ring every pharmacist wears I would be dead from some misprescribed medication. There was the note from my dorm roommate telling me I had an appointment with my advisor on Thdesmday the 19th or 17th at 2:00 or 5:00. And, most painful of all, was the scrap of paper I got from that hot girl at the university graduation party. She told me that since we were about to head off to different parts of the country, it was time to have one last fun but meaningless magic moment. But the number her drunken hand scrawled on the slip of paper I’d stolen from somebody’s thesis bibliography was almost illegible. I kept getting a service for pet neutering.

So is getting rid of handwriting such a terrible thing? After all, kids have embraced technology and most of them will never turn out to be masters of penmanship anyway.

I wish I had had Joel Best’s book, Flavor of the Month: Why Smart People Fall For Fads, at the time this student made her case. His argument is that many people often mistake fads for genuine innovation because when either of these things begin, they look pretty much the same. One section early on strikes at the heart of the educational fads involving technology. At various times in American education, the radio, films, and TV were all theoretically poised to eliminate the need for textbooks. And, of course, the computer is the latest candidate to take a run at traditional teaching methods. Best argues that it is the very idealism about progress that has so many intelligent people leaping forward every time they think they hear a starting gun only to find soon after it was just something backfiring.

I guess my overriding thought on computers in the classroom is not a new idea – it’s that the computer is only as full of resources as the student is resourceful. I’m not saying that computers in the classroom are a fad – I’m saying that the belief that computers will create super students is a fad.

Besides, I’d miss handwriting. I start all of my poems with pen and paper. And I can anecdotally support the contention of scientists who study the brain that you use different brain muscles writing by hand than you do by typing. The hand written poem and the one than ends up in typed form are different both from the process of rewriting and from the change of medium.

Finally, I come to associate those who are close to me with the way they write. Writing reflect personality. So what does it mean that when Rainer Maria Rilke met one of the many loves of his love, her maturing effect on him actually changed his handwriting? Talk about a relationship setting a guy straight.

This is a sentimental attachment I have to handwriting, then. All I know is I would rather watch a drunk woman try to scrawl her number on my hand than watch her try to tap a note into my Palm. I can take her handwriting to graphologists and decide whether or not her personality is a good match for mine. If she’s cute enough, her handwriting will start to resemble her in my mind. Leans a lot to the right and is a little loopier than most. But this is the carbon graph of her mind and I’ll keep it close to me.

Friday, April 21, 2006

The Good Customer

She wants to know if there’s a problem – if there’s anything she can do to make things right.

I tell her, no – I just need a change. I need more freedom.

She wants to know exactly why I’ve decided to end things.

I tell her it’s just what I said. No other reason.

But why, she asks, do I want to end my relationship with Shaw Cable? She says they wouldn’t want to lose me because I’ve been such a good customer.

By that I assume she means I’ve paid my bills on time for many years. It’s not like I’ve brought the company flowers or took it out for dinner.

In the end, I tell her that my mind is made up for now and I’m going to test out the new digital service I’ve had installed and then maybe I’ll re-think things later once I’ve had a chance to try out Telus TV and its freshly tarted up deal.

The eerie thing about all this is that it really does feel like the end of a relationship. And the comment that I’ve been a good customer gives me a brief, subtle feeling of satisfaction. Given all the blown romantic and platonic relationships I’ve had over the years, it’s nice to know that at least I’m a good person to relate to, corporation to consumer.

And I do feel, fleetingly, like I’m betraying a person, not a company. And it’s not as if I’m changing companies out of necessity, but simply because I want more options in terms of bundles and channel choices. But, then, how many times have I – have any of us – dumped or been dumped by someone because a better choice came along? And don’t we all bargain, try to be better, offer incentives for our lover to stay?

But what does being ‘better’ mean as a lover, or even as a friend or family member? Where’s the fine print defining the boundaries of the relationship? How many times can we forget to repay our loved ones before they send our hearts to an emotional collection agency?

Also, do we in fact have any real choices in our relationships? Don’t we simply like or love who we have no choice but to like or love? Some things can’t be bargained for.

So you see what I’m saying. Being a good customer is infinitely preferable to being a good lover, or friend, or son, or father. The rules are straightforward. And it is so easy to be a good customer. Pay your bills on time. Don’t make trouble. This is why capitalism will triumph over all our other piddly beliefs. It demands so very little of us – of who we are – and the payoffs may be small, but they are a sure thing, unlike the stubborn odds of finding reward from others in the Las Vegas of the heart. And there’s no fighting with anyone over the remote control on those long weekends when you find comfort in front of the flickering TV and in those faces that are always glowing when you walk into a room.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Lessons In TV Ecology

I’ve finally done it. I’ve joined the digital TV age. Of course, I slept through the installation guy’s arrival and had to phone Telus and have him turn around and stop by again. We might live in the digital age, but my animal brain still sleeps and dreams like it was 50,000 B.C.

I decided to get digital TV because Telus, in trying to compete with Shaw Cable (which has branched into Telus’ telephone territory), had developed TV service which offered more choices in terms of bundles of channels. Given the unnatural selections we are so often forced to take just to get the channels we want, I jumped at this chance.

The sad fact is that in a couple of years when the Canadian Radio and Television Commission’s ruling to open up cable choices completely comes into effect there will be a lot fewer channels to choose from. For example, I very much wanted Book TV (a channel name which for many both inside and outside the industry sounds like an oxymoron). But how many people who are avid TV watchers are also big book fans? Some, obviously – but enough to build a sufficient subscription base upon?

For all the talk of niche markets, most TV viewers want the same sorts of things. We want good regular TV series’, movies, news and some occasional controversy. Yes, we each want other kinds of TV viewing, but not the same type of viewing. I can’t even remotely imagine what type of person would think a golf channel was interesting. Many people would agree with me, even golfers who prefer playing to watching other people play. There just might be enough fans of this, though, to support a channel. Then what about something like W, the Woman’s Channel? Presumably they’ve got the potential viewership, but what was originally intended to be a liberating force for women has become a channel much like any other with reruns of women-friendly TV series and liberal sprinklings of chick flicks.

What often happens is that these channels begin to look more and more like every other channel, because that’s where the mass of the viewershiip is. TV series and films are the kinds of entertainment we have in common, for the most part. The TV ecology is still robust, but the balance is maintained at the cost of many unsuccessful ‘species.’

Looming over all of this, though, is the specter of the financial losses. The big networks are increasingly resembling the cable networks in their pay structure just to make ends meet. TV is constantly under siege by things like video games, the internet, films, DVD’s, radio and countless other entertainments. And all of these media (except for video games) complain that the money is tight – a harsh lack of sentiment you will find echoed by most major North American industries.

Could it be that we have so many choices and our interests are so thinly spread that few businesses can make enough money to survive anymore? Have we become victims of our own economic diversity? In his book, The Collapse of Complex Societies, Joseph A. Tainter argues that ancient Rome had become so economically diverse and so far-flung that its economy was unsustainable no matter how high taxes were raised. Our consumeristic freedom of choice may well lead to the failure of our civilization.

Hmmm… When it comes to collapse my money is actually on a mass brain spasm brought on by a confusion of multiple remote controls. I’ve had three such spasms in the last hour. No one ever said choices didn’t come at a cost. But I’ve got what I asked for and you’ll get my remotes from me when you can pry them from my cold dead hands.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Democracy ‘R’ Us

The cover story the April 18 issue of Dose (find the issue here) deals with the rise of the blogger and tosses out a few interesting statistics. For one thing, on average, a new blog goes online every second. And the blogosphere is sixty times bigger than it was in 2003. And the number of posts that contain the word “blogosphere” is 231,570… uh… 231, 571. Blogs are occasionally even on the news when they break a story that the mainstream media has missed. Most importantly, anyone who has access to a computer and the internet can start a blog. Hell, it took me three minutes to get one up, minus the content, of course. And I’m not exactly a technological wizard.

The improved economics of technology is bringing the average consumer greater and greater potential creative power. Just look at the iLife suite for the Mac. You can use the new iWeb to start up a blog or you can plunk down a few music loops in GarageBand and create the semblance of a song in less than an hour. And iPhoto allows you to futz with your pictures and fix them up quickly. Not to mention the power of iTunes that can turn you into a DJ in no time. (Compare lining up thousands of songs now vs. stacking maybe seven vinyl singles or albums on a turntable.) Finally there’s iMovie and iDVD that together allow you to edit your own digital movies and then burn them to disc.

Meanwhile, just look at what digital cameras have done to the cost of making a first-time film. Now you don’t have the enormous expense of film stock. And a decent home computer loaded with expensive software can do the post-production. So a movie like Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow can be made mostly on a desktop. Meanwhile, seasoned but rebellious directors like Richard Linklater can go out and shoot a film with a hand-held digital camera and then add animation in post-production to give us the film Waking Life as well as the upcoming A Scanner Darkly. Sure, there’s some initial investment, but it’s nothing compared to the tens of thousands just to get film stock for a short feature.

But if TV’s your thing, there’s hope for you yet. Get thee to reality TV. There anyone can be a star – providing they have personality, or, if they’re unfortunate enough to be interviewed by The Daily Show staff, they don’t even need much of that. In fact, natural is good because American Idol would be nothing without the initial episodes filled with people who believe they can actually sing. Believe me, in the end they’ll take anyone on TV – even someone like me. After all, the cable niche industry just keeps on growing and they need on-air staff to fill those time slots. Mind you, the pay in cable isn’t what it once was if you had worked for the big networks.

What might occur to you, though, is that if you and everyone else is making movies, starring on TV shows, creating digital heavy metal, blogging their asses off, then who’s paying to hear see or read what you’re creating? Who’s the audience if everyone is suddenly an artist? (And – ahem – who’s going to pay me to write this?)

A more subtle point is why should we pay to have something someone else made when they’ve done it with a technology we feel we’ve mastered (or might someday master when we get around to it)? Why should we pay for the artistic creation when we are artists ourselves? You see where I’ve led you to now, right? It’s interesting that our reluctance to pay for digital artistic products is coinciding so neatly with our own access to that technology.

And where all this leads us is to the art form that I’ve practiced for decades now – poetry. Not only do poets have very small audiences, usually consisting only of other poets, but many poets (or people who call themselves poets) don’t actually read any poetry by other poets. They’re perfectly within their rights to do that. There’s no binding contract to know the history or current state of the art. But I’d like to suggest that this is the future of all the other arts. When writing was an elitist technology capable of dazzling a crowd, it was a vital part of culture. But with general literacy came the decline of poetry as a cultural force. When a technology becomes democratized, it loses its power to amaze. So I’m not suggesting that we are facing a dystopic future as posed in Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron.” We aren’t going to suddenly find our great artists hobbled by restraints for the sake of equality. But they could well be lost in the glut of creative production as everyone gets into the artistic game.

Now, there is some small window of hope. Dose notes that only 55% of bloggers are still posting three months after they’ve started their sites. Meanwhile, the theatres aren’t exactly flooded with local neighborhood film productions. It could well be that people soon realize that creating things isn’t easy, and after the initial rush of appreciation, there isn’t much to drive you unless it’s the thrill of creation itself. Most people, on the other hand, just want the attention. Whether it’s a blank page or canvass or screen the artist has to face, the technology is there, but it should come with a label reminding you, “Content not included.”

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

The Novel’s Extended Death Scene

Hollywood films and novels used to be best of friends - so much so that screenwriting awards are regularly divided into two categories - original and adapted - with the latter category being for the most part owned by novels. But there are ripples… rumours of a falling out between films and novels.

For one thing, graphic novels are becoming more prominent as sources for films. Think here of films like V For Vendetta, Sin City, A History of Violence and Road To Perdition. Add to this the usual adaptations from comic books that once were sporadic but are now legion: the Batman, Superman, X-Men and Spider-Man franchises, as well as notable one-offs like Ghost World. Then add the movies based on video games (which, admittedly, haven’t fared all that well): Tomb Raider, Doom, Final Fantasy, Resident Evil, among others. Finally, with the success of the Pirates of the Caribbean series, there is the prospect of having more movies inspired by theme park rides. And, of course, the novel has its usual competition in the form of stage plays, non-fiction books, articles, and its old nemesis, the short story.

Meanwhile, the sales of fiction are slightly down overall in Canada. But this may be completely unrelated to film’s spurning of the form. It might have more to do with the concentration on literary fiction by Canadian publishers. While this has worked for a few decades and given Canadian fiction a deep and broad literary reputation both home and abroad, it has been disastrous in terms of attracting new audiences. The passion for literary nationalism is dying somewhat in the country. And the novels that have so often dealt with the perils of growing up, the anguish of the inability to communicate, the repression of characters’ feelings and the explication of that repression which leaves no room for an actual plot, the average reader might be forgiven for cutting back on their fiction consumption. And, as some critics have noted, the retreat from Canadian fiction has been led by men.

I’d have to count myself as one of those cowards. I’ve read probably four novels over the last ten years. And before that, for many years the only novels that interested me after finishing grad school were science fiction novels. Maybe it’s as simple as arguing that studying English killed my interest in novels. But, interestingly, it fueled my desire to read poetry. Another argument I might make (and I’m not the first person to propose this) is that the novels I studied and the novels dominating the Canadian scene today are simply too feminine. They deal with character development over plot. Not nearly enough stabbings, shooting, fistfights, etc.

But there are still other developments putting the novel in jeopardy. American classrooms include fewer and fewer whole novels, and educational administrators are promoting the use of novel excerpts to make life easier for schoolkids. TV series and videogames are developing stories over longer and longer periods of time. Whether it’s the Halo series or shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Desperate Housewives, The Sopranos, Lost and many many others, the long-form story is being picked up by other media. Where once the novel had scooped up the guts of poetry – heroic narratives and epic storytelling – and left it with little crumbs of lyric forms, now the novel is being gutted in return by other media for its narrative essence which it has often abandoned in any case for more microscopic examinations of the human psyche.

These examinations are vital, but just as vital are the big stories that carry us many an imaginative mile. These are stories with larger than life flawed heroes, the likes of which you might find in The Iliad or The Odyssey. For a few centuries, the novel managed to provide these stories all by itself, even though you could see from the very beginning in a book like Don Quixote that the novel was not comfortable (if a genre can be personified) with the old epic heroes. And now most novelists have abandoned this ancient type of storytelling and are being upstaged by Lara Croft and Batman, and a guy just named V.

I’m not really predicting the death of the novel. But I think it is going to be gradually subsumed by these other forms and limited in its role, just like poetry has been limited to dealing with the domestic in its ghetto of the everyday. The new media know the hero is what puts bums in seats. The novel, for a time, as the leading book technology since the 1700’s, used to know that too. But the novelists that have come since, to their credit and their peril, have resisted those restraints. And the price of their freedom is an increasing irrelevance.

Monday, April 17, 2006

The Fatal Flaw In

When I first discovered it was like finding a statistical El Dorado. The idea that all movies, books, CD’s, games, and now TV shows could be assigned a mark out of a hundred was an elegant concept. The site assigns a number out of a hundred to each review it has collected and then averages them out to give you one overall number based on sometimes dozens of reviews. No more hit or miss review reading – such as when you happen to go to a movie based on the one good review of what other critics thought was a terrible film. (Unless you don’t listen to critics anyway and tend to go to whatever movies you feel like.)

But the system has a huge flaw that can’t be fixed. Well, it could be fixed if we were to change the nature of society. But that might be more than the people of signed on for.

Let’s say I was planning on seeing a movie like Inside Man. I would check the Metacritic site and find out the movie had scored a 76 based on 39 reviews ranging in score from 58 to 100. I can also check and see that the film has received an overall score of 7.3 out of 10 based on 62 votes from visitors to the site. Fair enough. I go to the movie and find that as a heist genre film it has a lot of good twists, but no real character arcs and no ultimate payoff ending. No heart. Well, you can’t win ‘em all.

But the interesting thing is that Inside Man is one of the few so-called ‘genre’ films to have done well recently on Metacritic. The films that tend to get the top scores are dramas, documentaries, tiny indie flicks and foreign films. Does this mean that genre films have all taken a dive? (Given the last 18 months of film releases, I wouldn’t discount this possibility.) Or is the system revealing something about the divide between critical and popular tastes? Even the voter’s choices tend to reflect a readership that is mostly steeped in film culture, although non-film geeks sometimes get in the mix as well and this accounts, I suspect, for some of the differences between the critics’ picks and the voters’ picks.

But critics I have watched and read seem to also have their genre favorites. Roger Ebert, for example, has a thing for well-made science fiction. But when you lump all the critics’ votes together, their favorite genre films are being mashed down scorewise because of other critics who don’t share those same genre interests. So the films that come out on top reflect only the critics’ more ‘arty’ tastes.

Which brings us to why those tastes are so arty in the first place. Many people over the decades have complained about the films that critics tend to prefer. Let’s face it, though, if we were in the position of these critics having to watch hundreds and thousands of films over the years, we might have somewhat different tastes too. We would start to prefer films that were as far away from the formulas as possible. The sad result of this natural tendency, though, is to create a dichotomy between the people who know films and the people who want to see a film to be entertained. And what entertains a film critic is going to be different from what entertains the average moviegoer.

Am I saying that there are two different standards of quality when it comes to judging films (and, for that matter, literature and the arts)? There are at least two different standards. How we sort out the good from the bad is something that literary theorists, politicians, religious leaders and everybody else have been arguing about for centuries. Most recently, some people have proposed that tastes are so relative, anything could be called good by somebody and maybe that’s enough for, let’s say, Showgirls to be called a great movie. If that’s the world you want to live in, you can have it.

I still think it’s worthwhile debating the relative merit of works of art, but we have to be aware of various cultural contexts that are affecting everybody’s judgments. And if you decide to throw up your hands, like I often have, and say let Time sort it out, then I’d almost agree with you. But the cultures of the future will have their own agendas when it comes to deciding what was the best that ever was. The only thing I believe is possible and worthwhile is to experience art, come to some sort of judgment about it, and then be ready to argue argue argue. That is how art finally shapes us – not while we are the audience, but when we become the work of art’s champion and are forced to think about why it is important to us.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Writing and Work: I Pass On the Hammer

“Do not hire a man who does your work for money, but him who does it for love of it.”

- Henry David Throeau

A long weekend like this is for relaxing, right? So why do I look forward instead to the opportunity to do some writing? I mean, you’ve done writing before – it’s not easy. It’s hard work. And yet, compared to the other things I do during the week, spending time writing, while occasionally difficult, is rewarding. The truth is I feel guilty if I haven’t done any writing in a week. When I start to get edgy and fidgety and short-tempered, the first thing I do is check to see when I last wrote. It’s almost always seven days on the nose.

I’ve tried to explain this need to guidance and job counselors in the past when they’ve asked me what I wanted to do. “Write,” I tell them. “Yes, that’s something you can do on the side, but what would you like to do to make a living?” “Nothing,” is the only answer – and I’m sure anyone reading this who has some artistic impulse knows what I mean. Asking me what I would like to do besides writing is like asking me exactly to choose between being tortured by pincers, blades, surgical instruments, dental drill or hammer. Or, to put it less graphically, in exactly what way would I most like to waste my time until the next moment I’m free to do some writing?

I have had good jobs over the years and have been very fortunate for the most part in terms of having a friendly working environment as well as good people to work beside. I’ve had the kind of work situations most people would kill for: taking kids on guided tours of the Fortress of Louisbourg, teaching university-level courses, designing and writing courses on popular culture, and writing and hosting several educational television series. Not hard labour in any sense. Difficult work at times, but often intellectually challenging. And yet I would trade all those hours working for hours to sit and walk and think and then finally write.

It’s so bad sometimes that when an acquaintance, upon hearing how much work I’m doing at any given time says to me, “At least you’re keeping busy,” I want to strangle them, or at least scream, “Keeping busy is what people do to avoid their lives!” In fact, my resentment toward work has never really abated. When I discovered Bob Black’s great essay, “The Abolition of Work,” fifteen years ago I began to believe that the answer was to get rid of work. I mean, how could anybody want to work? It was such an unrewarding way to exist. The only hope was revolution and a dramatic paradigm shift.

But I’m not so blind that I haven’t noticed how some people actually seem to enjoy their jobs the way I enjoy writing. They often even feel fulfilled. So maybe the only revolution that’s needed is for people to understand that what writers and other artists feel doing their ‘unpaid work’ is exactly what they themselves feel doing their jobs. I mean, writing is work, just as much as carpentry is work. And anyone who’s read my poetry can tell you, I write like I was using a hammer, not a pen. If I could just make non-writers feel how empty and cheap I feel after a week of hard work at my job, they might empathize. If I could make them feel just how much writing (as opposed to what I do for a living), gives me a sense of actually contributing something useful to the world, they might encourage me to do more.

Who am I kidding? Given how seldom imagination, sitting still and long periods of staring out the window are valued in our society, it’ll never happen. Screw patience and empathy. A revolution is easier. Pass the hammer.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Raiders of the Real

The great thing about Reality TV is that we all think we’re in on the scam. We know there are cameras and a crew of TV types following every reality contestant. We know the people chosen for Survivor are chosen both for their strong personalities and for their looks, at least to some extent. We know that the various Idol shows put a premium on a very narrow range of pop music – the kind that is palatable to many people and incredibly safe. And we know when Donald Trump fires a failed apprentice it will be in the closing moments of a show that is edited and shaped to constrain to the format of stories we have heard since we are born.

And yet many people still watch these shows because there is some semblance of reality – the contestants are not playing characters – or at lest not playing them in a way that seems contrived. At the same time, after all, many viewers are attracted to the various C.S.I. shows which, despite a number of experts who have pointed out the factual errors in these series, are seen as being gritty and real, even though the bad guys are always recognizably bad and are always clearly caught – a stretch for any reality I’m aware of.

What these two types of shows appeal to is our need to recreate reality. And what’s happening in pop culture is not unlike what has been going on in literary culture for decades. Most award winning and critically recognized novels are strongly realistic, as is most mainstream poetry. It’s as if the human species has been moving towards this plateau across the arts and, if you believe many critics, realism is the pinnacle of human aesthetics.

There are, of course, numerous exceptions. Dime novels and comic books may make occasional nods to realism, but the emphasis is on stories of myth and legend. The highest grossing films of all time are hardly monuments of realism and instead most often rely on action, magic, future technology and superpowers to pull in the money. These films – from E.T. to Raiders of the Lost Ark to The Sixth Sense offer not simply escapes but alternate routes of perception for those people interested in human nature.

Besides, this dividing line between the real and the fantastic is somewhat arbitrary. After all, how many people believe that Michael Moore hasn’t shaped the facts to fit an ideological template? Not that he shouldn’t either. He is involved in the act of creation, as is every filmmaker or artist who has to make choices about what to include or exclude. It would be pretty tedious reading about every single trip to the bathroom made by the characters of The English Patient, for example. So let’s leave those bits out. And nix the long picking of the nose scene. And do we really need those Hemingwayesque musings on who in the bullfight arena just let go of a fart that will become legendary in retellings of that day? No. Realism is not an exact mirror held up to life. There is always someone moving the camera to frame one part of reality and not another part.

I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. It’s just the way art works. It’s when we hold these works up as models of reason and telling it like it is that I worry. A realistic work is someone’s opinion about what’s real. If you like it, it’s because it is probably reasonably well made and it reflects your opinion about what’s real. Nothing more.

As for realism being the pinnacle of artistic achievement, time will tell. But if realism were a person, I would find it sanctimonious and without a sense of fun. (Here again, you can see how Reality TV is one step further removed from realism.) And until this gritty cop/crime/legal drama thing has passed, you can find me watching my Buffy DVDs.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Playing In The Electronic Woods

In the world of fairytales, kids only ever had to be worried about witches, wolves, and evil stepmothers. They might be thrown into an oven, or be poisoned or killed by having their head lopped off by the edge of a trunk (“The Juniper Tree”). Life for children who heard those fairy tales was easy. Now they have to worry about being ‘over-wired,’ at least according to Time magazine in the March 27 article, “The Multitasking Generation,” by Claudia Wallis. The big concern is that kids are not able to absorb knowledge effectively when they are instant messaging, listening to music and typing a few lines at a time of an assignment for school. Ooooh scary to see kids lost and entangled in the forest of wires.

Of course, there are all the other usual suspect fears of kids getting stalked by online predators, of them getting into drugs, becoming addicted to games, being desensitized to violence by the media, being sexually promiscuous, joining a cult, staying up too late, smoking… Remind me – why do people have kids in the first place? Add to this the fears of having your child killed at school by another student. (Mind you, a study on school violence in the U.S. in 1999 showed that a child was three times more likely to be killed by a parent than by a fellow student.)

There’s no question these are all potential problems. But if we just focus on the media problems for a moment, let’s do a little cost-benefit analysis. Most parents consider TV time as dead brain time. Kids could be playing sports (if there was sufficient space set aside for them to do this, and if parents weren’t worried about bullies and predators and traffic). Or they could be involved in clubs or other activities (because we don’t want them being over tasked electronically when we could be filling up their kid-sized daytimers with appointments and meetings and tutorials). But I’m not always clear on what the main fear about TV actually is. Is it that kids sit there, seeming stoned and unmovable for hours on end? Or is that kids will be influenced by inappropriate role models and lessons they pick up from TV? Which is the danger: inattention or too much attention? It can’t be both because one would seem to preclude the other.

But why aren’t parents more excited now that kids have so many things to take them away from TV? Don’t computers and the internet offer them greater avenues for creativity and knowledge gathering? Ah, but the computer is just a TV with a mouse. Same problem of inactivity. Well, then, video games offer more brain activity at least, right? Kids can get pretty intense playing these. But it’s still a relatively passive pastime and there’s the risk of overexposure to violence and even sexual content. Add to this the long-standing bias against games in a work-obsessed culture and that’s it for the Xbox.

But then there’s instant messaging and cell phones which help create a community of close or distant friends and keep the child from becoming too isolated. But this is the wrong kind of connection. What they need is closer physical ties with children in their neighborhood, but maybe not closer ties to the kids that are too rough or are a bad influence or whose parents are unpleasant or allow their own kids to do things that you won’t let your kids do. Or who read their kids those scary fairy tales that you can’t imagine why anyone would ever write for children in the first place and thank God for the Disney versions.

My solution to all of this – and keep in mind, I’m not a parent – is the same as my solution to keeping kids relatively germ free. Go roll them in the dirt now and again. My technique is inspired by recent studies showing that kids may in fact be more susceptible to disease and allergies as they grow older if they were kept in a mainly antiseptic environment. So, if media is dirt to you, then roll your kids in it and let’s see what happens. Then send them to bed with a good old fashioned fairy tale. Let them have nightmares wherein they gradually learn to problem solve and work things through in their dreams, just as they work things through in the stories they see on TV and navigate the world all by their lonesome on the electronic waves.

Sure, you’ll be there looking occasionally over their shoulder, but you can’t protect them from everything. And you have lives that need living too, remember? And there are dangers aplenty that perhaps crowd into your mind every time the child in you has to learn something new or meet someone a little frightening. Maybe in adulthood you finally feel strong enough to face those things you put off confronting as a child. And sometimes it’s easier to face the dangers your child has to confront than the ones that howl on your own doorstep right now.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

I Set Up Camp in the Offside

You would have hated playing street hockey with me when I was a kid. Especially if you were on my team. I was the guy the other team always asked about a close play. Did the ball cross the invisible but mutually agreed upon line? Did it go over one of the rocks we pretended were immutable goalposts? And I would give my honest opinion, even if it cost my team a goal. The only thing that saved me from being mobbed by my team was that yesterday some of them had been on the other team and had benefited from a call I’d made.

Sure, I’ve learned to hold my tongue a bit – otherwise I never would have been able to play team sports for so many years. But after years of watching fighting and chippy play in hockey get worse and worse, I stopped watching it about twenty years ago. Except for that playoff season when Bill Ranford was the MVP. His sister lived in my residence and I watched the Oilers to watch Ranford to be loyal to her. Living in residence was my only way of being in a tribe back then.

But when I was a kid I watched hockey because I liked the sport and probably out of some sense of tribal loyalty. So the 1972 Canada-Soviet series was a big time for me. In fact, one afternoon, my teacher let me bring my portable black and white TV into the class so we could watch one of the games. (I lived across the street from the school and ran home to get the TV.) But watching bits of the reenactment of the series on CBC I see that moment in time through different eyes. Canada-Russia ’72 doesn’t sugar coat things, to its credit. We see the ugliness on the Canadian side of the benches. But the series still has a ‘Hollywood’ ending with a last-minute victory for the Canadians who somehow manage to snatch victory from an indominatable empire and, more surreptitiously, from a 2006 Olympic drubbing. What timing!

And yet many Canadians respond to these victories and losses as if they themselves are doing the winning and losing. I think Canadians give themselves too much credit, but they do respond much as David Berreby might predict in his book Us and Them: Understanding Your Tribal Mind – a book which attempts to put some science into the study of our tribal behaviour.

One thing that emerges from his discussion, though, is that the tribe we identify with depends on our circumstances. For example, most Canadians will respond positively about Canada until you, say, ask an Albertan how the province has been treated by Canada, or go a little deeper and ask a Calgarian about their place in the global economy. Loyalty nests within loyalty. And sometime loyalties compete. Do you stay in Canada where you can’t find a job in your field, or do you move to the nemesis U.S. where you can? Most people who even ask this question already know the answer.

I’m sure there are others who are like me – who define themselves more by what tribes they don’t belong to than by those they do belong to. Henry David Throreau was, in that respect, my kind of guy. In a recent Harper’s article (“The Spirit of Resistence”), Curtis White celebrates that spirit of opposition and independence Thoreau embodies. But I’m not so resentful of the lives others lead as to want to live by myself in a cabin by a pond for a few years.

What I would like, though, is for people to notice their contradictory loyalties. Or to recognize that when the news anchor for either national news broadcast begins a story by saying, “This story may have far reaching effects for Canadians…” he might not be talking to you. I don’t expect anyone to come live with me in a place that is always offside, but I would like it if someone somewhere once in a while said the ball didn’t go where his team wants to believe it did.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Insert Love Scene Here

One of the first things a screenwriter will tell you about writing a movie with romance in it is that the brief time when you show a couple falling in love (just before you throw all sorts of obstacles at them) should last no longer than five minutes – just enough time for a quick montage, a few lines of dialogue and – if it’s one of those types of love stories – a quick slow motion tumble and a few ‘landscape’ shots of the naked bodies. In typical cinematic short-hand, the couple is now considered ‘in love.’ And we accept this because to show the long process of the early part of a relationship would just take too long. Much worse than trying to adapt a five-hundred page novel into a one-hundred and twenty-page screenplay.

We accept a lot of other conventions about the romantic movie as well – the greatest of which is that the couple will come together in the end (as in When Harry Met Sally) or will be tragically separated despite being destined for each other (as in Shakespeare In Love). But the convention we don’t quite think through is the convention of opposites. This is where the zany madcap dilettante and the button-down, orderly professor type (Bringing Up Baby) come together in the end. This isn’t about real life opposites attracting – it’s about mutually opposed archetypes reconciling. It’s about dueling forces of nature, not real people. It has more to do with Taoism and the balancing act of the universe than it does with romantic love.

But no one will have any of that. In a way, many people are perverse Taoists when it comes to love – there is the ‘one’ (a crude bastardization of the Taoist ‘Way’), and you can’t plan for it, you have to simply go with the flow and love will find you. But, just like generations of Chinese believers, we hedge our bets with our Confucian side – the side that tells us we have to understand love in terms of calculation and politics and rivalries and power. Just look at the bookstore self-help sections. There’s all sorts of advice about the how and when to date, how and when to marry, how and when (and where) to have sex, how and when to break up – even picture books for modern Kama Sutras that I swear I just read for the articles and religious significance.

Add to this Helen Fisher’s book Why We Love where science enters the game and she explains to us how connections are formed chemically – chemistry not being as mysterious as we like to pretend it is. And then there are all the TV shows that give us the ‘we are animals’ version of love and sex, with plenty of heat-sensing camera shots of couples going at it and plenty of mini-cameras going through openings and seeing things that perhaps we shouldn’t picture just when we’re trying to seduce someone. Are we purely physical beings with no mystical connections at all?

Or you might have noticed Laura Kipnis’ book from a few years back, Against Love. In it she describes romantic and married love as a kind of tyranny and infidelity as a radical kind of sexual politics that is overthrowing the social order. She states at the outset that she’s being polemical, but some of her arguments still ring true: “Scratch the romantic veneer, and we’re hard-nosed realists armed with pocket calculators, calipers, and magnifying glasses.” We love with an eye for appearances and advantage, judging what our appearance and social standing can attain for us. And in our consumer society, love “conforms to the role of a cheap commodity, spit out at the end of the assembly line in cookie-cutter forms, marketed to bored and alienated producer-consumers as an all-purpose salve to emptiness.” Hence, the romantic movies.

As a culture, we have divided feelings and ideas about the nature of love. Is it destiny, divine intervention, animal attraction, practicality, or happenstance? Right now I’m sure some of you are saying it’s all of these.

But one thing I do believe is that it love definitely isn’t romance. I don’t think you can even talk about love until a couple has been together for at least ten or maybe even twenty years and has a store of shared experiences. And to all those people out there who argue that violent movies pervert our sense of how justice is served in a civil society, I would argue that romantic movies – with their narrow, simplistic version of love – do far more harm to us as a culture. There are far fewer people dying from movie-induced gunshot wounds than there are people dying from what they only believe is love.

Friday, April 07, 2006

The Main Types of Canadian Poetry and What's Wrong With Them

No, I’m not having a snit. I’m just pointing out the obvious. Every thing has something wrong with it, so why should the genres of poetry be any different? But I wanted to save people the trouble of having to go through the reviews and counter-reviews of poets like Carmine Starnino and Christian Bök as they harp on the deficiencies of each others’ literary camps. What I would like to do is sum up everyone’s weaknesses with a short piece here for your poetic one-stop sniping. I will not name names, though, because there are too many poets who excel at what they do to mention individually, and far too many who, well… suck.

Let’s start with the largest current genre – what many poets simply refer to as the mainstream. This includes by far the most poets, outnumbering probably all the other poets in all the other camps. Broadly speaking, this poetry descends from the lyric tradition where the focus is more on feelings than on abstract concepts. And since the Romantics, the emphasis has often, though not always, been on the importance of the common man and on using everyday language (even though Wordsworth’s own poetry seldom sounded like it could trip off the tongue of a leech gatherer). This type of poetry often focuses on the commonly shared moments in life, on childhood, love, nature, sickness and death. I’m generalizing wildly, of course, but if the poem you read is very personal and emphasizes emotional expression and the universality of common experiences, then you’re reading a mainstream poem.

The problem with these poems is they may succumb to unremarkability, both of subject matter and of language. The attempt to connect with the audience by recounting a moment by the bedside of a relative who is hooked up to machines in a hospital or to tell the story of a lost love is going to give the sense to the reader that anyone could have written the poem – which is both a good thing and a bad thing. The best mainstream poets make these moments new and interesting, while the worst make them banal. The other main flaw with this type of poetry is its tendency to play totally for the heart and give little sustenance for the head. Sincerity of emotion is seen as a virtue in the mainstream, although that is seldom enough to make a good poem. And don’t even get me started on the preponderance of nature poems. That’s worth another piece all on its own…

Other poets that carry on the Romantic tradition in many ways are the formalists who, at the time of this writing, are most vocal in the English Montreal community. They point out the laziness in the language and formal structure of the mainstream, and rightly so. But the problem with formalism is that, while it brings back a certain masculine air to poetry that has been absent for too long, it can’t seem to accommodate the notion that form doesn’t have to mean old form. There is an inability among formalists to recognize that forms haven’t existed as they are since the moment the Almighty flicked on the bathroom light. Forms come into existence and they fade and they return. Meanwhile, new forms emerge as language changes. Seems simple enough to me. As for the laxity of language, good consonant-clustered words mixed with the milk of vowels can make for a hearty breakfast, but it ain’t the whole ballgame. In fact, the traditionalists are the most likely among poets to forget that sometimes words get in the way of communication, that readers can get lost in those trees and lose the sense of the poem.

No one could accuse avant-garde and postmodern poets of taking words too seriously. They break them up into silly-bles, hard-bitten sounds and sometimes arrange them in humorous etymological crucifixions on the page. Their main advantage over the mainstream and the traditionalists is their sense of play and their acknowledgement of the constant flux of meaning. Of course, there’s a difference between flux of meaning and total absence of meaning – a distinction these poets don’t often care to make. And sometimes play can be a very aggressive and hostile activity – especially for the average audience member trying to make sense of these more experimental poems. In the cliquish world of poets, the indifferent avant-garde are the cliquiest – which is saying something. Finally, can we stop calling it the avant-garde if the attitude and approach hasn’t really changed all that much in the last twenty-five years?

Performance poets have it right in one sense – the audience comes first. They shape their poems for maximum audience effect. They hone the ancient craft of the bard and the scop, and I am embarrassed in their presence when I watch them recite poems from memory. Mind you, I’m also embarrassed in their presence when I hear what they’re reciting – often poems that don’t seem worth committing to memory. The incantatory power in some poems becomes mere repetition in others. And sometimes only the sheer force of personality can power a bad poem to a round of enthusiastic applause.

Perhaps the poets I most empathize with are the ones that pop up in lonesome self-published chapbooks in various big city bookstores across the country. They are the underground poets, writing among a few friends or working in isolation. Their poetry is too raw for the mainstream and too political for everyone. They may tend to overuse profanity and their poems don’t have a chiseled structure, but their tendency to direct strong emotions outward and to recognize social ills makes them unique among the types of poets we have. At the same time, the alienation from literary history and from the very public they are addressing weakens their poetry. They are not part of a clear or purposeful community.

And in this notion of community there might be a lesson. What strikes me is how hopelessly inept all these types of poetry are when left to their own devices. They each harbour strengths the others should (and secretly do) envy. And they certainly cross over into each other’s territory frequently. But not often enough. If I were the king of poetry I would decree that each of these groups trade places with each other long enough to learn valuable lessons about possibilities. On the other hand, maybe poets are like the civilizations they so often pretend to scorn and all our best inventions come out of the constant wars we fight between ourselves. Me, I’m for riding everybody’s catapults and flying over the brittle fortifications to pillage from everyone what I know of poetry.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

The Wikipedia Dilemma

Sometimes, usually after marking my umpteenth ‘Wikipedia essay’ in a row, I want to give up on Western civilization. But then I remember I’ve already done that. Kind of leaves me with a dilemma.

What is a Wikipedia essay, you ask? It’s an essay that assembles facts and binds them together with quotes from other people. Sometimes there are pictures. (If I allowed it there would be short mpegs of the student and perhaps even an mp3 or two providing a soundtrack to the assigned topic, “Describe the relationship between the values presented in television content and those found in television advertising.” The main source is usually Wikipedia along with some web sites. The theme is either not there or takes the form of “That is why ___________ is a good thing.”

I’m tempted to say the internet and its cacophonous array of sources of highly varying quality is to blame. But then I just have to think back to undergrad and I can remember most of the students I knew were this lazy then as well. There was one guy in my Moral Theology class that managed to get an 80+ in the course after hiring someone in his residence (an economics major with a strong predilection for toking up before every exam) to write all six of his theological book reports for him. The priest who taught the class never caught him. Moral Theology! Some people really have no fear, do they?

Students can become accredited, as Jane Jacobs notes in her book Dark Age Ahead, without truly learning. And I can’t put all the blame on Wikipedia. In fact, the Wikipedia project has to be admired for its oddly workable collaborative structure as people in the know have the opportunity to write or add to existing entries on subjects that are their specialty. (And, no, I’ve never contributed to the site myself, being a poet and occasional TV show host and therefore possessing no native knowledge of my own.) Sure, there are bugs in the system. Knowledge may be altered as it is filtered through so many minds. I guess then it becomes no-ledge.

But the internet isn’t the first time in history humans have had to wrestle with the quality and diversity of available knowledge. There have been catastrophic moments such as when the Library of Alexandria was destroyed by fire (possibly after some librarian tried to ‘shush’ the nearest invader). Countless manuscripts were lost all at once, leaving us with a less than comprehensive view of things such as ancient history and ancient drama.

The collapse of Rome led to what many term the ‘Dark Ages’ before the consolidation of medieval European cultures. In that interim, many monasteries became the temporary homes for Greek and Roman manuscripts which were copied and recopied over the decades and centuries. What was also happening was that the Arabic world had managed to retain some of the knowledge of Greece and Rome and add to it during a magnificent flowering of scientific and philosophical investigation.

But nothing remains the same over long periods such as those. Bart Ehrman, in his book Misquoting Jesus, documents the changes – intentional and unintentional – in Bible manuscripts over the centuries. Just as disturbing is that there are many manuscripts from that period that lie still unread and untranslated in locations throughout Europe – painstakingly copied manuscripts that are bound in volumes containing completely unlike manuscripts and then marked along the binding with the name of only one of the manuscripts, or perhaps labeled with the name of a manuscript that isn’t even contained in that particular bound volume. Who knows what’s been lost in there, just as no one knows what knowledge we are losing in the plethora of internet sources that overwhelm some of the more substantive websites.

But I’m not going to tell you that this could lead to the fall of civilization. It might, and it might not. The point here is that knowledge is a fragile thing. It is conditional and fleeting. Languages change and we lose the sense of the past. We are not building a pyramid of ideas climbing ever higher to the sky. We are jumping from one ice floe to the next, hoping it will last long enough to carry us to another patch of ice in what we’re starting to think is a global warming of the cool intellect.

The point is not whether or not our civilization will end. It will. It might not have anything to do with our inability to transmit what we know to future generations. It might have everything to do with a surplus of pandas or a shortage of margarita umbrellas. I just think you should start thinking about what books you would like to preserve and take with you when it all goes. Meanwhile, I’ll jump to another student essay floating in the light at my desk and hope the argument isn’t too thin to support my heavy thoughts.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Poetic and Political Purity

For many years I've been considered a political poet by the poets I know. Maybe this has something to do with the fact that the word “anarchist” is in the title of my only book. Just a hunch. But I don’t look like an anarchist. I wear golf shirts and jeans and prefer rock music to bebop. Hell, I probably don’t even look like a poet. And I’ve never gone in for causes. My comeback to that is I’ve always been more into effects. Ba-boom, tsshhh. I am a lazy writer who is more apt to criticize than to do anything constructive.

And yet I still believe that politics has an important place in poetry and that George Orwell was right when he said that “The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.” But where that place is has never been fully clear to me.

It’s an article by George Eliot Clarke (“Poetic Rule”) in The Walrus (April 2006) that got me thinking about this old issue yet again. I used to be much more passionate about the connection, but now I can only read and respect the passion of other writers like Clarke. He’s a Trudeauphile, so right away I can get on board with that. And the quote he borrows from Trudeau is spot on for the pragmatist in me: “We are going to be governed whether we like it or not; it is up to us to see to it that we are governed no worse than is absolutely necessary.” This is the Trudeau I can absolutely respect. In these words you can feel that under the guise of government is force and power. Authority in society rarely exists without the potential for and tendency towards violence.

But Clarke is more attracted to the Trudeau of the Just Society and he goes on to say it is “a beautiful society because of a harmony among its constituents, one that seeks to equalize imbalances in income, representation, and power, but also one that respects and supports the arts.” That would be fine, except for the fact that it’s often my fellow citizens who are voting for the tax cuts and get tough on crime bills while opposing the kinds of things that I think are only just, such as gay marriage and higher minimum wages. After all, if you live in Alberta and you are a sensitive artist, 90% of the province’s population is likely to oppose your vision of the Just Society. Let’s face it, if we didn’t have politicians to take all the heat for us, we’d be at each other’s throats. The Just Society can’t exist because we all have a different idea of what ‘just’ means.

Another point where Clarke and I depart comes when he comments on Shelley’s assertion that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the World”. Shelley’s world view, according to Clarke, makes the poet “a kind of supreme investigative journalist, finding beauty and enlightenment in the most unlikely places or revealing crime and decay where they are hidden.” I like the analogy. It gives the poet some guts and some integrity as well as an ongoing mission – although maybe these days, with journalism being not the shining knight it once seemed, the association less valid.

Or is it? Clarke assumes that the politics of writers are going to be more just or superior to those of the politicians themselves. But throughout literary history writers and artists have made questionable decisions based on staunch principles and cowardly politicking. Seneca was a good bud of Nero, for example (although that didn’t protect him in the end), Chaucer apologized publicly for the blasphemy of his Canterbury Tales, and Donne sold out his Catholic roots so he could become Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Shakespeare wrote works of genius and also the nakedly jingoistic and narrow-minded Henry V. Wordsworth and other writers of his time were enthusiastic about the French Revolution until… well, you know. Kipling was the best paid literary pundit for imperialism an empire could have. Eliot and Pound and many other writers were covertly or overtly anti-Semitic, and there is, of course Pound’s support of Mussolini - on radio no less. Big on equal opportunity, writers have been there to support Nazis and Stalin.

And among the idealistic writers there is the allure of beauty – the kind of artful beauty Clarke sees in a just society. But I think if you took all the writers in this country and put them in one room, you wouldn’t get agreement about what is beautiful, what is just, or even what is art, or what food should be served at the buffet. Clarke finds beauty and form in justice and politics – the very things he believes should be found in poetry, while I find disunity and ambiguity – the very things I believe should be found in poetry. We are each trying to impose different aesthetic visions on what it means to be human. He has purity of intent in his poetry and politics, and I have learned over the years to distrust the purifiers.

My politics are closer to those of James Joll, who Clarke quotes as saying the “tragedy of all political action is that some problems have no solution, none of the alternatives are intellectually consistent or morally uncompromising; and whatever decision is taken will harm somebody.” Add to this the proposition that writers must first look inside themselves to find the evil they want to criticize, and you have my world view. But with all this conflict, this lack of solutions, this lack of clear vision for the future, you would probably argue that it’s no wonder I don’t even bother getting involved in causes. But it’s just the opposite. It’s only when writers understand the impossibility of final victories and can accept the permanence of bittersweet coating their tongue – that is when they are ready to start writing politically.

Of course, the honesty that comes from this might get you killed. Maybe joining a march or running for the board of a non-profit organization is a safer bet. Better to be in a cause than to lie murdered like an effect some found too powerful.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

What Not To Wear If You're An Invader From Mars

I run into a lot of parents who are worried about the effects media will have on their children. Me, I’m more often worried about the adults. After all, it wasn’t children who led the panic during the 1938 radio performance of H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds. People believed that invaders from Mars were advancing on American cities and that it was the end of the world for humankind. Joseph Goebbels took that same message about invasion and the end of the known world and turned Teutonic frowns upside down for Hitler and the Nazis when millions listened to radio broadcasts and believed things were as they sounded. McLuhan called radio a hot medium as opposed to TV the cool medium.

At least, all of this is what I watched this weekend on TV, along with a Saturday afternoon catching back-to-back episodes of What Not To Wear. I have gone on the record many times – although no one has ever been listening – saying that fashion is a waste of time, that what’s in today will be gone tomorrow, and yet I find this show occasionally compelling. The premise, if you don’t know the show, is that two fashion mavens, with the help of the ‘victim’s’ friends and colleagues take one person aside for the episode, toss out their old hideous clothes and attempt to remake them in terms of their overall look. Each victim is horrified at the thought of losing the ‘natural’ person they have always been – whether it’s the woman in her mid-thirties wearing clothes that are too small and too tight, or the woman in her mid-thirties wearing clothes that are too baggy and non-descript, or the woman in her mid-thirties wearing T-shirts that are hand-me-ups from her daughter. There’s a lot of untouched psychological territory in this show, don’t ya think?

The point is that the victim has to endure being told they dress like an alien, that their friends and family all agree, that they have been followed and filmed for a week before this and that the home audience gets to see everything. And then they have to endure letting the mavens chuck the old cherished wardrobe away, each tossed piece accompanied by a diatribe about how awful it looks. And then there’s the hair and face makeover. Now, I know what you’re thinking, and you’re right. Just like any other reality show, how much of this is real and how much staged? It doesn’t matter. It’s still a form of storytelling.

And most engrossing stories have one or more morals to them. On this show, for example, we learn that one has to look one’s age. And one has to dress appropriately for work. And one has to look tidy or people will think less of you. That you can become the person your image projects. These are the messages we have drummed into us in one episode after another. Oh, and that people who make style their profession are going to know better how to dress you than you do yourself. So you have to give up a fair bit of autonomy to get along in the world and be accepted. And you have to be willing to be talked down to like a kid who refuses to grow up.

It’s as if the co-hosts take a person who they see as an alien and try to make them look like everyone else and therefore attractive. But the most frightening part of this whole process for me is that they’re right. When I see the before and after shots, I have to agree with many of the decisions the hosts have made. But I don’t know anything about style. I spit on fashion and those who worship weekly at its alteration. Yet I can’t deny the results. It’s as if I’ve already absorbed all of this somehow – me, who feels alienated from this so-called culture I live in. How did this happen? It’s not as if TV is brainwashing me - it’s merely re-illustrating that which I already know.

But the last thing I remember was our ship landing softly on the planet and when we emerged with our giant human-rending machines, a few people waving frilly clothes stood in our way and said that we would catch our deaths if we didn’t dress properly. Then they took us each aside, one by one, and said that it was only a matter of time before we would have to blend in, and wasn’t that better for the invasion in the long run anyway? Blend in, make people forget they had been conquered, and then just be able to sit back after a long week of slave driving and relax.

I know what should be next. There must be a game show on I know all the answers to. Nothing is more satisfying that fitting in by proving my intellectual superiority to those I want to dominate… or impress… or was it imitate? “Why not all of them?” I’ve decided.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Heisted On My Own Petard

The jig is up for heist film fans. In the April 1 Globe and Mail, Lynn Crosbie (“Ocean’s Thirteen? Just Shoot Me”) argues that heist films and the glorification of the outlaw is in bad taste and she makes the case for comparing real life villains (or “Thieving Scum,” in her words) to their more glib, slick and nihilistic counterparts in films like Ocean’s Eleven (the remake) and a TV series like Heist. She does understand that there is a certain Robin Hood air to some of these stories and that we often identify with the thieves. And yet she tries to talk us out of this identification with both real life and fictional thieves in favour of common decency and the acknowledgment of the suffering real thieves have caused. A very sober and serious point. (And yet she somehow manages to slide in a compliment for Frank Sinatra in the original Ocean’s Eleven. How does he come up when the subject is human decency?)

I happened to read her article the day after I had re-watched the film Snatch – a movie that has heists and attempted and failed heists galore. So I felt duly chastened. But I would watch the film again. It makes me laugh. And it’s a prime example of some confusion she inadvertently introduces into the subject of crime and film. First of all, it’s a mistake to lump the serious films about crime (like Natural Born Killers which I agree is a fine film and straddles the line between comedy and brutality) with the funny films about crime. In the serious films like The Grifters we see that con men and women have nothing in their souls and nothing to look forward to. But a film like Snatch gives us the satisfaction of the catchy nicknames of some of the characters (for example, Boris the Blade, who we mainly see using guns), an 84-karat gem, and a continuous stream of bad-to-worse scenarios that are funny even when people are being killed. We see a wide range of criminals here – the brutal and the devious, the unkillable (both of whom are killed) and the hapless. If you took this film as a model of the criminal world, you would come away thinking that most criminals are just not that bright. And the statistics might back you up on that. Meanwhile, it’s a comedy and comedy is all about overthrowing the natural order of things, with those on the bottom (thieves, let’s say) coming out on top. Surely she’s not arguing that all films about crime be relentlessly dramatic and earnest?

Then there are the films like Pulp Fiction where the forces of the law are nowhere to be found and it is the supposed ‘bad guys’ who come to represent our entire range of human possibilities with some of the characters being redeemable and some not. Slick yes, but it’s hardly an amoral film when the final meaningful action is the laying down of a gun.

Meanwhile, the one aspect of the heist film in particular that Crosbie doesn’t really cover is what I will call the puzzle element. How are they going to steal the jewel, break into the vault, get around the security system, etc.? It’s a purely intellectual joy – a puzzle that we try to figure out or we watch for all the pieces to fall into place. And there are still thematic puzzles to be sorted out as well.

A 1999 remake (another bane to Crosbie) of The Thomas Crowne Affair isn’t about a violent bad guy, nor is it only about an art thief. It’s about the affair between the thief and the insurance investigator, and it’s about their mutual mistrust not just as prey and hunter but as man and woman. And it’s funny and a little sexy, with Pierce Brosnan giving us a little look at what his Remington Steele character might have been like before he settled down. That same year, 1999, Entrapment gave us a remarkably similar film about master thieves and the difficulty of trust between men and women.

What’s going on to some extent here is a confusion of genres (serious films showing us bad people) and comedies (films giving us fun characters). If she wants to argue that criminals can only appear in films that make them look realistic and, of course, bad, then her aesthetics are not much further advanced than those of the Hayes Code that first sought to ensure that all criminals were shown punished for their crimes on the screen. (And how realistic is that, given what we know about crime statistics?) What about those times when the thieves are actually doing something that will benefit people – say, like in Sneakers where the devious but basically decent characters are trying to stop a plot for world domination? This has the tone of a heist film, but the protagonists are simply closer to the right side of the law. Even in the remake of The Italian Job there are questions of loyalty and proper vengeance. The good thieves have to steal from the bad thief.

If Crosbie’s main complaint is about bad remakes (Fun with Dick and Jane and the recently announced Ocean’s Thirteen), then I can understand and probably agree. But if it’s that we should go to films expecting movies both to ‘get things right’ and to make things right, then I say no.

What I’m arguing is that most of us try to be law abiding, although many have to fake it on occasion. We watch films about Robin Hood types with a little bit of envy and we don’t want to think about consequences. That’s what many films are at least partly about. The best heist films are also about other things – love, trust, the willingness to take chances, doing the right thing. In other contexts, these are valuable lessons. The heist is a metaphor for who we would like to be in relation to our own lives. People with imagination and cunning taking the chances we never dare and going for the gem or maybe even Aladdin’s genii. We watch these characters hoist the anal guards of the secret hordes and hoist us on the petards of our decent self-righteousness. We watch a wide range of often seedy characters we are compelled to identify with while many people insist we must see the villain as outside of us and beneath us. Crosbie seems to prefer that we keep people like this at arm’s length, but we are secretly people like this in some ways. So much of who we want to be perceived as is a series of alarms and codes and a thick wall separating us from people we see as our inferiors.

And these films are the sudden explosion at the thick vault door of our imagination, or maybe some tumbler in the heart just clicks into place.