Monday, March 22, 2010

Reality 301 – Labour Pains

I’ll never forget the day someone decided that the time had come to expose my students to the mystery of childbirth. I was teaching in a suburban high school and a 16 mm. documentary film had just come out which purported to uncover, so to speak, the actual event for all to see. I think there was some faint hope, on the part of the management, that witnessing this travelogue down the birth canal would put the teenagers off sex, the not-so-hidden agenda, in the days before the pill. There were many such plots in the health program in those days. ( I wish I could evict from my own memory the sight of our very kind but extremely unappealing school nurse peeling a condom down over a banana to encourage safe sex in the AIDS assemblies inflicted on our students. It certainly put me off the fruit, which you know, I like).

At this point in my life, I was recently married and several of my friends had started their families, but I can assure you that no one I knew, except for doctors and nurses, had ever seen anything like this - not even the people actually involved in the process: parents. Fathers were kept out in the hospital waiting room, pacing and probably smoking, and mothers-to-be were discreetly draped in sheets and knocked out, if they were lucky, so no one was the wiser. The baby, when finally delivered, was whisked away, to be ‘made-over’, in current parlance, before being presented to the world, freshly polished like a new diamond, behind a glass window in a nursery. No touching!

This little black and white documentary caused quite a sensation. Although the camera stayed far back for most of the time, concentrating on the doctor’s back, it managed to sneak around his elbow at a crucial moment. The one impersonal close up of the baby’s blood-streaked head emerging from the birth canal was enough to send kids screaming and fainting in all directions.
Even a few teachers felt queasy.

I realize that calling the shot of a woman’s most intimate region ‘impersonal’ sounds a little strange, but what I mean is that at no time did we see the mother’s face, get to know her as a person, hear her ‘story’, her hopes, fears and dreams, see the décor of the nursery awaiting the baby at home, or meet her husband or extended family. Her private parts remained private. More or less.

The idea that all that would change to such a degree that, not only would the extended family be invited into the delivery room to witness the event and to film it with their video cameras for posterity, (the hand-held camera changes behavior) but that they could be convinced that it would benefit the whole world if the woman would also allow a camera crew in to shoot her agony and crotch for many hours, just goes to show you how much we have changed our behavior because of technology.

They’re worried that we are giving up our privacy on Facebook? That train left the station forty years ago.
Filled with babies.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Reality 201 -Something for Nothing

There is no doubt in my mind that Real Estate programs are largely to blame for the disastrous housing bubble around the world. I know they are holding those New York bankers and their sub-prime mortgage schemes responsible, but while they aren’t entirely off my hook, I see culpability in other places too.

Where else, but by watching TV, would people with low paying, vulnerable jobs and no savings get the crazy idea that it’s not only perfectly acceptable to look at three gorgeous properties and sneer at the size of the master bathroom, hold out for granite countertops and stainless steel appliances and a large fenced-in yard with a pool, but that they are actually entitled to have ‘the house of their dreams’.

The concept of buying a home with NO MONEY DOWN is stunning to a person like me, who had to pass on a terrific ‘first house’ forty years ago because we couldn’t scrape together the $5000 required to interest a bank in lending us the remaining $20,000. I see young couples and single men and women who, we now know, will all soon be out of work, blithely signing up for monthly payments of thousands of dollars with NO MONEY DOWN whatsoever, and I know something is definitely amiss. I see deals being made in some states where the mysterious ‘lender’ actually advances even more money than the house is worth to help really disadvantaged buyers. The ones most likely to reneg. What a great idea! And then, encouraged by their real estate agents and the show’s producer, no doubt, they celebrate the ‘owning’ of their new home and the housewarming gift of a couple of chairs and a table that the show's producers have thrown in to sweeten the deal.

Excuse me….they don’t ‘own’ anything. They have NO EQUITY.

Of course, what’s fascinating to me, living in one of the most expensive cities in North America, is seeing what’s available south of the border for the price of an outhouse in Toronto. There is some consolation, I suppose, in seeing that it costs over a million dollars to scoop up a bargain bachelor apartment in Paris, but then, it's Paris. Most of these shows take half an hour to settle the buyers in their dream houses, but an hour is devoted to 'Relocation, Relocation' or whatever it's called, so that pretty Kirstie and her buddy Phil can find TWO ideal properties for their clients to shuttle between, because, we now know, the English need to have a place in the country plus a pad in town in order to survive. I'm not talking about the 'landed gentry' or royalty, here. This 18th Century lifestyle seems to have dribbled down to the 21st Century masses.

Still, it’s the extremely high expectations of the buyers, virgins or sluts, that amaze me. A lot of this can be laid at the doorstep of the other kinds of home shows, the ones where people are told how impossible their tacky houses will be to sell without some curb appeal or de-cluttering. If the place isn’t depersonalized, neutralized, emptied of every pot and pan and soap chip, they have no one to blame but themselves when buyers traipse through complaining about the light fixtures or countertops. These design-show elevated decorating standards blind the ‘lookers’ to the possibility that an inexpensive coat of paint can transform that repulsive purple master bedroom in that 4500 sq. ft. six bedroom 'starter home' so it fully meets their specific criteria for cozy perfection. On this channel, you will also find pretty Sophie Alsop (a younger clone of the aforementioned Kirstie), albeit slightly made over for the American audience. It's as if Stacey got ahold of her on another program and told her 'what to wear'.

And all this sprucing up must be done to a tight deadline, of course, to create drama, because, as anyone knows, who is trying to sell a house in lousy market, time is of the essence.

Is it any surprise, then, that shows shot just last year are featuring a lot of empty mansions in foreclosure (a word never used) which incur lengthy negotiations with heartless banks for ‘dream houses’ which have, obviously become someone else’s nightmare? Are these the homes that suckers bought in last year's episodes and have now walked away from HAVING HAD NO EQUITY? Rest assured, no one has learned anything. Shoppers are still worrying more about the ugly tile in the main floor powder room than the enormous second mortgage payments.

Am I the only one who sees these empty, only slightly lived-in dream houses and wonders where the former owners are living now?
Is anyone grabbing the next opportunity to follow them around with a camera as the repo man descends and they hustle around trying to decide which of three relatives to impose on?

Tune in next season....

Friday, March 19, 2010

Reality 101 – TV or Not TV

There’s nothing like a good liberal arts education to prepare you for life. Like a good buffet, it encourages you to taste just about everything that will come in handy in the coming feast of life, rather than catering to those picky eaters who limit their appetite for knowledge to the specialty of the day. Although I do not profess to more than a smattering of familiarity with such subjects as Politics, Economics, Anthropology, Sociology, Psychology, Classics, Philosophy, History, English Lang. and Lit., French Lit. and the ever popular (in my day) Near Eastern Lit., my formal education, that is to say, what I learned about before I dabbled in professional training, has stood me in good stead for decades. Without going into the details, most of which I cannot recall ‘on demand’ but now only come wafting through to me at the strangest times, let me assure you that there is nothing like having a trained mind with an overview on the human condition from all these different perspectives. Throw in some patience, caution and a little common sense and you have a foolproof recipe for avoiding a lot of personal disaster.

Unfortunately, the B.A. is no longer held in much esteem in our society since it cannot be immediately churned into a way to make the big bucks. And since being intelligent, curious and thoughtful are no longer valued qualities, Arts departments everywhere have to justify their existence with tempting curricula like, ‘Beatles 101-The Mersey Years’, to get any enrollment whatsoever to maintain funding.

So much for the ‘Ivory Tower’.

This goes a long way to explain the current mess a lot of countries find themselves in these days…I’m not singling anyone out here.... you know who you are. When a ‘people’ give up the their brains, hearts and courage and start listening, instead, to the man behind the curtain, it doesn’t take a P.H.D. to figure out that there isn’t going to be a happy ending.

Enough with the extended metaphors. These thoughts have been circling around in what’s left of my brain ever since I retired to a life which offers me a few more hours a day to absorb recent developments in the culture. Rather than dashing off to an institution mandated to uphold a connection with the past, by virtue of its architecture, furniture and supplies, all held back by limited resources, to spend my days ‘giving out’, so to speak, I am now immersed in a world of the present, connected to the new reality by virtue of my television, laptop and iPhone. And what I’m taking in seems to me to explain a lot about why things are not so good these days.

Let me start with television. For most of my life, which began, co-incidentally with the advent of television, you couldn’t actually get on TV without displaying some kind of talent. To work behind the scenes, you had to be able to create, write, produce, direct, record, mix….there were actually guys called ‘stagehands’ who made a living lurking around the studio ‘rigging’ ropes and lights. You could get a job shlepping the fat electrical cables which connected the huge cameras to the control room. To get your puss in front of the camera, you had to be able to sing or dance or clown around or play a musical instrument better than almost everyone or else why would anyone want to watch the show? Or pay you to show up?

True, there was Candid Camera, but to think that setting clueless idiots up to make fools of themselves, for free, for the amusement of an audience of yahoos (in the original sense of the word) was going to become the staple of the medium, would be inconceivable for decades.

What changed all that? It’s my belief that changes in technology come first and then the rest crashes in on us. No one can really predict all the consequences of what will follow the invention of some new gizmo or how it will totally transform our world. And even if someone could, and she warned us that it wasn’t going to be a good transformation, nobody would listen to her. Take it from me. In this particular case, it has to be the affordability of hand-held video cameras and, later, the built-in webcams on computers and then, cell phone cameras.

Think about it. If anyone can ‘shoot’, then anyone can ‘perform’. Why bother with auditions, agents, networks, expensive studios, stars, orchestras, choreographers, costume and makeup people and broadcast technicians to stage lavish productions with real stars, like the old ‘Carol Burnett Show,’ when you can set up a recording and uplink device in your bedroom, warble your own version of ‘Stormy Weather' in your PJ's and upload it to YouTube for all the world to see? If you are really lousy, you will be a guaranteed hit. You may not get paid, but you can’t have everything.

It’s only a short mental hop to the concept that inundation is the sincerest form of fame. With this mobility and accessibility comes, unfortunately for some, a plunge in quality. We all do know that something that is free is usually not as good as something that actually costs something to produce, unless you are referring those ‘best things in life’ which are priceless, yadda, yadda. And yet, these days, our standards have sunk so low that we are content to accept mediocrity, not only as the norm, but as the gold standard. Anyone want to see my cat play the piano?

The talent for excelling at something has given way to the talent for exhibitionism. And, with that come the impoverished networks, ready to cash in.

Why settle for artistic illusion when you can have klutzy Reality?

Monday, March 15, 2010

A Perfect Day for Banana Cake

Today, it’s two for the price of one, which is free, anyways, so consider yourselves lucky.

Part 1
I have eight rotting bananas on my counter, begging to be transformed into banana cake, or banana ‘bread’ if you prefer, although I reject the concept that anything made with cake ingredients and without yeast can be called ‘bread’. I don’t know why I accumulate so many bananas, except that they are inexpensive, bought in bunches and all ripen at exactly the same time. I can’t eat more than one a day and they are either too green or too spotty to eat on either side of that one perfect day when they will taste their sweetest and yet still be firm and bright yellow, embodying the Platonic ideal of ‘banana-ness’.

So I make banana cakes. Sometimes I make plain ones; sometimes I add nuts or chocolate chips to make them more exciting. Then I freeze them in case someone drops over for tea and I want to offer a treat. Or, I take them in to school where they are much appreciated by the teachers and office staff. After a few months in the freezer, they get a little icy-looking, so I throw away the older ones to make room for fresher versions (the cakes in the freezer, not the teachers and secretaries….oh, excuse me, administrative assistants).

Here is the recipe for the easiest cake ever. All you need is a fork and a bunch of bananas:

Grease a loaf pan
Mash 2-3 ripe bananas
Add: 1 C. sugar
2 eggs
½ C. oil
1 ¼ C flour
1 tsp. baking soda
Mix this all together with the fork or a spatula, if you like. You may add, if you are so inclined:
½ C chopped nuts and/or
½ C chocolate chips …more or less
Scrape into your loaf pan and bake for about an hour at 350 degrees.

When done, you can slice it up and have a piece with a nice cup of tea while you read the following:

Part 2
Lately, I cannot think of the word ‘banana’ without being reminded of a writer, recently deceased, who made a serious impression on me in my youth and who has lingered in the adolescent realm for over half a century, way beyond his ‘best before’ date. I am speaking, of course, of Jerome David Salinger, a man whose dominance in the high school curriculum is surpassed only by William Shakespeare. He’s the guy who, back in the 50’s, everyone wanted to ‘call up’ after reading his stories. So, to spite his fans, he hid away for over fifty years, writing, but never publishing, unlike today’s obliging authors who must hawk their products in the media, offering autographs along with chit chat, to the masses, in hopes of getting that elusive call from Oprah that will raise them up to bestseller praise or scorn.

Jerry would never stoop. He proved the maxim that people want what they can’t have. And he made a fortune doing it.

As a teacher, I served my time trying desperately to interest my students in the introspective agonies of Holden Caulfield, but it was as a student, myself, that I first encountered this boy in the red hunting cap. Although this novel has been required reading for more than a generation, in my day, it was considered far too risqué to be included on the English curriculum. The life and times of Pip or David Copperfield were deemed far more appropriate, mired as Ontario was in love of all things British, the more Victorian, the better. Anything written after T.S. Eliot was considered literarily irrelevant, even in university. A book containing the word ‘goddamn’ in it, or one with a scene in which a character farts for entertainment value, was certainly not going to gain the approval required to stock English department shelves for the next fifty years.

I was an avid reader. There were very few books written especially for children in those days, at least books without bunnies or courageous dogs, and even fewer actually available at the library. I think there was one bookstore in the city, so I had to be patient. It took a few years for me to find all three volumes of the ‘Anne’ trilogy and discover whether she and Gilbert were going to make it as a couple. ‘Anne of Green Gables’ is still a national treasure; tourists fly from half way round the world to the farmhouse shrine on P.E.I., to worship there! The Japanese, in particular, are exceedingly fond of her, and so, the shops in Charlottetown are crammed with Anne souvenirs. I, myself, succumbed to the hype on a recent visit and tried on a fetching straw bonnet with two red braids dangling from the brim, just to see if I could summon up the old enthusiasm. One look in the mirror discouraged me to such an extent that when we drove by the famous house in Cavendish, I didn’t even get out of the car to pay my respects!

I also loved the Enid Blyton ‘Adventure’ series from a very early age. If you never read Blyton’s ‘Island of Adventure’ or the many sequels, ‘Mountain’, ‘River’, ‘Valley’…(get the idea?) then you missed out on hair-raising tales of four siblings who were left to their own devices much too often, during something the Brits call ‘hols’, when they would pack up their ‘kits’ with a few ‘tins’ and set off looking for trouble. These days, their parents would be hauled into court for child neglect, but back then, it seemed perfectly acceptable for the four of them to risk life and limb for fun. Besides, they were supervised by their chatty white cockatoo, Kiki, who saved them from many disasters, so it’s not like they were completely on their own, I guess. If, like me, you couldn’t wait to get your hands on the next volume of this series, you were pretty familiar with whatever twists and turns a good writer could inflict on an eager audience and were completely unimpressed by the plot of ‘Avatar’.

In Grade Eight, we read ‘Cue for Treason’, in which we all traveled the 16th C. English countryside with a boy, whose name escapes me, and a girl, Kit, disguised as a boy, who played the girl parts in a Shakespearean acting troupe, discovered a plot to assassinate the Queen similar to something you’d find on ‘24’ today, and ended up meeting the Bard, himself.

(I’d bet money, if I had any, that Tom Stoppard read this novel before he sat down to write ‘Shakespeare in Love’).

It was what they used to call ‘a rollicking tale’ and prepared us well for the study of Shakespearean drama, a staple in every grade from then on. It was at this time, we also studied ‘The Coral Island’, an adventure tale full of piracy, cannibalism and self-sufficiency, an excellent introduction to high school society. It is often referred to in the wonderful novel ‘Lord of the Flies,’ which no one teaches anymore, because the language is too high falutin’ for today’s youth.

The first grown-up novel I got to read in school was the classic ghost story ‘The Moonstone’, by Wilke Collins. I don’t remember much about it, but something about ladies in long gowns painting flowers on furniture as a hobby figured heavily in the plot. The setting laid the groundwork, from that point on, for my fascination with the glamorous life of the English landed gentry. This other half seemed to be living a much more gracious life than I was capable of, in suburban North York, and it held a lot of appeal to a girl who owned no ball gowns or horses and carriages.

Soon, I felt able to take on a fat book all by myself and somehow got my hands on a copy of the hot bestseller, ‘Marjorie Morningstar’. Since there were references to having sex, or rather, not having sex, (this was the fifties, after all), my Home Economics teacher, an elderly woman whose breasts dangled over the waistband of her apron, and who taught us how to make things like Apple Pan Dowdy and white sauce (is your mouth watering?) and to hand embroider ‘huck guest towels’, (a skill which, for some reason, has never come in handy in later life), snatched it away from me, pointing out that “there was plenty of time for books like that when you are older”. This enticed me, even more, of course. The moral of that book, that nice Jewish girls should rather aspire to sacrifice their virginity to ne’er do well actors rather than hold out for big engagement rings, doctors and mansions in suburbia, or they’ll be sorry, scarred me for life, thank you Herman. I was so impressionable.

So I was a sitting duck, using Holden’s favorite metaphor, when the opportunity arose to flip through “Catcher”, as we pros are wont to call it. Unfortunately, for me, I chose to begin the book during a particularly dull history lesson on the causes of some world war or other and interrupted the class with a loud guffaw that obviously had nothing to do with the teacher’s point.

If you ever doubt that fashions and tastes change over time, just remember the lesson of ‘Catcher in the Rye’. A novel that went on to be required reading for adolescent students for decades was confiscated, that day, for being a disgusting piece of filth, unsuitable for the delicate sensibilities of young people.

I managed to get another copy and raced through it, never finding that unexpected hysteria again. What I did discover, however, was a voice that spoke like a real person, albeit one a little kvetchier than normal. Being a teenager, myself, most of the agony, ennui and existential angst appealed to me. It was only years later, after much study and effort to scrape beneath the surface (which, in this book isn’t too deep) that I was brought in line with the then current thinking that this ‘voice’, which seemed to sound like a lot of people I knew at the time, was an original one, in literature, at any rate. Having feasted on a steady diet of British Victoriana, I definitely heard the difference. And I liked it. And I wanted more.

Even though it was very difficult for me to get a hold of Salinger’s stories in those years, I do remember eventually reading the ‘Nine Stories’ and ‘Franny and Zooey’ over and over, not always getting what was going on, but knowing I was definitely missing something. For example, I had no idea Franny was pregnant. (Or was she?) The Glass Family seemed very chatty, not like mine, where, although people spoke their minds, the conversation didn’t rise to such philosophical heights. My grandfather, to his credit, did attempt to interest me, on many occasions, in the existence of god argument, but I just rolled my eyes and tried to escape from his kitchen to play outside. I did not, obviously, merit inclusion in a Salinger story, yet. While I liked some of the stories, I puzzled over the meaning in others, not having the jargon or pretentious attitude of a scholar, which I would eventually attain in university.

I remember the fuss over the eventual publication of ‘Seymour: An Introduction’ and ‘Raise High the Roofbeams, Carpenter” in one tidy white volume with the shapely font, but found myself less and less enamored of this suicidal fellow and his family of precious, precocious relatives the more I read about them. They seemed a pretty phony lot, to me, with all their earnest sincerity. It is my literary theory that if they’d had a little Prozac with their breakfast they’d have functioned at a much higher, if less self-obsessed level.

On a more practical level, I did get to use the title when raising a roof beam in a recent renovation, so it wasn’t a total loss.

It was not till I returned to high school to teach English that I re-encountered Holden. To me, this novel, and the problems of this child, are very specific to a certain time and place. Unlike truly great stories, which work for all occasions (just ask someone who’s looking for a retirement home for their aging parents to sit through King Lear without tearing their hair, rending their garments and guessing the ending), ‘Catcher’ seems to me to be very much a product of mid-20th Century urban America. It’s kind of like old Woody Allen movies, which, although charming and hilarious in their day, no longer have the power to shock and amaze with their originality and wit. The world has changed so much. The whole concept of innocence and experience seems hopelessly dated. Try to sell that to a kid sitting in your class who has just fled from some war or persecution in a remote homeland. One of my students, freshly escaped from Kosovo, puzzlement on his face, came up and asked me what was really bothering Holden, anyways? He just didn’t get it. (He also wondered why, when the fire alarm rang, we left the building but hung around outside of the school, visiting, instead of fleeing for our lives?)

Nowadays, it’s no news that everyone is phony, more or less. Nothing is real, all is virtual, and kids have hundreds of Facebook friends to share their mental meanderings. The very thought that a teenager could check out of his school without the administration putting out an amber alert is inconceivable. Holden’s sexual adventures, such as they were, seem all too tame, these days, not the stuff that would shock or impress youngsters brought up on ‘90210’ or ‘The Hills’, or the kids who claim oral sex doesn’t really count. There was talk, at my old school, of replacing the novel with something ‘more contemporary’ next year. And to think, at one time, this was the epitome of contemporary!

Over the years, since he was so reticent to spin tales for public consumption, stories emerged about Salinger, himself, which tarnished the appeal of the man, for me, at any rate. He was a picky eater, a control freak and liked very young girls. A lot.
It turned out Esme and Allie were his ideal women. Joyce Maynard’s memoir of her youthful indiscretion with the old goat put me off considerably, although I understand, too well, the argument that the works of art should stand well apart from the disgusting, misogynistic creeps who create them. After all, I am familiar with the proclivities of many of the world’s most admired creative types. (Not personally, of course. The creative types I know are not the most admired, although some have had their moments in the limelight. Their proclivities are relatively normal.

And now, J.D. is gone. English teachers everywhere tingle with anticipation to see what treasures, if any, are stored in his vault.

I, for one, can control myself.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

A Tale of Two Movies

Since I am neither a film nor movie critic (there is a difference, I’m told), I am not required to screen every single film that appears at my local multiplex or art house. I do love movies, but, honestly, the ten-film package at TIFF was more than enough to satisfy my need to stand alone in long lineups for hours to catch a glimpse of Oprah or George, and sit through movies that will soon be in a theatre near you or will never again see the light of a projector. Chatting with people during the endless waits satisfied me that if you cram too much of anything into a short period of time, things become indistinguishable from one another, and I like my entertainment to be memorable, if nothing else.

So I am going to restrict my ‘movie reviews’ leading up to the Oscars to just a few observations. I’m definitely quality over quantity. Besides, haven’t we all read everything we need to about how what a pro old Jeff Bridges is and it’s about time he got his turn and how ‘The Hurt Locker’ is going to be the surprise upsetter and isn’t it ironic that the woman director was married to James Cameron? I know I have.

I will run into some trouble with this one, but, I, for one, found this movie incredibly boring. If you’ve ever read a book, which I acknowledge, is becoming an increasingly rare past time, or even seen another action/adventure movie, I bet you could tell exactly what was going to happen at any moment during the entire movie. If you couldn’t, then you simply haven’t been paying attention or have some kind of memory retention problem. I’m not the only person to wonder why, with all the money spent on this extravaganza; Cameron couldn’t have forked over a few shekels for a decent script.

As a former English teacher (with an admittedly loosening grip on English grammar and punctuation), I can’t help but notice the over-emphasis of exotic settings and preachy themes at the total expense of those other important components of a good story: character and plot. There is never any suspense in a Cameron movie. When the good ship Titanic finally smacked into the iceberg half way through the last blockbuster and the Captain mentioned to the crew that the ship could only stay afloat for about two hours, my husband was heard to groan, “Oh, no!” (He was more concerned about having to sit through two more hours of the film than the sad fate of the passengers, believe me!)
None of the characters in ‘Avatar’ are remotely fresh. If they aren’t actually played by actors who played the originals in other movies, like Sigourney, then they remind us of someone we’ve definitely seen before, like Audrey Hepburn, in ‘Green Mansions’ (with a much better nose).

I’m not denying that the movie is pretty and the ‘effects’ are stunning, but, in the end, they seem gratuitous, because there’s no one to care about and nothing much to remember. I can't even recall who won, although I do remember a lot of tedious battle scenes resembling video games and the boys' section at Toys 'R Us.

I think ‘Avatar’ is this generation’s ‘2001- A Space Odyssey’, terrific visuals, pretentious story, best viewed while under some influence or other so you can think there’s more to it than meets the glazed eyes.

I avoided this movie at the Toronto Film Festival. The Oprah-hype, the predictions of sordid violence and the depressing storyline put me right off. I didn’t really know any of the actors in it very well. When I stand in line in the hot sun for hours, I want to be cheered up or at least, refreshed, when I finally flash my ticket and fight for a seat in the back row. I have no desperate need to actually see Oprah with my very own eyes in order to get on with my humdrum life. So I took a pass and went to a delightful interview with Michael Caine, instead.

Well, ‘Precious’ (I refuse to type out the long name) won the Audience Favorite Award, which is saying something, I suppose, considering the many excellent films that were exhibited during the festival. So I resolved to see it when it was released to the public and see what the fuss was about for myself. By myself, too, it turned out, since there was no way I could drag my husband or any of my friends along.

I am here to tell you that it is one hell of a movie. For me, it excels for exactly the reasons ‘Avatar’ fails. It is an original and compelling story about fresh and dynamic new characters. The effects are definitely special, here, too, although not done with CGI, but with raw emotions and dramatic interactions. This is a movie full of plot, too, not to mention everything else that makes an original work of art, which enlightens and moves the masses. It left me breathless.

And then, to see the youthful and chipper Gabourey Sidibe chattering amiably on the talk show circuit as if she were an entirely different person than that sullen, tragic child in the movie…..what a shock! How could anyone that charming summon up that devastated character and her demons? Could it be that she was pretending to be Precious? Was she acting? Like Meryl or Sandra or even Sarah Bernhardt? Is that kind of acting different, or say, better than the acting of a seasoned pro? Is she talented or instinctive? What’s the difference? If you can figure this out, qualify and rate it, you can decide if she is worthy of that award. For my part, I don’t care how she did it, but this was the most amazing performance I’ve seen this, or any year.

Yes, we all know that professional actresses can strip off the pretty makeup and dress down for their ‘art’, especially if it means a possible nomination. That’s what they’re supposed to do. Remember how shocked everyone was at Meryl’s Polish accent in ‘Sophie’s Choice’? She got a lot of kudos for sounding just like my grandmother. I have had a bone to pick with Meryl, who, for years, affected throat clearing and distracting hand gestures, like rubbing the sides of her nose, to establish ‘character’. In every role until recently. I thought she was pretty good in 'The Devil Wears Prada' but then she went and ruined it by jumping up and down and squealing like a Valleygirl in this year's Nancy Meyer's chick flick, the name of which, I am relieved to realize, I have managed to repress.

I admit that not everyone feels as I do. Men, for example, seem to like the constant ‘ahems’ that preceed extended sessions of lip pursing and licking that Melanie Griffin imposes on every part, be it working girl or yiddische maidle, although it drives me crazy. She is not nominated this year, but I wanted to emphasize the point that many actresses, both great and not-so-much, have their gimmicks, and they are very distracting.

I loved Meryl in her half of ‘Julie and Julia’, but, then, I love Paris and food, too, so I may have been biased. And no matter what she does, everyone still thinks of her as Meryl playing a part, not being the character. She ‘did’ an excellent Julia Child, no argument, but so did Danny Ackroyd, in his day.

As much as I find her likeable, Sandra Bullock always seems to be the same person whether she is driving a bus, sticking up for beauty queens everywhere or yelling at football players in a southern accent. I was dragged to see ‘The Blind Side’ by my sister, who would never buy a ticket to see people like Precious, suffer, and while she found the film enjoyable, I squirmed all the way through its clichés and corn. Sandra streaked her hair and worked up a full steam of righteous indignation in this one, but ultimately, she was still cute and perky. She had ‘spunk’ but I don’t think awards like this should go for spunk.
Sorry, Sandra.

I liked ‘An Education’ very much, but, although she gave an excellent imitation of me as a frustrated and confused young woman in the early 60’s, Carey Mulligan impressed me as one of those actresses who still has a lot of better roles ahead of her. In spite of her recent gamine haircut and the efforts of the studio public relations machine to market her as the reincarnation of Audrey Hepburn, this film was not her ‘Roman Holiday’ even though, come to think of it, she did get to go to Paris, which is even better.

Helen Mirren was wonderful, as always, but I expect her kind of competence and it doesn’t surprise me anymore. In this role she got to toss away the repression and pursed lips she adopted for her royal roles and used her ranting techniques to excellent effect. (I must interject that Paul Giamatti, gave me the creeps, as always and I can’t wait to see Christopher Plummer in ‘The Tempest’ this summer at Stratford. But these things shouldn’t cross my mind during a movie if I am involved, should they?)

The thing is, everyone in ‘Precious’ was a real person. Authenticity was the word. As far away from those lives in the movie as I am or ever have been, thank God, I was there for a few hours, getting it. No distractions. I know, in my head, that M’onique, Mariah and Paula are attractive, capable women, who will go on to play other parts, sing songs and dress up pretty for the red carpet, but, in my heart, they were those characters who, in turns, hate and love this child who so desperately wants to survive. I felt their frustrations, their despair, and the exhaustion of their lives. If there were accents or makeup and wigs, they went unnoticed, which is how it should be. I didn’t comment to myself how amazing the effects were or ask myself, “How did they do that?” There was no ‘they’…..those people who stand outside the frame holding things and staring at the actors. This world was real. Or so it seemed.

One of the tag lines for the movie is the most ridiculous one ever dreamed up by a group of people who ever totally missed the point:

“Precious may sometimes be down, but she is never out…”

Good God! She is always out and is always down….that is the problem. Her situation is terrible, hopeless and crushing, but she still survives and keeps trying because a light has beckoned to her. She has looked up and seen the light of education shined in her eyes by a few people who care about her and teach her to love life. She begins to understand that she can improve herself. She achieves dignity. This is a good message for everyone. That is why this movie, as dark and scratchy and as full of real-life horror and sadness as it is, can still uplift an audience by its end. It leaves you breathless.

In other words, it has great characters and a good story. I like a good story even better than CGI.

PS. I have been terribly bothered by the schizophrenic attention being given to Gabourey in the media. It shows how ridiculously conflicted our society has become about talent and race and especially, body image. There is absolutely no good reason to exclude her from that stupid Vanity Fair cover if ‘rising young actresses’ was the criterion for the invitation. The cruel editorial and artistic dispute over whether she was either too big or too black to recline on the green grass with the paler frails would have been interesting to hear. I am very disappointed in Annie Leibowitz and I can’t help but wonder if Tina Brown would have chickened out. Somehow, I doubt it.

In any case, I would advise Gabourey not to worry, since, if you take a look back at Vanity Fair over the years, gracing its cover has been the kiss of death to the careers many young actresses.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Oscar Run-up – The Big Parade

A friend of ours is an esteemed member of ‘The Academy’. Like many Canadian actors, in an effort to make a living, he has spent much of his career shuttling back and forth between Los Angeles (the third largest Canadian city in North America) and The Great White North, playing assorted cops and judges in a bunch of American TV series. While on an extended gig in Hollywood, a few years back, he seized on the opportunity to join up to AMPAS or whatever it is that gives out the annual statuettes. His generosity enabled me to learn about and to share with my media students, a ‘behind the scenes’ lowdown on the workings of the annual event from an insider’s perspective.

During the ‘VCR’ days, he would begin to receive, by very special delivery, strange and wonderfully packaged presents from the producers and studios promoting their films for ‘consideration’ during the nominating season after Christmas. The expense and creativity displayed in the packaging of these materials explains why the movies are now too expensive to actually go see at the local Bijoux. The lousier the movie, the fancier the packaging. For example, one that stands out in my mind was an enormous and elegant pink wedding album which, when opened, displayed a press kit and box containing that cinematic classic, “Four Weddings and a Funeral”, which, if my memory serves me, which it still does, albeit occasionally, won nothing. Wasn’t even nominated. But what a piece of promotional material! Now the ‘presents’ are somewhat smaller, since DVD’s don’t take up so much space and studios are trying to cut back.

The paltry annual dues afforded him the opportunity to enhance his film/video collection to the delight of friends and family (I can’t say how or he might be carted off to jail). As a member, he was also given the opportunity to vote for a few of the acting categories, a privilege that I don’t believe he ever exercised. Sometimes, he gave me the printed materials to show my media classes, who got quite excited in those ‘olden days’ when kids actually went to movies and had an interest in such things, which, by the way, they no longer do or have. At least he didn’t give his ballots to his custodial staff (maids, chauffeurs and assorted pool cleaners) as some members are rumored to do.

So I am not really excited by the latest attempt by Hollywood to revive flagging public interest in either the awards or the broadcast of a parade of stars nobody ever heard of. I am not stunned by the announcement that they have bribed two aging entertainers to front the program, where one old Bob Hope or ‘Johnny’ used to do nicely. I am not troubled by the new voting system for best picture, since everyone knows these awards have nothing to do with the best of anything and never have. In fact, it is precisely because low budget works of art have been making inroads in the past few years, that the money makers in Lotus-land have felt the need to pull the whole mess back from the brink of artistic integrity to the good old days of commercial viability, when studios ran the system and everyone voted for wherever they worked or else.

It is my contention that the big problem here isn’t the length of the show, the host, the big musical numbers, the boring speeches or even the technical awards. It’s that Hollywood is no long ‘glamorous’. Nowadays, everyone with a cell phone and hook-up to YouTube is a celebrity, for a while, anyways. Talent is no longer the criterion for fame. No tall poppies. And the chosen few who are supposed to stand above us all, are way too exposed as real people, with faults and foibles, chips and dents, just like everyone else. Whoever thought up the idea that making movie stars more ‘human’ made a big mistake. They are no longer far above us, ‘glittering in the cinema firmaMENT’ as Lina Lamont was fond of saying, in her distinctive voice. These days, they are shlepping through grocery stores in sweats, crashing their SUV’s in parking lots and going around without makeup, looking like hell, like the rest of us. Occasionally one even runs amok and goes dancing without panties, just for fun, but lately, those events are as rare as bathing in asses’ milk.

The mostly scrawny young actresses all look so much alike. If one stands out, it’s not long before she runs to the nearest plastic surgeon to remedy the situation. If you don’t agree, take a look at the recent cover of Vanity Fair. Without the old ‘studio system’ there is no one around who takes an interest in grooming these girls for movie stardom. Who is left in charge to change their names? Mia ‘Wasikowska’? They become the fashion victims of ‘stylists’ with not-so-hidden agendas; witness the peculiar getups they display on the ‘red carpet’. None of them can mince elegantly down a staircase like a Zigfield showgirl, hence the necessary elimination of any requirement to do so during the Oscar telecast. No more ‘big entrances’. They are herded, like cattle headed for the slaughterhouse, along that crimson path, which has become more important and, dare I say, often more interesting, than the show.

Did anyone ever wonder whether Marilyn, Raquel or Sophia was wearing Louboutins or Blahniks when she undulated across the stage to announce the next winner? These days, the curves, front and back, are usually as fake as the hair extensions, and the girls can barely locomote without clumping, like toddlers, in their mommy’s heels. It isn’t pretty. When Julia Roberts won her award a few years ago and galumphed up to the podium, hoisting her ‘vintage Valentino’ above her ankles, and let out her iconic snort, I shuddered with melancholy, for all the lost elegance of a vanished era. (To digress a little on the event, but not the theme, I know it was for the Golden Globes, but did we really want to know that Renee or Kate or whoever it was, almost missed her award when she went to the bathroom? Movie stars do not pee! Or they shouldn’t. Certainly not in public. I’ve never been able to take Nicole Kidman seriously, no matter how much she quivers and suffers, since she squatted on that toilet in Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut”. Who's in charge, here?).

Liz didn’t need to borrow her jewels from Fred or Harry when she had Richard.
We all knew the price she paid for them and it was worth it.

The pedestal of pulchritude has bitten the dust, to mix a metaphor!

As for the men, I will never understand this recent penchant for bloodless or unshaven shlubs, especially in tuxes. Except for the occasional Clooney or Eastwood, there is no more male gravitas or what they used to call, ‘star quality’. Brad, cute as he is, is no match for Newman or Lancaster, in their prime or even well beyond it. Now that I think of it that probably explains the flurry of interest over Jeff Bridges this year.

At least he acts like a man.

There’s An Old Saying….

It goes.....

“Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.”
(To which Woody Allen added, “Those who can’t teach, teach gym.”)

I would like to add another line to this truism.

It goes, “Those who teach, can’t.”
“Can’t what?” you ask.
“Can’t do much of anything else by the time they crawl home and fall onto the couch,” is my reply, and my excuse for neglecting you all week.

As adorable as you are, dear readers, your mostly silent admiration don’t pay the bills, so I have been obliged to return to the place from whence I fled, last June, and fill in for a few days a week, whenever one of my former colleagues takes what we used to refer to as ‘a mental health day’. Sometimes they are even physically ill, but often, it’s just the normal wear and tear that gets to a teacher and a day off is just what one needs to recharge the old battery. The run-up to March Break seems especially busy, this year, what with the nice weather we’re having in Toronto, this winter.

That’s where I come in. I get to play, say, Spanish teacher, even though my knowledge of the language is somewhat limited to the phrases uttered by Dora, who I didn’t even know existed till this year and who has now become a well-loved member of our family. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you have yet to be blessed with grandchildren). This week, I ‘taught’ Drama, French, and Math (can you imagine?....the teacher left little numbers and symbols on all the boards around the room and told me to tell the kids to get busy which they did. I told them if they needed any help, they had to get it from each other. The answers were in a big book on his desk and they hardly ever came up to peek!)

The benefits of returning to my old school are numerous. Familiarity with the routines and rules eliminate the possibility of being taken advantage of by some of the students who are known to try anything to drive supply teachers crazy. It doesn’t hurt that I emanate a certain confidence based on years of experience dealing with teenagers, who, I can attest, are a special kind of human being, distinct from whatever they will become, as adults, thank God. It’s nice to see old students and colleagues and chat about nothing much, over lunch in the former staff room, which has been taken over by five enormous photocopiers, risographs, and recycling bins. (The staff cafeteria is now a classroom, ever since a student drove his father’s Porsche through the wall of an English classroom, which had the misfortune to overlook the student parking lot. It was a ‘hit and run’ although they did finally catch the miscreant and force his insurance to pay for the damage. It will probably take as long as it did to build the ‘Great Wall of China’ to fix this thing, going by what the progress has been, so far, although it won’t be visible from space. Meanwhile, no more staff café.)

The interesting thing, to me, anyways, is that even though I am spared the responsibility of lesson planning, marking, meetings, and all the minutia that overwhelm a teacher in the course of an average day, I am still exhausted by the time I get home. The furthest thing from my mind is to drum up the energy to search it for ideas and put together sentences and type them out on my laptop. It’s all I can do to crawl onto the couch, flip on the remote and stare at “Your Child Ate What?” for an hour or so.

The thing about teaching is that it’s like you are an actor on stage, putting on a performance. Only the show isn’t two hours long. It’s all day. Even in the halls, when you are looking for the next classroom, you’re ‘on’. You have to be or they will eat you alive. You get used to this, it becomes part of your daily rhythm. But it really does suck the life out of you, even if, as I am learning, you have a pretty easy time of it (and many don’t). At my old school, (knock wood, pooh-pooh and all that magic curse-deflecting stuff) the kids are fairly civilized, academic and don’t want to kill each other. Lateness is the biggest problem most of the time.

And yet, I am still wiped.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Go! Canada (...already)

It’s time for my Olympic wrap-up.

As previously mentioned, I speak not as an athlete (pro or am) myself, although I did execute an astounding flying klutz down the stairs, last year, while juggling a laundry basket and cordless telephone. My husband gave me a 9.5, but he's biased.

I didn’t watch everything, although it was hard to escape the constant coverage on at least five hundred channels, but here are my observations:

Bob ‘Sleigh’
What the hell is this? What happened to sleds? When did they change it and why? Everyone knows a sleigh has eight tiny reindeer and a lot of jingle bells. In Russia, a sleigh has three horses and sable lap robes. I can’t bring myself to watch these events, where people without socks cram themselves into tin cans and hurl themselves down icy tracks. They were surprised that someone got killed? Who are they kidding? Is there a mother out there whose hair doesn’t stand on end when she thinks her child might try this? Same goes for skels and luges and anything starting with ‘cross’.
What difference does it make which way your head is pointing?
You are just an accident waiting to happen at a hundred miles an hour.

I was introduced to this sport at an early age. A summer camp friend spent her winter months in small town Quebec where life was far from interesting, according to her frequent letters. Children were not even permitted to go to movies since there had been a tragic fire in one, long ago, and so rather than install some fire exits, it was felt that the best prevention of a repeat performance was to keep the kiddies home at all times. I felt for her, especially on Saturday afternoons when my friends and I went to the Nortown on Eglinton Avenue to see such enlightening fare as “The Girl Can’t Help It” and “April Love”.
What has this to do with curling? Well, every one of her letters ended with the announcement that her mother had just gone ‘curling’. I was at a total loss as to the meaning of this activity. I supposed she meant she was going to the beauty parlour to get her hair done. What else could it be?

Years later, when I began dating my husband-to-be, I was shocked to hear that his father also ‘curled’ on a weekly basis. It was then that I learned that this was a kind of shuffleboard on ice that people played in bulky sweaters. His broom leaned against the wall in the front hall and a fine straw broom it was, unlike the sponge mops and ‘swiffers’ that are used today. There seemed to be some required celebratory drinking at the end of the match, which was also alluded to in Vancouver.

I have come to appreciate this sport a little late in life. It has a lot going for it: it’s slow enough to see what’s happening, it gets pretty exciting, but not too much, and most of all, no one can get killed.

You are looking at an old hockey fan. Just so you know, my cousin had a pair of end blues for decades and I once got to sit in them at The Gardens. Other families had jewels and fancy cars. Ours had a pair of end blues. If you don’t know what this means, I feel for you. We were a very observant family. It was not uncommon for us to leave the Passover Seder table to rush to the television during the Stanley Cup playoffs. When I was fourteen or so, I climbed up the cenotaph in front of the Old City Hall to catch a glimpse of ‘The Big M’ as the Leaf’s motorcade crawled up Bay Street in a victory parade. (I foolishly thought this was a harbinger of Stanley Cups to come). My girlfriend, Franny, had a picture of Frank as ‘rookie of the year’ taped to the inside of her bedroom cupboard door. He was cute. I knew the entire Leaf lineup and all the plays and can still hear Murray Westgate’s gruff, yet gentle voice urging me to service my car at ESSO with confidence. I do. I can’t even bring myself to think of Foster Hewitt without sighing for the good old days.

So, of course, I watched a bit of hockey. Of course, the boys won. Didn't doubt it for a minute.
I especially enjoyed watching the women’s hockey. Nicely done, girls. Too bad the rest of the world can’t cope.

I guess I haven’t been paying attention. This ‘sport’ seems to have gone completely around the bend since the last time I took an interest. First of all, I miss the judges holding up little squares of white cardboard, with marks like 7.5 or 9.0 on them. It was more personal. You could pick out the Russian judges right away and just know that their marks would be the lowest for everyone but their own athletes. It gave you sense of the order of the universe. I suppose it’s a side effect of the whole gender equity initiative thing that everyone on the ice must now look and skate like a girl. The costumes are not always flattering or attractive. I’m being kind. I remember good old Peggy Fleming once criticizing a skater for wearing something that didn’t flow properly, distracting from the line and elegance of the performance, and I thought she was being bitchy, but now I see what she meant. Boy, I see.

My 'artistic impression' this year, can be summed up in one word. Overwrought.
Arms flailing around, distracting thrusts and heaves. Exhausting. You could definitely see the work in most of the performances. None of that exquisite effortlessness of Katerina Witt.
And what’s the deal with this grabbing the blade of your skate and holding up behind you? When did that start? Can it be stopped? Please?
This was the first year I really noticed how similar the choreography was from skater to skater, except for that Russian guy who spun his arms and legs around like a windmill. A.D.D. on ice. (Apologies to hypersensitive hyper-actives, of course).

TV Coverage
The biggest competitive event of the games, the one fielding the most ‘players’, is what is affectionately called (by themselves) ‘colour commentary’. I switched around a bit, less to see what fresh perspectives could be gained, than to escape terminally boring, clichéd and often downright negative remarks coming at me at record speeds. We are all conditioned to the American perspective by now, but I was often surprised at the more balanced and enthusiastic remarks in their efforts, this year. All I can say about the Canadian coverage on CT-V is that it is a good thing I don’t own a gun. The constant pointing out of shortcomings, falls and mistakes, especially during the figure skating, had me reaching repeatedly for the ‘mute’ button. I won’t mention any names, but it wasn’t anyone who could actually skate making me crazy.

Anyone who has watched the Olympics for a lifetime, knows that the best thing that can happen to an athlete, and the Olympics, itself, is the worst thing that can happen, and so, this year, the media was pleased to present two major disasters to choose from, to harp on and wring every bit of ‘story’ out of, beyond the bounds of good taste and common sense. It was difficult to choose between the disastrous death of the Georgian luger or the unfortunate passing of Joannie’s mother. Yes, it’s pretty hard to fill two weeks of TV chatter with worthwhile commentary, so the broadcaster’s gratitude must be extended to these sacrificial lambs. Time will tell if they will last in our Olympic memories like the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan dust up, or the stress on Mary Lou Retton’s knee and the rest of us, during her gymnastics events. Remember ‘Little Olga Korbut’? Can you forget? Even if you try?

I had a hard time hearing, over and over again, how these events were the WORST things to have happened to any athletes EVER in Olympic history! I thought it was incredible that not once, was the massacre of the Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics thought to be significant enough for a passing comment.

Speaking of hypocrisy, what was all that nonsense about politically correct costumes? Let me see, it’s not ok to wear stereotypical costumes of native peoples but it’s just fine to stereotype everyone else? This became especially blatant during a skating performance by an eleven year old Vancouver lad of Asian descent, who, dressed as Urkle, gestured and mugged like Mickey Rooney’s Mr. Yunioshi in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”, thereby offending me and two cultural groups a la meme fois! The very same commentators who gasped with indignation over the Russian Aboriginal costumes, which they somehow felt hurt the feelings of indigenous tribes from the Apache to the Urapaho, thought this get-up was as cute as all get out! Nobody mentioned the offense to our men in uniform during the closing fiasco, either, where we were treated to chorines with cleavage, stripping off their Mounties outfits to “The Maple Leaf, Forever”? (And whatever happened to ‘The Thistle, Shamrock, Rose, Entwined?).

Closing Ceremonies
As for the closing ceremonies, I was kind of embarrassed. (After two weeks of PC, all bets were off).
First of all, the choice of comedy as a theme for a spectacle is probably not wise to begin with. There were never any big guffaws when the Christians were thrown to the lions, I’ll bet. Comedy is an immediate and intimate thing….sight gags, clever asides, funny faces, none of which can even be detected in a huge venue. Poor old Shatner, trying to hold the playing field while the cameras show athletes huddling round their cell phones, checking out their pictures. True, there are some funny Canadians, mostly living in Los Angeles, but it appears that none of them were consulted for this circus, which resembled nothing so much as a 1950’s CBC Variety show. Did anyone else notice a complete absence of the mention of Toronto as part of Canada in any of the big numbers? You know, the engine that drives the Canadian economy? If you don’t believe the rest of the country hates Ontariariario, especially the west-coasters, you might ponder why there was no rendition of “The Black Fly” in the widely representative program? And now that Gord Lightfoot has been resurrected, couldn’t he have been invited to give us a few verses of “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” or the “Railway Trilogy”? Just asking.

I don’t know about you, but whenever I have come upon stereotypical non-Canadians, the ones who don’t know us for the well-rounded individuals we are, (ie. Americans) they usually wonder if we aren’t just a bunch of Eskimos living in Igloos in the frozen north where all their cold weather comes from. With all due respect, this was the only cultural stereotype completely left out of the final mishmash of self-deprecating clichés.

Hypocrisy and revisionism. Two solitudes, indeed.