Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Curse of Good Television or, When Bad Things Happen to Good Viewers

It's not supposed to be like this.  Quality TV shows, critically-acclaimed and popular with viewers, should, in theory, proliferate, spawning more quality shows.  So why aren't the airwaves (and fibre-optic lines) a-quiver with top-notch, gripping entertainment?

The networks are, we all know, focused on ratings and ad revenues, so taking a chance on a series that's a little smarter, that asks more of its audience, is a real stretch for the average executive.  ("Hmm, sounds risky.  Can't we just do another reality show about people who look like their cats?")   But one big hit and everyone's trying to copy it - after all, nothing succeeds like success.

Unfortunately, in Hollywood, nothing exceeds like excess.  So, in the wake of shows like Lost, we have a multitude of programs that have large casts, multiple storylines, complicated, long-running 'mythologies', and employ non-conventional story-telling, like flashbacks, and non-sequential scenes.  (A brief digression: at what point does the non-conventional become conventional - I mean, is it before or after it's been done to death by a spate of imitators?)  And guess what?  They mostly stink.

Sure, all the ingredients are there, but this isn't like simply following a recipe and ending up with a cake as good as a master baker's.  There are an infinite number of decisions to be made on how the story is told, and even subtle variations can make the difference between the brilliant and the banal.  Not least of these is the pace at which information is doled out to the viewer.

There's a fine balance between too much and too little.  Audiences can barely wait through a two hour movie to have "the answers" revealed (now you know why you feel like you've seen the movie after watching the trailer) - imagine how much more challenging it is to make them wait three, five, seven years for a resolution to all the mysteries they've puzzled over in their favourite weekly drama.  Without regular doses of enlightenment, the audience will simply drift away.

But there has to be something held back.  Giving away all the secrets at once, and early, strips much, if not all of the appeal of these shows.  Revealing (spoiler alert!) in the first episode of The Event that the 'bad guys' are aliens was gutsy, and likely included to defuse the accusation so often hurled at Lost: "you never tell us anything big".  Can't help but wonder, though, how much more compelling a series it would be if there was more to be guessed at.  Besides, the audience will always imagine a more personally compelling conspiracy than the writers will devise, so it pays to have them at least somewhat in the dark.

Ironically, episodic television lends itself to this kind of storytelling in a way that other media can't, because of the unnatural pause between weekly installments.  The seven-day delay allows for reflection, reassessment, and discussion with friends, or - more likely these days - with a community of fans on a website.  Then, back to the tube to see if you were right (and more importantly, to prove that blowhard in accounting was completely off base).

Like a lot of things, it's harder than it looks.  As a result, there are many shows that would like to be the next X-Files, Mad Men, or (name of your TV crush here), but they just can't pull it off.  Channel after channel is clogged with wannabe's, few of which will survive.  (Flashforward? Flashed-forward to its own demise.  The Event?  Rapidly becoming The Non-EventFringe?  Well, there have to be exceptions.)

So enjoy these good shows while they're around - you'll spend the next few years channel-surfing to avoid their pale imitators.  And, of course, whining about the good ol' days.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Are we having fun yet? (None of your damned business.)

There are, it seems, two kinds of people in the world: those who insist that having a good time is a group activity, and those on whom the first group try to impose their will.

You've seen it (you may have even lived it - I know I have): at a sporting event, or concert, or even at a company party.  Some of the people are screaming their heads off, laughing, jumping around, and very obviously "having a good time".  Another group (the one I'm in) is smiling, talking, perhaps watching and listening to what's going around them, or maybe just staring at the loud people.  Thing is, I'm probably having as good a time as the screamers - I just don't show it.

The Extroverts (as I have chosen to call the screaming group) believe that you can't be having a good time if you're not showing the world that you're having a good time.  This is, for the Introverts, nonsense.  And annoying nonsense, for we keep getting asked, "Are you having fun?", or advised, "You should loosen up."  We're plenty loose already, thank you, we just don't understand why "fun" has to be broadcast.

Which brings us to those inevitable corporate, community, or even family events where someone (and they're usually an Extrovert) organizes a "fun" activity, where everyone has to participate.  Has it ever occurred to any of these people, well-intentioned as they may be, that this "compulsory fun" is, for many folks, no fun at all?  That is seems forced, and unnatural?  Fun should just happen, it can't be planned.  I mean, no one sits down and says, "I will have fun now."  You can't put it on your calendar - 1 pm to 3 pm: 'FUN!' - and you certainly can't put it on someone else's.

More to the point, if you make us do this supposedly fun stuff, that you enjoy - we don't enjoy it.  We stop having a good time, right there and then.  Screaming your head off might give you an adrenalin rush, but us - not so much.  We enjoy things internally.  Don't get me wrong, both are valid.  But let's respect our differences.

So, next time you're at a concert, banging your head and yelling, and you turn to the quiet, smiling person sitting next you and say, "You should try to enjoy yourself!", remember that we were - right up until you asked.

Monday, November 1, 2010

After the Fall - Is Autumn the most contemplative time of year?

In Spring, they say, a young man's fancy turns to, well, let's call it love.  The days are getting longer (at least, in northerly climes), the flowers are in bloom, and there's a reassuring warmth to the sunlight.  Everything seems possible.  Summer, all blue skies and beaches, is for living, while Winter, well, that's just survival.

But it's another story when evening comes early and fast.  The leaves relax their tenuous grip on the trees, and the wind blows with an increasing hostility.  Autumn is, indeed, a different beast, and it may be the season that invokes and inspires the most introspection.

The seasons are a stark, annual reminder of the cycle of life, birth through death, and the fall is that late middle age of recollection and regret.  Time to tally the myriad tasks you didn't accomplish in the glorious summer, the lofty goals of spring still unmet (that screen door isn't going to fix itself, you know), and to confidently, naively assume that there are things you can still do one more time before the temperature drops and the snow flies - a final round of golf, painting the shed.

It brings a greater appreciation, too, of things taken for granted only weeks earlier.  Who hasn't abandoned an otherwise pressing chore in order to take advantage of a beautiful fall day - a walk in the woods, a bicycle ride, an enthusiastic game of touch football?  We clutch at these moments because we can't be sure when we'll have another.

Of course, regrets and unfulfilled intentions aren't as easily dealt with as dead leaves.  (You can't, for instance, casually blow them onto your neighbour's lawn.)  There's always denial, but that's just a means of avoidance, not engagement.  It might be easier, for a while, not to look deeply into those regretted corners of our lives, but they must eventually be confronted - to continue the metaphor, they need to be bagged and left at the curb.

I've always felt that a thing should only be regretted if you could, with honesty, say that the person you were at the time could reasonably have made a different choice.  Otherwise, you're just wishing you had been someone else - and that's an entirely pointless exercise.  Better, then, to accept who you've been, who you are, and, if you decide you'd like to be someone different, or better, enact the changes necessary to make that happen.

Fall - in a year, in a life - is really just a time of transition.  And it's how we embrace that transition that defines who we are - and whether our autumn will be red, or golden - or just a yucky brown.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

On Going Down into the Bowels of the Earth, and Coming Back Out Again

I've never been trapped in a mine.

I have been underground, though, not a lot, but more than once or twice, and it's an experience I recommend to anyone.  Sure, we all understand, intellectually, that there's a lot of rock under our feet, and that some of it's (relatively) full of metal.  But until you stand in a 4 meter by 4 meter drift, looking up at the narrow vein of copper glittering golden as it runs along the ceiling, you don't understand it viscerally.  (Just don't think about the tonnage of rock above your head, if you're bothered by that kind of thing.) 

A trip to the underworld starts with the long, dark ride down in the cage - that's what miners call the elevator that traverses the shaft - the only light coming from the cap-lamps that are slung over their shoulders.  (Etiquette dictates that you refrain from  mounting your lamp on your hardhat in the cage: you'll end up blinding everyone standing in front of you.)  20 or 30 guys (let's face it, even in 2010, it's almost all guys, except for the occasional geologist, or environmental specialist) crammed in together, almost inappropriately closely, and probably all looking at you, knowing you're a visitor, because your hard-hat isn't quite dinged enough, or your coveralls are too clean.  And besides, you don't have a lunchbox.

A miner's lunchbox is, it must be said, a thing of wonder.  No small square box with a Power Rangers decal like you carried on the bus in third grade, or a nylon bag with a bottle of water strapped to the outside.  Miner's lunchboxes are large, ocean-going vessels - great stainless steel coffins with a handle on top, and the promise of a smorgasbord inside.  If you see a guy with a hardhat and coveralls carrying a gargantuan toolbox, he's not there to fix the ventilation - he's come to dine.

You drop pretty fast, and there's not much of a view, just a grey wall of rock sliding past, punctuated by the occasional flash of a tunnel.  Depending on how far down you're headed, your ears may pop.  It starts to smell both damp and dusty.

When you get off at your stop (a 'level', designated by its depth, as in "We're headed to 2200 Level"), you quickly realize a couple of things: first, 50 feet down and 5000 feet down look pretty much the same; and second, it's going to be rather dark should the lights go out.  If you ever want to see darkness, real darkness, a mine's the place to do it.  Find somewhere with no powered lights, and then turn off your lamp.  Complete darkness.  Total absence of light.  You should see it, once, just to know what it's like.  Then turn your lamp back on.

Every level has a lunchroom (no quick hops up to the surface for a Tim's, down here) - a small room blasted out of the rock, the walls painted white, and equipped with a phone, tables and chairs, possibly a microwave, and a water cooler or bottled water.  No mere break-room, this: in the event of an emergency, this is the refuge station.

When the alarm is given underground, it's usually in the form of an offensive odour.  Stench-gas (ethyl mercaptan, the stuff that makes propane stinky), is added to the ventilation system as a quick and effective way to send a message.  Auditory warnings might not work, as many of the miners will have hearing protection in place due to the proximity of heavy equipment, and depending on what the crisis is, the radio network could be inoperative.  When they smell the gas, the miners make their way to the nearest refuge station.  It has its own ventilation shaft to the surface, in case the air in the mine becomes dangerous, and materials to seal the door if they need to keep smoke out.

I've been in several such refuges, though never in an emergency, but I have to admit, I've never once envisioned being stuck in there, with 32 of my closest and dearest friends, for two months.  It's a staggering thought.  I'm not claustrophobic, and frankly you're unlikely to meet a miner who is, but it's hard to imagine being cooped up in that size space with that many people for that long and not having somebody go nuts.

Of course, nobody goes underground without the expectation that they'll be back on surface at then end of the shift.  If you allow yourself to think like that, working in a mine, you won't be working there for long.  Sure, things happen.  The power can go out.  The cage can break down.  Rock moves.  (I was once underground when the miner next to me said, "There's an event."  I looked at him.  "You mean a seismic event?" I asked.  He nodded.  All I'd heard was the sound you'd make if you hit a stone, lightly, with a rock hammer: a tap.  "Not very big," he assured me, "and not close."  Still: something, somewhere, had moved.)  But they don't happen often, and well, I mean, they won't happen to me.  Right?

The stranded miners in Chile, who against the odds returned, mostly unharmed, to their families this week, did have two things working in their favour.  One, that they had, in their subterranean prison, each other: miners, men who worked underground, knew the risks, but more importantly, understood the fragile bargain they made each day with the earth to return them safely to the surface.  But they also had a world of miners above ground, working to get them out.  In a tight spot like this, that's who you want on your side.

I'm sure I'll go underground again, and I won't go fearfully or with trepidation.  But I might step off the cage at the end of the day with a small sense of triumph.  Or maybe it will just be relief.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Benign Trespass - A Tour through Doors Open London 2010

Ever wonder what’s going on behind the tinted windows of that cool building you pass on the way to gym?  Or what they’re up to at the end of that driveway with the imposing “Private - Members Only” sign?  Maybe you’d just like to see inside the homes of the local rich and powerful?  Then you need to mark your calendar for Doors Open London.

Doors Open London is the annual event that lets the city’s residents literally get through  the front door at a variety of buildings, homes, and businesses that would not normally welcome ‘sight-seers’.  It’s a chance to view, up close, the historic, the unusual, and the fanciful.  But more than that, it’s an opportunity to engage the character of a city that doesn’t always reveal it’s personality - and meet your fellow citizens.

Now in its 9th year, Doors Open London is organized by the London Heritage Council, under the umbrella of the Ontario Heritage Trust’s Doors Open Ontario program.  Events are held in communities across the province from spring till fall, and London has opted for September.  This year there were 50 homes, businesses, churches, cemeteries, and clubs that invited the public to drop in over the weekend.  Volunteers are on hand at each location to answer questions, distribute maps and brochures, and restock the cookie tray.

It is, of course, physically impossible to hit all of the sites in a single weekend, so you have to make some choices about what you want to see.  Graveyards? Churches?  Historic homes?  You can mix the menu however you like.  And, since it’s all free, it’s OK if you can only make it to a few locations.

Here’s a somewhat random, scratching the surface, whirlwind tour of just a few of the sites in the 2010 lineup.

Western Ontario Fish & Game Protective Association

Never mind the complicated moniker - this is a private fishing club.  The property contains a 9-acre kettle pond, a remnant of the last ice age.  Club members’ dues pay to stock the pond with trout, and members are allowed to catch two fish per day.  Most craft are small fishing boats (electric motors only) or canoes.  The pond, where you can get a free boat ride, is a peaceful haven, frequented by ducks and geese, and populated with turtles.  It’s hard to imagine, as you glide slowly across the still surface of the pond, that busy Southdale Rd. is only metres away.

Brainworks (79 Ridout St. South)

Now the home of a business that works with victims of brain injuries, this gorgeous century home (built in 1910) was once the residence of London’s cigar king.  Who knew that London once trailed only Montreal in Canadian cigar manufacture?  The highlights are a beautifully paneled dining room, and an unusual stained glass cupola window.  Two of the three panels are original.

 A photo from 1981 on display shows a sapling in the front yard - the same stately tree that now reaches out to the second floor balcony.

Banting House

In need of inspiration?  How about a visit to the house where Sir Frederick Banting had the idea that led to the discovery of a treatment for diabetes.  The museum not only relates the story of Banting’s medical contributions, but other aspects of his life (and tragic death).  This was a man who not only was a pioneer in medical research, but a decorated World War I hero, who painted with the Group of Seven’s A.Y. Jackson.  Ironically, Banting considered his time in London as a struggling young doctor to be some of his most miserable years.

Agricultural & Agri-Food Canada Research Centre

Your tax dollars at work!  Actually, more like your tax dollars at play.  In a new building set on an old farm - the 19th century farmhouse still stands - the scientists who normally spend their day analyzing plant cells, or observing the mating habits of potato bugs (yes, you can get paid for that...), really went all out to give visitors to their north London research facility a worthwhile, memorable experience.  When hands-on experiments include liquid nitrogen and a hammer, dry ice soap bubbles, and miniature desktop centrifuges, you can’t really go wrong.  Throw in a tour of the labs and greenhouses, capped off with a wagon ride out to the barn, and cider...  Well, let’s just say they’ve raised the bar for the 2011 edition.

London Jet Aircraft Museum

Not far from London International Airport, in a large hangar, the London Jet Aircrafr Museum is rebuilding a CT-133 T-Bird trainer.  Used by the Canadian Armed Forces from the mid-50’s until, amazingly, 2003, these two-seater jets have inspired the passion of a group of Londoners not only to restore them to their former glory, but to bring them back to flying life.

Visitors had the chance to inspect the current project plane, partially assembled inside the hangar.  I couldn't help feeling like I'd been miniaturized, and was wandering around one of the Revell models we used build when I was a kid. 

Outside, guests could sit in an airworthy plane, and imagine themselves rocketing overhead.  And they won't have to imagine for long: the museum hopes to be offering rides to its members sometime this fall.

London Model Railway Club

Hidden in an unimposing building in south London (a former bus garage, we’re told), are the towns of Shawville and Georgetown, serviced by the Lake Erie & International Railway.  Here, some 5000 ft of track twists and curves through the building, while members of the London Model Railway Club quite literally manage their railroad.  Communication is constant between the ‘engineers’ who control the trains, and the elevated dispatch office that has a view over the entire operation.  The dedication of the club’s members is evident in the attention to detail - their miniature city has built-from-scratch buildings, cars, trees, people, and animals.  It’s a remarkable expression of their love for this hobby.

London Mosque

The reception at the Mosque was, not surprisingly, extremely friendly.  It must be a challenge to be constantly defending yourself, and your faith, to total strangers, who may or may not be making assumptions about what kind of person you are based simply on your religion. The volunteers at the Mosque were eager to answer questions, and to demonstrate how much they are like, well, everyone else.

The building itself is modern, and only simply decorated.  This is, we were told, to avoid giving the building an atmosphere aligned too closely to any particular ethnicity - the muslim community of London is diverse, including Arabs, Persians, South Asians, Indonesians, and Africans.  The intent is that the mosque should appeal to all of them, and not leave anyone feeling out of place.

The most interesting thing we learned?  The patterns on the carpet, aligned to show those praying which way to face toward Mecca, are pointing northeast (not southeast, as you might expect) - apparently, it is a shorter distance to Mecca via a great circle route over the Arctic than the intuitively “straighter” southeastern direction.

Gibbons Lodge

Atop a hill on Richmond St., north of Masonville mall, sits Gibbons Lodge, since 1961 the residence of the President of the University of Western Ontario - the incumbent gets the use of the property.

It’s a lovely stone house, set in spacious grounds, with rolling hills, a stream and pond, and a stone gazebo overlooking the ruins of what looks to be an old barn.  It was built in the 1920’s, but has been modernized, with a particular view to enabling social functions.  The president of the university is expected to entertain, frequently, and the ground floor is very much the ‘public’ area, with comfortable rooms for sitting, and lots of access to the patio beyond the windows.

The staff were especially efficient at shooing out the guests precisely at 5 pm -although I guess if it was my house (or designated residence) I'd want the riff-raff off the property as soon as possible, too.

I guess it's true what they say - we all tend to know more about what's happening on the other side of the world than on the other side of our own fence.  But by the end of the weekend, I can't help but feel I know London better than I did when I set out.  If the Doors Open program accomplishes nothing more than that, it's time well spent getting to know the neighbours. 

Thursday, October 7, 2010

And that's my firm belief. Except when it's not.

Interesting reference today in Chris Selley's Full Pundit on the National Post website, about being 'ideological'.  (Note: I recommend reading this round-up and critique of punditry every day - it's the wittiest, snarkiest thing going.  You don't have to agree with him, but enjoy the writing and the ruthlessness.  And references to "The Simpsons".)  [To see Andrew Coyne's Maclean's piece that started the discussion click here.]

The real fun began in the Comments section, where one reader suggested that utilitarianism isn't an ideology.  Really?

Well, if we're going to have an intelligent discussion about this, we'd better start with what we mean by ideology (or at least, what I mean, and it's my blog, so that's what we'll be using).  Rather than cling to a literal, limiting dictionary definition, I'm going to use the term to mean "an over-arching, foundational worldview that informs an adherent's opinions and decisions most of the time".  I might, for example, maintain that in matters of government, less is better than more.  That doesn't mean, however, that there aren't occasions when I readily agree that some government is not only required, but preferable.  To my mind, any worldview that doesn't have some wiggle room some of the time is not ideology, but dogma.

Ok, so what about utilitarianism?  If by that term, we mean, the philosophy espoused by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, whereby decisions are made based on the outcome that will produce "the most pleasure (happiness) for the greatest number", then we are, clearly, talking about an ideology.  I would guess, since the writer of the comment on the NP website didn't provide a fuller explanation, that he or she imagines that utilitarianism isn't ideological because it's objective.

Of course, it's nothing of the sort.  What are the criteria to determine the greatest happiness for the greatest number? Which greatest number - everyone on the planet?  In your country?  In your political party? And who decides?  There's a lot of subjectivity involved - doubtless some assumptions on the part of the decider about what those criteria are, and what best fulfills them, and that, to me equals subjectivity.  As rational as utilitarianism wants to be, it isn't scientific.

There are, as well, undoubtedly circumstances where the utilitarian principle would lead to outcomes that have unpleasant consequences.  (I could probably construct a scenario where the United States' "correct" utilitarian response to Hitler would have been to do nothing.  Doesn't mean it would have been the right thing to do.)  And what if "the greatest good for the greatest number" means something really, horribly bad for a few?

So, does utilitarianism meet the standard as "an over-arching, foundational worldview that informs an adherent's opinions and decisions most of the time"?  Seems to me it does.

Now, it's possible that what the commenter really meant is what's commonly called "pragmatism" - doing 'what makes the most sense' in each circumstance.  But again, one man's pragmatism is another man's heartlessness.  Or avarice.  Or fundamentalism.  Pragmatism labours under the burden of subjectivity, too.

Anyway, at the end of the day ideologies (not dogmas) are useful.  They help us identify those with whom we share common cause, and also those who hold very different views.  And let's not forget, you don't simply pick an ideology at random, and then blindly conform to it - you align to a set of ideas that most closely match the views, philosophies, and ideals you've already figured out for yourself.

And then you grant yourself the freedom to change your mind.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Artist & His Audience - We're only fooling ourselves

If a tree falls in the forest with no one around to hear it, does it make a sound?  Of course it does - but it doesn't make a splash.

Whither the artist without an audience?  Can he even be fairly called an artist?

Art, in whatever form it takes, is, in essence, a form of communication, and communication requires two parties.  It may be rewarding, satisfying, and - dare I say - fun! to write, paint, sing, sculpt, in the privacy of one's home/garage/cell for one's own amusement, but it's not, at the end of the day, the same as speaking to the wider world.  (And narcissism never draws an audience of more than one.)

Not that there isn't a certain romantic appeal to being an 'undiscovered genius'.  We've all heard stories of the writer that famous authors claim is the 'greatest living' - but nobody's read them.  Films that influenced the biggest directors - but you've never seen them.  (And they're not in Blockbuster, believe me.)  There is, however, an unfortunate synchronicity of unappreciated greatness and depression, and poverty, and bad hygiene.  Besides, there's a fine line (so fine it may be undetectable) between "great unknown" and "dilettante".

I could be (ok, hypothetically, but work with me here) writing something that would change people's lives, but who'd know?  I'm acutely aware, from past experience as a songwriter, that it's the reaction you get from people that makes it all worthwhile - the knowledge that someone, somewhere, in some small way appreciated what you created.  (Yes, yes, it'd be nice if they paid for it, but one thing at a time!)

There is at least an underlying financial dynamic in the commercial "art" world.  A play that doesn't fill the theater closes early.  A movie that can't draw the kids to the Cineplex is destined for a sudden appearance on DVD.  A book without an audience is quickly remaindered.  But in the cyberworld, it's a little different: if nobody's paying attention, does it even matter?

I can't help feeling that it does.  Having embarked on this venture, I have to wonder if anyone's reading - or will be.  And I don't want this to become a high-tech vanity project.

So: like me or loathe me.  Just keep reading.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Oh, it seemed like a good idea at the time...

For better or worse, I've taken the potentially reckless step of setting up a blog.  Everyone has one, now, right?  I mean, it's what they're doing in full-day kindergarten, yes?

I can't promise what will or won't show up here - pretty much anything I feel like writing or ranting about, that I couldn't sell somewhere else.  (Hmm, we're setting the bar pretty high here, aren't we?)  I'll try to keep it entertaining, or at least thought-provoking.  Water-cooler conversation-worthy (you know, like, "Did you see what that moron wrote last night?").  Feel free to play along.

I've been playing with words for what seems like my entire life.  I know I started writing a detective novel when I was 7, and before that some plays that were actionably similar to the Neil Simon comedies performed by the amateur theater group my Dad was involved in.

It's always been natural, crafting sentences and paragraphs.  It served me well in getting a history degree (one paper published in the History department's student journal), and I've been lucky in that it even once got me a job.  But I've never published a book, or a screenplay, and I guess I've always regretted that.  Can't help feeling there's at least one in there somewhere.

So, let's proceed, and see where this leads us.  And, hopefully, some of you might like to tag along.