Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Wizard of Oz as you never wanted to see it


It was very strange to see these again. This is a bizarre take on The Wizard of Oz, with everything turned upside-down: Rusty the Tin Man really is heartless and nasty; Socrates the Straw Man (straw man? Just what IS a straw man, anyway? Sounds like something out of The Wasteland: "We are the hollow men, head-piece filled with straw") is really brainless; Dandy the Lion (an interior decorator who has definite "tendencies") is scared shitless of everything. So the weird twist in the original, i. e. that the characters already possessed the things they wanted, is twisted the other way. Nobody has any good qualities at all. The result is. . . pretty twisted.

You can find virtually pristine-quality videos of this 1961 series on YouTube, but for some reason the opening and ending sequences have been cut. When I look at them, it's very strange: I originally watched them on a grainy b & w set, so seeing them looking so brand-new and vividly, even garishly coloured is disconcerting. Almost hallucinogenic. Were the animators dabbling in exotic '60s substances, I wonder?

I wanted to include those opening and closing sequences, so I had to use this faded, slightly blurred cartoon as an example, even though it doesn't include all the characters (i.e. the Wicked Witch, who has a voice that could shred steel). There are other oddities, such as teardrop-shaped munchkins that seem completely expendable (i.e. they are casually killed in nearly every episode), a Wizard that talks like W. C. Fields, a dragon that pops up now and again (scaring the shit out of Dandy), and a land where everything is upside-down.

I can't find any one cartoon that gets all this across, so I chose this one where the main three characters demonstrate their "special" qualities. When I was about seven and watching these for the first time, I just sucked it all in like Jell-o or Junket or Cream of Wheat, without analyzing it. It's only now that I see how very strange and even disturbing it all is.

(Post-script: someone posted a comment on YouTube claiming that these cartoons were made in Canada, and I wondered: could it be? They were produced by an American animation giant, Rankin-Bass, best known for their cheesy-but-beloved Christmas specials with stop-action figures that reminded me of that annoying little Alka-Seltzer guy.  (And Davy and Goliath? We'll get into that later.) This series isn't stop-action, in fact it falls under the category of hallucinogenic art. But when I began to probe, some familiar names popped up. This series was apparently created by the '60s entertainment impresario Budge Crawley. Among the voice actors were Bernard Cowan and Carl Bana: I remember Cowan as an announcer on game shows or something. All Toronto guys. Well, why not: Spiderman was voiced by Paul Soles, a veteran Canadian jack-of-all-trades actor and entertainer, and where would we be without catch-phrases like "Walloping web-snappers!" and "My spidey-sense is tingling." There's just something about Canadians. Strange people.)

The best TV theme song of all time!

No doubt about it. Superchicken has it all over Quick Draw McGraw and Deputy Dawg and even Cool McCool for great theme songs, summing up all that was super-cool about that era in animation.

"That" era being the '60s, which immediately gives away my age. Good thing I don't give a rip about it.

It's not just the lightning-fast delivery, it's the split-second montage of images - not equalled or even approached until The Big Bang Theory - that makes this theme song memorable.

I found a clip of Jerry Seinfeld singing it once. I can't, but it's still fun to watch.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Angelina's Leg: can you say "Pilates"?

I don't know what it is about the Oscars. All right, I do: it's kind of like Christmas, with a huge buildup that lasts weeks or even months, and a lot of attention paid to tinsel, glitz and appearances. The other common point is money: the whole thing is so bloody expensive. And over so soon, leaving a sort of hangover, ashes in the mouth, a "maybe next year" feeling.

Last night I was looking forward to Billy Crystal's return as emcee: he was boffo in the '90s, after all, riding in on a horse the year City Slickers came out (but then I realized, with a twinge of shock, that it came out in 1992!). His much-celebrated montage of Oscar-nominated pictures at the start fell flat, lacking the full-tilt craziness of his former. . . scratch that, it's unfair. "Former"
 means 20 years ago, the guy's about 68 now, and to be honest a lot of the younger viewers didn't even know who he was. And I could have done without that strange-looking shoe-polish-blackened hair. Give me a grey head, or even a bald head, over Hair in a Can.

But we don't watch the Oscars for the host, his hair or any other sort of content, not even for the actual awards. I groaned when The Artist grabbed some of the biggies, including That French Guy (who honestly creeps me out with his greasy smile) getting Best Actor for leaping around and not saying anything. I live and die for silent film, but maybe that's why I just couldn't warm up to this now-Best-Picture, which failed to capture the intimacy and magic of that flickering black-and-white world.

So why do we watch this 3-1/2 hour parade of show-biz superficialtiy and blatant narcissism? It comes down to one question: "Who are you wearing?" Not "what". Now we wear a person, evidently. Octavia Spencer even said that her designer "did" her, which sounded a little off . It's fun to watch these mostly-slender, mostly-young women slink around in gowns that look too tight to sit down in (and how on earth do they go to the bathroom?). But some can pull it off (or put it on), and others can't.

To quote the title of one of the nominated films, Hollywood celebrates its war horses, which is not to say they can't be handsome. Meryl Streep has won the right to wear anything she damn well pleases, and if she wants to drape herself in gold lame, so be it. And this made her third Oscar a nicely-co-ordinated accessory, if a little hard to slip into her clutch purse.

But early reviews of this lumbering ceremony complained that the heavy-looking metallic dress, combined with an acceptance speech that conveyed more embarrassment than gratitude, just added to a certain awkwardness that pervaded the evening.  Meryl, after 16 nominations, made the trifecta, but seemed to wish someone else had won instead.

The most elegant Oscar gowns always seem to strive for a retro flavor, but if Hollywood really looked back, it would be in for a few surprises. Not that the gowns this year weren't elegant - there were a few that I loved, including one that stuck up for us war horses over 50.  But there is something - what, tasteful? What an awful word, but that's it - about Old Hollywood that is never matched in the new, no matter how retro the designers try to be.

That ubiquitous Mother Courage/Mia Farrow stand-in Angelina Jolie has never been one of my favorites: she emanates a certain brittle sense of entitlement that turns me off.  But this dress was. . . no, it was not the dress, it was the way she wore it, or rather didn't wear it,  thrusting her leg out so far that everything showed, not just up to but past crotch-level.

One cannot imagine Grace Kelly ever doing that.

The fact that the leg screamed "Pilates" didn't make much difference, because the sinewy Jolie has the kind of lean-to-the-point-of-painful look required in order to have these bizarre creations painted on.

Who designed this thing? Did they forget to sew a seam at the front? To use a haute couture expression, who gives a rip. Let's move on.

A dress should not embarrass or frighten an audience, but this one did. Again, it wasn't the dress, which is the standard skin-fitting thing with all sorts of busy starburst details. It was the way Jennifer Lopez wore/didn't wear it. As I was watching her up there on live TV beside Cameron Diaz, I said to my husband, "Isn't that her. . . " "No." "I see it, though, just the edge of it." "No, they put tape on them." "But if the dress moves 1/8 of an inch or
something. . . " "Then yeah."

It was a nip slip.

Or at least it came perilously close, and some Tweeters and Woofers out there insisted they did see the edge of the little nipper just peeking out. But why wear such a risky dress, unless you want to create the kind of suspense that makes most people cringe?

But there was someone who knew how to wear Old Hollywood and bring it off with stunning style. Wearing an Oscar gown requires runway skills that many actresses just don't possess: sticking your leg out (or your nipple, for that matter)  just doesn't cut it. But Milla Jovovich posed with elegance and class, while avoiding the self-absorption rampant among these celebrity clothes-horses. This was one of those gowns that reminded me of Ginger Rogers in movies like Top Hat and Flying Down to Rio.


But I've saved the best 'til last. Oscar usually gives "older" actresses (i.e. over 50) short shrift in the Best and Worst-Dressed departments. I always watch out for Helen Mirren and Judi Dench, whom I didn't see last night. But Glenn Close swept in and mowed them down like a row of dominoes.

I've sometimes had the thought - one of my stranger thoughts, admittedly - "if I ever had to wear one of those really chi-chi gowns, would I have to expose that much arm and shoulder?" How good does the average 50-year-old look in those stiff strapless stand-up-by-themselves things, unless she Pilates-es like mad for months before?

Voila: the solution. A jacket! I have always loved jackets anyway, but to make one work with a gown this dramatic is true genius. Everything comes together here, the intense evening-green (and green is not usually one of my favorites), the satin lapels, the flared-out mermaid hemline. I only wish I could see the shoes.

The hair and the smile and the utter confidence and joie de vivre of her stance made Glenn Close the queen of the evening. Even if she didn't win anything, she nevertheless  carried it off to perfection.

(Post-script. I just looked up Glenn Close's birth date. Let no one ever again make snide remarks about senior citizens! At 65, Close swept the field and left all those skinny little fillies in the dust.)

Friday, February 24, 2012

Harold Lloyd: the ghost behind the wall

Ghost signs from Vancouver’s past spring up to haunt us still

Ninety years after it was covered up by a building, a “ghost sign” for a 1922 movie has reappeared at Granville and Robson.
 Ghost signs from Vancouver's past spring up to haunt us still
Photograph by: Jenelle Schneider, PNG
VANCOUVER — Ninety years after it was covered up by a building, a "ghost sign" for a 1922 movie has reappeared at Granville and Robson.

The demolition of a few buildings in the Granville/Robson block has unveiled a "ghost sign" advertising a Harold Lloyd movie at the Capitol Theatre.
The sign promotes the Harold Lloyd comedy Grandma's Boy, which played at the Capitol theatre Oct. 2-7, 1922.

The sign is painted onto the north wall of the Power block at 817 Granville, across the street from where the Capitol opened in 1921. Hence the sign includes a red circle reading "Capitol over there," and features a wonderful disembodied hand with a finger pointing across the street.

The sign reappeared during the demolition of the three-storey Farmer building at 801 Granville. The Farmer building was constructed in 1922, so the Lloyd sign would have been covered up almost immediately after it was painted, and hidden for nine decades.

Signs like this are called ghost signs, because of their ghostly faded beauty and/or because they advertise long-dead businesses.

Several ghost signs have cropped up in recent years in Vancouver, including a lovely ad for Shelly's Bakery on Victoria Drive and a bunch of long-hidden painted signs on the Woodward's building. Part of an old painted sign for the Pantages theatre showed up on the side of the Regent Hotel when the 1907-08 theatre was being torn down.

Still, heritage expert John Atkin says he's never seen a painted sign for a movie, which would have had a short shelf life.

"You can certainly see movie posters and billboards [in old photos], but not [signs] painted on the wall," he said.

"I think the management of the theatre took advantage of the brief period when a building [on the corner] was demolished and before construction started on the new one."

Harold Lloyd is largely forgotten today, but he was one of the giants of the silent screen, a comic genius whose popularity once rivalled Charlie Chaplin. Like many silent stars, he cranked out movies at a breathtaking pace - he made 205 films between 1913 and 1947, including 40 short films in 1919 alone.

By 1922 he was doing longer features such as the 60-minute Grandma's Boy, which an ad in the Oct. 1, 1922, Vancouver Sun called his "first five-reel comedy."

The movie was released a month before it hit Vancouver, and was already a huge hit. The Sun ad boasted Grandma's Boy "holds the world's record for continuous comedy run in one theatre - over 450,000 people have seen it in one house in Los Angeles and it's still running!"

It played the Capitol for only a week before moving to the Dominion for a week and then leaving town. A painted sign would have cost the owner of the Capitol much more than hanging a poster, but would have grabbed attention away from competition like the Tom Mix movie The Big Town Round-Up that was showing at the Rex, or the Cecil B. DeMille movie Manslaughter at the Dominion.

The full glory of the painted ad for Grandma's Boy may be unveiled over the next few days as the building that covered it up comes down, brick by brick. But it won't be visible long, because the building it's on is also coming down, save for the facade.
The Power block dates to 1888, with a distinctive art deco facade that was added in 1929. It originally housed a saloon, later became a bank and in recent years was the location of Charlie's, a used CD/DVD dealer.

Both 801 and 817 Granville are being redeveloped into a five-storey building that will have two floors of retail on the bottom and three floors of office space above. The new building will have a contemporary glass facade, but the deco facade from the Power block will be incorporated into the new structure, because the facade was designated on the city's heritage register.

The rest of the Power block will come down, however, including the wall with the ghost sign. The city will be documenting the sign with photographs.

Another historical quirk unearthed during the demolition is an old "areaway" under the sidewalk along Robson. An areaway is a room under the sidewalk that merchants used to expand their premises in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. You can often tell where they're located because there are small purple glass bricks in the sidewalk that were installed to bring light into the space.

The original Capitol theatre was torn down in the mid-1970s and replaced by the Capitol Six multiplex. That in turn was torn down in 2006, and replaced by a condo tower, the Capitol Residences.

OK. With considerable weariness, I write about Harold Lloyd once again: in a startling bit of synchronicity, a painted sign advertising one of his most popular movies has been uncovered in my home town. Up to now it was covered up by a brick building. Everyone's scratching their heads over the fact that a mere movie would warrant an ad painted on a brick wall, but though the writer insists HL is "largely forgotten today", he was HUGELY successful back in 1922, to the point that it would not have been surprising if someone painted a bloody canvas and hung it in the Louvre every time a new Lloyd movie came out.

I don't know if this is synchronicity or not. For a long time the name Lloyd was coming up two, three, even FIVE times a day under different circumstances. Like the Gloria Baptist Church, situated at the corner of Gloria and Lloyd (Gloria was the name of his daughter). Like the movie with four different Lloyd references in it. I was going insane, and I'm still going insane.

I became so possessed by HL that I wrote a novel about him called The Glass Character, and though a sane person surely would have given up by now, I haven't: I just hate myself too much, I guess. I want to see this published before I die.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Flying Down to Rio, the hard way

Just discovered this at the end of an otherwise-unremarkable old '30s musical, Flying Down to Rio. I started watching it coz it had Fred and Ginger in it, but as it turned out they were only in it for about 3 minutes, doing one dance number that wasn't anywhere near their best. This was their first movie turn however, and they stole the show.

That said, I was about to ditch the thing in boredom when THIS incredible sequence came on. It's almost surreal in its gleeful beauty, with sexy but innocent young women cavorting on the wings of planes. If you look closely at 1:33, you'll notice some of the girls suddenly lose their dresses in the breeze and continue their wriggly dance, apparently, in their birthday suits. At 1:45, you'll see that their shirts are practically transparent, no bras on underneath. We'd call that a "nip-slip" and cut the scene out of network TV. This was pre-Code Hollywood, obviously, before the bitter repression of the Hays Office took all the fun out of everything and sex had to be implied with a raised eyebrow and a crooked pinkie.

Maybe this was all done on a sound stage, but it looks pretty good to me. Even the music is free-spirited and energetic,  a touch wild, foretelling the delightful Piccolino number at the end of Top Hat (my favorite Fred and Ginger movie: oh, that dress made out of feathers!). There's a sort of vibrating hum in the background suggesting, I suppose, plane engines or - vibrators?

The world according to Mediocrates







If there are no mistakes, then why am I such a screwup?

There are only two mistakes one can make along the road to truth: not going all the way, and not starting.

Experience is simply the name we give our mistakes.
Oscar Wilde

Do not fear mistakes. You will know failure. Continue to reach out.
Benjamin Franklin

Mistakes are always forgivable, if one has the courage to admit them.
Bruce Lee

There are no mistakes, no coincidences. All events are blessings given to us to learn from.
Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

If you’re not making mistakes, then you’re not doing anything. I’m positive that a doer makes mistakes.
John Wooden

Making mistakes is the privilege of the active. . . Only those who are asleep make no mistakes.
Ingvar Kamprad

OK THEN! I've been wanting to write about all this for some time now, and it seems even more relevant in light of some recent events.

I am constantly coming across quotes about how desirable it is to make mistakes. We should make lots and lots of them, or else it proves we aren't doing anything. These quotes can come from business wizards like Steve Jobs, or spiritual bigwigs like Buddha, or meatball-eating furniture magnates like Ikea founder Ingvar Kamprad (whom I always thought was an actor in one of those . . . movies . . .  you know the ones I mean).

The reality is somewhat different.

I think people say these things to try to alleviate the excruciating embarrassment and even humiliation that can arise from a single mistake. They're trying to make themselves feel better, not just you, and not just for past or present-day mistakes but as a sort of immunization against the humiliation of mistakes as yet unmade.

People are fired because of a single mistake, and their careers and self-esteem sometimes never recover. People lose their spouses because of a mistake (an affair? It happens, believe it or not), changing not just the course of their lives, but the lives of children and grandchildren and all their friends, who may not know on which side their loyalties should fall. (It's always one way or another, folks.)

One mistake, even one clumsy social error, can lodge itself in people's memory like one of those sticky-burr things. If you are kind and gracious 99% of the time, and fuck up 1% of the time, guess what people will remember?

I won't mention any names here, because I can't, but I once worked with an agent who ran into some problems approaching a publisher. The managing editor said, "I hate Margaret Gunning!" When asked why, he said, "Because she panned one of our authors." Something like ten years earlier, I had written a "negative" review of one of their books (I had certainly not trashed the book but felt it didn't cohere, which matched the opinion of the majority of other reviewers).

Was it a "mistake"? I was just doing my job, which is NOT to write synopses or dishwater generic non-reviews providing no critical analysis whatsoever. But even if it wasn't a mistake, it seemed to have created a rancor which would live forever. To that particular publisher, no matter what else I did to redeem myself,  my name would always be mud.

So imagine what would have happened if I HAD made a mistake, even a little one!

I've misfired on emails before, sent them the wrong way.  Doesn't everyone do this? I thought so, until I did it myself. Again, it was a publisher, and it was a mistake, and no one said "it's OK to make a mistake, it's the way we learn" or anything like that. Instead I got an email back saying, "Do you realize what you've just done?" You could hear their gasp of horror.  According to them at least, I had done so much damage with a single click that it turned out to be irreparable. Those people will never forget. And there was nothing vindictive in my email, nothing abusive, just information they should not have received.

I goofed. I clicked. I was dead.

Is it just me? If it's just me, I might as well commit suicide right here and now. If I am to believe all these wonderful quotes and the people who insist you should make as many mistakes as you possibly can in the course of a day (and maybe they mean "mistakes" like borrowing someone's pen and forgetting to give it back), then perhaps it's true. Perhaps I'm the only one who suffers massive repercussions from a mistake, hostility, rancour, and the feeling that what I've done is totally and permanently unforgiveable.

So OK. Let's take a look at these quotes that everyone finds so comforting:  Kubler-Ross for a start.

There are no mistakes, no coincidences. All events are blessings given to us to learn from.

Kubler-Ross became world-famous for her "stages of grief" theory, which automatically found near-universal acceptance with therapists and clergy and every other type of counselor until someone decided, many decades later, to do some research on the subject. They discovered that there are no stages of grief, and that everyone processes grief differently. The original premise was "stages of dying", so Kubler-Ross was not entirely responsible for this misinformation. Her theory applied to people who were terminally ill and trying to come to terms with approaching death.

I don't think she ever intended these stages to be lodged in neat compartments, to be worked through sequentially over a set period of time, but that's what happened. Therapists began to require patients to "go through the stages", and if they didn't, they were pushed to do so. Come on, it's time for the anger stage now! Why aren't you angry? And how about some bargaining? You can't go on to acceptance until you do.

So what was the mistake here? The biggie was universally embracing an untried idea just because it sounded good. Her theory was appealing because those neat stages helped to regulate and contain something that most people find overwhelming, a force of nature that seldom shows any mercy.

I'd like to believe - OK, I wouldn't like to believe, because it's too out of touch with reality - that "all events are blessings given to us to learn from". I know New Age people who believe this, but I can't. I can't because I have known people who have lost infants to disease and children to horrific accidents and had to try to pick up the pieces. I can't because I watch the news every day and see with what horrifying regularity people are casually slaughtered by crazed gunmen who one day decide they'd like to spill a little blood.

These are the extremes, but there are plenty of them. I can't believe "all events are blessings" when I watch a documentary about Auschwitz or Dachau. (Calling the Third Reich a "mistake" is the understatement of all time, but with neo-Nazism thriving and even considered "cool" by some young people, did we really learn from it?)  I am still trying to figure out how an intelligent person can embrace this obvious fallacy. If your son commits suicide, is it a blessing? If you lose all your money and become homeless? I won't go on.

I can't compare events in my own life with tragedies of this magnitude. But I have experienced the alarming ways in which technology makes it even more costly to make a mistake.

I recently experienced one of those examples of the hellfire the internet can put you through. Because of something I wrote, I wasn't just roasted: I was mocked, excoriated, ridiculed, called nasty names, and made to look thoroughly stupid on someone's blog.

Obviously I had made a mistake. It was a bad one, I saw it quickly, deleted it and did what I could to make amends for it. I'd posted something that should never have been posted. Since I could not turn back the hands of time and un-write it, I could only do what I could do, and keep it brief, because over-apologizing is the biggest mistake anyone can make.

But I don't think it did one iota of good, and at best I was probably seen as covering my ass in a  gesture of self-preservation. I realize now that this was a mistake that might just live forever. "Delete" doesn't do anything to erase people's memory.

It doesn't matter if I did 99 things right. That hundredth thing may spell the end of my perceived integrity and worth as a writer, and even as a human being. And now that we are in the age of blogging and internet and social media, one mistake can explode massively in a matter of seconds. It can go viral, reaching hundreds, thousands, and even millions of people in the blink of an eye.

Blessings given for us to learn from? By the time we get around to learning from them, we may be ruined. Human brains always retain the negative, we seem to have evolved that way, while positive and neutral events just sort of wash away with the tide. Combine that with the supernova-level, instantaneous communication that exists today, and you could have a recipe for disaster.

I approach Facebook and other such systems with leeriness now. If I try to "friend" someone and it turns out they are the friend of someone whose book I panned in 1998, might they diss me on Facebook, their blog or elsewhere for being an opportunist, rude or just plain stupid? Do I "friend" more than one publisher, or will that be a conflict of interest? If I ONLY friend one publisher, what sort of idiot am I who can't do business with social media, which is in large part what it is set up to do?

But if you admit that, oh boy. Embarrasment! Everyone looks away. Everybody knows Facebook is just a friendly chat over the back fence, and anyone who even thinks it might be a form of making business contacts is either gauche or completely mercenary.  An elephant has suddenly appeared in the room and deposited 50 pounds of shit, and nobody knows where to look.

Maybe I was just behind the barn door when the rules were passed out. But it seems to me we'd all better watch our step. Making mistakes is a luxury which I think is the province of those alpha personalities who end up founding Ikea and changing therapeutic practice forever. The rest of us poor schlubs had better beware.

P. S. This post was written before the death of Alex Colville. The painting still remains one of my all-time favorites, speaking with no words about forces which are about to collide with catastrophic impact. It strikes me as strange that artists get to make these kinds of statements, but when writers do it they're being "negative" and going against the tide of happy-face philosophy that - as far as I am concerned - collides with reality.


Dear Sir or Madam, will you read my book
    It took me years to write, will you take a look