MICHAEL MOORE, RUSSELL SMITH AND NORTEL

Greetings,

MICHAEL MOORE: The one-man army known as Michael Moore is about to take to your local cineplex by storm once again – Fahrenheit 911, his first film since Bowling For Columbine, will explore the complex (and deeply unsettling) business and political relationships between the Bush and Bin Laden family. His film has been selected by the Cannes Film Festival (how appropriate, given the ice cold state of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and France right now) as its’ Official Selection, which is very rare for a documentary film.

RUSSELL SMITH: He’s loved by some, hated by others, but the one thing you can’t have is a neutral opinion on the writings of Mr. Smith, a two-time Queen’s graduate (he got his Bachelor’s and Master’s in English at Queen’s back in the 1980’s) cum author, whom has just released his newest book, Muriella Pent. I’ve read about fourty pages so far – Smith just keeps getting better and better at his ability to tell uniquely Toronto stories and the people that inhabit it. Smith is slowly developing a Toronto mythos that is not unlike Mordecai Richler’s take on Montreal. Smith has some books to still write before he can lay claim to being a definitive “myth-maker” of Toronto and our quirky, neo-colonialist attitudes that permeate the city in both culture and architecture, but he’s on his way, that’s for sure. You can read his columns in the Globe and Mail here – always worth a read.

NORTEL: The former darling of the dot-com boom era (man, that feels like an eternity ago) is in some serious trouble today – both the CEO and CFO have been fired today after an internal audit discovered significant financial irregularities in reported earnings for 2003. The high tech firm, which has been struggling to recover from the tech meltdown, really began to suffer some serious problems when the company’s stock value completely collapsed in 2001. Since then, it’s made some very modest gains and was showing some signs of rebounding (albeit not in 1999 terms) before this bombshell hit today. It’s a valuable company, Nortel, so hopefully it can recover from this.

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MY ABSENCES FROM BLOGLAND… AND RED TORIES ON THE RUN

Greetings,

I know my postings online have been somewhat sporadic as of late; unfortunately, things have been very busy in the non-digital world for me and now I’m back. I can see web users around the world uniting in celebration *cough, cough.*

RED TORIES: John Ibbitson in The Globe and Mail makes a very interesting point today regarding Joe Clark and the Red Tories that are suddenly caught in a no-win situation regarding which party they should support in the upcoming federal election (keep your eyes and ears peeled for the writ being dropped very, very soon – my bet is within the next week or so the Prime Minister will call the election).

Clark, a man I respect for his principles and the fact he’s done a lot for Canada over the years including represent us on the world stage, being a mediator for the constitutional talks in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s and been leader of the Tories twice (my neo-conservative friends seem to forget from time to time that Clark’s been on the scene a lot longer than Stephen Harper and the Reform/Alliance/Conservative Party hasn’t done a thing yet to prove it’s electable), went on CTV’s Question Period on Sunday to sort of put his support behind Paul Martin for the upcoming election.

The federal election is going to be a very interesting race this time. My Liberals aren’t assured of anything now due to the sponsorship scandal and the Conservatives, NDP and Bloc Quebecois have suddenly enjoyed a massive resurgence of popularity. Where these Red Tories end up (and Ibbitson is right when he says that many Red Tories or “progressives” might find a place in the NDP) could be a deciding factor on whether or not the Liberals can form a majority government, or at least form a minority government with the NDP as an ally. Stay tuned.

THE TROUBLE WITH TREK (STAR TREK, THAT IS)

Greetings,

I’m about to get hit with the label “nerd” here due to discussing a show known as Star Trek. Yet we’re all nerds now, given the rise in popularity of the Lord of The Rings, comic-book movies and the internet in the past ten years, so I really don’t care too much if commenting on a sci-fi television franchise warrants being a geek. I’m proud of it.

Star Trek is in a crisis. The franchise has plateaued, mostly from a creative point of view, but also due to the prescence of two men who know nothing about what Star Trek is about: Rick Berman and Brannon Braga, two “TV Guys” who were thrown into the role of overseeing a franchise when the legendary Gene Roddenberry passed away in 1990.

What’s the crisis, you ask? Well, you only have to go to your TV set and turn on the latest Star Trek series, ST: Enterprise, and realize that something has gone horribly, unmistakably wrong in the Star Trek mythos. Enterprise is the first (and only) Star Trek series that makes me feel cheap, used and manipulated. It is an unrelenting disaster, ranging from the truly terrible characters, most notably Captain Archer (Scott Bakula used to be an actor I respected when he was on Quantum Leap; now, he’s basically spending every episode getting really, really angry and doing nothing else) to storylines that make you frustrated as all hell. Taking place in the 22nd century, ST: Enterprise is supposed to explain how the Federation was formed, how humanity began to deal with space travel, and how Starfleet dealt with hostile aliens (this year’s bad guys du jour: the Xindi, a multi-species empire that attacked Earth in a plot device that obviously echoed of 9-11).

This sudden “mission change” for the Enterprise crew only happened after Berman and Braga realized that their baby – a prequel series to those legends of the small and silver screen, Kirk, Spock and McCoy – was almost stillborn on delivery. The first two seasons of ST: Enterprise (2001-2003) were meandering, pointless messes. Those episodes were bereft of inspiring characters and relied on gimmicks, such as reviving “old favourites” (think the Borg from ST: The Next Generation and ST: Voyager) to capture audiences. Those were desperate times for Star Trek. Yet no one would have guessed the franchise was in this much trouble.

Season Three of ST: Enterprise has only marginally improved in the ratings, for at the heart of the Star Trek universe lies a common truth for good storytelling – character matters. Enterprise has plenty of sexual content, near-nudity and bloody violence, but the humanity that made characters like Kirk and Spock so memorable and important is nowhere to be found in ST: Enterprise.

Movie-wise, Star Trek is in even bigger trouble. Star Trek: Nemesis was a hotly anticipated release in 2002, for it was the first Trek film in four years. It was, needless to say, truly bad. My brother and I (both Trek fans) went on opening night and felt cheated after the credits rolled; how does watching a very tired-looking William Riker and Deanna Troi getting it on make me excited about a Khan-esque villian that the Enterprise crew confronted? It was a terrific premise that simply didn’t work.

So what does this mean? Is Trek almost dead? Not entirely. I blame Berman and Braga, mostly because they weren’t fans of Star Trek before they took over the franchise and simply can’t grasp what makes Star Trek special: a humanistic, progressive vehicle for social and political change that reflects on our world today. I also blame Paramount, a company that shamelessly trots out Star Trek: TNG reruns on Spike TV (and TNG remains the best Star Trek series of them all) and turns around and orders more of the same – more violence, more time-travel plot devices, more inane aliens, anything to make a quick buck.

I also blame Star Trek: Voyager for the current crisis in the franchise. I really enjoy Voyager but even I’m willing to admit that the series – a violent, morally ambiguous tale of a Federation Starship stuck 70,000 light years away in the Delta Quadrant – took the need to garner ratings too far. The series was on the verge of tanking after Season Three, so Berman and Braga introduced Jeri Ryan (incidently, Braga’s girlfriend) in as the “Sexy New Character Which Is Also Borg,” a.k.a. Seven of Nine, dumped the pedestrian plot lines in favour of pitch-black stories of genocide, homicidal aliens and psycho-kenetic assaults and upped the sex-and-violence factor by several degrees. The result? Voyager still didn’t kick ass in the ratings. It only improved marginally, because at its core, the series had characters that you simply didn’t give a damn about.

Star Trek needs to go into a hibernation, a rest period in which for a new creative team, new writers and people who truly understand what Star Trek is all about. Now, with talk of yet another Star Trek movie coming in a few years and the possibility that ST: Enterprise will be put out of its misery at the end of this TV season, maybe those true ST fans will show Paramount that no matter how many aliens you create, how many weapons you fire, it will never mean more than the characters in the franchise.

BUSH IN TROUBLE & POLITICAL CORRECTNESS

Greetings,

It’s been a very rough last couple of weeks for President George W. Bush. I can’t say I’m feeling all that sympathetic towards him, however.

The Spanish Prime Minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, pulled Spanish troops out of Iraq on the weekend, which is a significant blow to the United States-led coalition in Iraq. The American, British and Australian forces expressed regret at the actions of the socialist Spanish government, yet the Spanish PM has said that the country will never turn its back on the United Nations again.

Now this normally wouldn’t be a huge problem for the U.S., given the overwhelming firepower the Americans have in Iraq. But now that Spain has joined France and Germany as opponents of the war and, now, the occupation of Iraq, the coalition is showing signs of tension. Many “pro-war” nations that joined the “coalition of the willing” are, in the wake of the Spanish terrorist attacks earlier this year, starting to fear the very real possibility that they are targets for terrorism as well.

Now that details are emerging on the chaos that Iraq has become, Bush desperately needs a victory and soon in order to have any chance of winning the presidential election in November. Notice how John Kerry and the Democrats have barely said anything in the midst of the growing number of American casualties in Iraq? As one of my friends wisely pointed out, when you’re self-destructing, your enemies don’t have to send out their attack dogs – destroying yourself is much cheaper and easier to do. Kerry’s poised to make Bush run for his political life in the coming months, for while the Republicans have firmly solidified their electoral base thus far, the fact Osama Bin Laden made a audio recording offering a three-month truce for European countries indicates that, in spite of the European countries’ categorical rejection of negotiating with Bin Laden, Al-Qaeda is starting to paint a picture of “divide-and-conquer” and who Al-Qaeda’s perceived enemies really are. If this year has indicated anything so far, the winds of change seem to be blowing wildly.

In other words, Bush is in a position he would never have dreamed of after 9-11 – he’s on the verge of being defeated. Unless a major capture of an Al-Qaeda operative (if Bin Laden is captured before November, which is a distinct possibility given that the U.S. government sat on Saddam Hussein’s capture for months before they went in and got him in order to score political points) or the economy undergoes a radical transformation for the better, the G.O.P. is in serious trouble.

POLITICAL CORRECTNESS: You can always count on Arts & Letters Daily to provide you with a daily dose of brain food like this insightful post on the cult of political correctness.

I’ve never been a big fan of the PC Police, mostly because I value free speech more than anything else in a democratic society. At times, I have been rightly accused of self-censorship in order to “not offend anyone” in ways that could be seen as being insensitive. The basic theory of the piece is simple: don’t blindly accept what language and culture assumes is the “correct” form of dialogue. Obviously when certain commonly accepted and morally essential cultural values turn up in speech – i.e. racism is bad, which it is – you use them because in a democracy, even certain unwritten limitations on forms of speech exist because it is the culturally right thing to do. Democracy is not purely participatory; certain apparatuses exist in order to ensure free speech exists, but also to protect people from the effects of that speech, given the horrors of hate speech and other awful things like that. When someone says something hate-filled, those people have the right to say what they say, yet it doesn’t mean we should defend what they say.

Yet the State cannot predicate speech as “culture” and vice-versa all the time; if you do not embrace “vice” while embracing “virtue” at the same time – that is to say, a dirty joke can be spoken to incite laughter and to reflect on our own sense of what is morally “right” in that we laugh at that dirty joke – you cannot know the full gravity of what constitutes speech, dialogue and debate. So if someone says something offensive and evil, you cannot be the judge of what they say as being banned because you don’t like it. They can speak, but that doesn’t mean Society has to believe what they say as true or even remotely moral. It does give people who disagree with that point of view license to debate, argue and even mock certain points of view as ignorant and sick, however.

KILL BILL

Greetings,

After a crazy busy day I went and saw Kill Bill: Volume 2 today with a few other friends – what a finish! This film was distinctly different from the first one; whereas Volume 1 was a veritable non-stop action flick, Volume 2 was much more cerebral, more dialogue-focused. The audience finds out the true motivations for Bill’s attack on The Bride (Uma Thurman) and she gets her revenge against Elle (Daryl Hannah, in a really, really sadistic role) and Budd (Michael Madsen), although not in the way you originally would presume (you have to see it to understand what I mean).

The surprising part of Volume 2 was the emotional sensitivity and humanity that shined through on the subject of the relationship between The Bride and Bill. It wasn’t the ending you’d expect (Tarantino never easily imparts an ending; you really have to work through this film to get the truly satisfying end) but it did end on a bitter-sweet note.

All in all, Kill Bill managed to transcend the idea of a “revenge” film and turn the characters’ and their motivations into something complex, subtle and fascinating. The dialogue was diamond-sharp, the action unbelievable (the way Daryl Hannah’s character, um, “confronts” The Bride is both shocking and halirious) and the story unconventionally brilliant.

Score another one for Tarantino’s wild, mad genius persona.

REALITY TV, MARLENE DIETRICH AND THE MIND OF QUENTIN TARANTINO

Greetings,

If you’re like me, a young, reasonably cultured Central Canadian with a flair for passionate rantings, you’re likely to wonder why it is worth spending time writing on topics related to the pursuit of blood, flesh and revenge. You see, in the mind of every well-read, erudite young person beats the heart of a hedonist. It’s karma, you understand: reading a Thomas Pynchon tome, listening to CBC Radio Two and discussing why nationalism is the real opiate of the masses can be intellectually intoxicating, yet overwhelming to the senses. That’s why writers are a modern version of court jesters; we serve mostly to entertain and rarely to inform. Let’s face it, the public would rather discuss why Average Joe is an Important Show above the virtues of TVOntario. The groin will always win out in the end. And besides, we writers indulge our “senses” more than any other profession.

Reality TV is really a form of self-loathing. For anyone who claims to “hate” reality TV and what it represents – the moral and creative bankruptcy of American television studios – the thrill of watching people be humiliated is as time-honoured as the Roman Forum. And if you really think about it, Reality TV may be cheap (both financially and morally) but it’s the ultimate sign of a society that’s so wealthy, so powerful, that our sense of self-worth is translated into power. And I’m not talking power over bodies – this is a form of power that assumes, rightly or wrongly, that being a Celebrity is the highest goal an individual in the West should achieve, and you better get your 14:59 before someone else does. It’s your right from birth, damnit.

Yet Reality TV also points to a vacuum in modern life for meaningful connections to others. While technology has the remarkable ability to bring people closer together in the literal sense, it can be tremendously isolating in the social sense. In effect, Schadenfreude is the cry of loneliness for this era, a time where the very public spectacle of ordinary folks doing not-so-ordinary things (singing sugary Elton John tunes for millions, eating exotic beetles for cash prizes and near-perfect physical specimens mocking equally near-perfect specimens) is entertainment for the masses. The more isolated you become, the more you crave spectacle to liven up your life. And this is what shows like American Idol, The Bachelor and MTV Cribs do on their best days – the ability to show worlds that claim to be meaningful, romantic and sensual. It really is even better than the real thing, for it is as real as you choose it to be.

There are characters throughout history that manage to transcend normality and ascend to the heights of sexual icongraphy. These are real celebrities, the ones that are unmistakably present in both conscious and unconscious life. One such star is Marlene Dietrich, a German-born actress who made a significant dent on Hollywood back during the days of Chaplin, Pickford and Keaton. Her gift to the movies was a kind of deep cover erotica. Every expression of Dietrich’s face was a wink-and-nudge to the repressed carnality of early 20th century audiences; her experiences in Weimer Republic Germany of the 1930’s was a training ground for exploring how people dealt with sexuality portrayed on screen. She was a muse for a time of deep political and economic uncertainty, for she yielded a power over much more than the movies – she firmly instilled the notion of the detached, glamorous Celebrity.

Today, the heir to Dietrich’s throne is none other than Uma Thurman – an actress that not only bears a striking resemblence to Dietrich, but has proven to be as complex and fascinating an actor as Dietrich. This Friday marks the release of Kill Bill Volume 2, the latest film from the twisted mind of Quentin Tarantino. Tarantino has said Thurman is his muse, someone who takes acting from an interpretative art to a creative one. Tarantino understands how important it is to have actors that, while not always trendy at the time, represent the clearly defined parameters of the Star and what a character demands.

More to come…

CANADA AND THE U.S.

Greetings,

For human beings, there is only one universal constant that defines our species on a daily basis: friends. Sure, some of our closest confidents may be many kilometres away, or that our friends make decisions that puzzle and frustrate us at times, but you stand by them no matter what they do.

Canada and the U.S. have that kind of relationship – a dynamic, ever-changing friendship among nations, governments and individuals.

Both countries enjoy a “special” relationship that few countries in the world have. We’re tied to each other in ways that no other country – not even the United Kingdom – can appreciate or understand. And sometimes, our opposing interests create conflict not just between governments, but the population-at-large. Anti-Americanism is a major theme in Canadian social life, mostly because Canadians, in our relentless struggle for a national identity, find solace in the “I’m Not American” mantra of geopolitics.

Here we are, in 2004, and Canadians are now leading the world in Anti-Americanism. It’s trendy to hate America now. After 9-11, I, along with the vast majority of Canadians, suddenly realized that hating the American way of life just because it was “American” was silly and immature; indeed, the rush of sympathy for our neighbours to the south after the terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington didn’t emerge out of our national self-interest – we felt the Americans’ pain because it was our pain too.

Today, that goodwill has been lost. The entire planet is awash in hatred of all things American, given the actions of the Bush Administration since those very dark days of September 2001.

Many people make the miscalculation that the United States and the United States government are one in the same. This is not true. There is a lot to admire about America, especially in its remarkable development of business and technological infrastructure over the last 200 years. And while many American organizations have done as much evil as they have done good in this world, how many countries can honestly say they are without sin? Can France and Germany say they’re absolved of any historical blunders due to their reticence to fight in the war in Iraq? Can Canada say that? No.

To be fair, I’m glad our government did not go to war in Iraq. That little imperialist adventure is quickly turning into a 21st century version of Vietnam. And Canada should not blindly do whatever the White House wants, given the sometimes-overwhelming spectre of U.S. interests both at home and abroad.

A phrase I heard once seems particularly appropriate to the current state of Canada-U.S. relations: “Small minds mistake opposition for disloyality.” Rational thinking indicates that, if a truly legitimate threat for Weapons of Mass Destruction existed in Iraq before the war, Canada would most definitely enter the conflict. Canada made this mistake before back in the 1960’s with the Cuban Missle Crisis. President Kennedy did present evidence that the Soviet Union was funding short and medium-range weapon silos in Cuba and the Canadian government waffled on activating NORAD in preparation for a potential war with the Russians. The Americans had every right to be angry at us for that. Since then, I’d like to think any decision the Canadian government made in going to war would be based on either a serious threat to North American defense or going through the United Nations.

In other words, national sovereignty, ideally, should be maintained without putting our allies’ interests in trouble. It’s a tough balancing act to maintain but is not impossible.

I don’t like the current Bush Administration and I’m willing to go on record saying that. The neo-conservatives have hijacked the Republican Party, turning the U.S. government into a weapon of imperalist, narrow self-interest.

No doubt, America was the only country hit by the worst terrorist attack in human history three years ago. Therefore, America does bear the brunt of the financial and political burden of fighting an abstract war against a shadowy terrorist network. Yet while America has every right to defend itself and its interests, there has to be a better way than this.

For Canadians, we have a moral obligation to upgrade our military and make it compatible with the American armed forces. We simply cannot pretend that peacekeeping is our only military goal. Being a Middle Power, loaded to the tilt with diplomats and U.N. sanctioned blue berets, doesn’t automatically ensure we have influence in the world. Our military needs major equipment upgrades and we must try to show our American friends that we do care about them and that we want to live up to the terms of agreements like NORAD once again.

That being said, we were better friends by not going to Iraq than we would have been if we had gone. Friends who refuse to tell others when they’re doing something wrong aren’t real friends – they’re wannabes, desperate for the approval of someone richer, more powerful. Blindly accepting the logic of someone without thinking about the long-term consequences is akin to jumping off a bridge because they did it too. It’s dangerous, passive and short-sighted.

We’re entering a strange time in history, a world that has become infinitely more violent and has war on our doorsteps. Canadians should do more to contribute to the War on Terrorism, no doubt. Yet don’t insist we do it blindly for what George W. Bush wants.