Houses of Cards

Francis UrquhartWhile there are parallels between them, there is no direct, simple comparison between the original, British mini series, House of Cards, and the American series of the same name. The latter, aired 13 years after the original, owes much of its first-season content to the BBC’s production, but it quickly went its own way. Like its contemporary, The Bridge, the American version took on a life of its own – and a very distinct, American character – and can’t be considered a simple adaptation. Both are excellent shows.

In part, the vast differences between American and British political systems compound the problem of comparison and understanding.

Canadians, on the other hand, will easily understand the machinations of the characters in the British show because our system is quite similar, but they are more opaque in the American version. From the outside, American politics seem designed to increase confrontation and partisanship. And political venality (it seems all American politicians and votes are for sale to the highest bidder…), but that’s not my point here. Americans might find the British version equally incomprehensible.

We finished watching season three of the American series recently and began to watch the British series again, after several years hiatus (it remains one of my favourite series). The latter is somewhat dated – aired before the internet and cell phones – but still well worth watching: the acting is superb. As are in most British series. But the cast in the American House of Cards is, for the most part, among the best I’ve seen in an American series (Kevin Spacey excels).

The British version has more humour, albeit dry, wry wit. It might be best described as either a political satire or dark comedy. I’m not sure everyone will appreciate its subtlety.

The American series has some of this in the first season, but less as it progresses. It’s more of a drama-cum-soap opera with less satire. Underwood speaks to the camera a lot more in the first season than in later ones. And that’s too bad because I think it adds to the viewer’s engagement.

The main characters – Francis Urquhart in the British (Ian Richardson), and Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) in the American – are very different in style and behaviour. Urquhart speaks more to the camera than Underwood, and offers more knowing, sly glances and smiles than his American counterpart. Underwood is far more about raw power; the underlying tongue-in-cheek attitude of the British politicians is absent.

The roles and the power associated with each leader is very different, too. Urquhart has to be more cunning than Underwood because his system is very different from the American. Underwood can sometimes batter his way through to success, where Urquhart has to squirm.

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The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproduction

I have been reading the essays of the late critic, Walter Benjamin, most famous for his 1936 piece, The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproduction (an earlier translation of this essay is available here). Wikipedia notes of this essay that it has been,

…influential across the humanities, especially in the fields of cultural studies, media theory, architectural theory[1] and art history. Written at a time when Adolf Hitler was already Chancellor of Germany, it was produced, Benjamin wrote, in the effort to describe a theory of art that would be “useful for the formulation of revolutionary demands in the politics of art.” He argued that, in the absence of any traditional, ritualistic value, art in the age of mechanical reproduction would inherently be based on the practice of politics.

While Benjamin writes of the authenticity of a work of art and how a reproduction lacks this (and how this affects the experience of the viewer), it came to me that some forms of art – novels in particular, but also the book in which his essays are reproduced – are meant for mass reproduction. Without the technology of mass reproduction, printed material was limited in its influence and reach. This in turn limited literacy itself.

Benjamin also mentions the lithograph as a technology that reproduced art, both of which are related to the printing revolution. He doesn’t mention its contemporary technology, steel engraving, which was developed at the same time. Lithography is a chemical process, while engraving is mechanical.

But what I think he ignores is that neither was intended to reproduce a piece of art, but rather to create a unique piece that could be reproduced with integrity (for example, illustrations in a book, but engraving was also used extensively for printing money). The artists who perfected these forms meant for their work to be copied and printed. Only when the plate or stone wore out from use, and finer details become smudged or lost, would the piece begin to lose its authenticity.

Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be. This unique existence of the work of art determined the history to which it was subject throughout the time of its existence. This includes the changes which it may have suffered in physical condition over the years as well as the various changes in its ownership. The traces of the first can be revealed only by chemical or physical analyses which it is impossible to perform on a reproduction; changes of ownership are subject to a tradition which must be traced from the situation of the original.

Benjamin was not merely commenting on art, but on politics and society. He opens with a somewhat mixed Marxist analysis, rambling a bit before making the point that modern reproduction takes art from its original use as religious and ritual items to the realm of the political. Mechanical reproduction removes art from its role, and in doing so changes the viewer’s aesthetic appreciation of it. In the essay, he gives the example of a photograph of a cathedral, which removes the viewer from the emotional and religious experience of being in the actual building.

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Strat Plan Part 6: Culture and the Arts

DilbertThe fifth and final objective in Collingwood’s developing strategic plan (the woo-hoo plan) is culture and the arts. For something so important to the community, with such a huge potential, it encompasses a mere two goals. Disappointingly, neither of them relate to its huge economic potential, which everyone else seems to understand except this committee and its council.

“The rapidly evolving global economy demands a dynamic and creative workforce. The arts and its related businesses are responsible for billions of dollars in cultural exports for this country. It is imperative that we continue to support the arts and arts education both on the national and local levels. The strength of every democracy is measured by its commitment to the arts.” Charles Segars, CEO of Ovation

Only two goals are suggested for our burgeoning creative/cultural economy, what may easily be the most important sector in our local economy over the next decade or two. There are more items in the first section about using the plan’s logos than there are goals here. At least there are several action items, albeit typically lame, vague ones. I suppose it’s like what La Rochefoucauld wrote:

Fertility of mind does not furnish us with so many resources on the same matter, as the lack of intelligence makes us hesitate at each thing our imagination presents, and hinders us from at first discerning which is the best. Maxim 287.

So little does this group (and by extension, this council) regard arts and culture than they are not even mentioned in the proposed vision statements!

Goal: Promote arts and cultural programs

Duh. Aside from the complete face-palm-plant obviousness of this, it doesn’t say how one promotes programs. Newsletters are obviously out since many of those at the table criticized the previous council’s use of newsletters for public communication. Semaphore? Smoke signals? Tweets?

Nor does it identify whose programs it promotes. Or even who does the promoting. There’s no indication this is even local. Is the town supposed to support, say, the Stratford Festival’s theatrical programs?

And what arts? A male friend of mine will argue seriously pole dancing is an art. Are we going to bring back the Georgian Grill as the new arts centre? I’m not sure if there are programs for pole dancing, however, and this goal clearly states the town should support programs, not the arts and culture themselves.

Goal: Support and expand the diversity of community events and festivals

Another head banger. Who isn’t going to isn’t going to support events and festivals? Well, all those people who hate Elvis, of course.And those downtown merchants who whine and grumble every time the main street is closed or has activity. But there are always people who hate everything.

Does this sentence mean ‘support the diversity and expand the diversity’? Or ‘support community events and expand the diversity’? Improper punctuation makes it unclear.

One wonders how you can expand diversity, since the word means a range of different things which suggests it is already expanded. If it’s already diverse – i.e. varied – does it need to be expanded and if so – how?

Do they mean make single events more diverse? And if so what events? Do they want to make the Elvis Festival into Elvis, Blues and Brews? or the Jazz at the Station into Jazz and Polka music at the Station? How about Local Live Lunch and Sudoku Contest?

Let me reiterate a point I made earlier: a good strategic plan talks in practical terms and specifics: a woo-hoo plan talks in generalities and fuzzy terms. Welcome to woo-hoo.

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Killing Our Culture

No more jazzCollingwood has killed Jazz & Blues at the Station – a popular, long-running, local cultural event second in audience only to the Elvis Festival. It brought some of Ontario’s top jazz and blues talent to play at the Museum. The hundreds of people assembled every Wednesday for the free concert – sometimes more than 400 in a single night, many of them coming from Blue Mountain, Clearview and Wasaga Beach – will be disappointed. As are the organizers, who have been trying unsuccessfully since late last year to get the town to commit to promised funding.

All those people who came downtown for the music then went to local bars and restaurants afterwards, or came to shop before the concert – won’t be giving Collingwood their business this year. They won’t be sitting on a patio on a warm summer night sharing their experience.

One less cultural event to attract visitors and entertain locals.

In previous terms, other councils have helped the non-profit event by funding it to pay for bands and performers.  It’s a tiny expense for a huge return in public relations and public engagement. Some of us at the table last term understood that and made sure the event went ahead.

This council clearly doesn’t give a damn about local events or culture. But it does care about giving itself a raise instead. How open and accountable is that?

This term, council raised your taxes in order to give themselves and staff a raise. This council gave Councillor Jeffrey a $40,000 slush fund to run for a seat on the FCM (Federation of Canadian Municipalities) board – a position which glorifies her and provides her with free flights, hotels and meals across Canada, but does nothing for the community.

How accountable was that?

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Defining Classical Music


MusicI listen to classical music a lot, even more than before since the arrival of the new classical FM station in Collingwood. But while my listening at home is through a selected collection of CDs, the content played on radio – internet radio included – is more eclectic. Airplay often includes soundtracks, music from musicals, even some modern pieces (the other day I heard a well-known tenor singing a somewhat romanticized version of Besame Mucho in Spanish, with orchestral backup).

While I don’t object to this mix – in fact I enjoy it most of the time – it did get me wondering what the definition of “classical” music really is. I only recently discovered from my internet searches that the very term is relatively new, and the first reference to music as ‘classical’ only dates to 1836, and it was in specific reference to a period that included Baroque music, although we use the term much more broadly today. Wikipedia isn’t helpful because it simply muddies the waters:

Classical music is art music produced or rooted in the traditions of Western music (both liturgical and secular). It encompasses a broad span of time from roughly the 11th century to the present day. The central norms of this tradition became codified between 1550 and 1900, which is known as the common practice period.

I have a personal definition, as we all do, but it’s murky: when I was pondering that question, I realized I find it difficult to express it. I can list composers, conductors, singers, and musicians whom I would label “classical” – Bach and Yo Yo Ma, for example. But what of the music itself?

Among my collection of music is Gregorian chant, Medieval songs, Baroque suites, Enlightenment symphonies, Industrial Age operas, Victorian operettas and post-war tone poems – a range of about a millennium. All of which I vaguely categorizes as ‘classical.’

I have in that collection works by John Cage He’s contemporary avant-garde, but is he classical? Wikipedia’s page allows for a broad temporal range that would allow him to fit in but is his style suitable?

The major time divisions of classical music are as follows: the early music period, which includes the Medieval (500–1400) and the Renaissance (1400–1600) eras; the Common practice period, which includes the Baroque (1600–1750), Classical (1750–1830), and Romantic eras (1804–1910); and the 20th century (1901–2000) which includes the modern (1890–1930) that overlaps from the late 19th-century, the high modern (mid 20th-century), and contemporary or postmodern (1975–2000) eras, the last of which overlaps into the 21st-century.

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Bad Thinkers and the Unknown Knowns

Critical thinkingI came across an interesting piece on bad thinking online recently. In it, the author argues some of the points I’ve mentioned in the past about people who believe in conspiracy theories, gossip and other online codswallop:

The problem with conspiracy theorists is not, as the US legal scholar Cass Sunstein argues, that they have little relevant information. The key to what they end up believing is how they interpret and respond to the vast quantities of relevant information at their disposal.

In the piece, the author, Quassim Cassam, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Warwick in Coventry, argues that the fault lies in how these people process information, not the quality or quantity of that information. They are, in other words, bad thinkers. They have intellectual vices or intellectual bad habits:

Gullibility, carelessness and closed-mindedness… negligence, idleness, rigidity, obtuseness, prejudice, lack of thoroughness, and insensitivity to detail. Intellectual character traits are habits or styles of thinking… Intellectual character traits that aid effective and responsible enquiry are intellectual virtues, whereas intellectual vices are intellectual character traits that impede effective and responsible inquiry. Humility, caution and carefulness are among the intellectual virtues…

Cassam uses a fictional character, Oliver, and his obsession with 9/11 conspiracies despite evidence that all of his conspiratorial notions can be proven wrong.

Oliver is gullible because he believes things for which he has no good evidence, and he is closed-minded because he dismisses claims for which there is excellent evidence. It’s important not to fall into the trap of thinking that what counts as good evidence is a subjective matter. To say that Oliver lacks good evidence is to draw attention to the absence of eye-witness or forensic support for his theory about 9/11, and to the fact that his theory has been refuted by experts. Oliver might not accept any of this but that is, again, a reflection of his intellectual character.

But 9/11 is only one of so many of these conspiracies and bad ideas that are like pond scum on the internet. Their following can’t all stem from bad thinking. Some might be from laziness – after all, assessing a claim properly can be hard work and our brains are our body’ biggest energy user. Some people may not have the energy (couch potatoes, for example) to expend. So it’s easier to accept a claim – no matter how fatuous – than investigate it (something the media are prone to do).

Some are actual cons and deliberate hoaxes that hook the gullible. While others – like angels and ghosts – may be superstition or wishful thinking (aka faith). Other examples may simply be eccentric expressions of our personality.

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Why Elvis Matters to Collingwood

Elvis festival

There are some things that are pointless to argue, it seems. Creationism with a fundamentalist. Anti-vaccination with a New Age wingnut. Reason and logic with local  bloggers. The value of the Elvis Festival to Collingwood with a closed-minded resident.

I recently heard complaints about the cost of the 2014 festival: $74,000. More than double what the Integrity Commissioner cost taxpayers to investigate bogus, politically-motivated claims last year.

And what did we get for that $74,000? International recognition and widespread media coverage, more than 30,000 visitors, increased revenue for our hospitality sector, a full downtown, busy restaurants and hotels, people shopping in the stores…

One cannot help but be reminded of the Monty Python skit in Life of Brian on “What have the Romans ever done for us?”

All right… all right… but apart from better sanitation and medicine and education and irrigation and public health and roads and a freshwater system and baths and public order… what have the Romans done for us?

And what did we get for the almost $33,000 we spent on the Integrity Commissioner last year? Aside from humiliation, puerile finger pointing, adding another smear on our reputation and titillating the sycophant bloggers? Nada.

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Bad News For Balderdash

Truth is truthA recent story on New Scientist gives a glimmer of hope for those of us who bemoan the swelling tsunami of claptrap and codswallop that fills the internet:

THE internet is stuffed with garbage. Anti-vaccination websites make the front page of Google, and fact-free “news” stories spread like wildfire. Google has devised a fix – rank websites according to their truthfulness.

What a relief that will be. Of course it may spell doom for the popularity of pseudoscience, conspiracy theories, fad diets, racist, anti-vaccination fearmongers, yellow journalism, Fox News, celebrity wingnuts, psychics and some local bloggers – all of whose sites have an astronomically distant relationship with fact and truth, and depend instead on the ignorance and gullibility of their readers.

Page ranking has historically been based on a complex relationship of several, mostly superficial factors: links, keywords, page views, page loading speed, etc.  – about 200 different factors determine relevance and where a page appears in a search – it’s in part a worldwide popularity contest that doesn’t measure content.

Fact ranking  – knowledge-based trust – would certainly make it more difficult for the scam artists who thrive because their sites pop up at the top of a search – which many people assume means credibility. But people would actually have to pay attention to trust rankings for them to have any effect. If you’re determined to have your aura read, or communicate with your dead aunt, or arrange your furniture with feng shui, you’ve already crossed the truth threshold into fantasy with your wallet open. Fact ranking won’t help you.

A Google research team is adapting that model to measure the trustworthiness of a page, rather than its reputation across the web. Instead of counting incoming links, the system – which is not yet live – counts the number of incorrect facts within a page…its Knowledge-Based Trust score. The software works by tapping into the Knowledge Vault, the vast store of facts that Google has pulled off the internet. Facts the web unanimously agrees on are considered a reasonable proxy for truth. Web pages that contain contradictory information are bumped down the rankings.

Garbage online affecting our decisions, our lifestyles, our pinions, our ability to make appropriate judgments, our voting and our critical thinking? Not news. Back in 2004, the Columbia Journalism Review ran a story on the ‘toxic tidal wave’ of lies and deceit affecting the US presidential campaign. One of the points it makes is that we’re awash in digital content, so much so that our ability to sort it out has been hampered by the sheer volume.

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Marx, Darwin and Machiavelli

The Age of IgnoranceWhat do these three men – three of the world’s greatest thinkers – have in common? Science? Economics? Politics? Their impact on culture and society? Their foresight or insight? Their importance to the development of modern thought? Their continued relevance today? The depth and breadth of their wisdom? The quality of their writing?

Yes, they are or have all those things, but the answer is simpler: they are among the least read authors that people attempt to speak knowingly about. All three of these authors are frequently demonized or misquoted by people who have never read their works, nor do they intend to do so, lest actual knowledge prove their preconceived ideas about them wrong.

Yet here we are in a world of complex, challenging politics at all levels where the sage advice of Machiavelli is most needed. A world where pseudoscience is spreading like a virus, and there is a rising tide of vocal anti-vaccination idiots and creationists; where the keen observations of Darwin can help us understand the scientific facts of biology. A world where the gap between the rich 1% and the rest of us grows obscenely wider every day and Marx’s insight into capitalism and wealth would surely give us some guidance on stemming this trend.

I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of people I know, or whom I have some reasonable acquaintance, who have demonstrably read Machiavelli’s shortest work: The Prince. The number I personally know who have read The Discourses? None. Art of War? History of Florence? None. Yet many people, even those I know, confidently say that Machiavelli wrote “the end justifies the means” (he didn’t) and have called politicians “Machiavellian.”

The number of people I personally know who have read Origin of Species – arguably the single most important scientific work in the last two centuries – none. Descent of Man? Voyage of the Beagle? None. Yet some people confidently scoff at the notion of species evolving, and dismiss his ideas as “mere theory.”

Ditto with Marx’s Capital. Even my left-wing friends, with whom I hung out in the 70s and 80s, struggled to get past the first couple of chapters. Most had read The Communist Manifesto, to be sure, but I haven’t met anyone in the last three decades who can say he or she has (or can remember it beyond its opening line). Yet many people talk knowingly about Marxism and Communism.

And I’m not talking about the crazies, the conspiracy theorists, the barely literate bloggers, Fox ‘News’ or the venom-spewing wingnuts like Ann Coulter. I’m concerned about people we meet every day; friends, coworkers, family. People who should know about what’s happening in the news, understand the connections and consequences and the big ideas behind the events.

People who should be able to use their words correctly and not resort to bumper-sticker ideologies as substitutes for actual understanding. So instead of conversations and discussions about big ideas based on knowledge, we trade angry epithets, accusations and insults.

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Internet TV and Roku

Roku streaming stickI picked up a ROKU streaming stick this weekend at the local Staples store to get access to some internet TV. The box advertises 500+ channels, while the boxes for the upscale models 2 and 3 offer 450+ and 1,000+, respectively.

However, the official webpage for Roku says you can get more than 1,800 channels in the US on these devices. The Canadian site suggests it’s closer to 1,000 – Canadians get shortchanged by this and similar services, it seems. But by my count on the screen, the actual number of possible “channels” tops 1,300.

Before you shout “woo hoo” and rush out to buy one, I suggest it’s not really close to that many, at least not channels you will want to subscribe to.

It also depends on your definition of a channel: i wouldn’t count more than 100 streaming applications like Plex, games (47) or screensavers (76) as channels, but Roku does.

As you will read below, it’s not whether you get 1,800, 1,000 or even 500 channels: it’s whether the channels are top quality, commercial programming like you get on your cable. Of that category, it’s maybe a dozen.

Why, when I had dropped cable almost two years ago, would I want TV now, you ask… well, I primarily wanted to find a more convenient way to get Acorn TV (the source of many BBC programs). We already have Acorn on the iPad that hooks up through Apple TV but it’s not as comfy or convenient to use as a simple changer. Tapping at the iPad while watching is distracting and frankly, the iOS app is clumsy. It times out frequently, and drops the show, forcing you to restart then fast forward to the dropped location –  unless you keep tapping the screen now and then to wake it up.

I am thinking of subscribing to Netflix, too, and wanted the same easy and dependable access. Yes, I could always hook my laptop to the TV with an HDMI cable, but that’s not always convenient, either.

First a comment on the device and setup: simple, easy, well-made. The Roku interface is cleaner and easier to use than either Apple TV or the internet-ready apps built into our Sony Blu-ray player or TV. Setup takes a few minutes to get networked and authenticate the device online (an external computer connection is needed here). It took another minute to link it to my Acorn TV account. After that, it worked flawlessly.

The HDMI picture is, from what little we’ve seen, clear and crisp and if the original was also in hi-def. However, not everything is presented that way. Sound seems okay, but volume is inconsistent (some channels are way too loud, others are low).

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The Book List Game

Classic booksIn a recent story titled “Neil deGrasse Tyson Selects the Eight Books Every Intelligent Person on the Planet Should Read,” the eminent astrophysicist listed his top eight book titles – from a Reddit conversation that was going on back in December, 2011. Here are the books he chose back then (check the linked story above for his comments on why he picked these titles):

  1. The Bible;
  2. The System of the World, by Isaac Newton;
  3. On the Origin of Species, by Charles Darwin;
  4. Gulliver’s Travels, by Jonathan Swift;
  5. The Age of Reason, by Thomas Paine;
  6. The Wealth of Nations, by Adam Smith;
  7. The Art of War, by Sun Tzu;
  8. The Prince, by Niccolo Machiavelli.

I certainly can’t argue with his choices as worthy of being read, although they wouldn’t all be my top choices. I have all of them but the Newton on my bookshelves.  This list was much discussed at the time it was first released. Open Culture commented:

The list, which has generated a great deal of interest and discussion, leads you to think about the very nature of not just what constitutes essential reading, but what defines an “intelligent person.” Should every such individual really read any book in particular? Does it matter if others already acknowledge these books as essential, or can they have gone thus far undiscovered?… he makes the perhaps daring implication that an intelligent person must connect to a widely shared culture, rather than demonstrating their brainpower by getting through volume upon little-read volume, written in the most labyrinthine language, expounding on the most abstract subject matter, or grappling with the knottiest philosophical problems.

A followup discussion with other recommended titles was published by Open Culture in April 2014. And in republishing the list again after two years, it has re-opened the discussion in 2015. To which I weigh in, first by commenting on his choices.

I have a suspicion that the Bible was slipped in as a political sop to prevent him from being targeted as a godless atheist or some such name by the fundamentalists. Can’t have non-religious scientists. While I know many people who have read some part of it, I have met few who are not in the religion business (ministers, priests and rabbis) who have read it in its entirety. I haven’t read it cover-to-cover, either, but have read a good deal of it in several translations.

Not that it’s a bad book to read. It formed the foundation for Western culture, law and morality until the mid-19th century and still plays a vital role in it, despite the trend to secularism these past 150 years. Just that it’s not in the same intellectual grouping as the rest and makes me wonder what his criteria were for the rest.

Actually I recommend all people should read the core of the world’s religious and spiritual literature – the Dhammapada, for example, is one of my favourite titles. The Bhagavad Gita, the Diamond Sutra, the Koran, the Tao Teh Ching, the Nag Hammadi codex, the Talmud, the Kalamas Sutra… we should all read these books so we can better understand the faiths of others and engage in informed discussion about them – not simply pursue ideologies or knee-jerk, media-induced reactions.

But I also recommend people read Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens to get a look at alternative views on religion. Having no religion should be an intellectual decision, not a puff of lifestyle negativity, like a diet fad.

And that raises the question about philosophy: why are there no works by major philosophers – no Plato, Aristotle, Montaigne, Sartre, Voltaire… although one can suggest that Machiavelli was somewhat of one, at least a political philosopher. And why not recommend The Discourses – a more comprehensive and broader approach to power and politics – instead of The Prince?

Similarly, Gulliver’s Travels is a marvellous political and social satire that still has resonance and humour today despite almost 300 years since it was first written. But it is written in a style that is no longer popular, its humour may be too dated (and obscure) for some, and can be seen as rather too rambling. Don Quixote is as much a satire on the human condition, so why was it ignored? Was there nothing more modern that was worthy?

Choosing one work of fiction from the millions of books written is tough. Is Swift a better choice for the sole novelist than Joyce? Or Tolstoy? Hugo? Herbert? Clavell? Austen? Shelley? Melville? Conrad? Clancy? Cervantes? Dumas? Woolf? Lawrence? Achebe? Orwell? Melville? Hardy? Dickens? Each writes about the human condition, although not necessarily as a satire. And which of their works to include? Why would you pick Anna Karenina over War and Peace?  Pride and Prejudice over Sense and Sensibility?

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47 Ronin Reviewed


This week, after watching the 2013 film, 47 Ronin, starring Keanu Reeves, I had to wonder why Hollywood felt it necessary to take a powerful story, a great historical drama, and mess with it. And, of course, why they would put Keanu Reeves into a film about 18th century Japanese samurai. Or, for that matter, into any film.

I’m not an actor, so my appreciation of their talents is only as an outsider. But Reeves seems to be pretty much a one-dimensional character. It worked in the Matrix, albeit less so in the sequels, but in films like the 2008 remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still, he was awful. (the 1951 original remains so much better…). His breadth of emotional expression seems very limited: his face always shows an angry bewilderment.

Perhaps that flatness was thought well-suited to the stoicism expected of samurai culture. And in part it does work in the scenes of fighting and warrior bonding, but then there’s the whole love scene thing and he just doesn’t come across as the romantic lead when required.

Reeves plays a half-breed, a role not fully explained (why did the director, Carl Rinsch require a Western lead in a story that is purely Japanese?). Nor is the whole isolated-Japan-no-contact political situation fleshed out (which didn’t really alter until the Meijin era, almost two centuries later), which might explain somewhat better why Reeve’s character was shunned by the samurai (and that whole sold-into-slavery gladiator thing was a very odd inclusion, especially since slavery was banned in Japan in 1590).

The film didn’t score well at Rotten Tomatoes or IMDB. It scores much lower than the black-and-white 1941 film of the same name by Kurosawa.

But to be fair, what critics like and what the public likes are often at odds with one another. And personally, I am often entertained by films that critics panned. And 47 Ronin entertained me, despite my reservations about Reeves and the Hollywood accouterments. It’s a fun film, but it could have been a great film.

Hollywood hasn’t learned that colour, action and special effects can’t make up for good storytelling, solid acting, well-written dialogue and effective directing.

This film has some of that – aside from Reeves, the acting is good, albeit straight-jacketed by the emotionally restrained period. Just not quite enough to make it a great film. The story is confused; context isn’t clear and it seems to dart around without purpose at times. The special effects detracted me (as they often do in Hollywood films) from the story.

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Heart of Darkness

Heart of DarknessHeart of Darkness can be a difficult read. Not just for its brooding setting and the sense of morbid inevitability. Conrad’s semi-autobiographical 1899 novel is replete with racism and breezy colonialism: the insufferable superiority of white, Western culture. The casual ability of so-called civilized men to commit savagery in the name of some higher cause is clearly expressed; a forerunner to the brutality of two world wars.

Listening to it as an audiobook, yesterday, as I drove again to Toronto, I almost flinched every time the reader pronounced the “N” word. No amount of rationalization about the times and the era made it less uncomfortable, less offensive.*

Yet once you have touched the sticky web of Conrad’s story, you find it hard to pull away. You are drawn inexorably inward, along the journey. So you listen (or read on), and realize the layers and the complexities he wove into the tale. It seems so simple at first, a mere nautical tale shared among friends, but it builds in layers and texture. His sometimes subtle, sometimes pointed criticisms of the politics and the imperialism. His observations, his piercing eye into human behaviour; his acidic comments on the nature of civilization. All, of course, expressed during the infinitely slow progress to find the mysterious Kurtz.

I can’t remember when I first read Heart of Darkness. Sometime in the 1970s, I think, around the time I was reading Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. Achebe’s book is set in the same period as Conrad’s and might be considered a counterpoint: the evils of colonialism described from the native perspective. Achebe himself despised Heart of Darkness, calling it “deplorable.” Yet his 1975 criticism sparked renewed scholarly interest in the book. It was reprinted in mass-market paperback (my copy, printed together with Conrad’s Secret Sharer, is dated 1978).

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Falling Skies: Aliens as Metaphor

Falling SkiesWe watched the last of Season Two of the Falling Skies series last night. After a bit of research this morning, I learned I have two more seasons to watch and a fifth season has been scheduled. Something to look forward to. I wasn’t sure about how it would turn out, but the series has matured nicely, although one can’t say that about its politics.

If you’re not familiar with the series, it’s about American reaction to an alien invasion – one could say it is a drawn-out remake of War of the Worlds. The aliens, of course, have more advanced weaponry and technology and aim at world domination. And enslavement of the human race along the way. Falling Skies spices up the mix with a rich back story about the aliens I won’t spoil here. But at least by the end of Season Two, there’s no indication that anyone else on the planet has survived and formed a resistance. It’s solely an American underground.  One bridles at that.

My first impression was that it was Walking Dead with aliens instead of zombies. I personally didn’t care much for the Walking Dead series and didn’t manage to watch even the whole first season. But, as a scifi buff, Falling Skies caught and held my attention.*

The ostensible premise is straight out of H.G. Wells: high-tech aliens invade, destroy much of the planet’s civilization and infrastructure, and pockets of humans fight back. But there’s more to it.

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The Three Godzillas: Size Matters

Godzilla posterThis year another remake of Godzilla was released, and of course I had to get a copy. I have many of the other Godzilla films made over the past 60 years, sadly not all of them. There were so many monster movies made in Japan through the 1950s and 60s that it’s hard to keep track of them all, let alone collect them. B-films, all of them, and still entertaining if you can find them.

(If I recall it properly, I first watched the original Godzilla in the late 1950s at a drive-in theatre, sitting with my parents in the front seat of the car, with the speaker hanging inside on the driver’s side window; but I also saw it on TV in the late 50s-early 60s and several times on TV and DVD since)

Even the eight-disc Godzilla Collection only has eight of the films: Gojira, Godzilla Raids Again, Mothra vs. Godzilla (aka Godzilla vs. the Thing), Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster, Invasion of Astro-Monster (aka Godzilla Vs. Monster Zero), All Monsters Attack (aka Godzilla’s Revenge) and Terror of Mechagodzilla.

Why I say it’s hard to know if you own or have seen them all is twofold. First, there were so many it’s hard to keep track of them all (and I don’t even know if they have all been released in North America on DVD). Second, several titles were renamed (and sometimes more than once) for their NAm release, so you can’t be sure what you’ve got until you watch them. Some are sold as single titles, others only in multi-film collections.

After the first film in 1954, there followed a slew of monster movies in which Godzilla took on a whole collection of monsters like Mothra and Ghidorah. Here are some of the film titles: Godzilla Vs Biollante, Godzilla Vs King Ghidorah, Godzilla 2000, Godzilla Vs Mechagodzilla II, Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla, Godzilla Vs. Megalon, Godzilla Vs Destoroyah, Godzilla Vs Megaguirus, Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla, King Kong Vs. Godzilla, Godzilla and Mothra: The Battle for Earth, Destroy All Monsters, Godzilla Vs. Hedorah, Godzilla Vs. Gigan, Godzilla on Monster Island, The Return of Godzilla, Godzilla Vs. the Sea Monster, All Monsters Attack (aka Godzilla’s Revenge), Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack, Godzilla 2000 (aka Godzilla Millennium), Ebirah, Horror Of The Deep (aka Godzilla vs The Seat Monster) and Godzilla vs the Smog Monster.

Plus there were spinoff series for the Gamera, Mothra and Rodan monsters in which Godzilla usually did not appear. I don’t know about you, but I want them all.

Godzilla moved between villain and hero at various times, too, defending the world and attacking it in different films, fighting other monsters and allying with them. The Godzilla franchise is huge (31 films according to this list) and that doesn’t even include the animated series. The list at the bottom of the Godzilla Wiki site includes video game appearances, books and comics.

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