Tag Archives: The Grey

The last good fight

“Well sir, I guess there’s just a meanness in this world” – Bruce Springsteen, “Nebraska”

“Ernest Hemingway once wrote, ‘The world is a fine place and worth fighting for.’  I agree with the second part.” – William Somerset (Morgan Freeman), Seven

“Nothing baffles the schemes of evil people so much as the calm composure of great souls”Comte de Mirabeau

Warren Kinsella is a former advisor to Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien and continues to assist the Liberal Party of Ontario during its election campaigns – to put him in West Wing terms, he’s a wartime consigliere.  I read his blog frequently and don’t always agree with him (not to sound like the Dos Equis guy here) but respect him for several reasons:  one of which is that he says liberals should always be full-throated go-for-the-gut liberals, and another is that he believes in the nobility of always fighting for what is important.  (He is the lone liberal voice on Canada’s pathetic Fox News clone Sun News Network, which gives you a sense of his willingness to take the fight to the enemy’s turf.)  The other day he posited that he thought the human race was evil and beyond redemption.  He cited the examples of the Syrian massacre and a particular website which offers video of disturbing violent acts (which I’m not going to link to for obvious reasons).  Clearly, if you want to go down that route, there are thousands of examples more.  It’s one of those arguments that you’ll always find more evidence to support if you need it – like “politicians are corrupt,” “democracy doesn’t work” or “Jersey Shore is a blight on society.”

I don’t subscribe to this thinking, because it’s the easy way out.  (And in fairness to the usually spunky Warren, he could have just been having a bad day or been thinking about the world his kids are growing up in.)  To me, it’s throwing up your hands and surrendering before you even strap on the first shin pad.  It’s saying that principles do not matter, values are not important and attempting to live a civilized, moral life is futile.  It’s looking at the world’s douchebags living high off the hog and wondering why the hell we’re trying so hard not to be them, with the idea that our way is better for the soul, when we’re getting screwed by the universe anyway while they reap the rewards.  Like the worker ant who dutifully and nobly carries food back to the colony day after day only to be scorched to death one sunny afternoon by a smirking brat with a magnifying glass.  But it’s ground that I don’t believe the human race as a whole can afford to concede.  It’s not a world I want to live in.  Indeed, it’s not a world that would live very long.

On Star Trek and its successors, you’d often find the crew visiting planets where everyone wore the same outfit and shared the same opinion.  Absent was the dichotomy that defines humanity – the extremes of light and dark and good and evil that share contradictory space inside the soul.  The same heart that loves one hates another; the same species that cherishes beauty creates ugliness.  But it’s important not to forget that despite the increasing societal obsession with what is worst about us (fostered by media companies trying to scare you into buying things you don’t need), we have truly done some remarkable things in our relatively short time in the cosmos.  We have forged incredible works of art, literature, music.  We have crafted a society of laws and good governance.  We have cured devastating illnesses and been able to shift the focus of our existence from mere survival to the enrichment of our spirit and of our collective consciousness.  We have even taken the tiniest of baby steps away from our world into the endless realm of possibility that lies beyond.  Why, when looking at this evidence, should we continue to base our opinion of ourselves on the abysses rather than the apexes?  Are we really no better than the very worst of us?  Are we all hovering forever on a tipping point of evil, just one fragile breath away from unleashing our inner Hitler?

No goddamn way.  Call it what you will – even dare to call it faith.  But to say humanity is evil and beyond redemption is to admit I am evil and beyond redemption.  And I am better than that.  I know I am.  I know we all are.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a piece criticizing the conservative moguls funding attack ads against the President of the United States.  I submitted it to The Huffington Post and was surprised that they liked it enough to feature it prominently on their Politics page.  The response was quite staggering, with what I’d say was probably a 3 to 1 ratio of comments supporting what I had to say versus condemning it.  And the ones who condemned it certainly didn’t mince words.  But I don’t regret writing the piece.  It was something that I felt needed to be said, and a lot of people agreed with me.  (Interestingly enough, not that I can claim any responsibility, an article subsequently appeared in Politico where these right-wing sugar daddies are now complaining that they are being picked on, apparently forgetting that one of the tenets of free speech is the right of everyone else to tell you you’re being a dick when you say something they don’t like.)  I’ve accepted that I’ll never be a billionaire or wield the kind of influence over the masses that some really awful people do.  But my voice will always be my own, and that is something that cannot be purchased from anybody else.  And I will continue to use it to advocate the world I want to see, the world I know we can attain, with every single breath, until I can no longer speak.  It’s like that wonderful poem from The Grey:  “Once more into the fray, into the last good fight I’ll ever know.”

The bastards will not grind me down.

Why I’m sick – literally – of shaky cameras

We went to see The Hunger Games yesterday.  I haven’t subscribed to the phenomenon of this newest teen read-turned-franchise (the premise of kids forced to kill each other for food strikes me as a tad dark for the age group it’s appealing to) but it’s good to see the emergence of a strong, brave and loyal heroine who isn’t whiny, unrealistically pretty or overly unfeminine, or dependent on the obsessive love of an emo vampire for her self-worth.  With that in mind, bravo to Suzanne Collins’ Katniss Everdeen and the actress who plays her, Jennifer Lawrence.  Bravo too to writer-director Gary Ross, who doesn’t make movies very often but never fails to craft a thought provoking tale when he does (Dave, Pleasantville).  And indeed, healthy kudos to all involved in putting together an entertaining if surprisingly low-key adventure.  My only major complaint is, did the camera have to be so damn shaky throughout the whole thing?

Th-th-the H-h-hun-ge-ge-ger G-g-ga-me-me-es.

Hand-held camera work has been popular among filmmakers for some time.  I first became truly aware of it when NYPD Blue premiered in the early 90’s – couldn’t figure out why the camera work was so sloppy!  From a critical standpoint, taking the camera off its mount and letting it bounce around invokes the realism of documentaries, placing the audience member right in the middle of gritty, cheap life and death and not in the safe, million-dollar air-conditioned artifice of a soundstage.  “Shakycam” in the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan helped to convey the rawness and bloodiness of the D-Day invasion the way the bolted-to-the-floor approach of the 60’s John Wayne war epics didn’t.  And low-budget horror movies like The Blair Witch Project use shakycam to build tension so that those of us watching feel as unsettled as the characters wondering if the axe murderer is lurking beyond the doorway.

But there is a major difference between being creeped out by a movie and contracting motion sickness from it.  I’m not sure if the shakycam work is becoming more intense these days or I’m just getting old, but the first hour of The Hunger Games had me longing for a barf bag – a reaction I’m certain wasn’t the intention of Gary Ross or his director of photography.  (Luckily once Katniss and Peeta reach the Capitol the camera settles down a bit.)  As much as I loved The Grey, I had the same problem with it.  I could not watch at least half of The Bourne Ultimatum in the theatre; I remember sitting there staring at the back of the seat in front of me hoping my stomach would calm down.  And Blair Witch made me so ill I had to walk out of the theatre twice – and I was 13 years younger then.  As the sensory experience of movies intensifies, with surround sound, digital projection and 3-D, the more shakycam messes with our inner ears, and the more difficult it is to sit through a movie without tossing the candies you just scarfed down.  My question is – the moviegoing experience has become miserable enough with smartphones going off and other audience members yakking at each other and at the screen, do we have to keep adding nausea to the reasons to stay home?

Shakycam has become so ubiquitous that it pops up in movies where it’s completely inappropriate.  One of the worst recent offenders was Public Enemies, Michael Mann’s story of the pursuit of John Dillinger starring Johnny Depp and Christian Bale.  Mann made the questionable artistic choice of shooting a 1930’s period piece on digital video with plenty of 2000’s shakycam, which pulled me out of the story.  I never believed I was in the 1930’s – the camera work made me feel I was watching a reality show with a bunch of celebrities playing cops and gangsters.  I can’t imagine actors are very fond of it either, particularly if they’re trying to convey nuanced emotional moments while the camera is zipping around their face like a drunken mosquito.  One of the most beautiful elements of The King’s Speech was that the camera work was almost invisible, letting you focus on the words and actions and reactions of the characters.  The anchor of a fixed camera immerses you in that world because you forget the camera is there.  If the aim of a movie is to give the audience an escape, then directors should not erect barriers to losing oneself.  Shakycam does exactly that, even if it doesn’t make you physically sick, by reminding you of the camera present in the room with these characters, and that whoever is operating it probably should have eaten more protein with his breakfast.

My friends and I made a no-budget, feature-length action comedy in our last year of high school, using my family’s video camera.  Fortunately one of my pals was able to procure a tripod, which we considered a godsend, because the last thing we wanted for our little epic was the unprofessional look of an unsteady camera.  Even in Hollywood, an unsteady camera used to be lambasted as the shoddy workmanship of a bad director; now, those same studio hacks jerk the camera around to up their artistic credibility and are summarily praised for their realistic approach.  Personally, I’m tired of just hoping I’m going to make it to the end of the movie without my stomach leaping out through my mouth.  I think it’s time we thanked the shakycam and packed it off to the realm of the intertitle and other cinematic techniques long since abandoned.  Either that or start selling Gravol at the snack counter along with the Skittles.

In like a lamb

A perfect metaphor for March 1st, 2012.

Elmore Leonard’s first rule of writing advice is, never open your book with weather.  So with apologies to Mr. Leonard and his learned wisdom, I’m starting off March with a few comments about the state of the climate.  It was not that long ago that I recall temperatures plunging to the minus twenties in the middle of February, jagged sheets of ice coating my apartment windows and blocking the view of the mountains of white beyond.  I’m not going to complain about a more modest than usual February heating bill, but this is ridiculous.  I’ve had to shovel the driveway exactly twice this entire winter.  I missed doing it so much I actually shovelled both my neighbours’ driveways just to get in the extra few minutes of cardio.  My better half’s allergies have been in overdrive all season as it never got cold enough to kill off the mould and spores of autumn rot.  And we did double-takes this morning when birds started chirping outside.  The geese have figured it out – they never flew anywhere this winter.  Think there could possibly be a relation to, well, I don’t know, um, global CO2 emissions being higher than ever before?  Nah, it’s sunspots.  We’re actually in a cooling phase.   It’s just Al Gore, Solyndra and the Islamofascisocialists trying to sell you solar panels.  Think I’ll fill my Hummer with Super-Hi-Grade and then run over a spotted owl.  Suck it, Mother Nature.  FREEDOM!!!

Yep, it’s gonna be one of those days.

I love the Search Engine terms tracker on the WordPress dashboard.  It is genuinely amusing to see how people find me, and I can’t help imagining the tremendous disappointment that must occasionally result.  I’ve been fortunate to get a lot of hits from people who saw The Grey and are looking for references to the “Live and die on this day” quote – that at least relates to something of substance.  I get a few from people searching for My Little Pony, The Verve, Coldplay, other search terms that happen to coincide with some of my random word strings, like “grahams wall of sound”.  But some of these other search engine terms are just plain bizarre.  The one that really made me laugh was “kesha good looking”.  Someone on the hunt for images of Kesha for what I’m certain are nothing less than the purest of purposes ended up here?  Granted some of what I write can hopefully be very thought-provoking, but those are definitely not the thoughts I’m trying to provoke.  Eeeww.  We won’t have none of that ‘ere, mate.  Keep calm and carry on.  Besides, silly rabbit, you should know that “Kesha” and “good looking” are not terms that relate.  Ooh, how catty of me.  Thanks, try the veal.

I wonder what it must feel like to have a voice that other people love to impersonate.  Do they ever listen to themselves and think, “good God, do I really sound like that?”  My own voice is quite unremarkable, so I enjoy dressing it up with different accents whenever the opportunity arises.  The other day I was watching a YouTube clip of Michael Caine doing an impression of himself, or more accurately, Michael Caine doing Peter Sellers doing Michael Caine.  It was all in good fun, of course, but how frustrating must it be that almost everyone you meet will be some wag who thinks he can “do you”?   As I’m certain even ordinary lads from Glasgow or Belfast must roll their eyes at attempts by continentals to affect their unique, history-nurtured tones.  One of the cardinal rules on whatever film set he happened to be working was that no one was allowed to impersonate Sean Connery, which I’m sure didn’t stop them from trying to slur “Missh Moneypenny” behind his back.  That is the problem, naturally – everyone thinks they can mimic Sean Connery and almost no one can pull it off.  The same goes for John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon, Johnny Carson and most of Rich Little’s repertoire.  Voice actors, I’m told, often start from a celebrity impersonation when they’re working up a new character.  The scratchy warbles of The Simpsons’ Moe the bartender began from what his performer Hank Azaria called a bad Al Pacino impression.  Somehow I doubt anyone will ever be accused of doing a bad Graham Milne impression – except maybe myself.

So what are my goals for this month?  Thirty-one days of possibility lie ahead, full of opportunity for both triumph and tragedy.  Gonna try to keep blogging as close to daily as I can, have a new screenplay to start working on, and, because I find that putting it out there publicly is a good way to motivate myself, I’m going to begin sending out my long-gestating novel to agents and publishers.  Hopefully the response will be as promising as that which has greeted my musings here.  If all goes well, maybe, by the 31st, I will, like the lion, have a good reason to roar.  Stay tuned!

Laudantium Duo Cathedrales

"Have I displeased you, you feckless thug?"

A review I found of The Grey recently (not mine) pointed out that it’s not often we see poetry in the movies.  Nor are we likely to find it on television, particularly when there is after all so much donkey semen to be consumed, and so much ritual humiliation to be suffered, in pursuit of cash and prizes.  In a way though, it’s not really surprising.  The production of episodic television can best be likened to a meat grinder churning through product ever faster.  Compromises are the order of the day to meet the schedule; creativity takes a distant back seat to speed.  Poetry, by contrast, is meditative and contemplative – it takes time and care to compose, and even more time to read and reflect upon.  That is why the rare occasion one does come across televised poetry is such a gift.  James Lipton called The West Wing‘s “Two Cathedrals” the finest hour of television ever produced, and I’m inclined to agree.  Written by series creator Aaron Sorkin with his usual brilliance and flair, it is an allegorical story of Job, a story of a man, the President of the United States – ostensibly the most powerful man in the world – whose faith is tested to its limits.  A man who is forced to confront his innermost demons, who is pushed to the edge, to breaking, and finds solace and strength once more to stand against the coming storm.  A story of the true bravery of which human beings are uniquely capable.

The setting:  The White House.  As re-election looms, President Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen) is about to reveal to the world that he has multiple sclerosis and did not disclose it during his first run for high office.  His beloved long-time secretary and confidante Mrs. Dolores Landingham has just been killed in a car crash.  Tragedies and misfortunes pile on and the President finds himself questioning what he sees as God’s plan, wondering if God is, in fact, merely a feckless thug.  In a series of flashbacks we see young Jed demeaned by an imposing, small-minded father who seems to resent his son’s very existence.  When the President curses God in Latin (“Cruciatus in crucem – eas in crucem”) and crushes out a cigarette on the floor of Washington’s National Cathedral, he is rebelling against God and his father as one.  He has sunk to his lowest and is resigned to defeat, advising his staff he does not intend to seek re-election.  An hour before a press conference at which he plans to announce the same to the world, Bartlet sits quietly in the Oval Office, preparing himself for the grand humiliation to come – when suddenly the door is blown open by the wind and his conscience reasserts itself.  In the form of a conversation with an imagined Mrs. Landingham, Jed reminds himself – through the voice of his departed mentor and friend – that the fight is worth the struggle, that he is in a unique position to help so many faceless people, and he cannot and will not be undone by the failings of the father.  He walks outside, and as the haunting guitar of Dire Straits’ “Brothers in Arms” starts up, Bartlet is baptized by the driving rain.  At the press conference, he throws away the script and invites the question of whether he intends to run again.  It’s established earlier on that when Jed has made up his mind, he smiles and puts his hands in his pockets.  Without speaking, he does so again, and his journey is complete.  He has descended to the depths, walked through the fire, and emerged whole and greater.

One cannot watch the episode without feeling a similar lift, regardless of whether or not one is a person of faith – and that, to me, is one of the triumphs of “Two Cathedrals.”  The allegory of God/father vs. Jesus/son is plain, but it is handled so delicately that even though the underlying themes of the episode are highly religious, it does not come across as a sermon, but rather a paean to the faith a single human being can have in himself, and the ability to overcome any amount of doubt in order to do what is morally right.  There will likely be a time in every man’s life when he looks to the image of his own father and questions why he is here, or what purpose, if any, his suffering must serve, very much as Jesus on the cross cried toward heaven asking why his father had forsaken him.  It is the paradigm of the relationship between a father and a son.  The clarity and certainty Bartlet finds as he stands in the rain is to be admired, and in many ways, to be envied as well.  We should all be so lucky to understand ourselves and our place here on earth.  Where “Two Cathedrals” helps is in throwing down the challenge, forcing us to ask the question – one of the most terrifying any man can ask, because the answer can truly shape the rest of his life.  It can come to define the limits of who he is and everything he will ever be.  That is more than mere poetry – it is the essence of truth.

Live and die on this day

“Once more into the fray, into the last good fight I’ll ever know.  Live and die on this day.  Live and die on this day.”

One of the many drawbacks of our culture of 24-hour celebrity news is that it often becomes difficult to separate our perceptions of actors as people from the roles that they play.  Whether deliberately or not, our ambient awareness of their personal lives always affects our appreciation of their performances.  Brad Pitt’s passion for Cate Blanchett in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is undermined by our knowing that off-screen he’s shtupping Angelina Jolie.  Mel Gibson remains a talented actor, director and storyteller, and yet, rightly or wrongly, his career has been tainted by the public face of his personal demons.  So too does the tragic real-life death of Liam Neeson’s wife Natasha Richardson following a skiing accident in Quebec a few years ago play subconsciously in our minds as we watch him as a broken, despondent and suicidal man in The Grey.  But on this rare occasion, the tragedy of the real man only deepens the emotional impact of the story.

Liam Neeson’s career has seen him play a string of men of uncompromising integrity on both sides of the great moral divide.  He has a fatherly screen presence that has led to his frequent casting as a mentor to the movie’s true hero – as Qui-Gon Jinn in The Phantom Menace, Godfrey of Ibelin in Kingdom of Heaven, Henri Ducard in Batman Begins, Priest Vallon in Gangs of New York, Zeus in the remake of Clash of the Titans.  Having once turned down the role of James Bond, the actor who embodied Oskar Schindler has in recent years begun to reinvent himself as a big-screen badass in the mode of early Clint Eastwood, in movies like The A-Team, Taken and Unknown.  The trailers for The Grey lead you to believe that it leans more toward the latter, that the big Irishman will be doing bare-knuckle battle this time not with white slavers or international assassins, but with those most vicious of Nature’s killers, wolves.  Not so.  There are wolf fights in the movie, but they are not its raison d’etre.  Rather the story is more of a solemn meditation on the inevitability of death and our free will in deciding how we will meet it – as exemplified by the poem above.

In a rare, precious world teeming with life, humanity has, ironically, spent a great deal of its existence in an obsession with life’s end, questioning what comes beyond, and sadly, crafting inventive ways to hasten its arrival.  There will be a moment in everyone’s time when he will speculate about his death, what form it will take, and whether he will go out in the archetypal blaze of glory or in quiet, frightened solitude – as though the meaning of the entirety of one’s life can be encapsulated in and defined by its final moment.  Liam Neeson the man may have pondered this question before, but certainly has had greater cause to dwell upon it since the loss of his wife – much as for me, death was only the thing that happened to the bad guys in the movie, until my father passed away.  I’m reminded of the scene at the end of Saving Private Ryan when the elder Ryan turns to his wife and pleads with her to assure him that he has lived a good life, that he has been worthy of the sacrifices made by others so he could go on.  It’s important that we ask ourselves that question not as the end nears, but every day, even in the moments when death is the furthest from our thoughts.  Are we the most of what we can be?  And when the end does come, will the course of our individual history enable us to stand proudly against it, or will we let silence slip over us without resistance, in quiet shame and lingering regret?

The final line from the poem in The Grey is the most telling and the most interesting since it is misquoted on the movie’s poster.  Where the poster asks “live or die on this day,” the true line is “live and die on this day,” suggesting that the moment we face our death is the moment, and the singular chance, to appreciate life in all its magnificence.  Liam Neeson plays a man who is willing to let death take him as the movie begins, and by the end, is alone, forsaken by man and God, but, having come face to face with the depths of his soul, is now raging against the dying of the light.  It is a cathartic journey to be admired, as we watch a man strip away the layers of doubt to discover the purest truth of who he really is, crystallizing at the moment the screen cuts to black – a perfect, if controversial ending to this tale – for we, the audience, cannot know another man in the way he knows himself.  That question is up to each of us as individuals.  That’s our choice, our challenge.  To live and die on this day.