Christmas dinner is delayed on account of distracting sideburns

I’ve discovered the secret to a joyous Christmas: give unto others the gift of things that will entertain you while you’re home. This is a sure fire way to prevent boredom, arguments, and overeating.

I just spent a novel afternoon watching old Habs games with my dad from the 1909-2009 Canadiens Centennial Celebrations and Merchandizing Opportunities DVD box set released last year. It’s amazing how a game from 2008 can be a nail biter even when I know who will win the shootout.

Apropos to our political moment, we decided to watch the seventh game of the 1979 semi-finals between the Habs and the Bruins, wherein Don Cherry gave the iconic photo-op so integral to the Coach’s Corner intro montage. I haven’t watched many old games so this broadcast was both entertaining and eye opening.

While the production value was decidedly lower, the aesthetics of old timey hockey are far superior to anything the so-called men of our generation can pull off. Who needs a helmet when you have a studly stache-and-sideburns combo to protect your noggin? Case in point: defenseman Larry Robinson. That is the face of a man who is unstoppable. Also, the face of a man who looks a lot like Gordon Lightfoot. And as we all know, not even a 6 week coma could keep Gordo down. So yeah. My point is proven.


"I’m not saying that I love you"...just kidding, I totally am.

And on the topic of helmets and aesthetics…during the game in question, one of the Bruins rammed Ken Dryden in the back with his stick (and didn’t get called for it, by the way). Frankly, I’m surprised anyone dared mess with goalies in those days: what if he Jasoned you? Granted, Friday the 13th didn’t come out until 1980 and I’m not sure that Jason even wore a mask until the later films…but still, goalies back in the day were fearsome looking. Gerry Cheevers, anyone?

Yes, 1979 was a different year. It was a time when the Habs still played at the Forum, when there were no advertisements on the boards, when you really had to pay attention because the score and the time weren’t displayed on the TV screen, and when sportscasters like Danny Gallivan were delightfully articulate (“It’s bumptious out there. It’s getting turbulent.”).

Some things, however, remain steadfastly infuriating. What was, at the time, an obnoxious gesture to a riled up crowd would become an iconic image of Don Cherry, and a symbol of the mediocre standards that broadcast media and its audiences hold on-air personalities to in the name of commercial viability.

Some context (hopefully I won’t butcher the history much): it’s the seventh game of the semi-finals, both teams want it (obviously), it’s a Montreal home game so the crowd is freaking out (naturally), and Bruins defenseman Dick Redmond gets called for cross-checking Jacques Lemaire. The crowd is furious and booing like crazy. Don Cherry, who argues that Redmond barely touched Lemaire, stands up and starts bowing at the crowd. “What I was doing was acknowledging that the crowd had called the penalty” he writes, in a book that I only read three paragraphs of on Google Books just now, but that I can only assume was dictated to someone too dumb or intimidated to edit it.

Habs fans were angry, and Cherry was effectively flipping them the bird with a smile on his face. What? Whatchu gonna do? You’re pissed? Fine. Go ahead and shout. Whatchu gonna do, anyhow? It’s the perfect image for Coach’s Corner. It’s the perfect image for Cherry in Toronto these days. It’s the perfect image for a man who would get up in a house of government where people of all sexes, genders, orientations, classes, political stripes, religions, ethnicities, and countless other divisive isms come together to commonly govern one of the most diverse cities on the planet, and give an inarticulate, insulting, disrespectful, confusing, and downright rude speech about the city’s new mayor (Cherry didn’t vote for Ford, by the way: he lives in Mississauga). The outrage has nothing to do with Ford: Cherry was in the wrong. (The wrong decade, that is: cool it with the rhetoric, McCarthy.)

So while goalie masks may change shape and facial hair may go out of vogue, Don Cherry remains a dick. And while some may laugh off his Council speech as “kids being kids,” as it were, a government address is not comparable to a sports broadcast where he is paid to be abrasive, inarticulate, and tacky because it brings in advertising dollars (is Coach’s Corner still sponsored by Moores? I wonder whether that endorsement helps or hinders the chain…)

I added the lens flare because it felt like a pinko move.

Montreal won that 1979 game in overtime, by the way, and went on to win the Cup for the fourth consecutive year. Every time that clip of Cherry bowing comes up on Coach’s Corner, the shot is a reminder that you can be an enormous jackass, you can lose your game, and you can still have an (unjustifiably) profitable career if you’re packaged sharply (gaudily) enough. His producers might have montaged the clip in to show how ballsy Cherry is, but to those who stop and think about it, the shot is symbolic of a series of epic life FAILs.

You may think this post went on a crazy tangent, but as a pinko who inherited a hockey allegiance from a Montreal-born father, it’s to be expected. Hockey has always been political in Quebec.

In closing, Guy Lafleur was kind of a stud.

Accidentally shirtless.


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Measuring Distance in Music

A couple of weeks ago I went to a bar in Parkdale for a friend’s birthday. I rode my bike, and was pleasantly surprised to find that the length of time it took between pressing play in the Beaches and locking my bike in the west end was exactly the length of the album I was listening to (The National’s Boxer, highly recommended).

Since I moved to Toronto (official resident as of January 2010) I’ve been very aware of distance in the city. I love walking. I’ve been doing it for years. I spent four years in Montreal, and a 40 minute walk to campus in -30˚ + wind chill was always more appealing than cramming into a crowded transit vehicle and giving up control of my mobility. Yet, for some reason, I’ve always felt that Toronto is a city that discourages walking. It could be that I spend too much time with people who have enough disposable income to waste it on cabs; it could be that the “city of neighbourhoods” mentality increases the psychological distance between places, thereby decreasing your desire to walk. Either way, I’ve often felt that getting somewhere on your own steam in Toronto is considered vastly inferior to transit (and, when transit fails you, cabs).

When I started riding my bike (Douglas: he’s amazing) my sense of distance became intrinsically linked to an awareness of time, as both a unit of measurement and a perceptual experience. In the mornings, I save a good 15 minutes commuting down Queen East on Douglas rather than on the 501. The value of the bike is vastly increased when you measure the commute in minutes rather than metres. And, when you evaluate the trip in relation to my mental state, it’s not only shorter but better as well. I enjoy being in control of my movement, and I like moving. It’s not just the fact that transit requires me to sit still for an hour. It’s that I’m obligated and expected to do it that annoys me when I know I’m capable of getting somewhere my own way (and who likes being told what to do?). In the case of travelling, it’s the state of not being in control of your circumstances that is so frustrating.

Of course, we find ways to take control of unpleasant but necessary experiences like commuting all the time, and there are a lot of strategies at work to make them enjoyable. We can thank iPod/mp3 player culture for being a big part of that (with a necessary shout out to the Disc and Walk men that came first…I had a teal Walkman when I was a kid. That Puff Daddy song from the Godzilla soundtrack featuring Jimmy Page got a lot of play on it).

On the night of my friend’s birthday, the fact that “length of album” coincidentally equalled “length of pedaling” got me thinking about the ways that we experience distance and time, what other units of measurement could be factored into the equation, and how these other units might change our experience. Consider what new ideas could be communicated, for instance, if the answer to “How far away is it?” was “It’s about the length of Boxer” as opposed to “11.7 kilometres” or “43 minutes, 27 seconds.” Consider also how the reply might affect your decision to leave the house on a cold night in late November (Answer: “It’s one of your favourite albums” vs Answer: “It’s a long freaking way on a bike at night”).

Marshall McLuhan wrote about time (specifically, clocks) and numbers in Understanding Media. Clocks, he argued, order life in standardized units of seconds, minutes and hours. “Processed in this uniform way,” he writes, “time is separated from the rhythms of human experience…Time measured not by the uniqueness of private experience but by abstract uniform units gradually pervades all sense life…Not only work, but also eating and sleeping, came to accommodate themselves to the clock rather than to organic needs.” Transit cities are driven by clocks. The fact that Toronto is the business capital of Canada only adds to the sense of perpetual scheduling in adult life. The frustrating experience of commuting is merely a microcosmic representation of a much greater frustration, wherein the schedule becomes an obligation rather than a choice.

That time is measured in numbers, and indeed, that measurements by definition involve figures, is important to the distinction between “11.7 kilometres” and “length of an album” in our example. McLuhan understands numbers to be tactile – as media, an extension of our sense of touch – with iconic power (iconic, in this case, meaning “an inclusive compressed image” that is readily understood). As such, numbers are a pervasive element of Western communication: “Take 36-24-36. Numbers cannot become more sensuously tactile than when mumbled as the magic formula for the female figure while the haptic hand sweeps the air.” His point can be made without silly sexual innuendos (although that’s all the fun of reading McLuhan): I understand what 11 kilometres feels like, and I can feel it differently whether we’re talking about a bike ride, a streetcar ride, a walk or a run. Similarly, I know what 43 minutes on the streetcar feels like on a cold night, versus on a bike or on foot, whereas the subjective adjective “long” when describing the ride means very little. Borrowing another of McLuhan’s examples, I understand the statement differently when a newspaper reports “Cyclist John Jameson Collides with Bus” in contrast to “Cyclist John Jameson, 12, Collides with Bus.” Just think for a moment about the word “figure” and you’ll see the inherently physical quality of numbers.

Using music as a unit of measurement changes the numbers game. As my good friend Crystal argued in a thesis about music in composite films, music has the power to annihilate space and time. Further, as art that we can carry around in our ear(bud)s, music not only adds a layer of emotion and meaning to a situation, but gives you the option to choose what those emotions or meanings might be. The entertainment value of portable music (and, I would argue, its therapeutic power in providing a sense of control and purpose) is made pretty clear when you count the number of headphones you see on a streetcar during rush hour.

Music can be used to measure all kinds of distance and, by extension, annihilate that distance. A song can mean the difference between the present moment and a fond memory, or the distance between two people continents apart.

I’m definitely of the opinion that our headphones should come off once in a while so that we experience the sonic space of an urban setting. That said, I really like the idea that I can claim that space and making it my own. Although my headphones eliminate a level of connectivity with my environment (and a level of realism, to be honest: I’m not an epic person, even if my music sometimes is), portable music creates a new type of connection by adding a layer of aesthetic and emotional richness to a space and to an experience. You can layer yourself onto an environment, you can control an otherwise imposing or oppressive reality, you can give a setting or a situation emotional value they might not otherwise have.

Measured in music, distance and time start to have a human meaning that transcends the “uniform seconds, minutes, and hours on an assembly-line pattern” produced by McLuhan’s clocks, or by Toronto’s vastness.

On the topic of numbers, measurement, distance and music, I can’t help but end on the brilliance of Metric, whose band name I appreciate so much more after writing this. Parkdale, a track off their first recorded album, is only too appropriate to the (rather convoluted) point I’m trying to make:

“I should be living, giving my mind a chance to rewind and playback beautiful music.”

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For Emily, Wherever I May Find Her (i.e. Waswanipi)

I want to dedicate a song to my dear friend Emily, who (while I was at a Wolf Parade concert) was dealing with the threat of actual wolves in Waswanipi. Here is a really good song that mentions wolves. Not really topical in any way, unless you count the fact that the album it’s from was written and recorded in a cabin in middle-of-nowhere-Wisconsin (both W places!).

I can only imagine how crazy it is to be in northern Quebec at this time of year. Despite being a fourth or fifth generation Canadian on my dad’s side, I’ve never really witnessed the weather or geography that supposedly unites us in true patriot love, unless you count what I’ve seen in car/beer commercials and Heritage Moments. It’s probably why I listen to Gordon Lightfoot so much: it’s not hard to imagine the Canadian wilderness with an acoustic guitar and a lilting baritone.

That said, I have a newfound love for winter in the city, despite the slush and the fact that I blew two tires in three days on my bike. When people are out in the street after the sun has gone down in Toronto these days, it’s because they have a reason to be there. The people who are out aren’t tourists: they’re people on their way home from work, or off to meet friends at a bar, or tripping along in impractical footwear to see a show, or looking for the warmest grate to sleep on overnight. Whatever the reason, these are real Torontonians living in their city. I feel a lot closer to the people around me knowing we have that in common, and it’s nice to find a personal source of community in an urban space from something as simple as a drop in temperature.

I felt like a total grownup eating a hot dog on Thursday night at Nathan Phillips Square, killing time between work and a fundraiser. Also, for the record, it’s decidedly not cold here, despite what newscasters are saying. I doubt whether Toronto knows the true meaning of wind chill.

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Ryan Reynolds in a Box at The Fox

Rather than hide my narcissism, I’m going to try to keep up a blog. Hopefully this will turn me into a more interesting person by encouraging me to leave the house once in a while so that I have something to write about. Or, if not, hopefully it will make me a better liar about the “things” I “do.” Either way, I win.

A couple of weeks ago I saw Rodrigo Cortés’ Buried at the Fox Theatre. As a neighbourhood, the Beaches has a lot of things going for it, despite being a haven for middle aged property flippers and a hot spot for slow walkers who unironically cite “long walks on the beach” as a personal interest. The Fox is way up there on the list of things that would up my property value here if I owned property. There’s nothing like a 45 second walk in your finest ripped flannel and sweatpants to the local one-screen movie theatre to turn a crappy day awesome. Kick off your shoes, claim a row for yourself, buy a bag of popcorn for dinner: perfect.

Buried is a close-to real-time account of a hostage situation in Iraq. Paul Conroy is an American truck driver who wakes up in a wooden coffin, buried alive for ransom with a lighter, a BlackBerry and a few bars of cell reception. The 94 minute film follows his attempt to stay alive and get himself rescued.

The promos for this film hyped it as incredibly Hitchcockian, which is what was on my mind while I was watching it. (this also meant that Ned Schantz was on my mind, but when isn’t he?) While I think it’s a very valid comparison to draw, it’s was a major departure from one of Hitchcock’s favourite themes that offered much more interesting cultural insights to me. The film’s premise is a scenario Hitchcock would have been proud of. Claustrophobia is a theme found throughout his repertoire and, at least from a physical standpoint, Paul’s situation doesn’t really get more claustrophobic. But when Hitchcock does claustrophobia it isn’t just about locking someone in a small space: Hitchcock’s claustrophobia is often profoundly social. Social norms, family units, and mothers (naturally) impose heavily upon the freewill of Hitchcockian protagonists: for example, Joan Fontaine’s unnamed character in Rebecca deals with hysteria-inducing levels of social claustrophobia, despite having living quarters that are pretty damn vast. In contrast, and despite his physical confinement, Buried is a story about a man who is very much alone.

Watching Buried called to mind a 1955 episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents called Breakdown. Joseph Cotten plays a cutthroat businessman who begins the episode by firing a long-time employee over the phone (dick), then gets his comeuppance when his car breaks down in the jungle and he wakes up paralyzed. Unable to move, passersby assume he’s dead. Cotten’s character is looted for his clothes, and it’s not until moments before the episode ends when his body is being shipped away as a corpse and he starts crying (wait, could “breakdown” have a double meaning?? Masculinity and cars…linked??) that someone realizes he’s alive and, we assume, he gets help.

Joseph Cotten’s predicament mirrors Paul’s in more than just a lack of physical mobility. For both men, communication is a matter of life and death, and it’s not an easy task: for the first man, he’s surrounded by people but is incapable of speaking to them; for the second, he has the tools to speak but there’s often no one there to listen, and when he is able to connect we’re forced to question the value of the connections he makes.

When you’re talking Hitchcock, the conversation often brings up the MacGuffin (bear with me for a moment, I promise the analysis isn’t as superficial as it appears). According to Wikipedia, Hitchcock defined a MacGuffin as the object around which the plot revolves, but, as to what that object specifically is, he declared, “the audience doesn’t care.” I’ve always understood the MacGuffin as the thing that starts the story, the trigger for a break of the iterative that makes narrative possible and, by ensuring a narrative exists, allows for an exploration of the ideas that are actually important. In Buried, the BlackBerry is the obvious MacGuffin – by extension, the escape is a less literal MacGuffin, given that the BlackBerry exists to make escape possible. These are the things we don’t actually care about. Remember (and now I’m paraphrasing a theorist whose name escapes me) all narratives are ultimately self defeating: the pleasure we get from stories is from storytelling itself, and yet all stories are doomed to end. All of this is to say that, if the BlackBerry/the escape/the end of the film is the MacGuffin, then the real focus of the film is his situation as it unfolds. Which is to say the point of this film, and its analytical value to me, is the experience of being alone is a world defined by electronic, bureaucratic, and inherently distant relationships.

Paul Conroy is trapped in a box to show how truly alone he is. Despite the constant affirmations of “I’m Paul Conroy, I’m an American truck driver,” the character is little more than a series of phone numbers, identification numbers, anxiety pills and disconnected relationships (and in fact, Paul isn’t the truck driver he thought he was: his company fired him and didn’t inform him until after he was taken hostage). His personal relationships are with answering machines and disembodied voices, mitigated by a BlackBerry that doesn’t belong to him and that, for the better part of the movie, doesn’t speak his language.

It’s significant that Paul is left with a BlackBerry, rather than a crappy flip phone like mine. BlackBerry is a brand image of success and professionalism that people buy into across class, race and gender lines. In many ways, the BlackBerry is the Grey Flannel Suit of the 21st century (to drop a reference to an essay I was assigned while studying Hitchcock but never actually read). The smart phone generally, and the BlackBerry specifically, has become the homogenizing symbol of middle class self-worth and, by extension, the ultimate identity negation. Like Mark White, a fellow victim of box-burying hostage-taking, Paul Conroy is nothing more than a name in a box, just like so many other people whose BlackBerry acts as an initial signifier of their “identity” to observers who aren’t inclined to take the time to know them. To what extent is this an identity (or a lack) imposed upon Paul by his captors, and to what extent did it define his pre-boxed life?

Amazingly, and so appropriately, Paul’s cell phone signal and battery life outlast him (spoiler alert: he totally dies). Ned Schantz loved to lecture about the links between film and death, about how we film death, about film as death, etc. He taught us that the credit sequence often serves as a bridge between the feeling of loss (the death) we experience at the end of a film, and the necessary return to the real world (one of the reasons that music is often central to the close of a film). Buried drives this point home in a major way. The majority of the audience I saw it with stuck around to read the names of people that we have absolutely no reason to know, yet who we care desperately about: we want to know who was involved, we want to know there were people involved, that a community can exist despite Cortés’ pessimistic scenario.

The assumption at the end of the film is that many people have been taken hostage and buried alive – and have died alone in boxes. As an audience, we strive to find a sense of purpose in this gloomy reality: like Paul Conroy, we’re impossibly optimistic given a hopeless, up-and-down rollercoaster of a narrative that ends at the absolute bottom. Despite this, we strive to stay connected, if only electronically; we constantly broadcast our situations to find help and hope, and share our stories with whoever wants to listen. (sometimes, we even blog…)

Which is to say: I appreciate this film for providing the appropriate subject matter to start a blog with the primary goal of keeping in touch with a diaspora of friends, while keeping myself entertained at the same time. I’d definitely recommend watching it: even if you don’t want to put any thought into its implications, it’s an entertaining piece of cinema.

I wouldn’t recommend it if you’re epileptic, though. Flickering Zippos aren’t easy on the eyes.

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