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Monday, February 28, 2011

The Etsell Trees in Winter

I grumbled a little about the persistent cold today. Then I remembered how much worse it was in Manitoba during the 1970s. This image from the winter of 1972 shows the trees in the Etsell farm backyard shivering - or seeming to, at least. That's just outside Virden; northern Manitoba was typically even chillier.

I'm not sure if my parents or one of my aunts or uncles shot this photo, but I love how succinctly it captures the still silence of a Manitoba winter, especially in small-town or rural areas. It was beautiful, but harsh.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Best Picture 2010

Tonight the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will hand out a truckload of Oscar statuettes. It's one of the biggest days of the year for film buffs, and despite my misgivings about the cult of celebrity, I'll tune in once again.

For the second time in the 21st century, the Academy has nominated ten films for the prestigious Best Picture award. Overall, this year's field was about as strong as last year's, though the worst nominee this year is much better than last year's worst nominee, The Blind Side. Here's my ranking:

10) The Kids Are All Right
Unconventional family, conventional script. The performances are fine and it's nice to see a film that treats gay relationships as normal, but neither the writing nor the direction really lift this above standard dramedy fare. I enjoyed it, but I don't see it as a Best Picture nominee.

9) Toy Story 3
Toy Story 3 is warm, funny, and a great final act for these lovable characters. However, as I get older and more crotchety, I'm finding that Pixar's brand of heartfelt sentimentality is wearing a little thin. I hope they don't ruin John Carter of Mars.

8) True Grit
I love the Cohen Brothers, but they can be a little hit and miss. There's nothing wrong with this "gritty" western, but it's not particularly challenging, either, especially compared to last year's Cohen nominee A Serious Man. Frankly, I prefer the 1969 version, with John Wayne.

7) The Fighter
This film is all about the acting. Fortunately, it's full of great performances, from recovering addict Christian Bale to Melissa Leo's sometimes overbearing but ultimately sympathetic Alpha Mom to the adorable Amy Adams' tough but underachieving barmaid. Funny, sincere and about as uplifting as a film about the sport of beating your opponent unconscious can be.

6) Black Swan
I expected to enjoy this more than I did. The makeup effects, editing and cinematography are top-notch, the performances fine, but I was looking for a little more ambiguity from the storyline. There's also an unfortunate subtext about the "dangers" of female sexuality that turned me off a little. Why are women so often punished in popular culture for having orgasms, or even seeking them out?

From this point on, the rankings become a lot more difficult for me. I loved all five of the following films for different reasons, and on a different day I might rank them in a completely different way. But for now, here's how I stand.

5) The King's Speech
This one's all about Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush, and the two play off one another beautifully. Bonus points for recreating a fascinating era in British history. Plays a little fast and loose with history, but still worthwhile.

4) The Social Network
David Fincher's direction is as cool and austere as ever, which suits this film perfectly. The Social Network uses one man's fascinating story to capture the feel of this peculiar era of North American culture. Aaron Sorkin's script is wonderfully cynical, while at the same time showcasing human vulnerability.

3) Winter's Bone
Against a backdrop of grinding poverty and the omnipresent threat of sudden and brutal violence, Debra Granik's brave thriller presents no easy answers. But Jennifer Lawrence as Ree Dolly gives us a wonderful feminist heroine, a tough but not invincible 17 year old who refuses to let almost insurmountable obstacles prevent her from protecting her younger siblings.

2) 127 Hours
Of all this year's nominees, I wanted to see this film least of all. I didn't see how even Danny Boyle could make a one-man-show about a rock-climbing accident interesting. But it's much more than interesting - it's absolutely compelling. James Franco is astounding as Aron Ralston, a somewhat self-absorbed young man who finds himself trapped in a narrow canyon, his arm pinned between a rock and a stone wall. This film sends a powerful message about the two conflicting but equally powerful forces that shape human culture: the power of individualism, and the importance of community. I was deeply moved by Boyle's masterful handling of these forces, and how he brings them together into a seamless, utterly vital whole.

1) Inception
It's the most original film in years. Chris Nolan has crafted a sublime film about the creative process, the importance of emotional catharsis and the subjective nature of reality. Far more than a simple caper film with a clever gimmick, Inception rewards careful analysis and repeated viewing. One of my favourite films in years.

Of course, Inception won't win tonight; that honour will go to The Social Network, or if the Academy is fickle, The King's Speech. All in all, not a bad set of nominees.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Trouble in Thompson Town

From a profile of our Thompson neighbours the Hawkins printed in Inco's In Manitoba magazine, circa 1972.
I'm a little appalled that I didn't hear about this news until celebrity Michael Moore waded into the debate, but apparently a Brazilian mining company bought out Manitoba mainstay Inco and is now shutting down major operations in Thompson. Thompson is a mining town, and this is going to have a devastating effect on the community. When the mine shut down in Leaf Rapids, it became, if not a ghost town, then a shambling zombie town. The difference this time is that Thompson is Manitoba's third-largest city.
Playing with Matthew and Michael Hawkins in front of the Woods home in Thompson.
The way I remember it, Inco played fair as far as corporations go, establishing good labour relations and even paying their share of infrastructure costs. I haven't investigated too deeply yet, but on the surface it sure seems like this deal stinks. I hope Thompson doesn't go the way of Leaf Rapids; the north is an important frontier, and the people living there deserve better.

Friday, February 25, 2011


What do you get when you multiply six by nine?

Anyone familiar with the works of Douglas Adams knows that 42 is the ultimate answer to life, the universe, and everything. It logically follows, then, that "What do you get when you multiply six by nine?" is the ultimate question.

Yes, there is something fundamentally wrong with the universe. Fortunately, turning 42 today is unrelated - I hope - to ultimate questions and answers.

I found 42 balloons waiting for me at work thanks to Andrew's kindness, and many well-wishes from friends and family. Sylvia spoiled me with some very thoughtful gifts and dinner at - of course - Earl's. So I guess if there is an ultimate question and and ultimate answer, it probably goes something like this:

Why are we here?

To be nice to each other.

And to do a whole bunch of other things, of course, if indeed there's even a "why" at all. But we are here, so we may as well make the best of it even though we don't have all the answers, or all the questions.

Thanks for the birthday wishes, everyone. 

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Breadalbane Pioneers

In July 1975, the people of southwestern Manitoba gathered at Breadalbane Church to unveil a monument to the area's original settlers. The church is about 8 km from the Etsell farm, and my family was there, but the only thing I really remember is the heat. It was sweltering. Mom says I was pretty well-behaved anyway.

The man at the podium is Harold Leask, my grandmother's first cousin.
Here's the cairn, with Manitoba's lush prairie in the background.
A closeup of the monument reveals the names of the pioneers being honoured that day. Mom's ancestors are represented by the Leask family at the upper right. Note that a Tom and Charlotte Woods are also listed, although there's no direct relation to Dad's side of the family.
 This is the inside of the church. I'm in the front row, wearing the green vest. Mom is three rows behind me, the short-haired brunette in the pink blouse. Looking good! Aunt Margaret is right in front of her, sharing a pew with my cousins Cathy, Barbara and David. You can see my grandmother in the row behind, between David and Barbara.
Here's the church as it looked in 2009. It's held up remarkably well.

If you look at the 1975 photo of the cairn, you'll see a shack in the background. It was still there in 2009.

The inside of the church was still in good shape, too.
Sean proved that even the piano still functions.
And I took an opportunity to strike a dramatic pose.

I'm not a religious person, but there's something special about Breadalbane church. Even though it's usually empty these days, you can feel the weight of history emanating from every stone and timber. I wonder what yesterday's pioneers would make of the 21st century. I like to think that at least they'd be pleased to be remembered.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Brother of Another Colour

Al Oeming's snow leopard in a more natural hue.
After yesterday's lament about faded old slides, Jeff sent me a helpful email about Photoshop's amazing curves function. A few simple adjustments, and this poor old snow leopard is no longer looking quite so pink.

 Here's another scan of an old slide. This is my Uncle Arnold and a couple of my cousins, sometime back in the late 60s. The photo is awfully pink, so I'm going to follow Jeff's advice and use the curves tool to flush some of the red out.
Well, it's not perfect, but I think it looks a lot more natural than when I started. Thankfully the vast majority of the hundreds of slides I've scanned don't exhibit this extreme red tint. In fact, the only ones that have turned red are all of a strange non-standard variety; the film frame is much larger than a normal 35 mm slide, with a very narrow border.

CORRECTION: Mom tells me that this photo is probably not from the late 60s, but rather 1959 or 1960. Whoops! Thanks, Mom.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Al Oeming's Alberta Game Farm

A snow leopard interred at the Alberta Game Farm, circa 1974.
Back in 1974, while we were still living in Leaf Rapids, Mom and Dad took me on a trip to Alberta, where we visited Al Oeming's Alberta Game Farm. I don't remember the trip at all, but while scanning the family slide collection today I came across some official photos created by the Farm for visitors. The slides are in very rough shape, the colours faded by the years to a dark pink. I've tried to colour-correct these as best I can, but the results, as you can see, are lukewarm at best. (UPDATE: originally these photos were very pink, but thanks to a tip from my friend Jeff, they now look much better.)

Mom and Dad inform me that we did visit the Farm once again after moving to Alberta, mostly so that my brother Sean could see it. I have hazy memories of this trip - really nothing more than sensory impressions of strong odours, chain-link fences, and perhaps a sea of cars in a field that served as a parking lot, though this could easily be a memory conflated with that of one of our trips to the Namao air shows.

In its later years the Alberta Game Farm was known as Polar Park before shutting down for good in 1998. The Edmonton Journal has a pretty funny gallery here; my favourite is the one captioned "In 1978, gorilla escapes were a problem."

Here are a few other slides:
Formosan Sika Deer
A pair of Nilgai

Chilean Flamingos
A chained cheetah

Monday, February 21, 2011

The (Canine) Candidate

The old Etsell farm lies just a few kilometres away from Virden, Manitoba, in the federal electoral district of Brandon-Souris. The riding has been reliably conservative since it was first contested in 1953. Grandfather Etsell once memorably claimed that "We could run Laddie as a Tory in this riding and he'd win."

Laddie, pictured above at the Etsell farmhouse in 1966, never ran for office, probably figuring that popular Distinguished Flying Cross recipient Walter Dinsdale had the PC nomination well in hand. Indeed, Dinsdale represented the riding for 30 years, right up until his passing. It wasn't until the Liberal wave of 1993 that Brandon-Souris was represented by anyone other than a Tory; Glen McKinnon, a biology teacher from Virden, held the seat for one term before voters returned another Tory to office. The riding has remained blue ever since.

With a record like that, I have to believe that Granddad, though speaking in jest, was probably correct in his analysis.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Con-Version Experience

A couple of years after I met Steve Fitzpatrick, I started joining him at Calgary's Con-Version science fiction conventions. We headed down to Calgary three or four times in the late 80s and early 90s, and I always had a blast. I loved the bad movie night, the guest speakers, and the panels. One year, our friend Steve Muir earned a glare from SF author David Brin; apparently Steve's giant feet got a little too close to Brin's toddler in the elevator. Another year I ran into Bjo Trimble, the so-called "superfan" who orchestrated the fan mail campaign that saved Star Trek from cancellation - twice!

Delegates are obligated, by tradition if not force of law, to bring costumes to this event. And of course there's a contest. At Con-Version XII in 1995, Steve convinced me to play a supporting role in his contest entry for that year. Revealing that there's much more to Klingon culture than simply war and honour, Steve dressed up as a Klingon accountant. But even a Klingon number-cruncher remains a Klingon, and when I, playing an uptight Federation bureaucrat, confronted Steve's character about his figures, well, he stopped crunching numbers and started crunching my hand. We had a lot of fun hamming it up for the audience, and took away some reward or other - I don't remember which. though perhaps Steve will.
Here I am in a turbolift (i.e., elevator) with Audrey Fitzpatrick. Why am I wearing glasses? Most 23rd century patients with vision problems are given a dose of Retinax-V. But I'm allergic to Retinax.

And here's the gang that went down that year: myself, Stephen Fitzpatrick, Peter Harris (as the Surgeon General), Dave and Paula Ticheler, Audrey Fitzpatrick, and Steve Muir, he of the giant feet.

Ask anyone what defines Calgary and they'll probably mention one of the sports teams, the Calgary Stampede, or the oil and gas industry. But every metropolitan area plays host to a plethora of subcultures, including science fiction and fantasy aficionados. Con-Version has been attracting thousands of fans for nearly thirty years now, as interesting and diverse a crowd of people as I've ever encountered. I haven't been to a convention for over a decade, but if anyone wants to make the trip again, I'm up for it.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

It Came from the Garden

Earl waters some harmless flowers at Hole's Greenhouses in 2000. Photo by Akemi Matsubuchi.
Many years ago, I sold this article to The Old Farmer's Almanac Gardener's Companion. They sent me a cheque for US $400, but I never did see the published piece. Part of me wonders if they ever printed it. But hey, they bought it, so I guess that still counts as a sale - and a very lucrative one, considering it's a pretty light and fluffy piece that probably took me less than an hour to write.

It Came from the Garden!

There's nothing more idyllic than a summer afternoon spent with a book and a glass of lemonade, surrounded by your own jungle of colourful flowers, lush vines, and towering trees. But in the fantastic realms of science fiction, plants aren't always friends of humanity.

When Good Plants Go Bad
For millions of Canadians, plants are beautiful and benign, welcome residents of their gardens. But in popular culture, plants have often exhibited sinister, even blood-curdling traits. Just look at this brief list of killer plants in popular culture…

·         In the classic The Thing from Another World (1951, remade in 1982), scientists at an arctic research station discover a spaceship buried in the ice. They free the ship and its lone occupant, a Thing that turns out to be, according to the resident scientist, a form of sentient plant life. "Please doctor, I've got to ask this. It sounds like, well, just as though you're describing some form of super carrot," says Ned Scott, one of the men endangered by the beast. "An intellectual carrot. The mind boggles," he continues. Indeed.

·         In director Roger Corman's 1956 opus It Conquered the World, mankind is menaced by Zontar, an alien from Venus that fans have come to describe as the "space cucumber," for the being's resemblance to that vegetable.

·         Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956, remade in 1978 and 1993), is perhaps the best known of the killer plant films, though the menace is far more subtle than other examples in the genre. Mysterious pods, drifting through outer space like pollen adrift on the wind, land and take root on Earth. The pods split open and grow, taking on the form of the nearest human being and eventually replacing them with cold, soulless, robotic duplicates.

·         Roger Corman had another hit with Little Shop of Horrors (1960, remade in 1986), the tale of well-meaning goof Seymour and his man-eating plant, Audrey Jr. Legend has it that Corman made this movie in just a few days, using sets and actors left over from another production that wrapped ahead of schedule.

·         "Beware the Triffids... they grow... know... walk... talk... stalk... and KILL!" So reads the tagline of The Day of the Triffids (1962), based on the classic novel by John Wyndham. After a streaking comet blinds most of the world's citizens, the Triffids, once domestic, ambulatory plants, rise up to shake off the chains of their oppressors.

·         Star Trek featured the mind-altering spore plants of Omicron Ceti III in "This Side of Paradise," the deadly dart-shooting plants of "The Apple," and the poisonous apples of "The Way to Eden," bitter fruit indeed for the hippie space travellers who searched for an Eden among the stars, only to discover death.

·         Attack of the Killer Tomatoes! (1978) sees every tomato lover's worst fears realized as tomatoes grow to immense size and rampage through the streets.

Other plant related pop culture trivia:
·         Just before the Attack of the Giant Leeches (1959), one of the eventual victims can be seen browsing through a seed catalogue.

·         Many gardeners are familiar with the insecticide Rotenone. Did you know that intrepid scientists used this chemical as a weapon against The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1958)?

·         Everyone remembers the anguish and horror in Charlton Heston's voice when he declares, at the end of Soylent Green (1973) that "Soylent Green is people!" In Harry Harrison's original novel, however, Soylent Green is nothing more sinister than a paste made of soybeans and lentils.

It's clear that in fiction, at least, gardening has a dark side. The plant as villain or monster is a relatively uncommon theme in storytelling, but it is none the less captivating for all that. While plants are usually harmless in real life (unless you poison yourself by eating something you shouldn't), they do have eerie qualities given the right circumstances. Unlike animals, for example, plants are silent, making no noise saved that caused by the wind rustling through their foliage. And they aren't mobile; they live and die rooted to one spot. Plants are, in fact, rather alien, compared to the human experience of living.

But when authors and filmmakers make plants into threats, they often to so by inverting their normal characteristics. In real life, plants are an absolutely essential component of the environment; without them, we could not survive. This is not necessarily the case in fiction. Normally immobile, monster plants often have the ability to move or use their vines like limbs. Silent in reality, monster plants may growl or slurp. What was once benign becomes an insidious, nightmarish threat. This perversion of the norm is what makes killer plants so horrifying; they are entirely outside real human experience.

One thing is certain—despite these imaginative horrors, gardening will remain a safe and enjoyable experience.

Sidebar: Villainous Vegetation, Fiendish Flora, and Heroic Herbs—Plants in Comic Books
One of the richest sources of plant-themed storytelling comes in the relatively new art form of comic books. Here's a short list of some plant-themed characters.

Swamp Thing
Transformed from a handsome scientist into a horrific plant-man, Alec Holland fights crime and protects the plant world as the hideous but heroic Swamp Thing.

Floronic Man
This flowery foe sows the seeds of crime in the Batman's path.

Poison Ivy
There's a femme fatale in the flowerbed! Another member of Batman's rogues gallery, Poison Ivy hates mankind, feeling they are a blight on her precious plants.

Chlorophyll Kid
A member of the ineffectual Legion of Substitute Heroes, Chlorophyll Kid has the amazing ability to toss seeds at the ground and make them grow super-fast. Handy in the garden, not so handy when fighting supervillains.

White Kryptonite
White Kryptonite isn't a character, but a substance encountered by Superman in several of his adventures. Formed when some of the more traditional green Kryptonite rocks passed through a mysterious "space cloud," white Kryptonite has the ability to destroy all plant life. Great for weeding!

Friday, February 18, 2011

Alberta Legislature: Calm Before the Storm

This sort of thing is old hat to a lot of people now, but I'm still pretty astounded that I shot this video with my phone this afternoon. I'm using a very cool iPhone application called 8mm, which replicates the sound and feel of old Super 8 home movie cameras. Back in the day, these cameras used actual film! I love the look.

The reason for the video's title? Alberta's MLAs will return to the Legislature on Tuesday. I plan to relax this weekend before the deluge. 

Thursday, February 17, 2011

A Model of Patience

Sylvia tells me that she's impressed by my capacity to amuse myself. One day I was bored and wanted Sylvia to entertain me. But she was on the phone. How inconsiderate! But it wasn't a total loss; she very patiently allowed me to take some photographs of her conversation. I think this one turned out pretty well.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Conscience of the King of Playwrights

Back in 1998, I sold this article about the 100th anniversary of Bertolt Brecht's birth to The Peak. I'm still pretty happy with it.

This year, Germans and lovers of the theatre all over the world are celebrating the 100th anniversary of the birth of Bertolt Brecht, author of Galileo, The Caucasian Chalk Circle, The Threepenny Opera (origin of “Mack the Knife), and a score of other plays. Born 10 February 1898 in Augsburg, Bavaria, Brecht went on to become one of the most celebrated and controversial of the modern dramatists, earning the monikers “the German Shakespeare”  and “the poet of the Communist revolution,” this last nickname being applied to him because of his fervently Marxist outlook. In fact, so identified was he with the Communist cause that his plays were not performed in capitalist West Germany until after his death in 1956. His exposure in North America has been limited even today; the internationally renowned theatre company he formed in East Berlin, the Berliner Ensemble, did not perform on that continent until a 1986 performance in Toronto.

Indeed, Brecht was always something of an exile. He wrote in Germany during World War I, later fled the Nazis to work in Scandinavia, spent time in Hollywood writing screenplays (only to be forced to testify before the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee), and finished his life in East Germany. Along the way, he fathered three children by three different women and made a good deal of devoted friends and bitter enemies. His was not a life of moderation.

The Communist East appreciated the devotion of a famous and influential figure to their cause, but were uncomfortable with his unflinching devotion to art and to his own version of the truth. Plays like The Measures Taken (1926), in which an evangelical Communist shows her loyalty to the Party by meekly submitting to an unjust execution, even though the young Comrade knows herself to be in the right, anticipated the Stalinist fervor that would make life in the Soviet Union such a nightmare for hundreds of millions of its citizens. This kind of criticism made Soviet authorities distinctly uncomfortable; Brecht was never popular in the USSR, though Communist Party propagandists made much use of Brecht’s celebrity status. And while Brecht was profoundly influential in the West, affecting the careers of important English directors like Peter Brook and playwrights like John Arden and John Osborne, his politics were often thought to interfere with his art, making his plays just a little less effective than they could have been. Indeed, at the close of The Caucasian Chalk Circle (1945), the conclusion is so obviously a not-too-subtle rephrasing of “from each according to their abilities, to each according to his needs” that even the least astute reader feels like he’s been somewhat beaten over the head with the point. But then, Brecht was convinced that the theatre had to be a way to promote social change; he would not apologize for appearing to belabour his points. 

Brecht’s mode of storytelling, what has been termed “epic theatre,” has had more impact on drama than the plays themselves. Brecht took pains to point out that his method was really a rebellion against the relatively new phenomenon of the naturalistic theatre, wherein the audience is made to feel that they are merely eavesdropping on real events. He felt that the relatively new naturalist method of direction encouraged audiences to leave the theatre entertained and sated, but uninstructed in any way. It was too easy to enjoy; the audience was not required to think. In contrast, epic theatre uses older dramatic traditions like the aside, the monologue, or the chorus, devices that make a play less “realistic” but more intellectually engaging. In any play using the Brechtian mode, the audience cannot help but realize that they are watching a play - they cannot for one second believe that they are simply peering into a realistic world. For example, Brecht once painted the faces of a group of soldiers chalk-white to symbolize their fear of charging into battle - much more likely to provoke thought than a simple expression of fear on an actor’s face.  

In the early 20th century, most plays used the naturalist method; it was almost like watching a movie. Today, more and more stage plays are using the traditional devices that Brecht brought back into the spotlight. Brecht’s influence can be seen in the works of Canadian playwright and director Brad Fraser, author of Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love and Poor Superman. In Poor Superman, the stage is very much an artifice; surreal forms take the place of furniture and the walls are made into a slideshow of rampaging comic-book characters. Critic Martin Esslin called epic theatre “a production naively sophisticated yet highly stylized.” Na├»ve, perhaps, but the evidence of Brecht’s impact is all around us.

To celebrate the centenary of Brecht’s death, a number of special events are happening all over the world through 1998. His childhood home in Augsburg was renovated and turned into a German national monument on February 10; a Brecht postage stamp was also produced. Several television specials on his life have already aired, and no less than three different CD packages have been released featuring Brecht’s songs and readings of his works. The Korean Brecht Society will be holding a conference in Seoul to celebrate the centenary during the final week of September this year, on the theme “Brecht in the Post-Socialist, Post-Modernist World.” Four films on Brecht’s life and work are currently in production. Canadian pop singer Jane Siberry participated in a celebration in Toronto in April. Perhaps most exciting is the planned publication of Bertolt Brecht’s War Primer, a controversial look at the Cold War that was originally released in 1955. Consisting of Brecht’s thoughts on the madness and futility of war, it was too frank for Cold War audiences on either side of the Iron Curtain to take; the 90s may be a more receptive era for this important, eloquent testimonial. The works of Bertolt Brecht may not have received the attention that they have deserved in recent decades, but it looks as though the long Brecht-fast is over at last.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Force Fed

In early 1997, at the urging of my friend Parvesh Bal, I finally submitted a piece of writing to a publisher - and it sold! My first article was published in Singapore's The Peak magazine back in June of 1997. For your amusement, here's the article.
How Special is Star Wars:  The Special Edition?

Is Star Wars really new and improved?  Like the rest of the world, I lined up to see it again, braving mobs of rabid, lightsaber-waving fanatics dressed up as Jedi Knights or Wookiees or Princess Leia. Darth Vader jumped the queue at the popcorn counter, but I was too intimidated to protest. Star Wars, the ultimate space opera, is back in theatres, and, to paraphrase the inimitable Vader, there will be no one to stop it this time.

Not that anyone stopped it the last time, either, back in 1977.  It became the highest grossing film of all time, held that honour until E.T. came along in 1982, and now it has reclaimed the top spot, crossing the $400 million dollar mark. This should come as no surprise, as this new version of the science fiction classic, with new special effects and added footage, has been hyped constantly for almost a year. Why the new edition?  Was there something wrong with the old version? Or is this just a cynical grab for money?    

Clearly, everyone loved this film when it was first released - I know that I did.  When I first saw Star Wars, I was eight years old.  It cost 75 cents to get into the only theatre in the little mining town of Leaf Rapids, Manitoba, and that included a pop and a bag of chips.  My best friend Kelly and I went three times in the first week, and we immediately begged our parents for Star Wars toys. I got R2-D2, the little droid who looked like a garbage pail with legs. Kelly got Luke Skywalker, the last one in the store, and I was a little envious - after all, Luke was the hero - but I grew really attached to that feisty little beeping garbage pail, and we wound up collecting the whole set of characters, anyway. R2 became, and remains, my favourite - twenty years later, I still have the little guy in a box somewhere, paint faded, plastic chipped, but stubbornly intact, just like its onscreen doppleganger.

The movie inspired great devotion. My little brother, only six months old and not quite yet hip to the Star Wars scene, made the unforgivable error of throwing my Stormtrooper action figure (boys never called them "dolls") out the window of our truck while we were speeding down the highway. I had a fit, naturally, making Mom and Dad stop so that we could get out and look for it. This was summer in northern Manitoba - which meant that the ditches we were combing in search of my lost toy were filled with enormous mosquitoes, blackflies, and other unsavory creatures. An hour later, my infinitely patient father shouted triumphantly and lifted the scraped but whole Stormtrooper into the air. We resumed our journey, and I rolled up the window before letting my brother play with my things again. So profound was my relief that I didn't even notice the mosquito bites.  

My most memorable Star Wars moment happened in 1979. A friend and I were playing with those wonderful dolls, enacting our own little scenes like every other kid on the continent. At one point, my friend Keith was playing the role of Luke Skywalker, rattling his little plastic lightsaber in Darth Vader's face, who I controlled.  In my best menacing baritone, I said "Do not fight me, Luke....I am your father."

Imagine our shock and delight a few months later when Vader and Luke had an almost identical exchange in The Empire Strikes Back.  I promptly decided that I was psychic, but later experiments proved that I'd just gotten lucky.  It was probably just as well.  No psychic flashes foreshadowed Return of the Jedi, so none of the surprises in that film were spoiled.

Years passed; adolescence turned to young adulthood; young adulthood slipped away to that dreaded period known as "Dear God, I'm about to turn Thirty." Star Wars became a pleasant memory of easier, more innocent times.

Now it's back. This time I went to the movie alone, with jaded eyes and an outlook not quite as open to romance, heroism, and swashbuckling. This time I went because I was disturbed by the notion of filmmakers going back and editing their works, "cleaning them up" for a more sophisticated audience. This time I went because the unceasing barrage of advertising made it almost compulsory to do so. It was either go, or endure the endless cries of "Have you seen the Special Edition yet?"  There was no joy or anticipation in the prospect of seeing this "new" version. I am, after all, an adult, far more interested in the sociological implications of this restoration than in cheap thrills and derring-do. How dare Lucas meddle with Art, even if it was his own work? Would da Vinci have changed the Mona Lisa a few years later if he decided that her eyes should have been a different colour? The notion is ridiculous. I sat down and crossed my arms sternly before me, prepared for the worst.

It didn't take long for the old magic to penetrate my curmudgeon's shell.  That magnificent opening shot of the Rebel cruiser being chased by an Imperial Star Destroyer is even more awe-inspiring now, thanks to Industrial Light and Magic's retooling. It was an impressive sight in 1977; one is forced to admit that the new, updated special effects do indeed enhance the film, making some scenes merely clearer and crisper, others into audience-rattling spectacles. The destruction of Alderaan is truly frightening in its power and realism now, adding to the impact of the movie. Lucas has even added a few scenes that had once lain on the cutting room floor, enhancing some story points and giving key characters more depth. In fact, my only quibble is that the much-ballyhooed Han Solo/Jabba the Hut meeting features dialogue repeated almost verbatim from the Solo/Greedo confrontation from a few minutes earlier in the film, obviously a result of Lucas having dropped the Jabba scene in the original movie. Still, this scene serves as welcome foreshadowing for events to come in the sequels. More welcome is the reunion of Luke and his friend Biggs just before the final battle over the Death Star; during the original release, we wondered why Biggs' fate was treated as such an important moment when he was such a seemingly peripheral character. Now, we understand why Luke looks so upset when Biggs meets his doom.

By film's end, I wanted to cheer along with everyone else as the Death Star exploded. Being a responsible adult, of course, I didn't indulge in such behavior...but it was a near thing. I still feel that the notion of retroactively altering a movie in such a radical way raises several disturbing issues (will jingoistic war movies of the 1940s be reinterpreted so that some of the uncomfortably racist scenes are eliminated?), in this case I think that the final product justifies the tampering. For when I left the theatre, I saw a new generation of eight year olds clutching their little R2-D2s, imagining worlds long, long ago and far, far away...and anything that stimulates the sense of wonder in our children can only be seen as that rarest of things, an unqualified good.  Star Wars isn't really about special effects, after all; it's about heroes, and Good and Evil, bravery and sacrifice and nobility; none of these things are lost in the enhancement. Take a couple of hours this weekend and let yourself be a child again; lose yourself in the exploits of an intrepid band of galactic adventurers.  Remember your innocence, and...May the Force Be With You. 


LOOKING BACK: I'm less fond of Lucas' revisionism these days. I now feel that the additional Biggs scene is probably the only worthwhile change, and I notice now that I didn't even mention the infamous "Han shot first!" debacle. Still, I think this article holds together fairly well; I'd forgotten I'd included so many personal memories.

Monday, February 14, 2011

My Valentine

I've never been comfortable with public displays of affection or grand romantic gestures. For years, Valentine's Day itself was a subject of some scorn for me, a holiday manufactured by shadowy figures trying to sell chocolate, diamonds and greeting cards.

But when I first really looked into Sylvia's big googly eyes, I couldn't remain cynical about love, because I was finally feeling it. Every day takes on new meaning thanks to her. No matter what life throws at me, I always feel better when she's around.
This concludes this year's public declaration of love. We now return to our scheduled program of book and movie reviews, political notes, pop culture analysis and silly nonsense about comic books and Star Trek.

But first, some more cute photos of Sylvia.

Sylvia couldn't resist pulling on Mike's mohawk.