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Thursday, December 31, 2009

That's It for the Aughts

I'm just taking a quick break from celebrating New Year's Eve with Sylvia to take a look back on the '00s, the oh-ohs or the aughts. A lot has happened in the past ten years - the world has been through a lot, tempering some of the optimism of the 90s. But on a personal level, it's been a pretty good decade, so tonight I'm just going to take a moment to reflect on the events that have affected me most since the new millennium began, in no particular order.

I've written speeches for two Lieutenants-Governor and two Leaders of the Official Opposition.

I left Hole's and started work at the Official Oppositon.

I returned to Leaf Rapids - twice.

I've seen family and friends enter new relationships and end them; I've seen the children of those friends come into the world or grow steadily older. I've made new friends, lost touch with old friends, reconnected with others.

I ran for public office against a sitting Premier - and lost handily, but learned much.

I've travelled to Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Honolulu and Victoria.

And of course I met and married Sylvia Boucher, certainly my favourite event of the decade.

The aughts may not have been great years for the world, with disasters both natural and manmade causing untold misery. But I'm grateful that the first decade of the 21st century has been very generous to me, and I hope it's been an equally good ten years for you and yours.

See you in 2010.

30 Years Later - Star Trek: The Motion Picture

Site of the former Gaiety Theatre, Leduc, Alberta - December 25, 2009

Thirty years ago this month, I saw Star Trek: The Motion Picture for the first time. I attended a screening at Leduc's original Gaiety Theatre, plunking myself down in what was then my favourite seat - right hand column, front row, leftmost seat.

At the age of ten, I was already a huge fan of Star Trek, having watched scores of repeats on CBC in Leaf Rapids. With my friends John and Glen and Kelly and a set of the original landing party model kits (faithfully recreating the phaser, tricorder and communicator), we sought out strange new worlds in the deep and mysterious woods of that northern community - already quite a strange world in and of itself.

My family moved to Leduc, Alberta, just a few months before Star Trek leaped from the TV screen to the movie screen, and I was still missing Manitoba. But the prospect of a new Star Trek movie made the move a lot easier to bear, so I was pretty excited as I sat in the Gaiety and waited for the curtain to unfurl.

Of course, these days Star Trek: The Motion Picture is widely regarded as a creative failure, among the worst, if not the worst, of the Star Trek films. It's been derided as Star Trek: The Slow Motion Picture and Star Trek: The Motionless Picture. Critics attack the costumes, the lack of attention paid to much-loved secondary characters, and most of all, the languid pacing.

Much of the criticism is fair. But I contend that the first Star Trek film is among the best of the series, not the worst. Furthermore, this movie is the only true work of science fiction in the entire series.

The film has many strengths. Jerry Goldsmith's Oscar-nominated score truly soars, and indeed became iconic. (Interestingly, Star Trek: The Motion Picture is one of the last films to open with an overture.) Douglas Trumbull's special effects created a completely believable 23rd century civilization and an awesome - in the true sense of the word - threat from outer space. The models and sets were first rate; for the first and last time, the Enterprise felt like a real starship with a crew of hundreds and working parts that made sense within the world of the film. And Robert Wise's direction is steady and sure, especially considering that the script was still being revised even as he was shooting the film.

Even the film's pace is, I believe, a strength - if you have the patience. There are long stretches in the film that pass without dialogue, only music, including Kirk and Scotty's minutes-long tour of the refitted Enterprise, a scene that virtually no director or editor would allow today.

I think that's a shame. That tour of the Enterprise, intercutting between the ship itself and Kirk's reaction to its new appearance, say much about the world of the film and the protagonist's personal journey. The orbiting office complex, the tiny shuttlecraft and spacesuited astronauts whizzing by - these elements tease our imagination, making us wonder what kind of society humanity has built that could create such casual wonders. And Kirk's regrets and longing are written all over his face, revealing a fragile emotional state that sets up and explains some of his bad behaviour in the film.

The film also slows down when the Enterprise intercepts the film's antagonist, the mysterious, all-powerful Vejur, a gigantic cosmic cloud of energy that contains a vast machine intelligence. Again, critics have said that this sequence goes on far too long, but I believe that patience is rewarded if one actually thinks about what one is seeing: machinery that is eons old, of such complexity and scale that it is literally beyond our ability to comprehend. Frankly, I think that's pretty amazing stuff.

And that is why this film is the only real science fiction film of the series, for Vejur's story raises the apocalyptic possibilities of human technology outgrowing its creators. When Kirk, Spock, McCoy and Decker reveal Vejur's secret, they are confronted with the sheer scale of the universe and all the infinite majesty contained within it. And at the film's climax, they help the Vejur entity grow still vaster, raising profound existential questions.

Other Star Trek films may be more entertaining, but they are all space opera, as much about the characters as big ideas. Yes, Star Trek II has the Genesis Device, but that movie is not about terraforming. Other Star Trek films feature time travel, cloning, environmental destruction and other science fiction concepts, but in each case these are merely storytelling devices, not the story itself. (Ironically, William Shatner's universally derided Star Trek V: The Final Frontier comes closest to telling an actual science fiction story - what if God turned out to be just another alien?)

Star Trek: The Motion Picture is full of little moments to love. Ilia's disintegration is artfully directed and shot by Wise; it's a genuinely chilling moment when the sound and fury of the probe that kills her is suddenly replaced by utter silence, save for her tricorder falling to the floor with a thud. The ugly transporter accident near the beginning of the film is also very effective not only as a moment of horror, but also implies that Kirk's obsessive behaviour in the film is having very dire consequences for the people around him. McCoy, as usual, gets the best one-liners, and his initial bearded, leisure-suited appearance is an image for the ages.

As an aside, I always feel bad for Captain Willard Decker. In the course of this film, Kirk takes away his ship and demotes him from Captain to Commander/Executive Officer for no good reason other than to satisfy his own desire to command the Enterprise again. Then, when the original science officer, Commander Sonak, dies in the aforementioned transporter accident, Kirk orders Decker to take on Sonak's duties as well as those of First Officer. Then Spock shows up and supplants Decker as science officer. A short time later, Decker is reunited with his old lover, Ilia, only to watch her killed before his eyes. When a robot duplicate of Ilia appears on the ship, Kirk orders Decker to interact with it to learn more about Vejur. One can only imagine how painful this must have been for Decker. Finally, when Vejur itself seems bent on sabotaging Kirk's attempts to resolve its existential crisis, Decker volunteers to merge with the machine entity, essentially killing himself - or at least sacrificing his physical form. To be fair, Decker himself says that he "wants this" as much as Kirk wanted the Enterprise, but still, no one in this film endures more than this ill-fated character.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture is by no means a great film. Objectively speaking, perhaps its not even a good film. But I appreciate it because it's ambitious, sincere, and asks big questions. I left the Gaiety Theatre that day as excited as I ever had been about a show and a world I loved, and having just watched it again on Blu-Ray, its charms are even more evident today. With the pacing of modern films having accellerated beyond breakneck speed, it's a pleasure to sit down with a movie that takes its time.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A View of The View from the Bridge

Books and movies have gotten me through some pretty tough times, and I'm fairly certain that this is the service they perform for most people, who could use a breather from reality and some inspiration every now and again, a time out before returning to the battle.
- Nicholas Meyer, The View from the Bridge

Nicholas Meyer is famous for, in roughly descending order: his writing and directing contributions to three of the best Star Trek films, the horrifying nuclear war telemovie, The Day After, and his Sherlock Holmes novels, The Seven Percent Solution in particular. In his new book, The View from the Bridge, Meyer, with wit, humanity, humility and candor, describes how his numerous books and movies were created, along with an honest accounting of his personal and creative failures.

Meyer's prose is clear, personal and inviting. With self-effacing humour and forthrightness, he explains his journey from New York to Hollywood, and how a combination of happy accidents and determination led to his so-called "overnight" success. He writes of the bad, early death of his mother and the years of psychotherapy that followed; and later, he shares the story of the painful loss of his first wife, who also died too young.

Star Trek fans, and fans of film in general, will find the chapters on moviemaking most illuminating. Anyone who follows the industry already understands that any film that actually gets produced is something of a miracle, and films that are actually good are even more miraculous. Meyer describes the everyday battles between writers, directors, producers and stars, including clashes over money, story, music and even the titles of the films themselves.

Someone said that Hollywood is like an extension of high school. I am not sure exactly what this means but I do acknowledge the place's stratified aspects, among which is the difference between having a hit and having a flop. With the success of The Wrath of Khan I was suddenly popular. If Time After Time had registered in the town's eyes, as a succes d' estime, The Wrath of Khan was just a big, fat hit and it catapulted me into the ranks of "bankable" directors.
- Meyer, from the chapter on The Day After

As profoundly influenced as I have been by Star Trek, Meyer's The Day After hit me nearly as hard, with its horrific vision of nuclear apocalypse. I was 14 when the telemovie was broadcast, and while I thought I was emotionally prepared for what I was about to see, no amount of warning could have prepared me for the sight of those mushroom clouds obliterating scores of human beings and leaving many more burned black with radiation. Meyer's bleak story conjured nightmares that lasted for weeks. Clearly he had his own trepidations about the prospect of tackling such a grim issue:

Like most people, I preferred to avoid the entire terrifying topic. What sort of person willingly immerses himself in the prospect of nuclear annihilation? Everyone knows the bombs are out there, Damoclean swords dangling over our necks, and that knowledge - semiconsciously carried around inside our heads - is more than sufficient for most of us.

But Meyer wanted a new challenge, and the film was made, with more than the usual amount of nervous nitpicking from the money men, including their insistence that the film show that it was the Soviets who started the war. Meyer wanted that point to remain ambiguous, and in the end he won out, to the benefit of the movie.

The Day After may have had a more profound impact than Meyer could have guessed, for some years later, when President Reagan signed the intermediate range missle treaty, Meyer received a postcard that said "Don't think your film didn't have something to do with this." Later on, Meyer discovered that Reagan's autobiography included a passage admitting that viewing the film had changed the President's outlook on the subject of nuclear war - where once he had thought of a nuclear conflict as winnable, after seeing and thinking about the film, he realized that no one wins a nuclear war.

Meyer himself is careful not to claim any credit for the easing of nuclear tensions during the late 80s and throughout the 90s. But I wouldn't be surprised if the movie did indeed help change some important minds. Perhaps books and movies have "gotten us through tough times," as Meyer writes, in more substantial ways then merely providing escape and inspiration.

I highly recommend The View from the Bridge to anyone interested in Star Trek, filmmaking or screenwriting.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Adventures with the Adventure People

On Christmas morning in 1976, I opened up one of my favourite gifts: the Fisher-Price "Wilderness Patrol" Adventure People set. The set included everything an imaginative child could possibly need to create wild adventures from bits of inanimate plastic.

"Wilderness Patrol" presented an embarrassment of riches. There were four action figures: a collie, a pilot, a forest ranger, and a woodsman-type guy I called "Red." There were three cool vehicles: an airplane for the pilot, a pontoon boat, and an ATV. The pontoon boat and the ATV both floated, and even cooler, you could attach the airplane to the pontoon boat. Even a climbing rope and a pair of sleeping bags were included, although looking back I wonder why there were only two sleeping bags for three men. Perhaps one of the men was expected to sleep with the dog for warmth.

I played with these toys for years. They were durable, colourful and versatile. I had great fun floating the ATV and the pontoon boat in the puddles and streams of Leaf Rapids, or taking them all out for "desert adventures" on the sand dunes behind the Acklands store that my dad managed. The men of the Wilderness Patrol often teamed up with other action figures, fighting Stormtroopers and Cylons alongside Luke Skywalker and Han Solo.

But as with all boys, there came a day - shortly after I turned 13, I think - when I realized that action figures weren't cool anymore, that they were for little kids, and that it was time to move on to more sophisticated pursuits: baseball and board games, Atari and long afternoons at the Leduc Public Library. Eventually, when my friends and I were bored, the Adventure People and their action figure brethren became targets of abuse, worth nothing more than a few moments of destructive amusement. Poor Red was thrown into the whirling blades of a lawnmower, but he was tough and suffered only a few shallow gashes and a chunk of his scalp. Other figures weren't as lucky, rolled down playground slides and staircases to lose heads and limbs. Most were simply forgotten in old cardboard boxes and, I assume, carried off to charities or the junkyard by my parents.

I wish now that I'd been more considerate, that I'd recognized the immense value of these mass-produced trinkets. For they represented, first and foremost, the love of my parents, whose first goal was always the happiness of their children. And they helped me create miniature worlds, places where I couldn't go in the flesh; they were my avatars, and I'm grateful for the adventures we shared.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Stuff I Like About Christmas

  1. Log Channel
  2. Good King Wenceslas
  3. The Little Drummer Boy, particularly the Crosby/Bowie video version
  4. The calm of Christmas Eve/Christmas/Boxing Day after the shopping storm
  5. Family dinners
  6. The aura of goodwill
  7. A Charlie Brown Christmas
  8. It's a Wonderful Life
  9. The late 80s Superman story from a "Christmas with the Super-Heroes" special
  10. Lights and glitter
  11. The renewal of hope and the possibility of a better tomorrow.
None of this in any particular order. I may get curmudgeonly about certain aspects of Christmas sometimes (rampant consumerism, chiefly), but any even that gets people to think about kindness to others and peace on earth...well, that's an event worth celebrating.

More Greatest Hits

I've updated the Greatest Hits links to include the closing chapters of "Journey to the Edge of Nowhere," the first two parts of "Earl and Sean vs. the Flying Saucers," a couple of new(ish) book and movie reviews and assorted odds and ends.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Earl Will Not Be Pushed, Filed, Stamped, Indexed, Briefed, Debriefed, or Numbered!

Or perhaps he will. I've added labels/tags to each and every post here at My Name is Earl (J. Woods). Check the list under "Labels" and see if there are any topics that interest you.

A couple of labels need explanation. Posts labeled "Metablahg," including this one, are posts about the blog (which I call a "blahg" because of its former title) itself - its management, structure and so on.

Posts labelled "The Earliad" involve some aspect of my daily life, whether in the now or in the past.

Posts labelled "Silly Nonsense" are, well, silly; usually they contain a silly story or a silly photo that appeals to my odd sense of humour.

Many posts have multiple labels, so a post labelled "The Earliad" may also be labelled "science fiction," for example, if I'm posting about the day I read a novel AND got a new job (not a real example).

I hope this will make it easier for interested readers to search for posts that cater to their particular interests.

I've also been adding photos to older posts. There aren't too many yet, but I'll keep adding them wherever I think it will improve the blahg.

Tomorrow I'll update the "Greatest Hits" list.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Challenge of the Gauntlet in the Envelope

Colin Dunn issues a dark challenge from his home dimension.

Today Colin Dunn challenged Peter Harris and I me to publish a short story and get paid for it sometime in 2010.

All three of us have accomplished this feat once each in the past, then rested on our laurels and moved onto other things, despite our literary aspirations.

So the race is on. According to Colin's rules, the first to sell a story wins bragging rights, but that does not absolve the other contestants from completing the challenge. By hook or by crook, all three of us must sell a story by December 31, 2010, or face the shame of a failed quest.

Colin drops his gauntlet here.

Oh, and if anyone knows of any paying markets that still accept unsolicited manuscripts, please drop me a line via email or in the comments.

Peter Harris attempts to rub out the opposition.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Beware of Falling Canoes

Upon reading my last post, friend and colleague/boss Rick Miller pointed me in the direction of another Bill Mason NFB great, "The Rise and Fall of the Great Lakes." This 1968 short is new to me - either that, or I've forgotten it - but it's nonetheless delightful, with slapstick humour, some really terrific special effects, and an ecological message that resonates to this day. Mason's dynamic and colourful cinematrography is still very much in evidence, too. Also, it looks like the main actor in this film played the lighthouse keeper in "Paddle."

These films remind me of what a treasure we have in the National Film Board. Talk about a great return on our tax investment - decades of classic films of all kinds!

Does anyone else out there have fond memories of films and/or filmstrips they saw in school? Drop me a line in the comments, and a link to the film would be even better.

Paddle to the Sea of Memory

One spring afternoon sometime in the mid-1970s, one of my grade-school teachers rolled a film projector into our classroom in Leaf Rapids. He darkened the lights and turned on the projector, flecks of dust visible in the cone of light. The projector’s fan whirred to life and film clattered from front reel to back, unspooling the beautiful and gentle tale of a young boy’s dream and his wooden creation’s incredible journey from Nipigon country to the Atlantic Ocean. The film was “Paddle to the Sea,” Bill Mason’s 1966 adaptation of the 1941 children’s book by Holling Clancy Holling. Another timeless gem from the National Film Board of Canada, the film was nominated for an Academy Award.

Over the years two or three other teachers played this film for my classmates and me; I probably saw it for the last time in grade seven or eight. Perhaps because I grew up in a remote wilderness very similar to that portrayed in the film, the story of Paddle-to-the-Sea’s improbable trek fascinated me. Like the boy who carved the little man and his canoe, I grew up surrounded by vast forests interrupted only by remote streams and rivers. And like the young carver, I dreamed of what wonders the world beyond might hold.

I love this film for a number of reasons: the beautiful colour cinematography, the whimsical sense of humour, the gentle, evocative narration, the understated but genuine performances of actors human, animal, and inanimate. (Paddle-to-the-Sea himself expresses a wide range of emotions thanks to Mason’s clever direction.)

But most of all, I love the film’s faith in the essential goodness of human nature. “Please put me back in the water,” reads a plea carved into the bottom of Paddle-to-the-Sea, and this plea is duly obeyed by all who read it, even though the beautifully crafted toy is a unique and wonderful treasure. Those who discover the little man and his boat are compelled by empathy for the boy; they help fulfill his dream that Paddle should reach the sea.

Whenever I feel disappointed in humanity’s foibles – our rush to war, our careless destruction of our environment, our everyday cruelty to each other – stories like this remind me that we are just as capable of greatness and good. I’m grateful to Holling C. Holling, the NFB, Bill Mason and my teachers, who all helped me see some of the beauty in man and the world.

After you’ve watched the film,  be sure to read the original book. It’s just as wonderful as the film, with an expanded storyline and beautiful illustrations.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Peering Under the Dome

Like many fans of horror phenomenon Stephen King, I continue to read his work because I hope that each new book might be half as good as some of his terrific early novels. Salem's Lot, The Stand, The Dead Zone, The Shining, Different Seasons, The Gunslinger - these are the stories that made me a fan. Some say that while King has had occasional moments of brilliance since those early wonders, his best years are behind him.

I used to think so too, given blunders like Dreamcatcher and the entertaining yet somehow ultimately unfulfilling wrapup of The Dark Tower series. But King's last novel, Duma Key, surprised me with its poignant tale of the creative impulse and human loss. And Under the Dome is even better, a 1,000 page opus of human (and inhuman) cruelty.

What would happen if a small town were suddenly sealed beneath an impenetrable, invisible bubble? The book starts off with predicable mayhem as unwary travellers crash into the invisible wall with disastrous consequences; there's a plane crash and a number of gruesome car wrecks. All this is just window dressing, though; King is really interested in how people respond to a bizarre sort of slow-motion disaster.

It's hard to reveal King's central theme without spoiling the book, but I will say that King makes his argument in a simple but evocative way. King's greatest strength has always been his ability to pull his readers back to their childhoods, with all the pain and pleasure of those years. One flashback yanked me back to grade school and its terrors with surprising power and speed, and that scene turned out to be the book's central metaphor. It's brutal, perhaps a little obvious, but it works, bringing into sharp relief the good, the bad, and the simply incomprehensible motivations of a number of the book's characters.

Some have complained that Stephen King sometimes fumbles his endings, but in this case the story is tied up if not neatly, then at least with thematic resonance.

Under the Dome is a return to form for King, if not a return to greatness, but I'm nonetheless grateful that King hasn't finished sharing his stories.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Dreams of Injustice

Last night, I dreamed that Batman and Superman were arresting a couple of mobsters.

Batman grabs a bowlful of cocaine and throws it at one mobster's head so hard that the bowl shatters and fills the air with a cloud of cocaine. Superman admonishes Batman for being so violent, then promptly uses his super-breath to blow all the cigarette butts and ashes out of an ashtray, right into the eyes and mouths of a couple more thugs, who of course hack and cough sputter in dismay.

Immediately afterward, I dreamed that Charlie Brown and Linus had at last moved from elementary school to junior high, and that Charlie Brown was shedding his loser persona and becoming more popular.

But the cafeteria management created a new seating plan, and Charlie Brown was forced to sit at a table by himself. Outraged, Linus stood up on a table and railed against the injustice of it all, then marched to the principal's office to complain. I followed him along, and waited in the office with Linus until I woke up.

I never dreamed that Superman would blow ashes and cigarette butts into someone's mouth. Until I dreamed it last night, that is.