Max's Blog

How Pop Culture Leads and Misleads

Month: April, 2011

Orange Crush

Where did this come from? Is it all a dream? The election no one wanted, the election no one cared about, the election that must fight for air time against what dress an unemployed British girl may or may not wear to her wedding, might now become historic seismic shift, a transformative moment in Canadian politics.

I’ve been following it pretty closely but even I was caught off guard by the NDP’s ‘surging’ poll numbers, the ‘orange crush’ that swept Quebec and is now moving across the country. Even dyed-in-the-wool supporters were shocked with the polls this weekend that show the New Democrats ahead of the Liberals and poised to be the official opposition. Never before has this happened and it’s still difficult to believe it will.

Up until recently, Jack Layton was  treated as a third party/third wheel, patronized by reporters who didn’t understand why he still didn’t get it was a two-person race. After the debates, as he claimed that more and more Canadians were hearing his message, a reporter in a yuppie suit (taking notes on his blackberry) snapped “But you say that every time and you still lose!”

“Are you kidding?” Jack replied. “We’ve won more seats in each of the last elections.”

How did this happen? Well, people obviously like Jack. He is an appealing fellow. He’s also been around enough that voters think they know him and what he’s about. EKOS pollster Frank Graves referred to him as that kind of average, Tim Hortons guy. While Americans pick a president who they’d like to get a beer with after hours, we Canadians, of a milder temperament, prefer our elected leaders to dunk Tim-bits. Graves also credits Jack’s cheeriness, the inspiring story of his battle with cancer and the overall positivity of the NDP campaign. Ads like the one below pratically scream ‘Yes We Can!’

But even as an NDP supporter, I must admit that a vote for Jack is also a vote against the other leaders. The Green Party’s numbers collapsed early on and haven’t rebounded. And, even though his core supporters stay loyal, only the most dedicated Conservative voter gets warm and fuzzy thinking about Stephen Harper.

But the biggest drop is inarguably that of Michael Ignatieff and the hapless Liberals. He must be wondering why the Trudeau-mania-style excitement which was supposed to be his has ended up boosting his opponent. I must once again quote James Mason in ‘A Star is Born’: “A career is a very curious thing. Talent isn’t always enough.” Timing is, of course, essential (seeing your chance and seizing it) but most important is that “little something extra”, that difficult to define but impossible to fake star quality. Jack has it. Ignatieff does not.

It looks like the Liberals, once Canada’s ‘natural governing party’, will witness their third disastrous election in a row, and their second leader who will be unceremoniously dropped once all the ballots are counted. A man who probably should have stayed in the ivory tower of academia will most likely return to his essays and books, his head spinning from his tumultuous foray into the messy world of politics.

Who knows if it will last, but for now, my Mom is running around the house, ruing that “the one election I don’t work in is the one we win!”

Still, there’s five days to go.

And Kate might choose ivory.

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Rapper Is Gay, But Not

Rapper Lil B has come out of the closet in a very public way: he has titled his next album ‘I’m Gay’. But before you go looking for him on Grindr, keep in mind that he’s heterosexual.

“I’m very gay, but I love women,” he maintains. “I’m not attracted to men in any way. I’ve never been attracted to a man in my life. But yes I am gay, I’m so happy,” he said. “I’m a gay, heterosexual male.”

Yes, it’s confusing, but that is the magical world of hip hop.

Is it a gimmick? Possibly. The rapper has a reputation for outrageous tweets and for heavily monopolizing facebook and myspace to further his career. Even the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) has provided only lukewarm support by saying that they hope it is a “sincere attempt to be an ally.”

But, even though the album has not been recorded yet, the backlash is very real. Former fans have lambasted him with homophobic hate mail, some even sending death threats. “People been hitting me up like, ‘I’m gonna bash your head in,’ ‘you faggot,’ ‘I’m gonna kill you,’” he claims.

“I’m not gonna stop and I’m not scared of anybody on earth. That’s why I [titled the album ‘I’m Gay’] and nobody gonna stop me.” A brief survey of the online rap community uncovers some pretty vitriolic language, some saying that anyone who listens to Lil B is now automatically gay and others pronouncing his career dead.

Lil B has said that his support for queer rights motivated the title (“I got major love for the gay and lesbian community, and I just want to push less separation and that’s why I’m doing it.”) but the real explanation might be a mixture of sincere support and career-boosting publicity.

At it’s best, ‘I’m Gay’ has exposed the level of homophobia in the rap world and how it can be unleashed on even a straight man. Like the books that used to be written by men who went ‘undercover’ pretending to be Jewish or black, Lil B has bravely tried to walk a mile in somebody else’s rubbie slippers.

Terror in Brooklyn

Louis Guglielmi. Terror in Brooklyn, 1941.

Happy Ēostre

Every spring time it’s the same: as Jewish children munch on their unleavened matzah while listening to an older relative read out the precise explanation of every Passover tradition, goy kids are left to wonder what the heck painted eggs and chocolate bunnies have to do with the resurrection of Christ. As is often the case, holiday traditions don’t so much illuminate our culture’s past as muddy it all up.

Easter appears to go back, at least etymologically speaking, to the Germanic goddess Ēostre.  Pagans had already stopped dedicating feasts to her during Ēostur-monath (Ēostre’s month, probably April) when Bede, the monk and early British historian, wrote about her in the 8th century.  

Bede’s account is the only one we have of this goddess of  ertility and light and some have speculated that he may have made her up. Other scholars have attempted to connect her to later Easter customs. John Andrew Boyle has suggested a linkage with those popular bunnies: “Little else […] is known about [Ēostre], but it has been suggested that her lights, as goddess of the dawn, were carried by hares. And she certainly represented spring fecundity, and love and carnal pleasure that leads to fecundity.”

There isn’t much agreement on the origins of the Easter Bunny or who started painting eggs. The people of the Alsace-region of France and southwestern Germany were doing it by the 1500’s, but Persians had coloured eggs during the spring time Nowruz since ancient times.
The emphasis on chocolate didn’t come until the 19th century when chocolate moulds were greatly improved.

What’s remarkable about Easter traditions is how varied they are by country: in the British Isles kids rolled eggs down hills, in Louisiana they ‘knock’ them to see whose breaks first, and in Finland they apparently settle down and read mysteries. Instead of a bunny, the Australians have an Easter Bilby, a cute little marsupial that hops around at night.

But the award for the most bizarre Easter tradition goes to Slovakia and the Czech Republic: they have a custom of spanking their women. On the morning of Easter Monday, men will spank women with a special home-made whip of willow rods and red ribbons. According to the Ultimate Authority (wikipedia), “The spanking is not painful or intended to cause suffering. A legend says that women should be spanked in order to keep their health and beauty during whole next year.” Women can show appreciation for this attention by giving the men a painted egg. Alternatively, they can seek revenge by dousing them in cold water.

I wonder what Ēostre feels about this.

Below is a screen shot from ‘Easter Parade’, the 1948 musical based on the song of the same name by Irving Berlin. Berlin, that most American of song writers (who also penned ‘White Christmas’, ‘There’s No Business like Show Business’ and ‘God Bless America’), was, naturally, a Jewish immigrant.

Night Train to Jaisalmer

“Oh, dude, you have no idea! They’ll be just a hole in the floor and you’ll have to squat over it. And there’s nothing to hold onto, and everything is dirty, but the train’s moving, so you want to hold the wall so you don’t fall down. But there’s shit everywhere, so you don’t know what to do! You brought your own TP, right? Get ready.”

This was Ankit, one of the Kiwis on our tour, describing the washrooms on Indian trains. He had been born in India, but moved to New Zealand soon after. He had visited his parents’ country many times and spoke Hindi, which proved useful when we needed someone to yell at queue-cutters and order spicy dishes for us (waiters did not trust the taste buds of white people). Ankit was on the tour because he wanted to show his girlfriend Danny the country from which he came. They became our closest friends despite the fact that, due to their accents, I thought her name was “Denny” (which is still how I pronounce it).

I’m not a germaphobe. I am pretty relaxed about those things, and did not reach for my hand sanitizer as much as some of the others. But I do not like the smell of excrement, and the idea of squatting in some foul bathroom on a moving train with my arms stretched out in a make-shift yoga position (the Indians did invent it, didn’t they?) did not fill my heart with joy.

The grimy train station in New Delhi didn’t do much to alleviate my fears. After we threw our backpacks in a heap and formed a protective circle around them (a maneuver we would refine at train station after train station) we took in the sights and sounds around us. Third-class commuter trains clanked pass in which men stood shoulder to shoulder (we called them ‘cattle-cars’). Rats scurried along the tracks. The toilets on Indian trains are just holes that release their contents out onto the tracks below and, probably because of balancing issues, many passengers wait until they are at the station before using them. So I should have said “sights and sounds and smells”.

You may think of yourself as a hardcore backpacker, a Mountain Equipment Co-op adventurer, who thrives on overnight trains, cold showers (or none at all) and sporadic street-food meals of mysterious contents. But after only a little while, the romance begins to evaporate and all you want is a warm bath and your pillow from home. You forget that the inconveniences of travel are why you bought your plane ticket, that ‘the journey’ is the oldest story of humankind. Very few tales are about being comfortable and safe.

Still, after two foggy days in Delhi, we were all ready for a bit of sun and a bit of pampering. I just wanted to get on the train, find our seats and shut out the world for awhile.

I should thank Ankit for freaking us out. He set the bar so low that our train once it arrive could only be a pleasant surprise. Der and I were sharing a compartment with him and Danny and two other of our girls. The standard Indian overnight train has a large compartment on one side, with six bunks that pull down, and a thin, vertical one across the corridor which has two bunk beds. It was not so different from a European train. We even had a curtain that pulled across to give us privacy from the aisle.

But where the lowered expectations really paid off was the bathrooms. There were two: a “western” one (ie. with a toilet) and an Indian-style one (ie. a hole in the ground). The water in the sinks ran and there was no shit all over the walls. I didn’t have to squat over a squatter for the entire five weeks we were in India.

Before the train left, Ankit found himself some travel food. One would assume travel food would be solid substances which create the least mess possible. Not in India. Whatever it was Ankit bought, it was a plastic container with a variety of liquidy sauces which you dipped paratha in. This had the potential of creating the most mess possible.

That train ride was also our fist encounter with the ‘chai guys’, the young men who walk up and down the aisles chanting a rhythmic “Chai, chai, chai, chai!” There are regional variations of the refrain. Some do it very fast, a rat-a-tat-tat- “CHAI-CHAI-CHAI-CHAI!” Others let out a solitary, lonely “Chai…!” Chai, both on trains and off, and it is available everywhere, is always served very hot and milky and sweet, and wee little shot-glass are five rupees (about 17 cents). I can not overstate how comforting a little cup can be. 

The men sometimes sell snacks and, even though they announce them in English, the calls have become so monotonous and melodic, you still have to decipher them. Tomato soup (which is poured from the same giant canteens they use for chai) becomes “TO-MAAAAAA-to-sup!” Danny had us in stitches with her impression, rounding out every accented syllable, of “veg-get-ta-ble cut-let”. We never learned what a ‘vegetable cutlet’ actually was, but for the rest of the trip, when a conversation had died down and everyone was quiet, someone would whisper, “Veg-get-ta-ble cut-let.”

As you can see, rather than something that had to be lived through, that night train turned out to be really enjoyable. Not since undergrad had I experienced a night in which everyone had so much to  share. When we were setting up our beds and sleeping bags we could barely stop talking, like kids during a sleep over, too excited to quiet down.

There was an incident in the night, when we had finally started to drift off, when an Indian man just threw open the curtains and claimed that we were in his seats. After several increasingly annoyed exchanges with Angit in Hindi, he left.

“What did you say?” I asked.

“I told him he was wrong and to fuck off,” Angit laughed.

“That’s all?” From that point onward, when Ankit would speak to locals in Hindi, whether it be asking directions or placing an order with a head-wabbling waiter, I would marvel at how many sentences it took to get across a simple message.

After that, as we finally stopped talking, as we got comfortable on our hard little bunks and got used to the rocking of the train, I fell asleep. I got a better night’s rest than I did either night in Delhi.

We woke up in the desert.

Mark Morrisroe

Mark Morrisroe

My Favourite Ridings

Conservative Member of Parliament John Baird. What’s her problem?

There’s an election on the horizon. I hope everyone intends to vote. If you guys don’t vote, I’m going to have to kill this kitten (holds up basket containing adorable kitten with pink bow). I obviously don’t want to, but if you don’t vote, you’ll be leaving me no choice. It will be hard, but… (looks into kitten’s enormous eyes). Okay. I’m not going to kill the kitten, but I still hope you all vote.

I don’t even care who you vote for. Well, that’s not true. But I’d actually prefer it if you voted for someone I didn’t support rather than stay at home and allow the media commentators to say that young people don’t vote and Canadians don’t care about their government.

So in honour of the upcoming election, here’s a list of some of the best federal riding names and what they could alternatively be used for. I mean no disrespect to the places themselves. Rather, I think all these names are pretty awesome.

Crowfoot (Alberta)– Hogwarts professor

Bramalea-Gore-Malton (Ontario)– Rich old lady who gets bumped off at the beginning of Agatha Christie mystery

Medicine Hat (Alberta)– Where granny hides her pills when she goes to church

Burnaby-Douglas (British Columbia)– Charles Dickens protagonist

Elmwood-Transcona (Manitoba)– Setting of misguided horror movie cross-over

Glengary-Prescot-Russel (Ontario)– First-names of leaders of Phi Sigma Nu fraternity

Nickel Belt (Ontario)– “Sorry, did I hear you needed five cents? Just one moment…Voila!”

Vegreville-Wainwright (Alberta)– Rufus’s saucy French-Canadian cousin

Simcoe-Grey (Ontario)– Nothing better on a chilly afternoon than a steaming cup of Simcoe-Grey

Fundy-Royal (Manitoba)– A monarch who is both evangelical and a hoot to hang out with

Thunder Bay-Rainy River (Ontario)– Does that help tourism, guys?

Wild Rose (Alberta)– Paint colour or burlesque dancer

Cardigan (Prince Edward Island)– Cozy

Jeanne-Le Ber (Quebec)– Late-1980’s Celine Dion rival

Madawaska-Restigouche (New Brunswick)– Just fun to say

Cypress Hills-Grasslands (Saskatchewan)– Suburban development for which cypresses, hills and grasslands were paved over

Louis-Saint-Laurent (Quebec)– Yves’ unfashionable and therefore unemployable younger brother

Blackstrap (Saskatchewan)– Kind of sexy

Brant (Ontario)– Combination of Brent and Brad, number one baby name for boys in 2014

Brandon-Souris (Manitoba)– Hunky actor, romantic lead to Reese Witherspoon

Avalon (Newfoundland and Labrador)–Cos-play festival

At least there was no Cher Lip-Synching

The other night I was invited to a “Goth Drag” event. Now, despite my professed love of Edward Gorey, I am no Goth. Nor do I perform drag, not withstanding the odd Dorothy Gale Halloween costume. But sometimes you need to push yourself out of your comfort zone, which in my case meant dragging my prematurely middle-aged ass down to the Beaver on Queen West for a midnight performance by Mikiki Mikiki.

The performer naturally arrived late, so my new friend Randal and I had plenty of time at the candle-lit bar to people-watch (the attendants were an interesting venn diagram of Goths and Drags and Goth-Drags) and glance at a soundless projection of erotic-horror movie ‘The Lair of the White Worm’ with a pre-stardom Hugh Grant. I kid thee not. This is real.

Mikiki Mikiki, who I learned prefers the non-gendered pronoun ‘they’ to ‘he’ or ‘she’, eventually waltzed in like a late Maria Callas and was introduced by a MC who claimed that they had been kicked out of venues all over town. Very soon, we discovered why.

Without saying a word, Mikiki Mikiki, who was wearing a long, Vivienne Westwood-esque Victorian gown and white shirt, unbuttoned their top, exposing their chest. They then dabbed their pectorals with a disinfecting wipe. They took out some safety pins and, without flinching, pierced their nipple not once, not twice, but thrice, forming a little star across the areola. I was near the front and had stood up from our table to get a better look, and, although I once hid my face on Randal’s shoulder, I tried to stay cool.

I worried that someone would faint, but rather the audience was pretty blase about the whole thing. Some gasped and cheerfully tittered (accidental pun, I swear), but others kept talking amongst themselves, as though Mikiki Mikiki wasn’t a live performer that demanded attention. I guess it takes more than turning a breast into a pin cushion to break some people of their self-important bubbles.

My favourite part was that they kept the safety-pins in and when they came back out to chat with the crowd, blood was streaming down their chest.

What was the point? Like any artist, I’m sure Mikiki Mikiki is too smart to define what it was all about. As this Xtra interview from four years ago says, their performance aesthetic can be “hard to pin down.” Indeed.  

Seeing shows like this wouldn’t be something I would do every Saturday night. But it sure beats staying home and watching little-people-who-are-hoarders-and-make-cupcakes reality TV shows. A city as big and diverse as Toronto always has something going on. You may witness something you’ll never forget. It just takes a little research, a little initiative and, as the Cowardly Lion would say, a little courage.

Femmes au Chien

Marie Laurencin. Femmes au chien, 1923

Timeless Noir?

I was in Queen Video the other day (which I am often, movie rentals, after magazines and slices of pizza, being the main drag on my pocket money) when I spotted a collection of film noir. Below the image of a hard-bitten detective in a fedora and trench coat blared the subtitle “Five Timeless Classics of Crime and Drama!” There may have been a femme fatale dame present as well, tossing her Veronica Lake-waved hair, but I was distracted by the word “timeless”.

“Really?” I thought.

Film Noir refers to the genre of gritty crime drama, usually set in a cynical, corrupt world, which combined plots from detective paperbacks with the dramatic lighting and off-kilter angles of German Expressionism. The classic era was from the 1930’s to the 1950’s but was not referred to as ‘noir’ at the time. That expression was coined by French film critic Nino Frank (the French taking these things much more seriously) and came into common use after the 1960’s, when French New Wave directors mined the genre for inspiration just as Hollywood had essentially dropped it.

While there are countless modern movies and directors that pay tribute to the style, ‘neo-noir’ being almost a genre in of itself, one of the main places you see it nowadays is as an inspiration for magazine photo shoots. Along with Hitchcock and his icy blondes in grey tailored-suits, film noirs have become a go-to aesthetic for fashion spreads and celebrity group shots. (The picture above is from a Vanity Fair Hollywood issue.  Ten points if you can name at least three of the present day actors.)

The thing is, a lot of the original movies weren’t very good. They seen as B-pictures and, while popular with audiences, were rarely praised by critics or honoured with awards. The equivalent would be if, thirty years from now, film theorists wrote serious treatises on stoner pics or computer-animated Pixar fare (which they very well might).

But I understand the appeal of classic noirs. The style is arresting and there’s something very appealing about the stagey, contrived dialogue the genre is known for.

“Why don’t you shoot me then?” the anti-hero asks the gun-toting dame, incredulous despite raising his hands above his head.

“I thought we said no questions,” she purrs.

But again, that word ‘timeless’ is wrong.

You watch film noirs because you enjoy the black and white cinematography, the unrealistic dialogue, the moody soundtracks, the retro costumes and the mildly-sexist (sometimes not so mildly) portrayal of women. Similar to screwball comedies and musicals, you don’t watch noirs because they could have been made yesterday. Rather, you watch them precisely because they weren’t made yesterday. They are outdated, portraying a world that never really existed. It isn’t their ‘timelessness’ but their ‘time-iness’ which attracts.

There are, of course, some great noirs which transcend the contrivances of the genre to become stand-alone classics. One of my personal favourites is ‘The Third Man’, which uses the noir style to explore the destruction, both physical and moral, of post-WWII Vienna. But genuine classics are aberrations; they are classics because they are better than their contemporaries and therefore can only teach us a limited amount about their perspective genres. The main thing I learned from my one film studies course (‘American Film Comedy and Mass Culture’) is that mediocre movies can be worth watching as well. Even if they’re bad, they can often, to quote my professor, be “not uninteresting.”

So go watch ‘The Big Sleep’ and ‘The Maltese Falcon’ but remember that you’re enjoying Humphrey Bogart’s cigarette-smoking, gin-drinking misogynist largely because he no longer exists.

There’s a time and place for everything.