Friday, May 19, 2023

It’s the hope that kills you 

The underdog Leafs won the Stanley Cup in 1967.

While reading Peter Ackroyd’s London: The Biography, I took note of this passage on the slate used in London. “Much of the slate used in London building is striated by what geologists term 'pressure shadows' but they are inconspicuous beside the blackened surfaces of Portland stone.”

It’s often said that pressure makes diamonds but in Toronto I think pressure, like the striations in that Welsh slate makes shadows. Shadows, like a hex that darkens the eyes of men. Men who wear blue and white. Playing on a pro team in Toronto, where every eye of every media is glaring at you, must be a pressure that inevitably wears you down. Then again, being worn down on a pro athlete’s salary is not the same as everyone else’s “being worn down”. With the Leafs exit from the playoffs, two contrasting quotes came to mind. One from the team’s perspective and one from the fans’ point of view.

“A champion is someone who gets up when he can’t.”
Jack Dempsey

While this team found ways to push back and win in ways they couldn’t in previous seasons, they still need to learn how to get back up when they can’t.

“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”
— Oscar Wilde, Lady Windermere's Fan

To be a Leafs fan is to see the team fall, bite your lip until it bleeds, urging them to get back up from the gutter we’re all lying in. Lying in that gutter, looking up at the stars, we hope to see our team soar among the constellations of champions. We hope for the best but expect the worst. All too often those expectations are met. We hope they’ll do better next season, but we all know it’s the hope that kills you.

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Monday, May 15, 2023

70-year-old Salt Peanuts 

It was 70 years ago today.

In 1953 the US and Soviets announce they have the Hydrogen bomb marking the beginning of the Cold War. Eisenhower becomes president of the United States. Khruschev becomes head of the USSR. Marilyn Monroe, Mickey Mantle and Eddie Fisher are the pop stars of the day. Rocky Marciano and Jersey Joe Walcott are dueling heavyweights. Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay ascend Mt. Everest. The first colour television set would go on sale and 70 years ago today, one of the greatest Jazz concerts of all time happened at Massey Hall in Toronto. Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Max Roach and Charles Mingus played to a small crowd due to logistical mistakes and an underwhelming, amateur promotion. The show was undersold and mostly unknown until Mingus later released the recordings as Jazz at Massey Hall.

Billed by jazz critics as "the greatest jazz concert ever," the May 15th, 1953 concert almost never happened. The quintet of Jazz legends Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie "Bird" Parker, Max Roach, Bud Powell and Charles Mingus had never rehearsed or even had a sound check when they made history that night. There are so many stories about this concert. Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker arrived later than everyone else as Parker was late arriving at LaGuardia in New York, and Mingus' wife, who was an unexpected guest, bumped Gillespie from the flight to Toronto because Mingus insisted she accompany them. That night, Charlie Parker played on a plastic Grafton Alto sax as he had probably hawked his own to support his drug habit. Bud Powell on piano appeared stone cold drunk or in some kind a trance. Did it matter? No one played Bebop piano better. Max Roach fearlessly set the pace and always brought out the best in Parker. Who knew Charles Mingus would later dub over his own bass parts? Dizzy seemed more concerned about the outcome of the Marciano/Walcott title bout than the gig as he ran to a tavern across the street during intermission to check in on the fight.

The original album cover for Jazz at Massey Hall, designed by Canadian artist Arnaud Maggs, 1953. © Estate of Arnaud Maggs. Courtesy Susan Hobbs Gallery.

Despite the more popular notion that the early 50's represented a benign American polyannaism, it was more truly a period of creative blossoming and experimentation, especially in areas such as architecture, industrial & graphic design, illustration, painting, photography, poetry, film and music, especially Jazz.

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Thursday, May 11, 2023

Seen in April 

Leonard Cohen is your man.

April showers bring May flowers, and also a perfect opportunity to see a matinee in a darkened movie theatre. This month I saw as many films at the Hot Docs film festival as I did from the couch. Seeing films at a film festival is great not just for the movies but for the community of filmgoers and for having the opportunity to talk to the filmmakers. On the other hand, you have to leave the couch. Here is what I saw from both a theatre seat and a couch.

Party Down S03
No one asked for this. No one needed it. Yet, here it is. This little sit-com about a group of aspiring actors and writers working as servers for a small catering company aired its first two seasons over a decade ago before a third season unexpectedly marked its return. The beauty of this show was how cheaply and simply made it was, with such a universal premise. Many people take uninspiring work such as a service jobs to make ends meet while waiting for something better to materialize. The surprising thing of this show when I first saw it, almost 10 years after it was cancelled, was the talent that were either part of the regular cast or made special appearances. Adam Scott, Ken Marino, Lizzy Caplan, Martin Starr, Jane Lynch, Jennifer Coolidge, Megan Mullally, Jennifer Garner, Zão Chao, J.K. Simmons, Ken Jeong, Kristen Bell, Michael Hitchcock and James Marsden all had either regular appearances, multi-episode parts or cameos. You may not recognize the names but their faces have been in everything. It's such a scruffy, funny little gem, where an entire season is filmed over just a few weeks, it's amazing it even exists at all.

Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, better than you'd think.

Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves
Before Marvel commodified the funny sci-fi-action-adventure-drama formula, only rarely would films fit that description. Lately though it feels like Marvel's formula is a flailing attempt to deliver anything coherent at all and has seemed, at times, more like self-parody. At the same time, DC comics have also missed the mark trying to match Marvel’s success. Thus it was that many of us thought that self-referential comedy-action-adventure films had come to their timely end. Enter Chris Pine leading in an unexpectedly good and enjoyable action-adventure-comedy-drama set within the fantasy world of a Dungeons and Dragons quest. For the uninitiated, Dungeons and Dragons is role-playing game wherein the players assume roles as diverse as wizards, dwarves, warriors and elves in a quest created by the Dungeon Master with possibilities determined by the roll of a many-sided die and the general guidelines of the gameplay. Together the Dungeon Master and players create a story that they play within, thus no two "campaigns" (or games, played out over many hours) are the same. D&D seemed to outsiders more like a cult and its popularity in the 80s led to the facetious "Satanic Panic" where parents thought their children were part of some satanic worship rather than just a fantasy role-play game. As the game itself evolved to digital versions, its overall rules and style of play essentially formed the DNA of every role based video game that followed, which is now a multi-billion dollar industry. The repetitive task fulfilment of a D&D yet endless possibilities lends itself to a franchise film series as long as you can find the right cast to anchor the stories. Enter Chris Pine…

Leonard Cohen pursuing peace on Mount Baldy.

Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, a Journey, a Song
You may have heard there was a secret chord that David played that pleased the Lord, but what you may not have heard is that Leonard Cohen penned over 150 different verses of that song and seemed to continuously be rewriting it for years. Cohen was an iconic and prolific songwriter yet this one song both exemplifies his workman like approach to his art as well as a strange parallel tale of his career. So many covers of the song have been performed that even many of the artists who record it seem unsure of its origins or it's original lyrics. That is definitely the hallmark of a great song. The film Inside Llewyn Davis has a quote, "If it was never new, and never gets old, then it's a folk song.", which seems fitting for Hallelujah too. With ever new cover, it gains new fans who never knew other versions. This documentary is probably the most insightful film you'll see about Cohen but it too feels like a cover. If it seems familiar that may be because of the archival interviews or clips you've seen elsewhere, but don't worry, it's the real deal and may have you seeking out some undiscovered part of Cohen's catalogue.
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