Sunday, March 30, 2008

Russell Smith? Good? Canadian? Yes.

Russell Smith? Good? Canadian?

Mordecai Richler died on July 3, 2001, but Barney’s Version was boxed and shipped in 1997. I was fourteen when Barney won the Giller, so it was about five years till I could read and appreciate what Richler had done: September 1997, and the man had written the last entertaining book to be published in this country. A few years later we were deep in the trend of the bleak prose stylists whose mysticism, angst, and avowed weirdness was prophesied in a Sylvia Plath crayon drawing. And reading stopped being fun. Unless you were an adolescent female runaway with an absent father and a drunken mother and a history of sexual abuse and no money and pale skin and broken ideals and a love of dental floss. Then it was This Is Your Life!

There have been good Canadian writers inking their personae since Richler’s prostate cued him on the way to venerability/likeability. But there hasn’t been a book that’s combined literary and imaginative achievement with anything like sustained laughter or the desire to read the thing outside on a sunny day. Camilla Gibb tried, but there’s really no way to twist Alice Munro’s milieu into a smile. Douglas Coupland’s jumped from the high springboard, but the guy is a goddamn nut. Still, he’s the best we have. And aside from the John-Iriving-on-a-deadline Hey, Nostradamus, the guy’s had pretty good results.

Now people talk about Andy Pyper, Annabel Lyon, Steve Heighton, and Michael Winter. All fine writers picking away at deferred suicide attempts, but nothing that extends beyond the small spaces of plot-less Canada. The Big Why was rock-solid, and Winter’s a great writer. But where’s Canada’s next circumcised proser? Pyper's The Wildfire Season is Bear without the punchline. Why not just go to a petting zoo?

Who knows. But in the meantime there’s a guy doing good work--work that’s probably the goyishe equivalent of the literate Canadian comic novel. That man’s Russell Smith. And though he wasn’t born in Canada, he’s been claimed by Porcupine's Quill as a grant-getting prospect. That means librarians can put the maple leaf sticker on the spine without any ethical violations.

Muriella Pent is the best Canadian novel of the past ten years. I say that with conviction. Smith’s come a long way from How Insensitive, and it looks like he might actually be able to do something that doesn’t have readers yelling at it as the pages turn.

Muriella: a perfect characterization. Derek Walcott/Marcus Royston: well done. Julia and Brian: so pathetic it almost works. But why’d he bring them together? So they could mutually birth the next confused Liberal and prove life’s just that easy?

But the book has a plot. And the plot gets resolved--without ghosts, spirits, wraiths, or visions. Are you excited yet? This is what we've been waiting for.

Smith’s going to do something very big in the next ten years, and people probably won’t like it. The Toronto arts scene is already spitting over the revelation that, migawd, there are more writers than readers out there. And, gasp, one caused the other. Richler always knew than, and that’s why he was great. At a time when Atwood’s 1976 ovulation diaries could sell five-thousand copies in Toronto, the genre needs someone to say how fucked up Canadian fiction really is.

We’ll see what happens. But I’ll say this: it’s not acceptable that Daniel Richler, Jack Rabinovitch, and Seamus O’Regan haven’t been given their comeuppance. Did you see Shamie at the Gillers? Who wrote that material? Rick Mercer's agent?

Something’s got to change. Alyssa York…What is this, perpetual arctic winter? I didn’t know Rudy Wiebe had a daughter.

Craig Mazin, The Artful Writer? You're Kidding, Right?

There’s nothing worse than a screenwriter. I used to wonder why “real” writers, novelists like Philip Roth and Mordecai Richler, were such terrific pricks. Here were guys with refined senses of humour, brilliant imaginations, and the ability to craft an actual story without jousting at readers with lines like, “Daddy. Where’s mommy?” (This coming, obviously, after the deranged filmic father has locked his spousal equivalent in the dark basement. Thunder, rain, etc. The eleven-ish girl dressed in white flowing robes or polka dot pyjamas with a stuffed animal in her arms. Just pure goddamn trash.)

I’ve since realized that real writers, like real people, have to live in this shitty world--a world peppered constantly by impotent fabulists who make very good money doing the literary equivalent of asking your niece to write the novel for you. Roth says he takes about three years to write a book. “For the first twelve months,” PR writes, “you don’t know what you’ve got.”

It takes three days to write a screenplay. If you’re a good writer, if you’re focussed on getting it done, you can write a draft in three days. Why? Because the goddamn thing is just dialogue and description. There’s no introspection, no meditation. It’s just get out there, be funny, steal from Ibsen, Chekhov, or Shakespeare, be sad, the end.

Here’s Roth taking years to polish American Pastoral, and here’s Craig Mazin churning out Superhero Movie. I'd be pissed off too. And I am. But I can't afford that cabin in Connecticut.

So what do we do with writers like Mazin, guys with the putative connections to rip plots from Doonesbury cartoons and actually sell their ideas to a studio. Mazin, a Princeton graduate, runs a blog called The Artful Writer. That’s like Saul Bellow starting a blog called A Black Man Talks About the High Jump. Mazin, an articulate, dry/scholarly prose stylist, proves that the actual physical ability to commit words to paper does not mean, in the indefinite sense, that a person can write. I guess the good thing about novels is that the average person lives seventy-three years, but the average novel takes seventy-four to write. So we’re not inundated with the amount of shit that’s percolating in MS Word Docs everywhere. But screenplays…Altogether a different story.

You have to ask a few legitimate questions: 1) would a good writer write screenplays, or would he write fiction?; 2) would a good writer write stories--write three separate stories--about ordinary people attaining uber status?; 3) would a good writer knot the rope and kick over the chair before going to Hollywood?

Mazin’s newest project, Superhero Movie, is so bad…It’s almost as if he went down to a kindergarten and asked the kids if they’d be interested in working on a collective creation. It's so bad that there's actually been talk of painting Mazin red and sending him back to 1947. A comedy? If Mazin had been writing jokes for Bob Hope, Pepsodent would be haemorrhoid cream right now. Yet here’s a solid technical writer with a loyal following of hacks. Writing scripts about comic books and road trips with the fam. That’s not writing. It’s shit. It’s the worst kind of intellectual-cultural-artistic subversion that convinces people THEY CAN DO IT TOO.

Most people have arms; most people can manipulate both of those arms in a throwing motion. Do most people show up at spring training hoping to go north with their squad as a fifth starter? Because that’s what guys like Mazin are: they’ve insinuated themselves into Hollywood, and we can’t get them out. But whereas the MLB has a minimum standard (say 90 mph), nepotism knows no cut list.

I think the point is that imagination trumps good grammar as the principal prerequisite for writing. But guys like Mazin persevere, buoyed by residual cheques.

Last point: whatever happened to the notion of shame? I don’t sing at weddings, I don’t figure skate, and I don’t play alto sax. But Mazin keeps writing. He won’t stop. It’s not enough that he’s bad; it’s not enough that he just can’t do it. He keeps going.

Even Danny Rose quit comedy. Yakov Smirnoff’s playing Branson. And Mazin’s writing ER Movie and Law Movie—two spoofs of the powerful TV dramedy genre. “Tonight, on The Bar, an innocent man sent to prison…for a crime he committed.”

Good. That means more rope and chairs for us.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Toronto, 2004: Mel Brooks Meets Conan O'Brien--The Bootleg (Tape) Transcript

A lot of late-night TV fans might have wondered why their favourite celebrity hasn’t appeared on their favourite program. Some personalities are reclusive, and some just spurn the box for its tendency to undermine fluffy things like the Renaissance, the Categorical Imperative, mind-body dualism, etc. Most of the time we’re talking about celebrities with esoteric appeal--writers, directors, actors, and comedians who have their cult followings, Pulitzers, Nobels, etc. (J.D. Salinger isn’t going on Letterman, and we’re not going to see Rudy Wiebe on Leno any time soon.)

But what about big names who aren’t working on new projects? Virtually the only reason people appear on talk shows is to plug a product. (Otherwise black holes of entertainment like Tori Spelling could focus on crafting, and the world would be a better place.) When celebrities aren’t producing, there’s no incentive to invite them on the show. (What? No more Amanda Bynes interviews out there? Well, tell her to get to work. We need to know what Chad Michael Murray's like...when the camera's aren't rolling!) That’s why, for example, you don’t see a guy like Mel Brooks doing the late-night circuit. The Producers came back, but Brooks isn’t the kind of guy who’s interesting in dishing out bullshit to a studio audience. So he’s kept to himself, doing a strange variety of sit-downs over the past twenty years (he really seems to like Regis Philbin.) You get the feeling that he’d probably do a Jew-hosted program, but Jews aren’t yet Catholic enough to host anything that airs past ten-thirty—so that options out.

Something you won’t see is Brooks on Conan. But the two have met and spoken. A few years ago there was a bootleg tape, circulating around Ryerson University’s journalism school, on which Brooks and O’Brien engaged in a three-minute-ish conversation. It was recorded in 2004 when O’Brien came to Toronto on his post-SARS ticket. Brooks was in town to discuss The Producers musical, which was then in production as part of the Mirvish group’s theater-season package. (For non-Torontonians, the Mirvish theater group is an annual subscription series that produces ten-ish shows per year. It was started by “Honest” Ed Mirvish’s cash, and is now run by his son David.) A student journalist (Ryerson’s famous for being Canada’s top journalism school) was tabbed to cover a reception/dinner for O’Brien at the Art Gallery of Ontario, and Brooks showed up with David Mirvish to chat and work the room.

The student--the guy's name was Barry--had his tape deck rolling, and this is what he got. (Don’t ask me to post the tape, because I don’t have it. Barry was an asshole who wouldn’t make copies. He was the kind of guy who walked around with earbuds, listening to fusion jazz, long before the IPod was born. I just have my shorthand notes.):

Conan: Hello.
Brooks: Hello. How are you? It’s…you.
Conan: Conan O’Brien.
Brooks: Right! The name just blended in with the rest—it’s so usual. I was thinking, “Tim…” How are you, Tim?
Conan: I’m fine, Chip.
Brooks: What’s that on your lip? There’s something on your lip.
Conan: Where?
Brooks: Here. Hold still. I got it.
Conan: Thank you.
Brooks: (To Mirvish, re: Conan) He’s never had me on his show.
Mirvish: Yeah?
Conan: We tried.
Brooks: I was busy. I told him I do Sunday mornings. That’s it. He can’t do Sundays.
Conan: What about Friday nights?
Brooks: (To Mirvish) David? David, the goy’s laughing at us. What are you eating? Gefilte fish?
Conan: It’s salmon.
Brooks: You know what that is? Gefilte fish?
Conan: I have no idea.
Brooks: Ask me on your show and I’ll have a whole discussion about it. It’s mostly newspaper.
Conan: We really asked. I think we tried to get you on last year? Yeah, last year. I don’t know.
Brooks: I’m sorry. This is David Mirvish. He’s producing The Producers. Producing The Producers.
Mirvish: (To Conan) I love your show. How are you liking Toronto?
Conan: It’s a beautiful city. Yeah, I really like it. If they pay me again I’ll come back.
Brooks: You’re getting money for this?
Conan: I’m just kidding.
Brooks: What are you doing up here? You’re off?
Conan: No, we’re doing the show here. All this week. Yeah.
Brooks: I didn’t know. I watch Letterman. David, why didn’t you tell me?
Conan: We’re on after Letterman.
Brooks: After Letterman? Are you crazy? Who can stay up that late?
Conan: Not many people.
Mirvish: (To Brooks) That’s Larry Tanenbaum.
Brooks: I’ll go over in a minute.
Conan: Don’t let me keep you.
Brooks: No, no. He’s going for the linen contract. Leave him alone. Did you have any of this fish on a stick? Salmon. It’s delicious. You should have some.
Conan: I did. I was just eating it a second ago. It was very good. Listen, are you interested in doing the show? Really? We’ll get you on. Whenever.
Brooks: What do you want me on the show for?
Conan: I’d love to have you. Are you kidding?
Brooks: No. Come on.
Mirvish: You’d be great.
Brooks: What am I gonna do? Tell stories? Do you have Jews on your show?
Conan: What? My band leader’s Jewish. Max Weinberg, yeah. Of course we do. My writers are Jewish. I’m Jewish.
Brooks: On your priest’s side?
Conan: That’s right. (Laughing.) On my priest’s side. We just had (inaudible) on.
Brooks: He’s not Jewish. What are you talking about?
Conan: What do you mean he’s not Jewish? He’s Jewish. I checked. Union rules.
Brooks: I’ll think about it.
Conan: Well, think about it. And call me.
Brooks: They’ve got me running around like crazy. This is a great city for a pastrami sandwich. Have you ever been to Shopsy’s? Yitz’s? You gotta go. Try it.
Conan: I’ve never been. I will, I’ll try it.
Brooks: None of this lean shit, ok?
Conan: Lean…The sandwich?
Brooks: Yeah. You’re a young man.
Conan: I’m not so young.
Brooks: You’ll be ok.
Conan: (Laughing) What does that mean?
Brooks: God, my back’s killing me from this hotel they’ve got me sleeping in. How do you sleep? I’m on my side with a pillow between my legs. Down there. This mattress is like a trampoline. It’s no good for me. You should see the bed I’ve got at home.
Conan: Really. W hat kind of bed is it?
Brooks: It’s a bed. Jesus, what kind of question is that? We stand it against the wall and lean on it. No, I’m kidding. It’s like a board. I love it. I wake up three times a night to take a piss, but it’s ultra-absorbent.
Conan: That’s disgusting. That’s truly disgusting.
Brooks: I’m gonna use that on the show.
Conan: We’re at the Royal York. I haven’t had any problems.
Brooks: I’m somewhere else. What do I need a bathtub for?
Conan: The bath is nice.
Brooks: I don’t take baths.
Mirvish: I’m going to go over. It was nice to meet you.
Conan: Yes, nice to meet you.
Brooks: I’m going to go with him.
Conan: Remember, anytime you want to be on.
Brooks: I’ll be around. Don’t go anywhere.

Hardly earth-shattering stuff, but it has its moments.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Do Canadian Academics Have Sex?

Do Canadian Academics Have Sex?

Recently the graduate faculty at my university distributed a questionnaire designed to measure the more non-academic aspects of lives devoted to scholarship. The ostensible pretense was the buzz caused by a survey conducted by a student-run newspaper. The paper had devoted an entire issue to describing students’ distaste with the sterile, stale, musty, etc. halls of academia; it suggested that academics were cold, celibate, humourless animals who’d devoted their lives to the pursuit of puritanical, sexless learning. And the question that remained to be asked was whether graduate students and faculty felt the same way.

But it went beyond that. Suggestions were solicited, and a detailed, far-reaching examination of the hidden lives of academics was born. Maybe it was just out of boredom or gossipy intrigue, but momentum built toward getting this thing out there and seeing the results tabulated and disseminated. And so this was what we learned:

The undergraduate pollsters had asked students whether they viewed their professors as asexual. Eighty-three percent of respondents answered Yes. They couldn’t see their professors having sex—with each other, with themselves, or with anyone else.

Undergraduates had been asked whether they believed their profs and Teaching Assistants had any hidden kinks. Ninety-seven percent answered in the affirmative. So what were these pedagogues hiding? The top write-in guesses were foot fetishes, book fetishes, and masturbatory acts of erotic scholarly writing (dirty essays?).

Undergraduates were asked whether faculty members or grad students ever got laid at conferences. Seventeen percent thought they did. (Having been to conferences, I can tell you it happens, but only when there's an open bar. Most academics don't touch hard liquor, and it takes a lot of wine to get them past Derrida and onto reality--the point at which they can accept flirting cues.)

Undergraduates were asked whether faculty members or grad students ever slept with students. Eight percent ventured that sex-for-grades was a reality.

So, given those results, let’s take a look at the numbers from the PhD side:

Seventy-one percent of professors and graduate students reported having active sex lives. The number swung way in the professor’s favour, with only twenty percent of grad students claiming to have had sex within the last month. (And that number might be even farther off since it doesn’t take into account that some students are married--and consequently could not have had sex within the last thirty days.) Seventy-three percent of respondents admitted having hidden kinks. By far the most notable kink (notable because almost every respondent refused to admit to a perversion-—and the ones who did gave the usual leather/bondage answer) was an academic poetess who reported to having strong sexual fantasies about Jesus, James Joyce, and Joey Jeremiah (a character on a Canadian TV show). So, go figure. While only two professors admitted to ever having slept with a student, seventeen (out of a pool of eighty-seven) reported having engaged in post-plenary-session coitus.

Perhaps the most interesting answer: eighty-four of the eighty-seven polymaths surveyed admitted to having been attracted to a student. What can I say, jeans are tight.

Beyond that, there were the usual funny answers. Fifty-percent of profs would rather read a good book than have sex. Thirty-four percent had read more books in the past week than they’d had sexual partners in their lives. Twelve percent had had sex in their office or on campus (though, surprisingly, none admitted to doing it in the library. And the archives was out of the question--it's moisture-controlled).

So what does this say about academia? Nothing, actually. But it’s kind of interesting. Professors are often viewed as wizened, timid flakes, but every wizened, timid flake needs a spousal equivalent.

Deracinating Aaron Seltzer and Jason Friedberg: A Brief Biography of North America’s Version of Worker and Parasite

Deracinating Aaron Seltzer and Jason Friedberg. And Let’s Throw Charles Mazin In There Too: A Brief Biography of North America’s Version of Worker and Parasite

With Aaron Seltzer and Jason Friedberg getting free rein to foist the rotting garbage--otherwise known as their “films"--on the world’s illiterate and unemployed, the balance seems to have tipped in the intellectuals’ favour. Movie critics--many of them bitterly sarcastic, but eminently literate, vinyl collectors--have started digging ice picks into these boys’ talkies. But critics can only go so far; they seem to have stalled at four-syllable adjectives. They just don’t know about Plato’s perfect forms of shit.

And they’ve never hit on the real story here: Who are Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer? Where did they come from? What high school did they fail to graduate from? What was the name of that book they read? Who’s that rich uncle who owns so much Fox paper that F&S can neither be fired nor have their Hummers towed from the lot?

I tapped my LA contact for information, but he came up with nothing. Friedberg and Seltzer were ghosts. I was ready to give up and just spout an ad hominem attack, but then the phone rang--it was my LA friend on the other end. He’d met a guy at a pitch-fest who, growing up, reported to have known Friedberg and Seltzer. And this is what the guy said:

First, Friedberg and Seltzer aren’t their real names. That’s why a quick IMDB search fails to turn up birth dates or family connections. And, really, now that you think about it, it’s pretty obvious: Seltzer. Not a likely last name. Friedberg is really Parker Maxwell, and Seltzer is really Cody Malone. Both graduated from Pacific Collegiate in Santa Cruz, California, though neither attended college. Apparently, they chose “Jewish-sounding” names with the intention of “sounding funny.” The logic was that it would be easier to insist on having some sagacious credibility if people believed they could be related, through tradition, to an Albert Brooks or Jack Benny.

Their first screenplay--a vehicle that was bought but never made--focused on the life of a dog who, after eating a magic bone, became a young boy. The boy appeared at the door of a disintegrating uber-contemporary family (cheating dad, working mom, angsty daughter, rocker son, etc.), and united the clan by teaching its members to believe in themselves.

Their big break came after Malone’s second uncle’s firm was retained to do some legal work for a Fox executive. Malone and Maxwell, who had been working as landscapers, were sweating over a script that would spoof the spy genre. The executive was looking for a comedy, and the uncle facilitated the script’s transfer. The result was Spy Hard.

Here’s where it gets interesting: Fox realized Spy Hard was the filmic equivalent of a child’s finger-paint rendition of Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase. But their pre-screening tests proved the movie was so popular with children (twelve and under) and unemployed adults (I kid you not), that Fox begged the writing duo for a new franchise.

But Malone and Maxwell began to have artistic pretensions. They started reading--film scripts, not novels--and they thought they could be legitimate Oscar-contending hacks. Maxwell tried to write a book, but quit after realizing that characters needed both to think and speak. (He tried writing from experience, but it didn’t work.) So he rejoined Malone, and the two spent the next three years writing a biopic of Liberace, a script that was bought but never produced.

And who bought it: Fox.

Fox, dying for a Spy Hard-ish sequel, needed M&M back. And the only way to do it was to buy their coruscating Liberace prose-drama. In return Malone and Maxwell agreed to get back to their real milieu. The result: Scary Movie.

They grew, as artists and writers, in Scary Movie 2. And then Scary Movie 3 was loosely based on Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner. In Scary Movie 4 they travelled to the Library Congress to read rare hand-corrected proofs of John Osborne’s The Entertainer.

Then came Epic Movie, Date Movie, and Meet the Spartans. Asked about the writing process, Maxwell is reported to have said, “The toughest thing is coming up with the titles. It takes about nine months to write the screenplay, but the titles take forever. We just sit around, eat pizza, and pitch to each other. But, like George Eliot…you know, like he said, writing isn’t supposed to be fun.”

So that’s the story of Friedberg and Seltzer nee Maxwell and Malone. An interesting coda: brimming with ideas, but unable to spare the time to get them on paper, the M&M duo sold a story idea to Charles Mazin, the genius behind movies like Rocketman and Senseless. Mazin was so taken with M&M’s nugget, that he pitched it to Spielberg’s Dreamworks. Rumour has it that Dreamworks employees were later required to show evidence that they’d wiped their asses with Mazin’s script, which was torn in half and deposited, in equal quantities, in the men’s and women’s bathroom.

That script is now being released as Superhero Movie, with the writing credits going to Mazin. Friedberg and Seltzer are uncredited, but we can measure their involvement in a quick and easy way: just look at that gorgeous title.

Update: Friedberg and Seltzer are currently teaming up to write a children's book spoofing Dr Seuss's aesthetic. It's called, understandably, Children's Book.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Verboten Moment of Truth Questions: A Canadian Perspective

Moment of Truth Questions:

Here’s another story courtesy of my cousin (Andrew, the Toronto entertainment lawyer). After reading yesterday’s post on, Andrew decided to share another good one with me. This gem’s regarding the new Fox show Moment of Truth—the lie detector-based program in which overly powdered people agree to be humiliated and exploited for the chance to win money. Gee, I’d never’ve believed it.

Since Moment’s broadcast in Canada it’s subject to the rules of the CRTC (the Canadian equivalent of the FCC, the American body which governs, among other things, media content.)

Andrew’s firm was retained to produce a report detailing what kind of questions would be allowed legally to be asked on a Canadian broadcast of Moment. Many things permitted on Canadian cable channels are not permitted on American cable channels. (For example, after eight o’clock, Canadian public broadcasters can feature full-frontal nudity and graphic obscenities. Not so in the USA.) The assumption was that many things permitted on American cable channels would not be permitted on Canadian cable channels.

Fox submitted five questions to my cousin’s firm, and the firm’s job was to write an argument regarding how and why each question could or could not be asked lawfully on a Canadian broadcast. The overarching issue was whether Fox’s Canadian affiliates would incur fines for showing questionable content.

The five questions were as following:

1: Have you ever fantasized about watching your wife have sex with a dog? (For women: Have you ever fantasized about sex with your dog?)
2: Have you ever fantasized about having sex with your mother/brother/sister/father/grandfather/grandmother?
3: Have you ever watched your wife have sex with a dog?
4: Have you ever had sex with your mother/brother/sister/father/grandfather/grandmother?
5: Have you ever committed a felony offence for which you were not caught—and for which the statute of limitations has not yet expired?

The thing most American readers will find interesting is that all five of these questions are OK by Canadian CRTC law. Serve ‘em up, because we can watch them here. But the FCC apparently threw a fit when they saw the list of five, and Andrew tells me the show’s creators and producers were threatened with serious jail time if any of the aforementioned queries ever appeared on an episode. Add seven-digit fines to that threat, and you can see how Moment’s teeth were filed by American communications authorities.

But one more thing you might find interesting: The questions test audiences, guaranteed anonymity, wanted to hear: the five listed above. And in that order.

So would Moment be a better show if contestants were humiliated to a greater extent? Sure. Prurience and perversion sell reality shows. And since being attractive is a pre-requisite for contestants, the dog questions have a much greater shock value than, say, Have you ever stolen from work. That’s why I have so little respect for TV producers. If you can’t even imagine a debauched scenario for a reality pilot, then move over and let the illiterate guy or girl take your job. They know what Americans and Canadians want.

After all, this is TV. And what’s more important than that?

Wednesday, March 26, 2008 On The Way? On The Way?

My cousin Andrew’s an entertainment lawyer here in Toronto, and last night at dinner (a great steak at Carman's--26 Alexander St.) he told me about a new project he’s working on. He went into the office a couple weeks ago and found a large banker’s box on his desk. It was labelled CPS File. When he opened it he found what he estimates to be two-thousand pages of handwritten notes, cancelled envelopes, and email printouts. They all—-every single one of them—-had to do with a celebrity and the size of said celebrity’s dick. There was everyone from Gibson to DiCaprio. He spent five days just reading through the stuff, and colleagues were constantly wandering into his office to solicit updates for their pool (they'd bet on the biggest and smallest).

So now he’s stuck working on legal clearance for a website tentatively called He’s not able to release the URL, but he did give me the CPS hint and neither confirmed nor denied my celebritypenissize inference.

There are a few issues: 1) the penis sizes have been solicited from and submitted by high-school and college partners of now-famous celebrities. The firm’s worried that penis size might be protected under the same terms as something like your medical history, so he’s searching out precedent for cases where personal information was made public. It’s his theory that physical descriptions of a non-medical nature are not privileged. So you can talk about size, but you can’t talk about unique physical characteristics like birthmarks, or curvature. I tend to agree. If you can say Karl Malden has a huge nose, you can say Karl Malden has a huge prick. The issue is whether the actual measurement can be disseminated.

2) Superlatives are allowed, but then you get into grey areas. What does small mean? What does big mean? Are contributors obligated legally to submit accurate measurements? Can, say, Sean Penn sue if his ex-girlfriend says six inches when it’s really six-and-a-half or seven?

I asked whether anyone would be able to submit an assessment, and I was told that the site will require at least two pieces of evidence to support their claim of having been with the person in question. Pictures, letters, and emails are supposed to prevent cranks from calling in and saying, “Jake Gyllenhaal…two inches.” Or twenty.

And how can exes accurately measure width?

I know…this is stupid, but that’s the kind of thing you go through when you’re trying to set up one of these sites. I thought the gen. pub. Would be interested in that.

Oh, and one more thing. If CPS is allowed to launch, is also on its way. Later, I’ll speak to what that’s all about.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

A Joke From Northrop Frye

I don't usually like one-liners, but I've got to share this one that I dug up in the Frye archives at UofT. It's taken from a letter to Tom Willis, dated August 12, 1959. Willis and Frye were childhood friends.

Frye: "I heard a good one yesterday at the Y. 'What's the difference between a horse and an English department? A horse only has one asshole. Feel free to share it, Tom.'"

More jokes from canonized Canlit scholars to come as-discovered.

Hyperreality TV: Keeping Up With The Who?

We're a step away from a genuinely good reality TV product. Hyperreality TV. The inability to distinguish fact from fiction, impulse from effect, a TV show from not a TV show. And it all stems from a new show: Keeping Up with the Kardashians. A show about less than nothing. A show that isn't, by any definition of the word, a show. But nonetheless, something that's on TV. And so it appears to be a show without actually being a show. What is it? Shit, right. We know that. But you can't look too deep into the decay of culture. You ever notice how you've never--not even once--seen a book on a reality show? Not even on a shelf.

Who is Kim Kardashian? Who are the Kardashians? Why do all their names start with K?
The answers, in order: No one, a family, and they live in LA.

Are the Kardashians high-school-educated? Can they read? I'm sure they're all brilliant. C'mon, if they weren't, how would they have graduated from...How would they have got that job with...How would they have written that...How would they have been invited to Philip Roth's for dinner and impressed him with their...

Yeah, how would they have done all that?

We get good shots of Ks (K, K, and K) sitting around with Vogues and Cosmos. Wait, that's entertaining. No one's done that before. "We need a good sitting-around shot. We need to see them, you know, just sitting around. The show's twenty-four minutes long...and it takes three weeks to film...but, yeah, are they sitting anywhere? Let's get it."

(I hope the guy who directs this went to USC film school. I hope he shelled out forty-grand on tuition. I hope he's read Wilde so he goes home every night and sleeps under his bed so the bad thoughts won't get him. I hope he has a carefully, artistically manicured beard.)

And here's the beauty of hyperreality TV. The Kardashians aren't famous; they're related to Robert Kardashian (one of O.J. Simpson's lawyers), and so they're a half-step away from really being nobodies. But they still have that appeal of being linked to someone who was once on TV. And that's no good. We have to efface that link. We need people who just watch TV.

What about a reality show about a family we've never heard of? A family who, if you Googled their name (let's say, the Merdes), you'd come up with nothing. Just links to a variety of useless pages, none of which contain any information on the Merde family. Ideally the Merdes would do nothing. Nothing about them would be distinctive; they wouldn't be bright or witty, they wouldn't eat interesting fruits.

The Merdes could even live in Hollywood. Christ, they're neighbours with Jo Marie Payton--the woman who played Harriet on Family Matters. The Merdes don't talk to Payton, but we're just placing them in a definite milieu. One we can all understand: LA.

They could even right screenplays: "What are you writing?" "A script." "What's the premise?" "It's about a ghost that's real." "Cool. What's it called?" "I don't know yet."

So what's the premise? The Merdes live. They don't work. They do things, then rush to talk about them on camera. Daphne Merde finds an orphaned child wandering the city streets. Somehow the cameras have arrived before her--they've anticipated her every ordinary move, showing her SUV as it rounds the corner of Hollywood and Vine. And the camera in the car gets her reaction. And the camera on the street gets her reaction. "Ohh!" she squeals as she spots the kid. "What's that?"

Then more action. A crew has intuitively guessed at her arrival at, of all places, the police station. And the cameras are inside, ready to catch her sunglass flip as she opens the door and enters off the street. "I found a kid," she tells the desk sergeant.

Suddenly the Merdes have invaded the police station. They're gathered, clustered around the boy. "What are we going to do?" Dini Merde, matriarch, wails. "Adopt it. We've got to adopt it."

"No," says Daphne. "We can't. We can't have a premise. We can't. We just can't."

And that would be an episode. Edit out the Miley Cyrus sighting, and we've got a winner. Just twenty-four minutes of encountering problems and talking about how said problems exist. "This, like, you know...This happened! I saw this kid today. I was, like, seeing this kid. I saw it! A kid." "I know you did, Honey. You saw a kid." "Daphne saw a kid," says the youngest Merde. "Yes," says dad. "A kid. She saw him."

And there's the show. Or at least the first episode.

A Writer Talks About Milton Berle’s Cock

A Writer Talks About Milton Berle’s Cock

A couple years ago, during the Christmas break (I was a senior at UofT), I was in the library at my grandparents’ complex in Florida, poring through boxes of donated books, looking for something to read. Library might not be the right word; it was a room where snowbirds’/retirees’ books went when the owners died away from home. If you’ve ever had to do it, you know it doesn’t pay to ship books anywhere. So they were just donated to this resident-administered library/reading room. (There are fifteen buildings in the complex, and about five-thousand apartments. So we’re not talking about a small space—this was half-way to the Toronto Reference Library.) It’s interesting what kind of books old Jews carry with them when they move to or winter in Florida. You get the usual selection of potboilers and Grisham, but there’s also some good stuff. I’d picked up copy of Goodbye, Columbus, and a Modern Library Giant edition of Eugene O’Neill’s plays, and I was looking at a hardcover Bernard Malamud book—The Tenants, a shitty collection of stories—when my grandfather walked in and asked me if I’d found anything. I showed him what I had, and he scanned the shelves, finally picking out another find: a bio of George and Ira Gershwin.

We were about to leave when a short, thick old man, probably in his late seventies, walked in and grabbed my grandfather’s arm. He just walked in the room, through the leaden non-automatic door, and speared my grandfather like he was grabbing a spawning salmon. They exchanged a friendly greeting, and my grandfather directed the guy at me, introducing the man as his friend Irwin. Irwin was one of those old men with ridiculously thick wrists and a grip that kind of takes your hand and squeezes it like it's a pickle jar being opened. But even though he had fifty-plus years of doing god knows what with his forearms, I was able to fight back against his palm and kind of push his locked wrist back toward his body. That impressed him, and he decided to stay and talk to me. Of course I had no idea who the hell he was, but I’ve never turned away from the opportunity to talk to a boisterous Jewish grandfather with clear New York ties. They all have at least one good expression in them, and they’ll usually use it within the first couple exchanges. In terms of writing dialogue, idiomatic, mangled ethnic aphorisms can’t be imagined; they have to be experienced.

“Good handshake,” he said. “Not like a dead fish. So many guys just give you a dead fish.”

This is where my grandfather stepped in and told me who Irwin was. His real name was Irwin Sheinbaum, and he was, as I’d inferred from his accent, from New York. When my grandfather said Sheinbaum, the guy immediately said, “Shine!” So he’d changed his name to Shine, and my grandfather explained that was because he was a gag writer during the fifties and early sixties. A lot of Jews changed their names to work in radio and television, but you don’t really see WASP-izations too often among writers. (Although, there are guys like Goody Ace who’re the exception.) Anyway, Irwin was a writer, not a performer. And though he didn’t want people to call him Shine, he still wanted them to remember that he’d been Shine. My grandfather’s name is Copper, but two generations ago it was Corpowitz. Beyond vanity, surnames have no meaning for Jews. So Sheinbaum/Shine wasn’t unusual.

This story’s about Milton Berle’s dick, so I’ll get to the point. Sheinbaum wrote gags for Berle’s nightclub act right after the Berle-Buick Show went off the air in the 1956. Berle was playing big rooms in Vegas and clubs in New York, and he needed material for his act. Sheinbaum had written for Jack Carter, George Jessel, and a bunch of other guys like Danny Thomas and Jan Murray. It was Murray who showed Berle a few of Sheinbaum’s lines; Berle liked them, invited Sheinbaum to meet him for lunch, and told him he’d pay him twenty-five bucks for every gag he liked. Sheinbaum was supposed to submit a typed list of jokes; Berle would read them, cross out the ones he didn’t like, and pay Sheinbaum for the ones he kept. Sheinbaum didn’t watch Berle perform, and it turned out that Berle was using the crossed-out jokes with a few words changed and moved around. That’s when they parted ways. Sheinbaum says he sold about thirty jokes to Berle, but Berle probably used about fifty-five.

So Sheinbaum was telling me all this, and I was smiling, nodding my head, basically urging him to go on. I didn’t know how much he wanted to say, but it was a helluva story. When he got to the part about going separate ways, he stopped. And I thought he was finished. But he took a deep breath, looked over my shoulder, and said, “The guy was a fucking schmuck. My friend Alfie told me he was using one of my jokes. Alfie was a comic; a nightclub guy--you know, the one who'd go on after the place closed, and sometimes--before. One of the ones he didn’t buy, Berle was using. And he knew he didn’t buy it because I fucking told him he didn’t buy it. It was a good joke. It was about...," and here he sucked his teeth,

"A Jew with an addictive personality talks about how he gets hooked on everything. Once he does something, he has to do it again. You know, like smoking, drinking, screwing. Everything that's done to him or that he does...he has to do over and over again. So he's in bed with his young wife one night--their wedding night, their first time together--and it's dark, and they're making love for the first time, and she's moaning and groaning and grunting and screaming--she's in some serious pain! After, she turns to him and says, 'Jack, you know, honey, I hope you don't mind me asking, but, well, why aren't you circumsized?' He looks at her, embarrassed, and says, 'I was, Frannie; why do you think I have to use my thumb?' 'Oh,' she says, kinda shocked, taking it all in. 'Well... then do me a favour and cut your fucking nails!'"

That was a good joke. I was pissed off. So my friend Alfie heard him tell this...use this line, and he came and told me. So I went to see Berle. At the club. Right before his act. He was sitting around shining his shoes, and I walked in the dressing room. I told him I knew he was using the joke, and I told him I wanted the twenty-five bucks. He said it was an old joke, and he’d changed it anyway. It wasn’t the same joke I’d written. So I told him to fuck off. And he knew what he was and what I was, so he didn’t have to do anything. The money was nothing to him, but he didn’t want to admit he was wrong. The big guys never wanted to admit they'd taken anything. They thought that the joke was never as important as the guy who told it. So they could do anything and get laughs. That was their attitude. Anyway, I was standing there, and I told him, I told Berle, that I wasn’t leaving. So he told me, fine, I could stay there. What the hell did he care. And he stood up, and he was wearing boxer shorts, the ones with the slit down the front, you know. He wasn’t wearing pants—they were on a hook on the back of the door. And when he stood up his dick came out of the slit on the front of his shorts. And he kept talking to me like he didn’t know or didn’t care. And his dick was just flapping against the front of his shorts. It was so fucking big I kept looking down at it. And I think he knew that, because he kept talking. He knew the longer he talked, and the more I kept looking at his dick, that I’d eventually say fuck it and just leave. But I knew that, so I just stood there. I grew up with five brothers. We had one bed for all five of us. I'd seen a lot of dicks. A dick wasn't anything new to me. Mind you, nothing like his. I guess it was supposed to be intimidating. All of the sudden,” and here Sheinbaum walked over and grabbed my arm, “he comes over to me and takes his dick in his hand, and waves it at me. Just waves it at me. It was the size of this.” Sheinbaum took my copy Modern Library Giant and traced his fingers down the spine. “What is that? Seven, eight inches? His hand wasn’t even half way up on the shaft. And he was waving it at me and laughing. I just turned and walked out. It wasn’t worth it.”

He paused again.

“And that was soft. Who the hell knows the other way. The funny thing is his balls weren’t even that big.”

So I just thought I’d post that reminiscence. Berle’s dick seems to be an inter-generational thing, and this might be the only record we have of its actual length. Eight inches flaccid—according to Irwin Sheinbaum.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Woody Allen Meets Margaret Atwood: A Lost Interview

It’s a little-known fact that in 1977, Woody Allen, a couple months before his Oscar win for Annie Hall, was invited by then-Governor General Jules Leger to participate in the Governor General's (GG) Awards ceremony at Rideau Hall. Allen was a personal guest of Leger, who was encouraged (almost hectored) by his wife Shirley Birnbaum-Leger to extend the invitation on what she called “cross-cultural” grounds. “Why just stick to Canadians no one’s heard of?” Mrs. Leger wrote in a guest column for the Montreal Gazette. “Mr Allen is so young and fresh and alive--he’ll add a perfect balance to the Canadian guests we already have.”

So Woody was alerted, he sent back his RSVP card, and he was there that night in 1977when the cheques and fruit baskets were handed out.

Another little-known fact is that Margaret Atwood, another Canadian favourite, was also in the audience that night. Atwood had been tagged by Timothy Findley—-whose The Wars would win the prize for fiction—-as one of his three mandatory guests. The objective was to fill every table, balancing out the number of male guests with the number of female guests so that photos of the traditional GG waltz could legally appear in issues of the Toronto Star.

Also in attendance that night was Alison Frum, the niece of the now-deceased Barbara Frum, a Canadian broadcasting icon and CBC employee. Alison was working for the now-defunct magazine CanIt, and her mandate was to secure an interview—-regardless of length or depth—-with both Atwood and Allen. The following is a transcript of that interview; it’s taken from Alison Frum’s notes, which are now housed in the archives at Algonquin College. I was only allowed to view them after requesting and receiving permission from Allen, Frum, and Frank Davey (who, of the three, was unconscionably long in replying).

Because of issues with American-Canadian content restrictions, Frum’s article never ran in CanIt. Allen, born in Brooklyn, wasn’t Canadian enough to meet Canada Council funding requirements, and so a third of the grant money for that particular issue was withheld on ethical grounds. “If he’d been born in Yonkers,” Frum told me, “we might have been able to swing it. But Brooklyn was just too far south.” I asked her what had happened to the actual article, or at least a rough copy, and she told me that she'd tossed it when the story was torpedoed. “Why hang onto it? The story was no good anyway. Woody kept smacking his lips. Finally I had to hold onto his hands.”

So here’s the transcript, or at least all that survives, of that lost interview.

Frum: Ms Atwood. Can I call you Margaret?
Atwood: Sure.
Allen: Call me anything.
Frum: OK. Margaret, have you heard of Mr Allen’s films?
Atwood: I have.
Frum: And what do you think?
Atwood: Some of them are in colour.
Allen: Don’t worry. I don’t think her songs are too hot either.
Frum: Margaret’s a writer. She’s a poet and a novelist.
Allen: Oh! Oh, OK.
Frum: You thought she was a singer?
Allen: Maybe in a dark club, you know.
Atwood: How do you like Canada, Mr Allen?
Allen: It’s nice. It’s very nice. I had a steak last night. It was perfect. Rare as anything.
Frum: Really? What restaurant?
Allen: I can’t remember. It was a beautiful place though. No Jews, but dogs everywhere.
Frum: Except you.
Allen: I am of the Hebrew persuasion.
Atwood: You’re kidding.
Allen: No. Have you got Jews in Canada?
Atwood: There’s a street…
Allen: Oh.
Frum: We have lots of Jews in Canada.
Allen: That’s good. That’s good, you know. Because Jews are very important to an economy. Who else is going to buy all those seashells?
Atwood: That’s an interesting comment. I have seashells in my house.
Allen: Of course. I didn’t mean to offend you.
Atwood: Do you think I’m Jewish?
Allen: Wait a second. My sweater’s caught on your nose, here.
Frum: Have you read any of Ms Atwood’s books?
Allen: No, I’m actually very busy with work. I haven’t had much time for anything else lately. I’m about to start filming something about a WASP-ish, you know, over-privileged, neurotic, energetically delusional woman. Not that, you know, I’m making any comparisons.
Frum: So you haven’t read any of Margaret’s work?
Allen: No, but she’s on my list. Do you have any recommendations?
Atwood: I’ve got a book out called Surfacing, which I think you’d like. It’s short.
Allen: And what’s it about? It sounds good.
Atwood: It’s a contemporary re-telling of a Heart of Darkness-type narrative.
Allen: That’s great. That sounds perfect.
Frum: It was a big success in Canada.
Allen: I’ve never heard of it. But I’m sure it’s fantastic.
Atwood: I have a question for Mr Allen.
Allen: Sure.
Atwood: Where were you during the ceremony?
Allen: Tonight? I was in the back. Way in the back. Aisle Z. Zee, right? Zed? Yeah, they said Canadians first. I could see what was happening, though. And, you know, a couple seconds later, whatever, I heard it.
Frum: That wasn’t very nice.
Allen: Well, I’m a foreign guest.
Atwood: Are you coming to any of the parties tonight?
Allen: I haven’t been invited.
Atwood: I’m inviting you.
Allen: OK. Where are we going?
Atwood: The river.
Allen: But, I don’t understand. It’s not frozen.
Atwood: Perfect.
Frum: Do you two know each other?
Allen: No--but every joke needs a good straight line. Are you married, dear?
Atwood: No.
Allen: Well, keep looking. Somewhere there’s a man for you. If he’s lying down with his arms crossed over his lap, I say jump in.
Atwood: I hear you’re terrific with women.
Allen: I do OK.
Atwood: But you’re not here with your wife?
Allen: I’m not married.
Atwood: (To Frum) You know Mr Allen met his first wife at summer camp?
Frum: (To Allen) Really? Is that true?
Allen: It is.
Frum: Really? When was that?
Atwood: Visitor’s day.
Allen: This one’s got a little edge to her. That’s nice. It’s funny. Really good. Does she do all the clubs up here? Or just the spades? You like that? That’s a Red Buttons line.
Frum: Oh, wait a second…
Atwood: I’ve known this man for three minutes and he’s already pulled out his hand-buzzer.
Allen: I always carry one.
Atwood: Sure, it’s portable shock treatment.
Allen: Good. Can I write that down? You know, Hope can use that.
Frum: Bob Hope?
Allen: Yeah I used to write for him. He’s just back from Yugoslavia, you know. He was over there doing a benefit. He’s trying to get scarves for all those poor kids.
Frum: (To Atwood) What do you think of Bob Hope?
Atwood: He’s within the scope of the American cultural thing.
Allen: The American cultural thing? What is that?
Atwood: Shit.
Allen: Very nice.

The notebook ends there, but Frum tells me there’s more hiding in a banker’s box somewhere. So I’m going to do some more digging and get back for an update. She also gave me a really good Philip Roth interview in which Roth sits down with Mordecai Richler to discuss their work. It’s from 1979, and some of it’s really good stuff. So I’ll copy that and get it up here.

Stuff White People Don't Like: Stuff White People Like

As the blog Stuff White People Like soars past fourteen-million hits, there's a very real and unique situation developing in the genetically commodified world of blog procreation: no 'satirical', ironically titled blog has yet risen to counterpoint SWPL's amazingly popular formula of jokingly deriding the normal and banal. I'm not rising to fill that void, but I'll post a few observations.

When SWPL talks about white people, I'm assuming it means middle-upper-class Gentiles. Annie Hall would be a white person (though a white person imagined and scripted by a non-white person). Having known many such people, I can tell you they have, on the whole, more dislikes than likes. So the blog Stuff White People Don't Like is nigh on the horizon. The URL's already been 'parked', meaning some idiot (probably white) is hoping to cash in on it. But here's as good a place to start as any, so on with the first instalment of Stuff White People Don't Like: Stuff White People Like.

White people don't like blogs like Stuff White People Like. They don't like them for a couple reasons: 1) the blog is incredibly successful, and the owner/writer is all over the news. He's not making any money off the thing (he says he's made fourteen bucks), but you can bet some (semi-literate) Hollywood agent is phoning with a three-screenplay offer. SWPL The Movie! It takes us from a loft to a bistro to a reading to a jazz bar to a book store--then back to the loft. This could end up in a bonanza (a great word), and white people don't like that. White people are petty and jealous (see: this entry), and they really don't like it--they don't like it at all--when other white people succeed doing something the second white person feels he could've done just as well--or, for the average deluded white person, better. The idea's so simple. Why didn't they think of it? This, you know...I sucks; 2) the author is expressing himself creatively. White people don't like that. They lurk on messageboards and blog sites, posting anonymous comments in which the acuity of their literary flexing power is put on full display. So you'll read comments on SWPL like, "Your blog sucks. You're a real dick"; or "F*ck you." Isn't that terrific? Obviously SWPL hurts these people in a very serious way--a way that can only be expressed tersely during the time it takes for their Halo game to load in the background. Again, this probably follows from the first point. White people don't like it when other white people like a thing that white people shouldn't like. So they launch their ad hominem attacks. What else are they supposed to do? Not actually read the blog?'re crazy.

SWLP is a pretty WASP-ish, vanilla site, with insights and jokes that make white people happy. I'm sure it'll spawn a brood of sites with names like stuffjewslike.blogspot, and stufflgbtlike.blogspot, etc. And those people will take an hour out of their day, sit down, and compose a great entry on something so intrinsically racist, hateful, and/or anti-semitic that it'll be sure to please the stellar readers who hunt through the blogosphere for their dose of fun.

I'm not sure why SWPL is such a hit, but let's take a second for some serious commentary: the things it lists as swpl are so ordinary that most of them haven't even become cliched. Like dinner parties. A dinner party is people getting together to eat dinner. It's not a white institution; they don't hang signs outside WASP dining rooms saying "If your skin is swarthier than this paint sample, do not enter." Could white people like other crazy things like pants? Dishwashers? Spare tires?

But I guess, in the end, white people like satire. It saves them from actually having to do anything.

Friday, March 21, 2008

John Metcalf Is A Prick

John Metcalf is a prick. He's not kicking against the pricks, he's not pricking a balloon, he's not being pricked by a burdock, he's not eating a prickly pear. The man is a prick. Maybe I should save my venom for someone else, someone people've actually heard of. Like a TTC bus driver who misses his stops, or a hot-dog vendor who cuts his sausages lengthwise. But Metcalf...that guy is just an asshole.

An Aesthetic Underground, Metcalf's latest self-serving public masturbatory act is out there for you to read. I urge you to pick it up. (But get it from the library—don’t earn this man royalties.) Underground, published in 2003, is another Metcalfian attempt at positioning himself in the enduring focal point of Canadian letters. Ten pages into the thing you realize you’ve seen it all before, heard it all before. And that is literally true. Metcalf regurgitates musty insults and clich├ęs, summoning his tinted vitriol from the depths of other great reads like The Bumper Book and Kicking Against the Pricks. It was in those two works that we learned important critical truths, like how great Metcalf is compared to everyone else.

But why hate Metcalf? I’m sure there are people out there who like the man. And I’m just as sure all those people have a financial interest in Metcalf’s friendship/stewardship. They’re Porcupine authors or angsty, incoherent creative writing students stuck on the idea that Canada is so…sigh provincial. Canada is so…(grimace/scowl) unbearrrrrable. As is life for these happy few.

The funny thing about Metcalf is where this man’s built his house. He wouldn’t free Frank Davey from a locked bathroom stall, but he’d spend an afternoon discussing rare cheeses with Norman Levine and Clark Blaise. Everyone Metcalf likes is an asshole. Here’s a man who hates David Staines—a harmless pedagogue—yet treats Mordecai Richler like an Iwo Jima-era Bob Hope. Richler, an asshole’s asshole was maybe the worst person ever to publish a book in Canada. If you don’t believe me, ask Michael Posner. Here was a guy (Richler) who told a fan with literary aspirations that she should forget prose and stick to something she was good at…like abortions.

Metcalf eats up that kind of thing. He touts Annabel Lyon, Andrew Pyper, and Stevie Heighton like their writing is the kind of thing we really need. Here are three writers who’d drive Robert Fulford to the remote control. Never before have so many written about so little. But Metcalf loves them. Why? Because they’re young and impressionable. They write about things like wool and asphalt. What could be better than reading a novel about a tungsten miner who leaves his home in Ungava Bay for a life as a professional mime?

The experience of reading a book by a Metcalf protege book is like that of whittling through the relaxing night after orgasm-less sex.

Just going over the passages detailing Metcalf’s career as writer in residence at a handful of Canadian universities is enough to really piss you off. Not enough students came to him for help, for advice. And that’s a shame, because he had the boot all greased up and ready to go.

The Canada Council was a joke. Canadian writers didn’t deserve public money. They couldn’t write. They were ciphers. Yet here he is taking handouts to sit on his ass and take digs at Al Purdy (another prick.)

Metcalf isn’t going anywhere. In a way I respect him for his honesty, but in another way I despise his ever-growing condescension. The Lady Who Sold Furniture was a fine story—if it had been about anything, it could’ve been interesting. Hugh Hood was a great writer. The Ontario Tourist Council could’ve really used him.

Well, Metcalf, I guess this is the way it ends. I’ll let you get back to your Russell Smith thriller. You know the one where the doctor goes missing in downtown Toronto? The one where the cops have a good suspect—the guy they saw follow her out of the bar; the guy with her credit cards in his pocket; the guy with the motive and the opportunity. But, here, let me spoil it for you—the lake goddess did it. Meditate on that.

PopQ: Like A Daytime Shelter For The Chronically Unemployed

One of the fortuitous things about being a student is that you're home at odd hours during the week. My schedule's given me a few free weekday afternoons when I've sat down for lunch and, with nothing else to do, turned on the TV while I ate my sandwich. But only recently have I caught a show called PopQ (also known as Brain Battle when the subject is divorced from pop culture). Apparently this thing has a cult following--and not just students and stay-at-home moms. Thousands of chronic gamblers, unemployed people, loners, and outport folk tune in every day at one o'clock to take a shot at the PopQ/Brain Battle pot of gold. I've seen it twice, and now treat it like a glass-shard milkshake. Stay away.

Here's how the thing works: They come up with a fill-in-the-blank question, and assign each correct answer a dollar value. All answers are concealed by slips of paper on the board, much like Family Feud. For example, a question/topic could be Michael (Fill-in-the-blank). So you might answer Michael Jordan (Jordan being the word that fills in the blank.) If that answer's on the board, you win the dollar figure to which it corresponds. There are ten spots on the board (four fifty bucks prizes, one thousand-dollar prize, and five slots ranging from a hundred to five-hundred bucks.)

The show is hosted by Jason Agnew and (sometimes) Stacey Englehart. Agnew is OK on his own, but bad things happen when they team up for an hour-long show. It's the constant, mindless banter--throwing it back to you, Jason. No, back to you, Stacey. Isn't that right, Jason? I couldn't agree more, Stacey--that really grates on you. They tend to be sweet to their callers, but you know they just want to tell them to get back to the mailbox and wait for that EI cheque.

But what kind of gameshow is PopQ? It's the kind you pay to play. You call, enter a "pool" of contestants, and then wait to be called back for your shot at a prize. Each call costs a couple bucks, and they call back around thirty persons per show. Rarely do they give away more than a few hundred bucks, meaning the prizes are actually paid for by the callers. The show is like a televised scratch-and-win ticket.

Some things that stick out: For some reason they're constantly going back and forth to the control room, showing their team of PopQ staff making phone calls and giving cues. There's a guy who sits on the right-hand side of the screen, a headset over one ear, and a perpetual scowl on his face. It's like looking at someone recently raised from the bottom of a lake. His name is Justin, and he's constantly being hectored by Agnew, who, offscreen, probably cuts a wide path around him. This guy's presence is enough to make you change the channel. He suffers through every hour, this sour look on his face, just waiting to mumble something about society not treating him right...a victim...revenge fantasies, etc.

But by far the dumbest thing about this show is its element of difficulty. Snow (Blank). Name a phrase or word preceded by "snow." Snow storm? No. Not on the list. Snow bank? No. Snow bird? No. Snow tires? No.

People, poor, gullible people, call in thinking they've got the answer, thinking they're going for the big money. It's so obvious, they're going to fill in that blank. Snow shovel? Not on the list.

The thousand-dollar answer: Snow report.

That's the genius of PopQ. To shepherd these fools in, to take their money, to give them hope, and then laugh at them as they guess at a word/phrase that doesn't really exist, or is beyond the realm of their experiential history. What is a snow report? It's a report on snow conditions. Wait, there's another blank--snow conditions. Just like ice (blank) could be ice report. Or ice block. So, you see, it's impossible to win.

Once they had Michael (fill-in-the-blank). Out of every famous Michael, ever, living or dead, you were looking for one. Guess whom the thousand-buck Mike was? Michael Ondaatje.

God, this show is awful.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Channel Four's Geniuses An Appalling Omen

Television Ontario (TVO), one of the bright-spots in Canadian broadcasting, has a weekly feature called The View From Here. TVFH is a one-and-a-half-hour slot dedicated to showing out-of-market documentaries that are so obscure they can't even be downloaded. These films are almost always extremely well-done. And, more often than not, they make you angry. Last night wasn't exceptional in either case. The program was a British Channel 4 documentary entitled, simply enough, Child Geniuses. The documentary probed into the lives of about ten preteen "geniuses"--the scare quotes will be explained later--as they progressed through the rigours of their "exceptional" days.

There was something so cold and soulless about these children that, frankly, was frightening. Watching them interact with the absent interviewer, I felt forced, at times, to change the channel, spiriting these children off into the digital aether.

Granted, there are children with tremendous intellectual capabilities who, because of their extreme rationality cannot interact with peers. But while these children are intellectually advanced, they seem to exist in a kind of emotional vacuum wherein every last atom of sympathy and empathy has been removed to make room for an uncontrolled narcissism. It's evidenced in the frequency and adjectival ornamenting of the proliferating IQ SCORE. Everyone's been tested, and they're all more than willing to tell you how smart they are. The children are taught by the parents, and the parents flaunt their little deities like golden calves.

But some of this is understandable. A ten-year-old child with a 170 IQ can read a novel by Saul Bellow. But that ten-year-old child cannot understand the novel in the same way they can understand the Krebs Cycle. There is intellectual knowledge, there is experiential knowledge, and there is the ability to integrate the two. None of the child geniuses showed an ability to reach beyond their own individual self-created paradigm. And that is awful. Because their parents don't seem to care whether their child can "feel." These are the next generation of racial purists--self-aggrandizing, rational people who believe in the strict rule of unemotional logic.

One family, the Grafton-Clarks, typified the kind of disgraceful devotional solipsism that the filmmaker sought to uncover. The matriarch of the family, a blank, cloying woman, held her children in such reverence as to suggest their eventualy deification as the next Great Men and Great Women of British science and industry. The father sat silently as the mother detailed how, under her stewardship, these children would be shepherded through PhDs, MDs, and post-doctoral fellowships. The children, she said, were members of several societies for gifted adolescents. That their next ten years would be consumed by constant scholarship was not just a given, it was a mandate.

The question is Why? Why several societies? Why any? Your children are very bright; they've been raised in a home where play time was replaced with study time. When they were three they were made to read The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire. So of course they learned, and of course they're bright. But why thrust them into societies, why jockey for the highest IQ prize?

The film showed the four GC children seated in their parlour--a horrible, grey room in which they doubtlessly gather daily to read from morning 'til bedtime. One girl, aged ten I think, was wearing a black blazer and reading MacBeth. Another, slightly younger, was reading the Bible as an intellectual exercise. She was, according to the mother, a religious scholar and philosopher. The youngest son, a boy suffering from undiagnosed autism, was reading a book of street maps. All were wan and slightly haggard. All this as the mother stood by, beaming. Her children, she said, prefer to isolate themselves in the family home. The other parents are jealous of their achievements. I guess these other parents won't applaud as IQ scores snap and pop from the matriarch's throat.

Of the children featured, only one stood out as an inevitable product of what we'd call genius. His name is Michael Dowling, and because he's so clearly gifted, there's probably no other path for him than the one his mother's chosen. He's eleven, and he enjoys reading Thucydides while cloistered in a Victorian household library. Not that this child was likable--his facade of adult rationality was strident to say the least. But it was clear that he wasn't being prodded into this by his parents. And he wasn't heartless or suicidal. So good luck to him.

The worst--by far the worst--child featured was one named Dante. This boy was such a fine example of pathological psychosis that the director seemed markedly reticent around him. At eleven, Dante had expressed a desire to commit suicide; he showed an interest in swords and martial arts; he was both manic and narcissistic; his philosophy (he was filmed discoursing with an Oxford professor) was shallow and nihilistic. He came to the breakfast table wrapped in a comforter/toga, and aggressively directed shallow questions regarding his absent feelings, warning the interviewer that he was a private person. And it was a warning.

None of the children admitted to having a single friend.

So, no, we aren't jealous of these manchildren and womenchildren. Their lives are a kind of ascetic stoicism that even Zeno would have renounced. No one would want to live this way, divorced completely from society. We turn away because we can't abide the egotism--theirs and their parents. We're not fans of the reclusive, brooding intellect.

Intelligence without humility is pathetic martyrdom. And that's just not tolerated anymore.
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