Sunday, January 14, 2018

Lazy Sunday # 505: The Story Machine


Writers often speak of "feeding the machine". Film and television production in particular often has the feel of a runaway train. There are schedules to be met, time is of the essence and little or no time can be spared for the thoughtful consideration of plot twists and character development. They need the pages on set -- yesterday.

That machine has different variations in the publishing of everything from novels to daily newspapers, even greeting cards have to get the Christmas season covered by early July, if not sooner.

Writers constantly bemoan their deadlines and the lack of sympathy they receive for having to do the intricate work of story creation under such pressure.

And that's not hard to understand. As technology pushes our lives to a faster pace to keep up with business competitors, travel schedules, family demands and just about every segment of our lives, we're all short of time.

And what little time we do have is seldom given over to reading a story. In airports, coffee shops, buses and commuter trains around the planet, you seldom see people with a book or reading from a portable device.

We play mindless, repetitive games. We surf Facebook, looking for worthy nuggets of anything amid mindless, repetitive posts about things we rarely care much about. 

Where is the content that might enrich those few moments of free time we manage to find?

Well -- a French company called "Short Edition" may have found it.

This week at CES, the Computer Electronic Show in Las Vegas, they unveiled a device they've been testing in France for the last two years. It's a story vending machine.

The user simple presses a button indicating how many minutes (one, three or five) that he has to spare. Then the machine dispenses a story of that can be read in that length of time. 

In an unusual twist, the story costs the reader nothing, but the writer is still paid. What's more the machines are calibrated to suit their location. One in a children's hospital will draw from a database of stories for kids for examples. Those in railroad stations and airports might dispense content for travellers to particular destinations.

There are a myriad of algorithms for all manner of demographics to find just the right tale from a current database of 85,000 stories.

Those who access a story invariably share it with someone else at their location, who invariably shares it with someone else, creating discussions and interactions you will never get from a session of "Angry Birds" or scrolling a Twitter or Instagram feed.

Until a Short Edition machine turns up near you, you can sample some of the stories dispensed here. Or you could see the reaction of the first North American to buy one for his restaurant. Francis Ford Coppola, a guy more than familiar with feeding stories into other story machines.

I think these things are going to be very popular and maybe even help one of you to...

Enjoy Your Sunday...



Monday, January 08, 2018

Lazy Sunday # 504: What if.....?



The arrival of each new year brings with it intentions among all of us (whether ascribed as resolutions or just a to-do list) to make this the year we finally accomplish something specific.

Maybe it's something big. Maybe it's small but of personal import. Maybe it's a desire to just do what you normally do or be what you normally are -- only a little better than before.

For those of us who write fiction, that process begins with the question that leads to any story -- "What if...?".

Some of us work harder at crafting "What if?" than others. But nobody goes as far or as deep or as detailed as Randall Munroe, the guy behind the "What if" blog, which you can find here.

An example of this process is in the video that follows.

Imagine yourself making this kind of commitment to your germ of an idea/intention/whatever and...

Enjoy Your Sunday...

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Lazy Sunday # 503: Fake News




According to several media reports, "Fake News" is the most hated phrase of 2017. Mostly, I would presume, by members of the media.

I'm not exactly sure when I started ingesting news reports with a grain of salt. But it might've been near the start of my acting career, when a play I was in garnered a less than glowing review from a prestigious newspaper. I asked the show's director if there might be some truth in what the critic had written.

His response was along the lines of -- "Kid, I don't believe what they put on the front page. Why should I take anything in the entertainment section seriously?".

It might've been the first time I considered that journalists might not be telling me the truth.

And after decades of seeing films and TV shows I was involved in depicted as something they weren't, misquoted, flat out lied about and spun to favor competition that bought more ad space, I can tell you that in my experience news is often fake.

What's more, if you spend any time in the company of journalists and get enough drinks into them, many will freely admit to tales they've completely made up. Sometimes they're those speculative headlined pieces based on suspicion rather than fact and intended to do little more than pull in a few more readers or viewers.

Sometimes, they're floating fictional balloons to try to get somebody upset enough to confirm or deny whatever they can't nail down on their own.

And sometimes, like everyone of us, they simply misinterpret what they've seen with their own eyes.

Any cop will tell you how unreliable eye-witnesses can be. People witnessing the same bank robbery will claim there were anywhere from one to five robbers, dressed in suits or camo gear, armed or unarmed and from a variety of races.

It's apparently just the way the human brain works. In stressful situations, we not only take in what our senses are telling us, but are simultaneously spinning through some internal card file of possible options, outcomes and explanations while constructing a story of what happened should we be required to explain it to someone.

In other words, pretty much every anecdote in our personal story file is, from its inception, a turd we're already polishing to make it more dramatic or funnier or show ourselves in a different light.

To be clear, everything we see or read has already been coated with a small patina of "fake".

How else do you explain the inhabitants of Canadian filmmaker Jay Cheel's documentary "Twisted", which explores events that either did or did not take place at the St Catherine's Can-View Drive-In in 1996?

Some of what follows is fake -- but what?

Enjoy Your Sunday...


TWISTED from Jay Cheel on Vimeo.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Lazy Sunday # 502: Out For Delivery


When I was a kid, everything Christmas was delivered to your door. We lived in the middle of nowhere Saskatchewan, far from stores and those city sidewalks where silver bells rang on every corner and shoppers rushed home clutching their packages.

A couple of months before the big day, the Sears and Eaton's Christmas catalogues arrived and everybody took turns leafing through the super-colorful pages and circling what they wanted in the hope that Santa or somebody else in the family would take notice and order it for you.

My dad worked as a station agent for the CPR back then and as Christmas got closer the freight shed was stacked higher and higher with cardboard cartons containing somebody's Christmas. Make that everybody in town's Christmas.

Bulky grey canvas bags stamped "Royal Mail Canada" piled up there as well, along with whatever boxes rolled in on the Greyhound or Saskatchewan Transport bus.

But those packages contained more than just Christmas presents. There were frail wooden crates of Mandarin oranges direct from Japan, heavy as a brick fruit cakes and burlap wrapped wheels of cheese, not to mention metal barrels of beer and wooden boxes ringed with steel strapping that held wine and other spirits.

One Christmas, a St. Bernard puppy arrived on the baggage car and stayed with us for a few days until the road to his new farm home could be plowed after a blizzard.

But we weren't completely backwoods and pioneer-timey. We had television and saw all the big Christmas specials with Bob Hope or Perry Como as well as the Christmas parades from far flung metropolises.

There were Christmas movies too. Not a lot. But you could count on "It's a Wonderful Life" and Alistair Sim's Scrooge in "A Christmas Carol" making at least one appearance.

We're back to Christmas arriving in packages nowadays. Some days, I've seen as many as six trucks parked on my street as drivers in brown or blue or whatever they slept in last night hustle parcels to doorsteps.

My own place was so busy one morning, the dog gave up the "Danger, Intruder!" bark-fest intended to strike fear into couriers and just pretended she didn't hear the doorbell.

We've got Christmas movies up the ying-yang too. Sometimes 4 or 5 a night. Most of them feature stars you've never heard of or thought were long dead basically beating you over the head with the sentiments of the season while doing their best to get you reaching for a Kleenex.

In the end, the overwrought repetitiveness tends to numb viewers (or me at least) to the true message of Christmas.

Much of that has been remedied by filmmaker Ethan Milner, who turned his gaze to the return of the delivered Christmas and crafted a terrific short film entitled "Out for Delivery".

Please take a half hour break from the holiday as its envisioned by Hallmark and Lifetime to watch a terrific little movie that shows what the day is really about.

Merry Christmas from The Legion.

And Enjoy Your Sunday...

Out For Delivery | Short Film from Shades Mountain Baptist Church on Vimeo.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Lazy Sunday # 501: Earth Vs The Flying Saucers


When I was about 7 or 8 I went to see a movie that marked me for -- if not Life, the balance of my childhood. It was called "Earth Vs The Flying Saucers" and if you've ever stayed up past midnight, I'm sure you've seen it.

It's trashy and stupid and wholly representative of what passed for movie science fiction in the 1950's.

Six or seven years later, middle of Summer in Saskatchewan, I was flopped on my parents couch watching it again, wondering what exactly had freaked me out. And then something totally freaky in the real world happened...

An RCAF jet came screaming over our suburban house rocketing for downtown. A minute later, another one almost tore the shingles off our roof as it tore after it.

I ran outside to see what was going on to find a couple of my friends looking pale and shaky and asking, "Did you see it?"

They didn't mean the jets. They were talking about what the jets were chasing -- a UFO which had apparently streaked across the prairie skies a couple of minutes earlier. Somewhere in the North end of the city, the air raid sirens that had been stuck up around town around the time of Cuban Missile Crisis went off.

This frozen shiver went through me. And then the siren cut out. False alarm.

But my friends had seen something. A lot of people had. Including the pilots of those jets. But by next morning there was nothing on the radio beyond an apology from the nearby air force base over a "low flying training exercise".

I've always wanted to believe in UFOs. But more often than not their sightings get blamed on swamp gas, weather balloons and too much Tequila.

But the stories continue and with the arrival of YouTube, entire channels of UFO footage have become available. Sometimes the witnesses are airline pilots or people who seem eminently grounded and respectable. Most often, however, they look like the guys you see getting arrested on "Cops" and the spaceships bear an uncanny resemblance to Christmas lights and pie plates.

Then yesterday, the New York Times published a story about a couple of Navy pilots who'd encountered "something unexplainable" off the coast of San Diego in 2004. It's one the Pentagon itself has been investigating for the last 13 years and has finally decided to make public.

Now, I don't know if this is the final step in preparing us for the official verification that aliens have arrived or just another unexplained mystery. What I know for sure is the video of the event is a lot more plausible than anything else I've seen so far.

Enjoy Your Sunday...



Monday, December 11, 2017

LAZY SUNDAY # 500: Curiosity Stream




In 1961, Newton Minow, President John F. Kennedy's Chair of the American Federal Communications Commission (the much feared and vaunted FCC) had this to say about one of the major industries he regulated...

"When television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite each of you to sit down in front of your own television set when your station goes on the air and stay there, for a day, without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland".

The vast wasteland he described is often looked upon now as one of the early "Golden Ages" of television. Many of the shows of that time still run on channels such as MeTV, sell as DVD packages or remain available worldwide on their own YouTube channels.

What's more, the formats and genres they popularized are the same ones we use today -- in another "Golden Age of Television" -- and are found in much of the material produced solely to be streamed instead of viewed on a traditional television.

Newton Minow practically begged the TV industry to produce intelligent, thought-provoking programming. His entreaty did not fall on deaf ears -- screenwriter Sherwood Schwartz immortalized him when he dubbed the boat on his pilot for "Gilligan's Island" the S.S. Minnow.

And those searching for intelligent programming are still giving up on finding it on television. When I went to university none of my professors even owned a television set and the same is true for the handful of them I know today.

But now you don't need to own a television to find intellectually challenging fare. Streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime offer a lot of great documentary programming. And now there's a streaming entity offering nothing but that kind of content for $3 a month.

Curiosity Stream offers hundreds of hours of high-end documentary content on all sorts of subjects and in all manner of disciplines. It's available on any device on which you want to consume it -- phones, tablets, laptops, desktops or even your television if its connected to a Roku or Apple TV box.

It's one more example of the kind of challenges being faced by specialty TV channels, the industry version of the brick-and-mortar retailer. Why pay three or four times those $3 for a documentary or educational channel packaged with some other channels you have no interest in?

Curiosity Stream may or may not be of interest to you. But it's certainly worth sampling for free for seven days while you decide. You can check the service out here. What follows is a sample of what you'll find.

Enjoy Your Sunday...



Sunday, December 03, 2017

LAZY SUNDAY # 499: THE POLAROID JOB


I've always found those pictures people take this time of year of their pets with Santa Claus were somewhat cute but mostly stupid. I mean, any picture of an animal being coddled or cuddled is heart-warming. But they don't know Santa anymore than what Christmas is. The whole process is forced and fake. And it gives people the impression you oughta have better things to do with your free time.

But this week I got a nice note from my local pet store offering me the chance to support them as well as raise money for a group who trains compassion dogs to assist people with medical issues -- and you end up with a picture of your pet with Santa Claus. One of those win-win all round deals.

And in my case I've also got a pooch who refuses to have her picture taken, so I've hardly got any photographs of her. That's because whenever a camera points in her direction, she immediately shies away, like a canine version of those ancient tribes who believed capturing their image was a way for the photographer to steal their soul.

Nobody's been able to explain why she does this. My own theory is that -- back in the kennel, puppies had their pictures taken all the time -- and disappeared to their new home soon after. So if she wants to maintain the cushy, treat-laden and daily dog park visiting life she has, best not to let anybody have a picture of how cute you are.

Of course I should've listened to my gut because nothing went well. The room was packed with dogs all far more fun than sitting quietly for Santa. And when she wasn't ducking and weaving to avoid the camera, she was trying to escape Santa's many helpers as they offered squeaky toys and snackables to draw her attention where it was required.

It'll be a couple of days before I see the finished product, but I'm not holding out much hope.

Although the experience got me wondering about what draws people to this line of work. And that drew me to a video by Mike Plante about the time his family thought they'd get rich by taking "The Polaroid Job".

Enjoy Your Sunday...

The Polaroid Job from The New York Times - Video on Vimeo.


Monday, November 27, 2017

Lazy Sunday # 498: People City


Every city changes. They rise and fall. Evolve with the times and the tides of the people who roll in and out of them.

Toronto when I was growing up was "The Big Smoke", some place far away where my beloved Maple Leafs played and my dad went once a year for a business conference.

It sounded big and busy but it didn't hold any special attraction.

That changed in 1971 when I got an Actor's Equity Card and Toronto was the place where Canada made most of its television and all of the country's theatres went to look for casts for their plays.

I'd been there for a half a day when I was six and a couple of hours between planes a decade later. I didn't know anybody. Didn't have a clue what it was like.

I fell in love with the place immediately. Mostly because of the people I got to know.

But all cities change. And over time my affection for Toronto changed too. Like all failed marriages, it wasn't any one thing. And not really any blame that could be laid on either side. We just grew apart. Embraced different values. Had different goals. Revised ideas of what would make us happy.

I still love the Leafs. Still read one or two of her newspapers everyday to see how she's doing.

But there's no going back.

And yet, there was a time -- a golden time when it seemed like the perfect place -- a people city.

You can feel the mood of that time perfectly in filmmaker Ed Conroy's documentary of Toronto's "lost anthem" -- the song many of us heard as we switched off the tube and shuffled off to bed. A song that anyone who was there understood implicitly.

Enjoy Your Sunday...

People City: Toronto's Lost Anthem (2017) from Retrontario on Vimeo.


Monday, November 20, 2017

Lazy Sunday # 497: AC/DC


Rock icons are most often shooting stars, burning bright and flaming out quickly. Some endure, of course, their music shifting to fit or influence the eternal ebb and flow of trends and tastes. Few, if any, ride out a full half century doing the same damn thing.

Malcolm Young of AC/DC was one of the latter. He started out rocking hard and never stopped. Overshadowed by the lead guitar of his showy brother and gravel voiced lead singers, hardly anybody who followed the band knew that the guy in the background was the one who wrote all the songs -- and all the infectious riffs.

Malcolm Young's greatest talent was being able to touch something primal inside us and bring both it and those who heard it to life.

AC/DC wasn't a pretty band. It wasn't politically correct or a darling of the critics. But it knew its audience and gave them what they wanted, outselling more highly regarded artists by the tens of millions.

Their 1980 album "Back in Black" sold 50 million copies worldwide, making it the top selling record of any band -- as in -- any -- band.

Much of the credit for that goes to Malcolm Young, who died this week after a long battle with dementia.

As an example of their incredible longevity and appeal, I offer the following song as an example.

"Highway to Hell" was first recorded in 1979. The concert in the video took place thirty years later in 2009. When did you last see 100,000 people rocking out to a song written before they were born.

I have a feeling Malcolm Young's magic will touch their children as well. And their children as well. Like the man said, "Rock n' Roll will never die".

Enjoy Your Sunday.





Monday, November 13, 2017

Lazy Sunday # 496: The Monster Factory



Spoiler alert -- Professional Wrestling is fake. What happens in the wrestling ring isn't real.

Wanna know something else?

Acting is fake. What happens on movie and TV screens isn't real either.

And yet...

Those engaged in staging the latter always seem to dismiss and look down on those who wrestler for a living.

I've always wondered why.

Back in the mists of time, as both streams of entertainment evolved, they each trotted colorful wagons from town to town to find an audience and eke out an existence. Sometimes they even shared the bill and taught each other their skills.

What happened? If you ask me, one got respectable. The other  -- not so much.

Today there are no government grants to train or develop wrestlers, nor to export the culture of wrestling or expand its markets around the world. There are no respected performance spaces built by patrons or responsible city councils. No festival circuits. No seemingly endless awards seasons.

And yet -- wrestlers endure. And prosper at levels that dwarf the money earned in Canada's currently super-heated film and television production centers.

Without ever needing a tax credit to keep them going.

One of my current projects involves wrestling. And this week I set out to find somebody who could train actors to wrestle --and maybe find a couple of wrestlers who could act.

The search took me to rougher parts of town and into worlds where a red carpet just means somebody bled pretty good.

There's a lot in that world that deserves respect. Here's a taste courtesy of filmmaker Tucker Bliss.

Enjoy Your Sunday...
Monster Factory from Tucker Bliss on Vimeo.


Monday, November 06, 2017

Lazy Sunday # 495: Monsoon IV


I grew up in some of the drier places in Canada. The Alberta Badlands. The Great Sandhills of Saskatchewan. I often quip that I was 12 years old before I saw water that wasn't in a glass. And that's not too far a stretch from the truth.

And somewhere around age 12, we moved closer to water. I learned to swim and toyed with the idea of becoming a Marine Biologist despite having not yet seen an ocean. I often quip that I made the University of Saskatchewan swim team because there were few in the student body who could swim. And that's not too far a stretch from the truth either.

The major bonus of coming from dry land is that you look on rain as a kind of natural wonder. It's rare and at times spectacular, such as those Summer nights when it arrives wrapped in lightning and thunder.

Where I live now, it rains a lot. As in pretty much six solid months of the year. So everybody around me bitches about the wet or the lack of sunshine. And I do too sometimes. But mostly I still wonder at water that falls from the sky.

The following is from an American filmmaker named Mike Olbinski who, to my mind, shares my affinity with what goes on in the skies above that can only come from living in a very dry place.

I hope his work is as magical for you -- no matter where you live.

Enjoy Your Sunday.

Monsoon IV (4K) from Mike Olbinski on Vimeo.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Lazy Sunday # 494: Jasper




I was a kid the first time I visited Jasper National Park in Alberta. And I spent most of my time looking for the cartoon bear (pictured above), who was supposed to live there.

Jasper was a regular in Maclean's magazine and several weekly color comic sections at the time and had spawned a massive line of trinkets and toys as cartoon characters are wont to do these days, but was quite unusual for Canadian icons back then. 

A couple of years after that first visit of mine, Jasper was inducted as the Park's official mascot and a statue was erected to him. It still stands today, even though most who are photographed hugging it probably have no idea it's more than just a bear. 

I'm not sure if that's a bad thing, as it may mean those who visit what is, in my opinion, the most beautiful National Park in the country actually spend more time taking in the natural beauty.

There are still a couple of months left in the Canada 150 celebration which comes with free admission to all our parks. And if you haven't availed yourself of that fabulous freebie -- well, what's been keeping you.

If you can get to Jasper, great. If not -- here's a taste of what's waiting for those who do.

Enjoy Your Sunday.

 

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Lazy Sunday # 493: The Days The Music Died



Gord Downie's death this week turned into a national outpouring of grief. We all remembered our favorite "Tragically Hip" song or how'd we'd caught them in a bar one night before they were famous. Every newscast and talk show discussed the local landmarks, arcane hockey moments, regional turns of phrase and national traits mentioned in their lyrics.

For a while there it felt like no politician, athlete or kid on the street was without profound thoughts on the Legacy the music would engender and the change in our collective consciousness that would evolve as a result. 

It made me wonder how much of this was genuine -- given that less than 10% of the country had ever purchased one of the Hip's albums. And far fewer when you consider that the core of any fan base owns all of their favorite band's output.

Not that there's anything shabby about selling just over 5 million copies of anything. And God knows there were Summers and camp grounds where the tunes from their 14 albums were everywhere.

But given that Shania Twain has already sold more than 8 times as many copies of one album  ("Come On Over") alone, how overwrought is this nation going to become when her turn to shake off this mortal coil rolls around? 

"Bobcaygeon" might choke me up personally whenever I hear it. But millions more were/are just as moved by "Whose Bed Have Your Boots Been Under".

Or are the wakes we hold for our pop stars more media generated than genuine? 

Yeah, I know it hurts to lose someone who influenced your formative years. But trust me, I was around when Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison died -- and none of them ever made the front page of any newspaper I picked up or garnered more than a moment of the nightly news.

The tragedies of their passings didn't dominate the zeitgeist and the word "legacy" never crossed anybody's mind beyond hoping people would be a little more careful about what drugs they took.

Still -- like a lot of you I'm sure -- in my sadness, I ventured onto YouTube to re-watch a few of my "Tragically Hip" favorites. And you know how, when you do that, YouTube comes up with a list of other clips you might want to see...?

That list included the one I'm attaching below because a couple of things struck me watching it.

1. Every single star participating in it has passed on. Each of them giants in the industry. 

And...

2. This kind of thing used to turn up on television with regularity -- unprompted by anyone's impending mortality or the need to opine on their context in the grand scheme of things.

Perhaps the innocence of "entertainment" being the point of entertainment is one more thing that we've lost.

Enjoy Your Sunday...



Sunday, October 15, 2017

Lazy Sunday # 492: Walk Off The Earth



The following video was done in a single take -- after six solid days of rehearsal.

Here's Burlington, Ontario band "Walk Off The Earth" proving the reality that we all need to forego
the option to "fix it in post".

Far better to fix it in Prep.

Enjoy Your Sunday...