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Sydney Pollack

In honour of the great man himself, I present to you, my review of Sydney Pollack films I was forced to see as a young child; somewhere between the ages of two and twelve.  I believed then, and now, that none of his efforts from 1975-1985 contained anything remotely interesting to a person of my age.  Which raises the question of why my mother would drag me to these things.  I don’t know; it certainly wasn’t for my entertainment.  I would have been happy watching Sesame Street.

The good news is I got revenge by making mom sit through Robocop, Blade Runner, two of the Jaws sequels, and Godzilla 1985.  Oh and one of the mid-90s Pokemon movies, just because.

Three Days of the Condor (1975). Robert Redford is the prehistoric version of a news reader for the CIA, checking books and publications for derring-do ideas that the agency might later put to good use.  Or uh, bad use, since this is the 70s, and we all know American government agencies in the 70s are always doing the exact opposite of whatever their lawful chartering legislation requires.  Redford reads something interesting in a pulpy novel one day, goes to lunch, and when he comes back, his department is uh… right-sized with .45cal severance packages.  Redford gets in touch with seniors bureaucrats at CIA, thinking he is in danger, but they try to off him too.  Eventually he holds a woman (Faye Dunaway) hostage and the woman, instead of thinking he is a dangerous psychopath with paranoid delusions, buys into his unlikely story and helps him.

  • Number of screenings: Two as a child.  I don’t understand how that happened because it was rated “R”.  Tried to watch 20 minutes as an adult and failed.
  • What I got out of it: This one was honestly confusing because I did not believe then (and really do not to believe now) that the government was prepared to gun down its own (expensive and time-consuming to train) academics on the off chance they had stumbled upon a secret war plan.  Kids are not readily inclined to accept things like trading loyalty for money.  If only Redford’s character had waited ten years and read Hunt for Red October, instead of a war-for-oiiiiiil conspiracy thriller.  By the way, how many CIA study groups were unceremoniously gunned down at their place of work in March of 2003?  Just asking.

The Electric Horseman (1979). A washed-up five-time rodeo champ (Robert Redford, again) is recruited to sell breakfast cereals for a sinister megacorp.  The horse he is supposed to ride for these ads is a former racehorse, now injured, and it has to be drugged to get it on stage.  Apparently it doesn’t handle the hustle-bustle of cereal promotion very well.  Redford the rodeo champ decides this is too cruel a fate for such a majestic animal.  He steals said horse to release it into the wild, leading the authorities on an extremely athletic (for the horse!) cross-country chase.

The whole “riding the horse to exhaustion across a continent to save it from occasional sedation and use in commercials” storyline didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me.  You may be surprised to learn that it (according to IMDB) is almost kinda sorta based on a real incident:

This movie was inspired by a case where “The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour” (1971) invited Penny Chenery in 1973 to bring her horse, the legendary Triple Crown winner Secretariat to appear on the show. Chenery, knowing her horse wouldn’t care for a TV studio, declined.

A lot of 1970s paranoia movies seem to be derived from the basic concept of “Let’s imagine a scenario where somebody suggests an arbitrarily stupid idea, and instead of common sense ruling the day (as it did in real life), they make the stupid idea real!”  I am inclined to believe that most of these projects got greenlit because the studio execs were using powerful hallucinogenic controlled substances.

  • Number of screenings: Two as a child, none as an adult.
  • Not shown: The released racehorse, not having any concept of how to fend for itself or socialise with a wild herd, succumbing to predators or disease in the wild.  Also not shown: the Electric Horseman having to pony up a few million bucks in damages for the theft of the horse, plus damages to assorted law enforcement vehicles and personnel along the way.
  • What I got out of it: I remember that the electric cowboy outfit seemed cool.  That would have made a wicked Halloween costume.  Don’t know how many cereal boxes it would have sold.  I didn’t know the names of any rodeo champs at the age of six, so it seems like an odd thing to use as a marketing tool.  Did they run out of ballplayer or cartoon character endorsements?

Tootsie (1982): A washed-up actor (Dustin Hoffman) can’t get any acting gigs, so he decides to play drag queen and lands a leading role on a daytime soap opera.  Unfortunately all his male co-stars end up falling in love with him, and of course he can’t blow the scam by going after his female co-stars (Jessica Lange and Teri Garr) either.

This is probably the only one of Pollack’s flicks that did not require my childhood brain to try and grasp the minutiae of current events or the alleged nefarious doings of a secret government agency.  At the time I recall this film being the most enjoyable of a bad lot, but not nearly enjoyable enough to warrant a second viewing.

  • Number of screenings: One as a child, none as an adult.
  • Most inexplicable plot hole: As if Jessica Lange would ever consider dating Dustin Hoffman.  When this movie was released, she had shacked up with Sam Shepard, the future cinematic Chuck Fargin’ Yeager.  Sam Shepard has more cool in his toenail clippings than Dustin Hoffman has in every fibre of his being.
  • What I got out of it: Cross-dressing as a career advancement strategy seems like more trouble than it’s worth.  As Dennis Rodman later proved.

Out of Africa (1985): Danish woman (Meryl Streep) assents to marriage of convenience to titled Swedish cousin, tries to start plantation in Kenya.  Ends up getting VD, a failed marriage, and an on-again, off-again affair with an American aviator (Robert Effin’ Redford) with commitment issues.  The actual person portrayed by Redford was British, but surprise surprise, a realistic accent is beyond the realm of the possible for this gifted thespian.

  • Number of screenings: At least four as a child; none of those were my idea, obviously.  One as an adult.  Love the cinematography but that’s it.
  • What I got out of it: The savannahs of eastern Africa are incredibly beautiful and flying biplanes over vast animal herds is fun.  Having Meryl Streep as a love interest is not.  Also actual wild lions hanging around your grave site is cool.  Mental note:  Provide funding for airlift of lions to local cemetary.

Also as a result of my pint-sized movie critic career, I have decided that Robert Redford is the winner of the All-Time Kick in the Pants Award.  When I die I am going to provide funding for random strangers to kick him or his heirs in the nads, in perpetuity.  Meryl Streep would have won that award for Kramer vs. Kramer (another overwrought drama seen two or three times in early childhood), but she redeemed herself with a hilarious portrayal of Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada.

If you or your heirs would like to apply for the role of Redford nad-kicker, enlist in the comments below.  Don’t think that you’ll be getting free money either, because although I’ll be dead, I’ll be keeping an eye on you to be sure that you do the job.  Anything worth doing is worth doing right.

Category: Ars Gratia Artis  Tags: , ,  Comments off

To lower or not lower the flag

I think it is nice of officialdom to want to grace our honoured dead with ceremonial recognition, but lowering the flag on the tallest point of the federal Parliament Buildings is not a terrific idea.

First, soldiers are generally big on tradition.  It is inculculated in them through the countless greater and lesser traditions woven into the fabric of military life.  To be blunt, if you have problems with the regular observance of ceremony and tradition, then the military life is definitively not for you.  One of Parliament’s long-standing traditions is that the Peace Tower flag gets lowered only for the death of the Sovereign (or a member of Her family), the current and former governor-general, prime minister, chief justice of the Supreme Court, lieutenant-governors, current members of Parliament, senators and privy councillors.

Recently, we have breached this tradition by adding other days to the roster, and the possibility exists that this gesture will become devalued by overuse.  Kind of like how gold credit cards once represented premium customers, but now lack all snob cachet because they became too common.  Eventually they were superseded in snob appeal by platinum cards, which are also now very common, and now black cards are the mark of the truly exceptional credit risks.  Or at least they are until everyone has one.  Start handing out the exclusive honours to everybody and sooner or later they stop being exclusive, or an honour.  And when we are talking about national honours and not mere credit cards, it becomes a tragedy.

Second, it is a transitory gesture.  Lowering the flag is a mark of honour and respect, yes, but it is low-cost and entirely temporary.  There is no sacrifice on the part of the public.  Not unlike those little fabric ribbons that proliferated in the ’90s for a multitude of causes most of us can’t remember.  You wear them for a week and then toss them in the garbage, and five or ten years later you’ve completely forgotten those little ribbons ever existed.  The men and women who die under arms in the service of this country deserve something permanent that demands a little effort and exertion from those of us at home.  Like an enormous old-school bronze-and-stone monument placed prominently on public property.

I am not the world’s foremost expert on Canadian contributions to the Boer War, but I pass a memorial to it on a semi-regular basis.  It is readily apparent to me, from the prominence of that memorial—in the median of University Avenue—that 1) this city sent forth a worthy contingent of her sons, and 2) the citizens honoured that sacrifice and wanted future generations to honour it as well.  You want to honour the dead who gave their all?  Start collecting money for a permanent memorial.  Lowering flags is great but all too ephemeral.

Third, I have a sneaking suspicion that politicians of all stripes are inherently craven and lazy, and checking the flag on the Peace Tower is an easy way for them to figure out whether there’s a death going on they can score political points from.  That is not its purpose.  You want to score points, read the papers and learn the names of the dead soldiers.  Read about what they did and then decide if you want to play politics with it.

As worthy as it is, I do not want the most notable memorial to our war dead to be the lowering of the flag on the Peace Tower.  They deserve something a little grander that will speak to us and our future generations.

Category: Amor Patriae, National Defence  Tags: ,  Comments off

It’s Always Year Zero in Canada

Premier Dalton McGuinty is going to consider the appeals of those who want to rename the Kingston-to-Toronto section of the King’s Highway No. 401 as the “Highway of Heroes“.

While I’m all for honouring our war dead, this is a profoundly stupid idea.  The highway already has a name—it’s called the Macdonald-Cartier Freeway, after the two most famous Fathers of Confederation, Sir John Alexander Macdonald and Sir George-Étienne Cartier.  There’s frickin’ signs all over it to that effect—or at least there were, before we decided that maintaining history wasn’t worth the effort.

It’s bad enough that the nation and province intentionally raise our children to be cultural and historical amnesiacs.  Have we learned nothing from the last time a political buffoon decided to rename a Canadian landmark with a more hip, contemporary name that the kids might know?

Macdonald and Cartier may be forgotten to us now, but without their efforts, we would not have the nation that we enjoy today.  Slapping new names on already-designated landmarks is cheap, shoddy and shameful.  You may as well scrape the dates and inscription off of our enormous Boer War memorial and rededicate it to a more recent conflict.  After all, there are no surviving veterans, and what schoolkid today cares about the Boers or the geopolitics of the former British Empire?  Only 8,600 Canadians served, and 277 died—and their memorial is grander than Old City Hall’s cenotaph memorialising the two World Wars and Korea.  Who’s going to care?  What’s the big deal?

The manner and method in which a society honours the achievements and sacrifice of its sons and daughters is important.  The success or failure to maintain their legacy says a lot about the regard that successive generations hold for them.  In a hundred and fifty years’ time, no one will recall why we gave the “Highway of Heroes” its name.  And some retard will eventually want to rename it to honour something more contemporary.

I don’t think our soldiers, sailors or airmen would appreciate that very much.  You want to honour them?  Put up a huge memorial along the original “Highway of Heroes” — University Avenue.  It is the route to the Legislature, the location of the demolished University Avenue Armouries, and the home of many of our larger memorials to wars and public figures.  It was, in a very real sense, conceived to be the province’s epic, memorial thoroughfare from the outset.

But please, for the love of God, get an architect that knows how to properly honour those who served.  Nothing facile and meaningless like this.

Christiana Hendrix, 1974-2007

A wife of noble character who can find?
She is worth far more than rubies.

Her husband has full confidence in her
and lacks nothing of value.

She brings him good, not harm,
all the days of her life.

Proverbs XXXI, 10-12. NIV.

One of the greatest joys I have found in this life is a kindred spirit with whom to share the long journey.  Mike Hendrix, editor of Cold Fury, had similarly found a kindred spirit in his wife Christiana.  I have never met Mike, and commented only infrequently on his blog, but his was one of the first conservative blogs I ever encountered, along with NRO‘s Corner, JunkYardBlog, and Toronto’s own Ghost of a flea.  Although I’ve remained largely invisible there, over the years I continued to read Cold Fury a couple of times a week, and today Mike’s readers have learned that his dear wife passed away on Friday afternoon.

Somewhere in your thoughts today, spare a moment of prayer for Mike and his family.

Category: Miscellania  Tags:  Comments off

Cenotaph, Sault Ste. Marie


From little towns, in a far land, we came,

To save our honour and a world aflame;

By little towns, in a far land, we sleep,

And trust those things we won

To you to keep.

— Rudyard Kipling, 1925
Inscription on Cenotaph
426 Queen Street East, Sault Ste. Marie

Designed by Alfred Howell, unveiled in 1925.  Inscription by Rudyard Kipling, commemorating the 350 persons from this city who died in the Great War.  The bronze statuary of the memorial portrays War as a crouching male under a shield of Right, represented by a draped female holding a sword and a sprig of maple leaves.

Inscription via Steve at Canoe, Hunt, Fish, and Fly, by Otter.  Photo from sjgardiner‘s Flickr stream.

Category: Historica  Tags: ,  Comments off

If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.


Imagine that, five years from now, the Canadian government launches a successful initiative to change our national flag from its current maple leaf banner to something else.  Further imagine that you, or someone near to you, served in the Canadian Forces and died under the old maple leaf flag in a place like Cyprus, Lebanon, Bosnia-Herzegovina or Afghanistan.  The government erects a monument to those who served and died in these places, and on the anniversary of their death, declines to fly the maple leaf flag they fought under.  The flag that was sewn onto the shoulders of their uniforms, flew from their ships, and was painted on the tails of their aircraft.  Instead, it decides that only the new flag must be flown from the memorial — a flag that those who died had never even seen or imagined.

Sound farfetched?  Unfortunately, it is exactly what the Government of Canada would like to do to our Vimy Ridge casualties and veterans of the Great War.

OTTAWA — It’s the flag the Canadians carried into battle when they captured Vimy Ridge in 1917. And it’s the flag that should be flying next month when thousands assemble at the Canadian National Vimy Memorial on April 9 for the unveiling of the restored monument while marking the 90th anniversary of the battle, say members of a campaign to get the Red Ensign to Vimy Ridge for the ceremony.

The Red Ensign was also there in 1936 when the monument was unveiled for the first time, said Ottawa resident John Heyes, a retired civil servant who has been lobbying to have a version of the historic flag taken to France in April.  Photos from the unveiling show the front of the monument draped in a large Red Ensign.

Heyes and Bill Bishop, a maintenance worker in Maple Ridge, B.C., who has written hundreds of letters advocating for a stronger presence for the old flag, don’t expect the Maple Leaf, which Canada adopted as its flag 42 years ago, to take a back seat to the Red Ensign – they think both should be flown.

…In fact, Veterans Affairs has told Bishop and Heyes, who both had grandfathers who fought in the First World War, there is no plan to fly the Red Ensign flag at Vimy.

The ceremony is a Canadian government event and will therefore feature only the Maple Leaf, they were told. Robert Mercer, the assistant deputy minister who is co-ordinating the event, did promise, however, to have a Red Ensign at the visitor’s centre so people can see the flag under which the Canadians fought and, in 3,598 cases at Vimy, died.

— Jennifer Campbell, “Vets call for Red Ensign to fly at Vimy Ridge“.  CanWest News Service / Ottawa Citizen, 19 March 2007.  [Emphasis mine]

The federal bureaucracy, not surprisingly, sees nothing wrong with this decision.  More insultingly, a University of Calgary professor of history blames our poor deluded servicemen (and women) for not knowing that the Canadian Red Ensign was a temporary symbol and not, presumably, worth fighting for or remembering at this late date.

But Veterans Affairs cited a governmental protocol that allows no other flag than the Maple Leaf to fly on federal property. The land on which the Vimy Memorial was build was donated to Canada by France.

“We know where the veterans are coming from . . . but we have to follow protocol,” said Janice Summerby, a spokeswoman for Veterans Affairs.

Many Canadian soldiers who went into battles in the two world wars under the Red Ensign are not willing to give up their standard, veterans’ advocates said.

And the latest debate has laid bare an old wound with veterans, while dividing historians, experts on both sides said.

A lot of veterans are actually saying, ‘when I am buried I want the Red Ensign [draped] over my coffin,’ ” said Dianne Crompton, president of the Royal Canadian Legion Branch 486.

But at least one historian would like to see that debate buried in the annals of history. David Bercuson, of the University of Calgary, said the Red Ensign was only adopted with the understanding that it was to be replaced by a permanent standard.

“The ensign was never an official flag,” Prof. Bercuson said. “We left that behind 42 years ago and I don’t see why anybody would want to revisit that.

— Alex Dobrota, “With what flag should we honour Vimy Ridge?“.  Globe & Mail, 20 March 2007.  [Emphasis mine]

Because a professor of history is qualified to determine how veterans should be honoured and their last wishes carried out, much more so than the veterans themselves.  Friend and fellow Anglophile The Flea strikes exactly the right tone in response:

Jean-François Lyotard has described the phenomenon as “memorial-forgetful history”. The monuments reminding us never to forget are often put to the purpose of a grand selective remembrance more effective than trying to cram the whole lot down the Memory Hole.  A case in point is a response to veterans’ pleas to fly the Canadian Red Ensign at the National Vimy Memorial next month (hat tip to Babbling Brooks).   The answer? Couldn’t possibly, says some mouth-piece of the Canadian government. This is a “Canadian government event” and so the Liberal goatse banner must take pride of place. Let us be clear: We are meant to believe the forthcoming ceremony at Vimy is a government event, not a veterans event. It would not do to memorialize the ideals men fought for under the Red Ensign. These are to be erased and replaced by whatever passes for meaning amongst the mandarins of Canada’s eurocracy.

Ghost of a Flea, “Sweepers, man your brooms“, 21 March 2007.  [Emphasis mine, links preserved from original]

Exactly right.  The memorial was erected in memory of those who served and those who died.  It is their memorial, and services on the battle’s anniversary honour the living and dead Canadian veterans of that battle (and the Great War).  This event is in honour of them, not the government.  Honouring the men and women who moved to the sound of the guns and put it all on the line.

Fortunately, Canada has remembered herself.

OTTAWA — Prime Minister Stephen Harper has requested the Red Ensign flag fly at Vimy Ridge ceremonies next month, The Globe and Mail has learned.

Mr. Harper told his cabinet ministers yesterday that he wanted both the Red Ensign and the Maple Leaf hoisted in Vimy, France, at the 90th anniversary of the First World War battle, sources close to the Prime
Minister said.

“He said, ‘The Red Ensign of 1917 will fly over Vimy,’ ” one source told The Globe.

The decision was hailed as a victory by veterans’ groups and advocates, who have been lobbying Ottawa to have the historical ensign displayed over the Canadian National Vimy Memorial.

— Alex Dobrota, “Harper wants Red Ensign to fly at Vimy, sources say“.  Globe & Mail, 21 March 2007.

Thank you, Prime Minister Stephen Harper.  On behalf of those who have, and will, give their lives for this country — under all of her flags.

(Big hat tip to Babbling Brooks, Quotulatiousness, and Ghost of a Flea for keeping the spotlight on this.)

UPDATE 212023Z MAR 2007: This reminds me of why I like the City of Toronto’s civic war veterans’ colour guard at City Hall’s Remembrance Day ceremonies.  Not only do they carry the national flag, provincial flag, and city flag — but they also carry the Royal Union flag, the Canadian Red Ensign, and the pre-amalgamation service ensigns of the Canadian Army, Royal Canadian Navy and Royal Canadian Air Force.

Remembrance Day 2006

Remembrance_Day_2006_smMy wife and I attended Saturday’s Remembrance Day ceremonies at the Old City Hall cenotaph.  My photos have been posted to a Flickr set.  I apologize in advance for the fuzziness of some photos; I think my hands were a little shaky because I misjudged the temperature and left the scarf and gloves at home.