Burning Down the House

Every so often the city reminds you why you live there and Toronto did this for me this past weekend. Following an afternoon of disc golf out on the island and an evening BBQ on the roof of a downtown condo overlooking the skyline, I headed over to my friend Richard Gilmore’s closing party for his Contact exhibition, Ritual Use of Fire.

It was a fun party, interesting people, a few friends and some great photos. But the evening came to life when we were shepherded out into the alleyway for a demonstration. Out we stumbled into the night where some of the firedancers from the exhibit turned on the heat. A couple of dozen of us watch and applauded, drinks in hand, as the dancers lit up the night swirling the fire about their bodies and often just inches from us. Cabbies stopped and stared as passersby gawked. It was a perfect moment.

All photos courtesy of Richard Gilmore.

Fool's Gold

Woe be unto the Pirates of the Caribbean, whose swashbucklers only managed to pull in $142.1 million over the past four days. While the third installment of the Disney franchise did set a Memorial Day record, over three days it earned less than last summer’s Dead Man’s Chest and brought in less than Spider-Man 3. Only in Hollywood can making well over $100 million in a weekend be seen as a failure.

Pirates has already made $401 million worldwide, which makes it exceedingly hard to swallow studio complaints that piracy is hurting the industry. It makes me want to go out and buy a copy for $2 at a street corner, out of spite.

Of course skewed Hollywood economics are nothing new. What truly bothers me is how the entertainment press has bought into it. Why are box office stories given such huge play? Why am I reading about what how much cash studio bosses are rolling in every week? That is a business story and there is a whole other section for that

I understand that people are interested in what’s No. 1 at the box office (like that’s a good way to choose what film to see), but why is the box office tally the measuring stick? TV ratings measure audience; music charts tally the number of albums sold; bestsellers’ lists track bestsellers. All of these lists are based on audience popularity, which is how movies should be gauged. Why not use ticket sales as the new measure, which would allow year-to-year comparisons that wouldn’t be affected by the ever-inflating ticket prices. Leave the money to the accountants.

May the Force Deja View

Star Wars turns 30 today and the franchise hasn’t aged well. It is bloated, self-important and prone to reinventing itself like some aging hipster. Happy birthday kid, it is time to stop reliving those glory days.

I first saw Star Wars (I will never call it A New Hope) when I was six and like almost every kid that year, I loved it. Spaceships, robots, lightsabers, weird aliens, how could I resist? I had Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader figures, Star Wars sheets and I even convinced my parents to let me wallpaper my room in Star Wars characters.

Thirty years later I still hold these movies up as one of the great film experiences of my life, but I’m done with franchise. When the new films came out I was disappointed in them but I didn’t understand the visceral hate some fans spewed. My nephew was seven when A Phantom Menace was released and he loved it, thought Jar Jar Binks was hilarious nad Padmé Amidala was pretty. Who am I to disagree? What would a 30 year old have thought of the original Star Wars? Would a walking, grunting shag carpet and a beeping garbage can have seemed any less ridiculous?

In any case George Lucas keeps repackaging peoples nostalgia and selling it back to them. Prepare for the deluge around this anniversary. As for me, I’ll show my son the original trilogy – the one where Han Solo shot first – and then watch whatever film becomes his touchstone.

Of course that all being said, I do love a good parody. The stormtrooper COPS parody Troops is one of the best.

Tech Bites Man

Didn’t you love how Heroes wrapped up? How about the Simpsons? Do you think it still has what it takes after 400 episodes? I ask because I have no idea myself, as our PVR decided to give up the ghost over the long weekend, taking my pop culture joys with it.

When we first got the PVR it was a revelation. No longer were we shackled to the primetime grid, it was souped-up VCR that let us watch shows whenever we wanted. Instead of thinking a new episode began at 8pm on a Monday it was now just when a new episode was available for viewing.

But recently the bloom has come off the rose as the machine that let us keep up with multiple serial dramas and reality shows started letting us down. The need for resets came more often and shows got lost in the downtime. It wouldn’t matter so much if the rest of the TV industry caught up to the new reality. So I missed a show – no big deal if I could watch it on demand over the following week. Imbed the ads and disable the fast forward function. I’d accept that as my payment. Or I’d pay for it at iTunes, but the Canadian version doesn’t sell TV shows. It is streaming at Global (the Canadian rebroadcaster) but on a cramped little screen and the NBC site won’t allow non-U.S. viewers.

So what’s a fan supposed to do? It is time to delve into the murky waters of BitTorrents. I’d rather not have to search for what the episode name, number and date of the show I am looking for, or to take the several hours to download what may or may not be the program it claims. I’d prefer to watch it on my big screen when I want to, but I can’t because the networks are still stuck in the box that many viewers have long since broken out of.

DIY, Lo-Fi, Sci-Fi

What if by chewing gum you could eliminate your body odor, cure yourself of cancer and take pictures with your eyes? You’d do it, wouldn’t you? Of course there may be a few side effects, but you don’t need to worry about that now, do you? Open your mouth and say ah!

In Toronto writer and director Jim Munroe’s first feature, Infest Wisely, a chewable nanotechnology gives people who gnaw on the tech some amazing abilities. It also loads them up with a few unadvertised “features” that spread through their bloodstream like a porn virus and are about as easy to uninstall.

Infest Wisely consists of seven 12 minute films all written by Munroe but helmed by separate Toronto directors. While designed to stand alone they can combine, much like the giant 1980s mecha robot Voltron, into a feature length film. Minus all the bad dubbing, of course. Check out the trailer.

The individual episodes will be released as a free download and podcast once a week starting on May 22 but for those who would like to see the project in its entirety there is an advance screening this Friday May 18 at 7pm at the Innis Town Hall. For a mere $5 you become an Infestor and get to see the film on the big screen and help fund its entry into film festivals.

Munro, who turned his back on Harper Collins to peruse self-publishing and other forms of do-it-yourself culture, says the no-budget project came together because everyone donated the resources they could – be it camera skills or props. "Hopefully we'll see more and more people realizing that making indie movies is more achievable now than it has ever been."

(This post was originally written for the Torontoist, where I now occasionally hang my hat.)

Deep Thought

Pop culture, thinking and blogging, are they mutually exclusive? Well I don’t purport to be doing Mensa work here I do hope I’ve added a little to the conversation. So I was pleased to be recognized by a fellow pop culture aficionado, Matt over at Culture Kills, for a Thinking Blogger Award. It’s mostly a meme where you say nice things about other people, but that doesn’t mean I won’t put it on my resume along with my Time Person of the Year cover.

So now it’s my turn to share the love and I figured I would highlight five bloggers who think a little bit more about pop culture than your average episode of Entertainment Tonight.

Nik at Nite
Nik is the only one of my nominees that I know and I’ve always respected her opinions on movies and TV and even though I may resist at first she’s usually right. Except about The Office being funny, of course. Turn to her for great recaps of Lost, Heroes and what ever else she is watching between writing books about them.

Dead Things ON Sticks
Denis also writes about TV, but from an insider perspective. I read him when I want to find out what really happened anytime I see TV stories in traditional media, especially in Canada.

The Gilded Moose
The Moose takes the inanity of celebrity obsessions and taunts it into submission. Makes the whole thing bearable, really. I especially love the breathless coverage of Jake Gyllenhaal.

What Would Tyler Durden Do
For those that believe that the Moose if too kind to celebs, there is Tyler Durden. Harsh, caustic and often laugh out loud funny, Durden is as mean as I want to be but don’t have the heart to be.

Gallery of the Absurd
14 takes all of the above obsessions and turns them into illustrations that cut to the heart of the celebrity condition. Her pictures are worth a thousand gossip posts.

The rules of the award:

1. If, and only if, you get tagged, write a post with links to 5 blogs that make you think.

2. Link to this post so that people can easily find the exact origin of the meme

3. Optional: Proudly display the ‘Thinking Blogger Award’ with a link to the post that you wrote.

The Prisoner

Paris Hilton is a fictional character and I suspect that a cabal of tabloid editors and paparazzi photographers created her to increase sales. The money made off of Hilton would far outweigh whatever they would have to pay an actress to play the character – even if that actress was Paris herself.

With that in mind, I’ve been thinking that Los Angeles County's jailhouse for women isn’t quite enough to hold the likes the world’s scariest socialite. Luckily pop culture presents us more than a few places to place the criminally annoying behind bars.

Springfield Jail
The dregs of Springfield often cool their heels in the town jail – Drederick Tatum, Snake, Sideshow Bob and occasionally Homer Simpson.
Pro: The town occasionally executes petty criminals.
Con: Mayor “Diamond Joe” Quimby will likely pardon her; she could hook up with Sideshow Bob and have an evil genius on her side.

Hazzard County Jail
Celebrities who passed through Hazzard often find themselves in fake speed traps and tossed into the clink by Sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane.
Pro: Hazzard cops will put anyone in jail.
Con: The Hazzard jail is the easiest place in the world to break out of. And we might have to see Paris in a pair of Daisy Dukes. Shudder.

The Phantom Zone
When the criminals of Krypton are sentenced they are sent into a dimension where they exist in form only and float about space starring out of a crystal, for some reason.
Pro: Paris will be shot into space; those who want to could still see her visage and that one facial expression she has.
Con: If she escapes, as they always do, she could come back with superpowers and wreak destruction upon the Earth. More so.

The worst violators of wizarding law are sent to this prison. Paris must be using magic to have so many people fascinated by her.
Pro: The Dementors will feed on her positive memories and force her to relive her worst memories. They may even suck out her soul, if she has one.
Con: Paris likely doesn’t have any positive memories and that feedback would likely destroy the Dementors; Lord Voldemort may recognize her as a kindred spirit and send her into the world to spread disease. Watch out Weasley brothers, she’s a foul temptress.

Oswald State Correctional Facility
Oz is hell on earth, the worst place that anyone could ever find themselves.
Pro: The way most people leave Oz is in a body bag.
Con: Even I would feel guilty about sending Paris to a place like this. Get those fingernails sharpened, they could come in handy.

Praise Canada, Blame Canada

The only thing more unlikely than a sitcom about a community of Muslims in a small Canadian prairie town is said comedy becoming a hit and being sold to a French TV channel.

Soon Parisians, the Swiss and French-speaking Africans will be able to see the dubbed antics of the residents of Mercy, Saskatchewan. The show itself is amusing and genteel, lightly poking fun at the misunderstanding between the locals and a congregation of Muslims who set up a mosque in a church basement. It is not an edgy comedy like some hoped and feared, but an easy-going look at how we’re basically all the same. Aw shucks.

But it is that message that appealed to French broadcaster Canal Plus, who saw the positive message as something that the French ought to hear. "They really feel that, given all of the difficulties that France has had in the past year with diversity issues, that they want as many people to see the show as possible," said Mary Darling of Westwind Pictures, the Toronto-based company that produces Little Mosque, to the Canadian Press.

I don’t know if the show can create the kind of understanding they are hoping for, but it certainly can’t hurt. Racial tolerance is easy, comedy is hard.

Speaking of Canadian imports, not everyone is pleased with the cultural exports of my fellow citizens. Canada is a hotbed of movie piracy, according to Hollywood studios and Warner Bros. is having no more of it – canceling all advance screenings of its films.

Warner prez Dan Fellman says about 70 per cent of its films over the past 18 months have been camcorded illegally while showing in Canada. "If we do previews and promotional screenings and radio promotions, we're going to have a pirated copy around the world before the movie opens in many countries," said Fellman.

I‘m shocked to hear that people were recording at preview screenings as the last few I attended were truly onerous affairs. Your bags were searched before entering the theatre and multiple security guards starred at you with night vision goggles throughout the movie. Of course canceling the screenings will just delay the inevitable by two or three days. Perhaps it is just an admission that these word of mouth campaigns have little value as most people have already heard about new films though online sites. The internet giveth and the internet taketh away.

Electronic Soother

Am I turning my son’s brain into goo? Will he be a TV-addicted couch potato before he can crawl? If so, he won’t be the only one. A new study says children under two are spending as much time in front of the boob tube as on the boob, with 90 per cent of them watching 1.5 hours of TV daily. Even 40 per cent of three-month olds are regular viewers of the box.

This, I’m told, is a bad thing. Both the Canadian and American Pediatric Societies say children under two shouldn’t be watching any television. Too much TV is linked to learning problems, aggressive behaviour and difficulties paying attention later in life. Damn! But it’s so much fun, so what’s a parent to do?

We aren’t plopping Tristan down in front of the tube, but nor do we keep it off while he is on the room. It’s part of our life and I know it will be part of his. I can already see the fascination it has for him — while sitting in his chair he will squirm around to catch a glimpse of the screen or peer over my shoulder to see what is going on. The sound and motion have a considerable draw for him.

I agree that I shouldn’t be using the TV as an electronic babysitter and nor do I think that there is much value in it for him. But I don’t believe, based on no absolutely no knowledge, that these incidental viewing times will be detrimental. I am a child of TV myself and while I may not be curing diseases I figure I came out ok. A little obsessed with pop culture for sure, but none the worse for wear.

The Simple Life: Jail Bait

Paris Hilton, feeling left out of the limelight as all her skanky friends were heading off to rehab, upped the “look at me” stakes by snagging a 45-day jail sentence. Hilton will serve in an all-women prison once inhabited by ragaholic Lost talie Michelle Rodriguez and Daryl Hannah. Nothing but the best for her.

Now that she’s the Lil’ Kim of the socialite set she’ll be thinking about her next career move, post-incarceration. Might I suggest a prison movie:

I Wish Life Were More Like a Video Game

Hey there Popped Culture fans. If you've landed here you clearly aren't averse to taking a little time out to indulge yourself in some rejuvenating nostalgia. Some would call it time wasting — those people are philistines.

Anyway... I was reading Layercake (as you should too) and came across a fabulous collection of game widgets from LabPixies. Space Invaders, memory games, crosswords, music stuff and all sorts of whatnot that you can play on the page and add to you own blog. I could resist, I mean come on, Space Invaders on my own site with no need for quarters? It's all so Futurama:
ND-ND: We're losing ships sir. What are your orders?
LRRR: Increase speed, drop down and reverse direction!

In other news, I wrote my first post for the Torontoist. Fun! Thanks to David Topping for the invite to join his merry crew. Cool city, cool blog, cool beans.

KITT vs. the General Lee

When I was a kid the coolest car in the world was the General Lee from the Dukes of Hazzard. The fiery orange 1969 Dodge Charger helped the Duke boys jump over a myriad of collapsed Hazzard County bridges as they were makin' their way, the only way they knew how. Which, as we know, was just a little bit more than the law would allow. I wanted that car.

Just a few years later came a new challenger to the throne, with a young(ish) David Hasselhoff driving a black Trans Am called KITT (Knight Industries Two Thousand). It was sleek, shiny and oh, so ‘80s. Now I wanted that car – my tastes were so fickle.

Now, for around $700,000 or so I could own them both. A version of KITT is up for sale in California for a mere $149,995. Sadly, as my life isn’t anything at all like a TV show as I expected when I was 12, the car cannot drive at 300mph, isn’t artillery resistant and won’t talk to me in a snooty English accent. But the red light under the front hood still works, so that’s something.

Over on eBay you can pick up a version of the General Lee from none other than Bo Duke himself, Jon Schneider. Current bid is $525,099. This particular model was never on the show as they drove the hell out them, usually destroying a couple per episode, but it was in a Dukes movie and was the prototype for the recent Jessica Simpson revival.

Back in the day I would have happily argued which car was better and which would win in a fight, but in the TV world KITT would win, hands down. But, in what I’m loosely calling real life, I’d put my money on the General. First, nobody should want a Trans-Am unless you are eight or having a mid-life crisis. Second, the Charger is just way cooler and built to bashed about. KITT is probably mostly fiberglass now. Sure, the General has a huge Confederate flag on the roof, but whatcha gonna do?

My plan is to settle this once and for all. Should I win the lottery this week, I am going to buy both of these cars and have them driven into each other at full speed, preferably on some dusty country road. It should be a spectacular crash. It’s what I did with my cars when I was a kid.