Monday, November 29, 2010


Surely you have heard of Leslie Nielson. And please, don't call him Shirley ...
These days Leslie is best know for movies like Airplane where that line was first uttered and for other satires and comedies like the Naked Gun movies
With his deadpan delivery and physical talents, Nielson made a steady living out of these slapstick comedies. But there was a lot more to him that. Like most actors who enjoyed a long career (the man made over 100 movies) his real talent seemed to be that of recreating himself, and recreating his career.

He was a Canadian priarie boy, son of an RCMP officer (which works nicely with his portrayal of a Mountie in the series Due South) who worked steadily in the early days of televison. In 1950 alone, he made over 50 appearances on TV. With his blonde hair and square jaw, he was the prototypical American leading man, most noted for his role as the stalwart spaceship commander in one of the greatest science fiction movies ever made, Forbidden Planet

It was a great movie, and successful, and he followed it up with starring roles in Ransom and Tammy and the Bachelor. He seemed to be on his way to being a romantic leading man but he had conflicts with the studio who held his contract and he left. He returned to television, taking the lead in a couple of Disney productions and co starring in big time TV series such as Hawaii Five O

In the movies, he underwent his first metamorphasis, from romantic leading man to villain. Yes, Leslie Nielson as a bad guy. And a really really good bad guy. A role that sticks out for me is his turn as a corrupt sheriff in Shadow Over Elveron. He still had that square jawed blonde look but he turned in an understated portrayal of evil with a slow fuse burning behind the eyes.

It was one of the reasons why Nielson was so damn effective in Airplane. With fellow TV tough guys Robert Stack and Lloyd Bridges, his dead pan delivery of the ridiculous dialogue was flat out hilarious. And it opened up yet another sea change for Leslie, one that would provide him with his greatest success and carry him through to the end of his career.

He followed up Airplane with the Naked Gun movies and many other comedies. Honestly, I'm not a huge fan of these movies, Airplane stands as a great comedy but it spawned a lot of inferior imitators. But clearly I may be alone in this assessment. Nielson was so successful as a comedian that people now would be surprised that he had a career as a leading man and shocked that he could portray such an effective screen villain.

Nielson was 54 when he made Airplane. At that point he was still working as an actor but was far from being a star. But he became one. He became more popular than at any other point in his career, but exploiting a talent for parody that he had never before been called upon to utilize

Perhaps that is the greatest tribute to him. He was an actor. He disappeared into his role, no matter what it may be. To the point we would forget what he had been before that moment.

He was a Canadian actor who found great success in Hollywood but never forgot his roots. He returned here many times to make shows and share his fame to promote various causes. For many people Leslie Nielson is the ultimate goof ball.

For sure, he laughed all the way to his grave.

Sunday, November 28, 2010


They lamented for loves broken. They celebrated for finding peace out of rage. They railed against broken promises. They delighted in finding bargain store panties ...

They are women singing the blues and this weekend they convened once again to share all these emotions and more at the 24th annual Women's Blues Review in Toronto

As is this case with this event you always get the expected (great music from 6 different performers backed but a kick ass all female band) as well as the unexpected. The unexpected usually takes the form of a new performer. We had that this year but the first surprise were the changes to the band itself

In its long history, this amazing band has had few changes. This year we had a new drummer, Lindsay Beaver (no I'm not making that up) who was both energetic and capable. The biggest change though was the band leader; the last few years that role has been filled with the terrific soloist Suzie Vinnik. This year the role fell to fireball guitarist Donna Granits. Last year Donna appeared on the show as the guitarist for blues belter Shakira S'Aida and it's pretty fair to say she pretty much stole the show. So although we missed Suzie, we were excited to see what this talented young guitar player would bring to the stage, literally

One of the things I love about this show is the diversity. Blues is a kind of big, encompassing terms, like "rock", it covers a lot of musical ground.

Opener Robin Banks is billed as a straight ahead blues belter but there is a lot of old fashioned soul in here delivery, and slight tinge of jazz. Both totally legitimate in the blues lexicon. Many of the women performing as well as band members played jazz in one form or another. I'm quite familiar with Robin and she certainly has legit blues roots; I remember seeing her many years ago at the beginning of her professional musical journey and was charmed by her energy and enthusiasm. This weekend she appeared much more professional, one could even say "slick" still very entertaining but I felt a bit of that charming soul had left her

Charming is certainly a phrase that applies to the performer who calls herself Little Miss Higgins. A wistful performer from the praries who favours gingham dresses and twangy guitar, Miss Higgins is noticeably removed from Robin Banks traditional blues stylings. There is a rich tradition of country blues. The Jimmy Rogers song I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry may not be 12 bar blues, but it certainly is the blues; it may be the saddest song ever written and as several of the evening's performers noted "blues is a feeling" Miss Higgin's songs about rusty tractors and the aforementioned discount undergarments were not sad, but the blues is also about celebration.

There was more than one song devoted to drinking in various forms. The one performer who was new to us, Alejandra Ribero, sang the refrain "let's just get stoned" Really, who could resist.

The blues when they are at their best share this trait with country when it is at its best: Songs of love, of love lost, of lust, of partying, of remorse, of simple joy ... common songs, that evoke common feelings. Universal feelings.

The amazing Alannah Bridgewater, who was Killer Queen in the local production of We Will Rock You, harkened a warm wistful remorse in Georgia On My Mind. Kellyee Evans, even though she was struggling with laryngitis evoked a kind of sensual warmth with her jazzy style

Alejandro Ribero had a unique style, not immediately identifable as blues, not really jazz, but filled with humour and passion, coming across a bit like a female Tom Waits.

Then there was Rita. The incredible Rita Chiarelli, one of our favorites. You get it all with Rita: Passion, humour, grace, grittiness .. Rita is a versatile performer, she has recorded a CD of traditional Italian music, but Rita knows the blues. And brother, can she sing them

Our friend who accompanied us is a music teacher. She enjoyed Rita's raspy, low register voice and her perfectly on key blues shouting but when she began to trade vocal "licks" with Donna's guitar, Rita hit a whole new register and all our friend could say was "Oh, oh my"

Each woman brought her own vision to this thing called the blues. At the end they all united on the stage, joining their varied artistic visions into one whole, uniting the thousands of us gathered in Massey Hall, lifting the roof and lifting our spirits

Keep singing, sisters

Sunday, November 21, 2010


History, that big vast clumsy all encompassing thing, the thing that just is, that just happened, that was simply us living without us worrying if, in the future, it would be all neat and definable or cateorizeable, that thing that we have some compulsion to define and organize ...

Sometimes the past, we find, has indeed already been defined, by the actions and usually the madness of one person.

Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, Ghengis Khan, Cleopatra, Elizabeth I ... all individuals who had remarkable influences on their time; empire builders. Civilizations creators and by the same token, civilization destroyers.

This weekend at the ROM (the Royal Ontario Museum) Collette and I got (kind of) up close and personal with just one of these builder/destroyers

Meet Qin Shi Huangdi, the First Emperor of China. We became aquainted with the Emperor at a an exhibit at the museum that featured pieces excavated from his tomb in China, considered the largest royal burial tomb ever discovered, including members of his famous terracotta warriors
Qin is the individual generally credited with uniting all the nations of China ... his name would be pronounced "Chin" so that gives you some indication. From a collection of smaller, warring kingdoms, Qin made his new nation, which included its first full time professional army, organized systems of trade, currency etc, pretty much out of the force of his own will

And quite a will it was

It was Emperor Qin who started the construction of the Great Wall

He was also responsible for building the subject of the ROM's exhibition, his remarkable tomb. A tomb that was first discovered in the 1970's and is still being excavated at this time. A tomb, that in its entirety, was a a city, complete with buildings, and court and retainers and entertainers and soldiers, all in life size
The army is what is best know today. An army of some 8,000 soldiers complete with armour, real weapons, chariots and horses. All life sized. And each one completely unique, no one the same as the other, all with incredible detail.

The ROM has on display several of these pieces, including two of the nine generals found (so far) in the pits, a couple of horses and several soldiers including this archer

There is a full compliment of archers in the tomb, and they are arranged as they would have been in battle, with a line standing, their crossbows loaded and a line kneeling in front of them, ready to stand and fire so their companions could reload. The level of detail is pretty astonishing. Moving behind the statue, we could see the textured sole of his shoe.

As if the thousands of life sized soldier, horses and chariots weren't enough, Qin's city would not be complete in the afterlife without a full contingent of courtiers and civil officials

These court officials also have remarkable detail. There is a slit in the side of their robe where in real life, they would have their tablet for accounting. Such attention to detail can also be found in the many animals in the tomb, such as the swan that was on display, whose head was titled as if looking up at for a bit of bread.

At the museum we watched a short video about how these thousands of objects were created; each one individually cast and "cooked" via a method that cannot be replicated today. There is much about Qin's tomb that puzzles archeologists. Before the tomb was first discovered in the 70's, many of the descriptions were thought to be preposterous. No one could really conceive of building an entire army out of clay, or equipping them with real weapons, or building huge structures underground ...

There were also descriptions that Qin wanted to mimic nature as well as man made objects. Ancient texts described rivers of mercury to represent actual Chinese rivers. Many scholars dismissed this idea ... until recently, when high mercury levels were recorded underneath the funeral mound

Seeing these objects, especially the beautiful and totally life like statues was impressive. Knowing that are thousands of more just as detailed, just as beautiful, was more impressive. But learning that Qin did all of this, the tomb, the terracotta army, the great wall, the creation of a unified state, in only 15 years ...

It rather boggles the mind. So much, in such a short period of time. Of course, Qin was quite mad or went mad at the end and he was entirely ruthless. Not only characters of clay were entombed down there, so were all his concubines who had not given birth and so were all the artisans, probably why we lost their knowledge.

He was ruthless on many levels and his tremendous conceit of fashioning himself a perfect life sized after life bankrupted the nation and eventually turned his own people upon him. The dynasty that followed Qin, the Han dynasty, learned from his mistakes. Their rulers also buried with them soldiers to take in to the afterlife but they were much smaller and much more modest

Qin must be regarded as one of the greatest empire builders in history. By consolodating the warring kingdoms he actually brought peace and stability to the area. He organized commerce and unified a vast and diversified people. But his arrogance, the very drive that helped him create China, also turned it against him in the long run

Arrogance, madness, vision .. it's all up to interpretation. In less than 20 years the First Emperor created a nation and oversaw the creation of objects that when viewed now, inspire awe.

Soldiers of clay, beautifully preserved. You can no longer see the blood

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