Monday, February 27, 2012


From the Yucatan Peninsula to the tip of Belize, the great cities slept for centuries in the embrace of the jungle. Temples made with stairs so steep one is forced to bow one's head in contrition as you ascended to where the priests awaited; office building with narrow corridors and notched doorways where clerks calculated the wealth of their city states; giant stellae that depicted warriors and kings and gods that were born from the bowels of animals. This is the world of the Maya, as presented in a current exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto.
The exhibit features artifacts and displays from the classical period of the Maya, roughly from 250 to 900 BC (which is the politically correct way of saying AD). This was the Mayan culture at its apex, represented by a series of independent city states some of which, like Tikal in present day Guatemala, boasted a population of around 92,000. It was a period of high art and commerce, pyramid building, commerce and war
The ROM exhibit features some 250 artifacts principally from sites in Mexico and Belize. As always there are mundane objects such as incense burners and clay vessels but the art work on these pieces is stunning, not only in artistic style but for the rich and deep mythology that they depict.
The vessel lid above depicts a jaguar but for the Mayas this was much more than just an animal; the power of this animal was so respected that it was believed that the Sun god took on this animal form as he journeyed across the night sky. The lid shows the sun god being born out of the belly of the jaguar. This is a constant theme in Mayan mythology; men and gods coming out of the natural world, as if trying to harness that energy in the temporal world.

Above, this monkey is holding cacao pods, used of course to make chocolate. The Mayans cultivated chocolate, perhaps the greatest indication of their advanced civilization.

Probably today the Mayan are best known for two aspects: Sacrifice and their calendar. Although the Mayans did indeed sacrifice humans and not just for religious reasons. These city states (the Mayans were never unified under one ruler which may one reason for their collapse) were constantly at war with each other; hostages were taken and sometimes sacrificed not just for religious reasons but for political ones.

Below is a stella from the city of Tonina (Mexico) depicting the capture of the King of Palenque, another Mexican city. This action seemed to plunge Palenque into disarray but this king, K'inich, reappears in that city years later

Of course, the Mayans did not spill blood in only the name of war. They believed in giving blood to their gods for their prosperity, to encourage the growth of crops, for all the reasons ancient cultures made sacrifices to their gods. It was the blood that seemed important so that blood letting was more frequently practised than actual sacrifice. This practise is known as autosacrifice; people from all social strata would pierce their eyes, thighs, arms, tongues and penis (allow me a deep deep shudder here) using a device as pictured below; a stingray spine, this one covered with text
One thing I always love about museum exhibits is learning something new, even about topic with which I have some familiarity. Artifacts have been discovered that focuses on the role of women in the ruling structure of Mayan cities. It's true that the vast majority of Mayan rulers were men but some women did enjoy a very elevated status and considerable power in the Classical culture. Generally if women ruled it was during times of turmoil, if a king died without an heir for instance. This panel below depicts a woman wearing the jade jewelry and head dress of a ruler; it is from the city of El Cayo, which was subordinate to the state of Piedras Negras. Likely this woman was the wife of El Cayo's govenor but she would have enjoyed an equal amount of power

Before I end this post I want to address a part of the exhibit that addresses one of the aspects of Mayan culture that has recently fascinated so many people: Their calendars. The Mayans, often credited with inventing the numerical concept of "zero" created very advanced and detailed calendars.

Their calendars were comprised of two parts: The Calendar Round and the Long Count. The Calendar Round recorded two cycles: a 260 day cycle that noted ritually significant days and a 365 day cycle that denoted more day to day events. These cycles were combined to provide an interpretation of days and events that covered a 52 year long cycle. The Long Count calendar tracked these 52 year long cycles from the date of August 13 3114 BCE, the date on which the Mayans believed that the earth was created ... These people had to have an precise date for when the earth was created; can we say anal retentive?

Since the Mayan recorded the date of the Earth's creation did they, as many believe, predict a date for when it would end? The last of the long count cycles is interpreted as being December 23, 2012. Were they predicting the end of the world? A stella indicates that something would indeed happen on that day, one of the gods of the underworld would appear. But the stella is incomplete, parts of it have been worn away, and gods are routinely associated with specific dates in the Long Count.

Much is made that the calendar ends on that date. But glyphs have been discovered that project dates beyond December 2012, it is the calendar that ends. A calendar that predicts the future but was, of course, written far in our past. Written during the period that saw the collapse of the Mayan culture; a time when cities were being abandoned, religion was dissolving and rulers were fading from importance. It seems likely that the reason the calendar ends on that date is simply because the Mayans were giving up on predicting the future; their world was collapsing and they were moving away from the cities to begin a new chapter in their culture.

Below is a stella incised with the last Long Count date.

The Mayan empire (a loose term because there was never a really unified empire) dissolved but the people are not. Mayans are alive today in the Americas, their culture has changed but their genetic heritage remains. Collette and I experienced that heritage many years ago when we visited Belize. One of our guides was a very proud Mayan, very much alive and kicking. He showed us several of the ruins of the Mayan cities including Altan Ha, one of the cities featured in the ROM exhibit.

A note about this video: This is very old footage, shot with an S-VHS-C camcorder (yes Virginnia, once upon a time we recorded video on tapes) and it's a fine example how much video technology has improved; it ain't that great. Still, I wanted to show a bit about these remarkable ruins, many of them excavated by Canadian archeologists; from the temples of Altan Ha to the royal office structures of Cahal Pech.

Sunday, February 26, 2012


The horse is running. It is dark and the place is strange and dark clouds hug the ground and there is thunder and lightning and the wire that hurts .. The place is No Man's Land in France during World War I; the thunder is artillery the lightning muzzle flashes, the wire is barbed ... The horse is Joey, trying to race to home and freedom. He is the War Horse
This weekend Collette and I saw the Mirvish Theatre production of War Horse at the Princess of Whales Theatre. This is the play based upon the children's book by Michael Morpurgo and upon which the Steven Spielberg film is based. We have not seen the movie because we knew we would be seeing the play. After all, the stage play predates the movie.
Due to the publicity surrounding the movie I was familiar with the subject matter of the movie: A young man's horse is "drafted" into the British calvary during World War I and he joins the army to get the horse back. Horses were indeed used during World War I, the last time calvaries of any sized were used in a martial conflict. Like the war itself it was a terrible waste, as horses struggled against barbed wire, machine guns and tanks
The war horse is called Joey and he is a major character in the story. He is not Disneyfied, he does not have a voice but by his actions and the reactions of the humans who meet him, we get to know Joey's character and we come to love him.
Albert is the British farm boy who comes to own Joey; it is a relationship that never should have happened. Joey is a hunter, a riding horse, useless on a farm so in order to keep him, Albert teaches Joey how to wear a harness and pull a plow, a skill that later becomes useful. But through circumstance Joey is sold to an officer in the British army and shipped to France. This happens at the beginning of the war and Joey is assured that Joey will be returned to him "in a few months" Of course this does not happen and both Joey and Albert go on a series of adventures that test their courage and affect the lives of civilians and soldiers alike
Like any contemporary stage production, the story of War Horse is told using a variety of techniques. The play is not a musical but two Celtic musicians, women, appear on stage with violin and accordian and use what appear to be period songs to add to the story; they are like the play's Greek chorus and the voice of Tatjana Cornij  sometimes floats across the theatre filled with longing and sadness and emotion. The play opens with the Tatjana and her fellow musician Melanie Doane as they sing a refrain about people being remembered by their deeds; the entire company appears out of the shadows to join in the singing and we meet Joey as a foal, and the officer who would one day ride him, sketching the Devonshire countryside.
I can't talk about War Horse without talking about they horses. They are puppets, manipulated by a team of puppeteers, two of whom work inside the shell. One person operates the head, bending the neck, twitching the ears, shaking the mane. They are wonderful and wonderfully performed. In that way that good theatre can operate, you soon forget the people and see only the horse.
War Horse is an anti war story in the best possible way; there are no speeches on the evil of war, we are just presented with the evidence thereof; families torn apart, young man left bleeding on battle fields, horses charged into machine gun fire, horses dying.
Most of the story is told from the point of view of British characters but we also see it from the eyes of French peasants whose land is destroyed and through the eyes of a German officer, Freidrich, whose love for horses and hatred of senseless death leads him to make a radical decision. Partick Galligan imparts this character with humour, pathos and a weary desperation at the insanity of it all
This, is of course, an emotional play. It is the love story of a boy and a animal companion and it is a story of how humans and horses alike are used up and destroyed by political powers beyond their understanding. Albert and Joey and Friedrich become heroes through circumstance; they are all travellers caught up in a nightmare journey, all of them just want to go home and their single minded desire to do so lead them to perform feats that others see as heroic.

All of the stage production works here: From the horse and animal puppets (there is a white farm goose that is funny and terrifying in the ways only a farm goose could be), to the lighting and smoke effects that recreate the hallucinogenic effects of battle, to the scary and surreal tank, to the sound design which included the beautiful music as well as the wickering and screaming of the horses, to a backsplash screen that helped establish location and time ... it is all masterfully done. At times the staging and characters break off the stage into the audience; at one point one of the singers appeared in our balcony and a group of soldiers were staged at the front of the auditorium, just below the stage to represent troops in their trenches.
There is a symmetry to the story which I always appreciated. Part of that comes from story points, such as Joey's plowing skills serving him later as well as the music, with the play closing with the same song which it opened. In many ways it is a tragedy; people and horses die, their lives wasted, worlds and relationships are torn asunder .. but some constants remain: Love of family, bonding friends and comrades and the promise of a boy to his horse, made on the fields of England and cemented in the trenches of France.
Each of them embark on a journey, both of them lose much but gain much more, both of them find their courage, and both of them come home

Monday, February 20, 2012


The dojo is easy to miss. It is a small, modest building, standing off by itself in this little ghost town located at the end of long narrow dirt road in Utah's Monument Valley. 

The town has no name, there are no signs or route markers indicating its existence; if you did not know it was here, you would never find it. When you do find it you are still not sure that it exists, that it is what you think it is, that perhaps everything you heard was myth, was legend, and that this really is not the lost dojo of Marion Morrison.

The door creeks as you push it open, dust rising from the floor as you see a few strands that are remnants of the dojo's tatami matts. On the walls there fragments of framed photo's, pictures of the great master's students: Jimmy Steward, to whom sensei taught the Spur to the Groin strike; Marilyn Monroe who mastered the deadly Double Boob Face Mash; Dean Martin who of course was the original Drunken Master and Ursula Andress master of the Full Frontal Naked Choke ...

The Master's legend has faded a bit with time but there are those who keep his memory alive, acolytes all but hidden now, spreading word of his prowess person to person so that although his memory may fade, Duke Sensei's legacy will never totally be forgotten.

As you stand in the small space, redolent with sweat and effort and all the mystery of the martial arts, the words of Sensei Duke seem to ring in your ears .. "Wax on, wax off, Pilgrim"

John Wayne, Karate Master ... urban myth or fact? I consider myself a big fan of the Duke but I've recently learned that there may be parts of the actor's life of which I was totally unaware. I knew that he was a collegiate football player and that he developed into a pretty effective movie stunt man ... but martial arts? That was a new one for me

But then Collette relayed to me the mystery, not only was John Wayne a Karate Master he was a sensei, a teacher of the arts and his most famous student ... Jackie Chan. Yes, John Wayne taught karate to Jackie Chan.

Collette actually learned the truth behind the man from a couple of her grade 4 boys. She overheard one young fella telling the other "John Wayne is really cool!" That stopped her in her tracks... John Wayne is not really a movie star one expects to hear contemporary kids discussing.

Of course she had to ask the young man why John Wayne was cool.  His answer: John Wayne taught Jackie Chan karate.

It took me a while to delineate this dubious mythology. Jackie Chan made a comedy kung fu western called Shanghai Knights. Loosely based on an older Asian movie called Shanghai Joe (which also served as the base for David Carridine's TV series Kung Fu) it follows a faithful Chinese guard (Chan) as he travels to Old West America to rescue a princess.

 In the course of a story Chan meets a charming outlaw as portrayed Owen Wilson. Chan introduces himself as Chon Wang in his heavy accent. Wilson responds "John Wayne? That's a terrible name for a cowboy"

So, when the two boys were discussing the new version of the movie Karate Kid, the one lad thought no one could beat Jackie Chan in a fight whereas his friend assured him that John Wayne could, as it was John who taught Jackie everything he knows

And thusly, the lengend of John Wayne, karate master was created. Sensei Duke, the man who taught Jackie Chan karate.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012


Are we lost?

As a society, a culture, have we lost our rudder?

We move forward so quickly, everything there at the tips of fingers or the blink of our eyes, we are connected, we can communicate across the world instantly, virtually wherever and whenever we so choose ...

But we are lost.

We seem to have lost our traditions. Our rituals. At least here in our modern, connected world. We move forward, we move quickly, we are careless of what we leave behind. We can move fast, perhaps we have ripped away our roots.

Information has never been so available. We have access. We grab information on our computers, our phones, our TV screens. There is so much of it now. Even in my life time it has multiplied so much I find it difficult to calculate.

But what have we left behind.

Tonight on TV I saw footage of the hearse carrying Whitney Houston's body pulling into the building which will host her funeral. There were hundreds, maybe more, people gathered there to watch. They were cheering. They were applauding. They were mugging for the news cameras.

Are we lost

Monday, February 6, 2012


Do you know those kinds of movies, movies that you enjoy but you may be hesitant to recommend that someone watch. I'm always cautious recommending movies to people, everyone has different tastes and even when I can clearly determine if a movie is "good" or "bad" (as opposed to "I liked it" or "didn't like" it) I think it's quite arrogant to assume that just because you have a definition of good that everyone else should share it.

But all things being subjective, I will recommend films that I feel are good or that I feel may agree with a certain person's esthetic. I like action movies and while I am no fan of violence per se, I can accept fake movie violence if everything else in the film meshes; but I know some people are never comfortable with stage blood no matter how it is presented, so to those people I would never recommend The Expendables, a movie I considered a comedy but others would consider too violent.

Having said all that, there are still a few movies that I hesitate to recommend to people because, no matter how much I might like them, they're just weird.

This train of thought was set on the track by a movie I've seen in the past and recently purchased on DVD:

THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU was a movie from 2004 directed by Wes Anderson and starring Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Jeff Goldblum and many others.
The film is packaged as a comedy and it has its share of obvious laughs but it is a lot more than that. Or at any rate the comedy is different from what is normally shoved down our throats. Murray plays Steve Zissou, a Cousteau-like underwater film maker whose glory days are all behind him and who sets out to recapture that glory by capturing a mythical shark that killed his partner.
Murray, along with John Cleese, is one of the most hilarious men on the planet but here he is at his dead pan best and much of the film's humour is understated, or barely suggested. Much of the antics of Steve and his crew, on paper, could be described as madcap but the acting and Anderson's direction delivers it all so dryly, so matter of factly, that it comes across as just plain odd.
There are many strange touches: A character who may or not be Zissou's son depending on the reaction of other characters, a soundtrack that is comprised of David Bowie songs performed in Portugese ... there is confusion, action, subterfuge, misdirection and moments that are oddly and unexpectantly emotionally effective.
I suppose one of the reason I would hesitate to recommend this movie is that people will ask "Is it a comedy?" and I really won't know what to say. I found it hilarious, but a comedy it may not be.

THE SHOUT is a British film from 1978 and I suppose could be described as psychological drama.
It featured John Hurt, Tim Curry, Sussana York and starred one of my favorite actors at the time, Alan Bates. The film begins at a cricket match where one man assaults another man who may or may not be a mental patient and we learn that man's story through one of the men assaulted ... It is fair to say that this movie is an art house sort of film. The plot is inpenatrable, and it probably never makes sense but that hardly matters. What matters is the world that Alan Bates inhabits, or thinks he inhabits that is mixed with science, interpersonal relationships and stories learned from Australian aboriginals with whom he lived.
I have only seen this movie once, when it was released back in 1978 and what sticks in my mind are the images, the story around which the title revolves, and Bates remarkable performance.

 I do not recommend this movie for a variety of reasons: The pace of it is so slow there is barely a pace, if there is a story I don't know that it actually comes together, if I remember correctly there is a barely a score, which is interesting in an art house sort of way but not terribly entertaining.

CASTLE KEEP is a World War II movie from 1969 starring Burt Lancaster and Peter Falk.
The fact that the film was made in the 60's should give you a hint that it is far from your conventional war film. It concerns a group of American soldiers, commanded by Lancaster, protecting an ancient castle and its treasures from the oncoming Nazis. There is a plot of course and there is a supposed anti war sentiment that is eventually weakened by some Hollywood heroics.
There is a lot going on this movie, probably too much. It is narrated by a soldier, a wannabe author, a countess, a battle between old and new, good and evil, Nazis and an invulnerable VW Beetle ... which may be my favorite part of the movie. The acting varies between realistic 60's cool to old world  curtain chewing. The story is decent and there are some interesting talking points but director Syndey Pollak loses his way as the story goes on. This movie is certainly not for everyone but hey, it has a heroic VW, what can I say

HICKEY AND BOGGS is an LA private eye movie from 1972 starring Robert Culp and Bill Cosby. Yes, Bill Cosby
Cosby and Culp had had great TV success as the mostly light hearted spies-undercover-as-tennis-players in I, Spy. This film, directed by Culp and written by Walter Hill (a master of the almost-recommends movies like Streets of Fire and The Warriors) is anything but lighthearted. Featuring a detective estranged from his wife (Cosby) and one verging on alcoholism (Culp) it is a noir as noir gets; everyone lies to them, everyone tries to kill them, their wives hate them and pretty much everyone dies.
Fun this movie is not. I don't think anyone in the movie ever cracks a smile and the humor is black, beyond Mr Cosby's skin tone. It has Chanderlesque plot, that is, almost impossible to unravel but the plot means very little. The joy here is watching the two most dour detectives on earth discover that said planet deserves every bit of their cynicism. There are stripper wives, murderous body builders, plane crashes, impossibly large Magnum revolvers, a machine gunner strapped to the back of a station wagon ... and it is so low key you can barely feel a pulse. I love the blankness of this movie, the almost lack of emotion. Having said that, I am leery of recommending it, especially to anyone feeling in the least bit depressed.

A BOY AND HIS DOG is a science fiction movie from 1975 starring an incredibly young Don Johnson and directed by character actor LQ Jones and based on the short story by Harlan Ellison
This a tender and moving love story between a boy and his dog and the girl of his desires ... that takes place in a post apocalyptic earth where rape, murder, theft and radioactive monsters are now the norm. And dog is telepathic and way smarter than the boy. And girl is, as one character says the "cheese" to lure the boy to another world so conformist that it makes the apocalypse look pleasant
This is one of the first movies that Collette and I ever saw together but here is the big assed caveat: THIS IS NOT A DATE MOVIE. But it is funny as hell, if your humour runs to the very black. In the words of Alfred Bester, it's the laugh with the bubble of blood at the end
This may be one of my favorite Don Johnson roles (and not just because his character is called Vic) and the voice of Tim McIntire as Blood the dog is spot on. This movie has become a cult classic but it was not a big studio release in the day, I'm not sure if it would be released at all today, even straight to DVD; not just for the sex and violence (of which there is plenty) but for the incredibly subversive world view. It's a movie that completely redefines our concept of Hero

THE LONG GOODBYE is another 70's private eye movie, starring Elliot Gould, based on the Raymond Chandler novel and directed by Robert Altman
It doesn't take a genius to see that an Altman movie from the 70's starring Elliot Gould would put a "cool" spin on Chandler's yarn; though let's face it, Phillip Marlowe is cool in any decade. What Altman actually brings here is his famous deconstructed style of film making, not an always successful approach.  There are lots of semi naked California girls, pop culture and drug references, a wide assortment of counter culture oddballs, all caught up in a typical Chandler opus about weak society and strong individual sense of honour
There are some things that really work in the movie; this is my favorite Elliot Gould performance and there is a delightfully off the chain Sterling Haydon appearance. But then you also have a scene like a long long conversation between several characters in the back of a car; we never see the characters involved, as we listen to the conversation all we see is the car driving around and around a small Mexican town. Compelling it is not
The ending is damn near perfect but it's a rather long journey to get there and I'm not sure how many people would stay on the ride

HUD may, at first glance, seem a strange movie to include on this list. Released in 1963 it was an "A" production, starring Paul Newman, Patricia O'Neal and Melvyn Douglas and directed by Martin Ritt
It is a movie with a soap operay plot that has an extremely .. patient .. pace. Beautifully filmed in black and white by James Howe, it perfectly evokes a sense of time and place, that being rural Texas in the early 1960's, a place defined by it's cattle ranching past yet informed by a time of change
What Hud really is, though, is a character study. And it is in those characters that the movie becomes something I am a bit reluctant to recommend. This movie is bleak, bleak as the arid monochromatic landscape in which it is placed, bleak as the desperate interactions of its characters and bleak as the cold cynical interior of Newman's Hud
The acting is superb and that leads to the dark emotional impact of the film; Newman and O'Neal and Douglas don't hold back. Newman in particular gives one of the bravest performances ever for a Hollywood leading man; Hud is hard and bitter and filled with barely suppressed rage. He is bleak and arid as well, and there seems no sign of emotional rain on his horizon

I could add to this list but I don't have all day .. well I do, but that beer won't drink itself. These are all good movies, a couple have the status of cult films, and a few are obscured by time. But they are not films for everyone. But I think all of them were films that stayed true to themselves, true to their vision and even if they may have never quite achieved success, I find them worth watching.

Though you may not ....
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