Friday, January 29, 2010

Pirate Shmirate Redux

I saw the movie Pirate Radio today, which is the European-release title of The Boat That Rocked. I posted a few months ago on what it appeared to be, based on the trailers. The comment on the film trailer was really just a jumping-off point for a rant about the ease with which myths of rebellion (especially the confluence of social/cultural/historic/demographic conditions known as "The Sixties") are used to flatter ourselves that partying is the same as pursuing social justice.

As it happens, the movie (I mean the movie itself as a story and as entertainment, never mind what it brings to mind about the real world) is... not bad. It's not great, it might not even be good, but it's not awful either.

I do have my beefs with it, chiefly the portrayal of the British government minister assigned to shut down the offshore rock 'n' roll station. This guy starts out as a stock stick-up-the-keister Face Of Authority right out of a Twisted Sister video or Police Academy XII, and becomes a figure of such cartoonish callousness and evil it sort of demolishes his credibility as a person and therefore as a villain. (It doesn't help that his chief hatchet man is actually named Twat.)

In his last act as Villain, he actually orders his underling NOT to send boats to rescue the crew of the sinking radio station/ship, perfectly willing to condemn them to freezing death in the North Sea. I'm not a maritime lawyer but I'm pretty sure this would be among the most serious breaches of international law, not to mention basic human decency, on the books. This kind of abrupt levelling-up from Officious Prig to Indirectly Murderous Motherf**ker is a really clumsy breach of tone for what is supposed to be a comedy.

But one saving grace--and the reason I'm bothering to post on it at all--is one knife-in-the-heart scene by Philip Seymour Hoffman. It's a scene that is so poignant and insightful and full of truth that it makes all the rest of the nonsense worth sitting through.

Hoffman, the rock 'n' roll pirate hero at the top of his game, sits on the deck and confesses the thought that has been tormenting him for months, which is: These are the best days of our lives. Everything that comes after will be a letdown.

Maybe, he concedes, the kid will get lucky and even better things are in his future. (The line is delivered with a particular blend of weariness, hope and mendacity. In an age when there are so few true markers indicating that we have moved from one stage of life to another, maybe this is one of them: The first time you have to tell a half-truth to someone younger, in order to temporarily shield their hopes from the crushing that yours have already endured.)

But, there it is: This is as good as it gets. From now on, every day will be better than the next. We fear it is true and hope it is not, but there comes a time when there's just too much evidence to deny. Personally I'm not there yet, but I know that moment is out there.

In the end, this is what storytelling is for: it reminds us that in all the awful things we fear and will have to face someday, including our own personal extinction, we are not alone. That a fictional character has spoken our fears means that a real person shares them.

It's not much but in the cold black waters of the North Sea, you'll gladly cling to anything.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Four states of control and chaos.

Just a thought: Consider that you can classify a situation in one of four ways:

1) Under your control;
2) Under control, not necessarily yours;
3) Out of control;
4) Beyond control.

(The last two courtesy of the film "Ever Since The World Ended.")

What does this mean for how you think about events?

Sunday, January 17, 2010


Friday, January 15, 2010

Planner humour.

Here's a graphic I did for a presentation in 2004 on NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) opposition to development proposals. Any planners out there, I feel your pain.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

At Ground Zero of modern history

Well, I'm back. Apologies for the lack of posting but I have been pointedly avoiding computers for the past few weeks as I travel around central Europe.

At one point my travels took me to Berlin, over a bitterly (and, I am told, unusually) cold couple of days. There are plenty of things I could say about the place. The short answer is that I highly recommend it (and the Aloha Hostel on Torstrasse where I stayed.) It's particularly appealing if, like me, you lived in Montreal in the early 1990's and pine for those days when a huge metropolis, still staggering from the forces of history, had ample nooks and crannies and spaces for broke and eccentric people to do cheap and fascinating things. It is changing, alas, as all such places do, but for now Berlin is still a great place to be young and interesting.

The weather being as I said absurdly cold during my visit, I was drawn more than usual to museums and other outposts of the great indoors. I must confess that I like the idea of museums more than I enjoy museums themselves. I am always disappointed to go somewhere full of relics and artifacts of the past and find that the past does not come alive, that I cannot feel the Middle Ages or the revolutions of 1848, that this is just a collection of stuff. It is the feeling I imagine I would have if I were to open up an old high school yearbook, seeking comfort and connection in the past, and finding that I do not remember any of these people. It's a letdown.

One museum that did not disappoint, however, was the Story Of Berlin museum on Kurfurstendamm in the old West Berlin. This is a very well designed multimedia experience (I mean multimedia in the true sense, i.e. sound and film and light and text as appropriate to convey information and understanding, not in the more usual sense of "the latest computerized doodad designed to impress you with its deterministic program disguised as interactivity.")

For instance, while most of the museum is located on the upper floor and arranged in more-or-less chronological order, there comes a point where you make the descent into the Nazi years. (You can't have a Berlin museum or decent Indiana Jones movie without Nazis.)

To get to this section of the museum, you literally descend three flights of stairs. At each landing is a collection of black-and-white photos of famous Germans of the era. At the top landing, all the frames have pictures in them. The next landing down, some of the frames are missing photos, replaced with words like "emigrated." The next flight down, more missing pictures, and words like "murdered," "suicide," "preventative detention." Meanwhile, from below, the hellish lights of burning books and recordings of chanting crowds. The air gets colder. It is literally and figuratively chilling.

What's even scarier is the tour of the bunker under the museum. (Fittingly, even lower than the Nazi exhibit.) This is a Cold War-era bunker designed to house about 1300 people in the event of a nuclear attack. All steel and concrete and blue light, like a vintage James Cameron movie. The guide, with the black ironic humour that seems to be standard issue in the old Eastern Bloc, pointed out that all the bunkers in Berlin could house about one percent of the population. As he detailed the conditions under which the bunker would be expected to operate, it became clear that these things would never work. Over a thousand people, eighteen-inch-wide aisles between bunks, three toilets and probably a lot of people with radiation poisoning. Next to no ventilation (and even those shafts would be likely as not to be clogged from the destruction up above, on the surface.) These were nothing but a public-relations exercise--something to keep the public from objecting too strongly to an insane arms race in which there could be no victory, just varying degrees of defeat. The German slogan, equivalent to our "Duck And Cover," translated as "Everyone Has A Chance."
As a planner, I wonder what it must have been like to be one of the guys designing these things. Did they know it would never work? Did they consciously block out that knowledge and just do their jobs? What an awful way to make a living--confronted every day with the total destruction of the world and knowing that even your best efforts will make no difference.

When I was a kid, I took it for granted that I would not live into my thirties; the destruction of the world seemed imminent and inevitable. The threat of nuclear annihilation isn't gone. We now have arguably even more serious problems on our hands. For all its terror, nuclear annihilation required that a handful of people decide to do something incredibly stupid. Now, avoiding a different disaster requires that everyone decide to get real smart, real fast. It's enough to make you feel like a kid again.

But here we are, surprisingly enough. Despite my generally anxious and pessimistic nature, I need to remind myself from time to time that sometimes disasters are averted. Then again, a lot of those blank picture frames on the way down to the Third Reich exhibit probably told themselves the same thing.