Arguments with a Musician

There’s a musician I follow on Facebook who is driving me nuts, but I don’t know whether what is bugging me about them has more to do with me than them.

I worked with them from time to time back when I was in the film/TV industry, since they worked as both a score composer and session musician. They’ve had a long and far-ranging career in music — period — let alone the Canadian music scene. Their stories (and friends’ stories) are typically epic to read as they drop references to Leonard Cohen and Ray Charles. It’s helped, too, that they were a consummate professional, and rarely overbearing (considering the twin music/TV industry connections I mean this as a compliment).

Despite being an icon and pillar of the Toronto music scene, like everyone, they were affected by COVID last year. The doors closed not just on a handful of gigs (live and recorded), but all of them in one fell swoop. And within a few months they began posting updates decrying the dire situation musicians were in, along with anti-government diatribes. Now, here’s the thing: I don’t blame anyone in their industry — pillar or acolyte — wanting to express their frustration publicly with the lockdown conditions (for anyone reading this outside of Toronto, there hasn’t been live music or theatre performances for over 14 months). I especially understand anyone wanting to criticize our provincial government’s criminal negligence during this time. They’re posts could also be petty, seeming to express more disappointment about they’re lost prospects than, say, the thousands of others out of work, but I told myself: it’s a pandemic, how about we not hold people to too high a standard?

But something bothered me, particularly when the complaining didn’t subside and began to feel like whining. In other words, another Boomer with a swimming pool in their backyard shaking their fist at the sky when inconvenienced. What bothered me was that here was this person, as mentioned, a pillar. This person has a street named after them. Shouldn’t that sort of prestige, I asked myself, not come with any sense of responsibility toward a role of leadership? A sense of indebtedness to those less fortunate in their trade, to the degree they might realize that stomping their shoes on the ground wasn’t just a bad look, it was a missed opportunity for advocacy.

It reminded me of so many people in the film/TV industry who ground their teeth over any missed opportunity, taking like a mortal blow to their ego what people like myself had to endure on a regular basis just to land a gig that paid decently.

This person disappointed me, and I feel that there’s some of my own shit in that. I had few if no role models during those 20 years, and those who came closest could still say or do hurtful things, often because of their inflated sense of importance, or plain ol’ toxic masculinity (which ran from hot and cold taps back then). I don’t write about the industry very often because my relationship with it is bittersweet; there was a shit load of misogyny and general bad behaviour, which makes writing about it that much more difficult.

I would love nothing more than for this person on Facebook to stand taller, to look beyond their four-block radius, to think what might encourage or inspire others, rather than posting things like “TOO MUCH BIG-GOVERNMENT!”. It saddens me when people of a particular generation who were entitled to many more advantages than subsequent generations can’t see beyond their immediate domain. Worse still, when brought down a level or two from their prestige, appearing aggrieved.

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Memories of a Virus

I can’t help but think about Toronto in 2003. I had just started working with a well-respected performing arts film company in the autumn of 2002 after having been laid off from my previous job after the bottom fell out of their financing for an ambitious Grimm Brothers-based children’s TV series. Some context is important here. 9/11 had only happened a year before my lay-off. The effect of 9/11 was huge on the film and TV industry. One large factor was advertisers: they weren’t producing new ads — I don’t exactly understand the psychology behind this though I gather many were waiting for what the Bush Jr. administration would do as a response to the attacks. But, as I did start my career working in TV commercials, I can tell you that those 30 second spots pump tonnes of money (and jobs) into many parts of the economy. So, no new ads, no ad money to broadcasters, thus no budgets from broadcasters for new productions, which meant industry jobs were scarce.

Then came SARS.

I wrote about this for the Torontoist ten years after the fact, albeit in a more generally-geared way (not focused on the film industry). It may not be the definitive SARS essay, however it’s topical both as an overview of the what and how, and also as a point of comparison to what we are facing today, nearly 20 years later, in the early days of the coronavirus COVID-19 as it spreads its way across the planet.

As I wrote then, we were caught flat-footed as a result of economic downsizing (or to use more current parlance, austerity measures). And if 9/11 took the legs out of the film and TV production in Toronto, SARS was a squarely landed sucker punch. Even though the job I’d just landed paid much less than my previous one (don’t get me started), I had to be thankful because I ended up avoiding an industry-wide cull that left all but the best (or well-connected) in the industry. For a simplistic explainer, Hollywood movies shoot here in order to take advantage of rebates on labour costs, and thus undergird the infrastructure that the native Canadian industry depends on for their productions. They didn’t want to cross the border for risk of any cast or crew getting ill. Even beyond North America we were affected: the company who hired me was about to start pre-production on a feature shooting in southeast Asia — then like now a hot zone of the virus — when the plug got pulled for insurance reasons.

Even though we pulled ourselves out of it, it got bleak. It felt like Toronto was put in a sick ward and someone wrapped it in protective plastic from the rest of the world.

A lot has changed since then. Canada learned its tragic lessons — losing 44 lives and having a hole drilled through the economy will do that. Our medical infrastructure is now among the best prepared in the world. It’s a strange and unsettling deja vu to see other First World countries who weren’t affected by SARS struggling to stave off infection. This includes, coincidentally enough, film productions (as it stands, Toronto has become and remains a boomtown, especially since Netflix has invested in studio space). I am very thankful for the lack of social media (as we know it now) back in 2003. What I witnessed then was only a precursor to the more virulent online racism, xenophobia, and paranoia that we are seeing today.

I wanted to write that Torontoist essay in 2013 because it seemed nobody wanted to acknowledge what happened in 2003 — that somehow, maybe thanks to “SARSstock“, we could wash ourselves of it. The body count. The World Health Organization’s travel advisory. The second SARS wave that hit later that year. The economic downloading that made us so vulnerable.

I’m writing this now because I work in the middle of Chinatown, which has been unfairly punished by the association with COVID-19. Restaurants and businesses are suffering for no reason other than the public’s ignorance. I realize it’s early days for COVID-19, which has the potential of wreaking great havoc. My hope is that, where applicable, medical facilities are upgraded to prevent the spread of infection, people use common sense when travelling and — of personal importance — that populist governments do not use this as an excuse for clamping down on democratic freedoms (i.e. public assembly, elections). We shall see.

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The One I Feed

If I’ve learned anything this year it’s the command, perhaps even the primacy, that music holds over my creative life, which is strange(ish) for someone who isn’t a full- or even part-time musician. Let me qualify “someone who isn’t a full- or even part-time musician”: I can play drums decently well, I’m barely adequate on keyboards, and I’m beginning to develop confidence on electric guitar. But there are no stakes for me: I’m not in a band, I’m not hoping to become a recording artist. So, as an established/emerging writer, what’s the deal?

The deal is that music presents as part of a triumvirate of full-blooded influences on me: music, film, and writing. I am incomplete as an artist without one of these. Don’t get me wrong, I love other forms of art — dance, painting, sculpture, etc (to infinity) — it’s just that my DNA is activated by music, film, and writing.

But the predominancy of music in my life sometimes has me worried.

Let’s start with writing. Music twists around my work almost symbiotically. The Society of Experience involves a character whose day job is a music supervisor for film and TV productions, and thus the narrative is punctuated with songs from the very beginning; the main character is sometimes haunted by the sound of a jukebox in the bar beneath his apartment. And yes, of course I created a soundtrack for the book’s launch (which features music mentioned within as well as inspired by the themes and subject matter). My next novel, Radioland, involves a “successful” musician having a nervous breakdown. The novel I’m working on right now, [untitled matt cahill project], involves the power of a DJ on a young boy in the country. If I could afford the rights I would quote song lyrics to introduce book sections.

Even when it comes to film, music has been immensely influential. From the quirky soundtrack of Brazil to the Wagnerian flourishes of Excalibur, I have not only fed deeply on music scores and soundtracks but have followed a countless number of rabbit holes. If it hadn’t been for watching Underground, I wouldn’t have spent a year chasing down recordings of Serbian brass band music. In film school, one of the best things I ever did was a one-take b&w short I shot on a wind-up Bolex that I played back w/ The Jesus and Mary Chain’s Reverence blasting in the background.

I care deeply about music to the extent that, on a social occasion where we were taking turns playing songs on a nearby jukebox based on a chosen theme, I was asked to choose 3 songs I hated. I said I wouldn’t. And I wouldn’t because a) it meant sitting through 3 songs I hated, and b) life is too short to listen to songs you don’t like. It made for an awkward moment and I felt somewhat precious, but that’s how it goes when you take a principled stand about most things.

So, my worries, however ephemeral, are whether I’m suffering from a blindspot in how I prioritize music. Is it a blinder? Is my appreciation for it distorting my perspective insofar as my writing (in particular) might suffer? I don’t know. I don’t have a lot of artist friends, and the ones I do have probably wouldn’t deem this to be something worth much concern. That said, sometimes I wonder: am I using one art form to inform and/or expand another, or am I misusing either/both? Should I be concerned when things become sacrosanct? 

These are not really questions that require answers, but as an artist who wishes to be reasonably self-aware, they are good to ask nonetheless.

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Content Discontent

I think I’ve had my fill of TV (streaming or otherwise) and mainstream films.

The first problem is mine, and is one of saturation. I worked in film and TV post-production for 20 years, watching everything from 15-second TV commercials to multi-part TV series, to box office-busting films. And part of working in film and TV is keeping up your fluency so that you can communicate effectively with each other (if a director makes a reference to Picnic at Hanging Rock you better be ready to watch it if you haven’t seen it already). Also, I’ve watched hundreds of films and countless TV shows over the course of my life — the seminal and forgettable, the laughable and the revelatory.

I’ve pretty much seen every storyline at least once. I’ve seen every twist and turn, every “surprise ending.” I’ve seen every plot device, every sort of villain, every sort of (male) anti-hero, every sort of Disneyesque sentimentality and every sort of nihilist purging of the arthouse soul. It’s hard for me to be taken in by a show or movie — either to suspend my disbelief or my anticipation of what the creators are going to do.

The second problem is out of my hands. In this age of streaming services, we are awash with content. Netflix, Amazon Prime, Crave, etc. all require things to put on their virtual shelves so that we can be enticed to part with our money in order to explore their goods. I have no problem with this business model — it’s basically turned into (back to?) cable TV. The problem is one of quality. It seems that, in the effort to fill the shelves  seasons are lengthened with filler and show renewals are rubber-stamped that end up being samizdat versions of the preceding season. Multiplexes are filled with the faddish (and profitable) notion that (see: Marvel) everything can be part of a franchise. If I hear another producer say “We originally imagined this as a trilogy/series in four-parts” I’m going to scream.

What bugs the shit out of me is how this affects what’s presented as upper tier programming. A good example is Good Omens, the heralded adaptation of Neil Gaiman & Terry Pratchett’s collaboration. I haven’t read the original book — I have a notion that it’s written in a larger-than-life, Douglas Adams-y style — but the show is painful to watch. It wants to be sly and slick satire and it has strong early moments, but it’s all so buffoonishly overplayed — the actors who aren’t line-reading chew their way through the scenery — to the degree where I had to wonder whether the producers might’ve considered making it for children. The worst is that for a six-part series there’s barely enough story to take up three. I lost count of how many time-sucking flashbacks and side-stories are introduced in order to lead to the telegraphed, overdue finale. Speaking of Gaiman, adaptations, and overdue finales, please see the meandering second season of American Gods (which I abandoned).

For the record, I don’t have a problem with the Marvel Universe franchise. They’re not hiding anything: it’s a stream of big-ass popcorn epics. They aren’t being released as exemplars of anything other than “hey, here’s a well-executed adaptation of a comic book most people haven’t read.” Sure, given the choice I’d rather watch an imperfect  Olivier Assayas film over Ant Man, but at least I can watch the latter and know where to keep my expectations dialled.

While I’m bleating, a trend I wish would die, pardon the pun, are films where it’s obvious the protagonist won’t get a scratch despite killing 100 hired assassins (see the three John Wick films, The Equalizer, and Colombiana). Where’s the suspense if you don’t allow the audience to imagine that, no, the protagonist might not make it. This is an inherent problem with films and TV shows that are made in the hope of infinite reboots: no suspense (see: Orphan Black, a prime example of where the producers missed multiple opportunities to draw more attention by killing off one of the clones).

Why can’t we make something, leave it be to stand on its own merits, and move on without exploiting its success with sequels and prequels and remakes and reboots? As good as the original was (and it is), who in god’s name, save for the cast and crew, asked for a second season of Big Little Lies? What part of that story begged for extended development? Note: Liane Moriarty, the author (whom I share a birthday with) whose novel was adapted into the show never wrote a sequel until the HBO adaptation achieved success (she ended up writing a novella by request, not exactly the way any author would like to work, let alone revisit characters, though I don’t blame her).

Anyhow, I sometimes wonder, in the industry’s effort to satisfy its appetite for content, whether we are sacrificing the magic of our relationship with entertainment for the sake of Say’s Law, the (questionable) belief that supply creates its own demand.

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