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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Thoughts on The Queen’s Gambit

As someone who not only played a lot of chess in my early 20s (patzer-level) but read just as much about the players, I didn’t know what to expect from the Netflix production of The Queen’s Gambit. Here are some thoughts…

First, it’s a fine piece of entertainment. The pacing, casting, direction, and performances are pretty damn solid. Considering it centres on someone’s relationship with a game that has seen little popular interest in the last couple of decades since Searching for Bobby Fischer (with the notable exception of 2016’s Queen of Katwe, which didn’t seem to catch much wide attention) this is significant.

I love chess. I love it conceptually. I love it for its immense complexity, and its ability to appeal to audiences and players from a broad spectrum of society and aptitudes. There are many misconceptions and reductive hot-takes about chess out there: that it’s a nerd’s game, that it’s nebulous and reserved for STEM-types, that winning is strictly a question of whose memory is greater. There is passion in chess, as well as style and aesthetics. It ends up being a reflection of whomever is playing, whether intuitive or mathematical. As such The Queen’s Gambit does more for chess than anything I have ever seen portrayed on screen. Period. They nail it, and my gut clenched many a time watching the portrayal of championship matches.

But, it remains as entertainment, and by that I mean there are reservations I have about what is portrayed. First, a brief summary: the seven-part series portrays the fictional rise of a young ingenue in the 1960s played by Anya Taylor Joy, who, as an orphan, peers into the world of chess through the solitary practice of her orphanage’s janitor. As he invites her to play it becomes apparent that she is immensely talented, not only for her age, but far beyond the ability of adults around her. There is a struggle, however, in her unresolved neglect and abandonment as a young child, which leads her to dull/heighten her senses with pharmaceuticals. As she grows older and is adopted, both her chess playing and her relationship with substance-use becomes more profound. She eventually goes on to the world stage, beating opponent after opponent with ferocity. I leave it there so as not to spoil anything. The competitive action is riveting.

As I mentioned, it’s a work of fiction, which is neither here nor there, but it’s significant that the rise of a female chess player in a predominantly male environment is portrayed without much in the way of overt interference, sexism, or politics. Yes, it’s there, but it’s there in the way you might expect it to be portrayed in a breezy musical, not a modern dramatic production. Yes, there are disbelievers, there are doubters, there are frustrated male egos, but that’s it. I don’t want to be cynical, but I can’t help but think Joy’s character would’ve encountered much (much) more resistance in 1960s America than what is portrayed. There are no less than four consultants on the series — two general and two on-set chess consultants — and they are all male, and I don’t think it’s controversial to point out how short-sighted this is. To be fair, this is an adaptation of a novel, so I get the argument there is only so much the producers might have done without straying too far from the source material. Notably, the author, Walter Trevis, also wrote The HustlerThe Color of Money and The Man Who Fell to Earth, so there’s a pedigree to be mindful of — then again, how slavish was Nicolas Roeg’s adaptation of The Man Who Fell to Earth? Could they not have brought on a woman (there are no less than 37 female grandmasters currently) to provide some perspective? This is not an insignificant question.

Another issue is that its lone supporting Black character, Jolene (played by Moses Ingram), disappears for over half of the series, only to pop up toward the end, ostensibly as The Wise Black Woman. Again, could this not have been better managed during script development? It ends up being feminist but only through an aspirational lens that doesn’t seem to be able to imagine a wider perspective, or audience.

These failures aside, my dear hope is that this reinvigorates interest in this wonderful game, and that we may one day see children from all walks of life inspired by portrayals such as what The Queen’s Gambit contains.

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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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