I CAN'T BELIEVE YOU DON'T BELIEVE WHAT I BELIEVE!!! UN-FUCKING-BELIEVABLE!!!
Like every other human who ever walked upright on planet Earth, I went through a phase in my early teens. I suppose puberty was a big part of it, but another big part was junior high. I had skated through Grades 1-6 with the certainty that I had this whole school thing on lock. Then suddenly, I was locked in a cage with a bunch of other smelly little animals, wandering around the perimeter of our enclosure while our gamekeepers whipped us with algebra and Kalahari bushmen and chloroplasts. Everyone suddenly seemed to be speaking a foreign language, which didn't matter anyway, because our ears were all filled with the sound of our own rushing hormones.
Luckily, I had a particular Language Arts teacher during those years. I won't name him here (for reasons that will be clear soon enough) but no doubt some of you reading this remember his classes. In a time when so many other teachers refused to teach us anything even remotely relevant to our lives - "You're learning about how the Eskimos live because someday you might be an Eskimo yourself!" - this one teacher got it. And he got us. He knew that junior high is about keeping addle-brained kids off the street and reasonably sane for ten months of the year. Anyone who thinks differently, as far as I'm concerned, is either remembering wrong or a fricking keener. (KEEEE-ner! KEEEE-ner!)
But this teacher - let's call him Mr. Smith - was different. His focus for the two years he was my LA teacher, and again during my year on the school newspaper, was to make sure we could write. Not make sure we knew what a dangling participle was (it was puberty, of course we knew), but that we could just write. That we could put our thoughts into words, and, more importantly, that we could use our imaginations. He once assigned our class to write an essay about why Fig Newtons were better than Oreos. Of course, every kid in the class made a face and said "I hate Fig Newtons!" He replied simply: "I don't care. Just tell me why Fig Newtons are better than Oreos." Writing is a skill that we all need for the rest of our lives. Long after we've forgotten about how force equals mass times velociraptor or how to track down that goddam x, everyone still uses writing on a daily basis. I absolutely credit Mr. Smith with fostering my love of writing, and I acknowledge him in the foreword of my first novel, False Witness, for doing so. (If you want to know his real name, buy the book)
And Mr. Smith could make us laugh. That was gold in those days when everything seemed so unfamiliar and hard to understand. He was one of only two teachers in the school that I can recall us ever laughing with. Most of the time we were laughing at the other teachers, because they seemed so buffoonish. Why? Because they were either far too serious about the whole concept of school, or they just didn't care about us. Or both. Mr. Smith was different. He was intuitive, and patient, and focused on his student. But he didn't suffer fools, and he didn't screw around. He once gave me a zero and a withering lecture for cheating on a test. I believe (or at least hope) that everyone gets at least one teacher in their life who makes a difference. For me, that teacher was Mr. Smith.
He was also a trophy hunter.
That's right. The guy who shaped my life to such a huge degree, who almost single-handedly got me through the intellectual hell of junior high school, could have been the guy who shot Cecil the lion. I'm certain he did shoot at least one lion in his life, as evidenced by a photo album that he kept in his desk at the back of his classroom. He also kept a dummy .50-caliber shell on his desk that he'd pretend to use as a pen.
Shocked? Outraged? Ready to type nasty things in the comments section? Or are you thinking twice about it because the person who killed the lion was presented as an actual human being as opposed to a heartless murderer?
Walter Palmer, the American whom the world now knows as Cecil The Lion's killer, has been getting death threats lately after shooting a protected lion in Zimbabwe. He was forced to close his dentistry practice. His family can't show their faces in public. All this because the Internet (read: people just like you and me) have tried him, convicted him and sentenced him without anyone ever setting foot inside a courtroom. I don't know the circumstances of Cecil's killing (and, despite what you may think, neither do you because you weren't there), and I've never met Walter Palmer. I don't presume to be wise enough to say whether what he did was wrong or what kind of punishment he deserves. That's for a court of law to decide. You know, kind of how we've been resolving stuff like this for the last couple hundred years?
I'm certainly not saying I'm in favour of trophy hunting. To be honest, I don't know if I am or I'm not. I don't think about it. Unlike some people, I'm not qualified to comment on whether it's okay to kill a lion. What I am saying is that Mr. Smith is far more than the killer of a lion. And I'm willing to bet that Walter Palmer is, too. Even if he's a complete asshole, he doesn't deserve to have his life and his family's lives blown into ruins over the shooting of a fucking lion.
Thanks to social media, we've become a society in which no one can do anything wrong. I mean that in two ways: first, if you do anything wrong, you're shamed for it. Second, the people who are doing the shaming can see no wrong in themselves. That person who left the baby in a hot car must be a complete moron and should be sentenced to die in a hot car themselves. And, of course, the fact that the parent will spend the rest of their life with the crippling agony of knowing they caused the death of their child is not punishment enough. They must face the wrath of the righteous, ie: all those folks on social media. Obviously, it could never happen to you, right? You're too smart for that.
It's nothing short of alarming to see how quickly and completely the mob mentality phenomenon has swept through western society with the advent of social media. From the anti-vax movement's war on public health and common sense to the attempts to ban anyone from Canada who has ever said anything nasty ever, we have become a world of black and white, where rational thought and reasoned arguments have no place. It's all about our emotions, and satisfying our appetite for outrage.
And I'm as guilty of it as anyone. I let my buttons get pushed; just ask my wife. She's the one who has to try to watch TV while I sit at my computer ranting about some bullshit or other that ultimately has absolutely zero impact on my life but that I have an opinion about nonetheless.
I guess what I'm saying is that I'm going to keep making an effort to think about Mr. Smith before I put my fingers to the keyboard. And I hope you all call me on it if I start to stray. Thanks for reading.
In my last blog, I talked about how much I hate shopping at Costco. This time, I'm going to talk about how much I love James Bond movies. Before you call your lawyer, please read the disclaimer at the top of the page: I am under no legal obligation to entertain anyone but myself with this blog. Okay? Let's proceed.
I've been a fan of James Bond since I first watched Roger Moore unzip a lady's dress with his magnetic watch in Live and Let Die on TV back in 1976. I had no idea what a gay Englishman was going to do once he got that dress off, but my eight-year-old mind was already hooked. By the time the crocodiles in the speedboats came along (I may be remembering that wrong; hey, I was eight), James Bond was firmly cemented in my mind as the guy I was going to be when I grew up. Later, of course, when I discovered Sean Connery's movies, I quickly determined that he was the guy I was going to be, and the other guy was going to be my butler.
These were the good old days, when TV stations used to run movies on weekend afternoons (this was long before Netflix came along and gave us infinite movies to scroll through until we finally say to hell with it and go to bed), and often I'd be lucky enough to catch a Bond marathon on a rainy Sunday, which I guess was the analog version of binge-watching, except you couldn't pause the thing if you really had to pee. By the time I was in my teens, I had caught up to Bond in real time, just in time to see A View To A Kill in the old Paramount Theatre downtown. Sure, it was no Dr. No (Dr. No-No?), but it was neat to sit in the theatre and watch an old lady in a tux match wits with Ninja Grace Jones and the guy from Pulp Fiction with the watch up his bum, all while trying to convince Sheena, Queen of the Jungle that he wasn't a queen himself. The villain's fiendish plan was to dump California into the ocean, thereby destroying Silicon Valley and killing dozens of nerds.
Wait, I'm not finished! Christopher Walken, obviously, was far from the best of the Bond villains - that title belonged firmly to one Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the scar-eyed, cat-stroking megalomaniac who appeared in the six best Bond films and three Austin Powers movies. Blofeld was a super-smart mad scientist and arms dealer who founded SPECTRE, the international spy organization. Unfortunately, he wasn't always played by Donald Pleasance, so he wasn't supremely cool in every single appearance (the official explanation was Blofeld often underwent plastic surgery to remain anonymous; might have been easier if he just stopped trying to take over the world, but who am I to judge?) but he was still the epitome of what a Bond villain was supposed to be: pure evil, with grandiose ambitions.
Timothy Dalton replaced a rickety Roger Moore as Bond for a couple of stints, followed by Pierce Brosnan (whom the great Roger Ebert once called "James Bond's valet") in a series of increasingly ridiculous movies about invisible cars and sword fights with aging fame whores. But even so, they maintained the tradition of EVIL villains - ones who wanted to burn the world, or plunge it into darkness, or blow up China, or run the Confederate flag up every flagpole in America. These weren't your run-of-the-mill criminals. They weren't drug dealers (well, except for License To Kill -dammit, there goes my point!); they were larger than life.
The Bond franchise died after Die Another Day, which was both Brosnan's finale as the hero and the most ironically named movie ever. The character languished in studio hell for several years before someone finally watched Batman Begins, then snapped his fingers and and yelled "REBOOT!" (obviously within earshot of whoever was racking their brains trying to decide what to do with the Star Trek franchise). With that, the powers that be decided it was time to create an all-new James Bond, one who was cool, and edgy, and dark, and gritty, and realistic, and blonde. What do you get when you put all that into a blender with a Costco-sized jar of protein powder, a bottle of lemon gin and just a dash of Old Spice? This guy:
I, along with everybody else in the world, was a bit skeptical about the choice of relative unknown Daniel Craig as the new Bond in Casino Royale, but dutiful fan that I am, I played along. And I couldn't have been happier. In one fell swoop, that one movie made up for three wishy-washy James Bonds and a slow, sad descent into decrepitude, and breathed new life into an iconic character who had been buried under a pile of hair mousse and girdles for the better part of three decades. This Bond was tough. He didn't shoot lasers while skiing down the Alps, he ran you down and kicked you in the junk, then stood over you, sneering while you vomited up blood. This was the "blunt instrument" of the original Ian Fleming novels. In short, this was what James Bond was always supposed to be, even more so than the Sean Connery days. Yeah, that's right, I said it. Now I wanted to be this guy, and Sean Connery could be my butler. Roger Moore could be my nanny.
Casino was followed by Quantum of Solace, then Skyfall. Both of them were great, though they didn't quite reach the gold standard of the first one, and a fourth, Spectre, is expected in November. But the more I read about Spectre, the more I felt something... I don't know, off in my feelings about the first three films. It was hard to define at first, a thought that I just couldn't quite grab hold of, like that last piece of Jell-O on your dessert plate at a Chinese buffet. After much reflection (and a not-inconsiderable amount of beer), I finally figured out what was bugging me: the villains in the reboot movies are lame. I was so hypnotized by Craig's performance, and the overall style of the movies, I didn't notice it at the time. But when you take a close look at them, the bad guys aren't fit to clean Blofeld's cat's litterbox.
Let's break it down:
CASINO ROYALE - LE CHIFFRE
Before I start, I want to make it clear that I'm not criticizing the actor, Mads Mikkelsen, who does a great job of making viewers hungry every week on NBC's Hannibal. It's the character I'm taking issue with, to wit: Why, exactly, is Le Chiffre worthy of the Bond pantheon of villains? The guy's a fricking investment banker. Sure, he invests for terrorists - which are vaguely alluded to in the film but never actually named - and handles their money. But he's really just a henchman with a nice suit and a pocket protector. What next? Is Bond going to go after ISIL's accountant? Boko Haram's notary public? And Le Chiffre's strongest "bad guy" traits are asthma, a gambling addiction, and the worst case of pink eye in recorded history. That could be any substitute teacher you ever had, for crying out loud.
And while we're on the subject, the plot for the first half of the movie doesn't make sense. Le Chiffre tries to make money by buying stock in an airline, and then selling that stock before sabotaging a plane - a move that will bankrupt the company whose stock he's trying to manipulate. Despite the fact the company's stock, which he owns, is going up. How, exactly, do you make money by wrecking a successful company that you've invested in? "Buy low, sell high" is the accepted wisdom on Wall Street, not "buy high, drive company into toilet." A couple of people online have tried to advance the theory that Le Chiffre was shorting stocks, which I still don't get. Why sell perfectly good stocks so you can buy them at a cheaper price when the stocks are already at a high price? Even if that was true, and I'm not saying it is, the writers are expecting an awful lot of brainpower from the audience. And let's remember, they turned the game of baccarat from the novel into Texas Hold 'Em because they thought viewers would be too dumb to figure out the rules.
A QUANTUM OF SOLACE - MR. GREEN
In the sequel to Casino Royale, we're introduced to Quantum, a group of international Rotarians who use their power and money to influence governments. It starts out promising until the bad guys get whittled down to Mr. Green. HOW IS THIS GUY A BOND VILLAIN? He's about as intimidating as Joel Fleishman from Northern Exposure minus the Brooklyn attitude. His evil powers consist of giving you that fake "crazy stare" that every little wiener in the history of high school has used in an attempt to get out of a fight with a bully. Admit it - you want to bully him right now.
And after Mr. Green leads Bond on a merry, revenge-fueled chase, what do we discover is his dastardly plot?
He's stealing water from Bolivia. That's right, he's hoarding all the water in one of the poorest, most universally ignored countries in the world, creating a drought so that Bolivians will have to buy water from him. This is a country where people can't even afford quinoa anymore because we North Americans want it all in our chicken salads. They're so poor, they buy their dirt on layaway. And ninety-nine percent of the world's population couldn't find it on a map, even if all the other countries were blank and there was a big BOLIVIA label across it. Mr. Green's plan is like starting a gang in a homeless shelter so you can extort money from the occupants. Where's the return on investment? Maybe Mr. Green graduated from the same school of economics as Le Chiffre.
But even he's better than...
SKYFALL - RAOUL SILVA
Again, I respect Javier Bardem as an actor, and I understand that he was trying to go over the top with Silva's character, but it all just went a little - well, weird. In his defense, he only had about ten minutes at the end of the film to try to develop his character, after we spend the better part of two hours watching Bond dig things out of his body and sit through a really uncomfortable job interview. But when Silva shows up, he really shows up. And you know what? I can totally get behind a bad guy who's a cross between Ricardo Montalban and Rip Taylor - I'm as pro-rainbow as they come - but even I was freaked out when Silva runs his hand up Bond's thigh. Nobody ever said a villain can't be sexually ambiguous (see the aforementioned Ninja Grace Jones) but even the Bond girls have never gone south of the equator on camera.
The problem is the ridiculousness of the character's motivation. Let's leave aside the gaping plot holes, like the perfectly timed subway train derailment, and the fact that I'm pretty sure Britain's MI6 doesn't hire Spanish nationals as spies, even if their grandmothers did own an island off the coast of Ireland (what?). You're still left with a villain who is basically trying to get revenge on his and James Bond's boss, M, because when he was a spy, he had to swallow a cyanide capsule - like it says in his damn job description - after he was captured by China. When it doesn't kill him but instead hideously disfigures his face, he goes crazy and sets his sights on killing her. And blowing up MI6. And creating a criminal empire. And feeling up Bond's leg.
My point is this: You tried to kill yourself with a cyanide capsule and failed, so you decide to put in a herculean effort of will to stay alive, despite the collapse of your frigging skull, and devote yourself to a decade-long revenge plot? Why not just finish the job some other way and put yourself out of your misery? I'm sure your Chinese captors would have been happy to oblige! It would have saved them thousands on dental work alone! And it would have allowed me to watch No Country For Old Men again without snickering, dammit!
Sorry, I'm starting to rant now. With all this said, I'll be first in line for Spectre because I'm still a James Bond megafan, despite the lame villains. A bad Bond movie is still exponentially better than the best Twilight movie, after all, and a little part of me is always going to be that eight-year-old kid who thought James Bond was the coolest guy that ever walked the face of the earth.
And I'm still waiting for the reappearance of that oh-so-cool magnetic watch.