About Me

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Montreal, Quebec, Canada
I am a Montreal-based actor, writer and comedian. When U.S. President John F. Kennedy was shot, I was three days old. I cried all day. My favourite books of all time are Moby Dick by Herman Melville, The Last Temptation by Nikos Kazantzakis and The Ewoks Fun Time Activity Book by Chirpa and Pamploo. I am a member of The Vestibules, On The Spot Improv and The Best Buy Battery Club. Except for the Battery Club, I've been at all this stuff for over 20 years. Enjoy my blog.

Friday, September 30, 2011

I, Geek : Myth-busting the Comic Book and SF Fan Stereoypes

"These aren't the geeks we're looking for."

Fanboys. Nerds. Geeks. Fans of comic books, science fiction and the like are known by many names. Regardless of word choice, the prevailing image is clear: Socially awkward guys who have no life, have never had a girlfriend (let alone sex) and who still live in their parents' basements.

It is an image that endures in the popular consciousness, perpetuated in part by shows like Big Bang Theory and the Comic Book Guy character on The Simpsons. Millions of us also clearly recall William Shatner's classic 1986 Saturday Night Live sketch in which he tells Star Trek fans to "Get a life!" This month's 2011 installment of Comic Con in Montreal, an annual two day convention for comic book and science fiction fans, drew in over 25,000 people - including me.

Yet the crowd that filled Place Bonaventure's convention hall didn't exactly conform to the stereotype. Indeed, as a I roamed the hall, I thought this might be a good time to challenge some of the myths about me and my fellow "geeks."

A simple eyeballing of the crowd at the Montreal Comic Con showed female fans very much in evidence. And it's not just a Canadian phenomenon. In 2009, the International San Diego Comic Con, one of the world's largest comic book conventions, reported female attendance at 40%.
The women appear to be more fervent than their male counterparts as well. During the hour-plus duration of the Montreal convention's costume contest, you could count the number of male participants on one hand. Even the contest judges were women.

Lea Phillips, one of a group of four students (all women) who endured the 20hour train ride from Halifax to Montreal, observed that, "There are plenty of guys here, but the girls are just more into it."
Girl Robin

"That's the stereotypical fan: A geeky guy sitting in front of his computer in his parents' basement playing video games or something all day long," said Steve Kalinowski, a fan or the popular movie and comic character Wolverine. "But it's not really like that."
An informal (and, to be fair, totally unscientific) survey of Montreal Comic Con attendees over two days turned up just one guy who lived in his parent's basement. (I'll do him the favour of leaving out his name.) Additionally, those surveyed said that they did not know of anyone (geek or otherwise) who lived with their parents past their early 20's. Most attendees told me they had decent jobs.
"It can get pretty expensive," offered Kalinnowski, referring to the extensive amount of booths selling comics, T-shirts, collectables and memorabilia. And that's not even getting into the elaborate costumes some attendees were seen sporting. "You can't do this if you're depending on your parents," added Kayla Fells, another member of the Halifax group. "What parents are going to say, 'Hey, here's $400 so you can go out and buy a costume for a comic book convention?'"

"We have many couples in our group," said Wojtek Sawicki, who, along with his wife Nola Fontaine, is a member of the Star Wars costuming fan club known as the 501st Legion.
Sawicki and Fontaine, among others, were manning the club's convention booth. Both were dressed in detailed and authentic Star Wars outfits.

Kalinowski and his girlfriend Alexandra Yanire also dressed in thematically consistent couple's costumes - as members of the X-Men.

Alison and Matt Latimer, a married couple from the Ottawa area, were sporting matching uniforms from the critically acclaimed sci-fi TV series Battlestar Galactica. "I certainly don't have any problems with relationships," Matt said. In fact, their fandom is a bonding agent. "He got me into Battlestar Galactica," she said. "But then she became a bigger fan of it than I ever was," he added.

It's a couple thing.

Todd van der Heyden, the anchor of CTV's 6 p.m. newscast in Montreal, moderated panels featuring Comic Con's guests of honour - including comic legend Stan Lee, creator of such iconic characters as Spider Man and Iron Man. However, van der Heyden was not there just because he's a local celebrity; he is also an avowed comic book and science fiction fan. "I've been collecting comics since I was 12," he said. "I now have a U-Haul full of comics.Literally." The man is hardly the typical image of the nerdy fan with "no life." On that issue, he declared, "All of the fans I know are married and have kids."

The 501st Legion, the aforementioned Star Wars costuming fan club, is more than just a bunch of fans hanging out in costumes. "We are involved with charity work and we often visit children's hospitals," said Sawicki.

The group boasts over 4,000 members worldwide, and its website lists over 40 different charities that the group has worked with. "While the 501st was initially founded to unite costumers with a penchant for Star Wars villainy, one of our real-world missions is to bring good to our communities through volunteer charity work," reads the website.
The Montreal Comic Con contingent was slightly smaller than this.

"It's a lot of fun, but it's also a lot of work too," says Sawacki of the club's activities. At the group's Comic Con booth in Montreal, convention attendees got the chance to fire foam rubber darts from a toy machine gun at Imperial Stormtroopers in exchange for donations to The Autism Society Canada.

The "Great Geek Myth," as I call it, might have had some validity in decades past, but it has clearly become obsolete - as many folks are discovering. "A lot of fans avoid going to conventions because they think it's going to full of weird, geeky people," said Lisa Ivy, a Trek fan. "Then when [they] actually do come, they see that everyone here is actually pretty normal."

Geekiness, it seems, is in the eye of the beholder. "Everybody is a geek to somebody else," said Stéfanie Guérin, a fan wearing a costume inspired by the movie Sucker Punch. "You can have a golf geek or a cooking geek. I have a friend, her whole life is cooking. That is what she does."

How is collecting comic books and dressing up in TV-inspired costumes any different?

Reprinted courtesy of the National Post


Saturday, September 24, 2011

Fear and Geeking at The 2011 Montreal Comic Con

I have a confession to make.

Before attending the 2011 Montreal Comic Con last weekend, I had never attended a fan convention of any kind. Not a comic con, an SF con, a Star Trek con, a Star Wars con, heck, not even a plumber or storm-door salesmen convention.

Look, 25,000 geeky guys who all live in their parent's basements!

Despite all my quintessentially geeky interests, I tended to avoid cons. Even when was I playing William Shatner in three hit productions of Star Trek: On Stage (and the occasional Trek themed improv show) back in the 90's, I would say, "Hey, I draw the line at conventions". That somehow made sense in my mind at the time; conventions were my own personal demarcation point between being a fan and being a totally obsessive nerdy fanboy with "no life".

I'm not sure what was up with the whole Garfield thing.

Sure, I have (both then and now) a wall full of movies and TV shows, an office populated with action figures and I regularly host soirées known as Geek Night...but...hey, hey, hey....let's not carried away here, okay?

Then something just clicked. When I saw the line-up for this year's con: Adam West, Burt Ward, Stan Lee and the most kitschy post-modern ironic guest of all, Gil Gerard (it's a Gen X thing, don't ask), I started giving the idea of attending some serious thought.

He's the 70's Buck Rogers, for those of you under 40

Around that time my blogging and article writing started showing some upward movement. My stuff was getting picked up by major national publications and some of the better known websites  The path was obvious: I would attend the con to write about it. It was a plan that was  productive and that would satisfy my long sneaking curiosity about what goes on at these things.

Once I landed my media accreditation, I decided on an angle for an article that was near and dear to my heart.  The piece has not run yet so I'll stay mum on its contents for the moment. In addition, I could report on the activities of the likes of Stan Lee, Adam West and (if anybody cared) Gil Gerard.

I dunno what took me so long. The 2011 Montreal Comic Con was a blast.

In the course of my research, I got to talk to a many of my fellow attendees (though, really with an estimated 25,000 people attending, it was just a relative handful). I talked to more people at the con then I ever would have under other circumstances. I met met fans of age ranges, professions and cultural backgrounds that I doubt would have ever encountered in my own social circles, even the "geeky" ones.

What I came away with was, that like any group of people, you can not apply just one standard to comic and SF fans. Some there were comic book fans, some were into manga, there were the horror fans, the fantasy buffs, the Trek fans, the Star Wars fans, gamers, there were also fans of stuff I had never even heard of, some were fans of the superhero movies but had never read a single comic book (Mind.Blown.) and one guy I talked to who was there just to see the 1966 Batmobile.

Holy cliched references, Batman!

Many fans were in costumes (some more detailed or more obscure than others) but, overall, the majority of the crowd looked like any large group of people you might see in a mall on a Saturday afternoon (probably around Christmas time, given the size of the crowd).

At a time when previously obscure superheroes like Iron Man have become household names, when SF series actually win Emmy's and when the same writers and directors who worked on The Sopranos apply their talents to bringing the fantasy genre to HBO, this stuff has suddenly become pretty mainstream. The old geek cliches just don't stand anymore.

Another thing I got from fans (both the big ones and the more casual ones) was a strong sense of confidence and pride in their interests. Let`s face it, comic book and SF fandom is often negatively stigmatized in our society. I've never understood it personally. We live in a society obsessed with a bunch of guys hitting a piece of rubber around ice with a stick but I'm weird 'cause I'm into Star Trek?

Security was pretty tight.

And, yeah, there were some fans that were a tad more hardcore. Like, for instance, the 501st Legion, a Star Wars costume fan club that meets regularly to dress up as Jedis and Stormtroopers (just as an aside, I don't how anybody could spend two eight hour plus days in Place Bonaventure wearing a Chewbacca costume and not collapse but I digress). The incredibly detailed accuracy of their costumes is both stunning and, at times, a bit disturbing. To keep it in perspective, though, the 501st Legion does a great deal of community and charity work. I don't much of that so who am I to judge?

Comic con attendees dressed up as comic con attendees

After my experience at the 2011 Montreal Comic Con, one thing is for sure. It`s not gonna be another 47 years before I attend another con.

May the Force live long and prosper with you!

At 88, this guy can still work an audience with the best of 'em.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Star Wars: Cinema's First Mash-up

The original 1977 Star Wars film arrives on Blu-ray this week, along with the rest of the original trilogy and the prequels.  News of the new format release has once again brought George Lucas into the center of a fan controversy concerning special editions vs. original editions and the issue of yet more obsessive tinkering. At the same time, though, this is also a good opportunity to look back at what Lucas’ landmark first Star Wars film did give us.  

Quite simply, Star Wars was, really, the world’s first mash-up.

Originally a technical term to describe the mixing of disparate elements in website design, the mash-up concept quickly spread to music and, with the help of Youtube, to the cutting together of different movies to make something entirely new.  Today you can find mash-ups of anything and everything from Robocop fighting The Terminator to Captain Kirk lecturing President Obama to the audio of the The Dark Knight  trailer set to scenes from What About Bob?, to name just a very few.

In 1977, there was, of course, no internet and certainly no home video editing software. That didn’t stop George Lucas.  In the first Star Wars movie (though the fourth in the series...but let’s not get into that), Lucas was able to combine the disparate elements of not just many different films genres but also of many different specific movies as well, to create what was, in effect, a very early cinematic mash-up.

Star Wars has been a massive influence on the generations of film goers and movie makers that have followed since its original theatrical release. Yet, at the same time, the movie was in itself the product of a great deal of influences to begin with.  Much has been written and discussed about the impact that the writings of Joseph Campbell (author of among others things, The Power of Myth) on Star Wars. We have all heard of concepts like the Hero’s Journey referenced in many an analysis of Star Wars, much of it often coming from Lucas himself.  To be sure, there are a great many classic literary archetypes and themes to be found in Star Wars.  But Star Wars is also very much an incredibly visual product of an incredibly visual medium.  Its cinematic influences merit a great deal of consideration as well.

While just about everybody on the planet has seen Star Wars, not everybody on the planet necessarily knows where Star Wars comes from. The answer is simple: a ton and half of movies and genres that clearly had an impact on Lucas growing up.

Almost the first thing that comes up on the screen in Star Wars is an element of the mash-up. That, of course, is the iconic opening titles crawl which sets up the back story for the film as it scrolls its way up the screen. The distinct element of this crawl is that it is shot from a low angle causing the text to look like it is disappearing into the upper reaches of space as it scrawls away. The opening scroll up is a visual element lifted directly out of the Flash Gordon serials of the 1930’s.  Because the Flash Gordon serials (like all serials of the time) were shown in theatres in weekly instalments, it was necessary to recap the story every “chapter”.  The producers of the Gordon serials decided they wanted to stand out from the crowd and so shot the scrolling text crawl from a low an angle. The technique stood out so well that it made its way into a huge hit movie forty years later.

Laurel and Hardy, the popular film comedy duo of the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s are another Star Wars mash-up element.  The duo was made up of thin British comic actor Stan Laurel, and the plumper American comic actor Oliver Hardy.  The juxtaposition of the two physical types is not unlike that of the droids C3PO and R2D2 in Star Wars. The relationship is similar as well. In addition to their physical comedy, Laurel and Hardy were also known for their verbal sparring. They would often bicker with each other while still maintaining an unspoken bond beneath the surface of their humourous squabbles. Hardy would often play the part of the pompous complainer, often blaming his own failures on the quieter and more intelligent Laurel. The scenes with C3PO and R2 wandering the desert of Tatooine reflect a very Laurel and Hardy type of dynamic (even if half of the droid duo never actually speaks words).

Another mash-up element in the characters of C3PO and R2D2 comes from legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s 1953 film The Hidden Fortress. The movie has two bickering peasant characters that may remind most Star Wars fans of the two droids.  The Hidden Fortress also contains many similar plot elements to Star Wars.  The specific look of C3PO, however, is lifted from Fritz Lang’s silent SF classic, Metropolis.

Some classic World War II movies bring in another mash-up to a quintessential part of Star Wars: the incredible ground-breaking space battle scenes.  Elements of Hollywood veteran director Howard Hawks’ 1943 movie, Air Force turn up in one of the space battle scenes. Luke Skywalker and Han Solo take on the Imperial Tie Fighters just after the escaping the Death Star.  Luke and Han man two gun turrets very much like the ones the B-17 airplane gunners man in Air Force.  The two gunners in Air Force yell and cheer back and forth to each other across the airplane as they shoot down the enemy. The attacking Japanese Zeros make almost the exact same screeching sound that the TIE Fighters make as they whip by the Millennium Falcon. Both battle scenes begin with the line “Here they come!”.

Star Wars’ classic attack on the Death Star sequence contains even more mash-up elements.  The unforgettable climatic battle owes its influence to not one but at least two different World War II movies.  Perhaps the biggest influence on the Death Star assault scenes is British director Michael Anderson’s 1954 movie The Dam Busters. Inspired by real events, the story of The Dam Busters follows a group of RAF pilots who must blow up a strategically important German dam. To do so, they use special bombs that bounce off the surface of the water. To blow up the dam, they must land that one extremely difficult “million to one shot” hit in just the exact right spot. It’s an assault that takes multiple attack runs by different planes, all of whom have got German fighters on their tail.  Sound familiar?  Even some of the X-Wing pilot banter is lifted verbatim from The Dam Busters.

This mash-up makes the point well:

Or the other way around:

 Also figuring in the Death Star attack mash-up is director Walter Grauman’s 1964 movie 633 Squadron Squadron. The recently passed Cliff Robertson plays a squadron leader who commands an attack on a German V-2 fuel factory. The factory is located deep within a fjord in Nazi-occupied Norway.  The fjord is heavily armed with anti-aircraft guns. The shots of the anti-aircraft guns firing on the planes as they attempt to make their attack run into to the fjord are very similar to the shots of the laser cannons firing on the X-Wing Fighters as they attempt to make their attack run into the trenches of the death star.

Once again, a mash-up helps make my mash-up point.

And these are but a few mash-ups in Star Wars. There are many others.

Luke Skywalker’s swing between two platforms in the Death Star while Princess Leia holds on to him is right out of swashbuckling Errol Flynn movies like The Adventures of Robin Hood, the cantina in Mos Eisley is classic wild west saloon transplanted to outer space, the diminutive Jawas physicality and movements bear a striking similarity those of the Munchkins in The Wizard of Oz, the scene where Luke returns to his home to find his aunt and uncle slaughtered by stormtroopers is a lot like the aftermath of a similar attack in John Ford’s The Searchers, the medal ceremony at the end of the film is (rather creepily) reminiscent of Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will, Han Solo is unmistakably costumed with a cowboy style vest and holster and the scene where Han fires first on Gredo is a lot like a scene in Sergio Leone’s The Good The Bad and The Ugly. However, there is no Special Edition of the Good The Bad and The Ugly in which Eli Wallach does not fire first.

The mash-up elements are part of the beauty of Star Wars. Lucas managed to take all of these incredible and disparate elements from many different movies and genres that did not normally belong together and mix those elements up almost seamlessly. The result is a great movie that stands entirely on its own and requires no knowledge of its sources or references on the part its audience. The original Star Wars is truly greater than the sum of its parts. If it isn’t cinema’s first mash-up then it is certainly cinema’s best mash-up.

The list of Star Wars mash-up elements could easily go on.  Know of one that’s not mentioned here? Feel free to weigh in with your comments below.