Wednesday, 25 January 2012

The Wrong Impression...

Hello Friends.

If the Academy Awards included television, Darrell Hammond could take home more hardware than... a hardware thief, I don't know. It seems impersonations count for more than creating a fictional character from nothing. Consider that recent impressions of Margaret Thatcher, Ray Charles, Marilyn Monroe, Johnny Cash, Julia Child, and Queen Elizabeth all won critical acclaim, several awards, and side-by-side photos of the original icon and Meryl Streep. Tackling a public figure so well known is surely difficult, but we even crap ourselves when actors take on far less recognizable yet still real people like Harvey Milk, Aileen Wuernos, Nelson Mandela, Mark Zuckerberg, King George VI, Edward R. Murrow, Idi Amin, Edith Piaf, Truman Capote and Mr. Moneyball (my assumed character name of Brad Pitt in Moneyball).

I think maybe the reason this impresses us so much is that we can “see” the acting. If someone alters their voice, manner and appearance and we know both the actor and the character they're portraying, we go, “Garsh, that there person from real life is different on the tv!” It's interesting, and I'm sure devastating to those actors who change a great deal of their external selves in service of a character who heretofore had only existed on the page. For instance, did Paul Giamatti tear his hair out in '05 when he wasn't nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for his neurotic nebbish Miles Raymond in Sideways, and had to watch Leonardo DiCaprio (Howard Hughes – The Aviator), Clint Eastwood (Frankie Dunn – Million Dollar Baby), Johnny Depp (J.M. Barrie – Finding Neverland) and Don Cheadle (Paul Rusesabagina – Hotel Rwanda) battle it out with Jamie Foxx (Ray Charles – Ray)? All the nominees that year were real guys (though Clint Eastwood is iffy, Million Dollar Baby is a screenplay “inspired by” a memoir about a real guy), which suggests our most honoured actors are good mimics, and Hollywood writers are all out of ideas.

And how strange that we love performances in biopics, but seem to dismiss them on television. I just finished reading Darrell Hammond's super weird and disturbing memoir, and while I can't say I'd go back and re-read chapters detailing his abuse at the hands of his sadistic mother, or plumbing the depths of his cocaine addiction, it was fascinating to read about his process of putting together a good impression. Over the years, his uncanny takes on Clinton, Gore, Cheney, Rumsfeld, John McCain, Donald Trump, Chris Matthews, Ted Koppell, and Jesse Jackson have ruled the infamous Saturday Night Live cold open, but to my knowledge he never won, nor was he nominated, for any acting awards.

Impersonations, impressions, the mockery of mimicry, it's all fascinating to me. I love trolling tv and YouTube for footage of somebody “doing” a great somebody else, particularly when they are rendered with just a few tics and mannerisms. How I would love to turn around, bury my face in my hands, and turn back around, transformed.

Dream: Be a good impressionist (one who performs impressions, for lack of a better term).

Goal: Unachievable. It's the sad truth that whatever meagre acting skills I might possess, nailing an impression is not among them. A few years ago, I tried out for a sketch troupe that required you to bring a series of characters to the audition including, if you had one, a celebrity impression. I put together a lousy cabaret of stock characters (British swearing man! Redneck baby photographer!) and wracked my brain for a celebrity. I don't think I look like anybody famous, but the only time anyone has ever said, “You know who you kind of look like...” they've said I vaguely resemble weird character actor John Malkovich. I don't know whether to be flattered or horrified at the comparison, but he's such a unique personality with a distinct vocal cadence that goes from whispers to screams, a big, open, expressive face, and a quickness to anger that should have made him ripe for parody. I wrote a terrible sketch for me as Malkovich where he's trying to record the outgoing message on his answering machine, but a bee keeps flying into the room and wrecking every “take”, making him madder and madder. I studied every Malkovichian thing I could find, to absolutely no success. I was terrible.

Plan: Despite the setback of being no good, determine the qualities one must capture to really nail an impersonation, like:

A weird expression or turn of phrase. Having hardly seen Johnny Carson's Tonight Show, I couldn't say whether or not he observed a great deal of “wacky, wild stuff”, but impressions of him rely on that so heavily, I imagine that's all he said to become the King of Late Night. Similarly, did Reagan say “Well” that much? Did Lucille Ball go “Waaaaah!” all the time? Was Jimmy Stewart functionally retarded?

A distinctive physical characteristic. Despite the downer of being born with gap teeth, you'd always have a Lauren Hutton, David Letterman, or 90's Madonna at the ready. Anyone with poufy ginger hair could pull off a Trump. If SNL has taught us anything, every black person should try an Oprah in their lives, white folks will love it.

An accent. Despite the tragedy of his untimely death, do you think Steve Irwin's gradual disappearance from popular culture kind of delights Aussies? It has to. I work with an Australian, and he says whenever he meets someone at a party, or goes into a store and starts speaking, he has countless bad Steve Irwin's parroted back to him, rife with “Crikey's!”

Power. Maybe the reason we love a good celebrity impression is that it's usually mean spirited and takes the intended down a few pegs. Surely America was helped through eight years of Bush thanks to Will Ferrell's bumbling, blinking “strateegery.” An impression that received loads of attention, may have turned an election, or at least given solid ratings, was Tina Fey's Sarah Palin. The resemblance was no stronger than dark hair and glasses, but something about liberal, snarky Fey taking a stab at folksy, misinformed Palin was amazing. Maybe it was because Sarah Palin was virtually unknown prior to her nomination for VP, so for a time there were just as many Fey as Palin soundbites floating around as the genuine article. In any case, I hope Sarah sticks around on the lunatic fringe, not enough to yield any actual political power, but enough to ensure continuing Feyppearances on Saturday Night Live.

Isn't it such a weird experience watching someone do an impression of you? Usually it's just someone imitating you to make a point in an argument, which is pretty bad, but you don't mention it because you're in the midst of an argument and don't want to lose steam. But they say something like, “You're always, 'Oh I'm James! Blah blah blah!'” And I don't think I've ever said that. My brother does an impression of me where he rubs his hands together and says, “Let's proceed to the observatory.” I'm not sure I sound like that, but every time I do my impression of his impression of me, people go, “Yes! You're exactly like that!” So what do I know? My point is, whether directed at you or not, a scathing imitation, or loving homage, there's something remarkable about a great impression. It's just wacky, wild stuff.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

My Fellow Americans...

Hello Friends.

As a Canadian, I tend to regard American politics with the same disdain one reserves for a far off acquaintance who's no longer doing so well. Like when you hear someone from your elementary school fell into a rock quarry and so can't teach Zumba anymore. You sort of go, “Oh, drag! From what I heard, she was really into that! I kind of almost feel bad!”

But recently, a friend pointed out that American politics are closer to our own than any of us Canucks would like to think. Be it commerce, ecology, or international relations, we follow in the steps of our American brothers and often screw it up worse than they have. This concerns me. There are uniquely Canadian things I am quite proud of (gay marriage, health care, the Tim Horton's Maple Cinnamon French Toast Bagel), but it seems we are so desperate for a national identity and so in the pocket of American commerce and culture, that to affect political change here at home, we must venture south of the border.

Dream: Become President of the United States.

Goal: Achievable. My cursory knowledge of the major Republican candidates for President leads me to believe I am superior to them in nearly every way. And I get the sense that people are eying Obama up like one does a new boyfriend. “I thought he'd be different than the last guy, but he's so like him! Why do I always end up with guys like these? Dammit, Colleen, get it together!”

Plan: Present a platform so enticing as to secure not just a late-in-the-race nomination, but a landslide victory. Incorporate the following campaign promises:

Healthcare. How in the world can this still be a thing? As I understand it, under the current system, a sick American might as well blow his nose into hundred dollar bills. Is the underlying goal to bankrupt the sick? To what end? Even if you're the greediest, no-heartiest evil genius, how do you benefit when a sick person must spend exorbitantly to treat himself? Dude gets sick, loses his job and home in pursuit of medical relief, cannot afford to return to health and so dies, so the strongest survive. Besides the fact that such a concept is inherently Darwinian which flies in the face of these blowhard Creationists, it ultimately harms everyone. By not treating that which kills him, the American government implicitly supports either the spread of his illness through contagion, or the pervasiveness of his disease because no scientist is inventing a vaccine because there's no money to pay for it. I'm surprised polio isn't still at thing over there. And all right, maybe I can possibly understand the twisted notion that one must work hard for his paycheque which he can then use to pay for medical bills and so optimum health is the incentive for pulling yourself up by your bootstraps and all of that, but seriously, not even kids? A child can't get a job! A child has no bootstraps! You're going to blame child's parents crappy jobs for child's sickness? “Ooooh, sorry, Janie, but your Mom lost her health insurance bennies at Quizno's, so please leave right now and try not to cough on anyone.”

Corporate greed. I lack even a basic understanding of economics, so if the subject of banking starting coming up too often, I'd change to subject by appearing to separate my thumb, or making my pencil look like rubber, or just kiss some hands and shake some babies until the topic was dropped. However, I could enforce this one rule. Company bonuses cannot exceed the funds available to their least wealthy client. So if, for instance, you keep granting loans to some poor sucker drowning in debt, and you realize with overdraft and credit cards, he can only spend eighty dollars before he's completely out of cash, you can give three executives a twenty dollar bonus and spend the remaining twenty on a party sub for the holiday celebration.

Media reform. Pundits can be forgiven slants and opinions, but to call yourself a news program and claim journalistic objectivity in the face of spin or slander should be taken far more seriously. I'm not just ragging on Fox News here, but any nightly program where somebody sits behind a desk and tries to tell us stuff about the world. Let's prioritize, people! For instance, if a bunch of people are imprisoned, beaten, or killed without just cause, maybe push the piece about Beyonce back a half hour. And free speech is a right, but a platform for hatred shouldn't be. I'm so irritated when a guest on a panel show says something racist, homophobic, or sexist and is neither dismissed, nor challenged. Bigotry should not be a considered opinion. “Should gay people be allowed to raise children?” should be given no more discussion time than “Should all tacos be made by a dog?” And, as much as I hate these talking-head shows, let's give an extra half-hour to list every source cited. The O'Reilly Factor will run an impressive ninety minutes under my leadership because he and his guests must read a concise, easily confirmed bibliography to back up each claim made during the broadcast. For every improperly cited source, The O'Reilly Factor or Glenn Beck's running time will be reduced by five minutes. Trust me, they'll be hosting five minute program interstitials by November 10th.

Reproductive rights. I know what a woman wants to do with her own body is a complicated issue but... oh no, wait, when you say it like that, it's not complicated at all. But there are those who will continue to fight tirelessly, most of them men (biiiig presidential eye-roll here), to deny a woman the right to terminate her pregnancy. Lucky for both sides, I have a solution. If you're going to hold a picket sign at a clinic, call your congressman, attend pro-life rallies, etc., you must be able to put your money where your mouth is. You must be willing and able to take and raise the baby of a pregnant woman who is unable to care for it herself. You must fill out a series of forms with your address, phone number, income, all that stuff, and check daily for a baby on your doorstep. If you're unwilling yourself to care for any baby you are fighting hard to protect, turn in your sign and mind your own damn business.

Gay rights. To deny rights to a gay person is to deny human rights and the failure to grant human rights is something American routinely invades other countries for, so we need to let gay Americans marry each other and raise kids lest they bomb themselves. This is an issue curiously still up for debate over there, which disproves the maxim, “You can't fight progress.” That's all these zealots are doing, seems to me, is working overtime to stop the inevitable. There was a time when women were fighting for the vote when enough people said, “I'm wrong, you're right, so it shall be” and it was so. There was a time when black people were fighting for the vote when enough people said, “I'm wrong, you're right, so it shall be” and that was so. Now is the time for the marriage, children and military thing, sorry angry folks. This will entail that political correctness thing that everybody whines about, but last I checked, political correctness seemed no different from manners. Manners took us from coloured to Negro to African American (hopefully it'll just take us to people pretty quick here), so let's mind our p's and q's until “fag” and “dyke” become as antiquated and jarring. Similarly, can we all work a little harder to make sure all homophobia is unacceptable? By which I mean, let's stop allowing phrases like, “I'm just not comfortable with the gay lifestyle” or “I love gays, but do they have to be so _____?” If you're unsure as to whether or not you've just heard something homophobic, replace “gay” with “black.” If it sounds prejudiced, it's prejudiced. As in, “There's a problem in this country when blacks are allowed to serve in the military” or, “Black people can do whatever they want in their own home, but do I have to see them on television all the time?”

Finally, I'd attempt to improve foreign relations by putting a stop to them. When I was a kid, if my brother and I were fighting constantly, my parents would split us up. “If you can't get along,” they would say, “leave each other alone!” I think America has been playing “Quit hitting yourself!” with so many other countries, they need to go sit in the corner and think about what they did. History will reflect some damning things about the Iraq invasion, for instance, but that doesn't seem to be slowing down the upcoming invasion of Iran. Chill out, America! I know you're jealous that so-and-so has better toys than you do, but you've proven you can't get along so just sit on your hands and zip that lip, mister!

I feel like I must re-emphasize that Canada is certainly not immune to these exact same problems. Harper seems to be chipping away at any distinction we once proudly held as a fairer, better place to live. And while I'm painting with broad strokes about America here, I don't dare generalize about Americans. Their politics worry me, but I'd bet their politics worry them, too! It's naïve to think what affects our American brothers and sisters does not affect us in turn, so we ought to work harder to make sure America has a better tomorrow, for all of us. Oh, that's a great line to end on. I'm Big City James and I approve this message.

Thursday, 12 January 2012

And the Award Goes to...

Hello Friends.

I'm aware of the contradictions inherent in never going to the movies, buy albums, or watching television, and tuning into award shows every year, but that doesn't slow me down. I'm a sucker for award shows, be they for television, movies, or music, again in spite of the fact that I have no more than a passing interest in all three. I tell friends that I'm tuning into just to enjoy them ironically, make fun of the dresses, etc, but regardless of my intention, I get totally sucked-in as these nights roll on. Awards season hasn't even really begun and I'm already sucked-in. For instance, I'm scared if we don't give Meryl Streep another Oscar, she's just going to stop making movies. I'm sure she's not so shallow as to determine her worth based on her winnings, but what if she's not, you guys! When Sandra Bullock beat her out a few years ago for There's a Black Person in my House, I thought Meryl was going to throw up her hands, change into sweatpants and just be like, “Fuck y'all! What do I have to do?”

And the pageantry of it all is pretty seductive, but silly at its core. For instance, though the Emmy's, Golden Globe's, Grammy's are broadcast live, they have to give out the awards nobody cares about first, like Fattest Lighting Technician or Second Best Best Boy, so the red carpet for this stuff happens at, like, two in the afternoon. So all these people traipsing around in evening wear, pretending like it's a late night soiree and they're not sweltering in the heat are already ridiculous. And the red-carpet prattle is the worst thing about humans, collectively. Yes, we start wars and kill each other over our perceived differences, but if someone asks Tina Fey what she thinks Sarah Palin would say about Helen Mirren's bangin' bikini bod, that's truly the least we can do.

Of course, I shamefacedly admit that another great part of watching award shows is the fantasy that I will win one myself. I imagine my speech, and who I would thank (and who I would pointedly not thank, just to piss them off). I rehearse it so completely every year for some imaginary contribution to something great, I just can't let my life go by without giving that speech.

Dream: Win a big, fancy award on television.

Goal: Unachievable. Based on my acting and screenplay writing ability, I will never win and Oscar, and I can't imagine singing or narrating an audiobook to such a degree to win a Grammy. I might win an Emmy if my nine-episode arc as a troubled teen on NCIS:NYC:STI pans out to a full season, but that's unlikely, too. The answer is not to improve in any of these over-saturated fields, but rather to hope that they start to televised awards given out for things I could conceivably win.

Plan: Pitch some televised awards given out in the following categories:

  • Best Pretending Not to Smell You After You Stunk Up This Enclosed Space We Share
  • Best Exercise of Caution in Throwing Out Nearly Expired Dairy (Three Days or More Category)
  • Best Achievement of a Triple-Chin By Pulling Face Into Neck
  • Best Fake Absorption in Reading When an Old Person Stands Near You on a Bus (As You are Seated)
  • Best Consistent Mispronunciation of “February” (Male)
  • Best Continuous Wearing of A Single Pair of Jeans (Ten Days or More Category)
  • Lifetime Achievement in Hypochondria
  • Best Misjudging Straw Distance Without Looking
  • Best Thinking There Isn't a Bottom Stair But Then There IS
  • Most Forceful Noseblow (Canada)
  • Smallest Debit Purchase Gala – Honoured Guest
  • Shick Triple-Blade Misuse Award as presented by The Cut-Up Face Guild
  • Best Ghostwritten Bob Hoskins Autobiography for Don't Shoot, it's Only Smee
  • Most Reluctant to Participate in a Standing Ovation
  • Best Killing of a Joke from Over-Explanation
  • Best Feigned Interest in a Friend's Convoluted Dream
  • Best Use of Dream/Goal/Plan Format Within City-Themed Weblog (Canada)
  • Most Pizzaest Gut

Scoff if you must (but must you?), I figure we'll have a plethora of award shows soon enough. People love all of these reality shows where judges get all judge-y, but ratings are highest during the audition period and the finale episodes. What is an award show if not that? A bunch of nominees get onstage, a winner is crowned, and then the cameras zoom in on all the losers pretending to be happy. Then at the end of the year, we'd have the Award Awards, where the best award show is awarded. Anyway, there about to play me off here, so let me just say it was an honour to write this for you, oh my god, my family, my friends, all of you, thank you so much.

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Such a Lovely Place, Such a Lovely Place...

Hello Friends.

I've started a new job which I quite enjoy, so far. It's been a long time since I've done anything from nine to five, though, and I've a bit of a commute, so I haven't spent much of the past few days at home. Rather, between leaving extra early to ensure punctuality, and getting groceries after work (and by groceries, I mean Cool Whip, Doritos, and those stain-removal pens), I'm usually only home to eat and sleep. I'm not complaining, mind you, I'm thrilled to be out of the house, but it does make me wish I could design my home like my very favourite vacation destination.

Dream: Duplicate the awesomeness of a hotel in my crappy apartment.

Goal: Achievable, because I've done it before. My last job also required a hectic first week of early mornings and late nights filled with errands. At the time I had, no joke, a blow-up bed from Canadian Tire as my everyday big boy bed. While it was less like sleeping on a cloud and more akin to tossing and turning on a moon-bounce of farts, the one advantage to this bed was that it was easily mobile. For that taxing first week, I easily moved by “bed” into the living room and made it face my tv, hotel-style. Trust me, it's not weird waking up next to your living room couch. It's awesome.

Plan: Look to replicate the qualities of hotels and motels I've stayed in that made them so rad. I've always believed in the trite maxims, "Happiness is a journey, not the destination" and "Half the fun is in getting there" as it applies to stops at a Best Western. Whether it was visits to the big American motel chains during the week long car trips we used to take from my childhood home here in the Big City to visit my parents' college friends in Georgia, or stopovers in small-town Saskatchewan's less reputable lodgings on a children's theatre tour, or night with the Doctor on one of our many out of town trips for a wedding or conference, I've always loved a stay in a hotel.

For the purposes of these entry, by the way, I use "hotel" loosely, when what I probably mean is motel. I've never stayed in a really fancy hotel myself, though I've visited friends and family while they've stayed in one. They're luxurious, to be sure, but something about the money it must cost to spend even a night there would sort of ruin the experience for me. As much as I could get used to silk sheets and in-room hot tubs, I'm sure part of me would always be thinking, "I'm paying $200 a night to sit naked eating onion rings and watch Pop Up Video." Anyway, hotel or motel, I just want keep their best attributes in mind when redecorating this crap shack with the leaky roof. Attributes like:

Beds nearly as big as the room. Alright, I know the obvious response here is, "The beds aren't bigger, the rooms are just smaller!" But that's fine, Captain Buzzkill, that's not the point. The point is, you can't not be really comfortable in a hotel room because you sort of have to lie down. There's one poor sap who gets stuck in the office chair or overturned bucket they offer in addition to the beds, but it's never me. I'm here to lie down.

Television is the focal point. If beds are the meat and potatoes of the hotel industry, television is the gravy that gets into everything. You can't not watch tv in a hotel room. I think you sort of forget how to read or use a computer because suddenly there's this thing on a network you've never heard of called like Discovery Indoors about prisons and "what life is like on the inside" and there's no way you're not going to watch that!
Swimmin'. I go to this fitness club downtown where I don't do any fitness, but I do swim. I like swimming, I figure it's ironically the one thing that keeps me from looking like a whale, but every time I finish up, I kind of want to watch tv on different channels and use an ice machine. I love the over-chlorinated, heavily populated hotel pool. Whoever came up with that is a genius that proves the expression, "With nothing but time to occupy the traveller, but that he shall float around and be closer to God." (Just made that shit up, but doesn't it sound like it could be an expression?).

Cleanliness. I know a different person has slept in the same hotel bed every night for as long as the hotel has existed, but it always feels like the cleanest place in the world, because some poor, hunched-over person spends an awkward hour cleaning it while you pretend to watch golf or read the local attractions map. And I know, I know, hotel bedspreads are filthy, they find all kinds of bodily fluids on them with that gross camera on Dateline, but it just feels clean. That's all I really need in an environment anyway. Give me a pine or bleach smell and I'll take off my clothes and roll around, even if there's a corpse under the bed (isn't that the premise of those new Febreze commercials?).

Food in your bed. This is tricky, because while snack food on a bed is acceptable to me, something about eating an entree on a bed gives me pause. Until I consider it further. Room service, or ordering food to the room was something my parents would never allow (not that we stayed in places with room service, mind you, but anyway), and so I've never really developed a taste for it. But there's always that pizza that you order when you're drunk on coolers after a wedding. You plan to eat it at the dumb little table off of little paper towel "plates", but eventually, you're sprawled in bed with crusts on your stomach and you can't tell me that's not a little piece of Heaven.

But I guess what makes every hotel room truly special is whomever you're sharing it with (even if they make you stay in the car while they check in because it's cheaper if they think you're just one guest). Whether it's family, drunk friends, ambitious actors, or your Doctor, spending quality with loved ones is what really makes a hotel feel like home, and makes home feel, like, awesome.