NBA Eastern Conference preview

There are three sides to the NBA season: what the teams want, what their fans hope for, and what actually happens.

Every year, 30 teams compete for 16 playoff spots and the right to battle for the most inconspicuous-looking trophy in all of professional sports. Every team begins the season thinking it has that right, and then reality takes over and the Clippers have competition in the draft lottery.

People are always eager to give their two cents about what team will win it all and who that team will beat. Why get ahead of ourselves? A guy I met on a bus once said it best: “Playoffs are anyone’s guess. The regular season, that’s for intelligent guessing.” And I couldn’t agree more.

Boston Celtics

The Buzz

You have to respect Rasheed Wallace, because you have no choice. He’s like that guy in high school who was sort of cool, but also really frightening, which is just what the Celtics needed. After Kevin Garnett went down last season, Boston experienced a waking nightmare with Leon Powe and Brian Scalabrine. Wallace is a bigger nightmare in virtually every respect, but clearly the lesser of two evils where basketball is concerned. His toughness and playoff experience will shore up the Celtics’ lineup, and spare fans from another “Scara-brine” attack.


Garnett and Wallace injure themselves during a heated game of Wii Tennis in mid-February, sidelining both indefinitely. When questioned about his injury, Wallace’s only comment will be “Both teams played hard.”

Cleveland Cavaliers

The Buzz

Now that Shaq and Lebron are together, prognosticators won’t shut up about the same two storylines. Storyline one: Lebron James is a free agent next summer. Is it possible he might go to another team? Why yes, it is. And if you’re like me, you probably couldn’t decipher all those casual remarks he made about “exploring” his “options” next summer. Storyline two: Will Shaq foil the Cavs’ chemistry and sink them for good in the playoffs? Don’t count on it. Last time I checked, Shaq was a basketball player, not a villain in a Shakespeare play. Besides, if you followed basketball, you would know that he only sabotages teams after they trade him.

So what’s the bottom line? While every team would like to have its own Lebron James, Shaq’s defence against the Raptors had less plot and rhythm than an episode of Shaq Vs., and the Cavs do most of their player scouting at YMCAs across the Midwest. With two guys the Raptors didn’t want already in the rotation, Danny Ferry might be a bigger bust as a GM than he was a player.


Eating weak divisional opponents for breakfast, the Cavs waltz into the playoffs looking like the real deal again. Shaq takes all the credit and then takes Lebron’s idea for a reality show.

Orlando Magic

The Buzz

Rashard Lewis began the season serving a 10-game suspension for using steroids. But that shouldn’t derail the Magic with Dwight Howard and perennial sad-sack Vince “Grimace” Carter from carrying the team. Expect the Magic to get on a roll around the 30-game mark. That’s when Jameer Nelson should fully rebound from his injury and feel more in sync with the game.


Carter blows kisses to the Magic faithful when chants of “MVP” breakout during a home game. An embarrassed coach pulls Carter aside and tells him the chants are for his teammate Dwight Howard. Upset, Carter takes the game ball and goes home.

Washington Wizards

The Buzz

I must be crazy, right? The Wizards finished dead last in the East in 2008-09 and looked ’80s-Clippers bad (hell, current-Clippers bad) getting there. Fans in the D.C. area aren’t sweating it. Last season was a write-off for the Wiz, who relied heavily on their young players following an endless string of injuries. They’re back to the same lineup that won 43 games in ’07-08, and have added Mike Miller and Randy Foye to take some of the offensive load off of Gilbert Arenas’ shoulders.


Mike James starts 70 games for the injury-plagued Wizards, making them the only franchise in Washington that doesn’t get a bailout after this year.

Toronto Raptors

The Buzz

It was a busy off-season for Bryan Colangelo. After taking DeMar DeRozan with the ninth pick in the draft, he masterfully orchestrated a four-team deal to acquire 6’10” “small” forward Hedo Turkoglu. Throw in a series of trades and free agent signings, and you’ve got the new-look Raptors—with a lot of the same problems. Despite one of the league’s biggest frontcourts, the Raptors rebound like the ball could release tear gas at any moment.


After another sluggish start, Colangelo adopts the phrase “We like our team’s chances” and uses it until the Raps are mathematically eliminated from the playoffs. Fans eventually figure out that Colangelo’s favorite line is doubletalk for “we don’t have a shot in hell,” begging an important question: Why don’t Toronto basketball fans like baseball?

Atlanta Hawks

The Buzz

With Tim Donaghy in the clink, the Hawks played hard and learned how to win on their own last season. They are a young and talented squad that would rank higher if their bench weren’t so spotty. That aside, Jamal Crawford and human hand-me-down Joe Smith will give the Hawks a strong veteran presence. But their biggest area of concern remains at point guard, surprise, where Mike Bibby has been on the decline in recent years and back-up Jeff Teague is only a rookie.


Mike Bibby’s joints disintegrate and the Hawks are forced to sign Stephon Marbury. The league suspends Marbury when his appetite for Vaseline gets out of hand.

Miami Heat

The Buzz

After a year and a half, the Heat convinced Michael Beasley to wake up from his nap, and were so elated they made him a starter. Beasley in a daze is a serious upgrade for Miami, who have been overly dependent on Dwyane Wade for too long. Recent history suggests that the combination of one superstar and a marginal star is usually enough to make the playoffs (see Cleveland, Dallas, New Orleans).


Wade tears his patellar tendon in the second week of the season and misses four months. In the third month, he runs out of ensembles and has a nervous breakdown.

Chicago Bulls

The Buzz

If you don’t know who Derrick Rose is yet, go to Youtube, take five minutes, and get familiar. Rose is that good and stands to get a lot better. Still, the Bulls are a hard team to figure out. On paper, they’re a strong team with excellent guards and good mixture of size and athleticism in the frontcourt. They’re also very young and may take a while to gel again this year.


Scandal rocks Chicago after it’s revealed that Derrick Rose’s birth certificate, Memphis highlights, and 2008-09 season are all forgeries. An infuriated Bulls management demands an explanation from Rose. He tells them Kentucky head coach John Calipari made him do it, to which they respond, “We thought so.”

Detroit Pistons

The Buzz

It was really swell of Joe Dumars to give Ben Wallace that contract. But starting him? Overlooking their problems at centre, don’t be surprised if the Pistons sneak into the playoffs this year. Hamilton, Stuckey, and Prince give Detroit a solid foundation, and Ben Gordon’s streaky shooting should generate more wins than losses. The X-factor for the Pistons may come down to former Raptor Charlie Villanueva, who showed flashes of brilliance with Milwaukee last season, but still hasn’t developed into a consistent player.


Head coach John Kuester encourages his team to embrace a blue-collar spirit and take more charges. Tayshaun Prince flops harder than Eminem’s new album, as the Pistons set a single-game record with 40 blocking fouls.

Philadelphia 76ers

The Buzz

In the East, the fate of teams on the playoff cusp is more often a war of attrition than a fight to the finish. The 76ers are perennial champs when it comes to being slightly less worse than their middling peers, but even passable mediocrity has to end at some point.


Sixers stick it to everyone and make the playoffs again. However, they bow out early, giving recently acquired Jason Kapono time to read Catcher in the Rye, have lunch with his uncle, and learn to play the guitar.

Charlotte Bobcats

The Buzz Kill

Emeka Okafor and Tyson Chandler are equally adequate centres, so why swap them? Ignoring all the claptrap about team chemistry and fresh starts, what the Bobcats are doing here is kind of cute. They’ve traded one so-so centre for another, because the new guy matches up “better” against Shaq and Dwight Howard and according to Bobcats GM Rod Higgins, “Tyson [puts] us in a position to compete night in and night out with the other quality centres in the league.” The Bobcats might be pathological.


Declining revenues compel owner Robert Johnson to pitch the Bobcats as a reality series to BET. Bobcat executives remind Johnson that he owns the network, prompting him to reply, “I can’t win, can I?”

Indiana Pacers

The Buzz Kill

The Pacers somehow managed to win 36 games last year. What is more perplexing is how they managed to nap through free agency, while the rest of the league at least pretended to care. Let’s talk about the Colts instead.


Pacers dismiss Gene Hackman impostor Jim O’Brien mid-season and hire the real Hackman as the team’s interim head coach. The two-time Oscar winner inspires his players with muddled speeches about how “God wants them to win,” then switches his tune and insists that they’re already “winners in his books.” Confused, the Pacers finish the season with a 6-42 record under the three-time Oscar loser, who really needs a good role.

New York Knicks

The Buzz Kill

Knicks fans knew they were in for a long one when they saw “Welcome to the Darko ages” printed on their season tickets. As a franchise recognized for its mismanagement and sexual harassment lawsuits (or Isiah Thomas’s indiscretions if that’s easier), the Knicks really know how to tell a good joke.


Hopeless by the 25-game mark, the Knicks sign rapper Bow Wow to a 10-day contract. He and Nate Robinson square off immediately over who was lil’ first. Robinson backs down when Bow Wow threatens to play Like Mike on the team bus.

Milwaukee Bucks

The Buzz Kill

Over the last 15 years, the Bucks have had their share of talent. However, when it came time to play, they were as listless as a Coldplay concert. Now that they have significantly less talent and a starting lineup that includes veteran fossil Kurt Thomas, the Bucks are ready for a fresh batch of lottery picks.


Kurt Thomas refuses to board the team’s charter flight to Atlanta until he gets his Chex Mix and a new book of crossword puzzles.

New Jersey Nets

The Buzz Kill

It’s insulting when one of your owners can be seen courtside at the Knicks game, but won’t go near you or your team. The “Izod” Centre has always looked like something out of the Twilight Zone, which makes Rafer Alston joining the Nets kind of fitting. Alston, an eccentric grouch, is the third point guard on the team’s depth chart, behind stud Devin Harris and robot Keyon Dooling. While Harris should make fans shake their heads in amazement, Rafer is always a threat to twist them off. Either way, it’s the Nets that will have the state of New Jersey skipping to a loo somewhere.


Blowout losses become intolerable and Nets fans start pelting players with rubber marmots. Team officials collaborate with Papa Johns to give ticket holders free pizza when the Nets lose by 15 points or more. The pizza deal (known as “the thin crust compromise”) becomes the blueprint for dealing with truculent sports fans everywhere.

Good things can grow outside Ontario

“Buy Ontario” is part of the $12.5-million Pick Ontario Freshness strategy aimed at increasing the demand for Ontario produce in both our stores and restaurants. It’s seductively crafted by policy-makers to ensure you, the consumer, feel healthier, and socially and environmentally virtuous. “If we buy Ontario, everyone wins, because we are supporting our farmers, processors, rural economy, environment, and ourselves with healthy food from here at home,” said Leona Dombrowsky, Minister of Agriculture Food and Rural Affairs. But does everyone really win?

Of course, buying local reduces packaging, increases bio-diversity, supports local small farmers, and minimizes energy consumption and pollution. But increasing the demand for Ontario produce may put foreign agricultural imports at a disadvantage, threatening the livelihoods of the people who produce them.

Many developing countries rely almost entirely on agriculture for their livelihoods. Even slight fluctuations in the market can have major socio-economic effects on these countries.

The economies of developing countries are already at a great disadvantage with regards to market access to Canada. Canadian farmers received approximately $3.3 billion in subsidies in 2008, according to the department of Agriculture, Food, and Rural Affairs. And Ontario spent $717.1 million in direct subsidies to its farmers in 2008. Canada does not import very much from developing countries. In 2001, 0.1 per cent of our agricultural imports were from Africa and zero from the world’s least developed countries. Most of our agricultural imports are actually from the United States.

Some economists argue that buying local might benefit developing economies. By decreasing trade between the global north and south, poorer countries may be encouraged to trade with one another. Over time, this would promote sustainable agricultural development, food security, and a variety of other benefits.

But because of the current global economic set-up and the wonders of “free” trade, many developing countries actually import more than they export. Protectionist measures such as agricultural subsidies make it very difficult for a country like Uganda to sell its rice to Kenya or Mozambique. It’s much cheaper for Kenya to buy its rice directly from the United States. Buying local in Canada would thus only disadvantage these countries further.

These road blocks need to be removed in order to promote intra-regional trade between African nations. According to the United Nations African Recovery Program, African countries must first eliminate trade barriers within the African community for agricultural export to become viable. They must diversify their produce, increase agricultural development initiatives, include the informal sector in their economies, and improve transportation, infrastructure, and distribution. There’s a long way to go, but intra-regional trade is on the rise and it’s changing lives. However, until those road blocks are obliterated, many people in developing countries will depend heavily on international export opportunities for the bulk of their income.

It’s not just Ontario and Canada that are developing armies of locavores. The United States is also urging its citizens to buy local produce, and the boom in Europe is astounding. If this eating local trend continues to explode on a global scale, it could further marginalize and harm developing countries. Good things grow in Ontario, but great things grow all around the world, too.

Unleash the inner Iggy

Are Canadian politics dull? It’s a criticism lobbed at the folks in Ottawa on a regular basis and at those of us who are actively engaged in politics in this country. Canadians gaze longingly at the rough-and-tumble politics of our American neighbours. We hang “HOPE” posters of Obama on our walls, and secretly watch clips of Bill O’Reilly and Keith Olbermann on Youtube. Canadian politics just aren’t as sexy. Even Stephen Harper believes as much, having recently admitted to the Toronto Star that he watches American newscasts exclusively.

Our lacklustre political situation is one of the reasons why I was so excited about Michael Ignatieff’s entry into politics. This is a man who has written 17 books, who has shown to possess an imaginative political mind, and has built a career thinking about matters of identity, human rights, and national projects. This is a man who has never shied away from controversy or bold statements on public policy.

In other words, I have always felt that Ignatieff had an inspiring political imagination. And nowhere is this more evident than in Luke Savage’s excellent interview, published by The Varsity, in which Ignatieff shows himself to be an eloquent and nuanced thinker on matters of federalism and national identity.

So what the hell happened? Why is Ignatieff sitting 15 points behind Harper, whose only capacity for political imagination is how to envision his next propaganda scheme to divide Canadians and dismantle our national institutions?

Former prime minister Paul Martin was at an event at U of T last week, and he offered some insight. I was used to Martin being dull, but at the talk, his ideas were compelling. Martin offered an inspiring vision for a truly global commitment to Africa, a commitment that has been abandoned by a number of Western countries including our own. He also offered a pragmatic and game-changing approach to how the government treats Aboriginal Peoples, and how through a number of initiatives—including an education project co-sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation—Martin is continuing to make an impact out-of-office. Yet where was all this when he was Prime Minister?

When both men lamented on-stage that youth were not getting involved in politics, I asked if maybe the reason for the lack of interest was that our leaders aren’t giving us the kind of proposals that Martin had just outlined.

When Martin was prime minister, he was criticised on a daily basis for being dull. He was even called Mr. Dithers by The Economist. However, now that he’s out of office, he’s anything but.

Compare this with Ignatieff. If the Canadian news media is to be believed, the once-bold Iggy has become the hopelessly banal Iffy. Sound familiar?

But I have hope. Actually, I have a great deal of hope. The Liberal leadership has been shocked into action by the doomsday scenario in which they are currently living. It is time for the calls of columnists across the country to be answered, and for Ignatieff to present some bold policy proposals that will help Canadians recognise his national vision as one unmatched by other Canadian political leaders.

The risk-averse Liberal strategy that has characterised the past few months doesn’t work. Plain and simple. It’s time to be bold. And I have faith in Ignatieff, faith that he will stop deferring to cautious advisors. Faith that he will engage Canadians at the level where he is strongest: that of our political imagination.

The country’s most successful and time-honoured leaders have been the ones who have presented us with a vision for the future. They have known, as leaders, that Canadians need first to believe in it to see it. They know that our country is existentially rooted in a national vision.

When Ignatieff starts to engage Canadians at this level, I have no doubt that he will achieve enduring success.

Gabe De Roche is the president of Liberals at the University of Toronto

Living Arts: Ninjutsu

If a ninja so wishes, he can stare at a horse with the intention of killing it. If a ninja does this for a day, the horse will get antsy and freak out. If a ninja does this for a week, the horse will go insane. True story. Scout’s honour.

Let’s give this some context. The other weekend, I went to a Ninja Combat Training course at Casa Loma. I wore a black T-shirt and tight pants. Now I have three hours of deadly training and a good story to tell people at parties.

I should start at the beginning, with Sensei Michael telling the class that a ninja would have no qualms using a rusted sickle on his opponents. “You cut someone with this?” he said straight-faced, “Certain death. Unless you cut off that limb…”

No. That won’t do. Like all good things, let’s start in the middle of things, with the instructor telling us ninja novices that actor/comedian Eddie Izzard (according to Matthew, it’s spelt like “lizard” but with an “e”) and Tony Roberts (the expletive comedian, not Woody Allen’s sidekick) both embody the philosophy of Ninjutsu. Their confidence, stage presence, and command of an audience would please any sensei, according to Matthew.

Fast-forward 10 minutes. Now I am walking around in a circle, except we’re doing a balancing exercise which requires us to move our legs as if stepping over a high fence, or to put it more clearly, as though applying for a government grant at the Ministry of Silly Walks.

How ninjas got from place to place in a punctual manner, I’ll never know. All I thought of was a ninja telling his master, in his best John Cleese voice, “I’m sorry to have kept you waiting, but I’m afraid my walk has become rather sillier recently, and so it takes me rather longer to get to work.”

Look what I’ve done. I’ve made a mess of things. No more Monty Python. This is not a joke. Let’s move on to a more enlightening anecdote.

I can’t remember if it was before or after Sensei Matthew punched me in the stomach (apparently, my defensive stance was not very defensive), but it was around that time that I approached the course a little differently.

The punch came after Matthew told the class a story about how he would sneak up on his girlfriend when he went to study Ninjutsu at the library. Perhaps my instructor, frat-boy demeanour and all, was not kidding around. This was his job, and he studied this stuff without a hint of irony. This course wasn’t some self-aware, hipster joke.

I took a second look at the people around me. Among the ninjas-to-be were a cute couple in their late twenties, a young teenage boy and his older sister, and an enthusiastic young man, clearly a subscriber of Ninjutsu philosophy, whom I heard telling his friend, “Fear makes a coward of us all.”

I had started to learn a lesson by this point. It relates to another of Sensei Matthew’s sincere, sage stories. Here it is: a ninja in command of his emotions will hide his intentions so as not to give himself away. The less a ninja gives away, the better. A true ninja could be ready to chop you in the neck and you would never know by his demeanour.

I certainly passed the “don’t give yourself away” test. When I was allowed to try on one of Sensei Matthew’s weapons, which I can only describe as resembling Wolverine’s metallic claws, what else was stopping me from jumping around like the X-Men superhero? I really should have strapped both sets of claws on my hands and smiled with an air of pure satisfaction like the man beside me did.

We played with other ninja weapons, too, which included some sort of long, wooden hammer and a big, wooden log (think of what a lumberjack would use for logrolling). I enjoyed myself, but I was waiting for the punchline. I was waiting for the comic relief. There lay my problem.

When we had to pair off with a partner to practice defensive and retaliatory ninja moves, including chopping someone in the neck, I ended up paired off with a girl of about 14 and a foot shorter than me. Yes, the situation was a bit ridiculous, but should I have been laughing or earnestly practicing deadly martial arts with her?

I guess what I’m trying to get across is, was I hiding behind a shield of smugness and irony? No one else seemed nearly as self-aware as I was, and they seemed to be enjoying themselves. Did I need to hide my emotions, like a ninja, behind a veil of sarcasm and pop-culture references?

Sensei Matthew made the comment after class that he could already tell some of us were not serious about mastering the philosophy of Ninjutsu. He wasn’t bitter and neither was I. I had no intention of becoming a ninja.

I noticed my 14-year-old partner, before leaving, walk up to the instructor.

“Arigato, Sensei Matthew,” she said with a little bow.

That confirmed it. This course was serious. People wanted to try something new. It wasn’t something to laugh at and in most cases it wasn’t even something to laugh with. As a young, city-bred urbanite, it was about time I learned this.

This ninja course shouldn’t just make a good story or a funny joke at a party. I can laugh when Sensei Michael conditions himself by beating his arms and chests with some sort of specialized bean bag, but is that really appropriate? Would I be laughing for the right reasons? Is it bad that this ninja course incites smirks and hyperbole among my friends and I?

I was having a good time. But was I having as good at time as the deadly serious Wolverine-wannabe, or the 5-foot-tall, 14-year-old? Sarcasm and smugness can only bring so much amusement.

Sensei Matthew taught us that a ninja’s preferred method of attack is from behind. Surprise trumps everything else. Death grips, ninja chops, and deadly weapons aside, the thing that truly hit me by surprise was how important it can be to take things seriously sometimes.

Don’t You Forget About Hughes

Late in Don’t You Forget About Me, Toronto-based director Matt Austin Sadowski’s documentary about the career and cultural legacy of John Hughes, one of the interviewees observes that though Hughes’s films (including The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and Sixteen Candles) are beloved by moviegoers, they never received the same unabashed adulation from critics. Thus, critical re-assessment was in order. And, interestingly enough,
critical re-assessment came, though hardly under ideal circumstances, when Hughes died of a heart attack on Aug. 6. This sparked a wave of obituaries marked by overwhelming critical praise that had generally eluded Hughes during his career (which, aside from a few screenplay credits, had pretty much ended with 1991’s Curly Sue).

“I think death brings a lot of artists the recognition that they always deserved,” says Sadowski in an interview with The Varsity. “We wanted to make this film because people seemed to forget what a major contribution he made and put him off to the side. Like, ‘the major filmmakers of our time,’ they’d consider Woody Allen or Martin Scorsese or Quentin Tarantino, a whole bunch of people, and a year ago if I were to say, ‘…and John Hughes,’ people would be like, ‘Uh… I dunno. I’d put him on my B-list.’ And I think a lot of people didn’t realize how they felt about these movies until he passed away, and they thought about him when they hadn’t though about him in a long time. Or thought, ‘Oh my god, we’re never going to get another John Hughes film.’”

Don’t You Forget About Me has a nifty gimmick, following Sadowski and his three producers as they try to track down the reclusive Hughes ostensibly for an interview, but really just to tell him how much they miss him. Shooting over a period of two years, they also managed to secure an impressive assortment of interviewees, from filmmakers Kevin Smith and Jason Reitman to Hughes regulars like Ally Sheedy and Andrew McCarthy. “To call them and be like, ‘Hey, we’re a bunch of filmmakers from Canada, we’re making a documentary,’ the first question they ask is, ‘Well, where’s it gonna be shown?’ And we’d say, ‘Hopefully festivals… and we’ll hopefully sell it…’ And we’d say, ‘We’ll come to wherever you have time.’ I don’t want to speak for other documentaries, but I think there’s sometimes a schedule, and… we didn’t have any schedule!”

“Everyone was very generous with their time. I think they thought they’d come in and give us, like, five minutes and leave, but they ended up talking to us for a full hour.”

Particularly enthusiastic was Roger Ebert, who recorded his interview just a week before the operation that would lead to the removal of part of his jaw. “He was going in for his third and final surgery on, let’s say the tenth. And we had the interview scheduled for, like, the thirteenth. He called us to reschedule, and we thought he was going to say, ‘I’m having surgery, give me a call in a month and I’ll see how I’m doing.’ But he scheduled it earlier, because he really wanted to do our interview. So it was clear that he wanted to help us out, but also that he really wanted to talk about John Hughes.”

The most entertaining interviewee, however, is easily Judd Nelson, who comes across as a middle-aged version of his Breakfast Club character. “When he came to the interview, he was chain-smoking, and… he was Bender. And I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, is he gonna rebel against everything I say and be a smart-ass?’ So, he came in with the sunglasses, and then he took off his sunglasses and put on his eyeglasses, and he transformed into this incredible, articulate emotional person. His interview was definitely one of my favourites.”

The documentary doesn’t spend much time on later Hughes directorial efforts like Curly Sue and Planes, Trains and Automobiles, and even less time on some of his less dignified writing credits. “We just wanted to be specific. At one point we had a six-hour rough-cut, and then, y’know, you kill your babies as you edit. And one of the quotes that was cut was Roger Ebert talking about Baby’s Day Out, and how people generally go, ‘John Hughes? Baby’s Day Out?’ but Baby’s Day Out was one of Japan’s top-grossing movies in the two years it came out.”

“But we wanted to be pretty specific about what we talked about, and there’s really no other filmmaker who had such a focus on one sub-genre. There are directors who always do comedies, but there are very few directors that stick within such a specific genre and make films that aren’t sequels to each other.”

Throughout the documentary people talk about how they wish Hughes would return to make another teen movie. Having myself wanted to see Hughes come out of retirement, I ask Sedowski if this is perhaps a selfish desire. “There’s a teen towards the very end of the film who says, ‘Come back—we need you.’ We didn’t tell him to say that. And it’s kinda rare that you’d hear someone say they need a filmmaker.”

Don’t You Forget About Me comes out on DVD on Nov. 3.

Beauty of the beasts: Graeme Gibson

On the evening I am collecting my thoughts on Graeme Gibson’s Bedside Book of Beasts, to my door arrives a parade of animals, some of them not much taller than waist-high in the night’s early going. They climb the steps and exclaim in unbelievably high-pitched chorus, “Doritos!” when supplied the ceremonial offering, and then hop back into the dark to join their friends the pirates, vampires, ghosts, and princesses. Not a few Pooh Bears silently size me up from curbside strollers, along for the ride.

Beasts, a sort of follow-up to 2005’s Bedside Book of Birds, is beautiful. Like Birds, it’s a miscellany of stunning illustrations and short readings, set in large type, from our history of trying to figure out the creatures that surround us. As a miscellany, it’s easy to dip into at random, to meditate on a 17th-century illustration, for example, of a strange creature—from the caption-writer’s best guess, a “bear/sloth”—or to consider the nondescript animals that look on as a lion maws the neck of a bull in a 14th-century Arabic version of the Book of Kalilah and Dinana. Why do they smile so?

“I’m hoping in some sense that people will recognize stuff in it out of their own experience here or there or maybe even just some dim past that we all carry about with us,” Gibson tells me over the phone when we spoke a week prior to Halloween.

While Birds and Beasts are presented in a similar manner, Beasts sets itself apart not only for covering a different set of vertebrates. Whereas Birds was a book about how humans wish they could fly, Beasts is a stir-stick for the memory of our species. Remember when we thought of ourselves as not entirely human? The book is rife with examples of human-animal hybrids and shape-shifters. Two images stood out for me.

The first is a detail from an ornate cauldron (first century BC, Denmark) depicting a sitting man holding up a snake in his left hand and wearing antlers, watched by a crowd of deer. The other is of a somewhat crude wooden carving that is nevertheless undoubtedly a human with a lion’s head, carved 30,000 to 34,000 years ago, according to the caption. Jean Clottes writes of the figurine: “This not only reinforces the great importance of felines to Paleolithic people, but also highlights the fluid nature of their belief system, in which borders separating humans and animals were easy to cross.” I just find it amazing that humans have been humans for so long.

“What I’m trying to get at in this one is—” Gibson pauses for a moment, rethinking how he wants to describe his purpose for Beasts. “I’m sitting here and we have a bunch of trees outside my study window. All the leaves are a wonderful colour. What I’m trying to convey is that—those leaves, the recognition, whatever pleasure it gives us—that is a response to an ancient experience of ours. It’s not just aesthetics. That feeds us in some way.”

A favourite quote of Gibson’s is from E.O. Wilson: “The natural world is still imbedded in our genes and cannot be eradicated.” He makes frequent reference in our conversation to the deep history of human kind spanning six millennia—a history in which, if shrunk to the length of a day, the Industrial Revolution and the years since would barely last past a sneeze. It’s hardly surprising, with that perspective, that the image of my friend the man-lion still resonates.

“The Pleistocene, which formed our species, took us from being early anthropoids to being largely what we are now, but with different memories and different patterns of knowledge. We spent 80,000 generations becoming what we are now.”

So we like to dress up as animals—hence the jaguar ringing my doorbell and our ability to even imagine a story like Where The Wild Things Are. But we also like to make animals in our own image. One story later on in the book declares it outright: “Bears are like people.” Anthropomorphism rears its head—Ernest Thompson Seton giving rabbits human thoughts and all that, not to mention Disney.

“I don’t mean it literally, but our brain is almost like an alien being. Because it doesn’t understand nature,” Gibson says. Will our alien brains ever really figure out what it is to be a bear, absent our own human thoughts? “No,” Gibson concedes, “I don’t think so.”

“For the longest time, anthropomorphism was one of the greatest sins anyone could think of in terms of studying animals, and yet science is unable to study the individual differences within a species. […] If you live among wild animals, it’s clear that certain animals have different characters. As soon as you start saying this one’s behaving differently, then you’re fooling around with anthropomorphism. But the really intriguing thing about human beings to me, and to most people I think, is not what we’re like as a group but what we’re like individually. I have no difficulty with anthropomorphism at all unless one’s trying to prove something scientific with it.”

The animals may or may not be laughing at us, and we’ll probably never know for sure, but that doesn’t stop us from trying to cuddle up to them. The Bedside Book of Beasts is a testament to how we’ve always wondered why the animals smile so, and why, on our best of days, we might feel like an animal in disguise.

The Bedside Book of Beasts is published by Doubleday Canada.

Oh, the places we’ll go

A Pentecostal church, the dance floor, and a high-end restaurant kitchen are a few of the settings for ethnographic research by anthropology students at UTSC. Field work isn’t just for grad students—after a successful pilot project conducted by the Centre for Ethnographies, it will be a requirement next year for the specialist program in anthropology.

The project had students conducting independent research in various Toronto locations. Last Thursday, five of them presented the highlights of their work at an ethnographic research seminar.

Students turned up a different side of familiar places. Fifth-year student Andree Vashit centred his research on challenging the assumption of Canadian multiculturalism on campus. Vashit found that many UTSC students felt more comfortable hanging out with those of a similar ethnic background, but they also have what he calls “cosmopolitan confidence,” being “better equipped to travel, work, and live in other countries based on their multicultural environment and cross-cultural experiences.”

The field work took students about a month to complete.

“I got a taste for research, and now I want more. Being able to have the opportunity to research and discover a topic I am passionate about at the undergraduate level is a dream come true,” said Vashit.

Henry Au, also in fifth year, titled his study “Nightclub Culture: Asian Events, Class, and Sexuality.” According to Au’s research, aside from giving students a chance to explore their independence and cope with stress, clubbing is a place to “reproduce their classist identity.” Clubs, he found, allows students to present themselves as the middle-class individuals they aspire to become. Au also introduced the concept of “Dance Floor Capital,” the ability to sustain the attention of the opposite sex. “Men have less Dance Floor Capital,” Au said during his presentation.

“I’m very proud of [the students], they’ve all done really good work,” said anthropology professor Girish Daswani. Along with professor Maggie Cummings, Daswani obtained funding for the project from the Student Experience Fund, set up by U of T in 2006 to enhance undergraduate experience. “The presentations show how talented and promising the new [undergraduate] scholars are,” agreed Cummings.

Clumsy Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

This weekend, the Victoria College Drama Society put on a production of Tennessee Williams’ Pulitzer Prize–winning play, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. The play revolves around the Mississippi-based Pollitt family: former football player, now alcoholic Brick (Robert Bellissimo) and his wife Maggie (Sarah King), who have a contentious marriage; family patriarch “Big Daddy” Pollitt (Christopher Mastropietro) and “Big Mama” Pollitt (Paige Lancaster), who are both unaware that Big Daddy is dying of cancer; and Brick’s older brother Gooper (Daniel Hermann) and wife Mae (Emily Johnson), who have designs on inheriting Big Daddy’s wealth.

Stage manager Jenna Koening did an admirable job creating a simple yet beautiful set that perfectly evoked the Southern ranch setting of the play. Unfortunately, the rest of the play was not as nearly well arranged, and the production didn’t know what it wanted to be. The faux Southern accents were atrocious—one could easily believe the actors spent so much time trying to pin down the dialect that they forgot all other aspects of their craft. The play lacked strong directorial vision—the pacing was awkward, the acting uneven and the three-hours in the theatre felt more like three days. In my estimation, there was some miscasting as well, and I felt that some of the actors onstage would have been better suited to other roles.

The first act starts with a seemingly interminable monologue from Maggie “the Cat” talking to an off-stage Brick. King’s drawl was passable, but her portrayal of Maggie lacked evenness, and her delivery of otherwise funny lines fell flat. Brick’s terribly accented replies offstage were cringe-worthy, and his appearance onstage did not instil confidence. Bellissimo’s laboured performance was barely tolerable: his accent seemed to be based on Dirty South rap videos with his line delivery falling into rapping at times. His overwrought hobbling onstage was chaotic to watch, and his grimaces were far too exaggerated to be believable.

Appearances from Mae (Emily Johnson) and Big Mama (Paige Lancaster) were a breath of fresh air. Johnson’s acting was truly stellar with no missteps, and any scene with her in it was a high point of the play. Her accent was the most convincing of the cast, and everything about her acting was consistent—from her body language to her tart and impeccable line delivery, she was undoubtedly the standout of the play. Lancaster’s performance as Big Mama received the majority of the laughs—her comic timing and energy were a joy to watch, although they both flagged slightly towards the end. While Patrick Kelly’s role as Reverend Tooker was minor, he exhibited good humour and was able to impart most (though not all) of his lines with enough capability to stand out in the dismal cast.

The second act started off as a confused jumble, which then degenerated into a snore-worthy monologue, this time from Big Daddy (Christopher Mastropietro). Mastropietro’s acting was exceedingly uneven, brilliantly comic at times, and horrifically awkward at others. His movement on stage successfully mimicked that of an older man, but the effect was spoiled when he sprawled out like a frat boy on the furniture. His laughter was forced and wandered into registers normally reached by adolescent boys whose voices are only just breaking. His interaction with Brick, ostensibly that of father and son, came across more like two “bros” hanging out. The sudden pitch changes were not restricted to Mastropietro—it affected a number of the other actors as well, and it seems to have been a side effect of the attempted dialect.

The third act brought more action than the first two, but the clumsy pacing was far more evident as a result. A number of hesitant moments and silences that could have been used to great effect simply felt awkward. Daniel Hermann’s rendition of Gooper was mostly incoherent, King’s voice had become screechy, and Luke McElcheran (playing Doc Baugh) appeared to be delivering his lines to his feet. King did a competent job during the final scene, but it was far too little, far too late. The remaining actors were not onstage long enough to make an impression.

All in all, this was an overly ambitious production that ended up exposing the weaknesses of almost everyone involved. I can’t help feeling that if they had simply ignored the Southern accents, the actors would have been better able to exhibit their talents, and director Laura Delchiaro would have been better able to explore each character’s nuances. As it stands, this was a classic that was butchered at the hands of amateurs.