The Universal Language: It’s Rhythm, Baby

stompBlitz Magazine, January 2005

‘Think that love is the universal language? Wrong. It’s rhythm, something that’s shared by everything with a heartbeat, from birds and apes to sharks and humans.

The performers of Stomp, the long-running Broadway hit, decided to ‘discuss’ rhythm in a sort of study of humanity, and the roots and continuum of the celebration of rhythm, in the large-screen Imax format.

Pulse: A Stomp Odyssey begins in New York, and then takes us on a rhythmic world tour. The camera soars above the globe in dazzling panoramic shots then swoops down on a string of exotic locales.  We see, among others, the American Indian Dance Theatre, Kodo, the Winchester Cathedral Bell Ringers, a New York drum and bugle corps, and performers from Brazil, Botswana, South Africa, Guinea, Spain and India—where numerous elephants are important participants.

Along the way, Pulse compares the sound of running buffalo to that of a subway. We see the similarities between break-dancing New York teens and the Johannesburg ‘Gumboot’ kids, whose performance resembles (but is much older than) hip-hop. Pulse is meant to be educational and entertaining and, in the case of the bell ringers in particular, the mathematics of rhythm is clearly evident. It also shows us how humans have imitated and adapted their environments and everyday rituals into sound, rhythm and song, using everyday objects like shells, boxes and body parts.

This film is a celebration of the global beat, an exploration of sights and sounds of continents and cultures, guided by performers of the stage show Stomp. It’s an uplifting film, in that we see how rhythm—not the spoken word—is the unifying common thread of humans, and how there is a fundamental harmony that exists across time, space and disparate societies.


Pulse has no dialogue or narration—just the language shared by all human beings. Unfortunately, the film is only 40 minutes long, and its producers focused a little too much on Africa (plus a goofy underwater scene) and omitted the Cossacks, Dervishes and Highland Sword Dancers, but it’s definitely worth seeing.


You Wanna Make A Movie On A Mountain? No Problem

everestBlitz Magazine, May 1998

Except that the mountain in question is Everest. And you’re making an IMAX movie. An IMAX camera weighs 80 pounds. And one 500-foot roll of IMAX film, which is ten times the size of 35 mm film, weighs five pounds and lasts 90 seconds.  Even the super-human cannot carry that much weight when deprived of oxygen. And you discover that it’s impossible to load said film while wearing gloves. You need a light-weight camera with large, accessible knobs and lens mounts which would allow an exhausted cameraman to film with impaired motor and thinking skills. In extreme cold, lubricants congeal, film becomes brittle, a camera’s exterior shrinks, the interior jams.

So you get IMAX to make you a new camera. With a six-pound lithium battery, plastic bearings and synthetic drive belts. Now your camera weighs 48 pounds and can withstand extreme cold.

You assemble a cast and crew. A handful of technicians, also mountaineers, to stay at base camp. Veteran climbers Ed Viesturs, from the US, and Araceli Segarra (who would become the first Spanish woman to climb Everest). Jamling Tenzing Norgay, whose father Tenzing made it to the top with Sir Edmund Hillary, Japanese climber Sumiyo Tsuzuki, cameraman/climber Robert Schauer, five Sherpas.

You pick your route — the South Col, used by Hillary and Norgay in 1953, and you begin. Along the way, Tsuzuki breaks a rib during a fit of altitude-induced coughing and has to stop. Then, eight climbers from another expedition die when a sudden storm at 28,700 feet hits, bringing -100 degree temperatures and 80 mph winds.

And then, using a stream of Kool-Aid as a landing marker, you orchestrate the successful, never-before-attempted helicopter rescue, at 20,000 feet, of a Texas doctor.

Everest towers 5 1/2 miles above sea level (29,028 feet) and simply staying alive there requires immense endurance and courage. By the time you reach 25,000 feet, or The Death Zone, you’re operating at 30% standard atmospheric pressure. To deal with oxygen deprivation, you hyperventilate and become dehydrated. Your heart is pounding and your brain, which is 3% of your body weight, uses 20% of your oxygen. You have no appetite, you develop fatigue, nausea, headaches, nightmares; you’re at risk of experiencing confusion and hallucinations; frostbite and hypothermia.

And you’re lovin’ every minute of it.

Three weeks later, you’re ten hours away from the summit. There’s no stopping along the way and you have to start climbing, and filming, at mid-night to hit the peak in the morning. Because, after a brief celebratory ceremony at the peak, you have to hike another 10 hours down to camp. And because reaching the peak means crossing the Hillary Step, a 40-ft. high, inches-thin crack so-named because Hillary was the first to cross it and live to tell the tale. The Hillary Step requires technical expertise and total concentration–and by this time, you and your climbers are moving in slow motion.

everest1 everest2

And you’re making a movie. So you need two shots of everything. So each time your spent climbers do something breathtakingly taxing–like crossing a gaping crevasse on an aluminum ladder or heaving themselves over an ice shelf and onto the summit–you have to yell ‘Cut!’ and make them do it again.

“Filming on Everest is much harder than climbing Everest,” says director/producer/cinematographer David Breashears, the veteran mountaineer and Emmy-winning filmmaker who has climbed Everest four times and has participated in 18 Himalayan expeditions, nine of which involved filming on Everest. “Your job is never done. In the evenings, you’re downloading film, cleaning and repairing the camera, writing shot lists, recording dialogue. During the day, you’re looking for good shots, asking yourself: Is it safe to stop here? Is this good light? Do I demoralize the team by stopping?  If we stop here, do we risk not reaching camp?  From the beginning, it was clear that, if we succeeded, this would be one of the epic achievements in Himalayan film-making.”

They succeeded. The result is Everest, narrated by Liam Neeson and with music by George Harrison. You want to see it.


The Divine Comedy: Buster Keaton & Francisco Goya

English: Film comedian Buster Keaton has his f...

English: Film comedian Buster Keaton has his foot caught in the frog adjacent to Western Ave., on the Calico and Ghost Town Railroad at Knott’s Berry Farm, Buena Park in 1956. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

English: Photograph of Buster Keaton seated. B...

English: Photograph of Buster Keaton seated. Buster Keaton, full-length portrait, seated, in costume (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Or, What Could These Guys Possibly Have in Common?

Spanish artist Francisco Goya (1746-1828) is noted for work that captured the horrors of war and, in its articulation of humour and tragedy, work that had an enormous impact on modern consciousness. He also satirized the folly of Spanish society, using double meanings to shed light on social hierarchies, royal personalities, relationships between the sexes, and a continued belief in superstition despite the rise of rational thought that dawned with the Enlightenment.

American filmmaker Buster Keaton (1895-1966) is famed as one of history’s great comics, enjoying a successful 60-year show business career. Keaton employed physical comedy to reveal a modern world that is unstable and ruled by the rhythms of the machine age. In his films (One Week, Cops, Sherlock J., The General) chaos and calamity reigned, with ordinary people moving from one disaster to the next, defying the laws of physics and surviving unscathed.

South African artist William Kentridge (1955- ) has earned an international reputation for his exceptional animated films, prints and sculptures. Often depicting a world in chaos, his work employs subtle humour and personal gesture to reflect on the psychic landscape of post-apartheid South Africa. In his animated short films, we see real life becoming tragically absurd.

goyaThe common denominator between these artists is found in The Divine Comedy, an exhibition that the Art Gallery of Gallery of Western Australia organized to explore the relationship between comedy and violence, laughter and tears. Through the work of these artists, we can see the shifting relationship between aesthetics, politics and humour.

The Third of May 1808 by Francisco Goya, showi...

The Third of May 1808 by Francisco Goya, showing Spanish resisters being executed by Napoleon’s troops. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Through a range of images from 18th century etchings to contemporary video, the exhibition weaves together the work of three artists who lived through times of extraordinary social change, when forces of modernization obliterated stale old ways and left artists grappling with the loss of social and moral certainties. It provides a timely look at how black comedy, absurdity and satire are used to express our relationship in a tumultuous world.


Blitz Magazine, January 2004



Treachery by Telephone


Blitz Magazine, March 2003

Ever heard that choice piece of advice ‘Write What You Know’? Evidently, no one said that to the author of Dial M For Murder. Frederick Knott, who passed away just three months ago, was the child of a perfect marriage and grew up to become a famously perfect husband.

He was born and raised in China (to wealthy missionaries) and was set to spend his life as a professional tennis player. After finishing at Cambridge, however, he was at his family’s Sussex estate when a gun went off, an idea came into his head and he promptly sequestered himself for 18 months, furiously writing his play. When it was finished, it was rejected so many times that he was about to tear it up and head back to the grass when the BBC bought it, and aired it. An American producer promptly snapped up the film rights—for the dismal sum of $2000.

His play, meanwhile, was a smash in London, opened on Broadway in 1952 and enjoyed a five-year SRO run in 30 countries. Alfred Hitchcock was intrigued by the play. He had one film left in his contract with Warner Bros., he was tired and wanted to try to adapt a stage play set entirely in one room—he said, to recharge his batteries. But the studio forced him to film in 3-D, despite the fact that the 3-D fad was fading and most theatres would show it in conventional format. Hitchcock’s solution was to use swoops, zooms and angled overhead shots to make scenes look as if they were captured on surveillance cameras. The finished product became one of the very few successful 3-D movies ever made. It was shot it in 36 days and was released in 1954, starring Ray Milland and Grace Kelly. Knott wrote the screenplay, but received no credit for it.


It’s a great story. Tony, a slick playboy and professional tennis player, marries a wealthy socialite, strictly for her money. The marriage is a bust but Tony knows that a divorce would leave him penniless. He hatches a plot to have Margot killed. He blackmails an old friend of his into carrying out the hit. But, as we know, Margot whacks her attacker. Tony has to switch to Plan B, a dastardly set of deeds that very nearly succeeds….but I won’t spoil the ending.

Knott, who did not have a head for business, didn’t make much money on his first creation, or his second, The Last Page. He did make up for it, however, with his third, and last, play: Wait Until Dark.

On Bad Websites by the People Who Should Know Best



Blitz Magazine, November 2006

I admit to an obsession with the Blitz mailing list. It has to be perfect and up-to-date. To achieve this, though, I have to spend endless hours surfing the Net. I’ve now visited thousands of web sites and the fact is that most are just plain awful. The surprise is that some of the worst offenders are ad agencies.

Let’s say that I’m a French manufacturer. I have decided to launch my product in Canada, and I need a Canadian agency. So I start surfing.

Site #1: The first thing I see is that this agency has the gall to greet me with the words ‘Patience Please’. This is followed by animation. Lots of it. I’m thinking:  When I want an animation company, I’ll look for one. Do I want to work with an agency that thinks nothing of wasting my time? Non.

Site #2:  No introduction. I’m right in. But, huh? Its homepage has light blue type on a yellow background. The next page has red type on a dark green background. I’d need a new prescription before I could read this stuff. Ciao.

Site #3:  Ease of access, easy to read, well organized. I read about the company’s service offerings and awards. Bon. Now I want to find out who’s running the show. After some searching, I find the name of the president. But that’s it. I can’t find the name of the creative director. The agency says it has a media department, a production department and PR expertise. But there’s no listing of names. It seems to me that this is a one-guy agency. If it is, non merci. If it isn’t, do I want to do business with someone who won’t reveal the names of his staff? Adieu.

Site #4: This is a full-service ad agency in Alberta. The site is easy to use and well-designed. I want to find out who the president is and click on ‘Who’s the Boss?’ I find this: “Our Lord Jesus is the Boss!” Mon Dieu!

Site #5: This agency’s site has a staff listing. And look! Employee pictures! But the agency couldn’t afford a professional photographer—the images are low-res and grainy. One employee didn’t bother to wash her hair that day; another is wearing a dirty shirt, another looks like he slept in his suit. One has submitted a baby picture. Sorry, but I’m looking for grown-ups who bathe regularly. Nettoyer.

Site #6: This one looks OK. I think I’ll contact this agency. Oh—in order to do that, I have to fill out a Needs Assessment Form. Fill out this.

Site #7: Oh this is nice. Looks professional. Tres bien. I will write to this agency, and send it some information on my company. But what’s this? No address! Do I want to do business with an agency that doesn’t tell people where it’s located? Non.

Site #8: This one looks good. But look at all this copy. Pages and pages of copy, all written by a PR person, who says everything and nothing and who wants to fully enlighten me on the elements of successful marketing. What’s with all this ‘outside the box’ and ‘synergy’ stuff? Au revoir.

Get the picture? If a company is in the business of supplying perfection for clients, and if said company would never dream of producing promotional material for itself that is anything less than perfect, why would it mess up what is, in this day and age, its most important marketing tool?

The same applies to other companies who should know better. The sites for many PR firms don’t include client lists. Photographers either don’t put any work on their sites, or they include every shot they’ve ever taken. Graphic designers often use so much visual gunk that you forget why you went to the site in the first place. And a lot of sites for web designers painfully illustrate that they are not, in fact, designers.

The problem, it seems to me, is that many people still haven’t wrapped their heads around what websites are for. Websites (e-comm sites excluded) are meant to put out, to a worldwide audience, the facts about a company and its activities. They are marketing tools and should, therefore, be clear, concise and easily accessible. And as I head back for another round of surfing, I’m wishing that people would quit with the bells and whistles, think about what their visitors actually want, and just get to the point already.

Sierra Nevada: The Heart of the World

sierraBlitz Magazine, November 2002

According to Colombian legend, the snow-capped mountain known as the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta was created at the centre of the world, and at the beginning of time, by Shibalauneuman (the Mother of All Things).

Located at the northwestern tip of South America, in the Republic of Colombia, only 42 km from the shore, the peak of the Sierra Nevada reaches 5,775 meters (18, 948 feet) above sea level, making it the highest coastal mountain in the world.

Centuries ago, the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta was a place where diverse human groups flourished; one of them, the Tayrona civilization, reached the highest level of development without deteriorating its environment. The European conquest destroyed that nation; today, all that remains of the Tayrona peoples are some gold, stone and shell carvings, and the intricate lithic (rock) pathways they carved into the landscape to link hundreds of their ancient towns and city-sites to terraced farms and water sources. The mountain is now inhabited by aboriginal communities that proudly preserve their complex religious, social and political societies.

The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is one of the world’s most important ethnic, ecological, archaeological and cultural patrimonies, and is internationally recognized as a ‘Man & Biosphere Reserve’. Its environs are typical of tropical America, containing an extraordinary variety of climates and habitats with great biological diversity. Its fauna and flora are abundant and several of its species are to date still unknown to science.

Vancouver-based Colombian photographer, naturalist and educator Diego Samper, who has lived in the Sierra Nevada, has worked with the Museum of Anthropology to create an exhibit, and unique public programming, focused on the living cultures of ancient lands, issues of sustainability and the complex continuing relationship of indigenous peoples to the land. The 26-panel exhibit of images, words and soundscapes offers rare insight into aspects of a country so often overshadowed by news reports focusing on drugs, corruption and social decay. It also gives us an opportunity to learn more about the crucial role of the photographer as cultural and historical documentarian.


Bears, The Movie

Blitz Magazine, September 2002

If you talk to the animals, they will talk to you, and you will know each other.

If you do not talk to them, you will not know them, and what you do not know

you will fear.

What one fears, one destroys.

Chief Dan George


Bears have one enemy—humans. Human ignorance has always been their greatest threat. There are still men in Asia who believe that ingesting bear parts improves virility, which is why, in a scenario too horrible to imagine, Black Bears are permanently caged. In Europe, it’s still the dream of many to trek into the Canadian wilderness to shoot bears. Just for the manly-man thrill of it.

The world has eight bear species: the Spectacled Bear of South America, which is considered a pest; the Sloth Bear of the Asian subcontinent (numbers unknown); the Black Bear; the Sun Bear of southeast Asia (the smallest); the Panda, which is nearing extinction, and the three North American bears: the Polar Bear (the world’s largest land predator), the Black Bear and the Grizzly, or Brown, Bear (listed as Threatened).

For centuries, bears have been misunderstood and persecuted (the tide began to turn when Theodore Roosevelt spared a cub while hunting—hence the Teddy bear). People have always been terrified of bears. But bear attacks on humans are rare. When they do occur, the bears aren’t to blame. They do not seek human contact; they seek food (except the Polar Bear, to which all things are food. If you see one, run).

A male polar bear

A male polar bear (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Over-development has led to loss of habitat and, with eco-tourism, more tourists come across bears in the wild. People become afraid, bears get shot. Global Warming is causing such drastic climate changes that food supplies are disrupted, bringing more bears into populated areas. Because of reduced ice floes, which Polar Bears need for seal hunting, their weight and reproductive levels have dropped. ‘Not good. As an Umbrella Species, bears control moose, caribou and deer populations, thus helping protect lynx, wolverine and wolves—and all plants and animals that depend on them. Bears are, therefore, essential to the health and balance of the wild places they inhabit.

In the US, unchecked hunting, trapping and development has eliminated Grizzlies from 98% of their range and reduced their numbers from 50,000 to 1,000. The National Wildlife Federation is working to restore bears to Montana and Idaho (opposed, of course, by special interest groups and Dubya). To help the process, the NWF has invested significant funds in large-format film production, believing that films are one of the best ways to educate people and inspire them to take action.

The NWF’s latest release, Bears, was shot in one of the few places where Grizzly populations are stable—Alaska’s Katmai National Park, home to 2,000 Grizzlies. The theme of Bears, which was co-produced by Primesco and Ontario’s Science North, and directed by Science North’s David Lickley, is survival. The film, offered in 400-foot surround-sound glory, with music by Lyle Lovett, blends education and entertainment, illustrating that bears are the spirit of the wilderness and that they have the right to live, unharrassed, in fully-functioning ecosystems.


A Master Photographer: In Praise of the Silo

Blitz Magazine, January 2000


Canada is not beautiful in detail, but by the immensities of its proportions…This rudeness…one tries to express it in extreme simplicity of composition, form, strength, obvious contrast in light and shade. One is not looking for gloom, but rather dramatic strength…for the forms, contrasts, proportions and designs which belong to Canada and to no other country.

         John Vanderpant, 1928

John Vanderpant arrived in Alberta in 1911. A photo-journalist, he was on assignment for a Dutch newspaper. He stayed. In 1919, he moved to New Westminster, BC and, by the mid-1920s, he was (along with other West Coast photographers like Johan Helders, Harold Mortimer Lamb and Harry Upperton Knight) an acclaimed figure within the international circuit of Pictorialist salons.

siloHowever, speaking about Vanderpant’s 1925 solo exhibition at the Royal Photographic Society in London, a critic noted that his work reflected little of the Canadian spirit. Vanderpant resolved to “unlearn the Old World concept of beauty in relation to its environment,” and turned away from the aesthetics of Pictorialism, adopting a simplified graphic economy in his photography, emphasizing rhythmic pattern and simplicity.

Vanderpant and his colleagues–Frederick Varley, Vera Weatherbie, Beatrice Lennie and Jock Macdonald, among others, formed a group which resolved to combine, in their paintings and photography, Utopian ideals with a modernist approach. The idea was to create new ways of viewing the interaction between nature and technology. These artists believed in the power of art to shift patterns of thought and lead away from the social conflicts that reigned over the Depression Era. They broke with traditional photography and painting to challenge the British colonial mentality which dominated Canadian culture at the beginning of the century. And their approach was to combine European Modernism with an enthusiasm for British Columbia as the frontier between East and West, the natural and the urban.

Meanwhile, the architecture of the grain elevator had been recognized by modernist European architects as a symbol of the dynamism of North American culture, and its ability to progress rapidly by breaking with archaic European traditions. Le Corbusier extolled the virtues of the engineer who was able to create structures that combine form and function, and identified the terminal grain elevator as one of North America’s most significant contributions to architecture. Really? Well, yes. Grain elevators were seen to emphasize the potential for social harmony, rather than to represent social struggle.

 vanderpant2 vanderpant1

In Canada, the elevator was an important emblem of the vitality of the Canadian economy, and the prosperity that Vancouver’s middle class was enjoying in the 1920s, as the country captured an increasing share of the international grain trade.

Vanderpant turned his camera on the terminal grain elevators that first appeared in Vancouver’s Burrard Inlet in 1916. Writing about a series of grain elevator photographs which he took between 1934 and 1936, he said that grain elevators “rise on lakeshore and terminal throughout the land and in their rigid strength and sublime simplicity are the unpretentious temples of trade. As seen through an artistic mind, the print gives strength of form and cement, the tenderness of beauty, of texture, the design possibility in form and shadow, the feeling of safety in the storage of abundance, they give an almost religious adoration of significant form.”

Yeah, well it’s important to appreciate your subject matter.

He also wrote about the abstract patterns found in vegetables; we can assume that he was an interesting dinner guest.