Cultureguru's Weblog

Of food, technology, movies, music, and travel—or whatever else strikes my fancy


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Battle of the Sexes

That post title could lead to a number of topics, I suppose, but in this case I’m referring to the movie of that title, built around the 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs.

The movie starts earlier than that, with a group of top women tennis players—led by Billie Jean King—protest the growing difference in the amount of prize money awarded to the top men tennis players versus the top women: the men were now earning 4, 8, or even 12 times as much as the women. Reason? The men’s game is just “superior.”

The women—initially a group of nine—decided to boycott the tournaments with such practices and launch their own tour, which came to be known as the Virginia Slims Circuit after their cigarette-making sponsor. In retaliation, the women are dropped from the US tennis association, which means they can’t compete in Grand Slams tournaments (Wimbledon, US Open). But also meant that those tournaments were lacking the top women tennis players.

Against that backdrop came the 56-year-old Bobby Riggs, offering a million dollars to a top woman tennis player willing to play him. Riggs needs the money debts, but also loves the attention, and plays it up by making the most sexist comments possible. First willing to take him on is Margaret Court, who gets rattled and loses fairly decisively. That’s when Billie Jean King decides she must take him on, and the publicity machine goes into overdrive.

When I told Jean we were going to see a “tennis movie,” he wasn’t exactly thrilled, but this movie doesn’t have much tennis. Most of it gives us a “behind the scenes” look at these historical events and the key people involved in them. Interspersed as well is the story (somewhat altered from reality) of Billie Jean King meeting and ultimately starting an affair with Marilyn Barnett, despite being married to a good man, Larry King. “There’s only ever been Larry,” she tells Marilyn.

When we finally do get some tennis, it’s to show the highlights of the Bobby Riggs / Billy Jean King match, one I found riveting, though I already knew who would win.

But the whole movie was well-cast (Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Sarah Silverman) and quite interesting. (Jean liked the movie, also, by the way.) Bobby Riggs wasn’t portrayed as a pure villain (that would be Jack Kramer, the tournament chair), but a more nuanced characters with a troubled but loving relationship with his wife, and who was playing a part for the cameras rather than expressing true beliefs. The afterwards of the film notes that Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs became long-term friends after their historic match.

The saddest thing is how relevant this still seems, even though these events took place some 44 years ago. Yes—with much thanks to Billie Jean King and her contemporaries—things have improved for women in tennis and maybe in a few other sports? (Golf?) But in so many others (soccer, hockey, basketball), they are still such poor cousins to the men, even when they are playing at a higher calibre (as with US soccer). Not too mention the continuing gender wage gap in almost every industry there is.

The battle continues.


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Movies we watched while waiting for Wonder Woman

I had every intention of seeing Wonder Woman at the theatre this summer—I fully expect I’ll enjoy it—but it didn’t stick around the major theatres as long as I expected, nor did it get the second round at the art cinemas I was expecting. (Especially as the Apollo Cinema did have it listed as “coming soon”, only it never did.)

So when Google offered a movie rental for 0.99, I thought Wonder Woman would be a great way to spend that, and was quite excited to see it listed in the Play store. But when we sat down to watch it, I realized it was only available for $20 purchase at this point, and I did not want to do that.

So I turned to my Netflix list to see what movies I had short-listed there, and hence we instead watched…

The Lobster

Holy doodle, that’s a weird and disturbing movie. The premise is an alternate world in which people who find themselves single have a couple unappealing choices. One is the officially sanctified approach of checking themselves into a hotel where they have 45 days to find a partner. If they fail, they are surgically converted into an animal (a lobster, a dog, a pony).

The other option is to illegally escape and join The Loners in the woods. While always at risk of capture, here you have more freedom, and no threat of having to become another species. But you are strictly forbidden any kind of romantic entanglement.

So, both those options are terrible, and as the movie shows, even those who manage to couple aren’t really in a great situation, necessarily, given the incredible incentives do so.

On Rotten Tomatoes, critics rated this movie as 89% positive, but only 64% of the general public agreed. I can see the critics admiring this—it’s definitely original and in many ways well-crafted. But it’s a tough one to enjoy. And I’m not completely sure what the point was? Perhaps some comment on our society’s antipathy toward singledom…?

I did survive that rather bleak movie, however, this weekend we buckled down and watched…

Still Alice

Which I’d been putting off because I thought it would be sad. And, I was right, it was sad. Very sad to see the highly intelligent and articulate Alice become increasingly incapable of hanging on to her memories, at the young age of 50. (Also scary—I couldn’t help trying to do all of Alice’s memory tests with her.)

But it is a good film, with a great performance by Julianne Moore and Kristen Stewart. And it doesn’t deliberately, manipulatively try to heighten the sentiment. It doesn’t have to.

And what were the art cinemas showing instead of Wonder Woman? Well, for one night anyway, it was

Deconstructing the Beatles’ Revolver

Which is a love it or hate it kind of a thing. In Deconstructing the Beatles, a music professor takes a deep dive into one Beatles album, in this case Revolver. He uses rare footage and audio archives to go track-by-track giving insight into the creation of each song, from inspiration to final mix.

Does that sound like something you might interesting? Then you’re probably right. Or does that sound like the most boring thing ever? You’re probably also right.

The only reason Jean joined me at this one was that we were also accompanied by a friend of his that was solidly in the “interesting” camp, and Jean didn’t want to miss out on the social aspect. But this sure wasn’t his cup of tea. I found it cute that he fell asleep during discussion of “I’m Only Sleeping” (“Please don’t wake me, no don’t shake me…”).

As for me, I learned quite a bit about Revolver, one of my favourite Beatles albums, which I think will only enhance future listening of it.

 


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Walking to grow

Jean got involved in a MEDA project to raise funds for women entrepreneurs in Ghana. Specifically, the funds go to assist women farmers with training and loans so they can grow more soybeans and forge market links. This approach has been found to increase food security for the whole community.

The fund-raising approach was to walk the Bruce Trail, a craggy Ontario escarpment trail that runs from Niagara to Tobermory. Two women signed up to do the whole thing (900 km), over the month of July. A larger group joined for the last 100 km of it, over a week. And a larger group still signed up to walk one or two days on the final weekend. Jean and I were part of that group.

Honestly, when Jean first asked if I wanted to join him that weekend, I pictured me lounging about on the beach while he did the walking. But no, he said, I should walk with him. Oh, I said. Guess I can do that.

Hope Bay Beach

Beach that I didn’t get to lounge at

But, Jean seemed fairly worried about the walk, which was to be 20 km on Saturday, with Sunday off. I wondered if I should also be worried about it. 20 km did seem a bit long. Also, I’d walked bits of the Bruce Trail previously, and hadn’t enjoyed the rocky segments.

But, it was so refreshing to have him worry about things, when that’s usually my job, that I thought I’d leave it to him. The weather forecast for the weekend was great: Sunny, highs in the low 20s. So, no worries there.

When we first got to the cottages we were staying at, no members of the one-week team were there, but some did show up eventually. (Not everyone was staying at the same place.) We first talked to two ladies, both in their 60s, who discussed the challenges they’d faced. How much of it wasn’t so much trail walking as rock climbing. Having to wade through water. Dealing with the bugs (hello, DEET). The elevation. How much time these distances were taking them, because it’s not the same as doing that same distance on a nice path.

If that wasn’t enough to start getting me worried, this was the clincher: Despite their success with the previous distances, they had decided there was no way they could do the Saturday hike, which was supposed to be one of the most difficult. Instead, they were going to do two alternate, shorter segments of the Bruce Trail on Saturday and Sunday.

Huh.

We then met with a MEDA representative who had joined the group for a 17 km segment that he’d found more difficult than expected. Aerobically, fine, but very tired legs by that point. And he reported that a few other people were planning alternate routes for that weekend, and we could too.

Jean was rather disappointed at the thought of all his worrying going to waste. Blame me, I said. (I really am bad at clambering over rocks. Like, worse than the average person, I think.)

So on Sunday we found ourselves doing a 12 km segment of the Hope Bay trail, which the team had found to be one of the more pleasant parts of the Bruce. It has elevation, but not a lot of rocks, and offers some nice views.

Jean, |Cathy, and Hope Bay!

Hope Bay

That took us a good six hours, leading me to think that a more challenging 20-km stretch could easily have taken us twice that long.

And instead of our Sunday off, we did an 8-km stretch of the end part trail that we would have done on Saturday.

Some Hiking Some Climbing

This part featured some rock climbing, but fortunately, not much

It was also a pretty picturesque segment.

Little Cove Harbor

The whole effort raised nearly $100,000 for the women of Ghana. Thanks to everyone who contributed.


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A “smart” Dirty Dancing?

When I was describing weekend plans to go see the musical Strictly Ballroom in Toronto, a friend asked if it was like a smart Dirty Dancing.

Must say that I’ve never thought of Strictly Ballroom as such. Or spent much time comparing those two movies.

But it is true that they have the same basic plot line: Hunky male dance instructor teaches promising if slightly gawky young woman (from a different background) to dance, and they fall in love.

So how do they differ? I’m not so sure it’s on IQ points.

1. Point of view

Dirty Dancing is Baby’s story. It’s about her coming of age. It’s directed by a woman, and we see most everything from her perspective. Johnny is there to support her narrative.

Whereas Strictly Ballroom is about Scott. It’s about him breaking free of family expectations and becoming his own person. Fran helps on that journey. Yes, she does that blossoming thing, but that’s really just to make her attractive enough to become Scott’s love interest.

2. Setting

Dirty Dancing is a bit of nostalgia for a time that was and no longer is, when teenagers would happily go off with their parents to a summer vacation resort. Whereas Strictly Ballroom both salutes and mocks the world of ballroom dance competition, in which everyone is trying to preserve a form of dance that—let’s face it—is no longer current.

And as I write that, I’m thinking maybe that’s another similarity: That both movies are about the struggle to preserve a tradition against the forces of change. Hmm.

3. Style

Despite the romance at the centre of it and plenty of humourous moments, Dirty Dancing  is basically a drama, the story told in a “realistic” way. Whereas Strictly Ballroom is very much an over-the-top, exaggerated comedy, albeit with some touching moments.

Which is why Dirty Dancing opens itself up to criticism when some of the dialog is clunky or if a character seems more like a caricature. Strictly Ballroom is in-your-face with ridiculous dialog and absurd characters; that’s part of its charm.

And that also may be why, in my opinion, another difference between these two is that Strictly Ballroom made its transition to the stage much more effectively than Dirty Dancing did.


It’s been a while since I saw Dirty Dancing: The Musical, but I recall thinking that they shouldn’t have stuck so close to the movie. That this might have an opportunity to, for example, fix some of the sillier plot points.

Strictly Ballroom also stuck pretty close to the movie template. But in this case,  just the nature of the stage presentation improved the product.

A lot of it is ballroom dance competition, for example. In the movie, these scenes are largely funny and absurd. On stage, they still have that to a degree, but they also enchanting and beautiful. It just feels more “natural” to see that kind of dancing and those wild costumes on a theatre stage than a movie screen.

And then there’s what musicals do, which is allow the characters to give voice to their inner thoughts in song. And that really brought a lot of depth to the story, making many of the characters less cartoonish. They even bring in some of that Dirty Dancing nostalgia by including popular songs of the 1980s as part of the soundtrack. It really widens the range of emotion of the whole enterprise.

I love the movie Strictly Ballroom. But I think I loved the musical even more.


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Hidden Figures

In my continuing series of trying to find movies Jean will like, we went to see Hidden Figures, the story of three African-American women whose mathematical and engineering skills contributed greatly to NASA’s space program, during a time of segregation.

While I have not seen all of this year’s Oscar-nominated films, based on those I have, I agree with the assessment that this was the most conventionally filmed. While its based on true stories, you can just feel how reality has been condensed and combined to make for a better narrative arc. Like, as Jean pointed out, the “convenient” fact that the three women whose achievements were most impressive in the end happened to all commute to work together in the beginning. And every moment of victory is signalled with a soundtrack of another inspiring, uplifting song.

But hey, if a formula works, it works, and we both really liked this movie. (It also did the best box office of all the Oscar-nominated films.) Most of us did not know this history before this movie was made, and it is pretty amazing one. NASA felt so much urgency to catch up with the Russians on space exploration, they didn’t have the time to waste the talents of brilliant women just because of their skin tone.

But that didn’t mean any of it was easy, and the movie shows the challenges of trying to succeed in a segregated world. Having to run three-quarters of a mile to use “your” restroom. Seeing your coworkers flinch when you touch “their” coffee pot. Having to steal the FORTRAN book from the white section of the library, because they won’t let you borrow it. Doing the work of a supervisor, without the pay or the title.

These women earned each of their inspiring, uplifting songs!

Hidden Figures is on DVD and on-demand now, as well as still on some art cinemas (where we saw it). Definitely worth a view.

 


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Roundup: Riverdale, Lala Land, Malcolm Gladwell, and more

I haven’t done anything major of late, but I’m still keeping busy with a number of minor items, such as…

Watching Riverdale

A very buzzy show right now, playing on CW in the US and on Netflix in Canada. Beforehand, I liked the idea of a dark, Twin Peaks-y take on Archie Comics, and I’ve been generally happy with the results. The tone is still somewhat uneven—sometimes exaggerated Gothic, sometimes gritty realism—and Jean does tend to roll his eyes at the drama, drama of some scenes. But we’re both pretty entertained by it, overall.

Doesn’t hurt that he took an instant shine to Betty, while I am seriously crushing on Jughead… On Jughead, yeah. This is not like the comics! Sure, Archie is handsome, but also a jock and a bit bland, and Kevin is cute, but not  in that Adam Lambert way. But Jughead is a writer, he’s sensitive, he’s moral, he’s troubled (poor and bullied; alcoholic father)—and also, so pretty!

jughead

[SPOILERY] There’s been considerable Internet discussion about whether the Jughead character would be asexual / aromantic as in the comics, so I was curious how that would play out. I can’t say I’m personally disappointed with the decision, but it is certainly a missed opportunity to do something groundbreaking.

Finding a movie Jean likes

Back in December we went to see Office Christmas Party, an over-the-top, light comedy we both found kind of fun. But then we followed withe Loving and Moonlight. These are both quality films that I enjoyed. But they are also slow-paced, character-driven dramas, and Jean was somewhat bored by both. So I took a pass on going to Fences and Manchester by the Sea with him—I’ll catch up on those myself.

The Lego Batman Movie seemed like it should be a good bet, though, right? And while it was not quite as good as the original Lego Movie, I was still very entertained by it. But while Jean wasn’t exactly bored, he was just kind of meh on this one. He just didn’t catch all the digs at the Batman lore that made the movie so clever.

And Lala Land? (“Did you know this is a musical?” he asked, walking in. Umm…)

But hey Mikey, he liked it! (Me too. It’s fun, and beautifully filmed.)

Fretting about details of a party we’re hosting

Usually late at night, when I should be falling asleep.

“Huh,” said Jean, when I reported this. “I don’t think about that at all.”

But he definitely helps me work on whatever aspect I’m most recently fretting about.

I guess that makes us a good partnership. Though I do envy his ability to just assume that things will be fine and work out.

Learning from Malcolm Gladwell

Revisionist History is a podcast series, available on iTunes and Google Play.

Each week, over the course of 10 weeks, Revisionist History will go back and reinterpret something from the past. An event. A person. An idea. Something overlooked. Something misunderstood. Because sometimes the past deserves a second chance.

I’ve listened to 8 out of 10 so far, and find them all fascinating. Like:

  • The Lady Vanishes, on how one woman (or African-American, or gay person) achieving breakthrough success doesn’t necessarily pave the way for more.
  • Thanks to The Big Man Can’t Shoot, I now understand that my very disinterest in looking athletic (a hopeless endeavour, anyway; I am simply not athletic) made me a basketball free-throw champion. (It was literally the only thing I was ever better than anyone else at in gym class.)
  • Hallelujah explains the creative process and unlikely series of fortunate events that turned Leonard Cohen’s original un-listenable song into the iconic tune it is today. (Though I think KD Lang should also have earned a shout-out in this piece.) And as a bonus, introduced me to a new Elvis Costello tune.

Listening to women

I’ve always been a feminist, of course, but the US election has made it all feel more acute. My Twitter feed has been feeling gender unbalanced, so I’ve been seeking out more women’s voices:

  • @robyndoolittle, who’s been working on an important series for the Globe and Mail on how many sexual assault cases in Canada are labelled unfounded. (The first: Unfounded: Why police dismiss 1 in 5 sexual assault claims as baseless)
  • @AKimCampbell, first woman Prime Minister of Canada, and also a really hilarious person. (And very active retweeter, but I’ve learned you can follow a person’s tweets but not their retweets.)
  • @kashanacauley, humorist and now writer at The Daily Show.
  • @tagaq, wherein singer Tanya Tagaq provides an interesting, First Nations perspective on the day’s issues.

I’ve also been listening to more music by women. This has led Spotify, who previously recommended me a whole lot of dance club music (thanks to following Adam Lambert, and perhaps enforced by a bout of listening to show tunes) to conclude, well, maybe I would enjoy some Indigo Girls and Melissa Ethridge as well.

I kind of do like their music, though, so it’s all good. And also, the songs by these strong women:


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Hope

I didn’t want to write about it at all, and I won’t be going on about it now. But did want to say that yesterday’s fairly pathetic turnout:

920x920

Obama inauguration crowds on the left; Trump’s on the right

Contrasted with the astonishing crowd who turned out today for the #womensmarch protest:

natl_mall_womensmarchnoon_earthcam_1

Along with the multitudes protesting in cities across the United States, from states both blue:

And red:

Boosted by protests around the world:

Is giving me hope.