Thursday, September 23, 2010


The Video Store is dead.

Yes, you may still see them hanging around your local strip mall, or taking up space on a soon to be vacant lot, but it's only a matter of time. Blockbuster, Inc. filed for bankruptcy protection yesterday, and I don't think anyone is surprised. What's surprising is that these empty stores are still hanging on for dear life even as I write this column.

It's fascinating, when you think about it, akin to watching one of those old casinos in Vegas being demolished; you see the explosion at the base, hear the rumbling cacophony...

Except that in this case, the casino hasn't fallen. A Blockbuster is still standing somewhere in your neighbourhood, the perennial Blanche Dubois of video entertainment, telling itself that the glory days are still here and even more glorious days lie ahead. 

But they don't. Why? To answer that question, it's time to offer this writer's personal history of his almost quarter-century old relationship with the beloved Video Store, which is now fast coming to an end. It's a tale of an elopement, a torrid affair, a loving marriage and finally, a slow and steady estrangement followed by the inevitable divorce. Oh, and death. Can't forget that. 

It all started back in 1986. I was 13 years old, and already a film junkie. I lived with my mother in a loft downtown not far from the cinema and theater district. At least three times a week I would make the half-mile walk to the movies, purchase four to five pounds of chocolate and coke, and be swept away by the dreams of Hollywood. 1986? Let's see... we'll start with a few of the good: Aliens, The Color of Money, Hoosiers, Big Trouble In Little China. Then there was the celluloid offal: Cobra, Clan of the Cave Bear, King Kong Lives, Let's Get Harry (brilliant title, though). 

But I loved 'em all. I couldn't get enough. Which is why, when I first heard about something called the video store, the drool pouring out of mouth hit the ground with an audible splash. What?? You can... what? Watch whatever movie you like AT HOME??!!! Oh, my.. I must join one... now. 

The problem was, we basically lived in Chinatown. The only video store anywhere near us featured all the best new releases from Beijing. They did come with subtitles- in Cantonese. Just in case your Mandarin was a tad rusty. My hopes were sunk. My life seemed lost, hopeless; I would never be able to watch movies on my terms, fitted into my busy adolescent schedule of backyard cricket and relentless, rapid-fire bursts of desperate masturbation. 

Then something strange and wondrous happened. We moved. Out of the downtown, away from the Yellow Peril, with its incomprehensible movies and delicious take-out, and into an actual suburb. Not a particularly nice one, mind you, but one featuring.... a Video Store. 

Not just any Video Store. The biggest, and only, Video Store I'd ever seen. Two levels. A bathroom. And more movies than one could poke a stick at. The best part? After a brief discussion with the manager, it was made clear that I be able to rent anything I liked.

A quick disclaimer here, in defense of my mother. She knew that I loved all kinds of movies, ranging from fluffy teen stuff right through to adult drama. Back in those days, when Hollywood still made movies for adults, many of these were given the strictest- and most exciting- rating: R. No one under the age of 18 would pass through those gates. I had always managed to get in at the cinema and mum saw no reason why it should be different here. So, with one quick note left on the brand new coal-fired Apple 2c computer, the entire universe of film heaven was opened to me. 

And a love affair began. New Releases was, in those days, the least exciting area of the store- I'd seen everything there was to see in the last few years, since I'd been old enough to go to the cinema by myself. It was the older movies that captivated, the really old ones, the ancient stuff- from, like, the early 80s, that I lusted after. That first night in the new house, my room consisting only of my creaky bed, a milk crate on which the beloved TV sat and, of course, our brand new Video Cassette Player, I inhaled the first three Rocky movies, having adored Rocky IV to the tune of five times at the cinema. I was shocked to discover that the first in the series was called Rocky, not Rocky One. Ah, well. Must be a misprint. Anyway, all three films went down the hatch that night, with hundreds more to follow within a few months.

Not all of which were, um... Hollywood films, in the strictest sense of the word. Having said that, many of them were probably made near Hollywood. Van Nuys, to be more specific. These European-style art films about the vagaries of love were to be found in an area at the rear end (couldn't resist) of the store under the heading, "Erotica". Erotica. Can you believe that? So quaint. Makes the eighties seem downright virginal. I don't recall seeing an erotica section in a Blockbuster store. Maybe if they'd included one, they'd be faring a little better right now.

I forgot to mention the small, dilapidated Beta section that I discovered soon after joining. Later transformed into the Laser Disc section. Last I heard it had become the Movies With Good Stories For Intelligent Adults Featuring Good Actors section. But no one rents any of those. 

But back to our adventure through history. Things basically remained unchanged for the better part of twenty years. Yes, VHS and, shockingly, Beta disappeared and DVDs took their place. I lived in Manhattan now and my local Video Store was, indeed, a Blockbuster. Not that I missed the Erotica section- I actually went on the occasional date now and, even more surprisingly, managed to fool a few hapless women into becoming romantically involved with me. Failing that, there was also the rise of a much larger Erotica section, an Erotica section that was infinite in size and even larger in grandeur: the Internet. Of course, it didn't have the same allure. Nothing can match the excitement and triumph of being a thirteen year-old boy surviving the humiliation and embarrassment of renting a pornographic movie and making it home and into his bedroom, undiscovered. The Internet makes everything too easy.

Then, sometime in the mid-2000s, a perfect storm arrived, one that would forever sever my ties with the Video Store.

Three elements came into accordance.

1.  I matured. Not much, but just enough to allow me to realize that most movies coming out of Hollywood were, in fact, crapola. As a result, amazingly, I stopped watching them.

2.  I made the terrible life choice of getting cable, and I found to my amazement that I could rent movies whenever I damn well pleased. Without a note from my mother.

3.  Sometime soon after that, Netflix arrived and, well... the rest is history, not only for me, but for most of you as well. I love getting my little red envelope in the mail. Cripes, I sound lame right now… and a little effete.

So that's it. Enjoy these dinosaurs while they still roam the earth. Pretty soon they'll be gone. Will we mourn them? Maybe not, but with each passing year it seems like there are less and less places where people go to browse for pieces of entertainment to take home with them. First the record store became extinct, then the small book store, after that the large-scale music store... and now this, with only the local library to follow.

There's nothing romantic about a Blockbuster, or any other type of Video Store. 

But only the coldest of us don't sadden, even for a few moments, upon hearing of the loss of an old flame. 

Goodbye, Video Store. I want to say you won’t be forgotten. But I'd be lying.

Pictures, from top:     Sylvester Stallone in ROCKY IV, United Artists, 1985.
                                  The VHS v BETA War Of The Early Eighties. VHS prevailed... for a time.
                                  The kind of Video Store that caused me so much anguish as a kid. 

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Magpie List

A writer and friend of mine here in Los Angeles, Eve Sturges, has a lovely blog called The Magpie List. Worth a look- anyone can make a random, spontaneous list of some of their favourite books, music and movies (I added TV- couldn't resist putting Deadwood and Ricky Gervais down).

Not only is it fun, but the blog is an interesting resource for anyone seeking ideas for their next book, album or Netflix rental:


Victoria and I were driving through the super-trendy part of West Hollywood the other day and I found my attention being diverted by a large billboard advertising beer (by the way, anyone else find it strange that we can be ticketed for texting while driving yet companies are able to put billboards by the side of the road that are designed to distract us?). It was very simple: two extremely attractive modelly
types – hell, why don’t I just call them models – in hip clothing and wearing designer sunglasses are looking at each other. Between them a massive bottle of beer has been projected onto the picture.  There was also a tag line; you know the type: “Budweiser… get shitfaced and homoerotic”, or “Stella Artois. Drink it and you’ll have boatloads of anonymous sex with unrealistically attractive people.”
Anyway, as I turned my eyes back to the road having driven blind for about seven seconds, a thought which many of you might find breathtakingly obvious struck me:

We are all obsessed with glamour.

Then the next thought hit:

We haven’t changed since medieval times. Since we all turned our faces up toward Kings and Queens.

America may have been founded on the basis of monarchic rejection, yet it seems we haven’t lost our fascination with and desire for lives filled with castles, jewels and the adoration of the great unwashed.

In fact, I would dare to say that the peoples of the region named the United Kingdom, with their flaccid yet wealthy monarchy still in place, are much less interested in their own royalty than we in the US are with our adopted “eminences”.

And who are some of these fortunate ones, these chosen few adorned with precious gems, riding in resplendent carriages, just out of the reach of the straining hordes who are so desperate for a glance, a brief touch, anything that they think might rub off on them, give them the slightest chance of rising up to that rarified class themselves sometime in the future?

Kim Kardashian.
Ashton Kutcher.
Snoop Dog (notice the correct spelling of the word).
Jessica Simpson

Yep folks, meet some of the American Monarchy, revered simply for the size of their bling. Okay, Snoop also has produced what some might call ‘music’, but if I’m not mistaken, his greater contribution has been the glorification of the degradation of women. I mean, golly, at least the members of nobility in other countries are educated, for pete’s sake. They can usually string a sentence or two together in tones resembling something other than monosyllabic grunts- Queen Elizabeth excluded.

But not only do we elevate anyone with enough cash to have their own reality show, we also seem to be willing to buy products because we see them in connection with complete strangers who only appear to be members of this fancied club. For all we know, that model wearing those four hundred-dollar jeans might be buried under a mountain of debt accrued from his cocaine habit, or maybe that Swiss watch ad in that fashion magazine was his first job, and he’s still living in a roach-infested hovel in Queens. But we don’t care. I’d be willing to say that we have become masters at the art of judging books by their covers, except for the fact that wait, we don’t even read books anymore. 

But it is true that for most of us, the proverbial clothes do make the man. Allowing for many exceptions, we have become a nation of the peasantry and the ruling class. Mansions are built, cars with price tags better reserved for houses are bought, entire armies of servants disguised as ‘entourage’ are maintained, and individual kingdoms and empires are built as more of us become ‘incorporated’, which sounds like something out of Invasion of The Body Snatchers and, if you’ve seen many of these people interviewed, that analogy might be closer than you think.

I’m all for living well. But we have to have standards, people. We can all change how we look at the world, and more importantly what we value in it, in little ways. Let’s start by refusing to be too impressed by shiny objects that we will inevitably tire of all too quickly- and that includes humans.  Who cares if Tiger Woods won a few rounds of golf- instead of hanging around a golf course and clapping while he lifted his heavy golden trophy and his heavier zillion-dollar check, we should have said to him 'a job well done mate, there’s an aluminium plaque waiting for you in a shed near the parking lot, we’re off to the pub.'

As Victoria once told me, a milk shake used to be considered a dessert, a treat; now we call it coffee and consume far more of it than is good for us. Let us consider the soap opera that is the affairs of dumb rich people who contribute nothing to our community in the same light- as a vice to engage in very occasionally.  Maybe then we’ll be freer to pursue our own destinies,  and realize that what any of us has to give might be shinier and worth more than all the jeans, sunglasses and bronzed muscle in Christendom. 

Pictures, from top:  The woman my father refers to as Sweaty Betty.
                                Snoop Dog... misogynistic imbecile.  

Friday, September 17, 2010


People often talk about living in a ‘state of grace’.

To me, on this day, that means loving what one does.

We all have things we love to do, those creative acts which bring us joy and fulfillment. For many of us, those passions have turned into career pursuits, carrying with them dreams, ambitions, goals. For others, these passions may never turn into lifelong professions, instead residing only in our private lives. Lastly, there are many, I suspect way too many, who simply yearn to do something but never take the first step.

The question is, outside of our everyday responsibilities which of course have to be met, why is it that we don’t always do what we love to do, engaging in those activities which consistently lift our spirit and give us the most joy? It is a given that at times our concentration and focus will become captured by other, more pressing concerns- if we are tackling issues of our very survival, for instance. But in the absence of obstacles to our self-expression and the practice of the rituals and tasks we love to do, why should we avoid them? Why should we resist their silent call to us? We all know that voice , that whispers crazy things to us, that urges us to expand, to express and propel our unique ideas, thoughts and feelings out into the world. This is the same voice that has inspired your greatest heroes in their respective fields to go out into society and make their singular contribution.

From what I can tell, the primary thing, aside from oppressive outside forces, that stops a human being from making that contribution is self-criticism and faulty paradigms around success and failure. When we have very specific ideas about what success means and how it must be manifested, anything not fitting that paradigm will cause discomfort, pessimism and even great degrees of shame. Many of us were taught at a young age that no meaning can be found in failure. On the contrary: failure can be of profound meaning, if we’re willing to look at it without judgement. Even better would be to experience it without judgement.

What a productive and joyous life we might lead were we to embrace the entirety of our journey, learning to love and be interested in our entire spectrum of experience as human beings. My most creative periods have occurred when I was willing to be non-judgmental about what I was producing. Not only that, my happiest days came when I made the choice to love what I was doing and everything that came with and from it.

I can already hear a doubting voice that might speak up and say, “that’s all wonderful, but what about when there are goals to be achieved, objectives to be fulfilled and deadlines to be met?”

The paradox is that those very same goals have the greatest chance of being attained in the most successful way when we are able to let go of resistance that comes in the form of self-criticism and judgment. By being unconditional with ourselves and the results which come from our creative work, we find a greater ability to be honest without being self-flagellatory, to be able to be constructively critical without condemning ourselves. 

Small children can teach us. Their creative prolificity can be awe-inspiring. We've all seen the parent who shoves a piece of blank paper in front of their child with a stack of crayons, saying "they'll be happy for hours." 

So can we. Next time you're feeling stuck while working on an especially meaningful project, I urge you to step back and love whatever work you've done up until that point. See the results of your labour as you would your own child's, and that will hopefully lead to passionate encouragement of yourself for more. 

The aphorism holds true:

"When we love what we do, we invariably end up doing more of what we love."


Thursday, September 16, 2010


Some interesting things going on in the world. Along with some boring things. Let's look at a sampling of both:

An interesting article on Mark Zuckerberg in this week's New Yorker, in anticipation of the film about him titled The Social Network. I'm expecting the movie to be decent, given it was written by Aaron Sorkin of West Wing fame and directed by one of my favourite Hollywood guys, David Fincher (Seven, Fight Club, Zodiac, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button). The article paints a conflicting portrait of the man; depending on your perspective, he could seem a heartless, brilliant opportunist or just a brilliant... opportunist, which has no pejorative connotation for this writer- it simply means that Zuckerberg had the creative genius to take advantage of an enormous opportunity, something any creative person aspires to do.

A terrific piece by Michael Moore about the controversy surrounding the construction of the Islamic community center near the former World Trade Center site, also known as 'Ground Zero', an idiotic Hollywood name if there ever was one.

If you want a different perspective on the world and the different jobs in it, hop on the back of a transmission tower worker at 1,768 feet. My girlfriend Victoria can't watch this without breaking out in a sweat. I'm guessing we won't be going bungy jumping anytime soon.

A fascinating couple of weeks involving issues around religion's place in an increasingly secular society. First it was the French ban on the public adornment of traditional Islamic veils, better known as 'Burkas', which has triggered an outcry of Muslim indignation in that country. Then it was time for that wonderful enabler of child predators, the Pope, to visit England at huge cost, as public services in that country, as in the US, continue to be slashed. Read this wonderful op-ed in Tuesday's Guardian by the president of the British Humanist Associaton on secularism in today's UK and the religious backlash against it. An interesting side note: Australia's recently elected first female Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, risked losing that election when she came right out and called herself an atheist during the campaign, saying that she respected all religions and was ready to work with religious leaders and her political colleagues who were devoutly religious. I look forward to the day when politicians in the United States are allowed to be non-religious.

In my humble opinion, all of these events fall under the heading of 'interesting', yet I promised you some boring stuff as well. How about this... my neighbour is in a 'fantasy league'. Question: why is it that people who dress up in cloaks and hats and role-play as druids and sorcerers are called nerds, while idiots who dress up in colourful sporting paraphernalia and role-play as owners or coaches of sporting franchises consider themselves cool? College football and the NFL season have arrived, and the 'fantasy leagues' have begun... I call on all nerds to arm themselves with real swords and clubs, go down to their local sports bar, crack some heads and earn some well-deserved payback.

Tail-gating, fantasy leagues and American football. Now that's boring.

Saturday, September 11, 2010


Many US citizens and others from around the world take this day, September 11, to remember the victims of the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001.

People will often say that days of remembrance like this are important so that we 'never forget' what happened in the effort to always be 'vigilant' and ensure that atrocities like the attacks of 9/11/01 'never happen again.'

I am in full agreement that not forgetting events of mass murder can be critical when attempting to permanently eradicate any possibility of their repetition. However, it is important to remind ourselves that it is how we remember, as citizens and as nations, that is one of the keys when it comes to avoiding future incidents of mass violence.

On September 11, 1973, the democratically elected socialist President of Chile, Salvador Allende, was removed from power in a military coup by his General Chief of Staff of the army, Augusto Pinochet. Pinochet went on to murder many of his political opponents and somewhere between 1,500-3,200 of his citizens by conservative estimates in addition to torturing around 30,000 men, women and children and interning around 80,000. 200,000 Chilean citizens have been said to have gone into exile. This violent, illegal military regime served up 17 years of misery to its people before finally coming to an end in 1990.

Why should this be relevant to all those who remember America's 9/11 on this day?

Pinochet was backed by none other than the USA. The CIA had given material assistance to an attempted coup in 1970 even before assisting in the successful coup in '73. Furthermore, it had also given aid to anti-socialist terrorist groups.

Would the coup have succeeded without US assistance? We'll never know. But we do know that the US was involved and directly supported, in secret, terrorist activities and a military takeover of an entire nation which resulted in the deaths of thousands and the suffering of tens of thousands more over almost two decades.

While there were no Chileans involved in the 9/11/01 attacks on New York and Washington, we must learn the lesson of the Chilean 9/11 when looking at other US acts of international interference since then which helped to create the kind of violent backlash which resulted in the thousands of dead being mourned today, whether it be the indiscriminate bombing and scorched-earth policy in Kosovo, to occupation of Saudi territory through to the murder and disenfranchisment of untold Palestinians through US backing of its client state in the region, Israel. I could cite many more examples (the disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan should be self-evident by now) but the point is clear: as long as the United States continues to trample over the lives of hundreds of thousands of innocent citizens of foreign nations in an attempt to project its power in the name of 'US interests',  future terrorist attacks are inevitable.

We have a chance to change course. While thinking of the dead and their families today, we might also, for a start, think about lowering our defense budget, retreating from the Middle East and Europe, shutting down military bases overseas and ceasing to talk about this country being 'the greatest in the world', a phrase which implies the collective inferiority of the other 190 nations surrounding us.

We all want to ensure there are no more terrible days like September 11, 1973 and 2001. We have the chance as a people, through our language but, much more importantly, through the policies we demand,  to ensure that kind of lasting peace is a reality. For all nations.

Thursday, September 9, 2010


For those of you who read my blog entitled Redevelop This, you might be interested to read this article, another in the New York Times, this time from George Vecsey- really a sequel to the article whose link I posted in my column yesterday.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010


I've been having a nice little email get-to-know-you with a journalist at, the online home of Major League Baseball. Yes, for those of you who don't know me, I am a rather large baseball fan- figuratively, that is. Because of this, I sometimes find myself reading inane articles in the wee hours about this hitter's thumb and that pitcher's stint on the disabled list due to heightened levels of anxiety (that actually is quite an interesting phenomenon- could be tomorrow's column). While none of this consumption of sports reporting moves me forward in my spiritual evolution as a human being, occasionally I happen on an article that is actually pertinent to issues that do have real meaning for me and many others in America today.

The article in question was not exactly of that ilk; its pertinence rested in its ignorance of some of those issues. The writer, a Mr.Barry Bloom, gushed over the new Minnesota ballpark, Target Field. He spoke of how it would be a boon for the community, of the pleasure it would give the fans. Clearly, in this man's eyes, everything had been gained and nothing lost: "thriving communities, thriving franchises, happy fans."

Not quite, Baz. I sent him an email asking for clarification on exactly who he was referring to when he used the term 'community'. Certainly not the thousands of poor and working class residents who were relocated, or more accurately kicked out, to make way for the new stadium. Nor was he probably referring to the millions of people who may have benefited from the new schools, parks, health clinics and community centers that could have been built with all that public money. In all likelihood, Barry was probably referring to the super-rich corporations that received those funds to build the stadium and the sports owners and private vendors who will fatten their already bloated pockets by feeding and entertaining the mostly well-off people who can manage to buy a ticket and a bag of peanuts at the glitzy new stadium without jeopardizing next month's rent payment.

It's always fascinating to me how when local governments and the corporate media talk of 'transforming' a depressed urban area, it almost always results not in transformation, but destruction. Historical buildings tumble, poor residents with roots in the neighbourhood going back generations are kicked out and a new, 'vibrant' neighbourhood springs up. If you're not sure what I mean, I'll give you some reliable indicators: fancy, boutique hotels for the 'public', costing 200 a night and up. Brand new chain restaurants in shining malls and along paved promenades, offering 'local' flavours. Hey, an Applebys Caesar Salad made in Minneapolis is kinda local, after all. Brand new cookie-cutter apartment buildings offering 'local' housing. I love that- if you throw the word 'housing' at the end of a headline announcing the construction of a new apartment block offering million-dollar condos as part of an urban 'redevelopment', most people will believe something good is happening for the community.

It is. For a tiny percentage of the community, if you believe that word covers the entire population, not just the wealthy. I read a different kind of article today. If you vote, and especially if you're a fan of your local sports team, I strongly recommend its reading. Especially you, Barry:

These public-private projects do not help the community at large. There's no reason why people should have to spend enormous amounts of money on houses in prosperous neighbourhoods the moment they have kids, just so that child can go to a decent school. Enough with the insanity. Until we have good schools and hospitals in every neighbourhood, and health care for every person that doesn't bankrupt them, and decent public housing for people to live in and parks for children to play in, enough with the brand spanking new stadiums.

To borrow an old Arabic phrase, our priorities are ass-up and tits-backward.  Vote for leaders who tell sports owners that if they want a new toy that prints loads of brand new money for themselves and their buddies, that's wonderful. But they can build it without our help.

Pictures, from top:

The new stadium for the Arizona Cardinals, 67% of which was publicly financed.

The old and the new. The new Giants-Jets stadium, being built on public land, replacing the old one, which
the people of New Jersey are still paying back, with $100 million dollars still owed.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010


In his book, A New Earth, Eckhart Tolle talks about how ducks manage conflict. After two ducks have  come together in a physical confrontation, he says, they both retreat to a safe distance, rise up in the water and shake their wings violently, thereby releasing all the residues of energy that have remained in their bodies as a result of the fight. Having done so, the ducks continue on as before, having regained their inner equilibrium.
If only the psychic and energetic upheavals caused by human conflict and confrontation could be surrendered as easily. Yet, with much work and a commitment to living without inner conflict (which means being willing to work through outer conflicts), they can be. Obviously it's harder for us- we are blessed and burdened with long memories, active imaginations and well-developed egos, which is all the more reason for us to find ways to move beyond the mostly petty disputes and judgements which crowd our thoughts and disturb our inner peace.
I have had the experience of driving and becoming irritated with another person on the road, blasting my horn and sounding off to myself, only to discover that the other driver was a friend of mine. How amusing it is to watch both of us go from a state of anger and bilious annoyance to laughter and joyful embarrassment upon recognizing our friend in the other car. This begs the question: how is it possible to be so ready to fight a war and then transform into gestures of love in the next instant? In moments like these it's very clear to me that our feelings about the people around us are a result of how we perceive them.
On a global scale, this is critical to understand for obvious reasons. But more personally, I have noticed in myself that I am less likely to venture out into the world with a sense of joy and freedom when I am perceiving that world as a hostile place, full of 'enemies' and  dislikable people who are ready to judge me harshly. Yet those same people can seem lovable and approachable depending on my outlook and mood that day. As an actor I have experienced enormous anxiety and reluctance to go onstage one night and a hyperactive eagerness and giddy joy to step out in front of an audience the next. All that changed was my feelings about the people and the environment I was moving into.
We all have goals. We all need to move in the world and make contact with others, whether it be in a supermarket checkout line or in collaboration with others, working together on the most meaningful projects in our lives. When we find a way to wish others well and extend love to them in whatever minute forms that might take, we will surely begin to feel that others are doing the same for us. All of us know the joy of basking in the loving embrace of our friends, knowing that we can be who we are and be fully accepted. The more often we're able to project that feeling with no thought as to how it will be returned, the more our world will grow and the more its abundance will be able to flow in.