Mixed messaging

This Friday my community enters Stage 2 of the loosening of the strictures put in place to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. Hair salons and barbershops will be open, as will restaurant patios and churches.

This Friday my community will begin mandatory wearing of masks or face coverings in all commercial establishments. No mask, no service.

If the situation is not improving then should we be opening up at this time? If the situation is improving, why are the safety guidelines becoming stricter? Shouldn’t we all have been forced to wear masks a couple of months ago?

Up for renewal?

As the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown loosens but remains in place, thoughts have begun to turn not so much to when things will return to normal but what the “new normal” is going to look like.

Some things, I think, are going to be lost forever, while others, like the dead animals buried in the Pet Sematary, are going to come back changed. Here’s a partial list.

Handshakes and hugs: I’ve read some commentators already bidding a not-very-fond “good riddance!” to these forms of expression. Given our current state of feeling toward social distancing it’s hard to see them making a comeback. A hand stuck out at us today might as well be holding a gun, and a hug be interpreted as a form of assault. I’m not sure we’ll be seeing them again anytime soon.

Malls: the “retail apocalypse” has been a slow-motion extinction event for the past decade-plus, mainly due to the shift to online shopping. This is a trend that has only been accelerated. These properties are going to have to be repurposed.

Mass travel: I think people will go back to filling up cruise ships and airplanes again if only because for a lot of older, better-off people this is all they have left in life. But I don’t think the industry is ever going to return to pre-pandemic levels. Which is a good thing.

Hotels: connected to the collapse of the travel industry, but high vacancy rates are only part of the story. There are no conventions being held and hence no need for convention centres either, which are a big part of the hotel economy, especially in big cities.

Cash: a lot of stores have stopped taking cash, even for very small purchases. And those that still do have signs up saying they’d prefer you to use a card. This is another change that has been in the offing for a while now and it’s just been hastened along by recent events. We’re moving toward the cashless society. I don’t like this, if only because it means that every transaction will now be recorded somewhere. Which, in turn, means that we will more and more come to be identified and defined by our purchases.

Libraries: I think I read somewhere that 2014 was supposed to be “the end of tactile media.” That hasn’t happened yet, but I guess it’s another change that’s been taking place at its own speed. How eager are people going to be to sign out books that have been touched by other people’s hands, and been in other people’s homes? See above for what’s happening to cash.

Cinemas and theatres: I’ve only been to see a couple of movies in a cinema in the last ten years. It’s just not worth it (for my notes on one of these outings, to see Blade Runner 2049, see here). As for live theater, it’s been at least fifteen years since I’ve gone out to see a play. According to official statistics these are businesses that have recently been experiencing hard times, with higher ticket prices making up for declining sales. So this constitutes another sector of the economy that was already distressed, with this latest downturn likely to push it over the edge. I don’t know how the industry is going to respond. Are digital/streaming platforms going to make up the difference?

Restaurants: I assume restaurants will re-open and people will go back to dining out at some point. But many restaurants, especially those independently owned, are going to go under before then and I think it’s going to be a difficult way back to financial sustainability for those that survive, especially if they can only operate with restrictions on how many people they can seat. It’s a business where profit margins are thin, and who’s going to want to eat meals served by waiters wearing gloves and face masks? The experience of eating out isn’t going to be any fun for a while. As for buffets, they may be well on their way to extinction.

Gyms: Tough one. My routine was always to go to the gym in the wee hours of the morning when the place was almost empty. So I’d go back tomorrow following the same schedule. But most people, by definition, go to the gym during peak hours (just before and after work). And they take classes, which I don’t. Are those people going to come back? Some of them, but probably not enough for many gyms to stay in business. And how many personal trainers are going to be able to make a living out of Zoom fitness sessions?

It all adds up to a different world we’ll be living in. More than that, however, I’m afraid the long-term consequences of this lockdown are going to be staggering. Just recently I’ve been reading some books on the 2008 financial crisis and its fallout (Crashed by Adam Tooze, The Shifts and the Shocks by Martin Wolf) and it’s interesting to see how the repercussions from that were still playing out a decade down the line. Indeed, we’re still living in its shadow, if you count Trump as being one part of the fallout.

Well, the effect of this pandemic, on the economy and people’s lives, is going to be much, much worse. The bill that’s going to come due (and I’m not just speaking literally here) is something I don’t think a lot of people appreciate yet. But some are taking notice. A recent piece by Annie Lowery that ran in The Atlantic, for example, is headlined “This Summer Will Scar Young Americans for Life.” The damage, Lowery writes, “could last forever.” And this is for a cohort that aren’t losing their jobs because most of them haven’t entered into careers yet. Their parents may be in worse shape, and if their grandparents are in long term care . . . well, that’s another horror show. This may never be truly over.

Spare time

H. G. Wells is usually credited with having invented the time-travel story in the 1895 classic The Time Machine. In his book Time Travel James Gleick does a good job putting Wells’s invention in context, though I still wonder why such a rich idea lay mostly unexplored until the twentieth century. Clearly we weren’t waiting for science to catch up to our imaginings, because it still hasn’t (and likely never will).

The novel has been freely adapted on film at least twice, by George Pal in 1960 and again, less successfully, in 2002. I would definitely recommend the Pal version, but if you really want a treat you should look for Time After Time, which has Malcolm McDowell playing H. G. Wells zapping forward to 1970s America in a hunt for Jack the Ripper. It’s a movie that’s not very well known these days but it’s very good.

First as scandal, then as farce

Over at Alex on Film I’ve been watching a bunch of movies on American politics: Oliver Stone’s George W. Bush biopic W. (2008); a fictional account of a Democratic primary that gets nasty, The Ides of March (2011); a couple of movies looking at historical political scandals: Chappaquiddick (2017) and The Front Runner (2018); and finally a biopic of Dick Cheney, Vice (2018)

What struck me watching these movies, as I think it would anyone, is how their catalogues of scandal, crime, and cynicism pale beside any ordinary week’s worth of news out of the Trump White House. What sorts of movies are we going to see made about the current administration? I think we’re past the point of parody now.

I suck at chess

Finding myself with some free time on my hands recently, I’ve been playing a bit of chess online against a computer. I don’t think I’ve played chess in over twenty years. I am no good at it.

I wasn’t even sure I still knew all the rules, and as it turned out, I was wrong about how castling works. But even after getting back up to speed I soon discovered that I am not only no good at chess, I’m terrible. As I understand it, the key to the game is being able to think ahead, seeing possible combinations long in advance. I can’t do this. I’ve tried, but the furthest I can get in my grand plans and strategies is to think one move ahead. I play the computer on skill level 2 (out of a possible 10). I only win about half the time, and only then when the computer makes a staggering blunder.

I’m truly impressed at how rotten I am at chess. Though I don’t think this is the result of any big mental decline. I don’t remember ever being any good at chess. As it is, even when I get ahead I don’t try and get to checkmate as soon as I can (which I think is the point). Instead I like dragging things out when I’m in an advantageous position, and see how many of my pawns I can turn into queens. This is what my endgames look like (yes, I’m playing white):

GM Alex shutting things down.

I am not a chess player. A real chess player doesn’t do things like this. But I find it relaxing.

GOM syndrome

When I recently finished my rundown of Batman movies I had occasion to comment on how Joker (2019) wasn’t so much a comic-book movie as an attempt to remake Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy (1982), a movie nearly forty years its senior. Despite being so much older, however, I said I found The King of Comedy to be far smarter, fresher, more observant, and original than Joker. This left me to wonder if such a response was the result of my now being a grumpy old man, stuck complaining about how they “don’t make ’em like they used to.”

As further evidence of my GOM syndrome I went on to mention how I thought Gone Girl (2014), another big hit and favoured “water-cooler” movie that tapped into a cultural moment, was inferior, as a movie, to such schlocky genre entries in the psycho-girlfriend canon as Play Misty for Me (1971) and Fatal Attraction (1987).

What made this stick out for me was the fact that I wasn’t picking on tired, junky retreads. Both Joker and Gone Girl were huge box-office hits. Joker won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, and led the field at the 2019 Academy Awards with 11 nominations (Joaquin Phoenix winning for Best Actor). Gone Girl received good reviews, made many critics’ top-10 lists, and was also nominated for numerous awards.

But there’s more grumpiness. Around the same time as this I was watching the British-Irish police drama The Fall, which ran for three seasons starting in 2013 and stars Gillian Anderson as a detective tracking a serial killer (Jamie Dornan). I’d heard nothing but good things about The Fall, which isn’t surprising given that it has a rating of 100% on Rotten Tomatoes and received “universal acclaim” according to the survey of reviews on Metacritic. But while I like Anderson and thought the show had a few good moments, I came away from The Fall thinking the story took some silly turns and played up its feminist credentials in a way that was really heavy-handed. I also wondered at how Jamie Dornan got such freakisly large calves, but that’s beside the point.

Watching The Fall made me want to go back and watch Prime Suspect, the police procedural starring Helen Mirren as DCI Jane Tennison. The first series of Prime Suspect, which aired in 1991, had Tennison trying to break through the glass ceiling in a decidedly sexist (I think even by the standards of the time) workplace while chasing after a serial killer. And again the experience I had was of what a falling off there has been. Prime Suspect, dealing with a very similar story, is much better in every department than The Fall, and is far stronger stuff for being more honest and direct in its treatment of difficult subject matter.

So, what was going on here? Is this all just further proof that the film and television business has run out of new ideas and can only try to remake better films and TV shows from twenty, thirty, or even forty years ago? I think that’s part of it, but it doesn’t explain why these remakes are so inferior to their precursors. In most cases they are more expensive and better produced. Technically they’re very well turned out. But Joker, Gone Girl, and The Fall just aren’t very interesting, at least to me. I’ve seen this stuff done before, and done better. Which is as good a definition of Grumpy Old Man syndrome as any. I guess it’s all part of the aging process.


Always on call. For a sequel.

Over at Alex on Film I’ve been watching a bunch of movies relating to Batman. I say “relating to Batman” because the first and last movie I watched don’t have Batman in them. But the first was only a cheap joke trying to cash in on the popularity of the Batman TV series and Joker just underlines how the villains Batman faces are usually a lot more interesting than Batman himself. I didn’t include Halle Berry’s Catwoman (2004) but it would have been another example of the same phenomenon (the Batman movie minus Batman).

There hasn’t been a great Batman movie, and there have been quite a few very bad ones. For some reason he’s been hard to get right.

The Wild World of Batwoman (1966)
Batman: The Movie (1966)
Batman (1989)
Batman Returns (1992)
Batman Forever (1995)
Batman & Robin (1997)
Batman Begins (2005)
The Dark Knight (2008)
The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)
The LEGO Batman Movie (2017)
Joker (2019)


Yes, it’s Friday. But can you guess which Friday the 13th?

Over at Alex on Film I’ve just finished up reviewing the Friday the 13th canon. I didn’t rewatch these movies all at once. Don’t think I could have taken it.

Fans like to rank these movies but looking back on them I don’t see how that’s possible. I guess the first one isn’t that bad. Betsy Palmer’s turn as Mrs. Voorhees is the (lone) series highlight for me. Some of the later entries had their moments, and they did try to change things up a bit as things went along, but still there’s not a lot here. And the 2009 reboot may have been the worst of them all.

Friday the 13th (1980)
Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981)
Friday the 13th Part III ((1982)
Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (1984)
Friday the 13th: A New Beginning (1985)
Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives (1986)
Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood (1988)
Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan (1989)
Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday (1993)
Jason X (2001)
Friday the 13th (2009)

End times

Looking a lot like my hometown.

Over at Alex on Film I’ve been watching various movies about what’s known as TEOTWAWKI or The End of the World As We Know It. It seemed like a good time.

Most such movies have a common ancestor in Richard Matheson’s novella I Am Legend, though there are earlier literary precedents. It’s just that Matheson’s story tapped into what would become the dominant apocalyptic paradigm: not just the last man on earth scenario, but the war of that last man against all that remains. Hence the zombie apocalypse.

Matheson’s novel was first filmed in 1964 as The Last Man on Earth, and most recently in 2007 under its original title, but its most famous adaptation was 1971’s The Omega Man (not coincidentally, given the genre, these were all star vehicles, with Vincent Price, Will Smith, and Charlton Heston as the last men on earth). Unfortunately, watching The Omega Man again for the first time in years I found it fell short of how I remembered it. It’s really not much of a movie.

The Road (2009) is a more general vision of the end of days, with lots of faux-Biblical mutterings and a muddier more realistic look. I didn’t like it at all. But then I didn’t care for McCarthy’s novel much either.

Red Spring (2017) replaces zombies with vampires, which is actually more of a return to Matheson’s story. It’s hamstrung by a low budget. The Night Eats the World (2018) brings back the zombies and takes us to Paris, which was at least a nice change of scenery. I Think We’re Alone Now (2018) goes in a slightly different direction, being one of the few such stories to posit a last man on earth who is happy in that role. Until others come calling. Though not a great movie, it’s the most interesting of this bunch.

Isolated thoughts

Three weeks in to the pandemic lockdown, some aspects of the experience, mostly negative, are coming in to clearer view. The following aren’t reflections on the broader impact of the crisis, which I’ll probably have a lot more to say about as this goes on, but rather things I’ve noticed at ground level. The loss of lives and jobs is a human disaster that will, I believe, have a profound impact on the way we live for years. What I’m talking about here are more mundane matters, along the lines of how to get a haircut (something I luckily haven’t had to deal with yet).

I find the saddest thing isn’t keeping social distance between myself and other people. That’s been pretty easy. No, the sad part is not being able to pet or play with the dogs that come running up to me in the park.

I’m not really scared of getting sick. The thought of getting COVID-19 isn’t something that bothers me as much as it probably should. What concerns me more is the possibility of finding myself in need of medical attention for some other reason while we’re stuck in this crisis. Already the system is overwhelmed, with non-essential services (a disturbingly elastic term that includes a lot of surgeries), being postponed indefinitely. There have also been numerous COVID-19 outbreaks in hospitals, including more than 20 cases reported in my own local General. This is not a good time to have to be dealing with any kind of health emergency. I also can’t imagine the backlog that is building up for some procedures.

The biggest personal disappointment has been my lack of productivity. You’d think enforced isolation would lead to getting more stuff done, but instead it has thus far mainly resulted in feelings of lethargy. Perhaps I need to make some “to do” lists. I hear that this helps with kids.

The worst thing is the shopping for groceries. This is an experience that has become very unpleasant. The grocery store is always packed, with long lines inside and sometimes outside, leading to the ironic conclusion that the most annoying part of the lockdown is that there are so many people around. My usual habit has been just-in-time grocery shopping, at hours when the store is only lightly attended. Now there are no such times, meaning I have to buy as much as I can at once since I don’t want to go the store as often.

This has, however, led to at least one positive result.

Because I’ve been a gym rat ever since high school, one of the biggest and least welcome changes to come with the COVID-19 outbreak has been the closing of my neighbourhood athletic complex. This immediately made me wonder just how out of shape I was about to get. I mean, I have some exercise equipment at home, but aside from the odd walk around the neighbourhood, where was I going to get a real cardio workout? I don’t jog.

Further reflection made me wonder about other possible outcomes. No doubt my cardio is going to go to hell over the next several weeks (or months). But was I going to turn into a full-blown couch potato? There were reasons to be pessimistic. I’m not going to be getting as much good exercise (with nearly everything closed I’m not even walking as much), and I’m likely to start eating a lot of snacks (comfort food) to go with all the increased screen time.

On the other hand, I also won’t be eating as much fast food, even of the take out or delivery variety. I can’t stress enough how important this is. As I pointed out in my notes on how to lose weight, eating at restaurants is a huge factor when it comes to keeping the pounds off. There is no healthy way to eat out. Meanwhile, another thing I said in that earlier post is that exercise, as a method of losing weight, is highly overrated. There are plenty of good reasons to exercise, but losing weight really isn’t one of them.

So by this calculation alone I was coming out ahead. Add in the fact that I’m not going to the grocery store as often, and trying to get in and out as quickly as possible, and the results have been better than expected. I am actually losing weight while in lockdown. I’ve been disciplined about not stocking up on crap on my grocery store runs, and I haven’t eaten fast food in a couple of weeks. I don’t know if this is sustainable, but it may lead to¬† some lasting changes.

People often talk about when things are going to get back to normal. This may be wishful thinking. I think normal is going to look different than it used to. And unfortunately I don’t think it’s going to be something better.