Sunday, January 17, 2016
By MICHAEL WALSH
As a senior citizen, I prefer to view life's glass as half full. Recalling birthdays, rather than passings, on this website is a deliberate choice. It's one way of keeping my Reeling Back project a positive one.
Even so, private tears were shed this week over the loss of David Bowie and Alan Rickman. In family, we remembered that wonderful moment in Labyrinth when Jennifer Connelly delivers the familiar teen-ager's complaint, "That's not fair!" and Goblin King Bowie offers the response every parent wishes they'd thought of first: "You say that so often. I wonder what your basis for comparison is?"
And, although we recalled Rickman's delicious villainy in Die Hard, our best shared memory was seeing him live on stage during a family visit to London in 1991. He had the starring role in Japanese playwright Yukio Ninagawa's Tango at the End of Winter and, for us, his matinee performance was magical.
As I said, Reeling Back doesn't do obituaries. I'd rather remember Bowie and Rickman by celebrating their performances, something that I promise to do in postings to come.
And yet, I'm about to do an obit, not for an individual, but for an institution. On January 14, Al Jazeera America announced that the 30-month-old television news network will turn out the lights on or about April 30. A quixotic attempt to change the TV news landscape in the U.S. has failed, and the craft of journalism is the poorer for it.
Conceived as a sister channel to Doha-based Al Jazeera English (the international news network still seen in Canada), AJAM went on the air in late August, 2013. Because AJ English is the new gold standard in global broadcast journalism, hopes were high. Even so, one prominent commentator wrote that the expansion into the U.S. "has the odour of potential disaster."
That commentator, Canadian news veteran Tony Burman, had helped build the AJ English network into a broadcasting powerhouse during two years as its managing director (2008 to 2010). His concerns were not to be taken lightly.
And, as it's turned out, he was right. Mistakes were made and, as he said yesterday (January 16), in his Toronto Star column, "more than 700 hard-working and dedicated journalists and support staff will lose their jobs."
I know that I feel the loss of actors Bowie and Rickman because their finely crafted performances made me feel my own humanity more keenly. Because I'm an old print journalist, I also feel loss when a newspaper folds, or a news network closes. Like a greying Jedi, I sense a great disturbance in the Force.
Once referred to as "the Fourth Estate," the news media have been a force for good in the community since the 18th century. Many journalists consider their craft a calling, and make a distinction between its practice and the various business models that support it. Some worry that the technical and economic turmoil currently battering the business end is killing the craft.
AJ English, launched in 2008, was a pleasant surprise. Spun off from the Middle Eastern Al Jazeera Arabic, it is owned and operated by the government of Qatar, which makes it the property of the kingdom's Al Thani royal family.
Remarkably, it appears to exist at arm's length from the Islamic nation's government, representing the old-time journalist's religion of just telling the story. Its on-air staff is racially diverse, a whip-smart team of men and women who speak English with every accent known to the old British Empire. Among them is Canadian Richard Gizbert, the London-based host of a weekly media news show called Listening Post.
Yesterday, Gizbert offered a bare-bones item on the Al Jazeera America closure, leaving me to hope for more in-depth coverage in the weeks to come. There is a much bigger story to tell, and given the incisive thrust of past Listening Post reports, I expect to see it quite soon.
Great changes are occurring in our global village, and great journalism is needed to explain them to us. Though sad, the passing of AJ America is not the end.
Moving on, as the newsreaders say. This project continues with the Reeling Back archive's ten most recent additions:
DRAGONSLAYER — A fantasy classic, director Matthew Robbins's 1981 feature cast the young Peter MacNicol as a sorcerer's apprentice who takes on the task of saving a kingdom from a marauding monster. The result was both dramatically successful and a landmark in special-effects technology. (Posted January 16)
FOOD OF THE GODS — H.G. Wells's visionary science-fiction novel was much altered by director Bert I. Gordon for his 1976 creature feature. A B-movie release, it starred Marjoe Gortner as a pro football player who encounters a nest of giant rats on B.C.'s Bowen Island. (Posted January 14)
THE HOUSE ON BARE MOUNTAIN — Unable to break even with family features in 1970, suburban Vancouver theatre operator Lew Young staked his future on the growing audience for "adult" films. His bolder booking policy included this pioneering "nudie-cutie" feature from 1962. (Posted January 12)
LINDA LOVELACE FOR PRESIDENT — At the height of her popularity, the American porn performer Linda Lovelace visited Vancouver to promote this 1975 shock comedy. A film intended to jump-start her mainstream movie career, it survives as an artifact of its era's social turmoil. (Posted January 10)
TRUE CONFESSIONS — A sympathetic, if critical, examination of mid-century American Catholicism adds weight to director Ulu Grosbard's languid 1981 crime drama. Robert De Niro and Robert Duvall play brothers searching for justice and absolution. (Posted January 9)
WILD AT HEART — Director David Lynch, Hollywood's own wizard of weird, offered his modern take on Southern decadence in this 1990 tale. Laura Dern and Nicolas Cage star as a wannabe bad girl and her rebel Elvis clone on the run in search of love. (Posted January 9)
OF UNKNOWN ORIGIN — Italian-born director George Pan Cosmatos's first North American picture, this 1983 thriller starred Peter Weller as a Manhattan householder obsessed with besting a rat that's taking over his home. Shot in Montreal, it does a fine job of creating tension without excessive gore. (Posted January 4)
LETHAL WEAPON — A Christmas film in the Die Hard tradition released a year before Die Hard, this 1987 action epic was the first of four films in which Mel Gibson appeared as the antic L.A. cop Martin Riggs. Under the direction of Richard Donner, Riggs is even madder than Gibson's breakthrough role, "Mad" Max Rockatansky. (Posted January 3)
ADVENTURES IN THE AFTERLIFE — Reeling Back celebrates the New Year with an original quiz designed to test your knowledge of seven recent television shows in which death is just the beginning of the story. (Posted January 1)