"How we treat our warriors when the battle is over"

One of the films I really wanted to see at TIFF this year was The Last Gladiators (imdb | tiff), a documentary about hockey fighters. But it wasn’t high on Nellie’s list, and when you only see five films in the festival you pick ones that you’re both hot for. I wanted to see it because it was about hockey and because it was directed by Alex Gibney and because the main subject was Chris “Knuckles” Nilan. But mostly I wanted to see it I feel like it could be a document of a turning point that we can’t quite distinguish yet because we’re in the middle of it.

Just before the film festival began Wade Belak, until recently a Toronto Maple Leaf known mainly for his fighting, committed suicide. In August Rick Rypien, another fighter, also committed suicide. In May former New York Rangers enforcer Derek Boogard died of an overdose of alcohol and painkillers. This was the backdrop for this documentary, most or all of which wouldn’t have been there when Gibney started filming.

But the fact that I would describe these guys as “fighter” or “enforcer” distinguishes them from the likes of Nilan. Nilan could play. Three times he scored 15+ goals in a season. In six of his seasons he was a plus player. Over his career he earned about a point every 3 games. Boogard and Belak, by comparison, earned a point every 17 games or so, though they were defensemen; Rypien, a forward, earned a point about every 7.5 games. Those three were the type of player commonly referred to as “goons”. So was Nilan, no mistake, but Nilan could play. Likewise, Bob Probert — probably the most feared fighter in the league during the late80s and early 90s — twice scored 20+ goals in a season and averaged a point every 2.4 games. Probert, by the way, struggled for years with drugs and alcohol and died at the age of 45. Even the talented among this contingent weren’t immune from whatever demons haunted them.

There are more stats and anecdotes pointing to the fact that fighters were, and are, a tormented bunch on the whole. That alone should be an emotional jolt sufficient to give the Don Cherrys of the world pause, and wonder whether the price fighters pay is justified. God knows, the logical line of reasoning hasn’t worked.

For the first few years after the NHL expanded from 21 teams to 30 it was fashionable to slag expansion for diluting the talent pool in the NHL. By and large it did at first, but as Europe opened up and talent development in the US accelerated, the talent filled the roster spots. But no talent pool exists to feed the requirement for goons, and so the makeup of teams changed. Before expansion, when the likes of Nilan and Probert played, it was much harder to be a “single-purpose” goon…that is, someone on the team solely to fight. Nilan’s job was to protect talented Montreal players; Probert’s job was to protect Steve Yzerman. Dave Semenko’s job in Edmonton was to protect Wayne Gretzky, just as Marty McSorley’s was in LA, but both men could play. The 21-team market was small enough to filter out the pure goons; you only made an NHL team as a fighter if you could also score or play defense. As so many new teams now felt they needed enforcers, they filled their rosters with what remained: pure fighters. It may seem a subtle difference, but it’s an important one:  if you were a player who happened to fight, like McSorley or Probert, and the game called for playing, you played. You skated, you shot, you backchecked, you cleared the front of your net, and you won. You played hockey. If a fight was needed — a concept that had been around for decades, but became glaringly apparent with the goonish tactics of the Flyers and Bruins in the 70s — then you fought. Today, there are several players — on each opposing team — whose sole purpose in the league is to fight. Their skills aren’t enough to call them up from the minors, or even draft them, if they didn’t fight. This, in the common pro-fighting parlance, is “knowing your role”. And this is what’s killing the game.

The result of what I describe above is staged fights. Everyone knows that the second enforcers from both teams are on the ice, they’ll fight. That’s what they’re there for. It’s all that they’re there for. They’re not sticking up for themselves, or retaliating* for a dirty play against their star teammate. They’re fighting because, if they don’t, they’re out of a job. This self-sustaining economy has infected the league, and it makes the game so goddamned boring and predictable. You see these set pieces coming ten minutes away, and they just don’t mean anything. The fighting doesn’t help the game — far from it, it generally slows down what is otherwise the fastest pro sport on the planet — and it’s usually anti-climactic. The fact that during the playoffs you almost never see fighting suggests it isn’t in any way necessary…it’s just a sideshow during the season, a bad habit that people can’t seem to shake. It’s junk food. It’s reality TV. It’s dutch elm disease, rotting away at something beautiful.

I could have probably spared you this bloody great rant and just pointed you to Jack Todd’s much better argument in the Montreal Gazette a few weeks ago, but it warrants repeating: ban fighting. As Todd says, it’s “cruel, backward and unnecessary.” It’s also really fucking boring.

* I don’t endorse this bullshit either. Part of the reason why league discipline has been such a joke over the years is because it’s assumed that any dirty play will result in the victim’s teammate “straightening the guy out”. I’m hopeful that recent clear and substantial discipline meted out by Brendan Shanahan will improve things.

Lucien

Last night we had dinner with the esteemed CBGB. When it came time to pick a venue we provided a (rather long) list of restaurants we’ve been meaning to try, and they picked one: Lucien. It’s practically down the street from us but we’d never tried it for some reason.

It was good. Not great. Not bad either, by any stretch, but we weren’t blown away. My pork belly starter wasn’t the best I’ve had. Everyone else seemed to have the same reaction to theirs. My bison was pretty decent, but again, I’ve had better. The others all had fish, generally not something that interests me. The chocolate complex (five international chocolates) we shared for dessert was great in concept, but only good in execution. GB’s brownie was better. The wine list was pretty disappointing too…maybe three or four reds by the glass and as many whites. A single Ontario red in the bottle list.

I would never tell anyone not to go to Lucien if they wanted to try it out, but at about $250 per couple I’m not sure I’d recommend it either. Especially since GB and I were still kinda hungry when we left…we all went around the corner to Wine Bar for a cheese plate (CB), Miami short ribs (GB) and scallops (moi) along with their wine pairings. Nellie didn’t eat, she just samples all the Colaneri wine on the menu. We finished the evening back at our place with more wine: a bottle of the Shypoke Petit Sirah.

My apologies to Stella Liebeck

I’ll admit it: I was wrong. I believed the hype. I fell for the catchphrases I heard in the press instead of looking into it. I was part of the problem. I believed that the 1994 lawsuit, in which a woman sued McDonald’s for the temperature of their coffee, was a perfect example of a litigious American society run rampant. I was disgusted with the plaintiff, Stella Liebeck, without ever having met her or learning the particulars of her case. I even laughed along when Seinfeld mocked it.

So when I watched the HBO documentary Hot Coffee (imdb | rotten tomatoes) yesterday I was shocked. And a little ashamed. Really quickly, here are the key points that debunked everything we’d been told about this ‘frivolous lawsuit’:

  • Liebeck wasn’t driving when the coffee spilled on her. She was sitting in the passenger side of a parked car.
  • She suffered third-degree burns on 6% of her body and lesser burns over another 16%. You see the burns in the documentary; they’re horrifying. This 79-year-old woman was in the hospital for eight days getting skin grafts on her legs, groin and buttocks, and spent the next two years getting treatments.
  • She didn’t sue for millions. In fact, she offered to settle for enough to cover her medical bills and lost income (about $20,000) and only asked that McDonald’s keep their coffee at a slightly lower temperature so this wouldn’t happen to other people. McDonald’s refused. At trial, the jury awarded her $160,000 in compensatory damages and $2,700,000 in punitive damages. The punitive amount was reduced to $480,000 by the judge, and McDonald’s ultimately settled out of court for less than that.
  • McDonald’s had received literally hundreds of complaints about the temperature of their coffee before the trial. For some reason they kept it hotter than most restaurants.

From there, the documentary turns quickly to the major theme: that corporations and their lobbyists seized on this case and began to spin. Phrases like ‘frivolous lawsuit’, ‘lawsuit abuse’, ‘lawsuit lotto’ and ‘jackpot justice’ began to spring up to convince the public that the civil courts were being abused. This allowed them to enact laws which limited damages in civil suits (President Clinton vetoed this at the federal level, but lobbyists were often successful at the state level) as well as to insert clauses in contracts which forbade employees or contract holders from suing companies for personal damages.

It’s an incredibly frustrating documentary, but also a very important one. It’s still airing on HBO, and TMN here in Canada, so go watch it, and find out more on their site.

Sorry Mrs. Liebeck.

TIFF 5 of 5: Violet & Daisy

We wrapped our 2011 film festival last night with Violet & Daisy (imdb | tiff) at the Ryerson Theatre. It was written and directed by first-timer Geoffrey Fletcher, who wrote the screenplay for Precious, and who was, adorably, barely audible during pre- and post-screening Q&As. The words “quiet genius” are probably written on this dude’s underwear.

Anyway, the film was as entertaining as you’d expect a movie about two teenage girls working as professional assassins as scripted by an Oscar-winning screenwriter to be. Especially when you throw in James Gandolfini as a primary target. I’m reluctant to say much more about it than that, except to suggest to you that you watch it when it comes out. It’s funny, and it’s often sweet, and a pretty impressive effort from a guy we’ll be watching closely from now on.

And, as it turns out, not a bad way to close out the fest.

8/10

TIFF 4 of 5: The Loneliest Planet

Five years ago Nellie and I saw what would become one of our all-time favourite TIFF movies: Day Night Day Night. When we saw a film in this year’s schedule by the same director, Julia Loktev, we flagged it. We flagged it hard. Luckily The Loneliest Planet (imdb | tiff) worked in the schedule, and we sat down Monday night to watch it.

Whereas most of Day Night Day Night was set in a small, bare hotel room or cramped bathroom stalls, The Loneliest Planet was set in the huge, stunning vistas of the Caucasus Mountains. But the stark, detailed, intimate nature of the story Loktev tells is still apparent, with small subtle gestures and movements and utterances making such enormous impacts. Nearly nothing happens in the scale of what we’d come to expect from Hollywood films, or any film for that matter, but that’s what made it so impressive — Loktev’s restraint. Her willingness to let a story tell itself rather than tell a story, her expectation that the audience will figure something out without having to be told. It’s very much a film festival film, and Julia Loktev is becoming very much a festival must-see for us.

9/10

TIFF 3 of 5: Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory

I have written many, many times about the West Memphis Three, including a few weeks ago when they were released from prison after 17 years. Shortly after that Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, makers of the first two Paradise Lost documentaries chronicling the case, announced that the just-completed Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory (imdb | tiff) would not be changed to reflect recent circumstances, but would in fact be shown as is. The filmmakers decided to get the new ending ready for the New York Film Festival instead. Still, a few hundred of us — including Morgan Spurlock — were pretty excited to see it.

In fact, there was little in this documentary I didn’t already know, so I’m finding it hard to come up with a proper rating. But it was pretty damn cool to be there with two of the guys who truly contributed to these guys getting out, and to hear them answer questions. I’m so jealous of the people in New York who get to see the new ending, especially since rumour has it that some of the WM3 might actually show up.

7/10 for the documentary itself, but a Spinal Tap this-one-goes-to-11/10 for the social impact Berlinger and Sinofsky have had.

TIFF 2 of 5: The Hunter

Our second movie of the festival, and this year’s “Hey…how did that get there?” selection, was The Hunter (imdb | tiff), starring Willem Dafoe, but really starring the amazing landscapes of Tasmania. It was okay…not great, but reasonably entertaining, if a little hard to buy. But wow, was it amazing to look at. I was a little upset that we’ve not included any side trips to Tasmania in our upcoming Australia trip, even if the film does suggest it’s populated by weird hippies and dangerous loggers.

The director and stars stuck around for some Q&A after the film. I assume Mr. Dafoe was tired, since he didn’t seem terribly coherent. Also: he’s one short man. But he probably gained the movie one point out of ten all on his own, otherwise the jumpy storyline and thin plot would have kept it at a 5.

6/10

TIFF 1 of 5: Into The Abyss

Anytime you can start a festival with a Werner Herzog documentary, you should start a festival with a Werner Herzog documentary. So we started our 2011 fest with Into The Abyss (imdb | tiff) on Thursday night, the first real screening of the fest.

The documentary sprung from footage gathered for a short TV series about death row inmates, but one particular story had enough depth for a feature. That story was of two Texas men, one serving a life sentence and the other on death row, as well as their family and the family of their victims. Herzog makes it clear from the beginning that he is against the death penalty but doesn’t spend time on making that case, instead focusing on the damage done to everyone surrounding a murder. The most interesting and compelling interview subject was a former captain of the ‘death squad’ at Huntsville. I won’t say more than that; you need to watch it for yourself. In classic Herzog style an incredible mix of drama, truth, humour and fascinating subjects bubble to the top and create a lasting impression.

Herzog and his editor took to the stage after the film, and talked extensively. I won’t be able to describe how he wrapped up the Q&A perfectly, echoing the final scene of the documentary, but he did. He was funny and insightful and so much more excited than the last time we saw him at the festival — understandably so;  he’d just lost his adoptive mother. It was a classic Herzog moment. And a classic film festival moment too.

8/10

Hey…this is one day in September!

Current, the US-based documentary channel, recently put out a list called the 50 documentaries to see before you die. Challenge accepted! I suppose i should be noted that I’ve already seen 32 of them, but I look forward to knocking off the other 18. Maybe I’ll put a dent in the list on the flight to Sydney.

Here it is, in order:

  1. Hoop Dreams
  2. The Thin Blue Line
  3. Roger and Me
  4. Waltz with Bashir
  5. Super Size Me
  6. The War Room
  7. The Celluloid Closet
  8. An Inconvenient Truth
  9. Trouble the Water
  10. Grizzly Man
  11. Paris is Burning
  12. Bowling for Columbine
  13. The Fog of War
  14. Dark Days
  15. Crumb
  16. Bus 174
  17. Street Fight
  18. Food, Inc
  19. Touching the Void
  20. Capturing the Friedmans
  21. Exit Through the Gift Shop
  22. Shut Up and Sing
  23. The Eyes of Tammy Faye
  24. Paradise Lost
  25. Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room
  26. Murderball
  27. Tarnation
  28. Gasland
  29. Man on Wire
  30. Farenheit 9/11
  31. Jesus Camp
  32. Dogtown and Z Boys
  33. Tongues Untied
  34. Brother’s Keeper
  35. Paragraph 175
  36. Taxi to the Dark Side
  37. Inside Job
  38. March of the Penguins
  39. Biggie and Tupac
  40. When We Were Kings
  41. The King of Kong
  42. Catfish
  43. When the Levees Broke
  44. Burma VJ
  45. The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years
  46. Little Dieter Needs to Fly
  47. One Day in September
  48. The Kid Stays in the Picture
  49. Madonna: Truth or Dare
  50. Spellbound

Last box, shmast shmox

Just got the TIFF email. Despite being in the last box to be processed, we got 4 first choices and 1 second choice. Incroyable! That means we’re seeing:

[UPDATE: we decided to trade in the Rampart tickets for a Violet & Daisy screening after all. We rated it higher, it shows earlier in the festival and there’s a chance the director will still be around to talk about the film. So, in the end, despite being in the last box processed we got all five of our #1 picks.]

Pretty excited (and relieved!) right now.