Mary Tyler Moore in Nova Scotia

The recent passing of actress and cultural pioneer Mary Tyler Moore received the usual global media interest, with emphasis on her eponymous 1970-1977 television series that had her portraying a single, career-oriented professional when, up to that point, women had been relegated to the role of married foils to working husbands.

The continued steep decline in local media was revealed again when no reports on her death mentioned that Moore filmed a movie for TV here in Halifax in the summer of 2003. Blessings was adapted from journalist and author Anna Quindlen’s 2002 novel, and told the story of an eccentric 82-year old woman played by a heavily made-up Moore, whose life is revitalized by the arrival of a baby, dropped off anonymously on her doorstep.

Local actors Cory Bowles and Laura Regan provided supporting roles, and the project was broadcast on CBS in October, 2003, right after the catastrophic landfall of Hurricane Juan in Halifax. That might be responsible for the mass amnesia in Nova Scotia concerning the project. There were, in fact, two movies filming in the South End of Halifax throughout the Juan disaster, and they distinguished themselves by providing electricity through their generators for some of their neighbours after the power went out.

Whether Blessings was one of those films remains a question that perhaps the greater public can answer. Still, to have such an important media figure in our midst doesn’t seem to faze Bluenosers much (we’ve played host to the likes of Charlton Heston and Kirk Douglas over the years ), but it is a reminder of the reach of Nova Scotia’s motion picture production scene.

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Viola Desmond’s Story on Film

The announcement that Viola Desmond will grace Canada’s ten-dollar bill has brought her story to the attention of a new generation of Canadians. It is a story of profound courage and resolve that Iain MacLeod and Brian Murray, two Nova Scotian filmmakers, have told in different but equally compelling ways.

MacLeod’s film was a drama shot in black and white back in 1996, whereas Murray’s film is a documentary made in 2012 for his employer, Communications Nova Scotia, to commemorate Canada Post issuing a stamp in Desmond’s honour. Both films run about 45 minutes.

MacLeod took an oblique approach “November 1946,” never showing the actual incident itself but rather letting the word “spread around the town.” Ultimately he used Desmond’s narrative to set up the tension in order to portray an inter-racial romance. The film was an ambitious costume drama that played to a packed house at the 1996 Atlantic Film Festival. Its unusual length and rough language made further distribution a challenge, and sadly it is mostly unseen today. I remember it vividly, however, as it marked MacLeod as a filmmaker of vision and substance.

For Murray, the story of Viola Desmond was one that needed to be simply and directly retold using modern-day documentary techniques. Because there is little to no footage of Desmond herself, Murray used a blend of dramatic re-creations, punctuated by expert ‘talking head’ testimony and period stock footage.

Perhaps most importantly, Murray’s “Long Road To Justice” provides more depth and insight to a story that continues to gain resonance and momentum. As national audiences now catch up to speed with the narrative, we can all consider the extraordinary contribution Viola Desmond has made to Canada’s cultural fabric.

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Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run”

Bruce Springsteen’s new memoir, “Born to Run,” tells the tale of a man consumed by ambition and tough clawing towards the goal of making a living in music. There are plenty of hard lessons, as band-mates get tossed, nameless girlfriends appear as pit-stops along the way, and friends are measured by how they can be used to build up a career, but what dominates is a drive to succeed, rather than any particular insight.

While the book disappoints in one way, it does cruise onward with an unstoppable sense of forward motion. There’s a powerful therapeutic reasoning behind Springsteen’s writing, as he tries to understand his father’s inarticulateness that rode the edge between the repression of the 1950s and the growing counterculture of the 1960s.

In between various levels of success, the book details a battle with late-onset depression. It seems something of a sideshow to the main narrative of the music, but the tension involved does provide for a sense of ongoing drama.

At times, like in his artistic career, Springsteen strains for significance. I always preferred his throwaway pop material, like the stuff he wrote for the Pointer Sisters (“Fire”) and the two albums for old-school rocker Gary ‘US’ Bonds, where music is fun, disposable and untethered to stories about lost dreams and crummy economies. But Springsteen himself clearly wants to be taken seriously, hence the epic reach of the tome.

Still, Bruce Springsteen’s “Born To Run” is a gripping page-turner that rates as essential reading for any and all of his fans. Those interested in popular culture and autobiographies in general should find it both satisfying and illuminating.

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Leonard Cohen’s Nova Scotia Collaborators

The passing of Leonard Cohen last week at age 82 got me to thinking of his connections to Nova Scotia, particularly two important people who worked with him on signature projects. Filmmaker Don Owen, a resident of Halifax in the 1980s and 1990s, co-directed the major 1965 National Film Board of Canada portrait of the then poet and novelist entitled Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Leonard Cohen. Jumping forward to the mid-2000s, the composer Philip Glass, a longtime Cape Breton resident, collaborated with Cohen on a musical setting of the singer / songwriter’s first book of poetry in 22 years, Book Of Longing.

The massive response to Leonard Cohen’s passing reveals just how much his work and worldview affected all of us. These two collaborations by Nova Scotian residents broaden and deepen our understanding of one of Canada’s most beloved artistic figures, and are essential viewing and listening as a result.

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Afraid to Speak – A Review

Dillon Garland’s feature film debut, Afraid To Speak, announces the arrival of a natural-born filmmaker.

The 24-year-old Halifax-based, award-winning music video director, “v-logger” and social media maven has been turning out motion pictures since before he graduated from high school. Currently onscreen with a web series entitled Leon, Garland garnered more than one hundred thousand hits for his filmed reaction to a recent Star Wars trailer.

Clearly, this is a young image-maker on his way up. A viewing of his long-form first feature, Afraid To Speak, mostly shot in 2014 but finally finished in 2016, confirms that a major new voice in Atlantic Canadian filmmaking has burst out on the scene.

Afraid To Speak is a small-scale drama that tackles the subject of depression. Its timely subject matter is matched by the sincerity and effectiveness of its delivery, from the finely-tuned acting to the astonishing surety of framing and camerawork. Taking a strikingly original view of a difficult matter, the film sets a very high standard from the beginning, and then consistently surpasses it.

It is a remarkably mature, compelling and effective piece of movie-making. As a first feature film from such a young writer and director, it marks Dillon Garland as a major new player on Atlantic Canada’s ever-changing cinema scene. Having recently played the Parrsboro Film Festival, watch for it on small and big screens in your locality.

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Fact, Fiction and Flying Saucers – A Review

Fredericton may be best known as New Brunswick’s capital city, but it is also the home to one of the world’s best-known UFO researchers, Stanton T. Friedman.

Friedman’s lifelong pursuit of the truth has lead to a stream of fascinating books, of which Fact, Fiction and Flying Saucers, written with Kathleen Marden (they previously co-authored Captured! The Betty and Barney Hill UFO Experience and Science Was Wrong), is the latest entry.

Even for the most hardened and knowledgeable UFO buff, Fact Fiction and Flying Saucers should be essential reading. Both Friedman and Marden have built their reputations on solid research rather than rampant speculation. The result is a storytelling style that is both informative and rigorous. Fascinatingly, the book, in its final third, takes on portions of the pro-UFO community itself to expose fakers, frauds and dodgy claims.

Fact, Fiction and Flying Saucers is a provocative and powerful entry in a controversial field. Whether you are a true believer or not, it’s a great reminder that there are still many more questions than answers to the UFO mystery.

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Remembering Jack Craig

John Robert (Jack) Craig, a key figure for many years in Halifax’s arts community, passed away on October 11th. Along with his wife Joan, Jack Craig formed the Craig Foundation to support the visual and performing arts. He also served on the boards of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia and Neptune Theatre, and put time and money into countless arts activities throughout the province. Jack and Joan Craig also endowed a chair at Dalhousie University for research into Autism.

For my part, I remember Jack Craig as the firm, quiet, wonderful and almost quite average father of one of my childhood friends, his son Michael. I met Jack again years later at a Board meeting of the Atlantic Film Festival (he had been invited to join) when I was making a presentation on the upcoming year’s programming aims and objectives. Jack was gentlemanly, and genuinely interested in what was going on at the Film Festival. I asked how Michael was doing and Jack said he was doing fine. Sadly, the agenda of the meeting, held in the evening at the National Film Board on Spring Garden Road, precluded much more social chatting, as there was a long list of items to go over.

By then the Craigs had gone on to a have almost a legendary status in the arts community of Halifax. I knew countless artists, actors and writers who received a grant from their foundation; it seemed I reviewed numerous theatre productions for the Daily News that listed the Craigs as benefactors.

Jack Craig was without question a very successful businessman. I knew him better as a father and a family man, and also as a man who put a great deal back into his community, for which we all should be thankful. Halifax is, by far, a better place because of Jack and Joan Craig.

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Lance Woolaver Launches Full-Length Maud Lewis Biography

Friday, October 14th, 2016 witnessed the official launch at Zwicker’s Gallery in Halifax of Lance Woolaver’s full-length biography of Nova Scotian folk artist Maud Lewis, published by Spencer Books.

Woolaver’s book is the culmination of a lifetime’s work on the subject. More than two decades of research went into this landmark 450 page tome. He grew up near Maud Lewis’s house, and his father, Judge Philip Woolaver, was one of the legendary folk artist’s two patrons (the other was her physician).

With the release of the Newfoundland / Irish feature film co-production Maudie this year, interest in the life and work of Maud Lewis is cresting again. Fifteen years ago, a national tour of her paintings, along with the publication of the best-selling coffee-table book The Illuminated Life of Maud Lewis by Woolaver and Bob Brooks, and sellout performances of Woolaver’s play on the same subject, brought the iconic folk artist’s work to national and international audiences. The new feature film and Woolaver’s indicate a further revival is underway.

While the film sugar-coats many aspects of Maud Lewis’s difficult life (no doubt a necessity for a commercial release), Woolaver’s book dives in and brings available light to the painter’s true lifelong sufferings. That she managed to concoct such bright and cheerful paintings under such dire social and personal conditions is something of a miracle.

While the film works hard to humanize her husband Everett, portrayed by the great actor Ethan Hawke in a vivid performance, the facts of the story, laid out in Woolaver’s book, are simply horrifying.

Woolaver, in his introductory remarks at the book launch, was unflinching. He calls it a ‘very dark book’ – and it is, as befits the true story of its subject.

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Did D. W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” Play in Halifax?

In the Saturday, October 1st edition of the Halifax Examiner writer and activist El Jones quotes an academic paper by Greg Marquis on whether D. W. Griffith’s epic motion picture The Birth Of A Nation ever played in Nova Scotia.

Marquis “suggests” that through researching Nova Scotian newspapers of the time (1916 and 1917) he discovered that The Birth Of A Nation didn’t play in the province in those years. An interesting assertion indeed. Having taught a film history course at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in association with the National Film Board of Canada for a decade and a half, I had access to information that positively disproves Marquis’ “suggestion”.

According to my sources, which mostly are gleaned from oral history, Griffith’s notoriously racist film played at the Neptune Theatre site, then called the Strand Theatre. Admission was an extraordinary two dollars, when regular admission to film shows in Halifax was regularly only a nickle. Special trains were run up from Yarmouth for showings of the film in Halifax.

All of this controversy comes exactly on the North American release of the 2016 film Birth Of A Nation. Co-written, directed and starring Nate Parker, an African-American who has had his own share of controversy over a past rape allegation, this new film chronicles the slave rebellion of Nat Turner. It is one of the most hotly anticipated films of the season, having made a splashy debut at the Sundance Festival last January, gaining a $17 million distribution deal and a great deal of publicity.

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“Shakespeare 400” at the Dalhousie Art Gallery

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare.

As Film Curator at the Dalhousie Art Gallery, I thought it was a good idea to revisit some of the cinematic versions of the Bard’s plays.

There is certainly no shortage to choose from. I did have a couple of guidelines. One was the 140 minute mark. The seats at the gallery are hard plastic, and most people are used to feature films being around two hours long. Shakespeare’s plays, however, generally run longer in their theatrical form. In film, some of the more famous ones – Roman Polanski’s Macbeth from 1971 for example – run 140 minutes or more. Alas, out went Roman’s well-known and well-loved film.

I’ve also found that people’s attention spans have shrunk a bit in the age of electronic devices and premium episodic television. Longer films will almost always lose audiences. I’ve actually seen this happen at the gallery.

Still, the films I’ve chosen for the series are all worth seeing for one reason or another. They run from the 1930s to the modern era, and include great productions from Orson Welles, Max Reinhardt, Julie Taymor, Ralph Fiennes, and others.

“Shakespeare 400” screens Wednesday evenings at 8:00 pm at the Dalhousie Art Gallery. Admission is free but donations are gratefully accepted; seating is limited so come early to guarantee admission. The series is supported by the Canada Council and Arts Nova Scotia.

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Bruce McDonald’s “Weirdos” is a Wonderful Paean to Can-Con Identity

A couple of weeks ago I was lucky to see a sneak preview of the new Bruce McDonald film Weirdos courtesy of my cousin Mark Almon, who was one of the producers of the film.

While there are many fascinating angles to talk about in what is a wonderful film overall, the one that stood out to me perhaps the most is the theme of English Canadian nationalism, which is expressed visually through constant background coverage of the US Bicentennial celebrations (the story is set over the July 1st to July 4th weekend of 1976) and then contrasted by the constant audio of early and mid-1970s “Can-Con” pop radio that pours joyously out of the various cars that transport the young characters from place to place in the film.

While there has always been a unique vitality to French Canadian nationalism, the response from the English side of the equation has often been marginalized in the broader transatlantic imperial Anglo-Saxon monoculture. As a result, it was for many years reduced to a small but important stream: the Confederation Poets, the Group of Seven, and the CBC and the National Film Board in the ‘50s and ‘60s. In 1970, the iconoclastic Don Shebib film Goin’ Down the Road added to the mix.

English Canadian nationalism’s ground zero in the 1960s was marked by the Halifax philosopher George Parkin Grant’s 1965 book Lament For A Nation. It set forth the argument that English Canada was doomed to vanish into the great mush of the endless dynamic of America’s dominant culture.

The book, posted on the Literary Review of Canada’s 2005 “Most Important 100 Canadian Books Ever” list, challenged a generation of nascent nationalists to prove Grant wrong. Inspiring the likes of Margaret Atwood and James Laxer, a new English Canadian nationalism did eventually arise, but it was rarely expressed in the broader popular culture.

Except in pop music.

Eclectic. Distinct. Glorious. Catchy. Irresistible.

It was, culturally, the only thing that seemed to be ours.

It’s all there, raging in the background of Weirdos, a quintessentially Canadian film in the very best sense, and that you positively have to see… and hear!

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It’s Time to Abolish the Maritime Film Classification Board

Last month’s announcement that the beloved and long-running Quinpool Road film rental store Video Difference, along with its Bedford satellite site, will shut down August 20th and sell off its stock of films brought a range of emotions from its customers.

The store was acclaimed as classy and well-run with a reputation for service and selection. A victim of changing times – like the blacksmith shops of a hundred years ago – the closing of Video Difference marks the end of an age.

With any luck, a bit of long-overdue collateral damage should be the Maritime Film Classification Board. The agency of the provincial government that issues ratings for theatrically played films and video store selections, the MFCB has lost about half of its rather thin reason to exist with the closure of last major video rental store in Halifax.

The system is a dinosaur – a relic from a bygone era. If we really need ratings (a debatable point in the era of free-flowing online information), they can come from either Ontario, or the MPAA in the United States. Nobody needs Nova Scotian film ratings anymore. The old saw of “Community Standards” has been eclipsed by the flood of material on the Internet. Besides, “Community Standards” always brought up the question of “whose community, whose standards?”

So with only three hundred or so films to be classified from now on, it’s time for the Maritime Film Classification Board to be put to bed.


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Jack Kerouac’s Maritime Connections

Jack Kerouac, along with Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs, formed the triumvirate of literary and cultural giants at the center of the Beat Generation universe. They set the stage for the 1960s Counterculture, and a general questioning of all Western values that has lingered on into contemporary times.

Kerouac made several references to Nova Scotia in his works. There’s one, in Tristessa, a novel set in Mexico City. There are two others that describe the same incidents when Kerouac, then a merchant mariner in the midst of World War II, landed in Sydney for a raucous shore leave that ended up in some nice working family’s living room after a wild all-night party.

That incident is recounted in Kerouac’s first published book, The Town and the City, from 1950. He and his editors misspelled Sydney as ‘Sidney’, but otherwise the descriptions ring true. The Beat novelist revisited the story again in his 1967 book, Vanity of Dulouz, where, this time, he got the spelling right.

Kerouac had joined the merchant marine after quitting Columbia University, where he had been on a football scholarship, once his career as a university sportsman was done due to an injury. Feeling like he had to contribute somehow to the war effort, he chose one of the most dangerous occupations, travelling the North Atlantic on a merchant ship.

The visit to Cape Breton was on the way to and from assignments to supply the new American air base in Thule, Greenland. After Kerouac had finished his trips to Thule and had safely returned to land, his ship was torpedoed and sunk.

Kerouac’s references to ‘the endless pine forests of Nova Scotia’ are of particular interest to me, not because we’re related, although that helps, but rather because of the particular strain of Tibetan Buddhism tha eventually found its way to the Bluenose Province. That strain, known locally as Shambhala, came to Nova Scotia when its leader, Chögyam Trungpa, ‘felt something’ when flying over the East Coast.

Trungpa was a legendary figure who left Tibet as a young man in the midst of the 1959 Chinese Invasion. He founded Buddhist Centres in Scotland, Spain and finally Boulder, Colorado, attracting attention and devotees as a powerful, if unorthodox, spiritual leader. His version of Buddhism seemed to include a meeting of the West and the East where spiritual quests seemed to include an unexpectedly hedonistic edge.

Meanwhile, Nova Scotia, and particularly Cape Breton, had begun to fill up with Beat and post-Beat figures such as Robert Frank, Richard Serra and Rudy Wurlitzer. Marshall McLuhan once famously said that artists where the antennae of civilization, foretelling the future. If that’s the case, then perhaps Kerouac did foretell of Nova Scotia’s possible role as some kind of promised land.

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West In East: Sam Shepard In Nova Scotia

From the late 1960s to 1984, the playwright and actor Sam Shepard lived in Nova Scotia, in a place called Hilltop Farms between Advocate and Parrsboro.

It’s not a widely known fact. A few “connect-the-dots” references float around the internet; there’s a couple of pictures of Shepard with a rifle, hunting; there’s a thin thread of mentions by other writers. And some years ago in the musical biography book Girls Like Us, the author figured out that Shepard was the “Coyote” of Joni Mitchell’s 1976 song, pursuing her even though he was, in Mitchell’s words, “Too far from the Bay of Fundy.”

Poet / musician Patti Smith stated in her National Book-Award-Winning memoir Just Kids that she and Shepard performed their play Cowboy Mouth in New York City in 1971. She goes on to say that Shepard then left the production abruptly to go to Nova Scotia.

Of course, Sam Shepard didn’t spend all of those fifteen years or so in the Bluenose province. According to a recent feature documentary, Shepard and Dark, the playwright and actor kept a busy schedule writing and filming while mostly living in San Francisco and New York City. In 1984 he left his wife and son to live with the actress Jessica Lange, which may have precipitated his departure from Nova Scotia. He sold Hilltop Farm to the Canadian actor Megan Follows, best known for her starring roles in the 1980s versions of Anne of Green Gables.

Sam Shepard was hardly an anomaly in landing in Nova Scotia. A raft of world class American artists started showing up in the province in the late 1960s. The East Coast of Canada beckoned to the likes of composer Philip Glass, filmmaker / photographer Robert Frank, screenwriter / novelist Rudy Wurlitzer, and artist / sculptor Richard Serra.

Many of these artists interacted with Nova Scotia’s culture. Glass, for example, was the featured composer and performer for the Scotia Festival of Music, and he also lectured on writing music for motion pictures for the Dalhousie Art Gallery, where I had the pleasure of meeting and introducing him to the audience. Frank taught at NSCAD in 1972 and presented his work at Dalhousie in 1997. Frank hosted an exhibition of his work at the Art College as recently as 2014. Serra accepted an honourary doctorate from the Art College and delivered a fascinating commencement speech which revealed some of his work habits. Wurlitzer has given extensive interviews about his affection for Nova Scotia, detailing some of his connections to Cape Breton’s Buddhist community. He even named one of his characters in his novels ‘Halifax’.

Sam Shepard, on the other hand, seems to have come to the province to get away from everywhere and everything else.

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Barbara Hannigan Awarded the Order of Canada

Barbara Hannigan has been awarded the Order of Canada for her achievements in singing and conducting classical music in some of the world’s most important venues.

Hannigan was born in Nova Scotia in 1971 and raised in Waverley, at the time a small village just outside of Dartmouth. I first came across her name a few years ago while checking out recent post-modernist releases on the web. In 2013, she recorded the premiere of French composer Henri Dutilleux’s massive piece Correspondances. It won the Gramophone ‘Recording of the Year Award’.

To think that the East Coast’s classical music scene produced one of the world’s great contemporary music talents provides one of those sobering moments in the arts out here. Hannigan may be less well known to casual listeners than Waverley’s other great musical export, April Wine’s Myles Goodwyn, but there is no question about her monumental achievements.

Hannigan studied in Nova Scotia until she was 17. She moved on to the University of Toronto before plying her trade mostly in Europe. Still, this should prove something of a rallying point for Halifax’s under-reported classical music scene, as well as the often neglected cause of teaching music in the school system.

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Blue Mountain / Birch Cove Lakes Supporters Fight Back

Following a calamitous HRM presentation meeting concerning the proposed Blue Mountain/Birch Coves last week, the Ecology Action Centre organized a response gathering at Dalhousie University on Wednesday Night, June 29th.

Smoothly run with flashes of passion and humour, and bursting with precise information, the meeting was the antithesis of the previous disaster where no-one was allowed to ask questions and the 300-plus crowd tried to cram into the 85-seater hotel conference room.

The Dalhousie Lecture Hall, with a capacity of 700, was about half full, an astonishing number concerning it was a week full of graduations and looming vacations. EAC Wilderness coordinator Ray Plourde acted as master of ceremonies, blending a talent for disgorging facts and figures with some old-time revivalist oratory that had the audience delivering several standing ovations.

With a table full of allies including The Halifax Field Naturalists, The Halifax North West Trails Society, and Fusion Halifax, Plourde implored the crowd to become ‘Blue Mountain/Birch Cove Lake Park Rangers’ in order to save the imperiled Wilderness Zone from a private sector development that may be looming in the near future.

A July 4th deadline for comments to the City will be followed by a mid-month council meeting that could approve the dismemberment of the park. Time is still of the essence and yet opposition to development is still being rallied.

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Karma hits Stephen McNeil as Halifax filmmakers get involved in politics

It was inevitable after Stephen McNeil’s Liberal government decimated the Nova Scotia film industry in April 2015 that politically-conscious film industry professionals would fight back. In the year and two months since that disastrous decision – one of many mistakes made by the McNeil Liberals, who have pinballed from self-made crisis to self-made crisis during their three years in office – we have seen a massive protest at Province House, the rise of Screen Nova Scotia as a politically active and savvy lobbying group, and a non-stop barrage of letters to the editor, radio interviews, and articles from film industry workers determined to defeat the government at the first possible turn (a factor that probably led to the election of NDP MLA Marian Mancini in a Dartmouth by-election last year by a tight margin).

Now two veteran and award-winning Halifax-based filmmakers, both of whom were instrumental in crafting the old film funding system during their time as Program Administrators at the Nova Scotia Film Development Corporation in the 1990s, have decided to take the fight against the Liberal government one step further. John Wesley Chisholm and my friend and colleague Paul Kimball have decided to seek the nomination for the progressive Conservative Party in the ridings of Halifax Chebucto and Halifax Needham, respectively.

Both Chisholm and Kimball are highly educated, very articulate, and very media savvy.

In other words, they may just be Stephen McNeil’s worst nightmare.

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The Ghosts of Icon Bay

I stopped by Icon Bay, the “can’t miss it” giant blue skyscraper at 50 Bedford Highway, on Sunday, June 26th, at 1:00 pm for their advertised open house. Unfortunately, there was no-one there.

Not a sign.

Not a banner.

Nary a real estate agent.


It was fitting, however. The ediface occupies a ghostly spot on the Bedford Basin waterfront, overlooking the railway shunting yards and the Bedford Highway.

Looking a bit like a Borg spaceship, of Star Trek: The Next Generation fame, attracted to Earth by the Fairview container terminal’s endless supply of delicious-looking boxy rectangles, Icon Bay might just have slipped past Halifax’s planners in the height department. Now that it’s built, however, there’s no turning back. Hence my interest in a tour.

Since that didn’t quite turn out as advertised, I can at least examine Icon Bay’s strange site history. It’s a history that is haunted by the ghosts of two dark episodes from Halifax’s past.

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Blue Mountain / Birch Cove Lakes Presentation “Public Meeting” a Complete Train Wreck

The “Presentation” of Justice Heather Robertson’s report on the Blue Mountain/Birch Cove Lakes Park Proposal came to a screeching halt at a bizarre meeting held in the tiny meeting room at the Lacewood Future Inn this evening.

Hundreds of people showed up for the meeting, held in a room that had a maximum capacity for 120.

The 35-minute meeting, surely the shortest and most deranged Municipal meeting I’ve ever attended, saw Justice Robertson attempt to justify her report, while a City solicitor added some technical details, before a developer sputtered through a plan to disembowel the proposed park.

The chair repeated that questions from the public were not to be taken. The public, which spilled out into the hallway and the lobby of the hotel, had plenty of questions anyway. Once those questions started flying, the ‘presenters’ simply gave up. They decided to cut and run, and the meeting was over, leaving a tsunami of hostility washing over the proceedings.

Holding a short meeting in an inadequate space is Bad Governance 101. There entire proceeding was an embarrassment – as one City councillor told me, it was as if Justice Roberstson had gone rogue, not understanding the process she had been brought into.

The mood of the crowd was ugly at times. When Justice Robertson said at one point that this review could be a three to five year process, for example, and that there would be a great deal more more public consultation, I heard a person squeezed into the hallway near me say, “bullshit,” and another person followed up with “how much are they paying you?” At other times, it was hard to make out anything she or the other speakers said because of the boos that drowned out their remarks.

Halifax’s rampant over-development has reached a new level of madness, and the citizenry is on the verge of revolt. In the old days, pitchforks and burning torches would have no doubt been seen.

Citizens can make comments on Justice Robertson’s report and the developer’s proposals on the Blue Mountain/Birch Cove Lakes Park plans until July 4th, 2016 at, or by fax or mail, although at this point, with a feeling that the entire deal is a fait accompli, one wonders if anyone in power will really listen.

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Wormwood’s Memories… and lessons for the arts in Halifax in 2016

Wormwoods Dog & Monkey Cinema closed in 1998. That’s almost 20 years ago, and Halifax is no closer to finding an adequate 7-day-a-week replacement specialty motion picture house.

It’s a disheartening situation, considering Wolfville has a thriving independent cinema scene at the Al Whittle Theatre, which provides a vigorous level of non-mainstream programming. Despite the Atlantic Film Festival, the Halifax Independent Film Festival, and weekly screenings by the Carbon Arc from October to April, neither the private sector nor the public sector have managed to re-create in Halifax what Gordon Parsons and a smattering of Atlantic Film Co-op people put together in the mid 1970s.

Pinpointing what is missing from Wormwood’s long absence is difficult. Some organizations have managed to make do, organizing haphazard screenings here and there in the city. We have come close once or twice. The Paradise Sisters group was $30,000 short of opening a new facility on Market Street. Former Dalhousie President Tom Traves wanted a major screening setup in the McCain Building when it was being constructed; the expense of the specialized projection exhaust system put an end to that dream.

Why, in a city with a metropolitan area population of four hundred thousand, we can’t have a functioning specialty cinema tells you a great deal about what is and what is not possible in Halifax, and the priorities of our current ruling class.

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The Motherhouse Lands Legacy: Endangering the Blue Mountain – Birch Cove Lakes Wilderness Area

The legacy of the Motherhouse lands is having a secondary ripple effect on the proposed Blue Mountain / Birch Cove Lakes Nature Park. The massive reserve has run into a severe roadblock in a new report issued by Judge Heather Robertson who was brought in to mediate between the City of Halifax and the private landowners who have yet to be bought out on the project.

Robertson has sided with the developers, the Annapolis Group and the Susie Lake Development outfit. That means private houses perched over the lakes, all in order for the developers to build adequate access for the rest of the public to get in to the park.

It’s another aspect of a legacy of public good that is drifting into private hands. Susie Lake was, for generations, a recreational area accessed by the old road the Sisters had made so that the water could be piped to a water tower. Once upon a time, when I was a teenager, you could literally walk up to the lake from many points in old Rockingham, whether it was Clayton Park, Bridgeview or Wedgewood.

Most of those trails are now gone. There are paths that go behind Bayer’s Lake Industrial and Retail Park, but anyone can see that the lake has been put in severe environmental risk by the horrifying clear-cut visible from almost any point in the park. It’s like some sort of post-apocalyptic wasteland, soon to be sacrificed on the altar of never-ending “development”.

While the expansion of Bayer’s Lake looms over one side of the proposed park, there is a real possibility that the plans of the Annapolis Group and Susie Lake Development will shrink the vision of the Blue Mountain/Birch Coves lake Park to a shadow of its former self, to the detriment of all Haligonians.

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Developing the Motherhouse Lands

This past Monday night I attended a re-zoning meeting concerned with what is known as ‘The Motherhouse Lands’ – a large block of land between the suburbs of Clayton Park and Bridgeview, with a spectacular view of the Bedford Basin thrown in for good measure.

It was for decades the site of the Mount Saint Vincent Motherhouse, once the largest building east of Montreal. The Motherhouse was the home for the Sisters of Charity, until they determined in 2001 that it no longer suited their needs (largely due to the declining population of retired nuns who lived there). The grand old building was demolished several years ago. The current development proposal, from South West Properties, promises all sunshine and lollipops. It’s a special development that places a Spring Garden Road style commercial and office strip of eight and twelve-story buildings, surrounded by a ‘mixed’ range of residences crowned by a single twenty story ‘signature’ building, which was, interestingly enough, not there in the last public meeting. I guess that’s what the developers consider progress.

The breathless exposition by the developers formed the first part of the meeting, as they described how great their plans were. Minutes from the City’s Core! Park and water features! Close to all the amenities! Stable and long-term residences all around! Wonderful neighbours! Dynamic retail opportunities! Etc Etc Etc!

While the developers provided no 3-D imagery for the audience – estimated at over one hundred – the pictures were pretty, dipicting a brown, grey and glass series of Jetsons-style space age buildings. The grid-pattern streets looked neat despite the fact that the steep gradient would play havoc with everything from construction to street safety, whether it be winter or summer.

The only thing missing was a monorail!

Despite all the promises and assurances of Southwest Properties, the only truly viable and community-appropriate use for the Motherhouse Lands is for it to be deeded to Mount Saint Vincent University to retain its current status as ‘Park and Institutional’. It is the only way to guarantee the quality of life for the area’s citizens.

Alas, that was not on the agenda. The city should reconsider, or it risks eroding its relationship with its residents even further.

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The Annie Leibovitz photos and the Art Gallery Of Nova Scotia

June 2013, saw one of the most exciting announcements ever come out of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia: The donation of a huge cache (1,307 in total) of famed photographer Annie Leibovitz’s original photographs to our regional art museum. Included in the collection, which numbers over 2,000 prints, are some of Leibovitz’s most iconic images: John Lennon and Yoko Ono, taken just hours before he was killed; the naked and pregnant Demi Moore; Queen Elizabeth II; the Blues Brothers. It is reportedly worth $20 million.

The buzz created by the deal went national and international. Clearly, the AGNS had lucked into a wonderful blast of philanthropy from the collection’s owners, the family of Al and the late Faye Mintz, who were looking for a smaller gallery as a home for a sure-to-be popular attraction. In 2013, AGNS CEO Ray Cronin called the photos “one of the most transformative additions to the collection” and that they would probably be exhibited in 2014.

Since the initial news release, however, what should have been a great story has turned sour. 2014 came and went, as did 2015, and now almost half of 2016, and there is still no established date for the exhibition of Leibovitz’s pictures. In the meantime, Ray Cronin has been let go as CEO and nobody seems to know what exactly is going on at the AGNS.

Whether we see the explanation before we see the Annie Leibovitz photos that were donated by the Mintz family is an open, ongoing question.

How something that began with such goodwill could end so badly casts a long shadow of over the whole of Nova Scotia’s cultural sector.

Questions of accountability and competence are at the heart of the matter.

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Happy Birthday to CHNS

What do legendary country star Hank Snow and I have in common? Well, we both worked at the landmark Halifax radio station CHNS… sort of. Hank did the morning wake-up slot at 8 am when CHNS was broadcasting out of the Lord Nelson in the early 1930s. The Depression was in full throttle and his wife worked in the Moirs Chocolate factory, where the Scotiabank Centre is today.

I, on the other hand, worked on a Junior Achievement posting in High School in 1976 and 1977 at CHNS, where we produced one half-hour show per week. We recorded on Wednesday or Thursday nights when the station was located in a beautiful Art Deco building on Tobin Street deep in Halifax’s South End. The show was then broadcast at 8 pm on Sunday Night, right before ‘Dutch Corner’, a program for the Netherlands’ Community in Nova Scotia.

It was the Sunday Night Community access slot, a ratings dead zone that demanded none of CHNS real stars – at the time they were Frank Lowe, Johnny Gold and Jerry (Jer Bear) Lawrence. Lawrence would ascend to the Nova Scotia legislature a few years later, being the first wheelchair-bound MLA, and a formidable force who brought the first accessibility issues to government buildings and to the business community.

Working around and being advised by those radio heavyweights of the time was something of a thrill. Media seemed remote to most of us teenagers, and to actually produce a real program, with real advertisements, music and commentary, catapulted our small but merry company into what we thought was the “big time.”

CHNS may have morphed through several incarnations, having moved from Tobin Street with a couple of ownership changes in between. But it’s still there pumping out music when the pundits said that radio is a dead issue in the age of the internet. That’s what they said with television, and when vinyl went out and CDs came in. Now vinyl is back. And Radio is indeed as alive as ever. Long live CHNS, and may radio continue to live forever.

For my part, I’m happy to have played a very minor part in Halifax’s first major radio station.

So… Happy 90th birthday CHNS!

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Remembering the Halifax Daily News

I admit it. I was a writer for the Halifax Daily News, back in the halcyon days when the capital of Nova Scotia was a lively two-newspaper town.

While the Chronicle Herald was very much the “establishment” paper (and remains so today), the Daily News was the upstart, cheeky, rabble-rousing new kid on the block – the paper that was willing to upset the apple cart with more vivid opinions and harder-edged reporting, along with some columnists who could really get up people’s noses, yours truly foremost among them.

It was a wonderful place to work. Alas, a series of ownership changes, which preceded the general decline of the newspaper industry, introduced great instability. A series of cuts in 2005 prefigured the abrupt closure of the paper in February, 2008. Reborn as the much-lessened Metro, the existing tabloid is but a ghostly reminder of Halifax’s salad days as a two-newspaper town.

Many of the people I had the pleasure of working with at the Daily News went on to greater things, and higher salaries. Editor Bill Turpin ended up with the Provincial Government. Entertainment editor Marilyn Smulders moved from Dalhousie to NSCAD where she now expertly guides their communications. Arts writer Marla Cranston is the the public relations person for the Nova Scotia Barrister’s Society. Arts Editor and columnist David Swick teaches ethics at the King’s College journalism school. Lifestyle writer Skana Gee handled the publicity for the long running HBO series Haven. I produce feature films. The list goes on.

The Daily News made Halifax a better place. It also made the Chronicle Herald a better paper. Watching the Herald’s current bitter labour dispute linger reminds us all how fragile the mainstream media has become in an age when the internet was allegedly going to make media available to everyone.

The lack of arts and culture writing and coverage these days in Halifax is especially startling, and more than a bit depressing. Finding decent theatre reviews or anything more than puff pieces when it comes to music is virtually impossible. And while the media scene is constantly changing, there has been nothing to compare with the coverage Halifax received from the Daily News and the Chronicle Herald in those heady days of the 1990s.

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David Manners – Nova Scotia’s First Movie Star

David Manners is arguably the most significant actor to ever hail from Nova Scotia. The suave Halifax-born thespian, who made 38 movies in Hollywood between 1930 and 1936, was the star of not one, not two, but three enduring horror classics made by Universal Studios: Dracula, The Black Cat and The Mummy.

Born Rauff de Ryther Duan Acklom, Manners took advantage of his smooth good looks, athletic bearing and sophisticated-sounding mid-Atlantic accent to work his way onto the Hollywood A-list. Taking his mother’s maiden name for a more manageable moniker, the young actor was in high demand for leading man roles against some of the most eligible females stars of the time.

It’s those Universal horror films that keep Manners’ name and face in circulation today, however. In the credits to Todd Browning’s Dracula from 1931, Manners gets equal billing with Bela Lugosi, who he also co-starred with in The Death Kiss. In Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Black Cat, from 1934, Manners would face not only Lugosi but the immortal Frankenstein actor himself, Boris Karloff, who had also co-starred with the in-demand Haligonian in Karl Freund’s The Mummy in 1932.

Manners was receiving, at one point in his career, 100,000 fan letters a week. Up to his passing he was still receiving fan mail from star-struck punters who explained just how much seeing Dracula, The Mummy and The Black Cat had changed their lives.

Never comfortable with Hollywood, which he found to be a “false place,” the iconoclastic Manners retired from the screen in 1936 at the height of his fame. He moved to the desert, painted and wrote novels, one of which is set in the Annapolis Valley of Nova Scotia, and performed on stage until his retirement from acting altogether in the 1950s. He passed away in December 1998 at the age of 97, one of the last links to the earliest years of Hollywood.

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Hillsburn Could Be The East Coast’s Next “Big Thing”

The Halifax-based pop/folk group Hillsburn has been slowly and deliberately building up a powerful head of steam on the East Coast’s always fertile music scene. First spotted by many in the CBC’s Searchlight Talent contest last year, the band has recently released its first full-length CD, In the Battle Years.

Their music is like nothing I’ve ever heard before. Using the Nu-Folk scene populated by the likes of Mumford & Sons and The Lumineers as a departure point, Hillsburn distills the stark acoustic sound of that trend and punches up the pop aspects, bringing short, sharp musical phrases, hooky chorus lines and curious constructions all together to make for a startlingly original sound.

The songs come from guitarist and singer Paul Aarntzen. His whole approach speaks to current youth culture concerns, full of yearning for the fleeting notions of escape into meaningful activity. Less obsessed with old tropes like rebellion, alienation and opting out, Aarntzen’s ideas speak to issues like hanging on and fitting in during an era where the only constant is change.

With the band just bursting out of the gate, I have no hesitation in saying that Hillsburn has the potential to become the East Coast’s ‘Next Big Thing’, rivaling the success of the Rankins and Sloan.

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Draegerman Courage – A Nova Scotia Tale

Every once and a while Nova Scotia finds itself in the center of world attention because of a tragic event. Whether it’s the sinking of the Titanic, the Halifax Explosion, the Springhill mine disasters (1891, 1956, and 1958), or the Swiss Air Crash, this province on the edge of North America suddenly gets thrust upon the world stage for all the wrong reasons.

Such was the case on April 12, 1936, when the Moose River gold mine grabbed headlines all over the world. While three men were inspecting a mine, it caved in and the world stood transfixed as J. Frank Willis, the Regional Director in the Maritimes for the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission (the precursor of the CBC) dropped a specially made microphone down a drilled hole to the trapped men.

650 radio stations across North American tuned in, with an estimated 100 million listeners; even more listened through the BBC, which transmitted the live updates to the United Kingdom and the rest of Europe. It was the first live radio remote broadcast in Canada, and it was a story that resonated around the world, holding people’s attention in the midst of the darkest days of the Great Depression.

A year later, Hollywood told the tale in Draegerman Courage.

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Impact to Contact – The Shag Harbour UFO Case Re-Examined

A strange anniversary is coming for Nova Scotians in 2017. You might even say that it’s “out of this world.”

I am referring, of course, to the 50th commemoration of the Shag Harbour UFO Incident.

Steeped in controversy and the subject of debate by debunkers, believers and those undecided people somewhere in between, Canada’s most famous UFO event has been the subject of various seminars, presentations, and a continued discourse spread across several documentaries. It’s even been blessed with an official stamp from Canada Post!

For anyone who would like to dive into the subject, Impact to Contact: The Shag Harbour Incident, is the definitive book available. Veteran UFO researchers Chris Styles and Graham Simms have collected up all the available evidence, including a dive report from 2009 by David Cvet, to make a powerful case that something very strange indeed happened in and around Nova Scotiaès South Shore on the night of October 4th, 1967.

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“Shooting From The East” – A Fundamentally Flawed Misfire

The back jacket blurb for Shooting From The East, NSCAD Associate Professor’s Darrell Varga’s new book on East Coast motion picture making, states that “until now, there has been no comprehensive history of this diverse body of work.” Unfortunately, despite Varga’s claim otherwise, this is not the book that provides that study.

His dismissal of the Glace Bay-born director Daniel Petrie is particularly unfortunate. Petrie returned to Nova Scotia to make three features. One of them, The Bay Boy, is the only example of a successful Canadian filmmaker who went to Hollywood and then came home to make a film about his origins. None of Petrie’s contemporaries – Norman Jewison or Arthur Hiller, for example – ever did so. Further, Varga states that the Atlantic Filmmaker’s Co-op and the Atlantic Studio of the National Film Board were created in 1973 after a paucity of film activity on the East Coast – ignoring the fact that in the previous year Petrie shot The Neptune Factor in Halifax, in the process providing some of the impetus for the creation of both organizations.

For the various interviews found in the book, one must grant Varga at least a little credit. As for the rest of Shooting From the East, however, it rates as a fundamentally flawed misfire, and a real lost opportunity. Filmmakers who got profiled might want to request a copy for their own archives, but everyone else will probably want to give it a pass.

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