Most of you have already seen my first summary or even my second summary. This last summary will have a look at the last three Best Picture nominees I saw. They were Lion, Hidden Figures and Hell Or High Water.
Lion is one of those films which came out of nowhere to surprise everyone who has been lucky to see it.
We have seen many against-all-odds stories in the past. This is something because this is a true story of something that really was against all odds. It wasn’t just about making it happen but also of the family relations Saroo has developed over his lifetime. What will happen? Will he leave the family he’s always known? Is the family he’s searching for still alive? The best quality of this story is that it keeps us intrigued and hoping Saroo reunites, but also has us concerned of what will happen after.
Another quality of this story is that it does not forget the cause of the problem. Saroo is seen as the lucky one who was able to reunite with his family after all these years. However throughout the film, especially at the beginning, we see the cause of the problem. Saroo was unsupervised when he boarded the express train. The language barriers caused problems. Even Saroo’s mispronunciation of Bengali words caused problems. The train stations of Calcutta are loaded with stray children ready for abductors to prey on, and station police looking the other way. Even the missing posters advertised before his adoption were no good as his mother is illiterate. India failed Saroo and Saroo succeeded thanks to Google Earth and his fierce will. The film at the end lets people aware of the problem; 80,000 children go missing in India each year. The film’s website informs people of how they are making a difference in aiding to protect children in India.
This film is an accomplishment for the Australian film industry. I don’t know if Australia has ever had a film nominated for Best Picture before. This is director Garth Davis’ first ever feature length film. Bet you wouldn’t believe that. Luke Davies did an excellent job in adapting Saroo’s biography into a winning screenplay that keep the audience intrigued and hoping for the best in the end. Dev Patel’s performance as Saroo was the highlight as he did a great portrayal of a young man who’s angry on the inside and knows what he needs to do. Nicole Kidman was also excellent as the mother who appears grateful on the outside but has some inner hurt waiting to come out. Young Sunny Pawar was also very good playing the young Saroo. He was cute but he didn’t take it overboard. He played his part well. The film also featured top notch cinematography from Greig Fraser and excellent original music from Dustin O’Halloran and Hauschka.
Lion is an excellent film featuring a story you won’t forget. A surprise contender this year and a worthy one.
It’s good that we have a film like Hidden Figures to tell us about a piece of history that we never knew about.
The film comes at the right time as it deals with a lot of situations that are relevant in our world. This may be set in the early 60’s and revolves around a moment in space history but it has a lot of situations relevant to today. One is of workplace racism. It’s not as bad now as it is then but there are still a lot of unsolved problems. The second is of technology being so good, it can replace workers. These three women had iron wills. They knew they had potential, they knew they had what it takes and they wouldn’t let racism or the threat of modern technology stop them from reaching for their achievements.
The year of 2016 was a crushing year. It was a year that constantly reminded us that there was still a lot of racism to overcome. Despite the improvement over the decades, it was able to show its ugly head with low employment rates and police beatings. This is a film that reminds us that racism can be overcome. When you look at it, the women were doing this all during a turning point in the history of African Americans. African Americans in Virginia had less rights than they do now and discrimination was perfectly legal. Back then there were still separate washrooms for colored people, separate library books for white and colored people, and police beatings during civil rights marches. The women overcame these barriers and they opened doors for other colored people for generations to come.
This is only the second film Theodore Melfi has directed and written. This is the first feature-length script Alison Schroeder has written. Does come across as like something you’d get from Hollywood, but it’s not a weakness. It does all the right moves. Taraji Henson was great as the protagonist Katherine Goble-Johnson, but the show-stealer was Octavia Spencer. She was not only good at playing a woman who wouldn’t let technology kill her job, and the jobs of 30 other black women, but she was a colorful scene-stealer too. Janelle Monae completes the trio as one who just wouldn’t say die to her ambitions. The male actors were mostly supporting roles but Mahershala Ali was the biggest one as Jim Johnson, Katherine’s new husband. The mix of Motown music mixed in with the original score from Hans Zimmer, Pharrell Williams and Benjamin Wallfisch also added to the spirits of the movie.
Hidden Figures showcases a little-known fact about a big moment in American space history. It’s also the right uplifting movie needed at this time.
HELL OR HIGH WATER
I missed Hell Or High Water when it first came out in the theatres in August. I admit I was caught up in the summer fare and I overlooked it. I finally saw it recently and I’m glad I did.
One thing is I miss seeing is crime comedies. You know, the dark comedies featured in crime stories. This film has a good amount of comedy to it with their failures at robbing first. Even the situation where the brothers rob the Texas Midlands Bank and pay the mortgages they have with the bank off with the robbery money is full of surprising irony. It’s not even the robbery spree that has all the comedy. There’s the comedy when the rangers visit the places they question. There’s even comedy with that hard waitress at a restaurant they eat at: “What don’t you want?” The comedy doesn’t last as the story gets darker later on. However it does end on an ironic note as the now-retired Officer Hamilton does meet up with Toby Howard, perfectly free, and inquires of the robberies he and brother Tanner committed together.
One thing about this crime drama is that it has a lot to say. We have two brothers–Tanner who appears to have no redeeming values and Toby who’s as cool as a cookie– robbing various branches of the same bank. You see signs advertising debt relief. You hear from people– both family and people the brothers run into– talking of their own economic hardships. You see the indigenous people, who are still referred to as ‘Indians’ with their own outlook on things. Mostly negative. Looks like this story has a lot to say. Even hearing Alberto Parker say that he believes the true criminal is the Texas Midlands Bank does get you thinking. Maybe it’s the Bank that are the true robbers around here.
This is actually the first American production from Scottish director David MacKenzie. He has a reputation back in the UK with films like Young Adam, Hallam Foe and Starred Up. His first American production is top notch and really delivers as both a crime story and an offbeat Western. This is also an accomplishment for writer Taylor Sheridan. Already having made a name for himself in Sicario, he delivers again in what is actually his second feature-length script. Of all acting performances, Jeff Bridges is the one that was the best. He delivered a top job in character acting from head to toe. He was completely solid in character. Chris Pine was also good as the brother Toby who’s smart, tries to play it cool and possibly the one person in the world who could see redeeming qualities in brother Tanner. Ben Foster was also a scene-stealer as Tanner who a complete ruthless loose cannon who appears to have a bone to pick with everyone over anything and possesses a false sense of invincibility. Gil Birmingham was also good coming across as the wise partner who plays it cool. The country music in both recorded format and original from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis fit the film perfectly.
Hell Or High Water makes for an intense thrill ride that’s big on thrills but also takes you to the heat of the moments. The story even gets you thinking. Now why did I miss it during the summer?
That does it. My final summary of the Best Picture nominees for 2016. After seeing Hell Or High Water, that makes it 16 straight years of seeing all the Best Picture nominees before Oscar night. My predictions for the wins coming on Saturday.
Most animated features this year have been family-oriented blockbusters. Anomalisa provides for an adult alternative. Does it provide well?
Michael Stone is a motivational speaker who has arrived in Cincinnati for a single day to give a lecture on effective customer service. He should have it all– he’s married, a father and he’s a success at his profession– but you sense something’s missing. That becomes evident when he has images of Bella, his ex-girlfriend from more than ten years ago. In addition, everyone besides Michael has the same voice from the hotel personnel to his ex to his wife Donna and son Henry to even the waitress.
The night appears to be a disaster as he tries to reconnect with Bella in the hotel lounge only to find out she’s emotionally troubled. In the end, he’s only after sex with Bella and she leaves furiously. You can tell he’s not with it as he is looking to buy a toy for his son Henry and end up shopping in a toy store–an adult toy store– and actually buys something for him.
During the night, he thinks he missed getting his room service and goes walking down the hall for the person he wants to see. He knocks on one hotel room and comes across two females who traveled here to hear his lecture. Both are customer service employees. There’s Erica, who’s tall and blond and sounds like everyone else, and Lisa who’s shorter, a brunette and has a very different voice. Michael has drinks with the two which goes better than with Bella but he takes an interest in Lisa. Lisa is surprised as she’s normally the socially rejected one. In fact she took customer service because she’s not normally put in front desk or face-to-face sales positions. In fact her last boyfriend was a boss who just didn’t work out at all with her. She has low self-esteem, often feeling cut off from the world, and admires Cyndi Lauper for her ability to dare to be different. However Michael and Lisa connect and they spend the night together.
The following morning, Michael gets bad dreams about being sexually pursued by others. At breakfast with Lisa, he’s faced with the dilemma that Lisa may not be the one, that she maybe like all the others. He tries to do his lecture, with Lisa and Erica in the audience, but he just can’t put it together. Michael returns back to his home life and his family only to have a surprise party for him in which he doesn’t welcome and suggests his marriage to Donna is in jeopardy. Meanwhile Lisa and Erica head back on their road trip leaving the audience to wonder what will happen long after the story ends.
I am quite accustomed to Charlie Kaufman shelling out unapologetically eccentric entertainment. Being John Malkovich is possibly the most eccentric film I’ve seen outside of Clockwork Orange. Adaptation is an amusing story about Charlie’s ‘twin’ Donald. In addition, Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind is possibly the best ‘romance of the absurd.’ Anomalisa is possibly the least eccentric film I’ve ever seen from him. This is also very rare that I see him use animation to tell his story. Actually Anomalisa was a stage play written by him ten years ago. That explains why the film is set in 2005.
Basically the film touches on the subject of a person’s feeling of missing voids in their life and their personal belonging. We have a man who should have it all: a married father who has it made as a motivational speaker and instructor. We also have a woman who feels like a misfit and tries to hang onto things that give her positive self-esteem like Cyndi Lauper songs or her best friend since elementary school. They meet by chance and it turns out that they appear just right for each other only to have that chemistry questioned only shortly after.
I will say it did not make sense at the beginning of the film hearing Michael talk in his voice and seeing all the other characters besides Lisa talk in the same voice including Michael’s wife, son Henry, Bella and even Lisa’s friend Erica. It’s once you get into the film you learn why Michael and Lisa are the ones with different voices. The reason why all the other people have the same voice is because to Michael, they’re ‘everyone else,’ including his wife and son. Once you notice Lisa as the only other person with a different voice, you will soon understand that she is something to Michael. It makes sense over time. However this case of voices matching the role will also send a message about the morning after and what Lisa will mean to Michael.
Kaufman does a very good job of writing and co-directing however it’s also Duke Johnson who does a very good job in directing the animation. It’s a wonder why Kaufman wanted to have Anomalisa adapted to animation instead of live-action. Duke has already had experience in animation with two different shorts and an animated series of Mary Shelley’s Frankenhole. Here his animation fused with the story of Anomalisa does seem to come off as a bit odd at first–even seeing Duke’s style of animation does seem different at first– but it seems fitting at the end. I feel it worked out excellently. The vocal talent was also very good as both David Thewlis and Jennifer Jason Leigh were both able to provide personality and emotion to their characters of Michael and Lisa respectively. Tom Noonan also did a good job of voicing everyone else and was able to make it sound entertaining. The music of Carter Burwell as well as the inclusion of songs and lyrics from others added to the film.
Anomalisa is a refreshing break from most animated movies that hit it big at the box office. It’s a very adult style of an animation story that’s very offbeat but manages to make sense to you and impressed you in the end.
The last film I saw from the Vancouver Film Festival repeats was Felix. Felix is an entertaining movie of a South African boy with musical talents. How entertaining is it?
Felix Xaba is a 13 year-old Zulu boy gifted in music as he’s an expert at the pennywhistle. He lives in a Zulu area of Cape Town. His mother Lindiwe or ‘Lindy’ wants her children to have the success she never had so she is able to get Felix accepted into an exclusive all-boys prep school. This comes thanks to the help of Mr. Soames: a rich white man whom Lindy is his maid and is a former graduate of that school. Fitting in is not that easy especially since there is a lot of elitist attitudes amongst some of the richer boys of his classrom, especially Junior whom he ranks Felix as NOCD: ‘Not Our Class Dear.’ A punch from Junior during rugby practice leaves Felix with a bad first day. Further ostracism is felt days later when Felix is mocked for his green bag.
Felix does find his way. He does make friends with the big but shy Ricardo and the awkwardly friendly and goofy Samuel. They’re frequently at odds with the ‘elite’ clique of Junior, Marshall and Rocky. Felix wants to make the school’s jazz ensemble but can’t with the pennywhistle. Jazz music however is discouraged by his mother. She calls it the ‘Devil’s Music’ and believes if Felix pursues it, he will be like his late father, whom she refers to as ‘useless’ in front of her children but secretly still loves him. The children soon learn Lindy still loved their father when they come across the ‘evil chest.’ They learn it’s not evil at all. In fact it has memories of their father: various pictures, magazine articles of him and his band the Bossa Boys and even his own saxophone which Felix tries to play to make the jazz ensemble.
Felix tries to re-audition for the jazz band. During the wait, he finds help in learning to play the saxophone from Bra Joe, a former member of the Bossa Boys. All lessons have to be secret because he knows his mother will get angry at him for learning jazz and has a certain hatred to Bra Joe. Actually Lindy has a reputation of being the village snob. The one place where she is friendly is with her church choir. Through Bra Joe, Felix is able to learn to play the saxophone, learn sheet music and learn about his late father.
Everything turns upside down when Lindy learns Felix went into the chest and took the saxophone. She then pawns the saxophone. To get it back, the Bossa Boys hold a reunion concert that’s a benefit concert for Felix. The Bossas try to get the villagers to attend and Ricardo and Samuel try to get schoolmates and their families attend. The concert comes and theplace is packed with villagers and schoolfriends alike. , Felix and the Bossas put on a great show and the money is raised to get Felix’s saxophone back.
However it comes at the expense of Lindy as she disowns Felix. The final act comes after Felix succeeds in re-auditioning. He’s able to impress his strict instructors and he’s eligible to perform in the upcoming show where he has a solo part and a performance with the Bossas. Everybody involved with the school is coming, even Mr. Soames. But Lindy refuses. She still stubbornly disowns Felix. Only time is running out. This leads to an ending that is somewhat predictable but enjoyable nonetheless.
This is a very enjoyable family movie that succeeds in being entertaining without being overly ridiculous. There are some times when the movie does tread on some things like racism and the hard times of apartheid but it succeeds in not making it too heavy for the sake of it being a family movie. Actually the movie is shown mostly of blacks and whites conversing and getting along quite well in the movie. Even Mr. Soames treats Lindy like a friend instead of his maid. The movie does remember to portray the South Africa of today. Even scenes where there’s talk of the death of Felix’s father, including that scene where Felix asks Bra Joe why his father drank himself to death, came across as not too harsh as not to ruin the family-friendly atmosphere of the movie.
If there was one issue this family friendly movie focused on most, it was classism. It does show the separation between the rich and the working-class. It’s evident in Junior and his clique labeling outsiders as NOCD. It’s evident as one of the schoolmasters thinks that being labeled ‘elitist’ is a good thing. It’s also evident as one member of Junior’s clique, Marshall, is black coming from a wealthy political family and he treats Felix as an outsider. It also shows about the sometimes unfair world about privilege. It’s first evident not necessarily in the school but with Mr. Soames as he shows Lindy his tie from the school and says: “This opens doors.” Even Lindy’s attitude as she struts around her village thinking she’s too good for the village and she’s going to get her children out by sending them to prep school is another example of the theme of elitism. Nevertheless it’s Felix and his musical pursuits who shows that class is another border music can cross and actually unite the classes together in harmony.
Without a doubt this is a family movie that follows a familiar formula. It’s a child coming of age and doing what’s in his heart and desire despite the opposition of a parent. I’ve seen the formula before. The only way for a film like this to succeed is if it does the story right and if it makes you want the protagonist to win in the end. The movie does more than just simply make us want Felix to perform at the jazz recital despite Lindy’s opposition. The movie also wants to make the mother heal from the loss of her husband. We know that Lindy secretly still loves Felix’s father despite drinking himself to death. We also know the real reason why she considers jazz music evil: because she blames it for her husband’s death. The movie’s story succeeds in being a risk-taker in the plot. Felix’s pursuit of jazz, especially through playing his late father’s saxophone, could either help her heal from the pain or make it worse. That adds friction to both sides of the story. It’s something that not even Mr. Soames having tickets to Felix’s recital can soften Lindy’s heart.
For all intents and purposes, this is a feel-good movie that did all the right moves. There were many instances in the movie where the feel-good moments would normally come off wrong or ridiculous but it did things right. Some may feel the ending of it to be too fluffy or sugar-coated but we shouldn’t forget that this is intended to be a family movie. Besides name one classic family movie with a sad ending.
This is yet another example of countries trying to lean more towards creating movies and maturing past making simply films. And it’s not just simply making a movie loaded strictly with entertainment elements. They want to put effort into the story and deliver a professional winsome product. Felix is a good example of the South African film industry doing so. And it’s not just any type of movie but a family movie. Film industries around the world have always tried to make family entertainment. Very rarely does one stand out and catch the world’s attention. Felix appears poised to do just that.
Right now making live-action family movies is in a bit of a slump for Hollywood. It’s been a while since they’ve shelled one out that has fared well at the box office. Most family movies that have fared well in the last few years have been the animation movies. Felix doesn’t feel the pressures of Hollywood. The South African film industry is an industry that has little to lose and everything else to gain. A movie like Felix can gain a lot if distributed internationally. I see a lot of elements in the movie that can allow this film to excel internationally whether it be on the big screen or DVD. It just has a lot of charming ingredients that succeeds in entertaining.
The biggest accolades has to come from Hlayani Junior Mabasa for playing the musically gifted Felix Xaba. He was entertaining from start to finish and never let go of his scenes. Lina Sokhulu was also very believable as Lindy. She had to personify a woman with many different personalities: struggling, confused and hurting. She delivered a performance that was very well without interfering with the family-friendly atmosphere of the movie. Thafelo Mofokeng was also very good as the warm Bra Joe. Actually it was Bra Joe’s easygoing personality that seemed to make the hardest issues in the movie come across easier. The ensemble of both the young actors and the older actors and musicians also worked to make it enjoyable.
The thing that will surprise most people is that Felix is actually written and produced by women. It’s directed by Roberta Durrant who has an excellent resume in terms of film and television production in South Africa. In fact she has even received a Lifetime Achievement award for her contributions to film and television in South Africa. Shirley Johnson is a new writer with credentials in writing for television and stage and is an experienced actress. In both cases this is Johnson’s first time writing for a feature film as this is Durrant’s first time directing a feature film as well. Actually the script for Felix was an idea that started by Johnson back in 1995, finished the original draft in 2004 but only now came to full fruition. The end result is very professional, very impressive and very entertaining. The music ranging from the school band to the Bossa Boys to the church choir was also top notch and made the movie.
Felix is a fun entertaining family movie from South Africa. It’s a feel-good movie you don’t have to feel guilty liking. Reminds film festival crowds that audience satisfaction is not a weakness in film making.
I saw Willow Creek at the Vancouver International Film Festival just for the heck of it. What I got was something familiar but just as thrilling and had its own uniqueness.
The film appears to be videos of a couple, Jim and Kelly, as they are about to search for the mystery of Bigfoot. The legend of bigfoot started in Willow Creek, California one 1967 day when two men names Roger Patterson and Robert Gimlin claimed they sawe him and even provided a picture. The stories have kept on popping as the years went by.
Jim and Kelly head to Willow Creek to camp out in the Rockies and get their own piece of the action. Jim especially is a huge bigfoot enthusiast. Kelly doesn’t seem too into it but is cooperative with Jim nonetheless. They come to the town that’s full of Bigfoot landmark and businesses named Bigfoot. They even go to a Bigfoot diner where they have a Bigfoot burger with the buns shaped like a big foot. They interview residents, visit a Bigfoot museum and even have fun with the Bigfoot statues. They even show a singer who wrote the song Bob and Roger about the legendary discovery. It’s not to say that all has been fun before their camp-out. They did see one person who didn’t like how they were having a mock interview with a Bigfoot statue. They also met another man with an aggressively rude attitude while driving their Humvee down the valley.
That doesn’t stop them from finding another path to set up camp. They set up and then leave temporarily. Once they return they find their tent down and their stuff thrown about. Jim even finds his sock up in a tree. That doesn’t stop them from setting up again. They even sleep in the valley overnight leaving the camera running in hopes of getting a piece of the Bigfoot action. The night is a special bonus for Jim as it’s his chance to finally propose to Kelly. Kelly gives an unexpected answer but Jim’s cool with it.
Overnight they hear a lot of noises. First sounds like banging of rocks. Then sounds like loud growling. Then comes forceful actions outside their tent like their tent body being pushed. Jim and Kelly decide to leave the following morning. As they go to return to their car, Jim still tries to capture some stuff related to Bigfoot like hair from a tree or footprints near the creek. The fun ends when the two learn they’re lost without a map. The two are left stranded in the night where the unexpected happen.
Some of you may say this film sounds very familiar to The Blair Witch Project or Paranormal Activity. That’s definitely what I thought. It may be another spin off that formula but it does have elements of its own. First is of a mysterious phenomenon that’s already hugely popular and the place that made it popular. For those that don’t know, the town of Willow Creek, California is dubbed the Bigfoot Capital Of The World. They not only have all these Bigfoot places as shown in the film but also a Bigfoot festival. Back to the subject of the film, I’m sure one could see themselves doing such a film with other phenomenon like say going to Roswell for the alien phenomenon or Kelowna, BC for the Ogopogo.
Even separate from the subject of the search for Bigfoot was the story is also about the couple too. Blair Witch was of a group of friends together. Paranormal Activity had a couple but there wasn’t much focus on the relationship of the two. Willow Creek had a lot of focus on the relationship of Jim and Kelly first during their moments of fun together then on moments of great fear. Alexie Gilmore and Bryce Johnson gave a great performance as the couple. They made it work with their believable performance.
Bobcat Goldthwait also did a good job of directing and writing the story. Many of you may remember Goldthwait from the 80’s and 90’s with his comedic acting and his stand-up comedy where he had this irritatingly growling voice which people really liked. Filmmaking is something you would not normally associate with Goldthwait but he does make films of his own. This was a good film put together as it had a lot of people in suspense. Also he was at the showing for both the intro and the Q & A. Shows he still has it in terms of stand-up.
Willow Creek may remind you of certain other movies of the past but it’s a good story of its own and is worth watching. However I don’t think it may want you to check out the Bigfoot mystery anytime soon.
“Sooner or later your ability to succeed on natural talent runs out when you run against a chemical barrier. The question became do you take drugs to try to win or do you content yourself with losing forever by staying away from them?”
– Charlie Francis
“I think about it for about three weeks before I say yes. Why should I train hard doing it clean and then these other guys are not clean? Face fear…I was young, in the business and (Jamie Astaphan) was a doctor and he said ‘If you don’t take it, you won’t make it.'”
– Ben Johnson
Back on Tuesday, I posted my memories and thoughts of the big run, the events leading up to it and the aftermath. It made sense since it was the 25th anniversary of that controversial run. Today is another 25th anniversary: the anniversary of the bad news hitting the fan. Here I will reflect on what I’ve learned from watching 9.79* and all that I’ve noticed in doping in the years since.
I know I talked a lot about the ESPN 30 For 30 Film 9.79* in my last article. For those who haven’t seen it, 9.79* is a very informative documentary about the Ben Johnson scandal that not only tells about the process of how Ben got into taking steroids but also about the changing world of track and field at the time as well as the widespread doping amongst those in the track world at the time too. It not only interviews Ben Johnson and Carl Lewis but all eight runners that participated in what’s commonly called ‘the dirtiest race in Olympic history:’
- Lane 1: Robson da Silva – Brazil
- Lane 2: Raymond Stewart – Jamaica
- Lane 3: Carl Lewis – USA
- Lane 4: Linford Christie – Great Britain
- Lane 5: Calvin Smith – USA
- Lane 6: Ben Johnson – Canada
- Lane 7: Desai Williams – Canada
- Lane 8: Dennis Mitchell – USA
It also interviews the coaches of Carl Lewis, Calvin Smith and even the coach of the US Olympic track team of 1988. Calvin Smith is of special focus too as he was the 100m dash World Record holder until Ben broke it at the 1987 Worlds. It also interviews two of Ben’s former teammates from the Scarborough Optimist Track Club: Angella Issajenko and Desai Williams who had stories of their own of what they saw around them and what they themselves did. It also interviews those associated with the USOC Doping programs like Dr. Robert Voy and Dr. Don Catlin from the UCLA lab during the 1984 Summer Olympics. Members of Canada’s Olympic Committee, Robert Armstrong from the Dubin Inquiry and a doping historian are also interviewed as well as Mary Ormsby: a Toronto Star journalist. Mary’s analysis of Ben Johnson and those associated with him as well as Canadian attitudes and even celebrations of Ben during those times really summed it up well and really struck me.
There are many key people who were not present in the film like Ben’s mother, Dr. Jamie Astaphan, human growth hormone Dr. Robert Kerr, Charles Dubin, Alexandre De Merode and Charlie Francis because they’re all now deceased. There is however one film footage of interview of Charlie from 2000. Also Andre Jackson, whose significance I will talk about later, is not interviewed either.
BEFORE IT ALL STARTED
Long before the whole Ben Johnson scandal, I knew about doping in sports. I first took an interest in the Olympic Games back in 1984 in the months leading up to the Los Angeles Olympics. I was a kid back then and with each preview show and each book I read, my curiosity grew and grew and I continued to learn more about the Games. Even seeing shows about Olympians past like The Olympiad widened my knowledge and excitement. However there was one Olympic preview show that focused on the subject of doping and anabolic steroids. They even made mention of athletes from the Pan American Games the year before that tested positive including two Canadian weightlifters.
Later on I’d learn just slightly more about doping. Actually I learned about an Olympic fatality from 1960. It was Danish cyclist Knud Enemark Jensen in the team road race. Two other members of the Danish team also dropped out of the race. The coach later admitted to giving his riders Roniacol. Amphetamines were also found in his autopsy. That would lead to the start of doping tests in 1968. The first athlete stripped of a gold medal for a doping violation was American swimmer Rick de Mont for using an asthma medication. Even though the substance is no longer on the banned list, the IOC won’t give back his gold medal. Steroid use was known in the 70’s and it was actually 1976 that the Olympic Games started testing for them. There were steroid positives in Montreal. Moscow in 1980 had no positive tests but some medalists including two track and field gold medalists had been banned for a positive steroid test in the past.
WHAT LED TO IT ALL
Back to the subject of Ben Johnson, I made mention of how Ben Johnson burst onto the international scene by winning bronze in the 100m dash at the 1984 Olympics. That was a great improvement from the World Championships a year before where we only got as far as the semifinals. His two bronze was rather quiet news for Canada’s athletes as they had their best Olympics ever with 44 medals. Ten of them gold. Our ten golds during those Games were not only a delight but a relief since our last Summer Olympics gold medal came back in 1968. Between that time we had to deal with the embarrassment in Montreal in 1976 of becoming the first and so far only host nation of a Summer Olympics to fail to win gold. We also had to deal with the heartache of our 1980 Summer Olympics team not even making it to Moscow as Canada joined the U.S. in boycotting those Olympics.
What was going on is that the sports world knew what was going on in terms of doping back during the 70’s and 80’s. Just like Calvin Smith said:”(Track athletes) know more than the public ever will.” I guess you can say that about every sport. Charlie Francis, Ben Johnson’s coach, would compete for Canada in the 100m dash at the 1972 Munich Olympics. He would hear rumors of how 80% of the field were on steroids. The crunch of sport being full of people on performance enhancing drugs would get heavier after the 1976 Olympics and the successes of athletes like the East German swimmers and weightlifters from various countries who many knew were doped but they won and passed the drug tests. When Charlie himself took to coaching, he was determined to make champions out of his athletes. However he had to deal with the challenge of an unlevel playing field and felt the only way to win was to encourage his own athletes to use steroids. That attitude: “If you don’t take it, you won’t make it.” He would give them drugs he knew the East Germans were taking at mass level. He even hired Dr. Jamie Astaphan after the 1984 Olympics to increase sophistication in his steroid program.
As for why Ben and his teammates agreed to take steroids, it was more than just about the desire to win. It also wasn’t until I saw the film that his athletes considered him not just a coach but a friend. Ben Johnson, Desai Williams and Angela Issajenko looked up to him very highly. They were Canadian immigrants from the Caribbean who felt like misfits and they took aback to Charlie how he made them feel like they belonged and how he helped them to succeed as athletes. In fact Francis helped coach all three of them to the 1984 Olympic Games where they all came home with Olympic medals. In addition to Ben’s two bronzes, Desai was part of Canada’s bronze medal-winning relay team and Angella was part of Canada’s silver medal-winning women’s 4*100m relay team. It’s that coach-athlete relationship thing that could have a lot to do with why they agreed to take the steroids at his encouragement. They looked up to him that much. Coach-athlete relationships are also of focus in 9.79* as it shows the relationships between Carl Lewis and Tom Tellez and Joe Douglas as well as Calvin Smith and his coach Wayne Williams. One thing the film showed me is that for all the show-off and braggart I always saw Carl Lewis to be, I admire him for the huge respect he had for his coaches and still has. Like he sang in his flop song: “You can’t win on your own.”
I’ll admit I knew a lot about doping even before the 1984 Summer Olympics. I’ll admit, as evident in my article from Tuesday, that I learned a lot of what was going on in the Scarborough Optimists Track Club and other athletic sources around that time. In watching the film 9.79*, the things that stuck most with me were the things I don’t remember or didn’t know about. The mention of the USOC and the drug testing programs back in 1983 were a surprise to me. Even as well the number of noticeable tampered or ‘chemically masked’ samples they attained and how none of the athletes were punished but warned instead. I’ll admit I didn’t pay much attention to the BALCO scandal that came to light in 2003. I knew only partial details and mention of Carl Lewis testing positive for a banned stimulant but I didn’t know all the facts. Also I didn’t know about the missing positive results from the last days of the 1984 Olympics. Nor did I know about Human Growth Hormone being untestable at the time. I’ve always known it to be testable but I forgot there was a time when it wasn’t.
This film gave more information about the doping programs created and the lightweight actions carried out. One of the things I was not surprised about was when Dr. Don Catlin talked about him asking the athletes why they were taking drugs. The answer was obvious: they want to win. Even as track and field was being professionalized, it became obvious that success was winning medals. In fact I remember the USOC conducted a survey in 1988 where they asked athletes who trained at the US Olympic Centre in Colorado Springs the survey question: “If you were given a pill that was guaranteed to make you Olympic champion but would kill you within five years, would you take it?” The result: 52% said “Yes.”
THERE’S MORE TO IT THAN DOPING
The film doesn’t just simply show you thoughts and opinions of those surrounding the event, and especially the subject of doping in track and field. The film also focuses on the sport of sprinting. It shows a lot of the training whether it be old videotapes of Ben’s workouts or even Dennis Mitchell coaching his young athletes. Ben will remind you in his conversations as demonstrated by Dennis Mitchell in his coaching that track athletes push their bodies beyond the human limits to be the best. Desai Williams summed it up well in his own words: “You work every single day, five or six days a week. You’re going to beat yourself into the ground. It’s tough: the sacrifice that every track person makes with no guarantee. None.”
The film also shows the times in which this was all happening too. The film also reminds us that this was happening at a huge turning point in track and field. Until 1980, professionals were not allowed to compete at the Olympics. If you wanted Olympic gold, you couldn’t make a single penny off your sport. Any money you made had to be a well-kept-secret. In fact track and field had separate amateur and professional leagues. Once professional athletes were given the green-light to compete in the Olympics in the early 80’s, things changed. Athletes who dreamed of Olympic gold didn’t have to accept under-the-table money anymore. Meets run by the IAAF could pay the athletes. Athletes in Olympic sports who had high profiles could hire agents. However professionalizing track and field it didn’t come without its growing pains. Meets hopping on the professional bandwagon had to market themselves. Hence Zurich’s Weltklasse being passed off as ‘The Olympics In One Night.’ Only athletes with big star status like Carl Lewis or Daley Thompson could command big appearance fees. The Carl Lewis/Ben Johnson rivalry was a great boost to the professionalizing of the sport and created a rivalry that drew crowds. Prize money per athlete varied anywhere from big money for the top finishers to chicken feed for the also-rans. It shouldn’t be a surprise that the prize money thing could cause problems in terms of doping.
That was quite an era for track. I don’t think there has been an athlete since Carl Lewis that could be that big of a draw, although I see a rival in Usain Bolt currently. There also hasn’t been a rivalry as exciting as the Carl Lewis/Ben Johnson rivalry. Not even the Carl Lewis/Mike Powell rivalry in the long jump that happened years later was as exciting, nor the rivalry of Carl Lewis vs. age during the mid-90’s. There isn’t a rivalry nowadays, not even Usain Bolt vs. Yohan Blake, that has the same excitement.
WHAT’S HAPPENED SINCE
Also remember how I talked about the East Germans and that being Angella Issajenko’s drive to hop on Charlie’s doping bandwagon? Well shortly after Germany reunified in 1990, just a year after the Dubin Inquiry concluded, the confessions were out that East Germany had a program of systematically administering steroid to their athletes headed by the Stasi, East Germany’s equal to the KGB. They knew which drugs to give which athletes, when to break them off to avoid detection, how often doses were needed to reach top performance and which drugs were undetectable at the time. After the confessions, many former East German Olympic champions have admitted to being part of the program. Some have asked their records be stripped and some are willing to give their medals back. One thing is many are reluctant to give their medals back, giving a common claim: “Yes, I was on steroids but I had the talent to win.” The thing is all of the records held by East Germans, even the world records, still stand and none of the medals have been demanded back by the IOC. That especially bites as a Canadian knowing that in three women’s swimming events in 1976, the fastest non-East German was a Canadian. It’s a shame. Three gold medals from Montreal that could’ve been and should be.
The thing was the intention of the Dubin Inquiry was not just to get to the bottom of Ben Johnson’s positive from Seoul. It was also to expose truths about doping in the sports world and hope to clean up sport not only in Canada but around the world too. If it did, it was quite minimal. You know how there are a lot of things that would eventually defeat their purpose over time like called ID and warning stickers on records? The Dubin Inquiry also defeated its purpose in a lot of aspects. This was the only time in history athletes confessed their doping use under oath. The subsequent punishments to the athletes who confessed caused many athletes to be a lot more protective of their innocence even after they test positive. Some would maintain their innocence to the point of taking their doping situation to court. They know that meets outside of the World Championships and the Olympic Games have doping labs that don’t have the same top-notch consistency and errors in procedures can result. They can use that to overturn their positive. There are even countries that know of positives in their own country but hide it around Olympic time so that the athlete can compete and win. A country like Canada can’t afford to do something like that, not after the embarrassment of Ben Johnson’s positive.
The 1996 Atlanta Games would present a new doping situation. There were many cases where athletes with positives outside of steroids would give explanations of taking medicine given by their team doctor. They’d be exonerated and they’d get their medals back. However it was made obvious at Sydney in 2000 that this kind of forgiveness was over when Romanian gymnast Andreea Raducan tested positive for a stimulant provided to her by the team doctor. Instead of exoneration, the stripping of her all-around gold medal stood and the doctor was suspended for two Olympic cycles. That was it. No more exonerations over a team doctor’s bad medicine. Enough was enough.
Doping still continues to be an issue in sport. New drug discoveries, new incentives or new needs to revamp the testing, new ways of dealing with doping, and even new commissions like WADA: the World Anti-Doping Agency, which was started in 1998 after officials believed the IOC lacked consistency in cracking down on dopers. WADA is headquartered in Montreal and headed by Canada’s Dick Pound who used to be the Vice-President of the IOC. In the 2000’s it was the Americans that were most under fire for doping in sport. If there were cover-ups during the 80’s, the cover-ups weren’t happening anymore as many sprinters were faced with positive drug tests. Marion Jones was the most famous as she would take years to confess her own steroid abuse since 2000. Even while two ex-husbands of hers had already tested positive during the times of her marriages, it still took her until 2007 to confess it all.
There are always new drugs. There are always new ways to try and get them and try to stay ahead of the tests. One thing is that there are some advancements. Out-of-competition testing has increased with surprise tests and even programs sponsored by the USOC where top runners volunteer to have themselves tested. One of which is sprinting star Allyson Felix. In addition, each Olympics takes doping tests to unprecedented levels than from before. Beijing 2008 introduced a new procedure where all tests would include samples frozen for four years and retested to crack down on athletes who thought they could be ‘ahead of the game.’ London 2012 had it so that every athlete in every sport that finished in the Top 5 in each event was tested. Also I don’t think we’ll ever see an equal to the sophistication of the East German doping program. That has to be the most successful systematic doping program of all time. China tried to copy that program in the 90’s but it wouldn’t work as positives resulted.
Steroid use isn’t just limited to sport. It’s also subject to professional wrestlers too and it was made a big issue in the wake of the murder-suicide of Chris Benoit and his family. Many believe ‘Roid Rage to be the cause. Steroid use is even rampant simply with men who go to the gym to work out. Ask anyone that works at a gym. There are even teenage boys and some as young as 11 going to guidance counselors and asking for steroids simply to look bigger. Even after they hear of the consequences, they still want it because they only care about their looks. I know there’s a lot of attention made to young girls and anorexia. I believe there should also be the same attention to young boys and steroids.
Interesting to note is that Track And Field is not the Olympic sport with the biggest doping problems. Weightlifting is. In fact just days before Ben Johnson would make the biggest doping news out of Seoul, two Bulgarian weightlifters who had won gold medals tested positive for diuretics, a drug possibly intended to be a masking agent. Funny how it could mask the steroids but failed to mask itself and caused the lifters to give back their gold medals, both receive the same sports ban as a steroid positive and cause the whole Bulgarian weightlifting team to return home prematurely and in embarrassment. Weightlifting has gotten tougher on doping. They have since changed the weights of weight classes and erased past records to start on a clean slate. They now give lifetime bans on the first steroid positive. They also place bans on nations who have multiple lifters that test positive consistently. One nation currently on that banned list is Bulgaria.
Funny thing is that the sprints are not the events in Track And Field with the biggest doping problem. It’s the throwing events. You’d be surprised how many Olympic medals have been given back in those events. The shot putters however have received the most doping positives and most returned medals. 9.79* presents the doping problem of the 1980’s and portrays it as the heyday of doping in sprints, or as Calvin Smith put it: “a time of big time drugs.” It doesn’t seem as rampant at first but 2013 shed light that it’s still a problem, if not at the same length as back in the 80’s. This year there were three doping positives from sprinters that made news which included former World Record holder Asafa Powell of Jamaica and former World Champion Tyson Gay of the US. In fact Powell tested positive for the same stimulant his Jamaican teammate Sherone Simpson tested positive for. This could cause suspicion over the Jamaican track program which has been so dominant in sprinting and hurdling over the past seven years.
ADDITIONAL NOTES ABOUT THE FINAL
Interesting thing about that final is that all of the runners in that final would have won Olympic medals in their careers. In fact you’ll see in 9.79* footage of the victory ceremony of the 1984 Men’s 4*100m relay: the US won gold with Jamaica silver and Canada bronze. There in that footage you’ll see five of the eight finalists: Lewis, Smith, Stewart, Johnson and Williams. As for the other three finalists:
- Linford Christie who finished third would get his bronze upgraded to silver in the aftermath and would be Olympic 100m champion in 1992.
- Robson da Silva won bronze in the 200m four days later.
- Dennis Mitchell would have to wait until 1992 to win Olympic medals where he won bronze in the individual 100m and gold in the 4*100 relay which Carl Lewis anchored to a new world record.
Also interesting to note is the drug issues the other athletes faced after the 1988 Olympics:
- Raymond Stewart: His doping issues came as a coach after he retired from running. It was made evident he was giving performance enhancing drugs to his athletes. The USADA banned him from coaching for life in 2010.
- Carl Lewis: so far that banned stimulant was the only known violation he did. Had proper doping procedures been carried out, he would have been banned for three months including the 1988 Olympics. However the USOC exonerated Lewis when he showed an official the supplements he was taking and classified it as an ‘inadvertent positive.’
- Linford Christie: he actually tested positive for a banned stimulant after the 100m dash final but was exonerated by the IOC’s disciplinary committee vote of 11 to 10 to keep him from sanctions. He wasn’t so lucky in 1999. An indoor meet in Germany tested him positive for Nandrolone and he was slapped with a two-year ban.
- Dennis Mitchell: he was banned for two years in 1998 for showing high levels of testosterone.
You yourself would be interested seeing the reactions of them when they’re confronted by Gordon in 9.79* of their own doping issues. Raymond insists that what he was giving to athletes were Vitamin B12 and insists he’s innocent. Carl Lewis provided me with one of my favorite moments while watching 9.79* When confronted about his positive for the banned stimulant, he gets all defensive and even insists on the fact that the stimulant is no longer on the banned list. Looks like Carl isn’t completely the Mr. Clean he packages himself to be. Linford isn’t questioned about the stimulant from 1988 but he is about the nandrolone from 1999. He tries to make like he’s ‘Mr. Clean’ and denies his 1999 positive even though he never did anything to legally overturn the result. Dennis Mitchell appears to be the only one of the others with a positive test willing to confess his wrongdoings. He admits to making a bad coaching decision and bad choices along the way.
It looks as though the only athletes never to have any doping issues in their careers was Calvin Smith and Robson da Silva, just two. If I had my way, I’d give the gold to Smith, silver to da Silva, get all the semifinalists who failed to qualify together for a run-off and give the bronze to the winner. That should fix everything. That’s another thing about the film is that it shows Calvin to be the one that should’ve been Olympic champion and even the sprinting great that could’ve been. Makes you wonder what would’ve happened had the field been level. Also sad to see that he may have received the bronze medal after Johnson’s disqualification but there wasn’t a second medal ceremony. Reminds you that even after justice was done, that’s the one thing missing.
The crazy thing about the whole doping thing is that the most honest former athletes in 9.79* were the Canadians. Of course, the Dubin Inquiry exposed it all. Ben, Desai and Angella were all punished. The Canadian ones lost the most and they have nothing left to hide and no one left to hide it from. Ben however acts like he still feels he deserves respect for what he did. Almost like he feels that since the field was unlevel and he was just the one that didn’t get away, he should receive some sort of vindication. Even his mention of Andre Jackson and the sabotage he claims–he claims Andre slipped pills in his beers and training water and even admitted it to him years later–makes me question his character. I felt like saying to Ben: “Just admit the truth.” Besides the Dubin Inquiry exposed the facts that Astaphan injected Ben with stanazolol that was called Winstrol before the competition. I want to think that it was the injections from Astaphan that caused the positive in Seoul. For those that didn’t see the film, Jackson responded to Ben’s allegations with an uninterviewed answer: “Maybe I did, maybe I didn’t. What was carried out in 1998 cannot and will not be invalidated.” Nevertheless it does make me wonder how an athlete from the Santa Monica Track Club who never qualified for the Olympics was able to get Olympic credentials to be with the finalists and even be with Ben in the doping room. That claim from Douglas that he was there to see if Johnson was taking a masking agent to cover up steroids in his system even got me thinking.
Desai and Angella however made class acts of themselves in the film by being honest and setting the record straight about themselves, their own doping and about what it’s like to be an elite athlete. I don’t condone sports doping of any kind but can understand the pressure to win these athletes feel. However I now have more respect for Angella and Desai as they have appeared to get wiser over time.
Of the non-Canadians, the most honest Americans were the doping officials Voy and Catlin. Now that the BALCO scandal exposed the cover-up facts starting in 2003, they can tell the whole story. Funny how Carl and his coaches deny everything. Carl’s lifetime coach Tom Tellez insists: “As a coach I wouldn’t want to (encourage steroid use.)You’re not a coach anymore!” Yes, there’s no evidence to suggest Carl used steroids–even coach Douglas’ statement about Carl’s eyes suggest Carl’s innocence–but seeing how defensive Carl gets when the positive at the 1988 Olympic trials is brought up suggests Carl may have something to hide.
Calvin Smith however was a class act as he was able to tell it how he saw it. Robson was another class act too. I like how he made mention of the potential money he lost in that race and mentions: “…but I sleep very nice every night.” You probably can’t say that about those that doped, even those that passed every doping test in their career.
There are a lot of interesting notes about what has happened since that race. 9.79 is no longer the world’s fastest time. It would be 11 years until a runner was able to touch 9.79 and pass the drug tests. It was American Maurice Greene at the 1999 World Championships. For the record, Greene never tested positive in any of his drug tests. 9.79 his either been touched or surpassed by seven sprinters since. In fact 9.79 was only good enough for a bronze in the London Olympic final. The world record is now 9.58 set by Jamaica’s Usain Bolt in 2009. Bolt also holds the Olympic record with the 9.63 he ran in London last year. The Canadian Record is 9.84 and is owned by Donovan Bailey for his gold medal run in 1996 and Bruny Surin for his second-place finish at the 1999 Worlds.
There’s no record whether the Scarborough Optimists club still exists. It wouldn’t surprise me if it folded in the midst of the scandal. Charlie Francis returned to coaching after the Dubin inquiry but was later banned for life when he made it clear he would return to giving his athletes steroids. He would later become a respected personal trainer and in 2003 would secretly train American sprinters Tim Montgomery and Marion Jones who would later face heat for their own doping issues. Francis died in 2010 at the age of 61. Ben Johnson was a pallbearer at his funeral. Dr. Astaphan would continue to face doping and drug trafficking issues for years after the scandal. After a release from a US prison in 1996, he would return to St. Kitts where he practiced medicine until his death in 2006.
Angella Issajenko released a tell-all just two years after Johnson’s disqualification telling her story of how she got into sports and doping. She would later become a teaching assistant and a track coach. Desai Williams now works as a speed coach for the Toronto Argonauts football team and currently trains Olympic track athletes as well. Mark McKoy, who was not interviewed for 9.79*, would later move to Austria in the wake of his steroid admission and subsequent two year ban. He would continue to represent Canada until 1994 and would win gold in the 110m hurdles at the 1992 Olympics. He has since returned to Toronto where he now works as a personal athletics trainer and therapist.
Ben Johnson comes across in the film as a lonely person looking for vindication. Actually he’s not that lonely as he is both a father and a grandfather. Johnson may have tested positive three times as a runner in his career but he has found success on his own as a soccer trainer. He’s trained Diego Maradona and Muammar Gadhafi’s son. He also released an autobiography of his own in 2010: Seoul To Soul.
Many Canadians had felt that this moment made Canada look like a country that dopes to win. I myself didn’t really lose faith in my country’s athletes. In fact I was at the Summer Olympics in Barcelona where Canada won eighteen medals, seven of them gold. I will admit that the Ben Johnson incident did make me suspicious when I saw the men’s 400m hurdles and a new World record set by the US’s Kevin Young. I was also in Vancouver cheering on our winter athletes too. Many want to look at the Olympic athletes as noble people who compete for the honor of their country and that Ben Johnson’s positive scarred their dignity forever. We should also remember they face pressures we ourselves will never face like the pressure to win for their country or for prize money and even face a tainted playing field. Also they face the pressure of people saying they let us down if they don’t win gold. We the fans are guilty of that too. As for Olympians, I know for a fact that there was cheating in the ancient Olympics too. In fact cheaters during the ancient Olympics would have their names engraved on a stone wall to be disgraced for eternity.
Not all was lost since that infamous moment. The Canadian Olympic Team would eventually leave Seoul with ten medals. Three of them gold. Yeah, that’s one thing I didn’t like about the film. It made Canada look like a gold medal-starved country when in fact Montreal in 1976 would eventually become the last Summer Olympics where Canada failed to win a gold medal. Canada has left every Summer Olympics since with anywhere from the one gold won in London 2012 to ten golds won in Los Angeles in 1984. Canada would begin a strong anti-doping campaign of its own. One of the athletes within the infamous Scarborough Optimist ring, hurdler Mark McCoy would win gold in the 110m hurdles in 1992. The biggest treat came the following Olympics in Atlanta where Canada could again claim the World’s Fastest Man. This time it was Donovan Bailey. Like Ben Johnson, a Jamaican Émigré. Unlike Ben Johnson, he had a natural sprinter’s build. Combine that with excellent coaching and he won the 100m dash gold in a World Record time in 9.84. It only took two Olympics for a Canadian sprinter to redeem Canada’s reputation in the eyes of the sports world. Bailey then teamed up with three other Canadian teammates for the 4*100m relay and helped to win another gold. This was a remarkable feat as this Canadian team was the first 4*100 relay team to officially defeat the American team of the gold medal. Officially meaning cause the Americans to cross the finish line after the gold medal champions. Until then, the American team lost the gold only upon disqualifications and the 1980 boycott.
9.79* is one of those documentaries I watch over and over again. I know this blog looks like a mix of a 30 For 30 Film review with talk about doping but the film did remind me about the problem of doping in sport and even make me question a lot of the runners that didn’t test positive that race and still try to pass themselves off as clean even though there’s a lot of evidence suggesting otherwise. It also makes you question the braces on Carl Lewis from 1987 to 1988. Was he on Human Growth Hormone at the time? 9.79*not only gives us answers but it still leaves us with a lot of questions.
Hard to believe that it was 25 years ago the world was in shock. Canada was especially shocked. I too was shocked in disbelief even as I was watching the news that day. We would all receive more shocking news over the years about Ben Johnson, those associated with him and even his rivals at the time. You think that people would learn from this. They may have but probably not much. I remember going on Twitter to an account about sports quotes and one uncredited quote was: “It’s better to lose on principles than to win on lies.” Sadly most young athletes don’t feel that way.
“It’s one of those moments everyone remembered where they were when he won.”
-Toronto Star journalist Mary Ormsby
It’s funny how time passes. We always think that way whenever we remember a great moment in sports. It’s that same feel whenever we remember one of the more infamous moments in sports too. Today marks the 25th anniversary of the 1988 Olympic 100m dash final: a moment that would eventually become Canada’s most infamous moment at the Olympic Games. Any Canadian who was around at the time will remember that moment whenever you bring it up. However I was reminded of it two months ago when I saw an ESPN 30 For 30 film about it entitled 9.79* It was a film I watched repeatedly on Youtube. The film brought back a lot of memories for me but it also showed me there was more than met the eye at the time.
THE START OF IT ALL
Here in this blog I will reflect on my memories of that moment, the years leading up, the years since, and my own thoughts while watching 9.79*. I was a teenager around the time of the Ben Johnson/Carl Lewis rivalry. I was one who followed the rivalry rather closely. I still remember how it was first a case of Carl Lewis and how he matched Jesse Owens’ feat of four gold medals at the Los Angeles Games of 1984 in the same four event Jesse won gold in 1936. I knew of the Canadian named Ben Johnson who won bronze in the 100m dash during those Games. Back then, Ben Johnson’s bronze and the bronze of Canada’s 4*100 relay was good news but quiet news. Thanks to the boycott of the Eastern Bloc nations, Canada won 44 medals in Los Angeles including ten gold.
A RIVALRY IS BORN
I remember around 1985 reading about a Canadian named Ben Johnson who won a big 100m race and beat Carl Lewis along the way. Already that would catch some Canadians’ attention, including mine. A Canadian that could beat the great Carl Lewis. Attention from Canadians grew in 1986 when Ben Johnson continued his winning streak against Carl in 1986. I even remember reading of a meet Ben won with a time of 9.95 which was just .02 seconds shy of the world record. I sensed Johnson to be a possible Olympic champion in 1988 at that time and maybe a possible world record breaker.
Then came the 1987 World Championships in Rome. There are only two competitions in an Olympic sport where one can truly prove themselves the best in the world: the Olympic Games and the World Championships. It’s especially memorable not only for Ben Johnson’s win but for breaking the world record with a time of 9.83: one tenth of a second. I myself remember the World Championships of that year and CBC’s live broadcast. There was additional excitement to this showdown as Carl and Ben were assigned in side-by-side lanes which added more excitement. I was hoping to see the final live but I went away for something at the time. I don’t remember exactly what I left for. That night I saw the race at the end of a news broadcast. Before they were to show the race at the very end of the news show, the man made mention of the ‘9.83 seconds of Ben Johnson.’ I thought to myself: “9.83? That can’t be. You can’t break a 100m dash world record by a full tenth of a second. That’s too much. That has to be wind-aided.” I saw the rebroadcast of the race. I heard it was legit and I took it at face value at the time. For a year, I felt the same excitement as the rest of Canada knowing that we had the fastest man in the World. I think Ben even stole a lot of attention away from Wayne Gretzky. How often does a track athlete get more attention in Canada than a star hockey player? It made the anticipated Olympic showdown in Seoul that more exciting.
1988 AND THE BUZZ BEGINS
The Olympic showdown in Seoul was definitely something to wait for in big anticipation but it was still one year away. And a lot can happen in a year. First off was the Calgary Olympics. Canada again failed to win a gold medal. The months and weeks leading up to the Seoul Olympics would provide both excitement and drama. First there was excitement of the anticipated Johnson/Lewis duel. Then there was mention of another Canadian, Desai Williams who was also Johnson’s teammate from the Scarborough Optimists track club, being another potential threat to the field. There were the two Angelas–Bailey and Issajenko– who were both threats for the women’s 100m dash. For the record, the two Angelas did not get along well off the track. There was the CBC Olympic preview show Road To Seoul which showed the potential medalists for these Games, both Canadian and foreign in the various sports, and them telling their stories of their training, competing and their goals for the 1988 Olympics.
Then there was the drama of learning of Ben Johnson’s injury: a pulled hamstring. I didn’t learn about his injury until I was watching an Olympic preview show and it talked of Desai winning an international track meet as an injured Ben was a spectator in the stands. It left a big question mark whether Ben would heal in time for Seoul, not just for the sake of their own competition but drawing excitement and big-time attention to the Seoul Olympics. During Ben’s healing process came some more exciting news. In addition to Desai’s win, Angella Issajenko won the 100m at an international meet beating 1984 Olympic champion Evelyn Ashford of the US. The US Olympic trials also added to the excitement as Carl Lewis won the 100m in a wind-aided 9.78. Even though the time was not legit enough to be a world record, it sent a message to Ben which Ben naturally brushed aside. Another surprise moment at the US Olympic Trials was the 10.49 world record of Florence Griffith-Joyner in the 100m. It chopped more than a quarter of a second off the world record and is still questioned to this day, even though Griffith-Joyner’s autopsy results from 1998 declared nothing of steroid abuse.
Another note: I also remember one Olympic preview show talk about doping procedures and how they’re conducted. After a sporting event the athlete would produce their sample and it would be divided into two testing samples. If the first sample called the A-sample tests positive, only the athlete is notified and they are given two options. I forget what the first option was but I know the second option was reproducing a sample. If the second sample called the B-sample is positive, it’s confirmed and the necessary penalties and suspensions are carried out.
I was reminded in 9.79* of one key competition weeks before Seoul that would have a bearing on the story: the Weltklasse in Zurich. It’s funny how Zurich’s Weltklasse competition would provide a lot of key moments in the years of the Johnson/Lewis rivalry. In fact it was the 1985 Weltklasse where Ben’s first victory over Carl occurred. 1988’s Weltklasse was yet another focus of the Lewis/Johnson rivalry especially since this was Ben Johnson returning to competition since his hamstring injury. The Lewis/Johnson duel got even more attention than American sprinter Butch Reynolds breaking the 20 year-old world record in the 400m dash at that meet. I still remember CBC stopping broadcast of a soap opera at that time to show live telecast of that competition. I remember first seeing the warm ups and then seeing all of the runners shown lane-by-lane. Funny how the other sprinters who were in the same events of the Lewis/Johnson rivalry like Brit Linford Christie, American Calvin Smith and Jamaican Ray Stewart were frequently regarded by most as simply “lane-fillers” as Dennis Mitchell put it. I remember that Ben and Carl were again in opposite lanes and they both received the biggest cheers in the stadium when their names were announced. Then the run took place and Carl won with Ben third. That was Ben’s first loss to Lewis since 1985. I know it had some of us Canadian’s nervous. Hey, it was natural for us to want Ben to win in Seoul.
SEOUL 1988: THE MOMENT ARRIVES
Then came the Seoul Olympics. Sure enough the Lewis/Johnson rivalry was probably the most hyped-up rivalry before the Games. I can’t think of any other rivalry for Seoul that was more hyped-up. There were even the sentimental stories added to the hype of the rivalry. First was the constantly repeated story of Johnson being an immigrant and finding his place in track and field. As for Carl Lewis, his story was that his father died the year before and Carl put the 100m gold medal from 1984 into his coffin. He told his surprised family: “Don’t worry. I’ll win another.”
Even before the final, there was drama in the preliminary races. First was the quarterfinal Johnson ran in. Johnson finished third and with there being six quarterfinals, the Top 2 automatically qualified for the semi while the last four qualifiers would be the four fastest of those that finished between 3rd and 6th. Ben ran the first quarterfinal and would have to wait until all six were run to know if he qualified. You could bet it was an agonizing time not just for Ben but for Canada too. Even after it was clear Ben’s time was fast enough to qualify, many of us Canadians including myself were still nervous. After seven days of Olympic competition, Canada was still waiting for its first medal of any color at these Games and we didn’t know what to expect from Ben the next day. As for Carl, he not only won his quarterfinal easily but was the only one to run it under 10 seconds. Anyways Ben and Canada could breathe a sigh of relief in the semis the next day as Ben won his semifinal. However Carl also won his semi and just like in the quarterfinals, he was the only one to run it under ten seconds. The heavily-anticipated Lewis/Johnson rivalry in Seoul would finally be a reality in the final but the world would then have to wait an hour and a half for it to start.
THE FINAL: THE HYPE IS NOW A REALITY
I remember where I was during that exact moment too. It was a Saturday afternoon in Seoul when the event happened which meant because of the time difference, live broadcast took place late evening on a Friday for us Canadians. I don’t remember exactly too much about what I saw before the race started. I remember that my mother, my sister and I gathered around the television set. My father was at work doing overtime. Talk about hard luck that day. I remember the lane-by-lane rundown of all the finalists. I knew all their names but 9.79* reminded me of which runner was in which lane. I never forgot Carl was in Lane 3 and Ben was in Lane 6. I was also reminded by 9.79* of the starter and how he said “Take your marks” and “Set” in Korean. The film has made the memory hard to forget since.
Then the start. Surprisingly there was not a single false start beforehand: just one bang and it started. Then the race: I could remember Ben in the lead right at the start of the gun. All of us were glued to the television set in both excitement and nervousness. Once Ben crossed the finish line, we all jumped up and cheered loudly in celebration. I was also stunned to see the world record from Rome broken. My father even called from work as he heard it on the radio while working. I remember he asked me: “Did you see it?” in excitement. I remember going into a conversation though I forgot all we talked about. The following night I went to a party. We were all drinking and dancing. I remember one guy saying “Yeah! Ben Johnson!” Euphoria continued on the Sunday as well as relief that we were now winning more medals in other events.
THE TRUTH IS UNRAVELED
Then the bombshell. Everybody may remember where they were when they were when the final was contested and I’m sure most, if not everybody, may remember where they were when they heard the shocking news. I remember where I was when I received the first hint. It was late Monday afternoon and I returned home from school. My mother came and said: “I heard some bad news.” I didn’t know what she was talking about. Then she said: “There’s news of a positive drug test and they think it’s Ben Johnson.” I was surprised but I thought to myself; “It can’t be.” I then turned on the television. Within time I learned that it was true. Ben Johnson had tested positive for the anabolic steroid stanozolol. I believe at first I didn’t want to believe it. However it was there on the television right in front of my face.
I remember switching between the channels showing Olympic coverage that evening. It was all the same. Both CBC channels, the English and French-language ones, had the story. Even NBC was showing it. I also remember CBC’s live broadcast from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Main Press Centre. It first started with an official announcing the sanctions to Ben: disqualification which included being stripped of his gold and a two-year ban from competition. It was followed by Alexandre de Merode, head of the IOC Medical Commission, being asked questions in various languages and responding in French. I was flicking between the three channels at that time. One station returned attention to the Olympic competition with the start of the men’s road race in cycling. Very ironically, it was won by Olaf Ludwig of East Germany. You’ll what I mean by ‘very ironically’ in my follow-up blog three days from now. That day did have some redeeming competition moments like Greg Louganis completing diving’s double-double of gold medals by winning platform diving and Canadian sailor Lawrence Lemieux receiving a porcelain box from the IOC for saving the life of a Singaporean sailor in danger of drowning days earlier.
The aftermath was ugly. I remember Ben’s sister constantly saying: “No! No! He would never do anything like this!” I remember many people were saying it’s possible to be sabotage. I remember news footage of Ben making his way to the Seoul airport and Ben’s arrival in Toronto. Both times he was met by news people that were both hungry and hostile. I remember hearing of all the professional companies that endorsed Ben Johnson including Diadora withdrawing their endorsements to him almost immediately. Most Canadian athletes tried to compete without letting the news affect their own performances. The Canadian team would leave Seoul with a total of ten medals, three of them gold. The Canadian track team struggled to compete in the wake of that debacle. Canada’s only legit medal in Track and Field was decathlete David Steen’s bronze. The sprinters just fell apart. Canada was medal favorites in both 4*100m relays but the scandal just caused the sprinters to fall apart. The women’s team failed to qualify for the final and the men’s team could only muster 7th.
Outside of Olympic competition, I remember a lot of news stories continuing. I remember Ben publicly declaring he had never knowingly taken steroids. Charlie Francis added to the alleged insistence of sabotage. But Angella held nothing back when she returned back to Canada. She declared that Ben took steroids and he knew about it. I remember news talk about Charlie’s team doctor Jamie Astaphan. I don’t remember of any mention of Dr. Astaphan before the news of the positive. If there was any, it may have been footnotes. After the news of the positive, you can bet there was focus on him. All this would pave way to an inquiry to get answers. Did Ben knowingly take steroids? Or was it sabotage? Who else was involved?
On a comedic note, I remember watching the first Saturday Night Live of that season. There was the Weekend Report with Dennis Miller and he did some post-Olympic humor. First was of the American Joyner family. The second was on Ben Johnson. You’d figure SNL wouldn’t dare miss a chance on this. And they delivered as they had a segment where Ben inspired the All-Drug Olympics. The competition was held naturally in Bogota, Colombia and there was ‘live footage’ of a Soviet weightlifter attempting to lift a huge weight. The sportscaster detailed all the drugs the lifter took and said: “but it’s legit, actually it’s enouraged, here at the All-Drug Olympics.” The lifter didn’t just simply fail in his lift but his arms fell off, leading him bleeding from the joints. Miller ended the segment cracking: “With the Games half-over, Canada leads in total medals.” Further cracks from SNL on Ben Johnson would continue over the episodes which would piss my teenage sister off a lot. I don’t think she got it at the time but the reason why Ben Johnson and Canada got a lot of pot shots on SNL was because creator-writer Lorne Michaels is Canadian.
AN INQUIRY GETS TO THE BOTTOM OF THIS
The Canadian government set up an official inquiry at the start of 1989 to get the answers on Ben’s positive results. The inquiry would be conducted by chief justice Charles Dubin and would be officially known as the Dubin Inquiry. The Inquiry turned out to expose more than just the answers to the Ben Johnson scandal. In fact I remember one of the athletes testifying one month before Charlie Francis was a Canadian weightlifter who had nothing to do with the Ben Johnson scandal. Even some doctors involved in outside doping cases were interviewed. Shows that the inquiry was more than about getting answers to a positive drug test at the Olympics.
In March 1989, almost five months since the test results were made public, Charlie Francis took the stand to testify. He admitted that he gave steroids to his athletes and that Ben knew all along that he was taking them. He even said that steroids gave a one-meter advantage in an event like the 100m dash. Simultaneously I remember reading that Desai Williams, who was preparing for a track meet in Europe, confessed his own participation in taking the steroids given by Charlie Francis. His reason: “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.” I also remember Carl Lewis’ reaction in response. He declared Ben: “a liar and a cheat. At least I have the world record by a clean athlete.” Angella Isajenko testified the following week. She even went as far as bringing her diary where she documented her steroid intake since 1979. I never saw live broadcast of the inquiry or even news coverage of that event. I did however read about it in the local newspaper. That’s the most I remember of that, and the tears she shed for her teammates the following day.
There was one athlete not directly connected to the Ben Johnson scandal that caught my attention. It was Canadian sprinter Tony Sharpe. He competed at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984 and qualified for the 100m dash final and would run as part of Canada’s bronze medal-winning 4*100m relay team. He stated in his testimony that steroid abuse gave him physical complications and would eventually lead to his premature retirement from the sport back in 1985. Serves as a reminder that for all the physical advantages steroids give, they also cause a lot of physical problems too.
Funny thing is right when the Dubin Inquiry was happening, an American sprinter named Darrell Robinson said he saw Carl Lewis and Florence Griffith-Joyner purchase vials of steroids. I remember that story quite well. I also remember reading in Sports Illustrated that Robinson and Griffith-Joyner, who retired shortly after Seoul, were both interviewed on the Today show where Griffith-Joyner called Robinson a ‘lying lunatic.’ Robinson responded: “The truth will come out.” I remember hearing many stories about Carl threatening to sue Robinson but I don’t think it ever came about. I never did learn the end result.
Back to the Dubin Inquiry, Dr. Astaphan finally testified. He admitted of all the steroids he gave to Charlie Francis and his athletes but the biggest shocker is that he gave some steroidic medicines that were veterinarian medicines: not meant for humans! I also remember him talking frequently of Winstrol. The bizarre thing I remember about this was that after he talked of all that he administered, he said he was keeping in line with the Hippocratic Oath he swore under. Funny. Since when did giving athletes performance enhancing drugs become in allegiance with the Hippocratic Oath?
The crazy thing about this is that with every athlete or professional connected to the Ben Johnson scandal giving testimony, it made me more and more impatient in waiting for Ben himself to testify. Ben finally testified in June. I remember on that day, someone in my family was watching something else on television. It was the only television in the house at the time. I then turned on the radio and I could hear Ben Johnson examined by the justice. Later on he would admit to taking them. When asked why he said he never knowingly took them upon arriving home, he said it was because he was tired and frustrated from all that was happening. He also told the youth of Canada not to take steroids. Funny thing is even after Ben Johnson had completed his testimony, there were still people and doctors that testified some time after. Also I remember just shortly after Johnson’s testimony, Geraldo Rivera did a show about steroids on his talk show Geraldo. I remember at the conclusion of the inquiry, Justice Charles Dubin stated his conclusions and verdicts. He also blamed the cutthroat competitiveness of competitive sports and even things like the Olympic Games and high-payout athletic endorsements for the rampant use of steroids.
There were additional penalties after the Dubin Inquiry. Both Desai and Angella were banned from competition for two years and were stripped of all their records. They would retire in that time. Other Canadian runners such as Mark McCoy who didn’t run his relay leg in Seoul in the wake of the scandal also received a two year ban. Charlie Francis would soon be banned from coaching for life. He appeared to have come clean after he admitted giving his athletes steroids. However he’d be disgraced again when he announced that he’d continue giving his athletes steroids. Once that was made public, he was banned for life. Ben Johnson’s world record from the 1987 World Championships was also stripped from the record books. The new record was the 9.92 run by Carl Lewis in Seoul. Ben was however allowed to keep both of his Olympic bronzes from Los Angeles. Desai and Angella were allowed to keep their 1984 Olympic medals too.
There are some interesting footnotes. One is that there were three books released in a matter of two years since that were either about the scandal or made mention of the scandal. The most notable was Carl Lewis’ autobiography Inside Track released late in 1990. In that same time period Charlie Francis released his book Speed Traps. However the biggest one for me was Angella Issajenko and her book Running Risks which was released around the same time as Inside Track. I remember she even had a radio interview on a Winnipeg station while promoting her book. She made mention of a meet where Canada’s senior women’s relay team finished behind East Germany’s junior relay team. That’s when she made the decision to go on steroids. She also said she believed the world has learned nothing from this. I admire Angella for most telling it like it was.
For years after Seoul, there was the big question about Ben Johnson running again. For a long time, the Canadian Olympic Committee (COC) was saying he can’t run for Canada again. Jamaica said they didn’t want him back. That changed when Carol Anne Letheren was made head of the COC. Johnson was allowed to compete for Canada again. I even remember a news story of Ben Johnson with his new coach in 1990. Ben’s comeback began at an indoor meet in the winter of 1991. I remember tracing Ben’s comeback attempt at the time. Upon returning, Ben looked less bulky since Seoul. Ben lost the race by a close margin. Ben would continue competing. However reality sunk in when there was a meet in France which was to be the first Johnson/Lewis rivalry since Seoul. It was actually won by American Dennis Mitchell. Carl Lewis finished second and Ben finished eighth and last. I was really hoping for Ben to come back from this and I was starting to lose hope in him. Further hope was lost when I learned he finished fourth at the World Championship Trials. His only berth at the Worlds came on the men’s relay. For the record, Canada had a new national fastest man: Bruny Surin. Ben was still persistent. He would qualify for the 100m dash at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona while Carl Lewis was ill at the US Olympic Trials and missed qualifying. Johnson only got as far as the semifinals in Barcelona. At that time I sensed some hope for Ben in the future.
Unfortunately the Barcelona Olympics would be the last major competition Ben would appear in. Months later, he allegedly failed another drug test. This time he was banned for life. I was shocked myself because I wanted to see him come back a winner. He protested his innocence but declined to fight the charge since he was nearing the end of his career. He did fight the charges five years later and won only to test positive again in 1999. By then, I just shrugged it off. I didn’t have to worry. Canada already had a new World’s Fastest Man in Donovan Bailey and he never failed a doping test. It was obvious that steroids made Ben.
So there you go. Those are my memories of the final in Seoul and what happened in the years leading to it and the years leading since. If I wouldn’t have seen that film 9.79*, I wouldn’t have remembered that today’s the 25th Anniversary of that moment. My how time flies. Anyways you heard my thoughts on the big moment today. I also posted my thoughts on doping in sport on Friday.
On the evening of May 29, 2011, I was at the Hollywood Theatre for their last double-bill showing. It was a bittersweet night with a huge attendance. The night not only marked the end of a Vancouver landmark as we know it but a family business too.
The Hollywood Theatre was opened in the West Broadway area of Vancouver back on Thanksgiving weekend of October 24, 1935. Reginald Fairleigh, a Vancouver cinema mogul, and his wife Margaret had the theatre built in the Great Depression so that her children could have jobs. At the time, there were already 26 other movie theatres in Vancouver. The theatre opened with the double-bill of Will Rogers in Life Begins At 40 and Thelma Todd in Lightning Strikes Twice. Tickets for the double-bills were a dime or 15 cents for a balcony seat. Men had to wear a tie and women had to wear a dress. A man tempted to make out with his lady was given a small sheet of paper saying, “Treat your date as if she were your mother.” Over time, many famous faces and many great movies graced the screen. Its tagline which existed until its last days was: “Pick O’ The Best Plays.”
Styles of movies changed and the theatre would face rivalries from television, pay-pre-view and VCR but the Hollywood continued success. Also in place even in present day were many things done back when it first started, like double-bills, taking straight cash at the ticket booth, and most importantly the Fairleigh family owning and operating the theatre. The closest thing to a big change was the start of the ‘odd double-bill’ back in 1990. This phenomenon started when My Left Foot and Rambo were aired one weekend. Some first thought it was a bad mix. It actually was a success because they attracted two completely different movie crowds that were both big in size. The ‘odd double-bill’ was kept up in many different versions in the years since.
Over the years, I’ve taken a liking to the Hollywood Theatre. Just a fact about myself: when I first moved to Vancouver from Winnipeg in February 2000, I was just a casual moviegoer with a general interest in movies for someone at my age. Nothing big. But after I saw American Beauty just days after I arrived in Vancouver, that movie and that year’s Oscar race to go with it changed my life.
Okay, going back to the Hollywood Theatre, I first saw a movie at the Theatre in 2001, shortly after moving to Vancouver from Winnipeg for the second time, and this time for good. I saw them as a second run movie theatre that played not just any movies for a second run but good ones too. I am unsure exactly what the first movie I saw there was. I’ve been asking myself ever since I learned of the closure what the first movie I saw there was; I believe it was Almost Famous. A few weeks later, I saw Gladiator. I came to like the theatre for its double-bills and for the best price of movie popcorn in town. Another thing I liked was their photocopied program of scheduled movies over a six-week period. I’d frequently pass by to pick one up. One noteworthy thing about the program is that in its brief review of the movie, they always had the director’s name and in bold. I consider that something. A couple of years ago, I came across the newspaper article hanging in a frame. I saw it was from 1935 and talked of the opening of the theatre. When I saw that I thought “Wow, 1935! This is definitely a piece of Vancouver history!”
Here’s some other excellent movies I saw over there: Mulholland Drive, City Of God, Downfall, Vera Drake, Lemony Snicket, Transamerica, American Gangster, Changeling, Tropic Thunder, Another Year, it’s just too hard to remember them all . Yeah, I saw a couple of bad ones and the odd guilty pleasure now and then too, but the Hollywood never let me down. The most unique ‘odd double-bill’ I went to had to be the pairing of Bridget Jones: The Age of Reason and Vera Drake. Two movies with a British female lead character: two completely different films of quality. The Hollywood was really convenient when it would show certain popcorn movies and ‘Oscar buzzers’ I always wanted to see but missed during its main theatre run. I’d always check the newspaper to see what the Hollywood was showing. I also remember leaving my second job, which ends at 9pm, to rush out and take buses to the Hollywood. Even if the movie ended before midnight or past midnight, I didn’t mind bussing back home that late.
Hollywood also consists of a few movie-going milestones of mine which I’m quite proud of. The first is seeing City Of God in the spring of 2003 before most would later discover this gem on DVD. The second is A Serious Man the night before the 2009 Oscar nominations were announced. It’s an Oscar-time tradition of mine to see all five, or now ten, Best Picture nominees and seeing A Serious Man the night before the nominations were announced completed it for me right there and then!
On Monday May 23rd, which is Victoria Day, I went to the Hollywood with my cousin to see Another Year. It had been months since I had been there. As much as I like the Hollywood, I like going when there’s a movie I like or a movie I want to see but haven’t. Such was the case that day. Before I entered the theatre, I learned from the ticket taker that they would be closing and that there would be a farewell party over the weekend. That was a shock to me as well as to her.
One of the reasons for the demise is because of the current difficulties of the single-screen neighborhood theatre. Nowadays if a movie theatre is to do well, it either has to be a multiscreen cinemaplex or connected to a shopping mall. In the past ten years, Vancouver has seen a lot of single screen theatres go and end up crushed for developers to construct something new. There’s the Varsity Theatre near the University of British Columbia that ended years ago and is now developed into condo land. There was recently the Van East which ended in January and has had its inside worked in for new development. Even triple theatres like the New West Theatre and multiplexes Langley’s Willowbrook cinema closed and were developed into something new. Some multiplexes like the Granville 7 constantly face threats of closure. Currently there are only six single screen theatres in Vancouver; the independently owned Rio Theatre and Dunbar Cinema; the Festival Cinemas-owned Ridge and Park Theatres; and the organization-oriented Pacific Cinematheque and Vancity Theatre.
Another reason for its demise over the years is now of the many ways one could see film and its current ability to be accessed at no cost on the internet. I don’t want to get into a tirade about how Napster and Netflix get people with a selfish sense they have a ‘right’ to free entertainment, but I will say that movie websites like Netflix has made it so easy and affordable for one to have all the online movies they want at a monthly rate, it’s not only hit theatres hard but video stores hard too. Plus so many ways to watch movies, especially those that happened in the last 10 years like Youtube, in your airline seat, on your smartphone and even on your wristwatch. Makes the original ‘other’ ways like television, pay TV and VCR seem old and tame.
In the days before its closing weekend, I contemplated when to go to the farewell weekend. I was first thinking of Sunday only, then both Friday and Sunday. Also I was confused of what exactly was happening. What I heard at first, I interpreted that there would be a party going on in the theatre and that there would be a piano playing with all the movies silent. My mind does play tricks on me. When I returned on Thursday to take some pictures of the outside, I talked with the ticket-taker: Vince Fairleigh, the fourth generation Fairleigh to work at the Hollywood wo had been taking my tckets all these years. I told him I would miss it. Also in terms of the weekend festivities, I was left thinking of the same ‘party’ that I heard about on Monday.
Friday the 27th came and I was to go with my friend to that ‘party’. The ticket taker at the door was an elderly lady: grandmother Alice Fairleigh well into her nineties! By the time I got in, I saw the ending of Cinema Paradiso. It wasn’t exactly a party but a showing of movies with speeches. After Cinema Paradiso ended, there were some speeches from professional actor and family friend Mackenzie Gray and from David Fairleigh Jr., the last Fairleigh to run the Hollywood. He gave some words about what the theatre was like in the past, including the ‘treat your date’ etiquette. He also talked of the experience of watching the movie in a theatre and how the new modern ways like cellphone and wristwatch can’t compare. Then began the final feature of the ‘closing double-bill’ which I will refer to later in this article. As it began, I left to check out the balcony. As I was taking some pictures, I noticed the door to the projectionist room was open and with a guest. I went into the room as well. I met David Jr. and we talked more. I learned a lot about the theatre and of the projector they had. He said “I’m going to miss the place,” not looking for sympathy. Then I returned to my friend in the theatre, after being away for almost half an hour. When the movie ended, the curtain closed. I thought I’d probably see in close on Sunday for the last time. As I was leaving, I saw Alice in the ticket booth and took some photos of her. I left wondering how Sunday will be like.
Sunday May 29th was a night of goodbyes but no one was going to shed a tear. All the family was here: grandmother Alice, David Jr. and wife, and all the Fairleigh sons with their families. The theatre was near-packed for this night, the final night. The night began with some applause to individuals. Then there was something unique that hasn’t happened in many decades but happened all weekend: a silent movie accompanied by a pianist. The pianist was Johnathan Benny, award winning director and cinematographer and good friend of Vince’s. The silent movie was The Goat which Buster Keaton directed and starred in. Many would forget that’s what the Hollywood did back when it first started. Even though it opened while ‘talkies’ were just starting, there were silent movies showed then too. It was fun to see the old film again and hear the piano played at the time in the way it was done: playing accompanying the many humorous, bizarre, dramatic and romantic moments of the film.
After The Goat ended, there were some speeches from family members like Alice, Vince and David Jr. David’s was notable because again he made the mention of the experience of watching a movie on a theatre. Despite that day being a bittersweet day, he sang the Charlie Chaplin song ‘Smile’. Then began the first of the final weekend’s double-bill Cinema Paradiso: a 1989 Italian film about Salvatore, a successful director, reminiscing about growing up in a smalltown’s theatre and learning projection running and filmmaking from the projectionist who just died. He returns to his hometown for the funeral and witnesses the Cinema Paradiso blown up. Vince picked the movie because the movie practically is what his life was all about: growing up in a movie theatre. The scene of when the grown Salvatore enters the dead Cinema Paradiso before it was blown up seemed almost synonymous with the Hollywood that weekend. At the end, the audience gave a huge applause. Mackenzie gave more thank yous but asked us to return to see the final movie of the night: Faster.
I left for a break in the lobby, taking more pictures and talking to people, especially many of the Fairleigh family including Vince’s brothers. Then I returned to the theatre to see what would be the last movie shown at the Hollywood: Faster– an action movie about a revenge mission starring The Rock. It seems odd for the Hollywood Theatre to show Faster after Cinema Paradiso but the mix of two was ironically appropriate for the closing weekend because it was part of the ‘odd double-bill’ tradition. And a double-bill of Cinema Paradiso and Faster doesn’t get any odder than that. I didn’t care too much about Faster. In fact I found it like your typical action movie with heavy emphasis on the shootings and car chases and featuring wooden overdramatic acting. Nevertheless I wanted to be there for the Hollywood’s last minutes. As The Rock left the screen, he had the honor of being the last face to grace the Hollywood’s screen. After the credits finished rolling, the curtains didn’t close. Instead some people walked around the screen area and checked some of the rooms around the screen. I then went upstairs to the balcony and said goodbye to the Fairleighs and wished them the best of luck in the future and best of luck for the theatre.
On the evening of Monday the 29th, the day after, I returned to the Hollywood. To my surprise, the neon lights were on. I saw the inside from the windows. Empty concessions, tables and chairs from the night, mop left out. Closings are never pretty. The future of the Theatre is a big question mark. I’ve been hearing a lot of tales about what will happen. Some say the developers want to either crush it or change it into something. I heard from others that Vince has partial ownership and that it will stay a theatre for at least five years. Despite all the talk of the possibilities for the Theatre, nothing was certain and closing weekend had to be treated like it was a goodbye. Since nothing’s really definite despite the fact I’m hoping for it to reopen, I took the closing weekend as that goodbye and I’ll let time decide what happens. I plan on bussing by at least once a week to see if there will be any changes and exactly what. I hope whatever they do, if the Theatre runs again, they keep the inside exactly as is. Many people on review websites have said that entering the theatre is like stepping back in time. How many present movie theatres do you know of that do that?
I do hope for the best for the Fairleighs. I do hope for the best for the Hollywood Theatre. I do hope the new owners take good care of the Theatre. I do hope the younger generation learns to appreciate watching movies in a theatre. In fact I’m glad they aired Cinema Paradiso for the final weekend because it’s considered by many to be a ‘love letter’ to movies and movie lovers. Until then, thank you Hollywood Theatre for the memories and the experience.