Working Title

We fade in as the sun sets. In Hollywood, they call this “Magic Hour.” It’s brief but timeless in that way that so few things are. The first we will see of Nick is a thirty-five-year-old man: some wrinkles, but ultimately boyish. The production company ensnared a former portrayer of superhero sidekicks and sex-obsessed teens. “Nick” is the actor’s chance for emotional redemption, career resurgence, even an awards show run, perhaps. So Nick is now tall, dark, bankable, and far-more handsome than he should be.

But in this world of magic hours he is awkward and pitiable. We know this because his suit is wrinkled. And mismatched. He is only wearing it because it would not fit in his backpack. That lumbering thing pokes out over his head; it contains inside it everything he still wants in the world.

There is a close-up on his feet as they stand an inch from the Welcome mat. His shoes were once nice, but they badly need a polish. Welcome mat or not, this house is not much. It is easily sixty years old, which is old enough for the City not to have any records.

Sofia, the woman Nick has come for, once found an old inspection card in the basement when they were renovating the laundry room. She kept it and admired the faded ink scrawl dating to 1963. She felt an odd, sincere connection to the building inspector who had a problem with the dividing wall for the laundry room. She tried to explain to her husband this weird connection she felt, and how she wondered if the inspector was still alive. If he was, when had he retired? What was he doing now? Did he remember their house? Her husband shook his head; no, he did not understand. She smiled politely and left the room. Three weeks later, alone in the shower, she suddenly and randomly cried about this.

All the camera shows is the Welcome mat, though.

The door opens. It appears empty until we pan down and there is the dark, curly head of an adorable moppet. There is no place for ugly kids in movies.

Nick freezes. He knows now. Now only did Sofia marry, she reproduced. He should have expected this, he thinks, but he did not. He only thought of Sofia as the transient waif, the big-eyed pixie of his youth. The one exempt from the realities of the present. If he had thought to search, he would have found her on Facebook; he would not be as shocked and guileless as he is now.

All the camera shows, though, is his wide eyes and slack jaw. Nick steps off the top step: the pain, the unease, the pure idiocy of his actions spread plainly across his face.

And it fades to black. Because that is what happens when the filmmaker doesn’t know what else to do. And then we’ll get the title, which hasn’t been decided yet, but it will be in a hand-written font perhaps, because this is a personal story. But it won’t be hand-written. Not really. It will be one font selected from a list by an editor and once crafted by a graphic designer at Microsoft who doesn’t even work there anymore.

By now we are fading back in. But Nick is gone. So is the Welcome mat. So is the moppet.

We are in Romania. A titlecard tells us it is “1980.” Two children run through the streets. It is the streets of “Old Europe,” a place that exists as though it were solely the product of fantasy novels and painted postcards. It is supposed to be Romania, but it’s really Prague. The buildings are garish and stone with cobbled streets: all wet after a rain. The cinematographer had a field day. He dreamed of The Third Man, but this was not to be shot in black and white and so he will always feel like something was lost.

The two children run: a boy, a girl. Nick, Sofia. Aged ten. They wear the clothes that years of Oscar-baiting films have led us to believe children wore in second-world countries. The filmmaker pauses to wonder if the Second World truly exists anywhere any more. He knows it once referred to the Communists. Does it now figure as what the label intends: those neither First World nor Third World, but rather that vague untimely grey area in between? Did the phrase now just refer to anyone who belonged on neither a GAP billboard nor a Red Cross pamphlet? Did it just refer to anyone who was neither Us nor Them?

He doesn’t know. At all. When pressed, the responsibility for Sofia’s dress and the cobbled streets and the grey of the skies lies with his production design team, his costume designer, his Art Director, his cinematographer. He knows the costume buyer hunted through old thrift shops on the poor side of town. No room for political correctness when results were demanded.

Ten-year-old Sofia wears a dress: the fabric is rough cotton, the pattern not gingham, not checks, not houndstooth even, but some kind of black and white pattern with squares. It hurts his eyes a little. The dress looks like it was stitched by a mother at a Singer sewing machine sometime in the mid-eighties, working off a Butterick pattern, then left to fall victim to moths and dustbunnies on a creaking rack at a charity shop in the suburbs.

But on Sofia, in the streets of Romania—Bucharest, it is supposed to be—it reflects innocence in a black and white world. To the child Sofia, black and white mean nothing more than the colours on her dress. The world around her is dull shades of grey, even Nick, in his grey gym shorts and grey t-shirt, blends into the street. But she is radiant against the background, her dress pulling her from the monochromatic world. It is far more effective on the eyes than any colour. It seems as though Sofia is the only thing in focus in the entire world on screen.

She is running before him, his little legs flailing to keep up with her. Their giggles pierce the silence soundscape.

Nick is calling after her, his voice still sounding like laughter. In fact, we think it is until a subtitle appears below. They are laughing in Romanian, a language unfamiliar to any western ear.

“Sofie! Sofie!” he cries, “Wait! Wait!”

“Hurry, Nikolae,” she shrieks in return, “Hurry!”

Two kids skipping through Romania. It is not Bucharest they should be in, but Timisoara. But the American audience does not know the difference, and only Bucharest rings with any kind of familiarity.

It is someplace not here. The people are white but they are not western. The Second World: the world that ceased to exist in 1989, leaving a gaping hole in how we understand the structure of humanity.

And thus the narrative cannot move chronologically. Mostly because the filmmaker realized the permeable fabric of time—that time is a fabric full of holes like a mesh lingerie bag—and all we have is memory, not chronology.

Because the filmmaker knows psychology; it was his major. He spent five years in university going through the motions, knowing he would write. Desperately, he tried to understand people so he could write them better. It never did work for him as planned; he sometimes reflected (while staring at the pulpy rind of a discarded garnish, letting the bourbon work its fingers over the knots of his brain) that he should have spent more time watching how people act rather than studying how they think.

Especially if he wanted to write movies.

In movies everyone acts; no one thinks.

But it did give him this: Nick’s imagined history of his own life. The way humans remember time. The distant past is more vivid than the recent past. Later, he claimed his structure is inspired by Slaughterhouse-Five.

Thus, his lead character, Nick, the one in whom he’s placed all of his neuroses and damaged childhood memories, adores Slaughterhouse-Five, and every other Vonnegut along with it. The camera only sees a flashback: Nick in a now-empty apartment, packing his backpack. Slaughterhouse-Five is shoved on top. Nick clings to the book for a reason. It has sat on his shelf for eighteen years with all the other empty promises and broken aspirations.

He will crack open that book when he boards that plane back to Romania, with Sofia beside him or not. Even the filmmaker does not yet know if she will be beside him.

As Nick rises to his feet, he leaves the room. It’s just a small room, a cheap apartment that he will feel no sadness in leaving. He disappears from the room and, as the door closes behind him, the slam jolts us back into another reality.

The screen crackles with faded pictures. They peel back like a blister: old Polaroids stuck in the frame of a gilded mirror. Cracks run in the glass and the Polaroids hang uselessly, their plastic undersides bounce back their reflection, all these little squares of black stuck behind the images.

Sofia’s Polaroid camera was purchased after she and Nick arrived in Vancouver. She bought it with her first paycheque from The Bay. She still has it somewhere even though she hasn’t taken a photo with it for years. By some sick stab of fate, only a few months before Nick arrived on her doorstep, Polaroid announced it was discontinuing the instant film: another piece of Sofia descended into shards of nostalgia.

The camera pans gently across each lost moment of time.

In faded shades of orange and pink, the sun rises over English Bay.

Sofia’s voice rings over the images: “Sometimes I get well into the day, like ten or eleven before I’m convinced I’m actually still alive.”

The yellow sulfur piles on the North Shore look the same in 1992 as they do now.

“I walk to work sometimes, when the bus isn’t too crowded. This is how the days I sometimes think I died in my sleep start. I touch nothing, no one, because sometimes it works out that way.”

The totem poles in Stanley Park: a perfect tourist trap and just as contrived and forgettable.

“I really start to think I’m dead when things don’t happen like they should. An automatic door won’t open until someone else walks up; the hand dryer in the bathroom doesn’t come on; someone cuts in front of me in the hall… all as if I don’t exist. After a while, I started keeping a mirror at my desk just to make sure I still cast a reflection. This is what had been running through my head the day I first met Ted. He sees me. I exist.”

An ordinary street in Vancouver. Sofia told Ted she just liked the look of the stucco houses.

Another one, this one a closer frame, the white side of only one house, washed out by the Polaroid’s imperfect light. Just an ordinary house, she told Ted. But it’s not. She and Nick lived in that basement for nearly two years. Their first home.

“Now every morning, I have Lucy jumping on my bed.  ‘At least you know you’re alive,’ I tell myself, ‘At least you know you’re alive.’“

The filmmaker had thought this himself; it is a direct part of his soul that he had given to Sofia like some unholy, unwanted gift.

But it doesn’t make the final cut.

“No voiceovers,” said the producer, “We can get it in a glance.”

The filmmaker keeps projecting: he watches Sofia climb out of bed, pulling up Lucy and passing her over to Ted, still groaning and tired, tangled in the bed sheets, that look on her face of grateful joy.  He projects the inner hollow clanging of those empty distant fears collapsing around her, bouncing throughout the shell of her like a pinball. “Am I alive? Am I alive? Is this it? Is this life?”

Perhaps that’s just his projection; perhaps she just looks… happy.

No, that won’t do.

Sofia is not happy. Sofia is haunted—he’s made these notes in his journal—Sofia sometimes wishes she died in Bucharest—sometimes she thinks she did.

The filmmaker cannot really recall his first introduction to the Romanian Revolution of 1989; nor does he recall much of 1989, as he was only six years old at the time. His lack of context means nothing he figures, since his parents were fully formed adults at the time and they recall nothing of it.

Wikipedia helps. The filmmaker edges his First World, middle class guilt to the side of his mind while he creates Nick and Sofia. He does his best to gain context of Romania in late 1989. Romania was the only Eastern Bloc country where change happened with violence, with a revolution, with an execution.

The filmmaker can’t help but read the bare facts and smile in the cinematic romance of it all. He feels a glee he felt when he was told the story of Lenin’s Revolution back in his high school history class. No one died but a Bolshevik in the October Revolution (or so he learned), but 1,104 died in Romania that week (or so says Wikipedia).

Wikipedia told him what happened like a broadcaster tells the story of a football game. It was good for keeping score, but the filmmaker needed to pull out the people who had been there.

Wikipedia said nothing of the families. He saw photos of corpses in morgues. What if they had children? Children nearly grown: children too old to be taken care of but still young enough to get lost.

He wrote of Nick and Sofia.

He wrote of their childhood suddenly yanked from underneath them as their families died. He wrote of them as childhood sweethearts, their places in each other’s hands, their implied promises, their sudden tossing into the world like one dumps old keepsakes from a shoebox.

He wrote of their struggle to find a place in the world, of their fleeing to Canada, of their emotional and legal inability to return to Romania, of the fact they spent eighteen years losing each other as well: each other, the last piece each had of childhood, the last finger each had holding onto home.

The filmmaker wrote this because he was nearing thirty and wished more than anything that someone had dumped him upside down and said “You’re an adult now,” because he had no idea when his childhood ended or how. He just noticed one day it was gone, like a book someone borrowed without telling you but you don’t realize it’s gone until you randomly think of reading it again then can’t find it and inexplicably weep.

The filmmaker’s childhood home is now under a row of condominiums.

It’s a very Canadian tragedy, he thinks, as he tries to distance himself from the experience. Instead, he projects his pain and isolation onto Nick, whom he credits, due to the sheer qualification of having lived through a revolution, as being more worthy of the pain.

But the camera catches none of this: none of the filmmaker’s neuroses, or intellectual bankruptcy, or failed attempts to validate his life.

The camera captures Nick.

Nick’s jacket, from that mismatched suit, hangs off the back of a chair in the kitchen. We have not established the geography of Sofia’s house yet, so we do not know how far into her home she has led him, but they sit on a sofa. At least he does. She hovers. Has she just stood up or is she going to sit down? No one really knows.

The filmmaker wants words on the screen. He knows they should be too scared to speak in depth. But in movies dialogue tells the story and so they must talk. They must talk charmingly and plainly and fantastically. He knows they probably would not really be able to do this, but they must.

“Nick,” she sighs, batting lashes formed over an hour in a makeup artist’s chair, not in a cracked mirror like Sofia would have done.

“Sofia, listen,” he starts, “Please don’t kick me out.”

After a telling pause, she replies, “I wasn’t going to.”

He smiles.

A wide shot at last shows us the room. No one has replaced the wall paper in years, the furniture is worn-in and toys clutter the space. It’s a house, plain and lived-in.

“Sofia,” he continues, “I, I…” he trails off.

“How long has it been, Nick?”

“Ten years.”

“Wow. Already. Where does time go?” She tells it as a joke, a knowing nod to the realization that time speeds up as we age. The actress is wiser than himself, the filmmaker realizes, he pulled it from thin air, as a cliché, something to show the lack of intimacy that ten years has brought to Nick and Sofia. But she delivers the line with an old world-weary self-assurance and a biting dig. Where have you been for ten years? Why have you left me here?! she could be saying.

“Yep,” says Nick, “I can’t believe you’re married.”

She stares at him pointedly: “Yes, you can. You just can’t believe it’s not you I married.”

Sofia feels a pure joy. She’s wanted to say this to Nick since her wedding day. She thought of him every day of her marriage. He never felt gone. She feels like Penelope, but, abandoned and spiteful, she took up with the last suitor. And now Odysseus returned and Penelope wonders why now, of all days?

But all we see is a small threat of a smile as a crossfades takes over. A white stucco house flutters in, looking exactly as it did in Sofia’s old Polaroid. The lawn needs to be mown and watered: patches of thin brown grass intermingle with stringy green weeds in a strange blend of dead and thriving. This is East Vancouver in 1990.

The man living upstairs who will cash their cheques for the next two years stands on the front step, arms crossed over a pot belly. The belly has only been there for about five years; it bloated quickly like a balloon attached to a helium tank. Were he to lose weight, he’d have stretch marks.

The day looks bright; it might be spring or even a cool summer. Sofia steps forward, her lips slowly churning out into a smile. The wind catches her hair, sending a tussle of black waves swirling around her face. As the sun streaks through the soft lens, her hair is not quite black, we realize, just a dark brown with a russet shimmer.

This rusty shine lends itself well to the rusty feel of this old memory.

Her fingers reach out towards Nick. A wave of reluctance passes over his face, but he takes her hand.

Come on,” she says in Romanian. Their first English lessons will begin only a few weeks from now. They will practice as best they can with each other: the words will form awkwardly in their throats, sounds and shapes of a thousand tongues entwined. The meanings will ramble on endlessly in their brains, like cows in a pasture with no idea of their purpose. The language will eventually take hold in a pidgin mix that for months will only make sense to the two of them like some absurd idioglossia.

Sofia will have been working at The Bay for months with her twisted tongue before she actually feels confident speaking English to anyone besides Nick. Even their landlord, a man whose sentences run no more than three words apiece, will make her feel small.

“Come on,” she repeats.

Nick’s face looks the same as it does when he is thirty-five. This is because as much as movies claim to be magic, they can’t reverse time. The world of facelifts and botox and celluloid youth means nothing, not when Nick is supposed to be under twenty but is actually thirty-five.

They’ve tried. They’ve changed his hair. His clothes are different too. They’ve tried to match them to 1990 without dating them. Nick cannot be a joke in an old tracksuit. Nick is a timeless hero: a forlorn figure the filmmaker can pour himself into. He wears a plain shirt, a dark burgundy that would prove richer had the fabric not faded and thinned with the years. His jeans are slim cut; faded too. Everything is faded, even the film this scene has been shot with.

Sofia smiles again. “Nicolae, come on.” She winks. Her lips are crooked but lovely. They are so dark they leap from her face.

Together, they walk up the front path. The filmmaker chose a close-up on their feet: Sofia’s feet, larger than he would have imagined for a woman intended to be perfect, step along the cracked walkway. Weeds grow between the broken concrete: spindly spires of green; buttercups and clovers. She’s not looking and crushes a small, yellow flower with her step.

The same foot is now tapping eighteen years later against a linoleum floor. A kettle is whistling away in the background. “Do you still take it the same way?”

Her English is strong. Eight years living with a Canadian have done that.

Da,” he replies, “Vă aduceți aminte?”

Yes, read the subtitles, Do you remember?

Her face stares blankly. The lines the years have given her show themselves. She knows that she still has a bit of an accent. With effort, she can repress it. She can manipulate her tongue into a crude impression of Ted. From Vancouver, his Canadian sounds nearly Californian at times. She hides her accent from customers at The Bay, from other parents on the playground, and from the less refined of Ted’s relatives.

She hides it now. “Yes, I remember.”

As she turns to pull some mugs from the cupboard, the filmmaker watches her move so stiffly. He knows Nick’s words have worked their way into her muscles, tightening and tensing them. Sofia has been uneasy from the moment she saw him standing on the welcome mat, but somehow it’s much worse now that she heard their language.

She hadn’t spoken it in fifteen years, the filmmaker knows. Not since she last spoke it with Nick. As she spent so long learning English, a part of her wondered if, with each new word that formed in her head, a word of Romanian would forever be gone. She’d done nothing to try to hold on to them; at times she even thought they were never coming back.

It is not the language of now; it is not the language of purgatory, English is.

It feels wrong running into her ears and draining down through her body. It soaks through every pore: the way she can feel Nick’s mouth making the words, the way she can see them spelling themselves out in the air, the way she feels her head vibrate with memories shaking themselves free of the confines she’s kept them in. Sofia can taste the words: listless and bittersweet.

“You speak so well,” he offers, the knees of his suit fresh with sweat from the palms of his hands.

She does not look at him. “So do you.”

Two mugs land heavily on the tile countertop: ceramic clacks against ceramic in a way that brings images of a broken plate into her mind.

They outfitted the white stucco house with thrift store castoffs. Stoneware plates from the seventies are set gingerly into the clean side of the kitchen sink, soapy froth sliding down in search of the drain. Nick’s hands, puckered and pink, reach in and grab it.

Their kitchen is small and barely distinguishable from the living room. The filmmaker knows that the sparse collection of furniture threadbare and rickety had been left behind by previous tenants. The wobbly table is covered by a layer of melamine and a dozen plastic bags.

Sofia is humming to herself; her arms are stuffed in the sink up to her elbows.

Nick runs a tea towel over the plate then slides it into the cupboard. Two identical plates are already in there and nothing else.

Dropping the last plate into the clean side of the sink, Sofia pulls the drain. As she turns to Nick with the murmurings of a cheeky grin, her wet hands fall in unison upon his chest. He jumps back with a laugh and two fresh handprints on his burgundy shirt.

What are you doing?!” he shrieks in Romanian.

She only laughs, which sounds the same in every language.

As he steps back towards her, leaning in for a kiss, the plate slips from his hands, falling to the ground.

But he kisses her anyway.

And it feels as though the plate was in shards before it even hit the floor.

Now Sofia passes a mug of tea to Nick. The gesture carries with it an insincere formality. She has handed mugs of tea to grandmothers and co-workers and strangers with the same kind of rigidity. The mug holds the lacquered shell of an Ikea catalogue. She has eight identical ones in the cupboard. They are the mugs reserved for guests.

Sofia’s mug was a gift from Lucy last year, picked from the shelves of Hallmark, gilded with sentimentality and saccharine intent. As Nick sits awkwardly on the couch, Sofia has yet to find a seat. She leans against the kitchen table instead.

Her eyes flit to the lumbering backpack. “So, where are you going?”

The filmmaker knows a dozen words are passing through his mind, scrolling through like entries in a thesaurus: the airport, abroad, Europe, the old country, Romania, Bucharest. He stares solidly at her while deciding how to answer.

“Home.”

Sofia pulls out a chair and falls into it.

“I see.”

“You’re wondering why, aren’t you?”

She nods.

“I don’t know, Sofie, I don’t know.” Her fingers twitch around the mug with the sound of her name.

As the filmmaker watches their eyes study each other carefully, Sofia’s trailing over the ripples of the fabric of his clothes, Nick’s over every line on her face.

The filmmaker does not close his eyes to dream.

And there, as Nick’s eyes take in this small patch of Sofia’s skin: that tiny spot on her neck, where the slope into her shoulders begins; the camera lingers.

And lingers.

She breathes. We can hear the sigh: the purity and innocence simultaneously cast down with the weight of the evening, no – the weight of the last eighteen years.

So simple but so melodramatic, the filmmaker thinks as he puts works to paper: “A weighted sigh.” But the actress, she nails it. It is everything he felt in Sofia.

It is beyond words, something he realizes either speaks to his profound lack of ability or to the true profound nature of this moment: this sigh as it exists.

Can a sigh encompass all that? All his frustrations and joys, all of himself? All of Sofia? All of Romania? All of 1989?

Can a film?

Sofia’s sigh as Nick watches her breathe is a moment of fiction and he thinks of truth. What truth ever existed in there? Did it lose itself or was it created? Did it begin then fade with each layer of retelling or did it never exist then was slowly given life?

The filmmaker does not know. Nick does not know. Sofia does not know. No one knows how it will end.

And so it does not. It does not end. It only stops. We cut to an image of a sunrise, as promised. The screen fills with those beautiful solar flares, at once natural, silent, and again a stark reminder of the screen before us.

And then we fade to black.

The credits roll.


Originally published in WomenArts Quarterly Journal, Volume 3, Issue 5, July 2015 and Quarter Castle Chronicles, Volume One, September 2015.

the commencement of commencement advice commences

There’s nothing more useless than unsolicited advice. 

I was going to preface that with When you’re young, but it’s really applicable to all ages. Unsolicited advice simply comes at a much greater frequency when you’re young.

As I age (like a slowly ripening then rotting apple; that is the metaphor I’ve chosen to age by), I understand this frequency. You get very caught up in feeling that you’ve finally figured somethings out. You feel wise at last. You’ve deconstructed the follies of your youth and learned from them. And thus the desire to share that wisdom is strong.

But don’t. Just… don’t. You cannot really be wise with your advice unless you know whether or not people want it. Do not forget when you were young and people tried to give you advice. There’s a fine line between advice and decree.

For me, I found I hated the condescension. I thought I knew what I wanted and I was going to go for it. At best, advice was an annoying drone in my ear that I had to swat away with a furious you just don’t understand. At worst, advice was a barked order and I would immediately want to do the opposite.

Of course I made mistakes. Of course I stumbled. Of course I fell.

I failed repeatedly. I took so many different paths only to get so far along them that I realized it was all for naught. It was a dead-end. I had to go back. I had to do something new. Or something old again.

But it was necessary.

After a time, I learned how to decipher advice as it came to me. I learned how to tell if the advice was in my best interest or in theirs. I learned to weigh the advice against my own thoughts. I learned the value of another opinions. Or two. Or three.

But the reality persists: Some things you have to discover for yourself. Making mistakes is how you learn.

It all boils down to what sort of person you want to be one day. Do you want to be successful? Do you want to be fulfilled? Or do you just want to be happy?

It’s even simpler than that. Is what you want out of life something external (success, money, a partner), or something internal (fulfillment, creativity, knowledge, wisdom, love, happiness). Yes, love and happiness are indeed internal. 

If you think internal, then the best course of action is to figure it out yourself. Independence was so important. I paid my own way. I got my own jobs. My parents always had a place for me to sleep if I needed it. And I couldn’t ask for more. I wouldn’t want more.

But they gave me the independence and the support to figure things out for myself.

~

My student loans will still take me years to pay off and I have a job that is completely unrelated to my degree. In fact, my job didn’t even require a degree. There are so many classes I wasted money on. So many things I learned that I don’t remember. So many people I met that I don’t talk to anymore. So many wasted opportunities.

But I would go to university all over again. (Actually, I would start at a college and then transfer this time around – the savings!)

And the reason why is simple. As a friend once said to me, education “pops the bubble.” That resonated.

For almost every single one of us, your entire childhood up through to high school, you’re living in a bubble. Hopefully, at some point in your life, that bubble pops.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, it’s probably because your bubble hasn’t popped. I don’t mean this to sound condescending; I really don’t. But there are people I’ve met for whom I think that bubble has never popped. They’ve gone through their whole lives without really getting it. They just don’t realize how big and diverse and wonderful the world is. They don’t realize how great and terrible most of history has been. They don’t realize what sacrifices were made – and are still being made on a daily basis – to give them the life they have. They have no concept of their context in the world.

Imagine your world a fishbowl and you’re a huge frigging fish. Imagine growing legs. (Yes, this happened.) Imagine peering out of your fishbowl because you realize that there is more to life. As soon as your head pops up, you see countless other fishbowls running out every direction, disappearing into the distance. So many, you could not possibly count them all.

Of course that’s terrifying. It’s much easier to duck back into your own fishbowl and carry on with the life you know. It’s familiar. It’s safe.

But easier does not mean better. If you don’t leave your own fishbowl, you never know how different and unique all the others are. Some are scary, yes, but some are wonderful. All different sizes and shapes and all filled with a different manner of fish. And if you never looked, you’d never have any idea!

Do you really not want to go exploring? Do you really not want to learn all about it?

Or all you really content with your one tiny little fishbowl and all the limits it holds?

Of course, there are many ways to “pop the bubble,” but education was the one that did it for me.

~

Quite a while ago now, I used to make movies. I haven’t worked on one in nearly five years. Up until… well, this very moment, I suppose, I still called myself a filmmaker, leaving open the possibility that I might one day make another. As if I was just on a break.

For several years before that break, I made movies with people I love working with. We had fun for a while until it stopped being fun. As I still had the desire to make movies, I thought this was the natural progression to my “real” career in film. I enrolled in film school.

And it was great. It was. I learned so much and I think I did pretty well. More than anything, I gained the confidence to know that Yes, I CAN do this! I learned that I had it in me to succeed. I had all the internal components necessary. Whether or not I succeeded from that point would take persistence and a hell of a lot of luck.

But, aye, here’s the rub: I also learned what my life would look like if I did succeed. I learned that success is the horizon. There’s really no such thing. It keeps moving backwards the farther you go. To chase success, in and of itself, is really fucking pointless. 

All of it means nothing if you don’t love what you’re doing.

I never trust anyone who’s more excited about success than about doing the thing they want to be successful at.

xkcd 

So many people try to give such advice as chase your dreams, and do what you love. But the thing is, those people are given a platform through which to hand out that advice because it all worked out for them. No one whose dreams have failed them is ever given a microphone through which to announce that. 

I think it should be amended to say: Do what you love, but don’t expect to make money from it. 

Have a day job. Something unrelated to your passion. Something that keeps you alive and doesn’t sap your will to live. (In this economy?!) Focus on what you love and ditch the rest. You don’t need a fancy car. You don’t need a huge house, or even house. Rent a cheap apartment in a part of the city that inspires you. You don’t need to be part of a “scene.” Make a scene.

None of those things will bring you happiness. Trust me. Repeat: happiness is not external. Love is not external. You don’t find love somewhere out there. You find it within and then maybe find someone to share it with. Besides, love comes in so many forms that you’ll constantly be discovering new ones for the rest of your life.

Your day job will not define you. Your house will not define you. Your car will not define you. Your significant other will not define you.

Why you love does not have to define you. What you love does not have to either. Who you love certainly does not have to.

How you love is what matters. 

How you love is love put into action. How you love is how you interact with the world. If you want to leave a mark on the world, that is how you will do it: whether though the love you give your children, or the compassion you give to strangers, or the art you create to express your need for the world to be better.

So if you truly love what you do, then you will be fine. If you love acting, then just act. Make it happen. Get creative. There is so much opportunity for cultural interaction in our world now. Go out there and find your people. Google them, for god’s sake.

But don’t get bit parts on television shows and think that somehow gives you more value as a human being than making your own Youtube videos with your friends. A job is a job, but passion is a purpose.

Because if you truly love filmmaking, then what you love about it will be more accessible when you create your own opportunities. If you truly love writing, hammering out your own stories or pointless blog posts (like this one) will be far easier to do and far more fulfilling than getting some hack job for an entertainment website.

I know because I’ve done it and I hated it. All it did was take away the energy I wished I had to put towards my own work. It became just another job. It’s strange to have the one thing you love that was always your thing become alienating. You wonder what part of you is even left anymore.

~

Why have I rambled so much about this?

I was asked by a collective of relatives to “give advice” to another, younger relative who graduates high school soon. But I refused. I told them I wouldn’t unless she asked for advice. Because otherwise it would be useless.

But, if she does ask, that is what I would say.

why do I binge watch seven seasons of a tv show, but can’t force myself to watch a two-hour movie?

This post started as a note in my journal: one of those things that starts crawling out from your head while you’re in the shower, like a worm on the sidewalk in the rain. I meant to write it before the Oscars, because that makes it seem topical rather than tangential.

But alas.

Every year, Husband and I make of game of trying to get through all the Oscar nominees. Usually, some of the films we saw earlier in the year of our accord. These, ultimately and often, end up being my favourites. And, praise be to me, the Academy’s favourites, too. Of the last seven years, the only two “Best Pictures” I didn’t see in theatre way before hand were The Hurt Locker (wasn’t playing nearby) and The King’s Speech (meh).

This year, we only saw one film beforehand: The Grand Budapest Hotel. Boyhood was on our list, too. But it was only playing in one theatre and it was across town. We just didn’t get there in time; it wasn’t in the theatre for long. We we watched it as soon as we could. Richard Linklater has always been a favourite of mine.

I honestly thought Boyhood was going to win the Oscar.

boyhood

We did see Birdman (the only one we got through in our noble ambition). But both thought it overrated and wanky. I could elaborate at length, but I won’t. I can only think now that, as much critical praise as it received prior to awards season, it was probably with the expectation in mind that this film would go nowhere, would never get its due, and would be forgotten. It could take on legendary status as a classic that never got the respect it deserved. Now, with the label of Best Picture, it will probably be remembered as… Best Picture. Really?

I digress.

My initial point was how much fun we always think it will be to go through all these Oscar films – the apparent best-of-the-year – only to have it feel like such a chore. We still have films waiting for us to watch from last year’s Oscars. As I was in the middle of bingeing yet another television show on Netflix, I realized I felt this tug of guilt at spending hours upon hours catching up on superheroes, while perhaps those hours could be better spent.

But did I stop the show and start The Theory of Everything? Hell, no. I watched three more episodes. Guilt is not that powerful with me, it turns out.

It’s not just films, sometimes it’s highly recommended television shows too. I still haven’t started watching The Wire or Breaking Bad. And I probably never will watch Friday Night LightsBoardwalk Empire or The Sopranos.

I know I can’t be alone. Why do we do this?

I turned it over in my head and I could only come to the conclusion that – to paraphrase that ridiculous relationship advice book from ten years ago – I’m just not that into them. I just can’t force myself to care about cops, criminals, or athletes. Even if you tell me they are better than genre cliches. I believe you, but those topics just don’t pique my interest. I can’t force myself to care about yet another gangster anti-hero.

So here’s the kicker:

Watching seven* seasons of a show you love is like going on vacation with your best friend.

Sitting down to watch a two-hour movie you have no interest in is like going on a date with someone you don’t particularly like.

Sure, there might be moments in that vacation where you hate your best friend – where you want to haul off and slug them – but you will come home with fond memories. You will look back on it was a great experience. You will laugh, tell stories about it, have pictures to share, and then try to encourage others to vacation at the same place.

And that date might always surprise you. You know this going in. You tell yourself, “Sure, they seem boring and/or awful, but they probably have great stories about their drag racing days.” It’s a risk, isn’t it? It’s someone you don’t know anything about other than they don’t really seem to have much in common with you. Maybe their politics irritate you. Maybe they’re just really arrogant. But maybe you’ve got them all wrong. You will still dread it because it’s the uncertainty of a stranger… plus the awkwardness.

Television shows are the people in your life: your friends or your family. Even if you miss an episode, you know what’s going on. It’s the world you live in.

Movies are those fleeting interactions: the guy who cat-called you on the street, someone you rolled your eyes at on the subway, or the person you had a meaningful conversation with on that flight you shared from Toronto to Calgary. Movies are what happens in the moments between real life.

I guess – to me, at least – the movies I truly treasure are the ones that bridge that gap. The ones that reflect the world we live in in a meaningful way while also creating their own universe we can be absorbed into. That was what I thought Boyhood achieved.

_____

*arbitrarily chosen number. When I say “seven,” think “many.”

random train of thought departing from The Grand Budapest Hotel

When The Grand Budapest Hotel opened last weekend, Husband and I missed it. It was only playing in one theatre and it sold out. (Get your shit together, Vancouver.)

One week on, even with a wider release, we barely squeezed into the theatre.

Casting glances around to our fellow movie-goers, I realized that the stereotype of the bespectacled, cardigan-ed Wes Anderson fan isn’t true at all. Every demographic was there: from child to senior, with every Millenial, Gen-X, and Boomer in between. My parents even like Wes Anderson movies even though I suspect they’ve never discovered they are all by the same guy.

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Last night’s viewing of The Grand Budapest Hotel wasn’t the usual Friday night blockbuster experience. This film managed to have the varied population of Coquitlam in the palm of its hand. You could hear and feel the audience’s presence the whole time: not just laughter, but gasps, cheers, held breath, and the absence of muttering, talking, and rustling.

Something I suspected after Moonrise Kingdom was confirmed last night: were I to rank Wes Anderson films in order from my least to most favourite, they would run in chronological order. To me, he keeps getting better and better.

Wes Anderson’s skills as a filmmaker have never been in question; from the beginning, his films have always been polished and cohesive with a clear vision. His work is a fascinating conversation with the act of storytelling itself. This conversation has only grown and deepened over time.

The key component of his work has been a wistful sense of nostalgia and how it colours rose the stories we tell. This manifests on screen in everything from his use of title cards to sun-faded and old-fashioned colour palettes to his characteristic shot structure: everything framed centre, dolly shots from side-to-side, all giving the screen the feeling of a diorama.

We, the viewers, are detached from the narrative; we are explicitly watching a performance. We are watching a contrived, universal Past: one bordering fantasy, free of historical specifics and proper nouns. We get Steve Zissou, not Jacques Cousteau. We get Khaki Scouts, not Boy Scouts.

Anderson’s films have always engaged the past with the future in a dialectic, most often in inter-generational conflict. The idealism of youth has always both conflicted with and complemented the idealism of adulthood (best exemplified in the competition between Max and Blume in Rushmore).

The Grand Budapest Hotel turns these tropes into self-reflexivity. The story is framed by a frame, framed by a frame, framed by a frame: a girl is reading a book, the author is telling the story, the author is being told the story, the story is actually happening.

Aviary Photo_130400160256196229Where the engagement with a vague, idealized history has always served a stylistic purpose as part of a heightened reality, here it is explicit and thematically important.

The core of the film is Gustave’s (an excellent Ralph Fiennes) ardent belief in an historic point of perfection. His entire aim with the Grand Budapest Hotel is to capture this ideal (and ultimately nonexistent) moment in history.

But within there are obvious repressed horrors.

The lobby boy, Zero, speaks of the war in his own past, that killed his family and made him a refugee, and of the war to come (territories will be occupied, many will die) as though they were a footnote or even a punchline.

There is a sobering disconnect between the goofy, madcap humour of the story as it unfolds and the solemnity with which F. Murray Abraham tells it. Ultimately, it seems, there are some things too painful to tell stories about. It is Zero’s omissions and Gustave’s nostalgia that reshape history into the narrative we all know.

Anderson thus engages with his familiar tropes on a new level: The Grand Budapest Hotel deepens from his previous work in that it makes explicit reference to what has been left out and why.

This is why The Grand Budapest Hotel is my favourite Wes Anderson movie. At least so far.

mad men is the story of an addict

Perhaps it is rather ironic that the AMC website uses cocktail recipes to market Mad Men, because, when viewed correctly, Mad Men is about the devastating effects of a life lived for alcohol.

Aviary Photo_130301726507582024But it’s subtle, as addiction often is at first. I never noticed it as much on the first viewing. The sheer normalisation of wanton alcohol consumption on Matthew Weiner’s Madison Avenue is what strikes you first. “I’d love to have a bar in my office,” you think. It seems so glamorous and Romantic. These are the kind of people who tip back half a bottle of Canadian Club then smash a glass in a fireplace and make love to Elizabeth Taylor.

But on the second viewing, it takes on a different colour. The fates of Freddy Rumsen and Duck Phillips (the former losing his job after drunkenly wetting his pants and the latter fallen so far from the wagon as to get kicked out of the Clios) are far less humorous when you watch it again. These are two men whose personal and professional lives were ruined by alcohol but are so carelessly brushed aside by those who can still conceal their disease.

The first time through on Mad Men, Roger Sterling is just a bon mot machine with a Gibson martini. That he seems to grow lonelier as he grows older is only a falsehood. Rewatching from the beginning, it is obvious immediately how lonely a man he is. I can’t believe I missed it the first time around. I blame the fact that there is simply so much going on in an episode of Mad Men. You need to see them all a few times to truly digest it.

Roger’s alcohol abuse is obvious. But because he’s a functioning alcoholic, he doesn’t consider himself an alcoholic. He has normalized his dependency:

You don’t know how to drink. Your whole generation, you drink for the wrong reasons. My generation, we drink because it’s good, because it feels better than unbuttoning your collar, because we deserve it. We drink because it’s what men do.

So that brings us to Don. There are so many directions to go, but I want to focus on this: the story of Mad Men is the story of an alcoholic.

The double-life of Don Draper versus Dick Whitman is only the beginning, even if the most metaphorical. The dual personalities of an addict are something anyone who has been around one can recognize. You don’t know which version you are going to get. Sometimes its both in varying shades of grey.

For the first three seasons, we see Don just coping. His alcoholism exists but he’s functioning. The fact that he has a “problem” is barely evident. But his marriage slowly cracks as the other side of him seeps him. Betty discovering Dick Whitman is the turning point. This is the point where the problem cannot be ignored.

After their divorce, Don starts to circle the drain. His co-workers become aware of his addiction. He abuses alcohol incessantly, indulging his weakness because he longer has a reason to keep himself in check. He hits what only seems like rock bottom in his “lost weekend” after the Clio Awards. The dual appearances of Duck Phillips (well and firmly bottomed-out) and Freddy Rumsen (sober and getting his life together) at this time show Don his two possible futures. The devil on one shoulder, angel on the other, if you will.

But recovery is not easy. It is a series of ups and downs, peaks and troughs. Dr. Faye Miller knows Don’s disease. She states explicitly that she is here to help him. Her presence in his life is a wonderful opportunity for rehabilitation. And he even seems capable of change. To her, he can admit his problem. He finally wants to change.

But sometimes the hard work that rehabilitation requires is just too much. Rather than hike that path, Don cheats. (He also literally cheats on Faye with Megan.) He tricks himself into believing that a fresh start with Megan will allow him to simply wipe the slate clean. But he is only replacing one addiction with another: alcohol with puppy love. As Tom and Lorenzo say, “He’s like a dry drunk, someone who’s overcompensating and over-emoting because they’re trying to ignore something.”

And this new addiction seems so harmless. At least at first. But before long, it’s affecting his work. Just like any other addiction. And when the lustre starts to fade, the old demons come back because they were never truly vanquished. When you’re at such a high peak when the fog clears, it’s terrifying to suddenly realize how steep the drop.

And he does drop.

It’s such a sad and familiar tale. How many tragic ends come after it seemed like an addict had finally turned the corner?

As we left Don at the end of Season Six, he was pouring out his booze and cleaning out his office. Will it stick this time? Addiction and recovery is not an arc usually done justice by film and television. It usually ends with the first trip to rehab, as if that is all it takes for a magic cure-all: checking in. But Don’s struggle has been much more accurate, and thus much more sinister. Sometimes it takes years to even accept that there is a problem at all. (Roger Sterling has yet to make it that far.)

And by then, you’re too far in the mess that it feels like its too late to be Dick Whitman again.

a not-so-polite rant about the great gatsby

As I remember fondly from working at a bookstore, every time a movie adaptation of a book comes out (especially one starring a quote – heartthrob – endquote) it creates a certain rush of readers: people who only pick up books with movie posters for a cover.

No judgment. Really. Whatever gets you reading. I guess. Sure. Whatevs. Anyway.

It bothers me, however, when people miss the point. If the best you get from The Great Gatsby is “Daisy was such a bitch to him, ohmygod. But those parties! Squee!” then you better be a teenage girl because otherwise you are a giant waste of literacy.

"Can you believe this fuckery?"

“Can you believe this fuckery?”

Anyway.

The vitriol is thick with me this morning because I am tired and stressed and as I tried to distract myself with some light internet browsing, I wandered into critiques of $25,000 Gatsby-themed parties, comparisons of The Great Gatsby and Fight Club, and parallels drawn between Don Draper and Jay Gatsby and on and on.

Facebook venting to Husband over a lunchbreak has its limits, thus I have taken to the blogs.

I don’t disagree that Fight Club is a 1990s version of Gatsby, per se, but there’s an argument you can make for every work of American Literature since 1924 being an updated version of Gatsby somehow. It’s just so AMERICA in all the classic ways America is critiqued. Its themes are perennial; they are the problem with the American Dream at its very core.

Fitzgerald nailed it. It truly is a “perfect novel.”

Perhaps I just love Fitzgerald too much. He is one of those artists to whom I feel connected. Do you know the feeling? When first reading his work, I just got it. I felt the same with Joe Strummer and Laura Jane Grace and Joan Didion and Upton Sinclair and Edgar Wright and Steve McQueen (the artist/filmmaker, not Bullit, damn you). You feel like only you truly understand their work and no one else can possibly appreciate it like you can. Thus, you feel a sense of ownership and need to defend it from the unworthy.

It’s like watching someone drive an expensive car very badly. You can’t help but cringe and weep for humanity.

some dreamers of the manhattan dream

I began to like New York, the racy, adventurous feel of it at night and the satisfaction that the constant flicker of men and women and machines gives to the restless eye. I like to walk up Fifth Avenue and pick out romantic women from the crowd and imagine that in a few minutes I was going to enter their lives, and no one would ever know or disapprove. Sometimes, in my mind, I followed them to their apartments on the corners of hidden streets, and they turned and smiled back at me before they faded through a door into warm darkness. At the enchanted metropolitan twilight I felt a haunting loneliness sometimes, and felt it in others—poor young clerks who loitered in front of windows waiting until it was time for a solitary restaurant dinner—young clerks in the dusk, wasting the most poignant moments of night and life.

– F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (1924)

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Don Draper’s New York City is Nick Carraway’s New York City (not Jay Gatsby’s… that would be too obvious).

Discuss.

(Presented as a companion piece to this.)

forgotten projects

 

Aviary Photo_130301740208687773As other projects eroded away under the weight of my own disinterest, I’ve decided to cut my losses and not let a withered vine waste internet space. I’ve amalgamated Celluloid Heroes posts into this blog. And after a bit of bushwacking, I found my old Livejournal account from 2005. I’ve also brought some of those posts over. Even if they do not amount to nothing more than “Yay! The semester is Ov-vah!” they are still a mark of who I once was… in a terrifying version of It’s a Wonderful Life.

some dreamers of the golden dream

This is the California where it is possible to live and die without ever eating an artichoke, without ever meeting a Catholic or a Jew. This is the California where it is easy to Dial-A-Devotion, but hard to buy a book. This is the country in which a belief in the literal interpretation of Genesis has slipped imperceptibly into a belief in the literal interpretation of Double Indemnity, the country of the teased hair and the Capris and the girls for whom all life’s promise comes down to a waltz-length white wedding dress and the birth of a Kimberly or a Sherry or a Debbi and a Tijuana divorce and return to hairdressers’ school. “We were just crazy kids” they say without regret, and look to the future. The future always looks good in the golden land, because no one remembers the past.

Joan Didion, Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream, 1966

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Don Draper’s California is Joan Didion’s California.

Discuss.

Is the development still arrested after all these years?

It’s been how many years now since Arrested Development went off the air? Oh jeez, I’ve lost count. I do know it started about eight or nine years ago, and that’s when I started watching. I’ve also lost track of how many people I’ve introduced it to, of course then needing to watch it along with them. This also means I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve seen the series through.

Aviary Photo_130301766464428509This past month, my husband (whom I introduced to it, of course) just watched the series through for the second time. And I got to watch him watch Arrested Development. I remember him two years ago watching it for the first time. It was strange how I looped back so quickly to the memory. The two of us – not a couple, but roommates; those days of awkward flirting still ahead of us – and our other old roommates from The Commune, sitting in that old backyard, on that old rickety wooden patio furniture, with my old laptop plugged into an extension cord, watching my old Arrested Development DVDs, and drinking that old stack of booze that one other temporary roommate left behind.

Dr. Roommate was there that night. I don’t know if Boy Roommate Boyfriend Husband’s first time through was her second-time through or third, or even fourth, but I was reminded then, that night, of her first time watching it. That was before The Commune was even The Commune, it was just a dingy basement suite in South Vancouver; and we were really just roommates then: two people who did their undergrad together and thought they might be able to live with each other. Now we’re family. And not just in the we’re so close we’re practically family sense, but in the we are actually related now (by marriage) sense.

Aviary Photo_130301765629651044And now Dr. Roommate is legally a medical doctor. Not just a medical student. Boy Roommate is my husband. No one lives in that house in South Vancouver. Husband and I are moving to England. Dr. Roommate is moving to Calgary.

So it goes.

Life is changing. Life has changed.

I watched Arrested Development with my sister for her first time when her and I were backpacking around Europe. That was five years ago. England actually had an economy. God knows what mess awaits us there now. My sister didn’t even know her partner then. He was a figment of her future imagination in just the same way Husband was in mine. So many other things began – and ended – within those five years: film school, pirates in space, and revolutions. So many people we thought would still be here are gone. And so many small children we didn’t expect to show up are here: conceived, birthed; walking, talking human beings.

Aviary Photo_130301764832843266And all that occurred even after Arrested Development went off the air. When it was still on, things were even more different. It was like two lifetimes ago. I lived in the house I grew up in. I had a different partner. I had a different job. I was happy. And then I was miserable. And then I was happy again. Miserable again. Happy again. And on it went, and on it goes.

Life is evolution. Sometimes it happens so gradually you don’t realize how different the end result is from the beginning until you stop and compare. Other times it’s a stepped equilibrium, with a period of prolonged stasis broken suddenly by radical change. Usually it’s a bit of both. The drastic changes steal your notice away from the small ones.

So when Arrested Development comes back on Sunday, what sort of strange beast will it seem? If we are to pretend that it’s been evolving slowly over the last seven/eight (ish) years, nature would deem it a chimera: some new fantastical creature we barely recognize. Yet if we get the “same again” feeling, it will ring false.

Aviary Photo_130301766109028812Husband and I have discussed at length about how much Arrested Development is a product of the Bush Administration. Explicit references aside, the overall feel of the show, of what it holds to light and what it satirizes, is so tied to an American life that existed before 2008: before Obama, before the recession, before the Arab Spring.

What has happened to that American life now? Where did it go and what happened to the who lived it? How are they still living?

Aviary Photo_130301765179302568I really can’t wait to see that. It will be like flipping through an old yearbook, but one where the candidate voted “Most Likely to Succeed” steps from the page (likely as an animated gif), and speaks with a deeper, craggier voice to say: “I did not succeed as you thought I would, but I redefined success. And that has made the difference.”