Sunday, August 19, 2012

Rough Around the Edg

At the Country Home again this weekend.

Today, as I did on Saturday, I took my Dad on a drive around the Glen. The backroads that he once knew like the proverbial back of his hand.

We ended up heading north to Vankleek Hill, a town that doesn't seem to have changed much since its late nineteenth-century salad days. My father wanted to show me the house he boarded at when he worked there 50 years ago.

He also wanted to know where the organic brewery was, so we drove out to the eastern edge of town. The craft beer I wanted to buy (whiskey barrel aged!) wasn't available at the time, of course, so I settled for a couple of wine bottles of their seasonal beer. When I got back to the car, my Dad noticed that one of the bottle caps was askew, and the bottle wasn't full (even yet he has a keen eye for such sacrileges). The kid behind the counter must have given me one of the sample bottles on the table by mistake, and I failed to notice.

Perhaps the most interesting thing this weekend, however, was the "boomfest" (as the locals called it) taking place over at the same facility that hosted the Tartan Mania two weekends ago. As the old man and I sat enjoying an afternoon beer, the pipes were not the source of the steady drone that drifted into the back yard. Rather, it was the bathic hum of an impossibly low bass, accompanied by the throaty vocals and the staccato drumming of a speed metal ensemble.

Turns out it was "Edg3 Fest 2012". Some kind of regional satellite of the Toronto-area polluza put on by the eponymous radio station.        

Later on that evening, it sounded like a Battle of the Bands was being adjudicated by Steve Albini and his house band Shellac. And I kinda liked it.


Sunday, August 12, 2012

The Melanchollie

A melancholic river runs through my veins. Fed by both parental tributaries, it has determined the course of my life.

I have no need of a Livingstone or a Burton. I know where the sources of this malevolent spring can be found.

One strain originated along the shores of Loch Arkaig, west of the Great Glen. The other from an even more remote Hebridean hinterland.

The island of Scalpay, should it be afforded such a generous description, lies just off the larger island of Harris. During their Tour in the fall of 1773, Dr. Johnson proposed to James Boswell that they ought to buy it, and "found a good school, and an episcopal church ... and have a printing-press, where he would print all the Erse [Highland Gaelic] that could be found." As far as I know, that idea fell stillborn from the Great Cham's imagination.

Over the past weekend, as I partook of the Tartan Mania that grips the ancestral glen each August, I spent some time with my father, who is rapidly fading into the fog of a much darker melancholy than the species that enveloped me for many years before I was rescued by the Interruptnum.

My father built almost every stick of furniture that I own, in particular the three white pine bookcases that I will cherish for the rest of my life. Marvelous and sacred for their imperfections, they exemplify the relationship between my father and I. Each tiny mistake and uncovered nail is telling of a flawed template that structured his life, and troublingly governs mine.  Every knot in the wood tells a story. Not always a happy one, but an important one. Those bookcases, and everything else he built for me, will be one of the most enduring memories of my father. It doesn't matter that so many other memories I have are not so pleasant. It is unfortunate that my own memory is almost as retentive as Boswell reports Dr. Johnson's to be. 

My father no longer remembers making those things. So I took pictures of them with his camera. From every angle. Along and against each grain. I zoomed in on his signatures in order to furnish him with the indisputable evidence of his craftsmanship. To show him the authenticity of his authorial stamp. Otherwise he may not have believed that he had made these things. On certain days, seeing him as he is now, it is hardly imaginable for anyone to believe he did all the remarkable things he did with the resources he had at his disposal.

As I showed him the images on my laptop, I thought I could almost see inside his head -- the ideas and impressions struggling to coalesce into a solid memory. I didn't expect his next question when he asked when I had cancer. I told him. I think he was really asking when this happened to him -- when he started to forget. "It was exactly the same time", I said to myself. I think he had already suspected that uncanny synchronicity. 

I tried to keep it together, and I think I did. I thought of a favourite lyric written by a (usually instrumental) band that often speaks to me in such moments, and its become an important corrective in my negotiation of the lamentably persistent grudges and irrational messiness that scars our family relationships.

when you die
you have to leave them behind
you should keep that in mind
and when you keep that in mind
you'll find a love as big as the sky

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Middle Drawer

Its spring cleaning time.

But not just the annual variety, which usually amounts to sweeping crumbs under the couch and running around with the Dirt Devil.

The long weekend kicked off an apocalyptic and antiseptic earth scorching of the apartment. Long overdue, the Machiavellian Moment had arrived. 

Tonight, the next geographical phase kicked off. In the midst of recycling the dozen or so empty protein powder jugs that camouflaged the kitchen table, I knew there was no turning back. I knew what had to come next. 

The middle drawer. The pharmaceutical graveyard.

I had been looking forward to this moment for years, yet had always postponed the assuredly cathartic event each time it crossed my mind. "Spring Cleaning 2012" was the proleptic vision.

And while, technically, I had until June 21 to carry out the deed, I took another look at the lid of the protein powder jugs, and a Popeye-fueled pragmatic sanction was imposed on the contents of the middle drawer. In order to proceed with the Spring Cleaning, the middle drawer had to be excavated and its unwelcome relics purged. 

Perversely, I felt a twinge of nostalgia as I greeted my old familiars. One by one, they were airlifted from the middle drawer into the appropriately named "earth bag". That's where they were going, one way or another.

No longer a sepulchre of the poisons and promised salves that I once eagerly consumed in order to "get better", the middle drawer yawned up at me. I had forgotten how deep it was, and how eagerly it seemed to want something new, and fresh, and good, to be put in place of the empty shells that are the casualties of biological warfare.  

There have been a number of these manufactured moments. Those temporal markers that, symbolically, and once and for all, were supposed to distance me from the Interruptnum. All of them bullshit of course, but that's what is so useful about historiographical heuristics, even when we conceitedly apply them to our own delusional and melancholic self-narratives.

But tonight, after "relocating" the contents of the middle drawer, I feel pretty good.

Tomorrow might very well be a different story.

But over the past few months, it feels like I am finally living a life again, and not rehabilitating one that could have easily slid away.     

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Kid

I just heard the news that Gary Carter has died from a malignant brain tumour at the age of 57.

I became an Expos fan in the summer of 1980. One morning during the winter of 1984, I woke up to the news that John McHale had reluctantly traded Carter to the New York Mets for a package of players including Hubie Brooks. I was so disappointed that I didn't want to go to school that day. It was almost as bad as the day in 1981 when I skipped school to watch Rick Monday's ninth inning home run off Steve Rogers end the World Series dreams of all Expos fans.

Gary Carter won a World Series with the Mets. His bust in Cooperstown wears an Expos cap.

Thanks for the memories, Kid. I'd like to be a baseball fan again.

Kinematic Constructs: the Sites of Cinema

A few weeks ago some friends and I were having dinner and a few pints at a popular downtown restaurant. We got talking about some films that were coming to town, in particular David Cronenberg’s new one. I suddenly remembered that the restaurant we were eating in used to be the Elgin Theatre, and twenty years ago, circa January or February 1992, I sat in the balcony – still intact as an upper tier of dining tables - and watched Naked Lunch.

Since that night I have been thinking about movies I have seen in theatres great and small, here in Ottawa and in other places I have lived and visited. I learned that many of those theatres no longer exist. Although the reasons for this are not hard to understand, some of us will lament the day when there are no longer places to go and watch a film, whether celluloid or digital. Perhaps it won’t be long before the idea of watching a movie anywhere else but on your smart phone will no longer be an option.

There is something about the experience of viewing a film in a space that is designed specifically for such a purpose, whether it is a palatial movie house or a strip mall multiplex. However nebulous that “something” may be (beyond the obvious audio/visual enhancements), and despite the convenience of streaming movies directly through a phalanx of personal interfaces, it’s a shame to see those spaces go.

Following my eye surgery a week ago, I have been restricted from exercising little else than my troublingly flabby memory, but I’ve tried to piece together some of the more memorable experiences – for better or worse - I’ve had going to the cinema: where it was, who I was with and other contingencies that combined to leave a retrievable trace. Some dates are approximations, while others were easier to pin down due to contextual circumstances.

To begin with, some prefatory remarks on the prehistory of my movie going. When you’re a little kid, it’s hard to exercise much agency in determining your cinematic itinerary (a dreary reality that repeats itself when your girlfriend or wife drags you to movies you really don’t want to see). I remember the time my Dad packed the whole family into the brown Mercury Marquis to go see Coal Miner’s Daughter, but the Ur-story dates back even earlier to the summer of 1977, when my father first decided that we all deserved to go see a movie. It was a double bill at The Garry Theatre in Alexandria, Ontario, a decrepit old movie house that opened in 1945 and closed in 1980. Like any 7-year-old kid, I wanted to see Star Wars. The opening feature was Moving Violation, a cheap Smokey and the Bandit/Dukes of Hazzard rip. But I took no small pleasure in the liberal sprinklings of f-bombs and nudity, all of it seemingly under the consensual umbrella of paternal wisdom. I remember a similar experience in the spring of 1982. At my request, my parents drove me into Ottawa to see Quest for Fire. I can remember seeing the words Le Droit on the side of a nearby building, so in trying to reconstruct the event, I felt it must have been at the old Rideau Theatre, but the Internet tells me it closed on January 20 1982. The film wasn’t released in Canada until March 1982, so it must have been the Nelson (renamed the Bytowne in 1988). Being a little older and more self-aware at that point, the Paleolithic sex scene between Everett McGill’s Noah and Rae Dawn Chong’s Ika was a little awkward. But I really pissed the old man off later that year. I convinced him to take me to the Brookdale Mall in Cornwall to see Conan the Barbarian. Maybe he thought I had misled him about the R rating – after we were turned away I had to sit through On Golden Pond.

Some other memorable experiences and venues other the years:

The Hollywood Theatre (W. Broadway, Vancouver) – a family owned independent theatre that was built during the Depression and only closed last May. The best second-run cinema in Vancouver during its day, I saw many films behind those double red doors. The Hollywood was a refuge for me during a dismal final year in Vancouver. Self-exiled to the southeast corner of town, I made regular pilgrimages to the more familiar environs of Point Grey and Kitsilano, where my good friend Whitey and I would take in the affordable double bills at the Hollywood. The Bourne Supremacy was a surprising highlight in 2004, as was Sexy Beast on one of those rare nights your girlfriend agrees to see a film you actually want to see.

The Ridge (16th/Arbutus, Vancouver) – opened in 1950, The Ridge is another favourite, and it would be difficult to single out one film. David Lynch’s Lost Highway in the summer of 1997 was memorable, but probably not the best choice for a first date. I finally caught Wings of Desire on its huge screen a few years later – a few months before that, I had agreed to go with my girlfriend to see the wretched American studio remake with N. Cage/Meg Ryan on the condition that I could show her the Wim Wenders original. As usual, I wasn’t encouraged. I also remember watching Underground (circa 1997?) with the Cravat, my guide to all things Balkan.

The Paramount (rue Ste. Catherine’s, Montreal) – in October 1999, after getting my paper over with, I ditched the banquet at an 18th-century studies conference to go out on the town by myself. After dinner at a fine trattoria, I came across the newly opened Paramount, a cinematic skyscraper with 6 floors and 13 screens. I had liked all of David Fincher’s previous movies, so I bought a ticket for Fight Club. Seeing that movie for the first time was quite an experience, and following the movie I enjoyed some of the best of Montreal by night. What a shame I missed that banquet, though.

Somerset (Bank/Somerset, Ottawa) – this grand old space was around from 1937 to 2000, when it was annexed by the big grocery store we all love to hate to make room for more parking. Its art deco interior provided the perfect environment for my first viewing of Barton Fink in the fall of 1991. It’s been my favourite movie ever since.

Pacific Cinematheque (Howe St, Vancouver) – opened in the late 90’s, it is the closest thing to a Lincoln Center that I’ve seen anywhere in Canada. Around June 2005, during an Ingmar Bergman retrospective, I saw Cries and Whispers with, appropriately enough, a blonde-haired Swedish girl whose name, very disturbingly, I can’t remember.

The Bytowne (Rideau St., Ottawa) – the Bytowne (formerly the Nelson) has already appeared in the prehistory noted above. In the spring of 1995, I finally got to see The Wild Bunch, long a VHS favourite, in its restored magnificence. Lauzzy was, as always, a good sport when he joined me for that one (most Peckinpah films provoke a bi-polar response – you love them or hate them). Another long time TV/VHS favourite was The Exorcist. Lauzzy and I ran that one through my old Panasonic toploader a few times. I saw it on the big screen for the first time in the fall of 2000 in a downtown Toronto theatre with Booby Brown. However, it’s a Bytowne doublebill on Halloween night in 2007 that really stands out in my mind. As I walked down to The Bytowne to meet the X-man for an Exorcist/The Shining double feature, I began to feel the initial symptoms of the Interruptum with an alarming intensity. And while the print of The Shining may have sucked, it was a pleasure to introduce the X-Man to a couple of horror classics.

5th Avenue (Burrard St./5th Av, Vancouver) - opened in 1996 as a purveyor of so-called art films, it sat (and presumably still does) across the street from a Mercedes Benz dealership. In the fall of 1999, I watched one of the finest films of the decade with the Cravat and Bobby Brown. Prior to The Limey, Paul Schrader’s adaptation of Russell Banks’ novel Affliction made a profound impact on me.

West Windsor, New Jersey – on a December night in 1999, somewhere in a deserted outlet mall off the Brunswick Pike, my girlfriend and I and maybe 3 other people watched Magnolia. Nobody in the theatre said a word or made a sound until the lights went up. All I could mumble was something about a masterpiece.

The Vogue (Granville St., Vancouver) – opened in 1941 and restored in 1998, the Vogue Theatre is the primary venue for the Vancouver International Film Festival. In 2004, I met up with the Cravat for a festival screening of Michael Haneke’s Le temps du loup. Not one of his best, but still the only film of his that I have seen on a big screen. The Vogue is without a doubt the most impressive cinema I’ve ever sat in.

Capitol Square 3 (Queen St., Ottawa) – two years before it shut down in 1999, Lauzzy and I saw Cop Land. We had differing opinions of the film, but smoothed those over at another establishment just a few doors down the street. Lauzzy has been a film companion for too many films to remember. Some of the salient ones, beyond those already noted, are the World Exchange Plaza triptych of Seven, Heat, and Fargo during the 1995/96 season. Another memorable Coen movie we saw together was O Brother, Where Art Thou? in the spring of 2001 at an Egyptian-themed mallplex somewhere on the beltway between Washington and Baltimore.

Granville 7 (Granville St., Vancouver) – I remember a couple of things about this place. You had to ride three different escalators to get up there, and the central screen was the largest I’ve ever seen. Memorable films include Boogie Nights and The Big Lebowski with Bobby Brown and either Bobbi Socks or Bobbi Pinz.

Finally, perhaps the most memorable experience I’ve ever had watching a film wasn’t in a cinema at all, but in a plane. As highly unlikely as this may be, given the usual pap that airlines are mandated to play, David Lynch’s The Straight Story completely overwhelmed me during a long flight from Vancouver to Newark via Chicago. You won’t find many titles in the David Lynch filmography that are produced by the Disney Co., but it resonated with me for so many reasons: Richard Farnsworth’s terminal cancer during filming; his suicide (by shotgun) less than a year later; John Deere, me, and my Dad; and a magisterial final scene between Farnsworth and Harry Dean Stanton. It doesn’t really stand up to repeated viewings, which is just as well, as the first one punched me square in the forehead.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Super Sunday

Deja vu
all over today.

Fours years ago, right around this time, it was the night before a radiation session early on in the uneasy reign of the Interruptnum. The New York Giants, coached by Tom Coughlin, were trying to slay another giant in the form of the unbeaten New England Patriots, coached by Bill Belichick. Eli Manning and Tom Brady were calling the audibles at the line of scrimmage.

Today, it is the eve of another medical procedure. And while tomorrow's procedure will be of a much more benevolent nature, it is to ameliorate something that was directly caused by the radioactivity of four years prior. And the New York Giants, coached by Tom Coughlin, are playing the New England Patriots, coached by Bill Belichick. Eli vs. Tom redux.

As it was four years ago, the game was won in the fourth quarter. Once again, Eli made a low percentage throw to an unheralded receiver to put the G-Men in a position to win.

The only guy who couldn't lose today was Bill Parcells, who coached both teams to Super Bowl berths in the past, and whose coaching tree boasts both Coughlin and Belichick.

Eli may not have led my fantasy football team to the championship final as he did last year, but he now has two Super Bowl rings, which is one more than his celebrated brother. Peyton may no longer be Archie's favourite son.

The best part of my day, however, took place before the game. As I was watching a great NFL Films documentary on Joe Namath, I heard my father - who is always sitting nearby while his mind is usually nowhere near - proudly tell me that he remembered Broadway Joe (another New York quarterback, who just happened to win the first game they called the Super Bowl - in the year I was born, no less).

After that, I stopped worrying about my little surgery the next morning. I began to feel really good.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

A Bottle and Friend

To all the diasporadic Scots out there, I hope you took a moment yesterday to savour some Songs, Poems and at least a couple of drams.

Last night Bomber and I enjoyed an extended toast to the most neglected of the Romantics. Selected Specimens from our respective collections were exchanged under the sign of the Oak. The pipes were perfectly shrill, the haggis was spicy, and the Extra Special Bitter was flowing.

Lauzzy and Cousin were missed.

For the second consecutive January 25, we swung a blockbuster hockey pool trade.

Here's a bottle and an honest friend!
What wad ye wish for mair, man?
Wha kens, before his life may end,
What his share may be o'care, man?

Then catch the moments as they fly,
And use them as ye ought, man:
Believe me, happiness is shy,
And comes not aye when sought, man.