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Yesterday I came across a trailer for a new film by Lars Von Trier — it’s called The Antichrist. It reminded me how excited I was by the Dogme 95 films when they first started to appear; von Trier was one of the creators and signatories to the manifesto. Today I found the following clip from Festen, the first Dogme film, and to my mind, the best. Festen is about a family reunion that goes horribly awry when the successful restauranteur, Christian, confronts his father with allegations of abuse. The story has the power of a Greek tragedy (it was subsequently adapted for the stage) and director Thomas Vinterberg does not make a single false move in bringing together the complex strands of the many personal stories of the main characters.
Harrowing, but at the same time, strangely beautiful; over 10 years since it was released, Festen seems just as fresh and vital a film as ever.
When we were kids, we would cycle up Saint Michel to get to the park on the edge of the city and spend the whole day there. We would explore the islands that were connected by bridges, and if it was warm out we would jump through the waterfalls. It was the best park in town, but only those of us from the north end knew about it. When I moved downtown and I mentioned the park a few times, nobody had heard of it.
The city was changing. There was a time when the neighbourhood where I rented a dirt-cheap music studio had rats in the street. You only had to go to the corner store and stand outside for a bit and sure enough you would be able to buy some weed. But now you go down to the same neighbourhood and there are brand new condos everywhere you look. New bars and cafes have popped up to cater to a well-off clientele. I stopped at one pub – it was going for a British look – and the average price of a beer was eight dollars.
Most of the people I talk to all day don’t realize how much has changed. They come from Ontario or upstate New York or China or Japan or France. Lots of them live in the area and they go to the university and at the weekend they go to the bars and clubs on Crescent or St. Laurent and that is all they know. It’s fine with me; they come in for a cut or a colouring and they generally tip well. Sixty bucks, eighty bucks, hundred bucks – it’s all the same to them.
Some people complain we will get priced out of our own neighbourhood but look, do you want to go back to how it was? In the nineties there were flophouses and store fronts boarded up. It was depressing as all hell. The only time you could enjoy yourself was at the weekend when you’d just fill up your bag with booze and drugs and invade some warehouse and get high and dance away your worries. Nobody had a good job. I consider myself lucky to have earned a living from hairdressing. Not a month has gone by that I didn’t have a pay cheque. It was alright for me. Now that the rent is getting crazy, everyone will still find a way to make it work. I moved in with my girlfriend. We live in a shoebox but it’s alright. It’s cozy. I don’t need a whole room for musical equipment. A laptop computer is pretty much all I need.
One thing that would change everything is having a kid. I couldn’t afford to live here if I had a kid. We would need a bigger apartment by far; a four-and-a-half, maybe even a five-and-a-half. Misaki says this is the year we should become parents. We’re not getting any younger. She will be thirty-one and I will be forty. There is grey in my sideburns. Over Christmas I noticed a couple of hairs springing from my ears. They were small hairs, but they were an omen for what is to come.
So I can agree, sure, this seems about the time when we should have a kid. Then I think of saying goodbye to the neighbourhood. I think how, in the future, I will visit it like a tourist would. I’ll stop in at Vieille Europe to buy some espresso, stand in the line-up for a smoked meat at Schwartz’s, and sit on the rabbit-hutch patio of the Miami for a pint. I’ll try to fit into a busy afternoon all the things that at the moment I can do whenever I feel like it.
At the same time, the north is calling me. I remember when I walked down the residential streets as a kid, the parents would sit on their balconies and talk to each other from building to building or from across the way. They would call out to their kids if they got out of line. Lazy cats were always wandering around. They’d flop at your feet to get their bellies rubbed.
It’s only since Misaki talked about having a kid that I’ve thought again about the park with islands and waterfalls. I can imagine it vividly now: the bright green grass that stops at the banks of the river. The water is faster than traffic. I picture myself dunking my kid under the pressure of a waterfall and hearing him screaming and laughing. (Don’t ask me why I always picture my kid being a boy.) He would just love those bridges between the islands. I’d chase after him from one to the other. He would pitter-patter on his little legs, upwards on the wooden boards, having to work extra hard against the incline. And I’d pretend to be panting and gasping to even get close to him. He would dash downwards, arrive at the island, and let out a cry of joy, yelling the way I used to: I’m the king of the island.
And I would let him be king.
Short story by me. Nothing in it is true; everything is made up.
You are in high school and acne is a big concern. So are girls. What a surprise. You are just like every other boy, except you feel that you are not like every other boy. You are still fresh out of England, the country of your childhood, and only in retrospect will it become clear how much this shapes your identity. Many of your schoolmates have already formed lifelong groupings based on the shared experience of summer camp, scouts, sports teams, grade school, watching the same TV shows. A lot of their common experiences are alien to you.
You always feel like an outsider. You won’t make peace with that for many years. At the very moment that you realize that there is not any particular social group you can call your own, you will find yourself with a richer social life than you ever expected, among the best group of friends you could want.
You are not an Albertan, not yet a Canadian (not officially, anyway) and it still gives you a quiet thrill to travel to Europe and skip the long airport line-ups, thanks to your British passport. You fight hard to maintain this difference in your everyday life. Some people claim you are faking an accent. This weird trans-Atlantic intonation – you really think somebody can fake this? What a relief then, when back in the so-called homeland, a few days of pubs and chippies brings back the accent even stronger than before. At least for a week or two of holidays. Briefly, then, you don’t feel so fake.
But with every passing year, you are more Canadian than English. Look, you’ll soon have a Canadian girlfriend. Then another. Through them, and friends, you’ll share festive moments with other families and learn how “normal” Canadian families work, or don’t work.
The sports team closest to your heart is the Edmonton Oilers. Cheering for them in 1990 as they hoisted Stanley Cup Number 5 could be considered a formative experience. Although now – now you are the wise age of sixteen – your tastes have changed. Going to an arts school, all that boyish whooping seems juvenile to you. But it’ll return – that longing to lose yourself in a sport – to lose all your terrible self-doubts and second-guessings and for just a minute become something bigger than your lonely self.
You write in your diary of girls you think you love. You imagine them naked and try to crudely draw them. Sometimes, that need to be part of something bigger than yourself is satiated in the company of a woman. Sometimes it’s satiated in the crazy antics of male friendship: the drinking, the pot, the wrestling, the music, the long nights and sleep-deprived dawns. Finally, you know people that you will know forever and who will help you endure the next sixteen years.
What a blessed relief not having any inkling of what is coming around the corner. If I were to tell you how much worse life will be at eighteen or at twenty-three, you might choose not to stick around to see it and live it and endure it.
You will suffer from many, many delusions. Chief among them will be the delusion that you are someone else, or that you need to become someone else. You will convince yourself that you are far more important than you really are, and just when you’ve leaped the furthest from your own identity, you will be in the most peril. You will forget the childhood that made you; the family that raised you. You will forget that life, before it is about anything, must be a series of simple acts repeated daily. I mean sleeping, eating, drinking, and breathing. You will feel close to dying several times. Thankfully, after all that, other personal problems will seem manageable by comparison.
It is in the quiet moments that you most feel yourself. You can legally buy cigarettes now, and so you do, and occasionally, in the company of the drifting coil of smoke, you contemplate a tree or a hillside or something else, and you feel at peace with yourself. You feel every muscle of your body stop resisting the moment and surrender to it.
At these moments, you feel you are learning something about life. You sense there is something mysterious and inexplicable about the way you are and the way the world is. And to convey this mystery, and the excitement and thrill of it all – that is what you most want to do. Because in the same way that you have never felt you belonged to any particular group, you have also never subscribed to any particular way of explaining the world. You know the causes and people that you hate: conservatism, Margaret Thatcher, Ralph Klein, violence; but you are less likely to declare what it is that you are actually for. Because of this, perhaps you can come across as an incessant critic or a contrarian.
But I’ll be kinder from my vantage point of thirty-three. Ideology doesn’t interest you. The lives of people and their relationship to the environment are what interest you. This interest will be a constant. When things are especially tough, don’t look to the Bible or to other so-called authorities. Those things work for lots of other people but they have never worked for you. Reach out for those things that embrace the confusion and chaos and merriment and misery and contradictory impulses of human beings. Read Dostoevsky and Oscar Wilde and Michel Houellebecq and Saul Bellow and Mordecai Richler.
Then stop, and breathe, and eat and just let the world be what it is, and let yourself be what you are. Walk down the street after a rainfall and smell every new odour; the world suddenly transformed in a moment. See the bowing trees and the solemn clouds and the moods of millions of people abruptly altered. Feel your own parched tongue in your mouth; a reminder that you too need to drink something.
And then write about everything that cannot be endured any other way.
Part 1 of my article about Justin Trudeau is now online. You can read it here. I am very grateful to the riding office for arranging the interview, and of course to Trudeau himself for showing up on a rainy Sunday morning for 50 minutes of questions.
Speaking of things Liberal, I will be at the function hosted in the Old Port later this week. Leader Michael Ignatieff will be there. Speaking of things political: have you heard about the Alberta government’s plan to allow parents to withdraw their children from school courses where they — horror of horrors! — might learn about homosexuality? Not to mention that other abomination against God: the Theory of Evolution.
What more to report on the writing front? Work continues apace on a new article about the past, present and future of urban parks. Meanwhile, I’ve hit a roadblock with my project at TextNovel, where I’ve been posting new chapters every few days. The site was hacked over the weekend; it now seems partly back to normal, but my story has been directly targeted for sabotage. Somebody changed the title to “Why?” The description was changed to, “C’mon now, really, Why?” Then the preface was changed to “This is a fun site, Let people have some fun here now. Be considerate and happy.”
I personally find this ominous, not fun. I thought TextNovel was an adventurous and innovative move into making writing more accessible and exciting to participate in. It followed in the footsteps of Japanese popular culture, where young people download entire works of fiction to their cell phones for perusal on the bus, train, back of the classroom… It’s exactly the kind of site that a hacker should leave well alone. Ah well, happiness has never really been a hacker’s goal, has it? His own glorification, that’s his goal.
To all the hackers of the world: you are leeches.
It has often struck me that Montreal has an awful lot of pets that go missing. Down on le Plateau and Mile End, you will even see public warnings about a cat kidnapping gang that circulates in a white van, spiriting away our feline friends in the night and taking them to animal experimention laboratories.
In honour of the lost pets of Montreal, and the owners that have loved and lost, but will hopefully see their companions again one day, I’ve started to collect lost pets posters. You can also see these at my flickr page.