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Location: Toronto, Ontario, Canada

The ultimate meaning of life is to embrace that which compels you to act in spite of fear.

Monday, March 30, 2009

My Thoughts on My Winnipeg

Review: My Winnipeg

When I selected Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg from the Movies list on The Movie Network, I fully expected to get twenty minutes into it before pressing stop.

“This is going to be all weird and inaccessible,” I mumbled to myself, remote control in hand. I’d read and heard that Maddin’s work is the epitome of self-indulgence, at times visually brilliant, but mostly the strange labour of some lost, mad child in grown man’s body. Be that as it may, I found myself utterly enthralled. It was anything but inaccessible. What a wonderful invitation to the mind of this peerless filmmaker and his conflicted relationship with his home city, Winnipeg.

Now, many of us have complex relationships with the places where we live or have lived. I can tell you how I feel about a number of places and how I’ve imagined them on quiet, cold, winter nights. I’ve never lived in Winnipeg but I have visited it three times, always in summer, and I find this eastern gateway to the Prairies inscrutably fascinating. Having experienced My Winnipeg, I feel as though I’ve had a long psychic conversation with a local lad to see if his dreams of his home speak to my first visceral impressions of the city and how its winters must feel.

How many of us have found ourselves immobilized by the sight of a frosty halo around a street light during a snow storm, and then found ourselves wondering about our own place in this country? Has anyone has really felt at home here, transplanted in this new ancient land? To be sure, My Winnipeg has plenty of Canadiana in it. Maddin takes us to hockey rinks, an Old Eaton’s building, and to the Hudson’s Bay Company. However, this film is not only for Canadians. Who knows where any of our family trees really started on this planet? We all wander, haunted by the desire to go backwards and forwards in time, to penetrate. The answer may lie in “The Forks,” the current beneath the convergence of the Red and Assiniboine rivers.

What journey it is to enter the world of how Maddin sees his home, not through a plodding, linear narrative, but by running through the museum of his mind, by sensing his longing and his urge to escape, which in My Winnipeg is portrayed in an eerie black and white phantasmagoria of past images and re-enactments of childhood experiences, of trips down the seedy back laneways inhabited by a darker flipside Winnipeg, of frozen dead horses and Cree living on urban rooftops, of dashed hopes and lost sleepwalkers .

I won’t mention specific claims Maddin makes about the city or his family, some of which I suspect are made-up or distorted, though I’m not sure. But it doesn’t matter. This is a film about emotional truths, not literal ones. Besides, their mention outside the context of Maddin’s dream-like state would seem absurd, meaningless, or merely banal.

One Los Angeles reviewer suggested that only a Canadian filmmaker could have made such a movie. If so, then Maddin has given the world a real treasure, because this is a transcendent film. My Winnipeg is everyone’s home.

Hit play.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Looking for the down escalator

The song, by The Chameleons, was a frontal assault of buzzing angst and booming vocals, the guitar rising and falling with urgent melancholy that suited the title - "Up the Down Escalator." This was one of those deliciously gloomy tunes about a world gone mad that came out in the early to mid-eighties, when post-punk and goth were giving over to industrial, when the club scene in Toronto was about dancing, music, and the tragedy of young adult disappointment (before the real tragedy of guns in the hands of the young clubbers.)

On many nights songs like "Up the Down Escalator" kept me company (whether I was alone or not) in my car, in my room, or on the dance floor. And then the band, like many, just disappeared. Those times, which I occasionally recall with pangs of bittersweet longing, seem innocent twenty years later. Ah, the clubbing in the eighties...

...Ah, searching for music in the 2000's. I wouldn't call it pangs I feel, but slight annoyance. For years now I've searched stores and online in the hopes of finding the studio version, but without luck. Sure, I managed to download a live version I found on iTunes. But this performance, though full of the energy I remember, is a little off: the melancholy of the guitar is overpowered by the buzzing angst. Who was on the mixing board during that show?! The studio version is strong and balanced, like youth itself... Okay, maybe "balanced" doesn't apply.

But no matter. The live version, like life itself, is imperfect and often difficult to make out. And yet it contains the passion of the studio version, as does the grown up version of my own life. In fact, I would say my life today is better than my life when I was 21, in so many ways. While the world still has problems, I have a clearer sense of direction, a better understanding of my options, and greater control of my personal power. Not perfect, but improved. Perhaps this is what is called wisdom.

As for the song, I can always replay the studio version in my mind while listening to the downloaded one. In a way, I get the best of both worlds. Besides, I've come to accept that reality rarely lives up to the down escalator of one's memories.

Sometimes it's better.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

At the Crease ... at a distance

A few weeks ago I was in the throes of shingles and therefore sleeping every spare moment I could get, when the goalie who posed for Ken Danby's renowned painting, At the Crease, was revealed as Dennis Kemp, a junior B player who guarded the net for the Biltmore Mad Hatters back in 1972 and 1973.

This is not news now. Far from it. A few weeks have passed, after all. But it was news to me when about a week ago members of my family forwarded me this link to the Guelph Mercury.

While I won't claim to be a lifelong Danby aficionado, I can say without hesitation that the image of that determined, menacing goaltender was definitely a part of my youth. I would go so far as to say it was the quintessential goalie: fearless, steady, and ready to spring, so tense with potential energy that his stillness is like motion.

The image's significance, personally and on a national level, was well captured by David Akin.

At the Crease haunted me from a distance most of my life, as I was around six years old when the painting was done, and I only saw it a handful of times throughout my life. But it's power was undeniable when I saw it again last week.

What also haunted me throughout my youth was my desire to find my mother's roots, as she was adopted during the Second World War. There's a whole story there, of course. Our family's eventual discovery of our biological family was captured in my CBC Outfront documentary, The Secrets of Stanley Mission, in which I explore the reasons why my mother was given up for adoption and the life of my biological grandfather, Everett Kemp.

... You may see where this is going...

So you can imagine my surprise and delight when I realized that the Dennis Kemp of the Danby story is in fact my first cousin once removed! He lives out west. I have a picture of him, which I won't share here out of respect for the universality of THE goalie and the privacy of a family member. If another journalist or writer finds a picture of Dennis and shows it, so be it.

When I first decided to blog again after a regrettably long hiatus, I was going to talk about my shingles, which have subsided, both physiologically and mentally. Yes, this illness is dramatic in that it is painful and relatively rare among youngish middle-aged adults. But the discovery that I am connected to someone who was likely involved in the creation of an image that has filled me with awe and pride in our national pass-time, this seemed worthy of my return to blogging.

Now, some have questioned the truth of Kemp's connection to Danby's iconic work, and one blogger even impugned the quality of the journalism involved in this story. I will leave the critics, doubters, and naysayers to their arguments.

While At the Crease belongs to all of us, my angle on this story is my own.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Under the Tuscon Sun

I haven't posted in darn near two months, so I figured I'd best be posting again.

The flavour of that last sentence was inspired by the sweet, earthy taste of the Arizona air still fresh in my mind. When you're there, it gets into everything.

After the recent passing of my father-in-law (from post-surgical complications), my wife, stepson and I went to a resort in the desert just south of Tucson, Arizona. She attended some of a conference for work, and the rest of the time we all made a family getaway of it. Now, Arizona is truly a getaway.

I'd been to the state before (so had my wife), as my grandfather spends his winters in Yuma, AZ, but that was in January. Winter in Arizona is what I imagine the anteroom to God's office would be like: almost perfection. It's blue, dry, and 75. However, daytime highs in late May and early June in the land of the Saguaro cactus are over 100 F. But the humidity levels top out around 15%. So when the night temps plummet about 40 degrees, you can turn off the air conditioner.


Though my ancestors came from the wet lands of Ireland, England, and Newfoundland, I have always been fascinated by deserts - particularly red ones. Their starkness and inescapable hostility make my imagination soar into the blue skies that drop rain only on occasion. (This was partly the reason why I loved A Canticle For Leibowitz and Dune.) Granted, we got to soar in an air-conditioned mini bus from the airport, so survival was not really a big issue. But, it's about imagination, so work with me here.

Speaking of which, one of the highlights of the otherwise low-key vacation was an outing to the Old Tucson Studios. During its heyday, several westerns were filmed in this town-studio first constructed to resemble the Tucson of 1860 for the film Arizona, starring William Holden. You can read the detailed history if you're interested. For me it was a portal into a way of life that has intrigued me ever since I was a kid in Northern Ontario.

To say I loved movies growing up would be an understatement. So when the guide on the bus said the image of the mountain at the beginning of Columbia Pictures movies comes from one of the rugged hills right next to the Old Tuscon Studio, I felt as though I were coming home. Throw an outdoor BBQ and a former John Wayne double into the deal, I'm there. Yeee-haw! We had to shout this on our way out of the bus to the studio. I know, it sounds silly.

Yes, the family fun park experience is a little cheesy. But after two months of watching my father-in-law's slow, heartbreaking decline, we were all ready for some child-like fun, overcooked meat, and questionable peach cobbler.

Because life can be short, even if you don't have to combat the heat of the desert. And it's sweet, whatever the taste.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Guns, Germs, and Steel ... and books

I'm just about finished Jared Diamond's Pulitzer Prize winning Guns, Germs, and Steel. For years now my good, and well-read, buddy Kris has been praising the book and urging me to get my Western ass to the book store so I can read the book which won the Pulitzer Prize for introducing the world to a broad and far-reaching explanation as to why the world is the way it is. Okay, Kris never said the words Western ass, but this seems an apt expression for a book about how the Europeans (and the places they colonized) became the big, fat cats of the world.

I see what he means. Finally I read a book that addresses the questions I've been asking myself, and a few of my friends, for years now. The thrust of the book is that we here in the West won not because we are smarter than others, but because of geography, or as Diamond puts it, good real estate. Or as I'm putting it now, location.

Here it is in a nutshell: Eurasia (particularly the Fertile Crescent and China) had great geography and the best plants and animals for farming, so it developed food production first, which meant societal complexity and specialization, which meant writing systems for recording events and keeping track of trade, which also meant military to guard the food and land, which meant professional soldiers to conquer the hunter-gatherers, which meant more land and people, which meant more resources and technological advancement, which meant formalized learning and, eventually, stories (and propaganda) about conquests to inspire or subdue people. And so on.

By the time of the Greeks and Romans, most of the crops and livestock we take for granted today had become the norm. As the Middle East dried up the power continued to move west.

So how did China, a great civilization that had developed writing when my Celtic ancestors were still carrying the heads of their slain enemies on their belts, manage to lose out to Europe?

Again, the answer is geography, says Diamond. China eventually became a highly centralized, rigid, and politically unified society due in large part to its smooth coastline the unimpeded east-west travel east within the country. One bad decision could have wide and long-lasting consequences. Conversely, Europe became a collection of diverse societies due largely to mountains, peninsulas, and other geographic nooks and crannies that promoted inventiveness and power as its many cultures competed with one another. Columbus tried several avenues before getting the green light and money to sail across the Atlantic.

By the Middle Ages, we had developed guns, steel, and immunity to germs because of our millennia of exposure to livestock. Conquering Australia and the Americas was a slam dunk.

Now, I've grossly oversimplified Diamond's impressive research. He brings together linguistics, biology, history, and a much more detailed examination of geography than I have here. He takes a broad look at the world , going back in time long before the points where most history classes start. He looks at ultimate causes, not just proximate ones, which are often biased, Euro-centric, and tied up in myths about cultural and ethnic superiority.

Now, having said all this, I must add that Diamond doesn't say that individual intelligence, culture, and unforeseeable events (both human and environmental) don't play into it. These other factors are certainly part of the mix, which is why Diamond's work is more about general patterns than it is about trying to predict future events the way pure scientists do. However, he does say that some societies had the good fortune to have started out with more, which influences choices and events early on.

I think this is one of those books about the distant past that will stay with me far into the future. Maybe Gutenberg was just lucky to have been a European, as I am to be a Canadian.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The Number 23

I saw the movie The Number 23 a while back.

While Jim Carrey gives an interesting and disturbing performance as a man with a lot on his mind, the movie as a whole piece of work is just plain bad. Essentially, it’s about a man obsessed with the number 23. Now, the idea of obsession with patterns or numerology as a field of study can certainly provide some grist for the creative mill. (An eminently wise and learned colleague of mine once said that for a writer, belief is irrelevant. The job of the writer is to entertain the notion and explore it. I would agree with this.) Some feel that numbers can explain the world around us, or even the reason for the world around us. However, when these ideas are turned into film, the results are often, well, rather silly. And this new Carrey flick is a case in point. I won’t get into plot details because, quite frankly, I don’t care enough to do so.

Essentially, the film commits two main errors - one structural, the other in how it deals with the number 23 itself (or in some cases its reverse, 32).

First of all, the movie’s structure is uneven. The beginning is playful; the middle is more a series of edgy and bizarre scenes put together than a second act; and the end, if you make it that far, is an okay ending for a movie we wish this movie could’ve been. The movie doesn’t know what it wants to be, quite simply. Secondly, the connection the film makes between numbers is so tenuous as to be laughable. Now I’m no mathematician, but I was laughing, and not in a good way.

However, I did think that Carrey’s hair in the film was very, er, 1976. Wait! If you add up those four number you get … no … yes … 23! See how cool that is? See what I mean?

I also think the price of the movie ticket, the popcorn, and the pop might be around 23 bucks – what you’ll save by not seeing this movie.

When I first decided to beat up on this movie in a blog post, I considered coming up with 23 reasons not to see this film. But, that would suggest obsession on my part, which might support the very idea I was trying to lampoon.

How about this: 3 minus 2 is 1, and 2 minus 3 is -1. Add those two results together and you get 0.

End of post.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Quirpon and on

I got this picture today from my mom. Apparently this little cove is the first Canadian location anyone in my family tree called home. As you may've guessed, this is a shot of somewhere in Newfoundland. Well, this is Quirpon - where, I'm told, my great-great-grandfather (with perhaps another "great" in there), Henry Pynn, was the first Brit to set down roots. Word also has it that the windows and some of the boards of this house, now a Heritage Site, are from the original home, which dates back to around 1820. English adventurer and mariner Sir Humphrey Gilbert, who claimed Newfoundland as a colony, was reported to have yelled, "We are as near to heaven by sea as by land!" as his ship went down in the North Atlantic. Well, I don't know if Newfoundland is close to heaven, but I do know Quirpon is a long way from Markham, Ontario, where I grew up! And it's probably closer to England than it is to Prince Albert, where other ancestors of mine lie buried next to an old prairie church. I think this warrants a visit east.
(I apologize for the solid block of text. There's a new Blogger-Google thing going on, and I'm having trouble formatting... I should just switch to Word Press!)

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Unexplained Canada on CBC

I should have posted this a little earlier.

If you get digital TV and are in the mood for some intriguing and enduring Canadian tales, check out Unexplained Canada, a six-part documentary which starts showing on CBC Country Canada this Saturday (December 2) at 11:30 a.m.

As I've mentioned a few times in the past, I loved working on this show. I had the pleasure of researching and writing stories while speaking with people in many provinces - from the Atlantic to the Prairies.

Canada is not a dull place, if you know where and how to look.

Seek with your imagination, and enjoy the show.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

A Matter of Character

Though for now I continue to slog away in the trenches of modern office life, I am taking on freelance writing projects in addition to my Gleaner assignments. Hey, the writer never stops writing new stuff, and lately I've been writing about something called the York Region Character Community initiative. This piece was published in the York Region Newspaper Group's Business Times.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Rome and Catullus

I've been enjoying the HBO series Rome. I've been renting it from the video store. It portrays a Rome I've long imagined: a republic (and then empire) full of blood, lust, greed and glory. But this series favours the smaller, more intimate stories of the men and women as individuals - an approach I'm sure some have criticized. After all, some like historical tales to be big epics. But then, this is TV, so we should be getting into Caesar's sex life and showing some of his weaknesses as well, no?

Now, if you can get past the fact that most of the characters - merchants, soldiers, consuls, and even Caesar himself - sound like they just strolled out of an English university or a British pub, then you have a fine series. In my humble opinion. (And bear in mind the Roman citizenry was hardly ethnically homogeneous.) But then, I love the everyday detail as much as the larger-than-life events that create civilizations. Passion, energy, and motivation often start at home.

And when it comes to home and its rude, raunchy, and ribald details, I recommend the Roman poet Catullus, whose work was translated by an acquaintance of mine, Ewan Whyte, and published by Mosaic Press in 2004.

For all of Catullus' knee-slapping rough humour, he does have moments of passionate tenderness:

Let us live and love,
not listening to old men's talk.
Suns will rise and set
long after our little light
has gone away to darkness.
Kiss me again and again.
Let me kiss you a hundred times,
a thousand more, again a thousand
without rest, losing count, so no
one can speak of us and say
they know the number of our kisses.

We will never know all the kisses of Rome or anywhere else.

I don't need that much detail.