Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Things unchanged by life

What I learned by watching Powell & Pressburger's The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp:

That even in times of desperate crisis, art can be colourful, energetic, humane, and crafted with care.

That even in times of international hatred, art can show two people who should be enemies becoming the best of friends.

That even though art often fixates on the appearance of women, it can also show, at the same time, that women are just as varied and versatile and obstinately themselves on the inside, as men are.

That art can show the degree to which we are not changed by life, and that this lack of change can often be a good thing: a sign of character, strength, and our own essential decency.

And finally, something that I did not learn, but which
The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp reaffirmed to me:

Powell & Pressburger were two of the world's great film-makers... and they still are.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

"I just want to put my hand around your ankle. I’ll be very happy to pay you."

John Cheever was born on this day in 1912.

Some of the most effective stories I've read this year have been Cheever's, and what makes them work for me is the quiet control, the clarity that he brings to his prose.

This writing seems at first glance understated and almost impersonal... which makes it all the more shocking when his characters reveal the chaos behind their eyes. As much as I love horror fiction, I have to admit that being ambushed by a slice-of-life-in-the-suburbs tale has the advantage of surprise; you can never tell how a Cheever story might twist around and stab you in the gut.

But along with horror, the stories conceal humour as well -- often bizarre, absurdist humour of the "what the hell was that?!?" variety. And this, too, becomes all the more effective when set against the calm assurance of the prose.

I put off reading Cheever for a long time, because I suspected that his themes and settings and people would not interest me. I was wrong. Dead wrong.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Family Traits

After an evening of digging up weeds, I stepped into the kitchen of the farmhouse, just in time to see my father, appalled, stalk up to me with a rolled up copy of Dollars and Sense magazine clutched in one hand.

"There are one million prisoners in the United States," he said. "One million! That's mind-boggling!"

Then he stalked off into the living room, and I could hear him say to someone else, "Have you seen this? There are one million prisoners in the United States! Can you believe that?"

This happened years ago, but I remember it as just one more indication that I am very much the son of my father.

Friday, May 9, 2014

The lessons in life....

While biking in the warm evening sunlight through Vincent Massey Park a few years ago (not long before I met my last girlfriend), I heard the sound of Caribbean pop music. "Women!" I thought, and raced off to find the source.

The sound came from a small bandstand, where festival musicians performed in front of a hillside lined with people in the golden slanted light of day's end. Several people danced to the music. I parked my bike near a line of trees and bushes off to the side of the bandstand, where I was mostly hidden from the crowd, so that I could dance, too.

Within a few moments, one of the musicians waved to me, invited me to step onto the bandstand. I laughed and shook my head, but he kept waving: Come on, get up here!

And so I went up onto the boards and showed the crowd my dance moves, which, in the past, have been charitably called psychotic. The crowd cheered; I bowed and said thanks. The concert was over. When I left the stand, the musician tapped my fist with his own, and said, "Respect! Respect!"

As I was unlocking my bike and getting ready to leave, a pasty-faced, overweight kid walked up to me and said, "Your dancing sucks."

I glanced at him; he could not have been much more than eleven years old. "Whatever you say, kid."

But he had more to say. "Learn to dance" -- lazy gesture like a horizontal karate chop -- "or get the fuck out."

I leaned on my bike and stared at him.

"Let me put it this way," I said. "When you turn 45, and you can do what I just did... good for you."

I could tell from his face that he had no idea what I was talking about, and so I shrugged and walked away with my bike. But at the back of my mind I had something else to tell him. I regret not having said it:

"Kid, we're only given one life each, and life is too precious to leave to experts. A few skills matter to us, and we learn them as well as we can. Everything else we do, not because we're on TV, not because we're being judged, but for the pure joy of being alive. If you're not willing to sing or dance because you're not as good as some peacock on a TV show, then you're not alive at all."

I doubt he would have understood, but I think he should have heard it.