This is a very serious blog.

Category: Movies

More Clouds (part two)

(Continued from Navigating Cloud Atlas…)

Working nights on Cloud Atlas Sextet until I drop, quite literally, no other way to get off to sleep. My head is a Roman candle of invention. Lifetime’s music, arriving all at once. Boundaries between noise and sound are conventions, I see now. All boundaries are conventions, national ones too. One may transcend any convention if only one can first conceive of doing so. Take this island, midstream between timbre and rhythm, not down in any book of theory, but it’s here! Hear the instruments in my head, perfect clarity, anything I wish for. When it’s finished there’ll be nothing left in me…

The duo of Cloud Atlas book and film compliment each other well.

When I first watched the movie, I was blown away. I had been struggling through the beginning of David Mitchell’s book. I stumbled through the first section, finding it difficult to navigate the old English and identify with the characters. I finished just enough of the novel to allow myself to go see the film, to understand the premise and form a little opinion. Leaving the theater I was convinced that the Wachowskis took a good book, and turned it into an incredible movie. Beforehand I had only made it through about 60% of the book, and was on the fence about whether or not I would even bother finishing it…Leaving the theater, I was so impressed I convinced myself the book warranted another chance.

The sextet of voices Mitchell uses during the story are narratives: interviews, letters, journal entries. They are one way stories focused on experience, light on description and rich in personality. The movie picks up on things and compliments those that the book forgot. Taking advantage of the medium, the Wachowskis flush out Mitchell’s intersecting story-lines with lush scenery and attention to visual details unmentionable in the book. Where in the novel you at times feel as if you are swimming, anchorless in description, scenery and place, the movie is able to compliment the storyline wordlessly with luscious venues that more than make-up for what the book lacks. I have always found film an intense, overwhelming medium; I’m always a little disappointed when a gallery features films, they drain me and rapidly usurp emotional availability for other pieces. At a theater though, you can give yourself over entirely to the experience. Cloud Atlas was so visceral it became corporal: at times you can smell the film.

To be honest, I am not entirely sure if it was the film or the soundtrack that most moved me. I orginally tried to write this post while listening to the music, but I had to shut it off: it’s intensity completely fills every crevice of my little brain, and I can’t really do much else but clean or cook–things that require a different hemisphere. It’s the kind of music that when played during a dinner party, will consume the first lapse of silence that naturally occurs, and continue playing out until the record stops, an uninvited guest.

For writers (and readers-but aren’t we all the same?) and perhaps for everyone, language is the easiest medium through which to buoy yourself. Words invite us to spin a world, our own internal, clumsy experience  Off and on throughout my life I have felt this way. That the volume is just turned up all the time. All the volumes. Once when I was travelling, my hosts left on a trip of their own for a few evenings, leaving me to my own devices. I remember spending a dinner alone, soberly absorbed by the way the tines of the fork felt against my lip, the texture of the bread, even the density of the chair I was sitting on. Part of what makes the book so difficult to navigate *is* the lack of setting, of scene. It’s like reading Room for the first time, you spend the first couple chapters piecing together what is even happening, appreciating turns of phrase and brief, isolated moments before you can get into the horrific meat of the story. The brevity of Cloud Atlas means that you don’t really get this type of gravity.

Aside from a chance encounter with an ESL student while I was writing this, I haven’t had the occasion to chat much about the movie with anyone who has actually seen it and disliked it (she didn’t like it because it was too hard to follow). That being said, einmal ist keinmal: it is impossible to imagine what this movie would be like without having some vague knowledge of what you are going to see next. Having read the book, I was able to parse out the voices and piece together plots that might not have been so obvious. Walking out of the theater I was convinced that the movie was incredible, achieving a depth and dialogue beyond what the written medium could find possible: but after finishing the novel I was satisfied that both mediums had optimized their abilities to tell the story. For example, largely due to the lack of description in the novel, the futuristic passages of the book were difficult for me to conceive (let alone navigate), yet visually the film was able to do this seamlessly and well. On the other hand, the book was able to create personal connections and dialogue that would’ve been impossible in the film.

Reading Cloud Atlas was kind of like going on a backpacking trip with one of your best friends childhood best friends. You had heard snippets about them before (probably way more than you realized, before they had a name and a place in your mind). Your friend adores them, but at first you are a little apprehensive: they aren’t quite who you pictured, and they probably aren’t quite how your friend remembers them anyway. At first the trip is awkward: you know you are supposed to like each other and get along – you struggle to find your bearings, adjust your inside jokes; for the first few kilometers you’re working out the pace, the dialogue of your newfound trio. Eventually you (hopefully) come around to the friend. You don’t know the same childhood friend that you thought you were meeting, but in a way you know them better. A more up to date, stripped down version of the person they once were.

Going to watch Cloud Atlas the movie on the other hand, is like meeting someone in their hometown. Things make sense. They may or may not be as you had imagined: but that is how things are. Places and people have weight, shape, explanations for why they appear as such. All of the images that existed in your mind before you had arrived instantly vanish. Each aspect of your friend is explained, even the unnoticed bits, sculpted by the empty space that surrounds them. Their quirky sense of humour? That came from their dad. They have their mother’s eyes and must have gotten their love for Ginko trees from the unmentioned ones that line their childhood streets. Visiting your new friend in their hometown in a way is much more complete. You can breathe the air they breathed, walk the streets they walked and see the city as it stands.

It’s odd though, because in a strange way, the version of the person you met on the hiking trip is a much more complete person.

To be continued …

…The artist lives in two worlds.

*      *      *

And now, a brief announcement about my other world.

I wanted to include a quick footnote, to my tiny audience (Hello all of you! You are more encouraging than you will ever know: thank you, thank you, thank you for reading and following this site :)):

I don’t often include many details about my current life, but I wanted to apologize briefly, (especially to the yeahwrite folks) about my spotty postings the past two weeks. Life has been tumultuous – ultimately, quite hopeful! And very busy…

Recently I have been in the process of interviewing (successfully!!) for a new job. It has been a long and difficult search, and I’m totally thrilled and excited with this new position. I start next week, and I’m looking forward to settling back into a new routine of writing, working and reading. Regardless, lately the process and prospect has detracted from my capacity to focus.

Also, we have adopted Grizelda (aka Zelda or Griz). More details to follow.

Tips for timid cats welcome.

Much love and gratitude to all.


Navigating Cloud Atlas

After my first year of uni, during my final stages of  planning and packing for Africa I found myself staring at a stack of correspondance spread out all over our bedroom floor. I was on exchange in rural Québec, and we were rooming seven kilometers outside of Notre-Dame-de-Lourdes, which had a grand total of 732 people in it. The family had four children, and in honour of our arrival, they had emptied out their bright blue playroom for my counterpart and I. We slept on two foam mattresses on the floor an arms length away from one another, my letters covered the only small 8×10 empty patch of hardwood.

Mail is always exciting. My parents would forward packages of my mail via multiple rural routes until it eventually arrived at our old school mailbox in front of the giant blue farmhouse. Endlessly indecisive, I had applied for transfers into four other university programs and been accepted. The door to return to Ottawa was still open. I had been mulling over the decision for several weeks as the applications were processed, during my runs alone in empty fields behind our house, pondering while I replanted thousands of tiny conifers in the greenhouses at work and during the 44km bike-ride to our friends in Victoriaville. I had all the brochures and appropriate enrolment forms spread out all over the tiny space, and was (once again) trying to weigh my options, with grids and pro/con lists, when suddenly a calm washed over me: I realized I would never be attending some of these programs.
I had already made my decision.

I had never been to Halifax when I decided to move there. We hatched an elaborate plan for my arrival. I didn’t have any friends there that I knew of, and the first night we arrived our car was broken into and a bunch of our things were stolen.
I had zero expectations. I heard it was a rough town. I knew there was an ocean, that there was a good music scene and that the weather was crazy but that was about it.
I remember the exact moment of calm in knowing that this was what I was going to do. It’s funny, of all the things I have done in my life, I think moving out there was one of the best and most effortless decisions I ever made. The calm I felt during my time there is almost unmatched from everywhere else I’ve ever lived. I’ve heard a lot of people move to Halifax in this way.
And yet, I’m still not ready to even consider going back.

Halifax houseparty, 2008 Photo credit: Ben Dalton

Zero expectations are often the best ways to go about life, books, and when possible: film.

Cloud Atlas came highly recommended. Exceptionally highly recommended. Here is a sample update from one of my literary pals:

So for the last time, everybody read Cloud Atlas. Especially before the movie comes out. It is better than any book you’ve read recently and probably the best thing to happen to novels in decades.

Heck even Ben Affleck liked it. I had been forewarned by friends and pre-viewers to avoid seeing the trailer (by all means) before reading the book, and see the movie at your own risk. Good friends had seen it opening weekend, and returned with rave reviews. A few of us decided to head to pho and cheap night last week. We left the theater reeling.

That being said, if you are intending on reading and/or seeing Cloud Atlas I will not be offended, nay perhaps even recommend that you stop reading this post.

*        *        *

I have picked up several of David Mitchells books before. A few of them are regularly featured at Munro’s for no more than a handful of dollars. Their covers are decent. Provocative, but not captivating. Titles that are slightly ubiquitous: A Thousand Autumns of Jacob Zoet, Ghostwritten – poetic, but almost forgettable. Unfailingly, given enough time I will pick them up, scrutinize the cover, flip them over, skim the back and still intrigued, flip through it again. Each time I’ve put then down and walked away. Mitchell has been short listed for the Booker a number of times before, never made it.Working through Cloud Atlas I wonder if he may have broken the curse.

Spent the fortnight gone in the music room, reworking my year’s fragments into a “sextet for overlapping soloists”: piano, clarinet, ‘cello, flute, oboe, and violin, each in it’s own language of key, scale and color. In the first set, each solo is interrupted by its successor: in the second, each interruption is recontinued, in order.

Revolutionary or gimmicky? Shan’t know until it’s finished and by then it’ll be too late.

-Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell

To give you a rough idea of the book’s layout, there are six narratives, arranged like Russian nesting dolls, one inside of the other. First up: Adam Ewing, a sickly yet important traveller on a boat in the late 1800s. Next, a series of letters from Robert Frobisher a composer living in Europe during the early 1930s. This is followed by a series of short, punchy chapters with 1970s journalist and protagonist Lisa Rey, in LA. Then comes Timothy Cavendish, a sixty-something year old publisher in London, UK during modern day (2012). This is followed by an interview of Somni-451, the first self-actualized clone in the not-so-distant future: it alludes to a location likely somewhere in Asia (judging from names and other descriptors). Finally, in the middle of the book the last narrative, a yarn told by an old man Zachry, about his escape from what we can only deduce to be Hawaii, sometime in a post-apocalyptical world.

In Mitchell’s novel they are arranged chronologically, cut neatly in half, ended abruptly (one can only postulate by death). The middle narrative is told in entirety, and then, lo and behold, each of the previous narratives are returned to in succession. We find our characters saved at a crucial moment. We had been deceived, they were indeed rescued. In the latter half of the book our suspicions are confirmed that each of the stories are related. The interview of Somni is a relic in the future, the recording captured on a spinning egg,  which becomes a mystic oracle in the future. Each of the previous stories had been interrupted part-way through:  Somni was watching a film of Timothy Cavendish which had gotten stuck. Timothy was reviewing a manuscript about Lisa Rey, which he had forgotten at home. Lisa had inherited half of the letters of Robert Frobisher (the balance of which are then sent to her). Robert had been reading the diary of Adam Ewing, which had been ripped in half; the second half had been used (as he discovers) to prop up his wobbly bed.

Before reaching the midpoint of the book, you do notice some repetition and common threads, but instead of finding it clever (ahead of your cogency the method to the madness), I found it vaguely irritating. An oversight by an editor? Or was I losing my mind? Several times I actually flipped back through the book to assure myself that yes, it was the second time that Mitchell had said “his muscles atrophied” or that the name of the cemetery was the same as…a nuclear reactor? Most of these “coincidences” are most notable in the second half, but regardless, I found myself flipping through the book a lot. Somni; wasn’t that the name of the last character? And what is with this recurrence of Hawaii? (On a slightly unrelated note, my friend and I unwittingly ended up attending a Hawaii spirituality workshop at a festival a few weeks ago. I keep finding the ticket stub everywhere-it seems to have the ability of being in the pocket of every jacket I own all the time….). Yet by the time you reach the second half of the novel you are aware that this beauty in serendipty is around us all the time, we simply chose to ignore it.

When I realized that these were embedded, intentional, delicately crafted threads, my heart melted. I was instantly ashamed and embarrassed that I could have ever interpreted these repetitions were oversights, or literary blunders. I chided myself for being so pompous.Isn’t that how we so often deal with repetition? To dismiss it as an oversight, an annoyance?

Since my first reading of his book, Milan Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being has remained firmly etched – for better or for worse – in some abscess of my mind. It was then that the segment that first made me fall in love with the book gently recited itself in my mind:

This symmetrical composition—the same motif appears at the beginning and the end—may seem quite “novelistic” to you, and I am willing to agree, but only on condition that you refrain from reading such notions as “fictive,” “fabricated,” and “untrue to life” into the word “novelistic.” Because human lives are composed in precisely such a fashion. They are composed like music. Guided by his sense of beauty, an individual transforms a fortuitous occurrence (Beethoven’s music, death under a train) into a motif, which then assumes a permanent place in the composition of the individual’s life. Anna could have chosen another way to take her life. But the motif of death and the railway station, unforgettably bound to the birth of love, enticed her in her hour of despair with its dark beauty. Without realizing it, the individual composes his life according to the laws of beauty even in times of greatest distress. It is wrong, then, to chide the novel for being fascinated by mysterious coincidences. … But it is right to chide man for being blind to such coincidences in his daily life. For he thereby deprives his life of a dimension of beauty.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera

For tonight, I leave you with this. Until then, enjoy the beauty in repetition and coincidence.

To be continued tomorrow!


– (Trying to be) Day 10 (!) –

The Name of History

Our hallway is always changing.

Nothing major, just little things. We first noticed a small big horned sheep perched on one of the ledges by our flat. Later, the sheep at moved to a different ledge. A Superman appeared one day, stuck in the grate, flying out of the wall. Two days later he was holding the sheep.  Then the sheep was wearing a bow on the window sill and Superman’s cape was on backwards. Every day is a little bit different, nothing shocking, but just changed enough that you notice, vaguely stringing together unrelated narrative. We also now have two giant inflatable exercise balls that are covered with stickers, and roll from one end of the building to the other. I am sure they are a fire hazard, but it does keep you engaged enough that you notice.

The latest addition is this sign we saw as we grappled the bikes into the lift: “Don’t forget YOU need a poppy.”

Considering the benign state of most of the other hallway decor, I thought this sign to be almost forceful in it’s conviction. It might as well have been taking a stance on the death penalty, it was so relatively political. At the same time it was also humbling in it’s own way. To think our phantom artist had not only noticed the date, but also taken the time to go out and fashion this pathetic little art installation installation reminder in our lift.  That this was something that really mattered to him. Convictions make me emotional.

Remembrance day always kind of sneaks up on us. It arrives with the Day of the Dead, poppies, blossoming on lapels everywhere as the pumpkins are ushered away, bright red splashes of pain against the monochrome of grey and drizzle. A somber pre-emptive precursor to Christmas displays.

Every since working at Vimy Ridge, the first two weeks of November never fails to take me back to quiet, empty battlefields, filled with bleating sheep and tombstones. I spend the first half of the month faded into seasonal memory, mulling over details of the past and the Somme.

Doubtlessly prompted by the encroaching commemoration, this article  in the National Post ran November 2 (Canadians Should Be Sued for their Neglect of their own History, by Kelly McParland). I have been thinking about it ever since. The article attributes Canadians lack of understanding and appreciation of history due to our sterile, limited exposure to it’s content:

[Canadians seem to want to believe that our national history is one of the most tedious subjects in the world.] If you’re curious about one of the starker differences between Canadians and Americans, it’s this: Americans treat their history as Hollywood, one long glorious tale or heroism and tragedy played out over several centuries of war, romance and intrigue, with courageous heroes and alluring heroines. Canada makes teenagers memorize body counts. We don’t even try to make it interesting.

*    *    * 

Yesterday was a grey and drizzly kind of day. The kind of day when way, way too brightly coloured leaves fall off the trees, the day is noticeably too short and where you run around with a bit of a frantic desperation wondering where your week has gotten away to. Winter is going through the motions to make good on it’s promise, and many of us have been tipped off into the world of commemoration and meditation on fall, on death and wars. Late last night after wallowing in grey, chilly energy all day, I set about to make things right with some stretching and watching a bit of a film before crawling into bed. I wanted something light, funny, perhaps even a bit thoughtful. Given my recent contemplations on the French  Le Nom des Gens (or in English The Names of Love), promised to fulfill all of these requirements and more.
NB: available, sub-titled on Canadian NetFlix!

The film is funny, punchy and very French. It features two random people in France. Baya, a young and sexy strong female lead, who is convinced that by exploiting fascist right-wing males through sex, she will be able to convert them to her leftist ways of thinking. Naturally, she ends up falling in love with Albert, a bumbling, boring ornithologist.

Super saturated colours soak the film. Understated yet stunning actors.
Moments of the type of real life romance that is so rarely portrayed in North American films:
Albert is standing waist-deep in a pond, about to lift a huge, dead snow-white swan out of a lake. He is wearing hip waders, when suddenly – his mobile rings. He pauses to pick up the phone – his mother is dead. He hangs up the phone. Pauses. Gathers up the dead swan again in his arms, floating weightlessly on the water, as he stands, stunned in the pond, holding this huge beautiful limp white bird. Grief floods over his shocked face. End scene.

It is a romantic comedy, but the romance is a backdrop to the rest of the film, the comedy a veil. Instead this film looks at our personal relationship with politics, and questions their links with our history.

Baya prides herself on being Arab/Algerian and French, as the movie unfolds we learn that Albert’s past is just as controversial (if not more so than Baya’s). We also see how the past can be incredibly traumatizing. How erasing some of the past is the only way that some have learned to cope. How then can we trace our political convictions to a history we have forced ourselves to forget? Ultimately the movie suggests that by focusing on making love, not war and by rejecting the past without forgetting it, the world becomes a better place. Differences are cast aside and through sex, France moves forward.

I don’t intend to offend by using this lens to critique McParland’s article, but frankly, Canadians have their hands tied in our educational approach to our own history and our policies on multi-culturalism. My great grandfather was on the other side of the First World War. Do you think these stigmas had dissolved twenty or thirty years later during the Second World War? I can think of a half-dozen people off the top of my head whose last names were changed when they arrived to our country. Let alone discuss our bloody and glorified colonial pasts. Canada was effectively still a colony during the First World War. Part of the importance of Vimy Ridge is the fact that it was instrumental in cementing Canada’s independence from our Mother country; but it was an old school way of gaining independence: through blood. If anything, by approaching history from a more objective, universal point of view more Canadian youth will be emotionally engaged in learning about how they fit into the narrative. What was happening in Africa? What was happening in Romania? Where are you from, what was your family doing in 1919? <br<Appearance can be deceiving.

Canadians tend to be politically correct to a fault, often camouflaged as “politeness.” In my personal experience to avoid offending people this tends to take two forms: to entrench ourselves in a past so distant it is universal (i.e., ancient Egypt, Rome), or to focus so heavily on the sterility of details it absolves us of all the deep emotional attachments that could offend.  Glorifying people in a story-book “tale of heroism” perpetuates inaccurate historical stereotypes of right and wrong. The First World Was was ultimately the war to end all wars, the end of Imperialism; how can you say one side was heroic and glorious? How can you tell that to descendants that were so ashamed of their involuntary involvement in the battles that they changed their names and forgot their language to leave it behind? Shame is rampant in our society. It shuts down important conversations. War should not be forgotten, nor should the brutality of colonialism. But heroism implies villains, and should not be used as a tactic for engagement.

One of the best books I read in my time entrenched in France was All Quiet on the Western Front, which tells the story of schoolboys sent off to war. It’s poignant and engaging, and about two third through the book you realize that this is a story about the other side. It is a perfect accessible example of the travesty of war: perhaps this should be the type of Hollywood recounting given to youth. Canada is an unsettled collection of recent and ancient refugees.   We can not forget the past, we can not gloss over it’s horrific details, but we also can’t pretend it is a common thread that ties us all together. A well-rounded approach to fewer events might help more Canadians connect to who they are, rather than an alienating Hollywood approach that glorifies tragedy.

Poppies grow over the graves of all soldiers without discrimination, a perfect, tragic metaphor for the universality of death.

Lest we forget.

Langemark, German cementary in Belgium, Fall 2007

– Day 3 –