Thursday, February 24, 2005

the chairs of Constantine

For some reason there are a whole lot of chairs in the movie Constantine. I don't mean that there are a normal number of chairs in most of the movie and then the climactic battle is fought in a school cafetorium on Forced Yule Performance Night at the Christmas play. Come to think of it, I don't even believe that Constantine sports an above average number of chairs. And now that I bend my brain to the affair, I realize that there are an insufficient number of chairs, because someone's always standing around while someone else gets to sit.

In fact, it is this dearth of chairs - clearly a consequence of poor set dec - that leads the film to lavish so much attention on what chairs there are. Chairs become rarer and scarcer and more symbolically freighted than gold, and in such circumstances you can't avoid thinking about them. Chairs are weird enough to begin with, mixing comfort with dread, relaxation with restraint, and I don't think we needed a Chair Fetish movie in the guise of a Keanu Reeves vehicle. But we got one anyway, and I saw it, so now I'm stuck thinking about all the chairs in Constantine.

It's not fun.

First let me say that Constantine is a bad movie. It's that particular kind of bad movie that frustrates and annoys because there is clearly a good movie curled up inside it like a cocooned bug that's just not going to get free. Inside the overplotted and stupidly scripted (and crappily shot) mess of a story about a private detective (of sorts) who packs screech beetles (demons hate 'em) instead of a Magnum .357 or whatever, there's a surprisingly sophisticated take on the sources of horror in objects. Maybe sophisticated takes on the horror inherent in objects do not make for good movie taglines, but that'll draw me to theatres anytime. "Baby Geniuses: For a Sophisticated Take on the Horror Inherent in Objects". I'd throw down seven bucks for that.

Chairs are disturbing and freaky things, and Constantine, for all its flaws, seems to have figured that out. If you want to visit Hell for a little looky-loo, sit in a chair with your shoe-clad feet in a roaster pan full of tapwater and stare into a cat's eyes (slitty). If you need a plot-advancing vision, sit in an old electric chair and get some guy in a natty fedora to plunge a hot electrified wire into your chest (sparky). Taking out a roomful of half-breed demons? Stand on a chair and activate the holy-water sprinklers (handy). A little confab with Satan? Slit your wrists and he'll show up. He'll pull up a chair and deliberately drag it across the floor to produce that metal-on-metal scrape (diabolical!). If it weren't for chairs in Constantine, everyone would stand and nothing would happen.

Chairs point to the dual nature of hospitality, the grimace beneath the grin, the skull beneath the skin, what have you. Chairs are the tool of the hostile host, simultaneously offering ease and threatening to bind and harm. In Constantine's case, the host is the world and we are its hapless guests. Hell is described as "the world behind the world," a peripherally glimpsed nightmare version of our own. The chair facilitates crossover from the bus-fare-and-omelettes life we know to one of pain and fire and highways clogged with husks of cars. If this sounds like The Matrix, with its shifty realities and Reeves-centric scenes, recall that The Matrix also required restraining chairs or creches to move back and forth from one milieu to another.

In addition to the Chair thing, the movie's also got a Foot thing, a Water thing, a Fire thing, a Cigarette thing, a Monster Birth thing... you see, there are simply too many Things in this film. If only it had a Script thing.

I also watched Hotel Rwanda. What it lacked in chairs it made up for in genocide.

because i am a tv producer of sorts

I think we should take Mel Gibson's film and turn it into a daytime soap opera. We'll call it "The Passions of Christ".

Jesus can be trapped down a well for an entire season.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

on having the courage to open up and share thoughts

The other day I received a comment on my site that stopped me in my updating tracks. It wasn’t offensive or revolutionary, but it struck me as strange and somehow inappropriate to this weblog, despite its sincerity. It was Dan from Seattle, who responded to my fanciful photo essay “The Shrivelled Balloons of Montreal” with the note: “Thank you for having the courage to open up and share your thoughts with others”.

I’m pretty sure that you’re responding to my preceding comment about missing my wife while travelling (and not to my story about searching out legendary balloons in a godforsaken Montreal), but still. Dan from Seattle - I truly appreciate the sentiment, but it gave me genuine pause. I felt like a little boy on Christmas day who has unwittingly opened a package meant for his older sister. But no - I glance around the room and there are my parents, expectant smiles stretched over their jaws, happy to see me handle the gift they picked out especially for me.

I think it’s the nouns that confound me.


Dan from Seattle, let me make this clear to you: I’m a big old coward. There’s nothing revealed on these digi-pages that gives me any pain or requires me to dig deep into my soul. This is the place where I feel safe: where I twist language and experience around and admire the resultant shape. It’s a bit like being a potter on the wheel - there is perhaps the anxiety of performance, but there’s no Pot of Pain and Shame that the potter spins off the wheel and takes brave ownership of. Unless there really is a pot of Pain and Shame, a pot of Adolescent Trauma, a pot of Mistaken Identity That Promises Gain But Leads to Tragedy (that’s a complicated pot). What I’m shaping here is a Pot of Ironic Engagement, and that requires not courage, but ironic engagement. Which is cowardly.


Not precisely a noun in Dan from Seattle’s formulation, but I can bend and break a few rules here in this environment (I think that’s air I’m breathing?). As I’ve mentioned here and there, I am not in the business of revealing myself, except in the most oblique fashion – if you want to ferret out my psyche from my writings about the Philippines or the latest B-movie, you may have some success, but that seems like a bit too much work for the casual reader. It sounds a little sweaty, and what we want here is a nice dry time, with all the moisture nicely wicked away. It’s not that I’m particularly coy, but I don’t feel that my personal self – what self there is behind what persona I project – would really entertain or edify anyone. On the other hand I’m a self-absorbed extrovert, so I build a palace in my mind, install myself as pseudonymous potentate, and besiege the internet. Watch for halberds.


It took me by surprise to realize that most of what I write here isn’t “thoughts”. In fact, what’s here is barely the result of thought. It’s the result of one word, one phrase, one clause suggesting another, and so on. I often don’t know what the end of my sentence is going to look like when I begin one. But I have great confidence that my ending will refer, at least nominally, to the beginning, and if it doesn’t - well, most readers are generous and kind, and they’ll make some meaning out of the whole mess. I told that to people in a writing class, and their reactions ranged from indulgent dismissal (which was correct, since I was being fatuous) to outright disgust (also correct, because I wrote pleasing sentences).

This isn’t to say that I don’t have opinions. I have tons of opinions that I’ll unleash anytime I please. They droppeth down like acid rain from my bully pulpit high up on my cyber-peak in Darien, people (What?). I even have an opinion on the new Keanu Reeves vehicle Constantine: yech.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

New Brunswick

I've spent the last couple of February weeks driving around New Brunswick, which means that at least 20% of that time I was looking at this:

Exciting, no? There were definitely exceptions - the hilly and charming Moncton downtown, the poorly named but picturesque village of Doaktown, the span of Centennial Bridge over the Miramichi River. And out on the frost-heaved route 117 to Escuminac Point, New Brunswick definitely came through for me.

I particularly liked this boarded-up house sitting at the side of the road.

What surprises me most are the visible patches of green. I don't remember seeing any green in New Brunswick, but it's clearly in the photos. How much green did I miss? Not to mention: what else did I miss? Or even: how much am I missing every day? What gulf of perception does that patch of still-green grass signify?

Instead of pondering what-all my eyes elide, I'm going to show you this defunct grocery store.

This store (the Ep Uy Grocerie? I'm betting that "Ep-" is the start of "Epicerie," but I'm stymied by the "-uy") is located about 15 miles or so down the road from the boarded-up house in the town of Baie Ste Anne, a Francophone town on route 117 that produces tragedy, fishermen and oil pipeline workers. Its harbour allows passage onto the nasty Northumberland Strait, which is liberally specked with shoals, sandbars, rocks and difficult currents.

Baie Ste Anne also produced Canadian and British Empire boxing champion Yvon Durelle, who had his heyday in the 1950s. He now lives about a mile or so from this abandoned grocery store, playing the VLT machines at the Super Decker Cafe next to his house.

The Super Decker has some good fried clams.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

a slightly more accurate account of my time in montreal

Nobody has quite come out and said so, but my recent photo essay on my trip to Montreal could be termed creative non-fiction, insofar as nothing beside a trip to Montreal and an encounter with shrivelled balloons actually happened. The truth is that I had an extremely good time in Montreal, which is about as satisfying a city as you're likely to come across. My good time there I attribute to my lawyer-in-training friend Helvetica, who isn't nearly as Swiss as her nickname would suggest. This photo is taken in her apartment only days after the tragic accident that took her chin (hence the scarf).

I understand that her chin has since been reconstructed and that she now leads a very nearly normal life.

Actually, I took two trips to Montreal, one in mid-December and the other in early January. I would say that I was spanning the millennium with my Belle Province visits if the millennium weren't where it already was, but that's something for another post. During the first visit Helvetica found herself a bit busy writing papers and studying for exams, so we lazed around in teahouses (sans opium) and brasseries over a couple of nights. At some point during the visit I promised to advance my writing career, or the next time I visited I would have to walk up and down Rue Ste Catherine in my polka-dotted boxers with a sandwich board over my shoulders bearing the phrase Ask me about my squandered talent. She in turn promised to treat me to a proper Montreal experience on my next visit.

And no one out there can say that she didn't deliver on her promise. Because that phrase is physically impossible for the mouth to produce without some serious surgery. Anyway. On my January visit we hung around in the lobby of the Musée de Beaux Arts, ate flaky things in a patisserie, saw The Merchant of Venice, spent an evening on the top floor of Club Cleopatre and watched the oldest running drag show in the city, ate poutine, drank chocolate, went to a party full of law students, and finally ended up strolling around by myself through downtown at 2 a.m., feeling good about being among the crowds of barhoppers and bouncers and strip club callers. It made the corners of my eyes crinkle in satisfaction. But January nights in Montreal can be windy and cold when you're wearing nothing but socks, boxers and a sandwichboard sign.

Saturday, February 12, 2005

quest for the shrivelled balloons of montreal

One day, while I was taking a quick break from threatening the neighbours, I decided to live out my childhood dream and finally locate the shrivelled balloons of Montreal, or as they call them there, les ballons ratatinés. Most of the literature of my youth contained references to them - "hanging from barren trees in autumnal clusters like perverse wrinkly fruit" was one such memorable description (A.G. Morgan, The Skraeling Time) - but I had been of the mind that these were nothing but myths used to frighten children.

No more. I took a plane to Montreal.

antique 737

Two hours into the flight I grew fascinated with the engine depending from the wing.

it's cold out there

When the attendants explained that I could not open the emergency exit to stand on the wing and snap a few 'pix,' I lost interest in not screaming at them until they fed me free gin-and-tonics.

sparkling alcohol

We landed in the afternoon. The streets of Montreal blended together into a seamless nightmare of monotony, a grey smokey quilt of claustrophobic winter hell. Hatchback after hatchback threw up the same plume of granular brown slush. I thought I was going to die.

Lord God kill me, it's Boul Sherbrooke

Buildings, once vibrant centres of business and recreation, had been overtaken by a fibrous grey lichen.

now covering 90% of Montreal and all of Longueil

Shadowy figures inspected me from grimy windows with a weary hostility venting into the cold vacuum of apathy.

il m'accuses

Somewhere along the way I got confused and started to to do my job. I set up a few lights in someone's house.

Finally, with only twenty-four hours to go before my flight back home, I spotted les ballons ratatinés in a parking lot off Rue Moreau, looking exactly as they had in all those steel-point engravings.

I reminded myself that the many imprecations against approaching them were no more than bedside stories my father had told me, so I walked over to get a better look.

Man, they were all shrivelled.

What benighted creature? What capricious creator?

I mean, I've taken international flights to look at shrivelled things before, but this made me feel sad and unpleasant.

I flew home the next afternoon and fed my pig, who had grown hungry in my absence. He was as young as the day we had left him, but we had grown tired and old.

Friday, February 11, 2005

today's great news

I figured out today that my life has lost its coherence. It has disarticulated itself and now I feel like a man reeling dazed after an explosion, not quite aware that he has lost a limb but looking about for it nonetheless.

So: I'm sitting in a hotel in Miramichi, finding out that, instead of returning home for a long stretch of office work and high-volume phone sales calls, I'll be flying out to San Fransisco with a crew to interview people: a) in a maximum-security penitentiary; b) in a strip club; and c) under a bridge (the last because our third interviewee is a homeless guy). In my off-hours I'll be keeping the hyperactive director from getting himself into unimaginable trouble. Another stamp on my passport, another ventricle damaged.

Saturday, February 05, 2005

forgive me, please

Forgive me? Yes, forgive me. For my what? My absence. I'm on the road from the theotherdayth to the fourteenth, and internet access has been and will be sporadic until I get back home to my marital bed. Right now all I have are hotel beds, and those just aren't marital. Some of them appear to have been prostitutional, but that's as close as it comes.

At some point I'll have more than five minutes to discuss my adventures in documentary filmmaking, and then I'll tell you all. Or some. But I tell you this right now: shooting a reading of a play based on court transcripts from 1880 is a fucking boring experience. Especially when the audience starts making speeches. And the actors are all affecting hideous "sure an' begorrah" Irish accents.

Holy, holy, dullness. Blessed be thee and all thy spawn.