September 30, 2006

Everything's Gone Coupland

The 25th annual Vancouver International Film Festival opened last Thursday, and boasts 500 screenings of 300 films over two weeks. It is one of the best-attended film festivals in North America, registering an average of 150,000 attendees in each of the last three years.

As you can imagine it can be a bit daunting to pick up the program catalogue and figure out what you want to see. It would take you almost a week just to read through all the synopses. So I adopted my usual approach of choosing a single film that I absolutely must see, a few more I really want to see, a couple of short-film programs and a documentary or two.

This afternoon Esther and I attended the must-see film on the list, Everything's Gone Green, which happens to be Vancouver novelist Douglas Coupland's screenwriting debut. I was tempted to call it, Douglas Coupland's Everything's Gone Green because while that kind of credit is usually reserved for the director, this is undeniably Coupland's film. And I think the filmmakers knew that going in. They gave credit where credit was due.

If you've read any of Coupland's books (or all of them) you'll immediately recognize the Couplandisms throughout Everything's Gone Green. The protagonist is a thirty-something slacker who finds himself suddenly disillusioned by life and the path he finds himself on, watching from the sidelines as his siblings and friends seem to fall ass-backwards into success and become exceedingly rich. A father who has been disposed of by a company he's given his life to and who finds himself too young to retire and too old to learn something new. Various doomed fringe characters living on the margins of society, engaged in nefarious occupations. Unconventional romance. And, of course, Vancouver.

What I appreciated most was that Vancouver was not made exceptionally beautiful. Much of the filming was done in the spring, and the city looks as it should. Like Vancouver. Which is to say wet, dark, green. Overpriced condos dominate the skyline. Mountain-tops disappear into the low clouds. And there are bridges to cross. There is a lot of fun made of Vancouver-as-film-set, made to stand in for Los Angeles, New York, Seattle, et al in thousands of films over the last decade. The protagonist's love interest is a set designer and talks about a palm-tree prop that has appeared in more movies of the week than Jane Seymour.

The film was good. I enjoyed it. So did Esther, and from the sounds of it, much of the sold-out theatre. Douglas Coupland was not in attendance. No wonder. He's just made the Giller Prize long list (new this year, the long list), with J-Pod, is preparing to open a play based on Life After God, his documentary, Souvenir of Canada, came out on DVD this week... I'm quite sure there's more, but suffice it to say the man is busy.

September 17, 2006

Time Will Come

Last week, in a comment on my In the Midst of Manhattan post, Jer linked to a Katrina Onstad article from that echoed my sentiments about New York and the movies. Or rather, my sentiments echoed hers, I guess, since hers appeared three days before mine. Had I read it before I wrote that entry I would likely have simply pasted a link with a few additional personal reflections. It's remarkable that she's used a number of the same reference points I did, citing similar films, actors and directors.

In the days, weeks and months following 9/11 I wondered how writers and filmmakers would respond, and how the culture and character of New York City could never be represented in exactly the same way it had been. The shot of the World Trade Center towers in the opening credits for Friends, for example, suddenly took on a profundity that the show was unprepared to deliver.

And while Hollywood seems to have recently returned (with limited success, it seems) to making New York a backdrop for beautiful, wealthy, navel-gazing intellectuals in their multi-million dollar loft apartments, I'm waiting for the films and novels in which the events and aftermath of 9/11 and how it has shaped the way we live are explored in greater depth and with historical insight, with the perspective gained from the passage of time. And I don't mean movies and books literally about 9/11, such as United 93 or Oliver Stone's World Trade Center. That doesn't really interest me.

Well, since Onstad already said it, (and in case you don't want to read the whole article even though it's so good you really should...), I'll quote her:

"Some might say that seeing New York function once again as set dressing means that the terrorists aren't winning, but maybe it only suggests a kind of artistic denial, or complacency. Of course, "movie New York" has always been a myth, but on 9/11, that myth was shattered, maybe irreversibly, leaving a space at the movies for a new kind of New York. Wouldn't it be great if filmmakers could find a way to show New York that is neither blinkered to the new world reality nor directly addressing 9/11? Soon, perhaps, films will catch up to our own stretched imaginations and New York will turn up not just as a changed city, but also as a changed symbol. The city means something new now, and it is up to artists to tell us what that is, however complicated, however divisive." ~ Katrina Onstad from New York State of Mind,

What, for instance, does Woody Allen have to say about what has become of his town? And I wonder if that has something to do with why his last few films have been mounted in London, England. Similarly perhaps, Spike Lee took on Hurricane Katrina in a much-ballyhooed documentary, When the Levees Broke, but has not really addressed the attack on the city that has become synonymous with his persona in any significant way.

That I'd like to see. And the time will come.

September 11, 2006

Five Years Gone

On a CBS documentary about the FDNY and 9/11 last night, it was said that if you scratch the surface of any New York firefighter you'll find 9/11. And having been in New York recently I'd extend that sentiment to all New Yorkers.

Ground Zero affected me more deeply than I had anticipated. Seeing that gaping wound in the Manhattan skyline was heartbreaking. As I stood outside 10 House, the fire station across the street, a bicycle courier came out of the station and called back over his shoulder to the firemen inside, "You guys are my heros, you know? That's where it's at."

September 09, 2006

In the Midst of Manhattan

I was in Manhattan last week for the first time, and I was surprised to discover how familiar the place felt. I've been in a number of great cities, but have always had the joy and wonder of discovering them upon arrival. It was different with New York. It was like I already knew it, like I already had an accumulated memory of the place from all of the thousands of things I've read in books, seen on television and in movies, heard in songs... and throughout the week, as Esther and I wandered around town we kept knowing things, identifying landmarks, that we hadn't seen actually seen before. At one point, we were walking up 5th Avenue, when Esther told me to look back. There was the Flatiron Building. We had just walked right by it.

It's impossible to look at the Statue of Liberty in the distance from Battery Park without thinking of ten-year-old Vito Corleone staring through the window of his quarantine cell in The Godfather Part II. Or Perry and Jack Lucas lying on their backs "cloud-busting" from the Great Lawn in Central Park in The Fisher King. Or the Brooklyn Bridge without thinking of Isaac and Mary watching the sun come up in Woody Allen's Manhattan. Or any of hundreds of locations from the the Woody Allen oeuvre or, more recently, Sex in the City.

Our hotel was in Midtown, a block from the Empire State Building, and we must have passed it three or four times a day, and every time I looked up I wondered at the scale of King Kong, or the ill-fated meeting of Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr in An Affair to Remember, on the observation deck eighty-six flours up.

While in the Metropolitan Museum's Temple of Dendur exhibit, I thought of Harry asking Sally to dinner. Come to think of it Holden Caufield, from Catcher in the Rye, spent some time looking at the mummies and "toons" in the Met, too. I definitely thought of old Holden in Central Park, urging his little sister, Phoebe, to ride the carousel.

"I felt so damn happy all of a sudden, the way old Phoebe kept going around and around. I was damn near bawling, I felt so damn happy, if you want to know the truth. I don't know why. It was just that she looked so damn nice, the way she kept going around and around, in her blue coat and all. God, I wish you could have been there."

In Greenwich Village I imagined Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs haunting the cafes, jazz cellars and stoops, drinking cheap wine out of gallon jugs and heading back to their cold-water flats to eat Benzedrine, write and listen to jazz all night from a transistor radio. I walked under the awning of The Village Vanguard and thought of John Coltrane and Charlie Parker shaping their sound, and birthing the only truly original American art form and emerging onto the street at dawn, probably without a much of a clue as to the significance of what they were doing.

Being in Manhattan somehow makes you feel like you've become a part of all that, part of all of that history, those lives, those stories, part of the mythology of the world's greatest city. Maya Angelou said she became a writer so that she could live more than one life, and that's kind of how I felt in New York.

And I guess you could take the high road and thumb a nose at this, say that its corrupted and inauthentic. I've heard the lament, for instance, that Times Square has been Disneyfied, that Broadway is dead, that it has become a tourist trap in line with the showiness of Las Vegas. But I was awed by the talent on display at Sweeney Todd, in which the ten actors played multiple characters and multiple instruments each... and did all the set and costume changes without a hiccup!

I think New York City has always aspired to be a mythical place, and all of those moments, remembered or otherwise, only served to make the place more magical, magnanimous and mystical than it already is.

I, for one, am thankful for every writer, filmmaker, artist, actor or citizen of Earth that has contributed to the collective memory of The Big Apple.