Glamour oh glamour

Whilst I have spent much of my career as a professional communicator building shimmering images of glamour and desire I have to say that the idea of glamour actually repels me as an idea.

I love the chase of an idea or image, a concept distilled down to its simplest form and then adorned is to me the most powerful way to build a narrative either visual, auditory or in language.

To me that’s the antiglamour really.

Glamour is the narrative turn fed by jealousy and a desire to withhold or hide beauty. It is created through a tantalizing feeling of access to privilege that is really rooted in a lack of access – glamour is dress up, a taunt or the reminder of an absence in your life, be it excitement or power or wealth or control of others. That’s what drives the desire to consume: either to project the taunt “look at me, you can’t have this” or to struggle to own it.

The problem is that while this works, it also makes people unhappy with their lives.

To me the mysteries that work best in communication and fashion aren’t those heavy handed storylines of glamour but rather the suggestive breezes of momentary uplift when we are reminded of the beauty and joy of a simple moment… a deep breath upon stepping outside for the first time after a day in a building, a perfect coffee as the sun kisses your face even on a crisp winter day. The fleeting electric tingle of a brush of your hand by someone you like.

To me the sun and the breeze and the tingle of the cold in my cheek or the split second thrill of light touch are sensations that remind me that I am alive and that life holds so much promise.

That’s real glamour. The rest is vanity, isn’t it?

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A Lesson for PR pros in Robert Redford’s “All is Lost”

It’s unusual that film makes you think about public relations strategy, but Robert Redford’s All is Lost recently did this for me.

I happened upon it accidentally, while perusing the new rentals on iTunes. Redford’s performance is masterful: an epic battle of a man against the elements, alone on his damaged keelboat, adrift after a freak accident. After watching this unusual film, I was curious to see how the critics and public reacted to it. The results made think of the place of the specialist in storytelling to an unspecialist public.

The critics were almost unanimous: Redford’s performance was masterful. The general public was largely bemused: a two hour film with only several lines of dialogue at the very beginning? How odd. A specialist public was outraged: sailors were angry in the dismissal of the several discontinuities and errors they identified in the film.

I found this to be an interesting allegory for what we do as public relations counsels.

First, I thought about what the film was trying to convey: the struggle of a man in an impossible situation, doing his best to respond to what could be perceived as a hopeless situation. He doesn’t lose hope. Redford’s character tries to survive. Also, the film’s soundtrack tries to capture the ambient sounds of a ship at sea, amplifying the aloneness of the main character and putting the viewer beside him. The musical score attempts to evoke the emotional timbre of the main character – a stoic man, pragmatically facing a longly death, trying to survive. The main message was to model what a manly response to an impossible situation might be, and Redford delivers that in spades. This is really a film about being a man: quiet, strong, resourceful, imperfect.

Then I reflected on what the sailors who were savaging the film and Redford’s performance were doing: they were bemoaning the fact that this was not a documentary film or safety film documenting how best to respond in this terrible situation. One review bemoaned the lack of a specific type of life preserver and another, the lack of a more sophisticated radio system. They also questioned his choices: clipping himself to the wrong set of cleats, etc.

As I continued to read several of the “old salt” blog reviews, I started to see a debate emerge among them about what would be acceptable errors for a sailor to make. Almost each of the insults levelled at Redford’s character were debated. After reading ten such bickering posts, I tired of them and logged off to write this piece. Interestingly, the one thing they all had in common, despite their technical differences was their praise of Redford’s manly performance. They bemoaned that he was not a credible sailor, or at least as good a sailor as they would like to be represented by.

The lesson for us in public relations is simple: technical specialist publics want their knowledge and expertise validated. The problem is that they often cannot agree on what defines that body of knowledge. While the general public wants to see in a character, a person like me; specialist publics want to see their ideal: a technical master. The problem is that no one is a technical master, everyone makes a hundred mistakes everyday. It’s just human error. But the eye of the specialist discards the real concept of verisimilitude, which is truly that of error and miscalculation and attributes truth only to the ideal model.

This film is a masterpiece. I have watched it twice and enjoyed its zen quality, as well as the portrait of manliness that Redford paints through his characters actions, expressions and emotions. As a story told, it was a great success, and the critics, representing the general public, loved it, giving it a 93% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The specialist critics got lost bemoaning an ideal that the film never attained, but never aimed for.

As a work of archetypal storytelling, All is Lost is a great success which can teach public relations pros that it is sometimes alright – if not even necessary – to portray flaws, as long as the greater story aligns with an grand archetype that the general public will tune into.

 

An inspiring act of kindness in Chicago

Every so often, we have  an experience that reaffirms our belief in the goodness of people. This morning, it was my turn.

I have spent the last several weeks running to six conferences, presenting five papers and delivering one keynote speech in three different time zones! It has been quite the month and I am quite tired. So this morning, as I was cabbing it from the Dana Hotel on N. State St. in Chicago to the Sheraton Towers Hotel, where IABC 2012 World Conference is being held, I did a very silly thing.

This morning, I was rushing to get to the Sheraton Towers to be in time to hear Robert F. Kennedy speak about the importance of good communication. As I leapt out of the cab, I realized that I had forgotten my conference tag in my hotel room, without which I wouldn’t be admitted to any sessions, for security reasons that I appreciate, of course. I took a short cab ride back to the Dana Hotel and again, leapt out to rush to my room and grab the tag. I thought I would say a word to my colleague, who was leaving to return to Canada, so I reached into my pocket to grab my cellphone. No phone. Oh oh.

Getting a little worried, I dumped all the contents of my bag onto the bed and emptied all of my suit pockets. No phone. My anxiety mounted. As most of you probably have experienced, our cellphones have become our lives. Like little turtles, we carry our digital homes with us everywhere and disappear into them regularly – in queues, in the loo, on public transport and as we walk into street signs which rudely spring up in front of us as we text and walk. Cellphones are central to our lives. Mine has my life in it. I was really worried.

So I started calling around to get in touch with the cab companies to try and track down my driver. After about 10 minutes of fruitless searching, I receive an email from my former thesis student, current colleague and lifelong friend Melonie Fullick which read:

“Are you looking… for your phone? Someone just called to tell me you left it in a cab in Chicago. I honestly thought you were playing a joke on me–Here’s his number:”

Needless to say, I quickly called the number and heard the reassuringly familiar voice of the cabbie who had taken me to the Sheraton.

“I think you left your phone in my cab, sir,” he said in a heavy hispanic accent.

“Could you come by the Dana and bring it over? Then take me to the Sheraton?” I asked.

“Of course. See you in ten minutes,” he replied.

Like clockwork, ten minutes later, there he was in his checker cab, and we were skimming through the streets of Chicago toward my destination. When I got out, I gave hime a $50 tip because he had literally saved me a priceless amount of consternation and anxiety. He took it awkwardly, commenting that I was being overly generous.

As I settled into my chair, a few minutes late for the Kennedy speech, I thought about how the world of digital communication facilitated this little everyday life drama. The cabbie found my phone on the seat and called the first number on the speed dial – that of my friend Melonie. She’s in Hamilton, Ontario. She then sent me an email in Chicago and gave me the cabbie’s coordinates. I called him and was relieved to be reunited with my phone.

All in a space of twenty minutes. Isn’t technology amazing?

And isn’t honesty inspiring? I think it is.

Heartfelt thanks to David the cabbie for being an honest fellow.

 

PS. A word about IABC 2012. This has been a great conference. What a pleasure to connect and reconnect with professional communicators from across the world. On Sunday night, I went to the Canada Party, which was an amazing night. Last night, my colleague Terry Flynn and I “crashed” (well, ok, we were actually invited) the European/Asian/African IABC Party and had some lovely conversations about how professional communication is changing in those regions. 

 

Time passes, life passes us by. What’s important?

We are sometimes confronted by the reality of the progress of time, aren’t we?

I have spent my precious few free hours the last week watching a series of documentary programs called the “Up Series”. This series was brought to my attention by Melonie Fullick (@qui_oui), who wrote a very thoughtful blog post about it. The premise of the series is quite simple: the first episode, “7-Up” takes 20 British children and examines their lives through a day of interviews, recompensed by a trip to the zoo. Their hopes, dreams, fears and ambitions are documented through the episode, and it is striking to notice how delightfully unsophisticated the little seven year olds are compared to their equivalents today. Their insouciance is both beguiling and saddening, since it inspires hope in the innocence of children, but also frames the sorry state of our neurotic and ironic culture today.

Here’s part 1 of Episode 1, 7 Up:

 

The series continued by revisiting most of the 20 children every seven years, each one the subject of a documentary: 14 Up, 21 Up, 28 Up, 35 Up, 42 Up, and, the most recent one, 49 Up. It is fascinating to see the evolution of these people’s lives, and we really see hints and clues and allusions to the evolution of our culture. You see how the predominant worldview were still very human up until the seventies, and then everything seems to go absolutely berserk.

This made me think very carefully about what we are about in our lives and ambitions these days. I was thinking that we live in a strange, accelerated culture that leaves so many behind simply because they are trying to keep up. But keep up to what? Our careers? Our relationships?

The fact is that our careers are but a small part of our lives. The rest is really to do with human things. Our careers are labels, categories, games – similar to building things with lego, or doing ever-more-challenging crossword puzzles, aren’t they? And yet, we allow our careers to predominate in our minds, and in our hearts.

Our relationships? I am starting to question the validity of this term altogether. In fact, it commodifies our links and connections to other people. It forces us to think of our love and feelings – those fundamental human things – as stuff. As commodities that we “co-own” with another person. This erases the person, doesn’t it? This erases the “human component” and replaces it with a two-dimensional paper cut out. It allows us to compartmentalize our feelings, our sexuality, our esteem for others. To assign the label of “relationship” to the sacred connection between two friends, two people in love, two siblings, or a parent and a child, is, I think, to reduce that connection to something that can be traded. This isn’t good. It lacks reverence. And we should revere one another as humans – full of infinite possibility, full of the potential for love, hope, goodness and growth.

I blame a lot of this on our growing dependence on technology and thinking machines. We have transferred so much of our thinking and feeling to machines: from the GPS in our cars to the dating websites we use to mate, to the spellcheck on our emails to the calendars and reminders on our BlackBerries. But this reliance on the machine is making us more one-dimensional as people, and our connections to other people more brittle.

I am more and more convinced that we must fight the encroachment of the machine and the material upon our lives and society. We aren’t robots. We aren’t commodities. We are human, and, as such, we have feelings and ideas, dreams and imaginations. We get tired and suffer pain. We revel unselfconsciously in the success of others. We convince ourselves that complicated things like ambition, competition and “success” are important, but we actually find ourselves happiest in those moments of simple pleasure: a walk in the cool breeze and bright sunshine; a cold drink, slowly consumed, in celebration of a hard afternoon’s work – all of these things lead to stability, predictability and order.

Without stability, predictability and order you have chaos, doubt and fear. We can lie to ourselves that this isn’t true – that we can live in a world of complete freedom and lack of structure and be happy. But this is a lie.

A terrible, seductive, beautiful, enchanting and destructive lie.

Stability, predictability and order are what permit us to achieve our potential. To experience happiness. To examine our experiences with a caring eye. To find the time to build a Good Life.

Watching the lives of the 20 British children unfold through each subsequent seven-year span has brought these points home to me. These people’s lives were real. They actually experienced the things that happened to them and the people they came across. They didn’t treat their experiences like a tv show, or the people they ran into as paper cut-outs or as actors in a play. We have lost this grasp on reality.

It’s time to stop lying to ourselves. Our post-WWII experiment in freedom, cynicism and nihilism must be brought to a close. It’s time to realise that people and our links to them are not trading cards. Rather, they are sacred and must be revered and respected.

We have to become human again. This means that it’s time to grow up.

Let’s start today.

A great night at the Hamilton Supercrawl 2011

On Saturday night, I went to the Hamilton Supercrawl, to listen to Basia Bulat perform a number of arrangements of her pieces with the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra (HPO) on the main stage.

It was a great performance – Basia sounded great, as did the HPO. In fact, listening to conversation around me, there was a lot of talk like “I wish it didn’t have to end,” and “this was the best thing all day so far.” That’s high praise coming from a really diverse audience, with member ranging from high school students, to McMaster and Mohawk students, to members of the Hamilton citizenry, young and old. Basia was very gracious – she spent a few minutes talking about how great it was to work with the HPO, and the HPO music director, Jamie Sommerville seemed pretty thrilled to work with her. It was a mutual admiration society. Very nice to see.

It was great to be there with Annelisa Pedersen (HPO Exec Director), Tom Aylward-Nally (@Tom_A_N) and Melonie Fullick (@qui_oui). I also saw many of my students in the audience, as well as bumping into many friends from McMaster, including former MSU president Mary Koziol (@mjkoziol), and McMaster Institute for Music and Mind (MiMM) admin assistant, Andrea Unrau (@elevenandrun). Afterward, we went backstage and saw Chris Farias (@kitestring) and Steph Seagram (@seagrams), which was a lot of fun. We also chatted with Kari Hueber (@H_P_O), the HPO marketing and communications manager, which was great. Annelisa introduced us to Basia, who earned her reputation as an approachable, friendly person who lives for, and loves her art.

Basia took a moment to encourage the audience to attend the HPO’s concert series this fall.

You definitely should! I certainly will.

Maybe I’ll see you there.

Great crowd for Basia Bulat and the @H_P_O at SuperCrawl 2011 in Hamilton!

A night at TIFF: Great seats for “Albert Nobbs,” terrible TIFF PR film short

Last night, Annelisa Pedersen (Executive Director, Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra) and I went to the Toronto International Film Festival to see the world premiere of “Albert Nobbs” by Rodrigo Garcia, who is the son of famous Latin American write, Gabriel García Márquez.

The film starred Glen Close (who was also co-producer) in a gender-bending role that had her playing a queer woman who lived a life of performance as a male waiter. It is a tragic story, with a fascinating premise, as Close’s character, known as “Albert Nobbs” to her colleagues, slowly unfurls the details of her tragic life. The problem was that the film’s plot was like spaghetti – too many details, too many abortive story lines left unexplained. I would have preferred to see a much shorter, much simpler and more elegant cut of the film, focused on the lives of the two main queer women protagonists. Such an interesting idea, surrounded by far too much narrative noise.

The true disappointment of the evening, however was the incredibly mawkish attempt at a mini retrospective short film that, we were told, “would air before every screening at TIFF.” This film captured the feelings and thoughts of several film-makers, including Norman Jewison and David Lynch, as well as various senior TIFF managers and organizers (mostly Michele Maheux and Piers Handling).

The film short is so incredibly pretentious that I had to cover my eyes at various moments to avoid the acute embarrassment that one feels when you see someone doing something painful on a tv show. From Piers Handling being seen trying his best to choke back tears, to Michele Maheux’s constant hang-dog facial expression, to Peter Howell’s bizarre reference to dancing with David Lynch, the film short was an exercise in public relations futility. An obvious attempt to be a part of the story of the 9/11 media storm that was going on in the media.

A few snippets. Horrible:

Michele Maheux: “People took solace in the dark, and in each other’s company.”

Peter Howell: “The one thing about film is that it also could be restorative. So I think it had a very positive psychological effect to carry on.”

Piers Handling (choking back tears): “Hmm… <lip smack> <lip smack> … it was an incredible experience. Because the place was packed. Umm… The place was packed, everyone was there, we had a minute of silence, then the festival… just started up again.”

Wow. I was actually amazed at how pretentious and self-important this piece was. When arts and culture organizations come off as this pretentious it isn’t good for anyone in the sector. It just confirms a handful of negative stereotypes to an already sceptical public and polity.

The end of men? No – it’s just time to for men to change.

It looks like men have had it. According to Hanna Rosin, in her article The End of Men, from The Atlantic Monthly, it’s women rule the roost and bring home the bacon. What’s a man to do?

Many excuses are put forth about men’s failure to compete in school, in the marketplace and in the professions. Experts are trotted out who claim that boys have trouble sitting still, concentrating and doing repetitive tasks.

Men have been in a position of power for a long time. But power can lead to laziness and sloth. Just as an empire loses steam and implodes, so too are “men” losing steam and imploding. Why? Let’s think about this for a second…

In the past, men had to compete to achieve basic things like: a measure of wealth, family stability and the faith and admiration of a woman life-partner. They had to earn it. The ensuing reward was access to sexual gratification, genetic reproduction, economic stability and socio-cultural prestige. The thing is, that this vision of success was based on a “male concept” that included the following metaphors: “Powerful men are competitors” and “Rewards (sexual, economic, etc) are the fruit of winning a competition”. With the advent of two things in 1960s, this all changed: the sexual revolution and the growth of the entry of women into the labour market.

The sexual revolution took away the “honour, hard work and fidelity” barrier to sexual gratification. That’s a no-brainer. Why fight to demonstrate your valour and honour to a much-admired woman when you can get drunk and find an equally drunken partner for sex, or preen like a peacock fresh from the gym and find a sexual partner based on the image you are projecting – nothing to do with your honour or your valour. Why bother marrying or committing when you can party and move-in with someone and then lead the good life, knowing that your half-commitment secures for you a sort of comfortable limbo in which you can lead a boy’s life late into your twenties and early thirties – playing video games obsessively, partying late, not saving money: in a word building nothing. So, in a sad inversion, just as the women in Aristophanes’ Lysistrata took away access to sex to end a war, perhaps today’s women do the same to encourage a little achievement from their sorry male companions.

The examples of the workplace and classroom are telling as well. When women entered both of these arenas en masse they changed the rules of the game. Norms shifted and institutional cultures morphed. This is natural. Whenever a new, striving, organized group enter a political arena – they will change things! What is sad is that rather than strive to compete with women honourably, to speak up and admit the equality of women as co-citizens, co-workers and co-classmates, most men whine and complain. They carp about the “feminization” of the workplace and the classroom as though it were being imposed on them by God or Government. They roll over and die – creeping into a grey void of vicarious victories over women in the sordid worlds of porn, mysogyny, UFC, reactionary “conservativism” (which the true conservatives of the past would snarl and spit at for its whiny narcissicism and sense of entitlement). This anger is accompanied by underachievement and profound sense of personal failure.

And so we see representations of jackass men behaving like giant 15-year olds on TV, or broadly grinning morons in tv commercials – all waiting to be rescued and then given food, sexual satisfaction and money by their over-achieving female partners.

This doesn’t have to be so. Men do not need to roll over and die like the many empires in the past have done. Ottomans, Romans and Soviets all foundered under the weight of their bloated sense of history and entitlement. Why? Because they were too lazy redefine themselves when the ground shifted beneath them.

Men don’t need to follow this path. What men have to do is give up on the stupid notion that they are entitled to anything or that any system should cater to them. Men have to realise, as the striving girls beside them have done, through decades of self-empowerment, that they are individuals. Men must make their own destiny. Men must adapt.

Part of the adaptation means finally recognizing that women are not there to serve them anymore. Rather, men must take care of themselves. Build their own future. Be complete people the way the overachieving women around them are complete people. The most successful women I know are amazing people: they go to the gym, take care of their often whiny lazy partners, feed their children, go to work and volunteer or play sports in the evening. They do it all with planning, strategy and, above all – realism. The women who achieve around me know their limits and honour them.

Many of the men that I know who underachieve have a grand vision of their destiny in their minds. They want to achieve something big. But in the meanwhile they fester in rooms blasting orcs and watching  porn (although few would admit it). Men need to get with the program. There is a world of opportunity out there – much of it created by women. There is no longer an automatic  male privilege except in places where men have managed to keep women subservient or structurally exclude them.

Together, men and women can set the world right again. But right now it’s women who are doing the heavy lifting while men sit on the couch or the chair and peer at glowing rectangles, bemoaning their fate and growing resentful.

We used to have the image of the “strong man.” Muscles and brawn, silent strength, etc. We see a trend toward hyper-masculinity in the media right now, with the tattooed monsters of UFC and pro-sports. What a pile of hooey. Look at the tattooed muscly guys around you today when you go to do your shopping – what are they doing? They work as bouncers in clubs, they dig ditches, they are not listened to. They are ignored. “Manly men” have almost no political influence and failing economic prospects. The tattooed muscly man-guy is sweating in the sun, shoveling the ditch for minimum wage, while the the fit, toned, elegant, egalitarian and adaptable metrosexual is standing side by side with his female colleagues, running our schools, banks, governments and media. These men are succeeding and doing well.

There is a new man to be built for this new age of equality – he is the modern version of the hero of antiquity: a good communicator, adaptable, clever, fit, and driven. To take the first step, men must collectively cast off the rotting mantle of “traditional manhood.” It’s gone. Forget it. Embrace the new reality. Get with the program, step in beside your sisters and get to work. Collaborate.

And modern men shouldn’t complain that this is a betrayal of the manly heroes of old – Alexander the Great was closer to a metrosexual than a UFC fighter.

Montréal, je t’aime.

Sometimes, my mind wanders, during that brief moment between dusk and night, as my eyes adjust to the dimming light and advancing twilight makes the edges of tree branches seem soft and hazy against the paling sky. My mind wanders back through misty memories to moments I would like to relive or retrieve.

Perhaps it is my Gallic genetic heritage calling, but there is something about Montréal that gently pulls me into reverie. The city softens my hard shell and opens me to emotion and reflection. During the last few days, while I was visiting Montréal to give an academic presentation, I felt that tug and perhaps because I was with trusted friends, I allowed my thoughts to swirl and stream back to moments of quiet joy.

French cities are places of hidden treasures and sombre wooden doors. To enter behind, you have push open the door, pull apart the ivy and let your eyes adjust to the dusty shadows of the room that opens to you. The French are not obvious or literal. Allusion lies at the heart of their conversation and subtlety at base of their aesthetic gaze.

We gave our talk on political communication at Concordia at 2pm. It was a success and we left feeling satisfied that we’d done honour to our duty as conferenciers. I felt happy for once – that I am with my colleague, the incomparable Philip Savage, gallant and cheerful, always ready with a good pun or a little song. Paul Bullock, our sober lab manager was with us too – quiet and vigilant, noticing the details of our interactions and building a picture of a future life for himself in his mind. We do build these fragmentary snapshots of the future while we live through unusual moments in the present.

The conference done, we went to a hotel bar and sat on the terrace to drink a bottle of Ruffino Chianti, nibble through a selection of Québécois cheeses and savour prociutto-wrapped canteloupe. We capped it off with a delightful dark leafy salad with a subtle vinaigrette and roasted olive-oil soaked cashews. Heavenly. Elegant Mercedes-Benz and Audis rolled by as we sipped and munched and bantered with the waiter about politics and public relations. We laughed a lot and told stories of the talk – building our own mythology and setting the story in our memories. Our waiter was efficient, demonstrating mastery of his métier in his crisp movements, his perfect pouring of the wine, the Badoit sparkling water and his look of worry as he laboured to place the plates just so on the little bistro table we were seated around.

We decided, after several toasts and lots of sharp, stinky cheese, to leave our bags at the coat check of the Musée des Beaux Arts and walk up to McGill. It was a chance day, for there was a convocation going on, and we found ourselves surrounded by elegant and winsome young women and their parents. Sometimes a wayward beau followed in tow.

After a stop at the Graduate students union at the top of the McGill campus hill, we returned to the Musée des Beaux Arts and took in the Miles Davis exhibit. What a life of art and adventure he had lived. Iconic and fruitful. Troubled and sincere. I couldn’t help but notice the eyes of those around him in the pictures we saw: full of anticipation, thinking that something new, something great, was about to happen. Just then, as they walked with him.

Feeling lazy, we eschewed our original plan to dine at the Entrecôte St. Jean on the rue Peel and supped in the Café des Beaux Arts in the Musée. What a glorious meal – I had a magret de canard and wonderful bouillabaisse. We accompanied it with a chalky Côtes du Rhône recommended by the hostess for duck and soup. She served us in that friendly, yet efficient French way – clipped speech accompanied by a broad smile. She had the preoccupied look that French women who are working often have – attending to every detail and thinking of the most appropriate thing to do and say given the circumstances, whatever they may be. She checked on us often and apologized for the lack of patrons in the restaurant twice, her brow knitted, a look of sincere worry flitting across the canvas of her face. Then her eyes opened wide and she said, with a brilliant smile: “Mais nous sommes très contents que vous êtes parmi nous, messieurs!” (but we are happy that you are with us, gentlemen).

To end the night, we took a cab through the Parc Mont Royal and up to the base of the steps of the Oratoire Saint Joseph. There we climbed the pilgrims steps, through the light drizzle until we reached the top and saw the Ville de Montréal extend beneath us – a dazzling tapestry of stars, fallen to Earth for the evening, making the city feel liquid and shimmering, full of possibility.

I found my thoughts and memories overtaking me during this night of movement and light and darkness. My mind drifted back to moments  I had shared with people whom I have loved, some of whom I have lost. I remember one person with whom I only went out twice, but whose conversation has marked my thoughts and troubled my memories so profoundly. I think back to how a day of anxiety and a moment of insecurity could make one say things that put another off. Normally I am tough, but I felt that I lost something – a beautiful friend, a kindred spirit. We meet so few who inspire us and open up landscapes of possibility in our minds and hearts. What a tragedy when they leave our lives.

Now, that loss caused me to change my life, a couple of months ago – to eliminate the sources of stress and burden and anxiety. To privilege beauty and creativity. Those have been good changes and my heart has opened. But it is hard to put a broken shell together again. I fear I have lost what I had – or at least that I have lost a glorious possibility – and I am sorrowful for having lost it.

I do so regret my missteps. I do wish I could change the past.

As I gazed over the flickering lights of Montréal, under the illuminated arches of the Oratoire Saint Joseph, as cars glided by on the road far beneath and as the hipster kids smoked and flirted in groups on the steps around me – I felt happy and yet alone. Feeling alone is new to me – I used be something of a lone wolf. For the first time in my life, I feel this growing longing to share what I see and feel. To open my heart and mind to others and, with those others, to smile and laugh and …

… just be.

An evening at AGO Next: “All the World’s a Stage.”

On Tuesday of this week I went to the Art Gallery of Ontario to and AGO Next event. Since I am a member of the AGO Next group, I am invited to attend lectures and preview art exhibits at the AGO every month. This month the theme was performance art and called “All the World’s a Stage.”

The evening was marked by a mesmerizing (and very funny) piece by Yoko Ono. It was performed by the members of the Madawaska Sting Quartet, as well as by two professional dancers. The piece involved two musicians playing a piece of music and then two dancers slowly, methodically binding them in medical gauze. It was strange to hear the interruptions in the playing and the change in the tonality as the dancers disabled the musicians progressively, reducing arm and body movement. It was funny and strange at the same time.

The group was joined by Paisley Jura, a Toronto singer and songwriter, and they performed a piece by John Cage which involved percussion. It was so good. And so much fun!

After these performances, Diane Borsato, a native of the GTA gave a lecture on her experiences as a performance artist. She was witty, funny and very informative. Her visuals were great and the humour that is inherent to many of her pieces is a great counterpoint to the sometimes heavy postmodern philosophical ideas that one can find in contemporary performance art.

After the performances and the lecture, there were hors d’oeuvres and drinks. I had a chance to have a brief, but engaging conversation with both Paisley Jura and the violinist Sarah Fraser-Raff. It was interesting to chat about the music performance and education scene in Toronto.

My friend Stanley Yee, Principal of the Dragon Fencing Academy in Richmond Hill, was also in attendance.

Movie Review: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Caution: Spoilers)

Last night I went to see the Swedish film adaptation of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” the first novel in Stieg Larsson’s best-selling detective trilogy. The dialogue is in Swedish, with excellent, unobtrusive English subtitles.

What a strange and haunting experience watching this film is.

The plot is a pared-down version of the novel’s story. It retains a lot of the complexity of the relationship between queer hacker Lisbeth Salander and investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist. The extraordinary richness and emotional texture of Larsson’s book is considerably flatter in the film version. For example, Blomkvist’s unconventional relationship with Erika Berger, the Editor of Millenium, the magazine for which Blomkvist writes, has been completely written out of the script.

What really works in this film is the superb casting of Noomi Rapace in the role of Salander. Rapace’s sensitive treatment of Lisbeth’s strange and somewhat disturbing combination of inner strength, will to survive, insecurities and profound “alternative” femininity is splendid. While looking very butch and closed off at first, Rapace’s gaze and facial expressions quickly open a portal into the rapidly shifting sands of Salander’s mental landscape and feminine persona. Lisbeth processes the ordinary world in an extraordinary way – her experience of rejection, abuse and exclusion because of her difference makes her react powerfully to words and actions that the rest of us, who live in the “mainstream” just gloss over. Rapace’s rendition of the Salander character opens this experience of a radically different interpretation of the ordinary world we live in to the viewer – to see our world from the perspective of a queer ward of the state who lives on its fringes is both intriguing and profoundly disturbing. Salander’s relationship with Blomkvist is powerful and unstereotypical – it feels organic and real, not the usual Hollywood rendition of a queer girl who goes mainstream by finding love in a straight relationship. The age difference between Lisbeth and Blomkvist is intriguing too, but not as developed in the film as in the novel. So much to think about here.

The bleak Nordic landscape provides a ideal canvas for this story – it’s filmed from a distance, with wide angle shots of trains from a great height and a long distance. This technique emphasizes the feeling of distance that is a theme in the story: distance between the characters; the 30 years of distance in time from Harriet Vanger’s disappearance and the present in which the story takes place; the distance between the characters’ current behaviours and the experiences that shaped them earlier in their lives. The landscapes add a subtle complexity to the film’s delicate treatment of the tough issues of abuse, control and personal identity.

I have to comment on the violence. There is an undercurrent of violence: sexual, verbal, physical. We really see Larsson’s background as an activist and advocate for human rights shine through these elements of the story.

The resignation with which the characters face the violence, cruelty and desire to control of others is realistic. Lisbeth tapes her own rape, and we, as viewers, are shown her facial expressions communicate the fear, pain and humiliation she feels while her guardian violates her. We’re reminded that she’s been taping this, and we see her reviewing the video dispassionately, preparing to use it to blackmail her abuser. It’s a strangely human moment: Lisbeth uses the only card she has to retake control of her finances and her freedom – her body. She knows it’s a sacrifice, but she does it because it’s her only chance to escape him. The scene where she gets him back is shocking as well, but again, Lisbeth’s actions aren’t motivated by an excess of passion – she does enough to him to right a balance she feels has tilted against her. Certain that he will leave her alone, she backs off – and only asks that he disappear from her life.

Lisbeth wants to be free – she wants to feel a connection, but doesn’t really know how. She struggles with herself and with others. She struggles with her demons and her better self. She struggles with her instinct to help others, even though it means exposing herself to them and, surely, to the possibility of them trying to take control of her life.

On a more technical note, I was surprised to see several prominent product placements, from Lenovo, Ford, Apple and Volvo. It was subtle, but present. Interesting. Also, the plot is unusual, reaching several climaxes, which give the film a jarring cadence, adding to the to the unsettled feeling the viewer is left with. One thing I will warn you about is that if you’re squeamish there are a couple of scenes that will make you cringe or lower your eyes. Just saying.

Finally, one caveat about this film. The major flaw in this film is revenge.  One thing I often challenge in some contemporary filmic treatments of abuse and exclusion – they sometimes descend into the realm of revenge fantasy. Revenge fantasy is not a healthy way to face the problem of abuse. It might emotionally gratifying to think that abuse, exclusion and rejection can be dealt with by striking back at the abusers and dominators, but such an unloving response won’t solve the problem. It only creates a cycle of revenge. To forgive is to find true freedom.

The film hints at a moral or ethical struggle going on in Lisbeth’s mind, especially in the dying moments of the film, during a brief conversation she has with Blomkvist, but this reflection feels like an afterthought. This worries me, because really, the only real solutions to the problems this film raises lie not in open warfare between the oppressed and the dominant. A more constructive solution lies in building a society of mutual understanding, acceptance, inclusion and love. I think Larsson’s vision of class warfare and identity-group struggle comes from his Marxist and Trotskyist roots. That’s where Larsson and I part company.

This having been said, this film does achieve something extraordinary – it actually opens Lisbeth Salander’s world to us: a world of difficult people whose painful experiences are not normally accessible tot those who live in the comfort of the mainstream. Salander lives in a world of people and experiences who exist on the neglected fringes of our society. The movie treats their stories with seriousness and with sensitivity. That is so important.

Scenes from this film linger with me today. I get flashes of Lisbeth’s facial expressions in my mind. I am still thinking about it and processing it.

Very highly recommended.