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.

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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.

Opera Hamilton – La Bohème!

Had a great night with Giacomo Puccini at Opera Hamilton tonight!

Thanks to my friend Megan Coppolino of kitestring.ca, I was able to get a last-minute ticket. I think I may have found a new opera-buddy. What a lucky thing.

Opera Hamilton is fantastic. Their La Bohème took me on the usual emotional roller coaster that I expect from Puccini. Wave after wave of powerful emotion breaking over the audience and gushing around us.

I love the Italian opera. Pure feeling. The whole range.

I went home jittery – I always do after a great performance at the opera. It took me until really late to settle down and fall asleep..

Massive Artists Party at the Art Gallery of Ontario

This evening, my oldest friend, Stanley Yee, who’s President of the Dragon Fencing Academy, and I went to the AGO’s Massive Artists Party. It was a really nice night. Because Stanley and I are both members of the AGO Next Young Patrons Circle, we got to go to the pre-party, which took place in the basement of the AGO. It was a lot of fun. The party’s theme was “Speakeasy” so many women were dressed in 20’s-style dresses and had tiaras that sparkled with sequins. They also had a lot of feathers in their hair. It was all very glam. I left at around 12.30am, feeling pretty good. I met some old friends there and made some new ones. Very good to get out and network. I have been so down lately.

FRESH Symposium – CSMM@Mac!

Today I attended our Communication Studies and Multimedia students’ FRESH* Symposium, which features the best of their work in a poster format. It was fabulous. At 1.30pm, Dr. David Ogborn, a sound artist and professor of multimedia in my department introduced his laptop orchestra. That was a great moment. Listening to 1280 Lounge filled with the tweets and chirps of the laptop orchestra’s music as the performers clicked on their keyboards was surreal and incredibly cool. We even had some members of the orchestra do a “live-coding” performance, which was a new experience for me. How strange to watch someone type in code into the computer and then hear the sonic changes that the codes brings to the sounds you are listening to. I was sceptical at first, but soon I was transfixed. Live coding. Epic.

There were many presentations by a very good number of our students. My undergraduate honours student, Souzan Mansour, presented the findings of her content analysis on “Pathos in Barack Obama’s Speech Style.” – an excellent poster presentation.

All in all, FRESH* was a very successful event. And the faculty organizer, my colleague, Dr. Christine Quail, is to be commended for guiding the students through the process of putting it together.

A great afternoon.

A three-eventful birthday!

What a great day I had today on my birthday! I wasn’t expecting much – I don’t make a big deal out of my birthday and I don’t usually put a lot of focus on it. This year, though, my friends took it in hand! And I am grateful to them for thinking of me…

Joey Coleman, Philip Savage and Andrew Laing took me to lunch at the University Club. That was really nice! We had a great conversation and Joey had a chance to meet Andrew for the first time.

I had a glass of wine with Jeff Trzeciak and then dinner with Communication Studies alumna and good friend, Stephanie Henderson at a Thai place up on the mountain.

After that, Stephanie and I went to Hamilton’s first tweet-up, organised by Meg Coppolino, also an alumna of Communication Studies at Mac and now a “communications rockstar” at kitestring.ca. It was a great night. We had nametags with our twitter nicks on them. Mine is rather unimaginative – alexsevigny.

It was a great night because I got to chat with several of my good friends and made the acquaintance of @BeCircle – a multimedia programmer who studied cultural studies and now runs a small website company in Toronto.

A wonderful birthday full of good friends, new ideas and networking. What could be better?