Thursday, 2 January 2020

Notes on Grief


Russell Alexander Stewart, my father, died unexpectedly shortly before Christmas. He was 90, so I use the term “unexpectedly” because he wasn’t ill the day he died, he wasn’t suffering from a terminal illness. He died having plans for things to do over the upcoming holiday.

He also died in his bed, and I, like I did every Tuesday, had spent the night at his house. I found him that Wednesday morning. It was apparent that he was awake when he’d died, and that he had suffered some sort of discomfort, hopefully, for only seconds. I heard a noise some time during the night, but it only half-awakened me, and not hearing anything subsequently, I fell immediately back to sleep. I believe that noise was my father dying, and that bothers me deeply.

My mother, Davida, died in 2015. I’m an only child, and with my father’s death, I am left a fifty-five-year-old orphan. I have no children. This is the end of this line of the Stewart and the MacEachern families.

One of the things that has struck me about my current experience of grief is that it has been both the most intense feeling possible and a feeling of nothing at all at the exact same time. It has also been, as expected, a complete emotional rollercoaster, passing through each of the stages of grief, but often within minutes of each other and in no discernible order. I like it best when I am feeling acceptance.

It seems next to impossible to accurately describe grief to someone who has yet to experience it. Grief is hard. No one wants to feel it, and it’s rare to find anyone who wants to be around it. Yet, it’s a universal experience. The price for loving someone.

What I can say, though, is that it’s like grief is its own entity that swoops in unexpectedly and completely disrupts your life until it’s done with you. Not that it ever leaves you, but as the weathered cliche goes, you adapt to it to a manageable degree. I note that I’m dealing best with grief when I feel my father’s presence in one way or another. I’m at my worst when I’m feeling his absence.

Years ago, when I asked a friend how she was doing after her father had died, she told me that she was going with the current, because fighting it made it worse. I’d always held on to that advice, because it makes so much sense to me, and when it comes down to it, in order to work towards releasing grief, you have no choice but to feel what your grief wants you to.

Currently, my husband and I are sorting through my father’s belongs, deciding what to keep, what goes, and who gets what. Each item that realistically has to leave the house feels like a betrayal. My father did an exceptional job of keeping my mother’s belongings. He needed them to feel her presence. It’s hard not to feel that in doing a different style of sorting that I am letting him down. That, I guess, is all part of my process. I also think it’s one of the emotions that makes up the complexity of grief, an experience of dichotomies, both universal and intensely individual.

My father enjoying oysters on his 90th birthday, July 2, 2019.


Thursday, 5 December 2019

Going to See Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood … Again


This movie, man. I just don't know what to make of it. I like Quinten Tarantino’s movies a lot, but I've had no desire to go back and watch them, no matter how much I've enjoyed them at the time of original release. I'm not quite sure I know what that says... I don't believe in the "do they hold up?" school of thought, so it's not that. Perhaps it's just that they are so connected to periods of time in my life and so familiar that revisiting them seems pointless. 

I wish, too, that I'd been introduced to Ringo Lam's 1987 Hong Kong action film City on Fire when I first saw Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs back in 1992. The story goes that Dogs is a rip off of City, but never having seen the latter, I can't judge for myself. I think, though, this would have informed my reaction to Tarantino and his flicks, given it some additional context beyond the hype.

Jump to 2018. Word is that Tarantino's upcoming Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood is going to be about the Manson Family. My initial reaction was that I’d see it, but with trepidation. Watching Tex Watson and Susan Atkins make wise cracks while butchering celebrities just sounded like a bad time to me. 

Turns out, like a lot of click bait pieces, most of the advance online writing I’d read about OUATIH took the Manson angle out of context. This was a fairy tale about a changing Hollywood. The Manson Family, they were more of a facilitator than a focus.

And now, for the rest of this piece, we're in spoiler territory.

When the movie was eventually released, I went to see it with a group of friends. We all seemed to leave with a spectrum of reactions. It was messy (not necessarily a bad thing), but I was bothered by the ending in particular. Due to its title, I’d entered the theatre expecting a Spaghetti Western set in late 1960s Hollywood, ignoring the fact that the Once Upon a Time westerns and gangster flicks were fairy tales themselves. My bad. Tarantino’s ending here is most definitely meant as fairy tale ending, a point that was lost on me — or maybe more accurately didn’t work for me — especially during my first viewing. 

This was a movie I wanted to discuss with people. I needed to work out my reaction to it, and more importantly, my reading (or misreading) of it. I felt my reaction was out of step with everyone around me, so I went online to try to start a conversation. What I learned was that, in the cult of Tarantino, you don't question his stuff, even if it's not coming from a negative place. Unfortunately, this reaction had the effect of shutting down what I wanted to talk about. So I discussed it separately with a couple of friends who gave me their perspectives. That was useful. What I knew for certain was that I needed to see the movie again, and so I did.

The things I'd liked about the movie were still there. I loved Margot Robbie’s portrayal of Sharon Tate, the way she’s the spirit of the entire movie and of the era it portrays. It’s hard not to enjoy every second Brad Pitt is onscreen. There are some truly great scenes, like DiCaprio and Julia Butters’ exchange and their scene on Lancer; Pitt giving Margaret Qualley a ride; the Spahn Ranch sequence; Tate going to a screening of The Wrecking Crew (but putting your feet up on a theatre seat is fucked up)

Then there were some elements that all of a sudden began to work for me — the extended shots and scenes of people just driving, driving, driving, the celebration of mediocre movies and music. It was an era when people thought they had time to spare, and even movies that fail to hit their marks like Three on a Couch can be appreciated for their performances or craftsmanship. Without the expectation of a first viewing, I could sit back and let the movie play out as it was meant to. Still, there was that ending. I don't think I'll ever find it bittersweet as intended. 

For some reason, the Tate Murders have always held a horrible dark place in my psyche. They are unfathomable to me. Sitting through Tarantino’s revisionist ending the first time had left a terrible taste in my mouth. It felt somehow disingenuous, a slap in the face to Tate, her unborn baby, the others slaughtered that night. Clearly, that was not Tarantino’s point, but it was the effect it had had on me. Sitting through it a second time, I experienced the ending as it was intended. But I still found it distasteful. You don't have to, but I did. 

Still too, the elements that hadn't worked for me during that first screening still didn't work for me. Tarantino's recreations of era TV shows seem too cinematic to be believable; the silly “cute” pitbull reaction shots seem better suited to another kind of movie; there are a couple of truly embarrassing and childish jokes — Brad Pitt carrying Leonardo DiCaprio’s load, We love pussy; just what was with that Bruce Lee scene, what did the possibility that Brad Pitt's character killed his wife add to the movie; Tarantino's over the top killing of Tex, Sadie and Katie seems like Tarantino parodying himself, and if I were Tarantino’s editor, I probably would have suggested that the movie start with the meeting between DiCaprio and Al Pacino with the earlier stuff left on the editing room floor. My take.

Still, it's that ending that I keep coming back to. In Little Red Riding Hood, Grandma may have gotten cut out of the big bad wolf's stomach, but in Hollywood, Sharon Tate and her friends are still dead. 


Monday, 19 August 2019

Hey PEI! We've Got an Arts Scene!


While reading John Waters’ latest book, Mr. Know-It-All (Pub: Farrar, Straus and Giroux), he hit upon something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately:

“Nowadays you don’t have to leave where you were born. Actually, you shouldn’t leave.  Stay where you are and make it better! There’s no new youth movement happening in New York or L.A. that you are missing. It’s too expensive there for any revolutionary ideas to even breath.”

As everything is not so much location as it is timing when it’s not a coffee shop you’re running, a friend’s show recently completed its 6-show run - Meanwhile in Ward 16. This friend, Rob MacDonald, has been creating local theatre for what… more than 30 years now. Together, he and I have made short films, worked on a published book, and released a CD as Chimp (aka Chimp CA), among other realized and unrealized projects. 

Over the years, as both Rob and I have worked professionally as copywriters and honed our craft as writers of other material, I’ve gotten to know a lot of others in Prince Edward Island who are of similar talent and circumstance, and I’ve come to realize that we’ve all helped to create a scene here in PEI. 

We are our own local versions of John Waters, of Diane Arbus, of Debbie Harry. The thing is, we will never achieve the level of renown that these people have, but locally, we create something essential, and something that artists from other places can’t create for those of us who live here. 

That’s not to say that there’s not a lot of local garbage. Of course there is, there is everywhere. And who’s to say that I haven’t created some of that garbage myself? 

There are also those who dub themselves this or that type of creative person without the experience, talent or understanding of what it takes to actually earn that title. You can’t just call yourself a heart surgeon and go out and perform open-heart surgery, you know. 

And on the other end of the spectrum, there are Islanders who actually achieve success and/or recognition beyond our shores; painters, musicians, writers. And many of them remain here while helping to build the reputation of the Island’s cultural scene elsewhere. 

On that note, I think the Island’s film scene is genuinely exciting right now and we’re going to see more and more growth there, maybe even a few breakthroughs beyond what we’ve already experienced. 

The kismet of reading the above mentioned section of Waters’ book and the wrap of Rob’s show created my come-to-Jesus moment; realizing just how exciting PEI’s creative scene is, realizing that I’m a part of it, and understanding that its value is something I think we all ought to recognize and nurture. When work deserves it, that is. 

More than anything, I think, people who write, act, paint, shoot or sing crave a response. The arts are a conversation, and if you’re not responding, that conversation doesn’t take place. 

To make sure that it does take place, first and foremost, we’ve got to get out there and engage with local cultural experiences. And when we do, we’ve got to let the people behind them know that we saw their show, read their book, listened to their music. Congratulate them if you don’t have anything positive to say — all creation takes work, and a “congratulations” is wonderfully noncommittal. Criticism is welcome only if you know how to give it and you are invited to give it. Otherwise, silence is king. 

We're always birthing new people here who have something new to add to the cultural landscape, and technology has been making it easier and easier to share that work. We’ve got a pretty amazing thing going here, but I fear we don’t always know it. Or maybe it’s just that it’s something we don't notice because it’s always been around us, or worse, because of the misconception that local means no good. Whatever the case, I’m just glad that I had my epiphany. I’m ready to be ordained. 



Tuesday, 13 August 2019

More Favourite Horror Flicks, Alphabetically: I Drink Your Blood


I Drink Your Blood
Dir: David Durston. Cast: Bhaskar, Lynn Lowry, Tyde Kierney, Jadin Wong, Iris Brooks, George Patterson, Elizabeth Marner-Brooks, Alex Mann, Arlene Farber, John Damon, Rhonda Fultz, Riley Mills, Arlene Farber and Richard Bowler. 1970

Created to cash in on the surprise box office success of George Romero’s classic Night of the Living Dead, I Drink Your Blood is more of a day-glo affair, with a pinch of Manson Family grotesquerie thrown in for topicality. 

Horace Bones and his Satanic cult wander into Small Town, USA. After dosing the elderly Doc Banner with LSD, Doc’s pre-teen grandson Pete slips the hippie cultists meat pies laced with rabies, and rabid pandemonium ensues. 

I Drink Your Blood is a ridiculous film, but it tries so hard in all the right ways that it fits the bill exactly when you’re in the mood for a sick, comic book-style splatter flick. The tone is set by Horace Bones himself during the opening black mass, wherein he intones the oft quoted: 

“Let it be known, sons and daughters, that Satan was an acid head. Drink from his cup; pledge yourselves. And together, we'll all freak out.”

Do it. 


Monday, 12 August 2019

More Favourite Horror Flicks, Alphabetically: High Tension


High Tension (aka Switchblade Romance)
Dir: Alexandre Aja. Cast: Cécile de France, Maïwenn & Philippe Nahon. 2003

Bearing an uncomfortable resemblance to the 1995 Dean Koontz novel Intensity, High Tension becomes its own animal with a twist ending that many have criticized, but which I feel gives it its essential and defining sting in the tail.

The simple story tells of two friends, young adult students, who head to the home of one woman’s parents in the French countryside in order to study. Once there, a serial killer attacks and takes one of the women hostage in his beat up van which looks like a travelling abattoir. 

The actors are utterly convincing, the cinematography rife with sickly colours, and the film is violent, gory and suspenseful with special effects provided by Italian splatter master Giannetto De Rossi who is known for his work with Lucio Fulcio among others. In short, it delivers the goods. 

During the climax (SPOILER) we discover that one of the women is the serial killer and has taken the other hostage, although we’ve been shown the craggy, 60+ Nahon as the killer until now. The reason for the chaos: Her denial of being a lesbian. Note, it’s not the fact that she is a lesbian, rather the fact that she suppresses it that facilitates the tragedy. 

While many have criticized this twist, ignoring the admittedly subtle clues, and saying that it creates oversized plot holes, I think it’s really up to the audience to fill in those gaps by accepting that what we’ve been seeing is a story told through the point of view of an insane participant, and so things as we’ve seen them up to this point are simply not as they’ve seemed. (END SPOILER)

This French film was picked up for North American distribution by Lion’s Gate who trimmed it and dubbed it into English. Needless to say, the uncut version in its original language is the one to seek out. 


Friday, 9 August 2019

More Favourite Horror Flicks, Alphabetically: The Haunting


The Haunting
Dir: Robert Wise. Cast: Julie Harris, Richard Johnson, Claire Bloom, Russ Tamblyn, Lois Maxwell, and Rosalie Crutchley. 1963

Based on the novel The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, The Haunting is perhaps the greatest ghost story ever committed to paper and to film. Director Robert Wise had worked with producer Val Lewton in the 1940’s directing The Curse of the Cat People and The Body Snatcher for RKO, and so was well versed in the sort of psychological, shadowy horror found in Jackson’s work. Shortly after directing West Side Story and immediately before The Sound of Music, Wise returned to his roots and gave The Haunting the onscreen treatment it screamed for.

Each actor is perfectly suited to his or her role, inhabiting the by now overly familiar premise of a group of people who gather to explore reported psychic phenomenon in a haunted house, a massive one at that in the case of Hill House. The question here is, is the phenomenon they experience real, or some sort of manifestation created by the lonely Eleanor? 

Additionally, the score by Humphrey Searle, cinematography by Davis Boulton, screenplay by Nelson Gidding, set design and sound work contribute immeasurably to the film’s impact. This is an example of a film where all departments, much like The Exorcist, are at the top of their game. And for my money, the hand-holding scene, later aped in Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead 2, deserves to be included on any list of great scenes of horror. 

On a similar note, the opening paragraph of Jackson’s novel is among the best to be found in the horror genre or any genre for that matter, and Wise matches it with the film’s opening montage. Here, Jackson's opening deserves the last word:

“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”



Monday, 29 July 2019

More Favourite Horror Flicks, Alphabetically: The Fury


The Fury
Dir: Brian De Palma. Cast: Kirk Douglas, Amy Irving, Andrew Stevens, John Cassavetes, Carrie Snodgress & Charles Durning. 1978

Like the idea of horror movie as opera? If so, this one’s for you.

Brian De Palma followed his hit Carrie with this blood and thunder adaptation of the John Farris novel of the same name. Both films use telekinesis in their plots concerning teens with psychic powers, only here we’ve got two teens trying to reach each other physically while a dastardly plot set in motion by a secret government organization goes off the rails. 

With its intricate plot and heightened tone, The Fury is often dismissed as a mess, but I love its operatic histrionics which are matched by one of John Williams’ finest scores. It’s certainly over the top, but what Brian De Palma movie isn’t?    

Fine performances, classical fimmaking, excellent make up effects from Rick Baker and William J. Tuttle (despite a brief bit of seam showing), and an ending that theatre-goers talked about long after they’d exited the theatre make this a favourite with some wise deviations made from its source novel.