Jan 24, 2012

At Last

Hollywood awards season is a test of endurance for me. More of a clubby series of self-congratulatory pageants dressed in designer finery than a credible display of artistic achievement, the Oscars are perhaps the most obvious of high school popularity contests. And yet my stomach was all butterflies as I anxiously checked the list of Best Actor Oscar nominees this morning. There's something about big-name recognition of longtime favorites that is immensely satisfying, popularity contest or not.

It was amazing - beyond amazing -to see Gary Oldman finally, at long last, get nominated for an Academy Award. Longtime friends will tell you I had a huge crush on him - or rather, on Oldman's awesome, inspiring, occasionally terrifying talent. For all his talk of despising "the method," he seemed to live what he acted. It was thrilling to watch him move between genres so easily, and become so unreservedly, uninhibitedly lost in a role. It still is, I'm discovering.

Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead cemented my love of language and literature. What impressed me in the film, along with Oldman and fellow Brit Pack-er Tim Roth's comfort with that language, was their sparky natural chemistry. Taking cues from older traditions (Godot especially) and mixing them with the best of British vaudeville (Laurel and Hardy especially), Oldman and Roth are a tag team of interconnected excellence. I was enchanted by Oldman as the dimwit of the pair, whether he was tinkering with Foucault's pendulum or watching sailboats in the bathtub. But it didn't prepare me for JFK, where I was struck dumb by his performance as Lee Harvey Oswald. Far from being merely imitative, the slight, mushy-mouthed, supposed lone-gun-assassin suddenly becomes very human - a lonely, tortured figure, demonized by his own swirlingly persistent, painfully obvious need to belong. Oldman gets the "lone" part of "Lone Gunman" absolutely dead-on.

Oldman's performance -those urgent blue eyes, the slumped shoulders, the quick temper -seared itself on my young mind. I found State Of Grace and again was astonished. The performance as the wild-card gangster Jackie - haunted, passionate, angry -is simply one of the most memorable ever committed to film. When Bram Stoker's Dracula was released in November 1992, I was well-versed in Oldman's canon, and had no trouble picturing the guy who'd played Sid Vicious years before becoming the sexy demonic Count. He's a great actor - and that's what great actors do. They're not supposed to be pretty. Right? I didn't like Gary because he was pretty. I liked him because he was brilliant. Barely recognizable from one role to the next, Oldman has a great, unsung habit of plumbing the depths of despair, celebrating the heights of absurdity, and living the vida loca (sometimes for real) across the cinematic universe. He is every color in the artist's paintbox, every hue and beam and shadow on the canvas.

So while some of his choices haven't inspired - the reductive baddies in Air Force One, Lost In Space, The Fifth Element and The Book Of Eli come to mind -he's always been eminently watchable. As Radio Times reporter Danny Leigh so eloquently put it, "A chameleon full of indelibletics who all but disappeared inside his characters, Oldman made average films good, and good ones spectacular." Neither the Harry Potter nor Batman re-envisionings were on my cultural radar, but late one night about a year ago, I was watching TV and saw Christian Bale's square jaw jutting out of the famous black cowl on television, and a flood of inspired memories returned, of nights spent worshipping a choir of spectacularly realized misfits I felt I knew so well. Joe, Sid, Jackie, Rosencrantz, Lee, Ludwig, Norman, Jack, Drexel. Dracula. That guy. Then George Smiley sauntered in.

Like many, I've questioned why the Academy Awards -or indeed its poorer Golden cousin -haven't recognized Oldman for his work. He said on NPR Fresh Air recently that he thinks of himself as a "character actor" more than anything, which is a huge shame. Could a character actor so beautifully personify John Le Carre's quietly complex spy? Come now. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a slow-burn sort of work. Its passion is whispered, not declaimed, in the most adult kind of way. Much has been made of how "quiet" Oldman's performance is too. Yet don't confuse that term with "small"; his Smiley is as grand and fiery as anything else he's ever done over the past three decades. It's an inner sort of flame, the sort you can see running across his probing blue eyes when Smiley carefully takes his morning swim, each stroke a calculated piece of focus and concentration. We sense the innate heartbreak Oldman's so excelled at portraying onscreen in the past, when Smiley catches his wife being unfaithful with a co-worker: the gaping mouth, the stunted breath, the wide eyes and wild blinking. We sense that fierce passion when George takes a seat in the film's final moments, straightening his shoulders, jutting out his chin ever so slightly, the merest hint of a smile crossing his lips. You want to shriek at the perfection of it all.

As it is, I'm left, at the end of today, wanting to shriek with joy over that nomination, and yet quietly taking a few deep breaths of joy, contemplating that genius might, just might, be recognized by the popular kids. Some of us think it's about time.

Top illustration by Matthew Brazier.

Jan 6, 2012

Home

Happy 2012.

I've avoided writing a column here for a little while, not only because I genuinely couldn't think of anything good to write, but because of a growing discomfort with living my life online, with having strangers pour over the minutaie of my thoughts and ideas. I've been struggling with what it means to be a writer -a journalist, reporter, novelist, scribe, screenwriter, what-have-you -in the 21st century, and after two months, I still don't have a decent answer. So let's start with "home" - it's been on my mind, and perhaps, in light of the passed holiday season, yours too.

When I moved to New York last March, I had the distinct feeing I was returning home. I didn't know why; I wasn't born there, though I visited frequently as a teen and into my twenties. I always felt comfortable in New York: I had my favorite spots as an adolescent that included Tower Records, Reminiscence, and long-goners The Grand Ticino, and Cafe Mozart. I ran into photographers Matthew Rolston and Albert Watson in the Village. I saw Pavarotti at the Met. I got my Broadway tickets through a friend who worked in the second tower at 1 World Trade Center. I was out so late it was early at the Five Spot and God knows what other jazz spots I wasn't supposed to be in (being under 21). I never thought twice about wandering around alone, taking pictures and notes and mental snapshops of the smell, the look, the sheer... feeling of the Big Bad Apple of the late 80s and early 90s.

It's hard to describe to someone who's not been there. I've a friend who's breaking her Big Apple cherry in March, and though the list of "you must go to"s keeps growing, I remind myself that every single person has a different experience. It's like getting your very own personalized Ben & Jerry's flavor: it has all the things you love, with little bits and bobs of everyone else's yumyums, but you know it was made just for you, with a stamp in the middle when you open the lid saying START SPREADING THE NEWS. I found that flavor when I moved last year, and I had every argument with myself about why I didn't deserve a flavor: I'm too stupid, I'm not connected, I'm too old, I'm not pretty, I'm scared. What? Gluttony's in my veins. Gluttony shrieks for a metropolis that lives and breathes in a twenty-four hour cycle of survival, sweat, sex, sales, and rough-hewn savoir-faire. Gluttony has nothing to do with looks or connections or smarts. Gluttony doesn't respect fear. To experience the full flavor, I only had to step outside and look around. It was so simple.

And so New York became (indeed always was) home for me in a way Toronto never was, and never will be. This acknowledgment, made foolishly public, garnered no small bit of surprise, even shock, in social (and social media) circles.

"But you were born here," people will say, not trying too hard to hide their dis-ease and judgement.

"They're crazy down there," others will add with full passive-aggressive smirkiness. I don't know what to make of the haterating, but I have my theories, the most obvious being Tall Poppy Syndrome, surely an umbilical leftover tied to Mummy Britain.

Theorizing aside, home, for me, has f*ck all to do with where you're born. Gabriel Byrne spoke about this very concept in May when he introduced Edna O'Brien at her reading for Saints and Sinners, his notion of Irish writerly creativity being tied up with what "home" means, of one neither comfortable in one's adopted homeland, nor in the place one was born. I experienced that during a visit I made last month. It was bittersweet, surreal, and strange. I was home, but I no longer had an apartment. I had no base, but I was home, and I had everywhere to go. The sheer thrill of being there made me leap out of bed and thank some gritty unknown power. Living there inspired me to write page after page of ideas, observations, goals, experiences, and to get in touch with friends new and old. It scared the life out of me. It woke me up. I knew returning to Canada would kill me on some level, and it was a murder I had to accept as inevitable.

Returning to Canada this time around underlined that home is, indeed, where your heart is. Perhaps we have to accept the mercy killings of small parts of ourselves until we can get back to where we are truly meant to be. Perhaps the ashes from those graves can be used to make something entirely new, in a place that feels entirely, luxuriously ancient, a glorious mish-mash of deja-vu, fate, hope, faith, and sheer teeth-gnashing determination. Here's to that creation growing into something beautiful in 2012.

Photos from my Flickr photostream.