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August 22, 2011

  • Decoupage and Narrative
  • imageWe met during a screening of Un Chien Andalou. It was October of 1989, my second month in film school. I was taking Film Theory 1400, the basic film history and theory survey course. This week, we were being introduced to surrealism and Dadaism, so we naturally first up was Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali slicing the eyeball of a woman, followed by some Dadaist gems from the 1920s.

    I think she was seated near me, or maybe I tried to engineer to be near her. (She was pretty. I was 19.) She dressed more like a slightly avant-garde secretary than a York University student, with a slightly dated skirt and blouse ensemble, pantyhose and open-toed pumps.

    During one of the breaks in class, we got to talking about the films. I had never seen Un Chien Andalou before. I made some fatuous remark about it and she launched into a polite tirade about Salvador Dali’s view of women.

    I was in love. Truthfully, it was probably more lust than love—her legs alone put my hormones at DefCon 1—but her artistic bent and trenchant opinions certainly impressed me too.

    After class, we wound up in the lounge in the Fine Arts building talking about this and that. Her name, for the purposes of this, was Christa and she was a second year film student (I never did know why she was taking the first year theory course). She was a little older than me, I think 20 or 21. I decided to employ the tactic I frequently used during conversations with women I found attractive: I tried to figure out if she had a boyfriend.  I peppered the conversation about film aesthetics with lots of open ended questions about where she lived, what she did, which didn’t turn up much. There were no answers involving “we” or “my boyfriend”. The only person in her life Christa mentioned was her son.

    That left me confused, to put it mildly.

    I was, at the time, tainted by a somewhat conservative religious outlook, and yet, at the time, this revelation only caused me consternation insofar as I figured she had a boyfriend. But it didn’t stop me from sitting with her every week in Film 1400, or by continuing to privately lust after her in that confusing and repressed way only Evangelical Christians are capable of doing.

    I liked her and the fact she had fully formed opinions on just about everything to do with film. Christa hated just about every mainstream Hollywood film made (I kept my opinion that Dead Poets Society was one of the best films ever made to myself). She talked enthusiastically about European cinema. She held the view that film was some form of fine art that could be constructed, deconstructed, sculpted and shaped into all sorts of forms, whereas I thought of them still as movies with narrative.

    imageThe last class before the Christmas break was December 7, 1989. (I’ll never forget the date. We were all reeling with the news of the massacre of 14 women at the Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal the day before). That class we watched the animated documentary, Frank’s Film, the musical Funny Face with Audrey Hepburn and Woody Allen’s Manhattan. The last film was revelatory. It was a moment when I realized that film could do what I wanted it to do and, also, what Christa wanted: it could be fine art that worked on a visceral level and yet also have stirring narrative with humour and honest observation. To this day, Manhattan is one of my all time favourite films, if not my favourite.

    That class I gave Christa a Christmas card. I wrote a short note in it saying how much I enjoyed hanging out with her and appreciated what I learned from her. She seemed quite shocked to get it. I was worried I had committed some kind of film school faux pas, or she didn’t like Christmas cards.

    A few days later my Mom gave me a message (I was still living at my parents; the two hour commute to school was a killer). Christa had called. I honestly don’t remember giving her my number. She might have found it from a list in the faculty, or maybe I did give it to her. I called her back.

    “I really wanted to thank you for that card.” Christa told me. “It was very moving. I really appreciated it.” I fumbled some kind of a reply and suggested we meet for lunch.

    I took her to the only place I knew in downtown Toronto—a Thai noodle bar on Elm Street that my Dad took me to a few months earlier. She couldn’t stop talking about my Christmas card. And she told me about her life.

    Christa and her four year-old son had come to Toronto from out West. The father was out of the picture, and it sounded like that was a very good thing indeed. She had a strained relationship with her family. I listened to her talk about her problems—she had to meet with a lawyer to sort out child support I recall—and tried to nod sympathetically where I could. I asked if she wanted to come to our family for Christmas—I remember at the time privately worrying how to explain Christa to my parents—but she was doing something with her own parents who were coming to Ontario.

    I came away conflicted. There was no boyfriend. And yet I now felt like an intimate friend and was glad she seemed to have someone to talk to about her life and I honestly didn’t want to spoil that. And I was a religiously repressed 19 year-old who was scared of his sexuality, who had never kissed a girl. I had no idea what I was doing.

    I talked with one of my Evangelical Christian friends about Christa and I remember how weirded out he seemed that I was friends with, much less interested in, someone who had a child when she was 17. I remember my friend offered me $20 to buy a Christmas present for Christa’s son. I’ll never forget how he said it though. “So you can get something for the boy.” The boy.

    I wish I could say I was much better than that.

    I kept meeting Christa for lunch and I felt more and more out of my depth as she talked about her struggles as a single mother. She said that she wished that someone would spend time with her son so he could have a positive male role model.

    To this day, I feel ashamed of what I said, though at the time it was said without any self-consciousness. I said, “Surely there are social agencies that could help with that.”

    Christa looked at me as though I had publically defecated. She spoke with disdain and horror. “I don’t want a social agency.”

    And in that instant I realized what she was asking. She was asking me into that part of her life. And I had casually missed the point completely.

    I just continued the conversation. I didn’t go back to that point. I didn’t know what to do.

    I started avoiding Christa. At first I just let the crazy busyness of my film production class carry me away. But then came the day when my sister gave me a telephone message from Christa and I didn’t return the call and it became clear I had moved from passive aggression to something else entirely.

    There were complicating factors. At the time, a girl I had been deeply and passionately in unrequited love with the year before had come back into my life, and I threw myself into trying to make another attempt at getting her to fall in love with me again (it didn’t work—but that is a whole other story). But honestly, I suspect even if that hadn’t happened I still would have taken the cowardly way out.

    The last time I remember seeing Christa was the first and only time I remember seeing her son. It was when film production classes were in full swing producing their final projects. For first year students, it was a five minute film made in super 8. For the second years it was much the same, only using 16 mm. One Saturday, in the midst of a three day marathon editing our film, I had to get supplies and wound up where the second year students were. There was Christa, working on something while her son played with a Fisher Price tape deck with some cartoon book on tape. I talked with the two of them tentatively for a few minutes.

    He seemed nice.

    I never saw her again. I washed out of film school—my mark in film production wasn’t high enough to proceed in the program—and I became an English major instead. I never had cause to visit the places Christa would have been, and was too embarrassed at failing to want to, either. A few years later I’d continue with screenwriting courses and find a way back into that world, but by then Christa would have graduated, if she ever came back to school at all.

    Looking back, it’s easy to construct a narrative from all of this. The movies of our lives that we write are like the sort of films I love: from memories a story is fashioned from things said and done. From such a narrative, patterns form, and from such patterns form intent. But, really, life is mostly spent in hesitation and disconnection. It’s filled with regrets and things unsaid. The movies of our lives are actually more like the films Christa liked. They’re decoupage, things brought together without anything more than aesthetics guiding it all.

    Posted by graeme | (1) Comments | Permalink

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    Rob Jones  on  08/29  at  03:55 PM

    Well, I suppose that your ‘social agencies’ thing was something of a faux pas, for sure. 19 year olds are not known for their understanding of subtlety, to be fair to you, though.

    And it’s true that avoiding her wasn’t the most sensitive of measures.  Yet, also to be fair to you, it was unrealistic of her to expect you to fill a role for her son, just because you and she had made a connection. This is understandable on her side of course. When you’re a parent, you’ll do pretty much anything to support your child, even if it isn’t necessarily realistic, or even fair to others. But, 19 year olds without kids, once again, are still developing their skills around this kind of stuff. You can’t dance the tango with two left feet. You need <i>practice</i>.

    To me, the tragedies of life often have less to do with callousness and cruelty as they do with bad timing. If you’d met her 15 years later, I bet your reaction to her would have been quite different, even if the conclusion was the same. The tragedy part is mostly rooted in not being able to choose when we meet people, at times when we’re best suited to meet them where they happen to be. This isn’t anything to be ashamed of. As Kurt Vonnegut said: So it goes.

    Thanks for the post!

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