Saturday, November 11, 2017

An Evening and Master Class with Atom Egoyan

Poster of UBC Event
Most unfortunately, I could not attend the annual Quinn Memorial lecture at UBC this year! The main reason was problems with scheduling as I would have had to cancel my classes in addition to finding a suitable substitute and all this would have been even more work than simply going to work. My apologies for that and hopefully I can re-arrange my commitments so that I can attend, ruminate and blog about this wonderful event come next year.

In lieu of this, I had the opportunity to attend another UBC event, the Master Class with renowned Canadian film director Atom Egoyan. When I first received the email of the upcoming talk, I did not hesitate and bought a ticket immediately. I marked the day on our kitchen calendar many days in advance. I could not believe that I would not only be in the same room with this esteemed director but also perhaps be given the chance to ask a question, shake his hand and get a selfie and / or an autograph. The latter I realize is more or less passé these days, a circumstantial relic of the non-technological past.

As it turned out, I arrived early that evening. This allowed me to get a rather good seat; yet to my slight dismay, the first and half of the second row were already reserved. As this was a special opportunity for film grad students to see and meet the iconic Canadian film-maker, they were immediately and conveniently assigned the best seats of the house, so-to-speak. Notwithstanding, my seat was not too bad as the (hastily taken) photo above can demonstrate for our intents and purposes here.

The evening began with a couple of (redundant?) speeches and a showcase of the centennial celebration of UBC with a brief video of some sorts. My focus throughout was on the man sitting in front of me who was close enough to be poked. Yes, this actually crossed my mind! I considered it something one could cross off one’s eternal bucket list, namely to poke a Canadian legend. Believe me, at one point I did lean forward with my hand still idly lying beside me.

What would be the worst that could happen to me? I would sincerely apologize to him and explain the reason for my poke. Depending on his level of humility and sense of humor, he might even smile or perhaps use it as an anecdote at another of his upcoming talks. I would be indelibly entwined in his memory as the man who poked him at UBC.

Now why would I go to such length and effort of poking Atom Egoyan? Let me tell you that he is among my Top 40 directors of all time. It may not sound like much, but you should see the list of these world-renowned directors. Exotica (1994) was my introduction to his oeuvre and what an introduction it was indeed! That movie blew me away and I would say it is tied with Arcand’s Jesus of Montréal (1989) for best Canadian movie I have ever seen!

Furthermore, I quite enjoyed his Adjuster (1991), a film that was decidedly different from other types of films I had seen. Felicia’s Journey (1999) impressed me as well but not so much due to its erratic and rushed ending (that is, if memory serves me right) and his most celebrated film to date The Sweet Hereafter (1997) failed to impress me much. Ever since then, for one reason or another, his more recent movies fell under the radar; in addition, I had read movie critics feeling let down by this undoubtedly talented director. Yet my most recent film of his was Remember (2015) with Christopher Plummer, a film that was expertly made but proved to be problematic on different levels. One day I shall put my thoughts on it in writing in the form of a movie review.

Yet back to the evening and sorry for the diversion. To make a long story short, I did not poke. He was then (finally!) invited to the podium and delivered his speech. It started off on a notably false note for me. He alluded to the sexual allegations that are haunting Hollywood these days and that he felt disgusted about it. Of course, I completely agreed with him but unfortunately, there seemed to be no connection or relation with his actual talk, which focused on his upbringing and his experiences of film-making. I felt that he used current events as a hook but one that did not lead anywhere but was used merely to make himself look and appear good. In other words, a type of Ego trip (coincidentally the first three letters of his chosen last name).

Yet over the course of his talk, he did win me over with some of his personal anecdotes as well as observations on the task of film-making, some of which I will aboard here. First off, he talked about his upbringing in Victoria as a very young Egyptian-born Armenian who spoke not a word of English. That resonated with me because I had gone through similar experiences where I was thrown into a country and culture without having any target language skills to get by with.

In his case, he had at least some, if merely feeble and symbolic support from his father. It was he who told the kindergarten teacher that should his son utter a particular phrase in their language, it meant he was hungry; any other phrase simply meant he needed to go to the washroom. Yet when young Atom verbalised his need to go to the washroom, he was given a sandwich instead. This not only confused the young boy but made him aware and averted him of the delicacy and fragility of communication.

We may think we have the means to communicate but that may not be the case. Misunderstandings abound or lurk around the corner. This would happen too when he would talk about his ideas for films or literary adaptations. At times people would say they understand, but he knew that they did not. At other times, writers would disagree with him until they saw the finished product, as was the case with both Felicia’s Journey and The Sweet Hereafter. To his credit, it must be very difficult to give someone a clear picture of the contents of one’s mind, so, more often than not, he would let the images speak for themselves once the film was made.

Egoyan explained that his reason for adapting other people’s materials was because he himself did not have access to those worlds and experiences. Then we would take their materials and adapt them in his idiosyncratic ways, which might or might not resonate with the original author. Film adaptations of literary works are a tricky subject and it is about both preserving the essence of the original work but also adding one’s unique and visual touch to the content. 

Either way, what this showed me was that film-making was a lonely process. Writing certainly is as writers spend most of their time alone producing sentences that are stitched together carefully and then finally presented as a fixed piece of work. In film, it seems that although you are constantly surrounded by people as there are many others involved in the film-making process, in the end, it is an equally lonely endeavor. Although he works closely with actors, some of them prefer not to talk much, as was the case with Kevin Bacon, according to the director. All and all, the only one who knows where all of this is going and how it will all look once put together will only be in the mind’s eye of the director. Yet once all the elements combine and come together, the finished product can then be shared with others.

One of the things that strikes me about films as well is the use of music and I was glad but not particularly surprised that Egoyan himself relished that process. It is often the final but oh so important touch to the film. It is the carefully selected bits of soundtrack that give the film its necessary depth and often identity. That is an important part of film-making; the other would be to imbue your characters with empathy. That way stories can resonate with us and even so-called “cold” film-makers like Michael Haneke show empathy even for dubious or downright despicable characters.

The evening ended with a Q & A session. My question would have been about his relationship with technology. Although technology represents an important part of his films, it is also portrayed as an alienating effect. I wanted to know how he felt about this himself. He alluded to some of it as he told us, with some visible regret, that the old and intimate experience of sitting in a dark room with strangers and seeing the actions projected on a screen was slowly dying out. Instead, we stream movies. That has led to an explosion of content and although it is often of very good quality, it is too much to consume for any single individual.

I decided to postpone my question for a little later in person. We had been given a ticket that would be converted to a drink of our choice, for me it was an unexpected but very welcome glass of red wine. At the reception, I literally hung around in the vicinity of Atom Egoyan who was approached by many attendees with numerous questions and comments.

I stood there patiently, waiting for him to notice me. But unfortunately, people would butt in or slightly shove me to the side. But no matter, I had the iron resolve to abide my time. I was going to ask him my particular question about technology and end it on an ironic note with a selfie of the two of us. There! Finally, he took note of me and raised his eyebrows and walked half a step in my direction before he was pulled over to the side by one of the organizers. There was thereafter another photo-op with certain people after which I was immediately forgotten again.

After some more futile waiting, I decided to leave the scene. I had seen and heard enough so that I could sit down and type away for a blog post. It was not overall as personally satisfying as I would have liked but then again it also reminded me that in the end, even film-makers, who are the equivalent of celebrities for me, are human after all.

Although I appreciated Egoyan’s sense of humor and his (apparent) modesty, in the end I realized hat even great filmmakers are human. As is the case with any artist or celebrity, we impose upon them qualities they may or may not have, and whether we realize this or not, we put them on pedestals. I was glad to have seen and met this great director, but at the same time it slightly chipped away some of my adoration I had for him. After all, even the great turn out to be made of flesh and blood and not that different from the rest of us and in the end, we end up feeling slightly conned and deceived.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Existential Burden: On Guilt and Innocence in The Fall by Albert Camus

Original French Book Cover of La Chute
In the words of his fellow French philosopher (and often rival) Jean-Paul Sartre, the novel The Fall (1956) by Albert Camus is "perhaps the most beautiful and the least understood" of his works. I love the cautionary disclaimer of “perhaps” thrown in there for good measure because Sartre at the time was still at odds with his one-time friend who had tragically died in a car accident. 

Notwithstanding, the other parts of the sentence certainly ring true as The Fall is not as read nor hotly discussed and debated as opposed to the more known and celebrated works of Albert Camus, such as The Stranger (1942) or The Myth of Sisyphus (1942).

In my view, The Fall is not his best novel; that honour I would bestow upon the exemplary The Plague (1947), but I found the ideas expressed in his last work of fiction to be of great interest and relevance for existential philosophy. There are many themes that are dealt with in the form of dramatic monologues by Jean-Baptiste Clamence, a self-proclaimed judge-penitent who has fallen from grace. Once a reputable lawyer who (supposedly) used to help the poor and widowed, he ends up sick and lonely in an apartment in Amsterdam.  

When Clamence started off helping widows and orphans, he was highly respected by his peers and society in general. However, he did not lead an authentic life. He may have helped the blind cross the street and shown many other good deeds in front of others, but deep inside he had done so only for attention and acknowledgement. His actions were self-interested and, worse, they hardly reflected his true inner disposition and feelings, which in fact tended towards its opposite direction, ranging from disinterest to even disgust of his fellow beings.

One night, while walking down the streets of Paris, he notices a young distraught girl by the Seine. He pays her no notice. She jumps and cries for help but instead of coming to her rescue, he quickens his steps and deafens his ears; he even refuses to read about her fate the next day in the papers.

Yet this event remains in his memory and literally resurfaces a number of times in the novel. The most persistent haunt is an indiscriminate laugh (the derisory voice of conscience) that he hears on various occasions, which he feels is aimed at him. In such a way, he carries with him his share of guilt over his refusal to act and potentially save the girl’s life.

Actions are an important part of existential philosophy; they are meant to propel us towards engaging with life in a chaotic and desolate world. After the indelible horrors of World War II, people had lost faith in traditional forms and pillars of meaning, such as God and religion, while humanity, warts and all, had come into sharper focus. Valuable and veritable action existed in helping others and it was considered a manner of alleviating suffering and injustice both of which abounded in the world around us. 

Moreover, actions served as standards of judging and evaluating a life; a good and decent person was not one that merely prayed to the heavens or asked God for forgiveness, but one who physically made the world a better place. In that sense, morality should be expressed in tangible forms and not serve as mere thoughts or an empty mouthpiece; put differently, ideology ought to be enmeshed with actions.

Essentially, we are free but that comes with a price. We need to take responsibility for our deeds and we will be judged by others as well as judge ourselves in the process. The problem is that we all carry guilt with us and none of us are innocent, according to Camus. The fact that the world cannot give us pre-packaged bits of truth and meaning but that we have to figure it all out for ourselves makes the whole endeavor more difficult and cumbersome.

That is the reason, why Clamence is a judge-penitent. He judges both himself and others, while he repents his own actions and lack thereof. The other issue that complicates matters is that people generally do not lead authentic lives; they are either dishonest towards others, themselves or even a combination of both. Clamence claims to know the truth and that elevates him over others, but he is still caught up in the sticky web of the world as he cannot exist without others.   

Existential guilt has been explored in other works, most memorably in Franz Kafka’s The Process in which its protagonist K. gets arrested one morning despite being innocent of any specific crimes. It is the guilt of humanity, the mark of the cross on Cain’s forehead that makes him guilty despite feeling or believing to be innocent. We cannot disassociate ourselves from this, but we can try our best to face it and then deal with it as best we can.

Nobody is exempt of this guilt, not even Jesus. Why did Jesus so quickly give himself up to the authorities knowing that we would face death? Believers may say that it is to purge the world of its sins with his blood, but Camus claims that Jesus was not the innocent sheep himself. On the Day of Innocents, Herod sent out his army to kill infants and children, while Jesus managed to escape with the help of an angel. Although essentially cleared of any wrongdoing himself, Jesus must have felt pangs of conscience that so many innocent children had died instead as well as because of him.

This could be the reason why Jesus did not put up a fight and quickly gave in when the time came. This would also, according to Camus, explain his cry to God, why He had forsaken him, a doubt not only in the Deity’s possible non-existence but also an accusation of not interfering with the slaughter of many innocent people. This information, these particular lines of lament and accusation had been, however, suppressed (censured) by all gospel accounts, with the exception of Mark.

Camus then engages in a bit of pun and wordplay, which unfortunately loses its impact in translation. Despite all the somber philosophy, there is substantial amount of humor in his writing. Jesus chose his apostle Peter to be the founder of the church. Yet it was Peter (Pierre in French) who would betray him three times, and yet he was supposed to be the rock (“pierre”) of the Church. Jesus must have been aware of the delicate irony of the situation, says Clamence.

The novel is also surprisingly frank and forthcoming about sexuality, especially considering the time it was written, namely a few years before the so-called sexual revolution. Clamence decries the double standards and hypocrisy of society and he claims to bed both respectable women as well as prostitutes in the same hotel bed!

Moreover, he says that when he engaged in debauchery, namely sex and alcohol, all it did was help him forget about the guilt and pain for a while. In such moments, he would manage to lose himself and find some temporary comfort and relief. Yet such actions were not a sign or expression of freedom but rather a form of evading responsibility and action as one would become enslaved to them and eventually still wake up to an unchanged situation of existential guilt and suffering.

In a world where excess and debauchery are often viewed as the ultimate forms of pleasure and enjoyment as well as a carefree existence and life of freedom, it is interesting to note that all of this is merely another form of escapism. True permanent pleasure cannot be gained from such vapid and superficial experiences or lifestyles.

On its face value, existentialist philosophy may seem pessimistic, especially with its heavy reliance on guilt and loss of innocence. Yet what I like best about this branch of philosophy is the fact that it gives us something to hold onto. This something may be vague and not clearly defined, but it forces us to become who we are and to face the world as genuinely as possible. In all of this, our deeds speak louder than our words and we cannot isolate ourselves from others but must interact and exist with them.