Friday, January 27, 2012

Our Visit (fiction)

“So runs my dream; but what am I?
An infant crying in the night;
An infant crying for the light,
And with no language but a cry.”

- Tennyson's ‘In Memoriam’, Part LIV,

It was the first winter after their migration, when the air was so dry and cold that you couldn't make snowballs after a blizzard. We suspected that they were somehow to blame. We knew very little about them. The only source of news in our small town was intermittent reports over public radio when stations were allowed to broadcast.

When five of them arrived at the old store on a windy Saturday afternoon, it was the first time any of us had seen them in person. Marjorie and I were stocking the shelves while Uncle Wallis sat on a chair near the electric heater, working on the accounts. They were traveling in one of the original deep-green vehicles you don’t see any more, when they were still adjusting to daylight. At the time, black cars made them lose their balance and red cars hurt their eyes.

Two females and three males unfolded themselves from the auto, all of them dressed in heavy yellow greatcoats for the cold. We’d seen photographs and were prepared. They looked different, but weren't exactly frightening. You might even think they were human from a distance, but as they came closer you’d notice their crooked style of walking and the sharp angles of their shoulders and hips.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012


I was helping Anton move. He had been living in the basement of a house that was allegedly close to York University (“One bus away!” the landlord had told him, neglecting to mention that the bus was hourly and didn’t run after 7pm) and was moving further south to Yonge and Sheppard where a combination of three buses could get him to class faster than the one he'd used before.

He’d had an amicable breakup with his girlfriend Carla (who was also helping us move) and had enlisted me by saying “Mike, I’d like your help on Saturday. It’ll involve lifting and carrying and nothing else. Probably can't even afford to give you pizza. I can maybe manage some stolen booze.”

He wasn’t kidding. His landlord had proven to be an interesting variation on the absentee landlord model; he wasn’t around often but had sent legions of relatives to watch over the house in his absence and collect fees above and beyond the agreed-upon rent.

“The water heater had to be replaced,” explained one uncle, “and it’s a lot of money. But it’s only going to cost you two hundred bucks. You’re welcome.”

Anton's basement apartment included the water heater. He had not noticed any maintenance. “It looks the same,”he said.

The uncle shrugged. “The insides. All new. When you were out.”

“Then why do I still barely have hot water?”

A brief pause. “But it’s good water. Good. Better.”

Thursday, January 05, 2012

A man of wealth and taste

It’s hard to play a villain at the best of times; the balance between charismatic and reprehensible (or downright terrifying) is difficult to maintain. I was indifferent to Inglorious Basterds but can’t quite forget Christopher Waltz’s friendly, occasionally charming and utterly evil Nazi Col. Landa. Delve into the classics and find Anthony Hopkins and Alan Rickman playing Hannibal Lecter and Hans Gruber with such delicious zeal that most audiences became rather attached to them and secretly hoped they’d get away with their villainy.

Less so for Lecter than Gruber, to be fair. One can imagine Hans Gruber being the best financial advisor in the world if he was on your side (he’d simply shoot any trader who didn’t generate the returns he wanted), while Lecter would be a charming travel companion with his affinity for polite behaviour and penchant for eating the rude waiters or tour guides you encountered. But Gruber would eventually feel overworked and convince you that your money was also his money (most likely at gunpoint), and Lecter would find himself peckish some afternoon and crave a snack (most likely you, if you weren’t fast enough). 

Not all villains come across as party animals; evil plays frighteningly well when banal if you’ve got the right actor. Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh in No Country For Old Men blends into the background (bad haircut notwithstanding) , waiting to be not-noticed enough to seize his prey unnoticed. Bounce back fifteen years or so to see Kevin Spacey’s John Doe in the largely overrated Se7en as a rather plain penalty-and-repentence type with an unfortunate gift for creative set decoration and loud voice when he wants it (his “DetecTIVE!” line carries more weight than you’d like it to).

Good villians of any stripe are hard to come by, so the recent BBC series Sherlock has restarted the game from a new angle without sending the Baker Street Irregulars into a boycotting tizzy. A modernized chestnut remains a chestnut, but that doesn't mean the series is unnecessary. The update to contemporary London is done with a little more wit than expected and the characters are riffed-upon in a way that doesn’t entirely betray their originals. People forget that Dr. Watson had been a solider (in Afganistan, yet) and Martin Freeman brings a weary PTSD aura to Watson that isn’t without a streak of humour.

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