Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Tuesday



I haven’t eaten. I’ve barely slept. I’m weak and exhausted and I should be doing an interview. Instead, I am a catatonic mess staring off into space, too shaken and crushed to know what to do next. Part of me wants to continue like nothing has happened and to keep pushing. Part of me wants to go for a walk. Part of me wants that walk to continue until I can’t walk anymore. Part of me wants to kill myself. Part of me wants to do the dishes. Part of me wants the curl up in a ball on the floor and waste away into nothing and hope that no one ever notices. I can’t tell if this is burning out or fading away, and even worse I can’t tell which is worse.

I had plans. I had such grand plans. I thought they were achievable. I bluffed and lied and worked my ass off harder than anyone else I knew to try and achieve them. They can’t be achieved. I don’t have the means. I barely have the ability. I tried. I tried so hard. I wanted it so badly. I thought I could make a difference. I never considered myself as valid. I never considered anything. I've been working so hard that today hits with the force of a car crash that was moving at the speed of light.

While I was in a screening and over the course of three hours my life has descended into a hell from which there is no escape. Some of it I created, and I’m sorry for that. Other things have also happened in the past three hours that I had no control over and it can just be chalked up to chance. It wasn’t one thing. It was five separate and very ill timed things to happen all at once, like the universe was waiting for the right time to strike a final blow in tandem. Timing is so fickle. You can go decades without tragedy or have everything you love taken away from you faster than the blink of an eye.

Whatever it is I don’t know how to proceed. All I know is you are all better off without me. I am scaring myself. I hate what I have become. There’s nothing left in the tank at all. I might live through the night. I might not. I don’t want this to be a goodbye letter because writing such a letter and not following through is silly. I did that before and I regret it. I am so full of regret right now that I don’t want to add to it.

Know that no matter what you think of me, I loved you all. Some of you know that. Some of you I wish I said it to more often. This might not be goodbye forever, but it will be goodbye for a very long time.
Today is the kind of day from which there are no happy endings. I physically can’t talk about any of it. I can’t even bring the words to say them to an empty room with no one around. I’ve let you all down for the last time. I’ve let myself down for the last time.

I want to thank you that have passed through my life so far for making it a warmer place. Even on a cold and unseasonable day – the second worst day of my entire life, which says quite a lot – I remember the good.
Remembering the good only makes today harder. No, I didn’t commit a scandalous crime that will suddenly disgust all of you. It’s simply that life is too hard. It’s always been hard for me. I have very fucked up survival instincts. I hate being dramatic. I hate it so much. I have so much I still wanted to do.

I don’t deserve nice things. I don’t deserve to be around good people. I deserve the darkest pit I can find. It’s not even because of the things in life I deserve to be punished for or that I’ve done wrong, but from everything else in the world that has ever hurt me.

This is the worst thing I have ever written. I’m sorry it wasn’t better. I’m sorry a lot of things weren’t better. At least you should all know that the final movie I saw/will be seeing for a very long time was a good one.
Goodbye for now, but hopefully not forever. Stay warm for me. Keep making the world a better place. Maybe I’ll see you soon. I need time, the one thing I have none of. I have nothing left to give and I refuse to take anything else from anyone. I need to deliberate. I need quiet. I need something to believe in. I need solutions that can’t possibly come for a very long time. I need to get my patience back. I need to survive. I don’t want to die, but at this point I don’t know what else to do.

Just don’t be mad. Not today. Don’t yell at me or get upset. It will break my heart into a thousand pieces. I can’t take any anger from others or anger from myself. If you do see me or you want to talk to me, don’t approach me from that direction. Not today. Not with everything happening. This is a day of reckoning. One that determines where the rest of my life goes.

I love you.

-Andrew

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Harbinger



There I was sitting on the subway with an unopened bottle of wine between my legs when they walked onto the subway. They were a couple who said nothing, but told a story of a thousand unhappy words. It was a couple that was as beautiful to look at as they were uncomfortable to behold.

They got on right before the doors were about to close, mere seconds before the BING BING BONG that signalled to passengers to stand clear. They took their positions on either side of the door, standing instead of sitting and not anywhere close to each other. It was one hour after Valentine’s Day, that gray area where showing grand romantic gestures can finally be seen as something less than a commercially aided thing to do. And yet, here, there was no romance, but a glimmer of one that might have been.

They were clearly together. They also clearly weren’t talking, with their body language telling volumes. The very fact that they were going more than one stop and they decided to stand instead of sit suggested a severe tension that permeated the entire, nearly silent subway car. Not only were they standing on either side of a door, but they also refused to sit side by side. Heck, they even refused to sit in the same vicinity of one another. The fact that they were still mere feet away from each other and not ever looking each other in the eye screamed “break up waiting to happen.”

They were clearly coming from a date and he had clearly done something wrong. What he did, I’ll never know, but I knew her look very well. It was one of complete disappointment in every possible way.

She looked great with the exception of the sad look on her face. Beautiful black dress just past the knees, high heels with intricate leather straps criss-crossing every which way, an elegant wintry pea coat.

He looked okay, I guess. He was clean. Clean shaven, clean cut, tight leather jacket, tight jeans, and an oddly ratty pair of sneakers that seemed out of place. His hair was done in the neatest of low-key pompadours, the kind where you actually might be able to play it off like you don’t have any product in your hair.

She never looked up at him, not once. She looked at his feet the entire time; at those ugly ratty trainers that no amount of rationalization could excuse given the effort she put into her look. She wrung her hands together in front of her nervously; one hand going forward and back over the other as if it were the only thing stopping her from screaming at the man across the doorway from her. Or perhaps she already said what she needed to say.

Maybe his appearance was skewed by what I saw on his face: the slightest bit of an indignant smirk. The kind of smirk that suggests he did nothing wrong but actually means that he did everything wrong and he’s too full of himself to admit it. No one gets as sad as this girl across from him if the other person didn’t screw up royally. He also never looked her in the eye. He never even so much as looked her in the eye, possibly afraid that she might look up and burn a hole through him. He fixated on her hands and the constant fidgeting.

I couldn’t look away. Part of me wanted to know more, but I was on my way to a date. It was a date I never even wanted to go on in the first place. It wasn’t my place, but I needed to know what was happening. Everything about the situation was so profound that I couldn’t let it go. It was burned into my memory for as long as I can remember now.

They got off one stop before I did, seven or eight stops after they got on the subway. He kinds of let out an incredulous, scoffing gasp of air as he turned and left the car. She hesitated. She made the move towards the door and stopped dead in her tracks. It was only seconds, but it might as well have been a full on delay on the subway from how long it looked. He never once looked back at the train on the tracks below, already halfway up the escalator when she finally decided to follow him.

I wanted so badly to tell her not to go. I’m not in the business of “saving” people from shitty situations or trying to stick my nose where it doesn’t belong, but there was something that definitely wasn’t right. She seems like she needed to talk to someone. Maybe it wasn’t time for an intervention from a complete stranger, but she needed something and I sure hoped that she would find it soon and hopefully without the smirking bro that never so much as gave her a second glance.

I also wish she didn’t leave because I was already hating myself for where I was going. She called me already drunk and wanted some company. I have no idea why I was doing this. I was weak and working so hard that I couldn’t see straight. Maybe a date was what I needed.

What I ended up going to couldn’t be seen as a date or even a hangout. It was me watching her watch videos online while I sipped wine I didn’t even want to drink in the first place. I don’t even know why I left the house. I was wasting my time.

She asked me to spend the night, but pretty much just so I could make sure she woke up on time in the morning to go to something she had to do. I didn’t really care what it was. I had stopped paying attention.

Nothing happened. I went to sleep several feet away from her on the couch, playing glorified alarm clock so she could get up in time in the morning. I don't think she realized I didn't want to be in the same bed as her.

And all night I thought about that distance.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Dear Andy... Sincerely, Me



I wanted to write something much more about this, but given that it’s Bell Let’s Talk Day and I’ll be seeing quite a few tweets about it throughout the day, I just wanted to chime in with my own personal experiences and why it’s important to  be understanding of mental health problems and why if you feel like you have a problem that you need to talk to someone. (Bell Let’s Talk Day is a Canadian telecom initiative designed to get people talking about mental health issues by donating money from every text message sent or call made on Bell services to worthy mental health organizations or for every Tweet with the hashtag #BellLetsTalk, for those of you outside Canada.)

I have tried to kill myself four times in my life, and twice I was dangerously close. The last time was in 2006, and I am happy to say that I haven’t attempted anything as seriously foolish as that. These moments were caused by varieties of stressors, both internal and external and often compounded by the fact that I had bipolar disorder that went undiagnosed until that last attempt that nearly killed me. So if you are feeling worthless, unloved, hated, ashamed, pained, sad, grief stricken, confused, angry at yourself, or just generally wondering what the point of life is, trust me when I say that I have been there. I struggle every day, some more than others, but I have sought help and I have a pretty great support system in place.

Now even though I haven’t attempted suicide since 2006, it would be foolish to say that I haven’t thought about it since then. In truth, I have thought about it several times since then, and deep down I always live with the deathly fear that I could try something like that again and make things worse. Those three attempts were all borne from something massively life changing, but I was able to move on. Heck, as a whole, my life has in almost every possible way gotten worse since 2006 aside from landing a pretty damn great job and making a ton of new friends. So if you’re looking for someone to tell you “it’s going to get better” or “it’s darkest before the dawn,” don’t look at me. I can’t stand that shit and when someone tells it to me without any other useful insight, I just smile and nod.

I’m not here to tell you “it gets better.” Quite often unless by some miracle you hit the lottery or find a genie’s lamp it will take an incredible amount of work to get to a point where if you suffer from chronic depression where you can say “Yes, everything is fine now.” That comes from within, not from without. There’s a reason why addiction is classified as a type of mental illness: it’s because coming back from both is commiserate on the subject actively wanting to change their life for the better. And that’s a hard thing to do.

The first key to staying on the right track is to talk to people and to find an outlet. There’s no substitute for talking to people. Absolutely none. And let’s be honest, if you are depressed, there’s a certain amount of shame in that. It could be something that you did that’s causing this depression. Sometimes when you talk to people, you won’t always hear what you want to hear. Sometimes, in those rare moments of pure clarity, you’ll hear what you NEED to hear whether you like it at the time or not. Sometimes even when you seek out help, you won’t want to listen, but it’s important that you try and just the fact that you made the effort to do so means there’s hope for you yet. And don’t say that you will be inconveniencing your friends or family or that you would be shaming them. Even when they are at their maddest with you, they would never want to think of a world without you or one where they could have helped you. And if you really need someone, there are dozens of help lines set up to cater to these very private and sometimes uncomfortable moments. I have used these lines myself and I feel no shame about it. And if you can’t do that, trust me when I say that 911 is there to help in case of emergencies and that mental health issues are taken very seriously (being brought to hospital twice in the back of a cop car from calling them and asking for help is proof of that).

When it comes to finding an outlet, I mean always finding one thing to do every day that makes you happy. It doesn’t even have to be a hobby or a craft or anything like that. Even if you have to schedule it, take the time out to listen to some music, read a book, fall asleep listening to talk radio, go for a walk, sit in a coffee shop and people watch, drop it like it’s hot, run something up a flagpole to see who salutes it, it doesn’t matter. These moments are always fulfilling on even the shittiest days because you are the only one who controls them. Not someone else. You. And even in the craziest and darkest of days there will always be that one moment that you are the lord and master over, and those are the moments worth fighting for. Not every day will be a party and some days will be totally beyond redemption, but you have something uniquely yours and the only person that could ever take that away is you.

As for the listeners, the people a friend in need would turn to, I have some advice for you, too. The first being what I mentioned before: never tell someone things are going to get better. If you have ever been distraught in your life and had this told to you, I’m sure you’ll agree that it sounds incredibly stupid and hammy. Worst of all, it sounds like you are blowing them off. There’s nothing else that you could say that would sound more like “yeah, sucks that you’re sad, but my life is fine right now and I would rather get back to it.” It makes you not only a less than ideal friend, but in a lot of ways just a bad Samaritan.

The key to listening is shutting up for a few moments until you have something intelligent to say. Genuinely show an interest and pay attention to what the other person is telling you. Keep asking questions even though you might not get any answers. People will still generally continue to talk. Be light, don’t be dour. Share a cry if you want to. Just do something so they don’t feel alone. Don’t compare your experience to theirs if you have gone through something similar unless they personally ask for it. We’re all wired very differently and much like snowflakes, no two reactions will ever be the same.

And if you ever see the situation escalating and you become scared yourself, then call for help. And if you are on the other side of the equation and someone is telling you that YOU need help, well, that’s tough. I know I wouldn’t react very well most of the time, so I can’t tell you that it’s going to get better. I don’t know your situation. Just know that whatever is being said to you is being said out of love and respect by someone who wants to be there and wants to see you get better, get help, get rest, or find some kind of solace. You won’t see it immediately, but over time I hope it will make sense to you.

I still vividly remember trying to take my own life, and it’s so uncomfortable to think about to this day that I can’t believe I ever would have attempted it. I think of what I do now and how I actually have a job that I love after years of (admittedly continued) struggle, and I can’t believe I almost missed out on all of it. Do I still feel crippling pain, anxiety, and sadness that makes me not want to work? Of course. It’s not going to go away and there really is no cut-and-dry definition of what “getting better” means. If anyone tries to define it for you, they are a fool. Medications aren’t evil, and they can help greatly when needed. Talking to people is as essential as being a great listener to those around you.

And believe me when I say that I’m not an expert. These are just the things I have picked up that I know to be true through wresting with mental illness over the past 18 years of my life (probably more than that). It doesn’t make you less of a person to suffer from any kind of mental illness and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, I’m kind of proud of my life up to this point for a variety of reasons. I do have some pretty great stories as a result of it. I now know when I need help. And best of all, I like to think it has made me a much better listener and a much better friend to those around me.

So if you know of someone who needs help, help them out by being there for them. If you need help yourself, please find someone, anyone who can at the very least talk to you. Be there for each other. That’s the best advice I can give.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Inside Andrew Parker





In this story the weather outside is cold and inhospitable. The main character works his butt off doing what he loves for what little money he makes, but it still isn’t enough to afford a decent winter coat or a place to live. He relies on the kindness and friendship of others. He bounces around from place to place trying to keep it together, spending his days often looking for less than fulfilling work in his field and trying to track down money that he’s owed. Pressure is setting in. He has a lot of pain that he refuses to talk about. He’s in a profession that’s overcrowded as it is, and is only growing exponentially. He has trouble accepting that the world might be leaving him behind. He’s talented, but lacks the connections and good will to get much further in his business. He has a magnetic and likable personality, but it only gets him so far. He works for people that will never be able to bring him to the level he needs to be at to be considered a success. His profession is one that often reinterprets older material that was often done by others far better than him, and when he sees something he feels isn’t up to snuff he can’t keep his mouth shut about it. His hostility gets him into hot water. He’s a loyal, but hopelessly terrible friend and a patently atrocious boyfriend. 

I could be talking about the film Inside Llewyn Davis, or I could be talking about my own life. It never registered the first time I watched (and quite liked) the most recent effort from Joel and Ethan Coen, but re-watching the film over the weekend brought about a really sobering thought. Every single thing that happens to Llewyn as a struggling folk musician in 1961 Greenwich Village applies to my current life as a Toronto film critic at the end of 2013. And that, quite understandably, terrifies me. It’s the worst possible way to end the year, and while it doesn’t change my feelings on the film (in many ways I almost selfishly like it even more), it does make me look closer at the parallels in a far more personal way than any film in recent memory.

Warning: Numerous spoilers from this point on. Too many to stop and point them out when they come up.


“For what you do...”

Let’s start at the beginning and the ending...

The Coens bookend their film with a sequence where Llewyn (played wonderfully by Oscar Isaac, who in terms of age would place his character at the exact age I’m at now) has just finished a set at the only club in New York that will consistently book him and he heads to a back alley to see someone the club owner says is “a friend” but is actually a really pissed off husband who wants to knock Llewyn out for heckling his wife’s set the night before.

Now while Llewyn doesn’t exactly critique others for a living, he certainly isn’t shy about his feelings on the subject of anything he thinks is “square” or beneath his own personal standards of “excellence.” But the irony of his situation is that both as a recent solo artist and in the past as part of a duo (with a partner who committed suicide that he barely talks about unless prodded or asked bluntly about it) he has crafted a career out of reinterpreting classical standards, spirituals, and down home early blues and roots numbers to fit his current emotional state.

A film critic makes his life off of interpreting the work of others. It’s, as Llewyn says at one point about his folk singing lifestyle, what one does to put bread on the table. You think and you analyze and interpret over and over again until you get good at it. It’s like a musical instrument, and once people seem to start liking what it is you’re laying down, you grow addicted to sharing that voice with people, sometimes to your own detriment.

Sometimes your voice gets you in trouble, and it’s often when you least expect it. Llewyn ends his set that fateful night in the film’s bookend with a tribute to his former singing partner, possibly the only time that he’s done so and been sincere about it. He’s already feeling bittersweet, unloved, and unappreciated. And in the end, he’s punched in the face for trying to defend his right to critique a performance the night before he thought was bullshit.

Granted, Llewyn’s drunken heckling is one of the least endearing things anyone could do. It’s genuinely grotesque, wholly unwarranted, baseless, and not a level that I could ever reduce myself to. I definitely sympathize with the pissed off husband in this case, and I do know some critics and blowhard pundits and prognosticators who could get to Llewyn’s level of insouciance while stone sober. It’s not my style, and I respect when people need to come back at me to defend themselves. We’re all artists to some degree, and we all have thick skins that can be pierced by the strangest things at times. I know both sides of this, and more often I find myself on the Llewyn side: on the ground getting kicked by someone who doesn’t agree.
 Sometimes I can come across as an asshole in a piece of writing. It’s unavoidable, and borne from a passion for something that I want to see done correctly rather than inferiorly. It might come as a shock to some people that I don’t get a lot of joy out of writing an outright pan of something. It’s cathartic in the moment, but so is getting blind drunk and passing out in an alleyway if you’re in the right emotional state. A lot of what leads to Llewyn’s current state – his inability to cope with hardship, his flat out refusal to compromise – hits really close to home. Would he be better off just being nice to everyone and coming up with decidedly lacklustre original tracks that he feels no major connection to or would that make things worse?

Even when I write something original, I can’t deny that it’s tied to something that I haven’t listened to or heard before. Does that make me unoriginal or just someone who feels things on a deeper level? Most of my blog posts are titled with song lyrics from things that I never wrote in the first place. 95% of my writing throughout the year is talking about what other people have done and why it works or why it sucks. It doesn’t matter how fair or balanced I am in those assessments, so let’s just call it what it is: I’m backpacking off the work that other people have done because I am far too scared to go out and do my own original work. And even then, that’s because I get so much joy and so little pay from my job as it is that the thought of doing something really close to my heart for absolutely no money and even fewer guarantees for pay in the future fucking terrifies me. Maybe it was too much struggling with the original work that led me here in the first place. Maybe this is the final foothold of the struggling artist: making a living off of thinly veiled covers with little time or energy to make something truly original.

By the end of the Coens’ film, it’s up to the audience to decide if Llewyn has learned anything in his life or if he’ll continue to live the same lifestyle in a circular pattern that will chronically see him getting knocked down more times than he’s able to pull himself up. Here at the end of 2013 and the beginning of 2014, I don’t even know how much longer I can keep this job up. Heck, earlier this year I was couch surfing and seriously thinking about quitting my job altogether, but a wonderful group of people helped me past that point. Not much further past that point, mind you, but enough for me to finish out the year and push me forward enough to look towards the future. Or maybe, deep down, I’m just too scared to stop.

“Do you owe me something? You have to owe me something.”



Working as a freelance film writer, getting paid is sometimes like getting blood from a stone. Working on a book that someone is paying you to write (again, based around material that the book’s writer didn’t create) is just as hard in that same respect. There’s always some reason or roadblock or bluff as to why nothing is getting paid sometimes. Sometimes one has to resort to begging just to get anything, even though you were the one who put in all the work in the first place.

The whole creative industry is like this regardless of level, vocation, or type of art being pursued. Some people undoubtedly need the money more than others, but the struggle to be recognized in Llewyn Davis is made known through the titular character’s interactions with his record label boss Mel (played by Jerry Grayson in his final big screen role). Mel’s an older gentleman who looks upon Llewyn quite warmly as a human being, but he seems incapable of telling the singer that he can’t pay him anything since his album hasn’t been doing very well.

In the film writing game, it’s pretty similar.

Sample conversation with no one in particular:

Me: So where do we stand about me getting paid this month?

Them: What do you mean?

Me: Well, there’s got to be a bunch of ad revenue coming in. The numbers have to be doing well. I’ve been working my ass off all month on those couple of pieces I sent to you.

Them: Well, the numbers aren’t doing that well. If the numbers aren’t there, the ad money isn’t there.

Me: Can we increase the ad rates?

Them: Not without the numbers. Can you get us better pieces that can bring in better numbers?

Me: We need numbers to get those pieces. Can you promote the site to bring more people to it?

Them: I can’t promote anything until you start getting me something I can sell easily and for free first. Can’t you chase down some leads for some bigger stuff?

Me: I can’t devote the time to chase down those leads unless you are paying me to take the time it takes to chase down those leads.

Them: Look, I don’t know what to tell you. I know you work around the clock, but unless you want to start writing infotainment pieces for us about who wore what to where and who’s dating who, then I can’t find any money to give you.

Me: I would never write that.

Them: I know you wouldn’t. Here’s $40 extra for the month because I feel bad.

Me: (muttering) Gee, thanks.

Them: How are you doin’, kid? Are you alright?

It’s true. There’s no real money in this line of work unless someone thinks you’re either innocuous or dangerous enough to make some serious cash off of. There’s even less if you want to maintain some semblance of honesty to your work and do it all on your own without outside interference or a constant stream of notes from higher ups every day. My writing sometimes feels like the only aspect of my life that hasn’t been compromised (and even then, I’m sure there are people out there who would argue that).

“I’m grateful for the gig and everything, but who wrote this?”



Generally, I don’t turn down work when it comes up. Mostly it’s because I need the money. A lot of work comes by way of friends who want me to proofread something (scripts, books, etc., almost never everyday reviews), offer up an opinion, or contribute to a larger list or think piece. Sometimes these gigs inexplicably pay me more money than the things I put a lot more effort and heart into.

Llewyn seems to have a similar work ethic. When his friend Jim (played by Justin Timberlake) asks him to rush into the studio to play back-up and sing harmonies on a novelty song he had just written about being sent into outer space against his will by President Kennedy, Llewyn is appreciative for the opportunity (especially in light of events that we’ll get into in a moment) but he sees little value in what he’s working on. He’s not aware that the song will become a hit, but everyone around him seems convinced that it’s a sure thing.

Writing is a lot similar. There are plenty of things that I read (often written by friends) that I know are competent or fun to read and all I can think of is my own personal jealousy. Sometimes I collaborate on such projects, and I tend to get a bit more out of that, but the recognition and compensation are often miniscule. Much like how Llewyn seems to be cutting loose in the moment when he’s singing “Please Mr. Kennedy,” it’s pretty clear that he’s only there for a quick paycheque, I’m often able to step outside myself long enough to think about the greater good behind someone else’s work.

I like to think that I’m a pretty great collaborator and a good team player, but when I see friends doing questionable work that will do far better than anything I can come up with, it’s just one more pride swallowing, soul crushing moment in a professional period of chronic disappointment. I look out across a sea of lists and infographics or columns that talk about single scenes from films in blurbs barely bigger than one of my reviews and I die a little inside for two reasons: No matter how hard I try, I will never muster the desire to write any of those pieces unless my arm is twisted to the breaking point and because no one would willing hire me so I could sell out to write this stuff full time.

And even worse and possibly making me look like a bigger jerk are friends who I see doing well in this profession when I don’t think their writing is particularly that great. Maybe they have a video series or a podcast (the new frontier and greatest shortcut when it comes to film criticism) that pulls in more numbers than something I have written, and when I watch it or try to listen to it I can’t make it through the whole thing. I try, but the interest just isn’t there. It kills me because these are people that I know and that I am friendly with, but also people that I know are capable of better.

I guess I’m one to talk, though. After a while it all sounds like sour grapes, but if you think it doesn’t take a toll on me or that I don’t wish every day that I had more support to create better content, you would be wrong. It stings. It kills. And it has been destroying me inside for far too long.

“Asshole”
 

Maybe this is getting a bit too personal, but since this is a personal piece, maybe there’s no better time to bring this up. I doubt I can make myself look any worse by this point, especially after that last statement which suggests I have nowhere to go but down from here.

In the film, Llewyn has gotten Jim’s wife (Carey Mulligan) pregnant after a one night stand. She seemingly hates Llewyn, so it’s somewhat amazing that she would even sleep with him in the first place (let alone constantly allowing him to crash on her couch when he’s in need of a place to sleep). Llewyn agrees to pay for her abortion (which he tries to borrow money for from her clueless husband before agreeing to the studio session to earn the money), and he knows a guy from a previous pregnancy scare with another woman that he also paid for. It turns out that the woman from his previous relationship never went through with the abortion, and instead just left town to have the baby far away from Llewyn in Akron, Ohio.

Let’s go back to 2006 for a moment, before any of what I’m about to talk about would ever become relevant to the story and when I might have been a bigger asshole than I am today.

I had just ended one relationship and begun a new one. I didn’t really so much end the failing one as it just started petering out on its own. I never fully dumped this girl, but a combination of distance (we both moved inconveniently far away from each other) and my personal frustration with the one-sided nature of the relationship had finally taken its toll on me.

It was one sided in that this girl was kind of a hermit, both by choice and by circumstance. Her mother suffered from severe MS and she lived at home working very, very sparingly as a painter, photographer, and graphic designer. Her dad worked the overnight shift as a janitor at a local high school and he hated my guts. He maybe said two full sentences to me across the three and a half years we dated. Also living with them was her 45 year old doctorate toting meteorologist brother, who insisted he stayed home to help his mother, but I never once saw him raise a finger to help. She was older than I was, but I was the only real relationship she had ever had.

About two years into the relationship, I noticed a pattern that would never be shaken. I couldn’t get her to leave the house for anything longer than seeing a movie at the really crappy cut rate multiplex that was less than a block from her house. She refused to take the bus anywhere. She had grown to believe everything her father had told her about the bus being a dangerous and dirty place that refined citizens shouldn’t be caught dead on. This was coming from a man who owned two identical 1985 Crown Victorias and just kept running them into the ground and seemed to own a lot of motorcycle paraphernalia and T-shirts without ever having owned a bit in his life.

Every night with her was the same. I would come over and hide out in her room (sometimes briefly headed to the closet) watching TV with her until her dad left or I would swing by after I got out of work and past 11 to slip in undetected. There would be late night chats to last until dawn, lots of sex, some good times just goofing off and being silly, sometimes even a late night run for snacks at the store across the street. That was enough for a while, but it wasn’t the most fulfilling thing.

After about a year of telling people you have a girlfriend but they never actually see you with her and they refuse to go to your house, it’s not hard to see why everyone around you would think it was bullshit. No amount of coaxing was going to change that, and pretty soon things would take a turn for the worse.
I felt bad for her, so I never actually broke up with her. I would still see her on occasion, but she had moved to an incredibly difficult to access suburb (a 40 minute walk from the nearest bus stop with no hope of catching a cab to go the rest of the way) and my trips to visit became fewer and fewer. Sometimes I would have access to a car, but she still wouldn’t leave the house. She was deathly afraid something was going to happen. I certainly understood the feeling, having watched my own mother go through agonizing pain before she passed away.

But the thing that was going to happen to change everything wasn’t going to happen to her mother, but her father. Shortly before our relationship ended he had a heart attack and wasn’t able to leave the hospital. She was never even able to visit because she felt now more than ever that she couldn’t leave the house. No amount of conditioning or tragedy was ever going to break that at this point.

Long before this point, however, I had tried to talk to her about actually coming out to have fun outside her home. It was at a point where we hadn’t even gone to the store together in six months. I said I felt like I was being used as a crutch or some kind of connection to the outside world. She wasn’t agoraphobic (she got up every morning to run and rollerblade religiously), so why couldn’t she leave for that short period of time again to go grab food or anything? I never understood it and she never answered beyond just a shrug.

Before her father’s heart attack I cheated on her. Three times, twice sexually. I never told her about any of it, and when I started up a relationship that was making me feel more fulfilled with someone online that I would end up dating for a year, I broke it off. But I broke it off in the worst way possible: by just not talking to her.
I had grown frustrated and my attempts to explain my position were met with complete avoidance, so I guess I figured the only way to pay that back was to give the same avoidance in return. At the beginning of the new relationship, she attempted some contact under the presumption that we were still together and nothing was wrong. Pieces were written in online journals about what a shithead I was that I clearly had to read because I was a glutton for punishment.

I didn’t know about her father’s condition. She never talked about it. She never wanted to no matter how many times I wanted her to open up.

But that wasn’t the worst moment. One morning, I woke up with a gut wrenching pain that wouldn’t go away. I thought it was a stomach ache and that it would pass. It was greatly uncomfortable. Too uncomfortable to sleep through. I thought grabbing breakfast would be a good idea, but when I went to Denny’s I found the food harder to eat than usual. As I made my way home, I noticed that a large package had arrived from my ex. Not only was it all the stuff that I had left at her house being sent back to me, but an actual bound hardcover book made from the photocopies of every letter I had ever sent to her or left for her that she put together with her own hands.

On the inside title page:

“I don’t know why I did this, but I know I wanted you to have it.”

I didn’t make it up the stairs to my apartment. The pain in my stomach was getting worse. I sat down and started reading. In every letter there was written in the margins annotations of everything she thought turned out to be a lie. How I never could have loved her, how I was only with her out of pity, and how much of an asshole I was to just ignore her. I read the whole thing because even though she never would have come to my door to deliver it herself and gain the satisfaction of seeing me in such physical and emotional pain she was owed at least this. That package was our final blow up at each other.

On the final letter, one where I had pleaded with her to motivate herself and believe in her talents, there was a lot of blank space where the final bombshell was dropped as a final post-script/go-fuck yourself:

“I don’t know why I’m telling you this or why you would even care, but my dad died last night. I also wanted to leave you by letting you know I had an abortion and I never told you because I was afraid how you would react. Now over a year later, I just don’t give a fuck. Goodbye.”

I stumbled up the stairs, now in even more pain than I had been before. I shoved everything back into the box and put it in the deepest recesses of my closet. I never even took the box when I left. It could still be there for all I know.

The pain worsening, I lied on my back on the floor and had a flashback to a moment that now hold so much resonance in hindsight.

I hadn’t seen her for a week. When I walked into her room it was like she hadn’t seen me for a year. It was probably the least amount of time between my arriving and us having sex. When it was over, we were laughing and joking like nothing was wrong. I asked how her week was.

“On Monday I did something really stressful.”

“What was it?”

“Something I am never going to talk about with anyone ever.”

Why didn’t I prod? I knew she never dealt with stress that well, and she knew the same about me. If we stayed together would she have told me? Would it have changed things? I doubt it. Even when she hinted that it probably happened, things went on like nothing was off or wrong, and I still just thought she was fine. I couldn’t fathom what it must have been like. Her strict Catholic parents obviously never knew. Maybe her very sporadic and supposedly best friend knew because someone had to take her to the clinic. And if that wasn’t who brought her I very briefly got pissed off at the thought that maybe the one time she took the bus to go anywhere was for something I would have agreed to help her with.

The pain was unbearable now. Luckily it gave me enough reason to go to the hospital to get it checked out. I was within walking distance, so I hobbled over there as fast as possible. I was just in time, too. My appendix was about to burst. To this day I still haven’t experienced agonizing pain on that kind of level.

I did experience worse heartbreak, though. That was the next relationship, one where I remained faithful, loyal, and thoughtful, but I was a complete mess in every other respect. I started using the person I loved as a crutch and I did them terribly wrong. I deserved every mean word I got when that relationship ended. It damn near killed me. Thankfully, I’m still friends with that ex. The one who sent me the letterbomb... well, we obviously haven’t talked since. I never even told this story before now.

It was with this ex (who I consider a best friend and to whom I am still admittedly at times kind of a shithead towards) that I saw Inside Llewyn Davis with a second time the other day. Over dinner and drinks after the movie I was kind of shaken with the thought that I was like Llewyn in a lot of ways. Without a moment’s hesitation upon my remark she looked up at me and looked me straight in the eye:

“Because you are Llewyn Davis. Asshole.”

She smiled and laughed a bit, but in the way that suggests she’s kind of made peace with this to some degree. I’m not sure if I can.

“I can tell this is one of those things where I keep saying ‘no,’ and you think it’s only because I’m asking you to beg more.”



If you aren’t familiar with the films I write about – and I write about damned near every film that comes out in the city – then don’t bother asking me what to see. I can’t stress this enough. It’s getting to a point where I can no longer feign politeness about it. If this question comes from a colleague or a close friend that I haven’t seen in quite some time, that’s fine. But if I see you every day or you are a person who happens to meet me at a party or out and about and you happen to somehow be familiar with my byline there is no more infuriating question to ask.

In a parallel to Llewyn’s reaction to The Gorfeins – an academic and new age-y couple that allow him to use their couch – to having him play a song over dinner for guests, I can relate to the same kind of frustration. I too, quite often, end up feeling like a trained poodle, but with considerably less crowd pleasing talents.

Question 1: “Have you met (famous actor who I would never meet here)? Oh gosh, I just adore them!”

Question 2: “What’s good in theatres right now that I should see?”

Question 3: “What’s your favourite movie?”

Question 4: “Have you seen (insert title of film so obviously big that I can’t ignore reviewing it that’s been out for weeks already)?”

I fucking hate these questions. I couldn’t hate them more if you walked around with them tattooed on your forehead. I will do my best to be polite, cordial, and answer the question as nicely as possible, but sometimes, especially when it’s people that I know in my daily life that are asking them.

Here’s how these questions inevitably end up going 85% of the time:

Question 1 Response:
Me: “No, I haven’t. It would be cool if I did.”

Them: “Well, who have you met that was cool?”

Me: “Um... well, I’ve met a lot of people I thought were cool...”

Them: “Tell us a story!”

Me: “Um...”

Them: “Oooooooooo! Tell me about the WORST person you ever had to interview.”

Question 2 Response:

Me: “Um, I really don’t know. What kind of movie are you in the mood for/do you like?”

Them: “Oh, I dunno. I like everything really.”

Me: “Okay, well there’s (list off two or three movies that I know are great)”

Them, response A: “Yeah, I’ve never heard of those. What about (name of movie they were hoping I would just bring up on my own)?”

Them, response B: “Yeah, I don’t think I’d be into any of those.”

Them, response C: “Yeah, I’ve already seen those. What about (name of movie not coming out for another three or four months)?”

Question 3 Response:

Me: “Do you mean the best technically made film, my favourite film, or what I actually think is the best film ever made?”

Them: *blank stare*

Question 4 Response:

Me: “Yeah, I saw it. Didn’t you read my review of it?”

Them: “Oh, I never read your reviews. I figure I’ll just see you anyway.”

Questions like these are why I have tremendous amounts of support for artists forced into doing press junkets. I love talking about my work, and I am sure that they love talking about and sharing stories about things they are proud of. But please, for the love of God, never ask me these things. It seriously makes me feel like my work is for nothing or that you are trying to get something out of me for free that no one else would be able to get; some kind of bizarre exclusive that simply does not exist. Answering the same questions over and over again when you spend sometimes literally 24 hours out of the day writing down their answers is like a kick in the nuts. I just don’t want to have that conversation by that point. Much like how Llewyn loses his shit in front of friends who put him on the spot, I begin to feel like a trained monkey that people can just trot out whenever they need to impress other people by showing off who they know. And just like Llewyn, I’m really not that worthy of showing off to the world.

“Pardon me for saying so, but that’s pretty stupid isn’t it?”



I have been lucky. Most of the writers that I deal with on a day to day basis are really wonderful people. I don’t know if there is any other city that I could work in other than Toronto. The people that I deal with here, regardless of where they started, how long they have been around, or what medium they work in, are almost across the board the best bunch of colleagues anyone could ask for. We don’t always agree (and in some cases never agree), but beyond a Canadian sense of politeness there’s a large amount of warmth, understanding, and good will amongst all of us even when arguments become somewhat heated.

But then, there are people who in this industry that will come into my life that are exactly like John Goodman’s insufferable blowhard Jazz musician Roland Rags (who I initially hated and thought was the film’s weakest link on the first watch, but on the second watch I hated just because of how spot on of an asshole he was) who think they’ve lived, seen, and done it all when really they just like hearing the sound of their own voice.

There are far too many of these types out there in the film criticism game. These are the kinds of people who could answer those questions listed above, if only to turn them into a much longer and inconsequential story about some random encounter they had. Generally, these are critics, writers, and reviewers of an older age who lament far too often how things are never how they should be. Increasingly, they are web writers coming up with chips on their shoulders who still can’t step outside of their own bullshit long enough to realize how lucky they have it.

These are the people that prod me from the backseat of my car and the people I hate dealing with. One pseudo-celebrity in particular made me feel this way over the summer, and while I wouldn’t dream of giving him the time of day again I often wonder what it would be like to shove a bowling ball straight up his ass. But he’s the kind of guy who has “made a name for himself” so no matter what transpired between the two of us in private would make any difference to either of our (somewhat shared) demographics. Let’s just say I wouldn’t put it past him to make fun of someone else’s life work just out of spite and ego and that I know he also has his own valet, making this comparison even funnier the more I think about it.

Then again, much like Llewyn and Roland, we’re both “writers,” but we do things differently. People can be fans of the both of us and I’m sure if push came to shove we would both work together on something if we absolutely had to. Just don’t ever expect me to like someone or anyone like that. Sadly, there are far too many Roland’s out there. I guess I’m thankful I can avoid most of them, ignore them, and never have to spend too long in a car with them berating me.

“I don’t see any money in this.”

I have ideas. Tons and tons of great ideas that I would love to share with the world. So many ideas for things to write about – both film related and otherwise – that I would gladly drop everything for in a heartbeat to focus on. But that’s a pretty romantic notion. I would love for even a week to, you know, NOT review everything that was coming out, but that’s my job. That’s where the little bit of money is that I get.

I very rarely have time to pitch my better ideas for stories and pieces because I simply don’t have the time to do it. I don’t have the monetary or professional support to do so. If it seems like I can’t say no, it’s because I can’t. If it’s getting a token theatrical release of one showing a day, the little bit of money I make from that review is the difference between eating and not eating this week. If there were more hours in the day, I would just start working on things that I wanted to work on rather than the things I have to work on to survive instead of waiting for the go-ahead from someone who would pay me for my work. Some of these plans, if I had the means and the time, I would go to the end of the world for.

Llewyn similarly only goes on a cross country trip to Chicago with Roland so he can meet with manager and club booker Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham) with hopes of getting some work outside of the city. Bud somewhat reluctantly agrees to hear Llewyn out, asking him to play something from “Inside Llewyn Davis,” which functions not only as the title of his fledgling album, but also as a challenge to a type of young man that the manager has had to deal with before. While Llewyn performs more than admirably considering he hasn’t slept and had to hitchhike most of the way into the city, Bud very curtly says that he sees no money in what Llewyn is doing. That’s it. No real explanation and a few somewhat empty compliments and job suggestions for the future, but that’s where the journey begins and ends for Llewyn in Chicago.

You take a lot of rejection as a writer, but at this point I would rather spend more time having my work rejected than churning things out as if it were a mill.

“But why don’t you stop if you’re unhappy?”

I’m not unhappy. I love my job.

“So why don’t you take some time off? You sound burnt out.”

If I take time off I don’t get paid. I don’t get paid, I don’t eat. I don’t get paid, I have nowhere to live.

“But what about working on all your ideas if you think they are such sure things?”

Those take time, and no one is willing to take a chance on an idea unless they know you can put the work in. Plus, if I put everything else on hold, I lose every connection I built up because I wouldn't be working anymore.

“So why don’t you quit?”

I’ve thought about it, but I like to think I’m really good at this. Plus, by this point going back is a complete admission of failure.

“Wouldn’t you be the only person to see yourself as a failure?”

Yes. But letting myself down is almost as bad as letting everyone around me down.
 
“So what do you do now?”

I have no idea.


Dedicated to everyone who helped me get through 2013. I truly appreciated it more than you’ll ever know.