March 30, 2017 § Leave a comment
As regular readers will know, I have been working on the history and memory of Griffintown, Montreal for many years now. My book, Griffintown: Identity and Memory in an Irish Diaspora Neighbourhood, is out in May (the paperback will be out in the fall). And, of course, I have been working for a few years now with Montreal film-maker, artist, animator, and purveyor of all things creative, G. Scott MacLeod. Our project, 21 Short Films About Griffintown, is now up on the web for all to see.
This project is based on a walking tour of Griff Scott developed, and can be followed on your smart phone. We have 21 very short films of 21 sites around Griff, about their history and significance.
I like these clips, partly because Scott has done some great work contextualizing my stories of these sites with archival footage, his animations, and music, because all of this also minimizes my screen time. But also because it was a fun day that we spent wandering around Griff filming these. It was a hot August day in 2012, a day or two before I left Montreal for good. I had my dog, Boo, with me. He was all stressed out because of the move and had scratched his face raw. So he was with me because I had to keep him from scratching the infection. He trundled along with us in the 30C heat, usually with my foot on his leash as we filmed. Boo was a massive dog, around 150lbs, a Mastiff/Shepherd cross. He was a big, gentle giant. Boo died last year, so I see this project as a bit of a memorial to him, even if he doesn’t appear on screen.
June 8, 2013 § 8 Comments
I’m teaching a summer course, a quick, 6-week course wherein I’m supposed to cover World History from approximately the Enlightenment in Western Europe in the mid-18th century until the late 20th century. It’s impossible to do this topic justice in a 15-week semester, let alone a quick summer course. For that reason, and because I’ve been teaching variations of this course for far too long, I decided to try something new with this class. In essence, my students are my guinea pigs this semester. I am teaching the Terror of History/The History of Terror.
A few years ago, I read a fantastic book by UCLA History Professor Teofilo Ruiz, The Terror of History: On the Uncertainties of Life in Western Civilization. Ruiz expanded on something that had been travelling around the back of my own brain since I first read Boccaccio’s The Decameron some twenty years ago. In his Introduction, Boccaccio lays out the response of people in Florence to the Plague: What they did. According to Boccaccio, there are three basic human responses to terror and misery: 1) Religion; 2) Debauchery; or 3) Flight. To that, Ruiz adds that there’s a 4th category: those who remain in place, who attempt to carry on in the midst of chaos. Since I read Ruiz, I’ve been thinking about this more explicitly, and I have re-read The Decameron (as an aside, I find it rather insulting that my MacBook insists that Decameron is a spelling error). Sometimes it’s hard not to become a miserable cynic when teaching history. We humans have come up with so many ways to terrorise, torture, and kill each other. If you don’t believe me, look at how Romans dealt with traitors: crucifixion. Or the Holocaust or any genocide you want.
Religion, it occurred to me when I was a teenager, was simply a means of ordering the world in order to allow ourselves not to lose our minds, to try to find wider significance and meaning for the bad things that happen. When I was a bit older, I dabbled in Buddhism, which was much more explicit about this. This isn’t to demean religion, it is a powerful force for some, and it allows an ordering of the universe. But, as the Buddha noted, life is suffering. What we control is our response to that.
So, Ruiz pointed out the terror of history, of the endless crashing of shit on our heads. Pretty much everything in our world is predicated on it. We live a comfortable life in North America because my shoes were made in Vietnam in a sweat shop. My car emits pollution into the air. Historically, systems of power are predicated on fear, terror, and awe. That’s how order is kept. Uplifting, isn’t it?
So, this semester, I’ve made that explicit in my class. I cannot even hope to do justice to World History, so I am trying to cherry-pick my way through all the mire. I am focussing on the chaos and terror at moments like the American War of Independence or the French Revolution. Or the terror of slave owners in the American South or in Brazil. Or the use of terror by the world’s first terrorist, Maximillien Robespierre, who explicitly declared that he wanted to terrorise his enemies. Lenin and Trotsky rolled in a very similar manner. So, too, did the Qing Dynasty in China. Or the British imperial system in Africa or India. Or the Belgians in the Congo. But this wasn’t an export of Europe. Slavery has existed since approximately forever, and was an integral part of Ancient Warfare, but it was also central to African warfare in the 18th century. The list goes on and on.
How do we survive in this endless cycle of bad news? We do what Boccaccio said we do. We find religion. We despoil ourselves in debauchery. We find joy in religion or debauchery. Or we find it in flight. Flight doesn’t have to be literal, like the 10 young men and women in The Decameron, flight can be symbolic. It can be a search for beauty, awareness, or knowledge. In many ways, the three categories can overlap, like in the mystic cults of the Roman Republic. But we are remarkably resilient creatures, and we find our joys and happiness in the midst of the shit of life.
Ruiz notes that people almost always attempt to step outside the colossal weight of history by following these paths to religion, debauchery, or flight. Events like Carnival, whether in Medieval Europe or Rio de Janeiro (or Québec City in winter, for that matter), is exactly that, an escape, temporary as it might be, from history. We escape systems of power and oppression for brief moments.
The hard part in teaching the Terror of History is finding the escapes and not making them sound like they are hokey or unimportant or trivial, which is what they sound like in the face of this colossal wave of bad news. But we all do this, we all find means of escaping the news. Right now, the news in my local newspaper concerns the government spying on its own citizens, a war in Syria, and people trying to recover from a bomb going off during a marathon. If I took each at face value, I’m sure I’d be lying prostate on the floor, sucking my thumb. So, clearly, I have coping mechanisms. And humans have always had them. But it remains difficult to talk about these in class without making them sound hokey.
This week, we’re reading Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s, SlaughterHouse 5, which takes place in part at the end of the Second World War and was Vonnegut’s attempt to make sense of having been in Dresden in 1945, when the city was firebombed by the Allies. The terror of that, the horror, the devastation. All throughout the novel, the narrator declares “So it goes” when dealing with death and other calamities. We have a philosophy, then, here, one of stoicism. Stoicism and Buddhism are fairly closely related. This is an attempt to deal with the Terror of History.
At any rate, this is making for an interesting summer course, and it seems as though my students are, if not exactly enjoying it, are learning something. Along with SlaughterHouse 5, we’re also going to watch Triumph of the Will this week.
June 12, 2012 § 1 Comment
I spent Sunday morning, prior to the destruction of the Irish team at the hans of Croatia in Euro 2012, in Griffintown, with Scott MacLeod, working on his documentary, In Griffintown/Dans l’Griff. It was an incredibly hot day, and Scott, myself, the crew, and Claude Mercier who, along with his wife, Lyse, are the stars of the film, all got nice and sunburned. Below are some action shots, as well as Claude, Scott, and I in Parc Saint-Ann/Griffintown, squinting in the bright sunlight. It was a great experience, in between shots, Scott and I talked about his vision for the film, how he planned to intersplice archival footage, his own animations, and live action shots to create the documentary. I look forward to seeing the final version.
April 2, 2012 § 1 Comment
In Griffintown/Dans L’Griff will be a documentary about Griffintown, made by my friend, film-maker G. Scott MacLeod. Scott’s most recent film, a short entitled The Saga of Murdo MacLeod has been received rapturously by Montrealers at its various showings around town, most recently at Ciné-Gael, Montréal’s Irish film series, which is celebrating its 20th season this year.
Scott is proposing to do a short documentary on Griffintown through the eyes of Claude and Lyse Mercier, amongst the last generation of Griffintowners. Claude and Lyse, as you might guess by their names, are NOT Irish! Shock! Indeed, they are French Canadian, a voice that has long been lost in the stories and memories of the Griff (as my forthcoming book, The House of the Irish: History, Memory and Diaspora in Griffintown, Montreal, will tell you). Almost all the attention on the Griff’s history has been focused on the working-class Irish Catholics, leaving out the other residents there: French Canadians and Anglo-Protestants, and Scott’s about to address this lacuna.
Scott and I have had a lot of conversation about Griffintown, over Thai food and as we’ve wondered the streets of the neighbourhood both of us are so hell-bent on preserving the memory of. And while books are great (especially mine!), a documentary, graphic evidence of what once was, is a brilliant addition to the growing corpus of Griffintown memories.
The trailer for the film is below, but I urge you to click on this link, which will take you to Scott’s indiegogo page, where he is attempting to raise money to help with the costs of film-making. Any amount will help, but Scott is offering 3 levels of support. 20$ gets you a thank you in the end credits and a copy of the DVD, 100$ gets you into the end credits and a DVD, and 1000$ makes you a producer, and you also get a copy of the DVD.
September 3, 2010 § 1 Comment
Yesterday I met with a stage and set designer for a new play being produced at the Hudson Village Theatre in Hudson, QC (just off the Island of Montréal), opening Thursday, 28 October, entitled Wake of the Bones, written Montréal playwright David Gow. Wake of the Bones centres around the discovery of a mass grave of Famine victims on Pointe-Saint-Charles in Montréal by Irish labourers constructing the Victoria Bridge a decade later. The labourers were from Griffintown, at least in this version, and they decide that a wake needs to be held to send the dead souls off to their eternal paradise.
The designer, Anouk Louten, contacted me as she attempts to get a handle on Irish culture and life in Griffintown in the mid-19th century, attempting to re-create a set as authentic as possible.
This, of course, got me thinking about the usual intersection of history, memory, and the public. Because of course Gow is taking licence from the historical record for the purpose of creating art. It is true that the mass grave of Irish Famine victims was found by the bridge workers, who were also Irish. But the workers probably lived in Goose Village, not Griffintown. A minor quibble with the historical record, to be sure, but still one that those who argue for ‘authenticity’ get their knickers in a twist over. And, I’m sure Gow will also take artistic licence with the characters, their setting, and so on and so forth.
This week, in class, I was teaching the Persian Wars, including the legendary battle at Thermopylae in 480 BCE. Of course, pretty much the entire Western world has seen the movie, 300, which fictionalises what actually happened at Thermopylae some 2,490 years ago. The movie over-dramatises the valour of the Spartans, distorts and obscures the rationale for battle decisions made by the Greeks (including the Spartans, who are conveniently left out of the decision to withdraw 6,700 Greek troops from Thermopylae to avoid being caught in a pincer movement by the Persians), leaving the brave Leonidas and his 299 Spartan warriors to hold off the Persians. As much as I love this film, I always find myself somewhat troubled by it, I kind of feel the film-makers made like the cops in the OJ Simpson case with the glove. Recall that the glove didn’t fit Simpson, who more than likely got away with murder at that trial. At the time, a friend of mine, a law student, opined that the cops may’ve planted the glove, so desperate they were to secure a conviction. If this is true (and really, who knows?), the over-zealousness of the cops allowed Simpson to walk (though, as they say, karma is a mother, and Simpson is in the slammer for other crimes right now). In the case of 300, the film-makers took an already dramatic story about Leonidas and his warriors and over-shot, they over-dramatised something which could’ve stood on its own.
So, as an historian, films like 300 bother me. Not because they take licence with the historical story, but because they pull an Oliver Stone. Stone, of course, once said that you had to hit American film audiences over the head with a mallet in order to get their attention. I think he’s wrong, people aren’t that stupid. But sometimes it makes great art, sometimes, most of the time, it’s just superfluous.
But artistic licence, I fail to see what’s wrong with that, it can make the story more interesting, it can allow the artist to make their point more effectively.
As for authenticity, I’m not sure it matters so much in the larger sense. Certainly, I like Anouk’s attempts to create an authentic set. That, for whatever reason, matters to me. The setting of historical novels, plays, films, this is the detail, the background of people’s lives. Take, for example, The Gangs of New York: a wildly fictional account of the goings-on in the Five Points of Manhattan in the early 1860s. The story itself may be a load of bollocks, but the setting of it in the Five Points, from what I can see, that’s authentic, that reflects the reality of life in what was probably the worst slum in the world.
But authenticity of story or experience (in the case of museums, etc.), I’m not so sure this is desirable or even possible. I think it is impossible to completely re-create the ‘authentic’ historical experience. For one, there’s the obvious problem: it’s impossible, because it is no longer 1861, or whenever. The physical setting is just that, a re-creation of the historical, it can be an authentic re-creation, but that’s as far as it goes. And I think that by itself is a laudable goal, but that should be the end goal. There is no need to go any further, because it is impossible to go any further.
And, so far as I’m concerned, if the story is based in this historical record, that it aims to reflect the setting, then that’s fine. Artistic licence needs to be taken, at least most of the time, maybe not so much in the case of Leonidas’ last stand.
June 22, 2010 § Leave a comment
One of the most persistent complaints of the linguistic nationalists of Québec is about the fate of the French language in downtown Montréal. They claim it’s an English centre again, that they can’t get served in their own language anymore. It’s true to a degree, you hear more English in downtown Montréal than anywhere else in the city, but it’s not just because of the old Anglo business class. It’s also because downtown Montréal is where the tourists go, along with the old city. And the tourists, largely Americans, like to be served in their own language. But you want service in French, it’s there.
But there is a creeping Anglicisation going on here, culturally-speaking anyway. The downtown movie theatres don’t show French-language films, and if they do, they’re subtitled in English. There are no French-language bookstores downtown. There is an Indigo, a Chapters, a few Coles, and Paragraphe, which, despite its name, is an English-language store. There was a Renaud-Bray near Concordia University, but it closed a few years back and is now a chicken restaurant. The big Archambault in the old Eatons store is now a clothing store. The French-language music section of HMV downtown is wanting. And French-language DVDs there? Forget about it.
Yesterday, I was on a mission. I wanted to find a québécois film, le 15 fevrier 1839, about the plight of a few Patriote rebels and their execution in prison by the British on 15 February 1839. Anyway, this was a big film when it came out a few years back, caused a lot of controversy. One idiot writing in The Hour even claimed the Patriotes were génocidaires. So, I thought it would be easy to find. HMV doesn’t carry French-language films, though it does have a big section of French-language TV DVDs. The movie store in the Carrefour Industrielle-Alliance, its “Section française” is about 3% of the store. Indigo, forget about it. So I walked to the Renaud-Bray in Place-des-Arts. Nope, its film section is all English-language movies. So, for sure, the big Archambault at the corner of Sainte-Catherine and Berri would have it, correct? Nope. Its film section is also about 95% English-language films. Their québécois section is tiny, and shoved into the back corner of the store.
I don’t get this. Québécois cinema is the only one in Canada that is actually watched. People go to québécois films here, they make money, and so on. But don’t try t0 find québécois films on DVD in downtown Montréal, my friends. Because they’re not there. In the end, I had to go up the rue Saint-Denis to Boîte Noîre to find my film. The Plateau, that is.