Register Saturday | June 15 | 2019

Constructing ruin

(1 of 2)

Background. Two posts to take it to where I am.

Ottawa, Ont. 1992

The screening classrooms of Carleton University's film department were small and poorly ventilated-temperatures would soar and the projected images themselves shimmied and wavered through a pressure-cooker atmosphere of laboured breathing and trapped farts. Students' faces glistened in the dark from perspiration and post-adolescent oils, and our clothes clung lifelessly to our slumped frames. I sat in one of these rooms one day in 1992, and contemplated destroying my life.

I had grown up a nerd. I had watched too much TV, thought Doug and the Slugs were cool, and was renowned in elementary school for my signature unwashed orange corduroys. My mom told everyone I was "gifted," but it didn't take long for people to figure out that this was just a nice way of saying her son wiped snot on things in the fridge and got beat up at recess. I kept to my own.

I was five when I was brought to my first movie: Jaws, at the drive-in. My parents thought I would sleep in the back seat. I didn't. As I grew, I came to love the spilled pop, the cloying smell of popcorn and, most of all, the darkness of the movie theatre. In the front row of a cinema, I could enjoy the illusion that I was alone not just on Earth, but that I was alone in the film. The outside world had no place here-there was nothing between me and the movie. I would close my eyes while I waited for the lights to dim and the screen to blaze to life-the voices around me melted into a soundtrack. I wanted to merge with the fiction.

One place you can't disappear from is high school (though, trust me, I tried). High school is all about finding your place, inside or out. A central "popular" group defines a proprietary set of criteria for inclusion, and the rest of the school arranges themselves around this structure in a complex hierarchy where one's personal "value" is determined by peer-proximity to the central cluster. If it were a solar system, I would have been represented by one of the small icy bodies lying beyond the orbit of Pluto. I endured this three-year social gangbang and staggered, bleeding, over the finish line.

Like many of us, I was told that after high school, you were supposed to go to university. There you would get a degree, which would be exchanged for a job. This was to be the "next step" in a series of pre-determined checkpoints that was, like the notion of parental authority and the social hierarchy of the school, a component of life beyond question.

I loved movies, and I wanted to follow a path which would help me complete my disappearance-to finally merge with the screen above. But Ottawa, where I found myself, had no film production program. They had "film studies," which to me sounded dull as socks. I imagined nodding off in front of scratchy prints and saying the word "protagonist" a lot. But, in the parlance of the nineties, "Whatever." I enrolled.

But something happened. I found something in university I wasn't expecting. Whereas the ability to conform had, only months ago, been the most valued of personal qualities, in this new environment it was a liability. Conformity was for kids. Now we "young adults" were to celebrate our uniqueness-each of us a drunken, spewing snowflake. All my liabilities suddenly became virtues. A heretofore unseen world opened up for my consideration, teeming with piles of fertile weed, sweating pints of beer and swirling galaxies of sexual adventure. My nights, previously composed of silent shadows, exploded with splashes of colour and song.

The preordained path that had loomed ominously before me began to twist and skew in a psychedelic fashion as the nature of life transformed around me, molding itself into a movie I wanted to take part in. I began to question the fundamentals of my existence. There was no longer a need to hunker down and dutifully go through the steps-why should I? Pleasure and opportunity was there for the taking. I didn't want to disappear anymore, I wanted to be seen.

The ruin that I am, I look back now and see myself sitting there in class-a crucial moment: It is 1992, two years into my program. I'm young, slim and bright. I've got energy and hair and promise. I'm not hauling around any of the baggage that gets hooked to your tailgate as you drag your ass through life. I am sitting in a cloud of my peers' sour flatulence and wondering why I paid thousands of dollars to watch an Italian film about a boat. I am thinking, what is "film studies," anyway? Why did I take this program? And what the hell was I doing at Carleton? Jesus.

When you're young, every turn you make is the right one. It is 1992 and I am young. I stand up and my head catches the light from the projector behind me, throwing my shadow in front of the class-an apparition; now you see me, now you don't. I exit the classroom and, as I walk down the hall, I hear the door click closed behind me.

I had just quit school.

Next week: Thirteen years of self-destruction in ONE convenient post!