WANTED: A LIFE

In October of 2016, I was chatting on Facebook with a girl I knew sporadically over the previous eight years. She was exactly my type: beautiful, smart and kind. We are both passionate artists and intellectuals, and, after engaging in some highly spirited discussion, finally, progress: there were signs that my departure from the dreaded friend zone had culminated in its first major step. This I ascertained when she asked me what I was doing for a living as I worked on my debut novel. It is ill-advised to lie about these things, so I told her that I had encountered a great deal of struggle to procure employment amid a fruitless job search. After she diplomatically acknowledging the hardships that job seekers encounter in these trying times, I shifted our dialogue into the subject of the upcoming election in the United States. That contribution concluded our conversation, punctuated, as it was, by her frigid silence.

It is in such moments when unemployment really hurts. I felt deeply humiliated by her rejection, knowing that in her opinion my stock plummeted down to zero, and my price tag was erased free of digits so that I was considered not a bargain but completely devalued within the rubric of the sexual market place. I wouldn’t extol my virtues as a mate on a dating site at this point, for joblessness has chipped away at my self-esteem, and in the view of any female respondents, perhaps deservedly so, or so it seems.

That girl in particular considers me a loser. She is not sui generis: I’m well-aware of how hated I am because I am poor and unemployed. I’m forced to rely on social assistance because it’s either that or turn to crime, and I’m not enough of a sociopath to bring hardship down on others, so as it stands, my crime, as I’m frequently reminded by the right-wing media, is that I’m a low-life mooch who is stealing from hard-working taxpayers. Rob Ford never used the words “citizens”, “people” or “residents” when referring to Toronto’s electorate, only “taxpayers”. He wanted to ensure that people like myself were aware that we were not included in his vision for the right-wing political utopia that Toronto never became.

Rob Ford didn’t have to carry all the freight in disseminating this exclusionary propaganda: he had help from institutions like No Frills supermarkets, with its cornucopia of yellow bags and green bananas. Even the store’s name spits elitist dogma in my face. It is as if they are saying, This is what you get for being poor. If you weren’t such a peasant you wouldn’t be shopping in such an aesthetically sterile environment.

You may be thinking, That’s what you get when you don’t go to school and learn marketable skills. Well, that’s the thing: I have gone to college three times and I’m still being rejected from jobs that are not even commensurate with my skill-level and education background. I have invested in my future, but have yet to see the appropriate returns. At this point, even common underemployment is beyond my reach.

Let me make this abundantly clear: I don’t want your tax dollars. The Ontario Disability Support Program doesn’t give me enough of them to live on. The government would be a much bigger help to me if they issued me a grant to get my publishing company off the ground. By doing so, I could reimburse the taxpayers of this great land and maybe create a job or two along the way. Unfortunately, this is not possible because in order to get a grant for this purpose I would have to have published before.

Sound familiar? When most organizations wish only to expand their crop of talent with perennials, there is little hope for a seedling.

I was inspired to write this after viewing a video that had gone viral in which an impoverished family in a grocery store parking lot were harassed by a right-wing troll. He was incensed that they purchased steaks with food stamps and blasted them with, “Steak is for taxpayers!” He was lauded as a hero in comment threads because conservatives typically believe that The Great Recession—much like man-made climate change—is a hoax concocted by the so-called liberal media. As they see it, the fallacy known as the recession provides lazy, entitled, unemployed mooches false justification for their lack of contributions to the treasury.

Anybody who thinks I have opted for a permanent, low-budget vacation on the government’s nickel for the sheer joy of living the life of ease they think I have derived as a fringe benefit must understand that I do not enjoy the social apartheid and financial disenfranchisement that comes with being cast out of the workforce. Being poor is like living in a penal colony: you have some freedom to move, but you are also fenced in by severe financial restrictions. For people with money, the horizon is a window to the rest of the world. For me, it’s a wall, albeit one with a door, but I can only jimmy it open with a paycheque.

As if the social stigma that accompanies social assistance weren’t bad enough, I am considered to be among the dredges of society, and on some level I have internalized this reductive perception of my identity. Though I am not a conservative, I wince when I inform somebody that I am on the dole. By the end of the month, my money dwindles down to nothing along with my dignity.

It is not the “social hammock”, as corporate criminal and newspaper magnate Conrad Black once put it. I cannot afford a backyard in which to install a hammock, and worrying about finances has frequently compromised my ability to sleep. Conrad Black enjoyed more financial stability in prison than I do in social housing, where my rent is mostly subsidized.

Speaking of crooks, my current job prospects are about as rosy as those of an ex-con, and I don’t even have a record. I have the police clearance letter to prove it.

I have a certificate in Emergency Telecommunications from Humber College. I attended this program because it was the mature, adult, responsible thing to do. It’s just too bad that I only found out late into my studies that positions in police, fire and 911 communications are “hard to come by”. I wish the directors of the program told me before I paid the tuition that they were wasting my time, but that’s no way to run a business.

The same right-wing politicians who have condemned the social safety net have done little to nothing to render it redundant. If they persuaded the corporations for whom they lobby to create manufacturing jobs on Canadian soil and provide tax incentives to sweeten the deal, I could stimulate the economy in my own right once back on the capitalist teat.

In the interim, a Toronto charity is assisting me in the way of making adjustments to my resume and cover letter so that I may uncover the mystery surrounding Bulk Barn’s reasoning for declining my application for a customer service position. I’m perfectly capable of weighing sacks of paprika and working cash registers, which I have done before, but apparently the manager of that establishment doesn’t consider me competent enough to tie my own shoelaces. Supposedly neither did the owners of the meat packing plant. You can’t convince me that I’m not capable of slapping a steak on a Styrofoam tray and wrapping it in cellophane, but it didn’t take much to convince them, and that was without so much as a phone call. I ruminate over that intermittently while I endure the indignities of unemployment as its perpetuity leaves me even less attractive to employers.

Men commit suicide under these conditions, and I have dipped in and out of deep depressions myself over the last year and a half. That’s what happens when women and the rest of the society they live in consider you to be nothing more than a peasant. To them I’m just white trash, and they would prefer that I take myself out rather than get their own hands dirty.

Believe me, I’ve considered bringing about my own demise. My life looks unrelentingly bleak at the moment. But just like how I can’t afford the type of Grade A-quality steak that only taxpayers deserve, I can’t afford to die because my mother is disabled and depends on me to survive.

That’s what’s keeping me alive. There’s not much else because I’m not considered important in this society. I am classified as a burden and a bottom feeder by those who have more resources than they require to survive and enjoy privileges I can only dream of.

And that’s after taxes.

My name is Morgan and this is capitalism.

My Favourite Films Part 11

TAXI DRIVER

DIRECTOR: MARTIN SCORSESE

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Loneliness has followed me my whole life, everywhere. In bars, in cars, sidewalks, stores, everywhere. There’s no escape. I’m God’s lonely man.

-Travis Bickle

Humanity is an exclusive club multi-billion strong in membership, but for a few, the application process is futile, with approval denied at every turn.

The protagonist of the film, Travis Bickle, knows this all too well as the outsider looking in. He is deep, very deep. Bottom of the ocean deep, and that’s his problem: how do you relate to people when all they know can be quick and easy to grasp on the surface at the shore? He is a mystery, and few want to solve mysteries because they often form a shroud of darkness around the fearsome unknown, and monsters lurk in the dark, and though they might turn out to be lonely, harmless and misunderstood, it’s the misunderstood part that arouses paranoia.

While Bickle is a specimen of depths that few would understand, he is also akin to a marine biologist, studying humanity and trying desperately to get a grasp of how they behave and how to fit in with them, only to find that while he wears the costume inconspicuously, he cannot authenticate his depiction with enough gravitas to persuade the people he occasionally socializes with that he cannot be trusted to bring the quality of Animalia to his interactions with enough self-control to stand astride the border between excitement and danger without crossing to the wrong side. His would-be girlfriend Betsy learns this the hard way when he takes her to a porn film on their first date and confronts her angrily at her workplace after she refuses to take his calls following his disastrous outing as a potential mate. Perhaps she should have known something was amiss during their first conversation, when he approached her as she worked and incorrectly diagnosed her as being as lonesome and maladjusted as he, projecting his own qualities onto her, when, in fact, she couldn’t have possibly been more different. He desperately wanted her to understand his plight, but her ability to connect with other human beings with ease was entirely antithetical to his temperament, much to his disappointment.

Like most antisocial recluses, he wanted to swallow her whole and conceal her from the world so that they could fuse together as a single cell organism, looking out at an alienating world with each other for company, so that, as Travis sees it, they at least would not feel lonely as the world’s best kept secrets. Travis demonstrates this in the contempt he feels for just about everybody Betsy works and socializes with. Travis wanted to reign over a sparsely populated kingdom with Betsy, but she wanted to be free to mix with her loyal subjects, and his misanthropy would never have allowed it.

Travis does eventually come to terms with this reality, and after rescuing Iris, the teenaged prostitute who had been indentured into sexual slavery by pimps and drug dealers, Betsy had a change of heart about Travis, realizing that while he could have chosen a better venue for their first date, he was a finer human being than she gave him credit for. However, after showing up at the cab stand and being driven back to her doorstep by Travis, she is not able to persuade him to continue his evening’s journey into her home. He knows that for people like him loneliness is a disease without a cure, and because she could never understand this, he realized it was a contradiction that was bound to tear them apart.

I understand this. I understand looking at groups of people through the windows of restaurants and bars and seeing their laughter and engagement and feeling locked out. It stems from being deep. Too deep. When you make your initial overtures to people, they should come in the form of splashes, but mine often manifest either as tidal waves or still-water. I know I overthink the whole thing. You’re supposed to just go with the flow when it comes to social interaction, but sometimes going with the flow leads to poor impulse control and that leads to saying or doing the wrong thing. Why can’t I get it right at the age of 39? I was worse when I was Travis Bickle’s age of 26. Thirteen years later and there’s only been marginal improvement.

Lets see where another thirteen years leaves me.

My Favourite Films Part 10

CRUMB

DIRECTOR: TERRY ZWIGOFF

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I wanted to include at least one documentary on this list because I love the genre and consider some of my favourite docs to be among my most rewarding cinematic experiences. Crumb is my favourite documentary by far.

For me, Crumb transcends documentary. Though it is largely non-fiction, the incorporation of visual art as visual aide in the telling of Robert Crumb’s life story and exploration of his artistic vision enhances the experience. We may only be viewing still images rendered within the medium of comic book art, but Zwigoff’s camera work along with the soundtrack of early 20th Century African American folk music bring a depth and clarity to the experience that brings the panels to life with almost as much spirit as animation. This technique would one day become known as the “Ken Burns Effect”, so-called because of the method of documentarian Ken Burns of zooming into still photographs. Terry Zwigoff had to make illustrations of fictitious characters compelling, and did so effectively to the point that we get the answer to the question he posed to Crumb at the beginning of the film, the one that went, “What are you trying to get at in your work?” You may not appreciate everything Crumb was getting at in his work, especially if you’re a woman (he’s been called the “chief sexist of the underground comix world”) or you’re African American (his fictional product “Nigger Hearts” sure didn’t win him points with liberals). Socio-political considerations aside, it’s the talent that make Crumb legendary.

It had to be the talent because he was not born into the kind of auspicious familial beginnings that nurtured his budding genius as illustrator and cartoonist, at least not as far as his parents were concerned. Born to an abusive father and mentally unstable mother, Crumb was lucky to emerge into adulthood relatively unscathed compared to his brothers, who, while also artistically talented, were so damaged by their upbringing that they could barely function as human beings, let alone productive artists with a capacity to deliver output consistently.

Crumb’s brother Charles, a year older and the domineering alpha male of his siblings, was the bully who pushed his brother Robert to produce comics and to perfect his artistic techniques along the way. Robert even confesses in the film that he still considered whether or not Charles would approve of his latest creations. Charles, a mentally ill recluse who had resided with his mother all his life and rarely left the house due to his fear of his pedophilia and whatever capacity had may have had to resist his impulses to act on those urges, committed suicide in his fifties. He was unable to function without medication, and despite showing a great deal of potential as an artist, he squandered his gifts as his brother Robert went down in comic history. The story of Crumb’s brothers is part biography and part tragedy because of all the talent that went to waste, not just in Charles’ case but also in the life of Maxon, his other brother, who suffered from mental illness, epilepsy and had become a sex offender at one point in his life, is held up as an example of how child abuse as a disciplinary technique rarely yields the desired results.

Though Robert Crumb was far more successful than his brothers, having obtained career success, the attentions of women and fame, he still displays signs of a highly troubled human being. He comes across as bitter and misanthropic. He is highly disapproving of modern culture. He was a young fogey who couldn’t connect with the hippies in the sixties despite having created the underground comix that they loved so much. Throughout the film’s many interviews, he gives one the impression that he is being dragged through life like he was crucified as a youth and will be dragged on the cross until the day of his ultimate demise. He uses the word “grim” frequently, seemingly without realizing that it is the perfect word to describe his countenance at any given moment.

Much of what I have described about Crumb and his family background sound grim, but I assure you that Crumb is fine entertainment. It is an opportunity to appreciate a masterfully made documentary while evaluating the personality of a man who is disliked by many while his artistic genius is acknowledged by all and disputed by none.

My Favourite Films Part 9

PULP FICTION

DIRECTOR: QUENTIN TARANTINO

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This is the movie that begat my cinemania. I had seen many films that I greatly enjoyed, but none that were so damn cool. This movie, despite being derivative of films from decades ago, became the hippest movie to see from 1994 to 1996 and I was all over that. I rented it every Friday night so I could watch it for the umpteenth time and recite the dialogue together with the actors. It was an obsession for me, as it was for the university students who attended Pulp Fiction parties complete with Quarter Pounders in hand.

The reaction in me wasn’t immediate, however. At first I was perplexed. I had questions: Why are they having so many conversations unrelated to the plot? Why talk about burgers at such length? What do foot massages have to do with contract killings? I fell asleep the first time I watched it. I think I passed out at some point while Butch’s girlfriend confided in him her dream of having a pot belly while implausibly having  a comparably “normal” body. I woke up when Winston “Wolf” had arrived to assist Vincent Vega and Jules Winfield as they set about disposing of the body of a man Vincent accidentally shot in the head. It had disappeared into a void after my daily nap.

I decided to give the film a second chance because I was aware that it was becoming a cultural phenomenon, and I figured there must be something to it if it was making such a pervasive impact on the culture. The second time something clicked. I discovered that with a scene like the Ezekiel 25:17 speech, dialogue could drive a film and send it to ever greater heights. Given my life-long passion for the spoken word, it’s now a surprise to me that I didn’t cotton to this film the first time around.

This movie is so cool it made me want to make movies. Whenever I become obsessed with something I wanted to know everything about it. Quentin Tarantino completely changed my perception of film directors. Up until that point I envisioned directors in two different ways: the gentleman with the beret and the cigarette holder from the 1940s and then the middle-aged man with a beard from 1970s onward. I knew nothing about independent film, so I was completely unaware that young men made movies. Tarantino was 29 when his first feature Reservoir Dogs was released. He was a self-taught filmmaker who dropped out of high school and never attended film school. This was a revelation to me, and given that I had always had ideas for movies and was between mediums after having thrown in the towel on being a musician, I chose film as my mode of artistic expression.

When I appeared on an Internet radio show in 2008, I relayed the preceding story of the genesis of my film career to the host, and he reductively pointed out that after Tarantino became a modern filmmaking rock star film school enrolment skyrocketed. I don’t doubt it: I tried enrolling in them myself, but having been a mediocre student in high school, I had no chance. Nowadays there are places like the Toronto Film School and The Trebas Institute where you can gain admittance with a cheque instead of a transcript, but to my knowledge no such institutions existed in Toronto when I was 20. Ten years later when I started making short films, I was on my own, living up to Tarantino’s example.

Nine years later a producer is looking at my latest feature script. Who knows, maybe I’ll finally get to make my Reservoir Dogs before I’m a middle-aged man with a beard.

My Favourite Films Part 8

A CHRISTMAS STORY

DIRECTOR: BOB CLARK

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I woke up Christmas Morning of 2003 and without thinking turned on the television to channel 40, or whatever channel the Bravo network was in my neck of the woods (Toronto). I tuned in just in time for the opening credits of A Christmas Story, which was to become my favourite Christmas movie and one of my favourite movies of all-time.

I had seen the film before, but I suppose the reason I hadn’t adopted it as part of my standard holiday viewing was because I had seen it on some other day and any other time but the morning. There is something about looking out the window and seeing the snow on the ground dimly lit by the weakened sun of winter that makes the late morning of December 25th the perfect time to view this film.

It also helps that some scenes happen to have been shot in Toronto and that I still live there now. I live near the bridge where Ralphie absent-mindedly said the f-word in front of his father and I know I live somewhere near the spot where Ralphie’s shrewd negotiator father haggled over a Christmas tree (the old fashioned  Toronto Transit Commission trolley-style streetcar whooshing by in the background is hard to miss).

Director Bob Clark did an expert job capturing the magic of Christmas as seen through a child’s eyes, demonstrated best in the moment when Ralphie wakes on Christmas morning. The image sharpens after being brought into focus from blurred lights as the musical score twinkled in its own way. Ralphie opens up his bedroom window to admire the marshmallow world that flurries had blanketed down on his family’s property, a vista he couldn’t help but be enraptured by, even though the same fever for toys that had him obsessed all season long with a bb gun, The Red Rider B.B. Gun, to be precise, would soon draw him downstairs followed closely by his brother Randy. Despite all the warnings from grown-ups that he would shoot his eye out, nothing could deter him from bringing this item to his parents’ attention at every given opportunity. Though his mother was not keen on the idea of him owning a bb gun, his father could not deny him his dream present, his father understood, having owned one himself as a boy. It is a truly momentous occasion when we see Ralphie open up that box and finally receive his own Red Rider gun. It’s funny: neither he nor any other character cries in that moment, and yet I have come close myself. Perhaps it’s a connection to my memories of opening up my most hoped-for gifts on Christmas morning, like when I opened up the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1990 or 1991. Or the Casio keyboard in 1988. The yellow Sony Sports walkman in 1989 that sounded great when you first got it but got closer and closer to sounding like a tinny clock radio as time went on…

Whatever the item, that thrill that comes from opening up that most coveted present is depicted so successfully by Bob Clark it almost makes you wish you had kids you could provide that feeling for if only you’re weren’t a broken adult child (as you can see, I’ll probably never be hired to write a Christmas movie).

Guided by the example of Ralphie’s aunt, I sure wouldn’t buy a pink rabbit suit for them. Especially not if they’re a boy. Or if they’re older than four.

My Favourite Films Part 7

THE DARK KNIGHT

DIRECTOR: CHRISTOPHER NOLAN

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“Masterpiece” isn’t a word that is often used in reference to an acting performance, if ever. Heath Ledger’s performance as The Joker in The Dark Knight is a masterpiece within the rubric of the dramatic arts.

Though I have always respected actors and their craft, having once been an actor immersed in the world of theatre, it took this film to really drive home the fact that for the audience of a movie, it’s the actor that drives the film. They want interesting characters they can root for and believe in, whether they are good or evil.

Heath Ledger carried this film on his back as a supporting actor with a show-stopping performance that rendered all other characters almost redundant. Christian Bale’s Batman was the lead character and got more screen time, but it’s a testament to Ledger’s talent that he was able to consign Bale to the margins. Though The Joker appeared in many scenes, 100% was never enough. Had Ledger lived to appear in sequels, I would never have missed a chapter in that ongoing story.

The most talented actors function as pilots. The director is like the engineer who designs the plane but the actor is like the pilot who flies it in various directions and at myriad speeds. The Joker hijacked The Dark Knight every time that green-haired domestic terrorist appeared and flew it along his own flight path.

Christopher Nolan is without question a gifted filmmaker who is sure to go down in history as one of the masters of the form, but The Dark Knight will always be remembered for one of cinema history’s greatest performances.

For me, this movie is all about acting. It’s about a genius thespian who played his character so effectively that we fell in love with him despite the fact that he is so cavalier about committing homicide. The Joker didn’t ask us to like him and he didn’t pander to us. He simply was, and being so unapologetic and unequivocally himself, it was hard not to at least respect that aspect of his character when so many of us are expected to compromise who we are in our own lives.

In that regard Heath Ledger was more successful at instilling in me a respect for acting than Uta Hagen ever would have been.

My Favourite Films Part 6

FIGHT CLUB

DIRECTOR: DAVID FINCHER

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There was a time when this film became an obsession and a religion for me. It was just a phase, but a phase that many like myself have gone through.

I was just as devoted and loyal in my fandom as the members of the fictitious fight club of the movie are first to the club and then to Project Mayhem, their legion of anarchists determined to destroy the capitalist slave-state modern society has become through myriad acts of violence and vandalism.

An entire generation of disenfranchised males struggle to make their way after the broken promises of the Baby Boomers and the so-called “Greatest Generation” failed to deliver on the better future they guaranteed they would bequeath to their offspring. The over-idealized materialism promised as a means of fulfilment did not fill the cracks of our lives. As the plot of the film progresses, the cracks pierce through the foundation of society until it begins to crumble when, as an act of domestic terrorism, the agents of Project Mayhem demolish the corporate headquarters of the major credit companies, wiping out all records of personal debt, a form of modern slavery.

When my obsession with this film reached its zenith, I was working as a Telephone Interviewer at a market research firm. It was a hateful job calling up people at dinnertime to ask them to complete consumer contact surveys at the behest of our corporate clients. If  only I had had The Narrator/Tyler Durden to lean on and get me through those shifts. Then again, I probably would have quit to help him make soap and plan acts of vandalism throughout the city.

He was there in spirit. I had a negative attitude toward my superiors and I’m sure they must have noticed a time or two. It was probably the most punk I’ve ever been and I hate punk rock. Some of my behaviour during that period looks very immature to me now, but I am glad I was at least enlightened enough to know I deserved better.

Anybody who has enjoyed the film on that level feels as though they are part of a club. This film doesn’t just expose you to another man’s world and inner sanctum; it brings you into his psyche. As Tyler Durden confides in us about his struggles with depression, alienation and insomnia, we enjoy an asexual intimacy. This is especially true in regards to men. This is Eat Pray Love for males. The need to express aggression and feel strong in a world that keep us obedient and acquiescent in the face of intimidation was something legions of males responded to in a society that has condemned the masculine character more and more in the last thirty years. The masculine psychological makeup is not perceived as a neurological disorder within the confines of Fight Club. In 1999, the year of the film’s release, millions of men’s ears were eager to hear this message after a decade of man-hating rhetoric that was broadcasted pervasively throughout the mainstream media. It was once again okay to have a dick.

Feminists had derided men endlessly on television in the 1990s and it was a time for someone to remind men that they had something of worth to contribute to the world. This notion was best expressed in a pep talk given by Tyler Durden to Fight Club as they prepared for an evening’s bout of brute violence:

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It may not sound like a pep talk, but the point is to remind men that we need to stop aspiring to be what society and its media insist we must become and instead endeavour to make the most of who were are individually. Becoming a global citizen just serves to exacerbate your feeling of insignificance as you stand in contrast to the conformist herd that shuffles by.

Don’t be part of the herd.

Affect the world.

Enjoy Fight Club.

On your terms.

Unlike most films this movie will enrich your life philosophically and intellectually, and it’s important to do so because in the words of Tyler Durden, This is your life and it’s ending one minute at a time.