the diary thing 
bl-blockLAST WEEKEND, K. DECIDED to clean off her desk, and asked me if I could clean out a drawer or two of my filing cabinet -- like I'd promised to do over a year ago. I started mouthing the usual "uh, yeah -- this week if I have time" when it occured to me that I had the time now, and I might as well get going.

My filing cabinet -- a four-drawer wood model, painted a dreary brown and inherited from a former roommate -- is where my photo files reside, dozens of old developing paper boxes where the contact sheets and prints that document my career as a photographer sit mostly ignored. The fact is that perhaps one percent, probably less, of all the work I've done, the tens of thousands of frames I've shot since I bought my first camera over fifteen years ago, is of any use to me after I've shot the inital assignment, made the contacts and prints and delivered them to the client. 

I was at NOW magazine for over a decade, and most of what I shot for them -- portraits of local actors and politicians, shots of restaurants for the food section and buildings for news, still-lifes for supplements and set-ups for ads -- was virtually worthless the moment the job was done. The magazine still keeps my prints, and pays me a nominal fee when they reprint a shot, but for the most part, I might as well have shredded the contact and sent the negatives to the silver-recovery lab long ago. 

Most of what I cleared out last weekend were prints, either copy prints returned from clients when the job was done, or second-to-last prints kept because of some residual pride in a darkrooming session, many years ago. The only prints I kept were either portraits of the famous or near-famous -- John Waters, Rudolf Nureyev, Spalding Gray, Metallica -- or examples of printing techniques I thought quite attractive. I emptied a full drawer, and filled a garbage bag to near-bursting with torn-up prints. 

Going through the boxes, I was amazed at all the music I used to shoot -- does anyone remember Redd Kross? Plasticland? The Mighty Lemon Drops? Chapterhouse? I'd occasionally linger over a shot and remember the circumstances of the job -- the frequent flights I used to take to New York, Montreal and Chicago to do work, my intense nervousness shooting Sonic Youth, my relative ease with Nureyev. In the end, it felt good to clear out all that baggage, and empty up some space for K. I still have another drawer to clear.

I DON'T KEEP PRINTS ANY MORE. At least a dozen large paper boxes were used to store the evidence of the first thirteen years of my career, now compacted to one, hundred-sheet box. Nowadays, I only keep small proof prints of my work, when they might be useful, and I tear up everything else before it hits the rinse bath. One day, I'd like to start culling the negatives, pulling out all the long-gone rock bands, the shots of now-pointless demonstrations and restaurants that have been closed for years, the actors and artists who've disappeared into obscurity, the portraits of businessmen and politicians, but I'm sure some twinge of peremptory regret will stop me. 

I always complain about people who erase the past while complaining about convenience and economy, and practically weep when I see old buildings demolished, libraries selling getting rid of their collections and archives "housecleaning" their holdings into dumpsters. Probably the most gripping thing I've read in the New Yorker recently was Nicholson Baker's article about his battle to save the collections of old newspapers in the care of supposedly responsible caretakers like the British Museum and the Library of Congress. I was so heartened when, in Barcelona two years ago, I went to a show of theatre portraits done at the turn of the century by two photographers who left their archives to the city. I bought the show catalogue and a new print struck from one of the old negatives, and congratulated the city's administration for having the foresight to preserve their past.

I can only marvel at the times when I've watched a few seconds of movie footage, taken on a city street before the First World War, or a photo of an anonymous group in a nightclub or at the beach, where for a moment that curtain of "pastness" -- the old suits and funny haircuts and self-consciousness and hamming for the camera that cloud our perception of what we're seeing -- lifts and we can imagine ourselves, not terribly different than we are now, walking down that street or drinking that whiskey sour. It's the closest thing to a time machine we'll probably ever have.

Who knows if my negatives will one day constitute a small fraction of an archive of pop culture at the turn of the 21st century, or a glimpse at some scant few facets of life in Toronto at the same time? I suppose with time my negative files will outgrow the small wardrobe I'm keeping them in now -- a couple more binders should fill it up nicely right now -- and I'll have to find some other space for them, but imagine my chagrin if, in forty years' time, I'm kicking myself for not keeping those indie rock shots, or any number of casually-taken photos of a long-gone building. It's a burden I should bear with some pride, I suppose, if it gives someone like me, at some impossible-to-imagine point in the future, a brief glimpse of what I've seen. If anything, I should be happy for this ongoing lesson in the process of building hindsight.

"It has been said that the love of money is the root of all evil. The want of money is so quite as truly."
- Samuel Butler

Some trash, a plane crash, some movie-bashing, and cash, lovely cash.

THE AIR FRANCE CONCORDE that crashed after taking off from Charles DeGaulle airport yesterday will probably mark then end of the plane's useful life as a commercial airline, which is kind of a shame.

The Concorde is a classic case of a technology defeated by the grinding practicalities of its time. Sure, there are no airliners faster, but there are times when speed isn't the paramount objective it appears to be. The fact is that breaking the sound barrier and getting you from Paris to New York in three hours was only useful to a handful of people, most of whom still payed less, at $10,000 a trip, than the journey really cost. There are unforgiving physical limits to what we can do with our technology, as anyone who's had to live near the flightpath of the Concorde, and suffered its sonic boom will tell you -- like K.'s folks in rural Nova Scotia.

As a result, the Concorde could never fly over populated areas, making it only useful for trans-oceanic voyages. It also took up too much fuel -- a tonne per passenger -- to power its engines, and couldn't be built much larger, making the whole aircraft one big first-class section. 

The fact is that air travel works on the same economic basis that made the old ocean liners run -- a pampered, much-advertised, but tiny luxury section subsidized by a huge, cramped steerage compartment that really pays the bills. As a result, intercontinental air travel is a dull, gruelling experience for which you're charged top dollar for the few amenities -- leg room, decent food, a choice of diversions -- that might make it endurable. The rest of us can only suffer till we hit the ground. The Concorde was a future that went nowhere, because there really IS no future, only the present pulling the enormous, indispensible baggage of the past.

WITH K. AT WORK TILL 11 PM every night, I'm emptying the local Blockbuster of any films that seem remotely watchable. Mostly, I'm renting the kind of "guy films" -- violent, nihilistic, bleak, romance-free -- that K. would rather not watch most of the time. I had a happy experience with Boiler Room, a film about crooked stockbrokers that I missed in the theatres, and hoped against hope that Spike Lee wouldn't disappoint me again with Summer of Sam.

You have to understand that I don't watch movies to escape, or even to have a perfect aesthetic experience. I'll watch a bad film -- hopefully on t.v. where I don't have to pay for it -- just because the subject matter interests me, or because I think it might say something about the filmmaker, or the time it was made, or give me some sensation of an era's fantasy life. I haven't like anything Spike Lee has done in years, but I hoped that his film might bring back some memories of the late seventies, a time that I remember with jagged vividness, and which in no way resembles "That 70s Show".

It was awful. I couldn't even make it to the end.

"This is really pissing me off," I said to K., pointing to the screen with the remote just as the plot reached a point that hinted at imminent, awful bloodletting and catharsis.

"Don't let me stop you," K. said with a grin. She'd come home a bit earlier than usual, and didn't seem thrilled when I told her what I was watching. She'd gone upstairs and done the dishes, poured herself a beer and came down with cigarettes and an ashtray. She watched silently while I sighed and fumed.

If I were Italian, I'd have hated it even more, since it made the average Brooklyn Italian look like an ape, a foul-mouthed, dick-pulling, virgin-worshipping, mafia-supporting, greasy nitwit. I can only imagine the reaction if an Italian-American -- say Martin Scorsese -- had made a film that made Bed-Stuy blacks look like a bunch of gangsta jack-offs, dropping illegitimate children and flying off the handle, guns at the ready, at any percieved "dis". Of course, Scorsese doesn't have to make those films because they're already being made as videos by hip hop artists, and by the major studios with hungry young black directors at the helm. I hate all this brutal, insidious, racist crap, so why should I think Spike Lee is being incisive and provocative when he just seems incapable of making a white character half as sympathetic as a black one? It's not such a big problem, I suppose, until he makes a film where almost all of the characters are white.

I can only imagine what some miserable bully of a New York Italian must have done to Spike Lee all those years ago to engender such apparent hatred. If there was no such incident buried in the man's past, I can only assume that Spike Lee is as big an idiot as I've always supposed him to be.

Never mind the complete misportrayal of the CBGB scene in 1977, which had dog collars and safety pins, sure, but precious few mohawks and no shiny chrome tongue and nose piercings. It was an artier scene than Lee shows, but it looks positively highbrow compared to the foul cesspit of an Italian enclave where most of the film occurs. 

If he got one thing right, it was the omnipresent paranoia that seemed everywhere at the time, and the sour way the sexual revolution was going bad, turning promises of pleasure into diagnoses of venereal disease, wiping out marriages in an avalanche of talk about "relationships" and "honesty". Then again, any third-rate right-wing pundit or pop cultural historian could have painted this picture, and Lee only makes it all the more unwatchable by making virtually every character either pathetic, idiotic, cretinous or irredeemable. I can sit through any number of films peopled with "unsympathetic" characters, but when I start to feel that the director holds his characters in contempt, I have no choice but to cut my losses.

His visual panache -- the camera angles and movements that made his early films so interesting -- is turning into a calcified battery of gestures he pulls out to cover up his utter ineptitude with dialogue, his apparent, yet selective misanthropy. What a waste of two hours. 

I DIDN'T WANT TO JINX IT by talking about it too much, but a few months ago I applied for a grant from the city's arts council, awarded every year to writers. I didn't think I stood a chance in hell -- despite the fact that I'm a published writer, and the novel is set in the city, and I'm such a hermit that I can't imagine that I might have pissed off enough people to dutch my chances -- but I'd always assumed these things were a clique's business, that the worth of your project was massively mitigated by your value as a member, or appendage, of the city's cultural elite. 

I knew how juries worked when they awarded money for films and art projects, and I'd been dismayed by the lobbying and backscratching and logrolling and spitefulness. I assumed that writers' juries worked the same way, and they probably do when the money is bigger than a grand and a half, but in any case, I got the grant, just in time not to have to worry about rent for a month or two.

I'm applying for a larger amount from the provincial arts council in a few days, provided I can whip my manuscript into shape, but the cheque that came in the mail yesterday should give me the luxury of a month or two to try and finish the novel I started almost two years ago. A day hasn't gone by when I haven't thought about the book, and the place I'd left my characters, but if I've learned one thing, it's that time is the one factor essential to finishing a book, and time is also the scarcest commodity -- clear, anxiety-free, undistracted time. I haven't had a lot of that since I finished chapter ten of my book. If I get the grant from the province, I'll have time to work on re-drafting the book -- which will take more time, I'm sure, than finishing the first draft -- and shop it around to publishers and agents. I can only imagine what a drag that might be.

I haven't been updating too frequently here, and if I'm working on the book I'll probably have little energy left over for this diary, but maybe chaining myself to my desk will give me little choice but to set aside the story and clear my head with a few thoughts about the whole, cramped process of fiction writing. As it stands, I have to go to London before the summer's out to do some interviews for the Big National Daily, and I was hoping to set aside a day or two for research there, to flesh out the scenes in the book set in the city. I also wanted to go to Ottawa before the fall, to do some research in the National Archives on my father and his RCAF unit, so I'll hopefully have more material for this site that isn't just the sound of thoughts rolling around my head. We'll see.

 writing ©2000
Rick McGinnis
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