Overlooked: Lord Huron’s Vide Noir

Lord Huron commands the heart with their combination of vocals, instrumentals, and lyrics

Overlooked:  Lord Huron’s <i>Vide Noir </i>

Love, in all its forms, tends to dominate popular music. The highs of a passionate new relationship create bombastic celebration tunes, while lost loves produce heart-wrenching ballads.  Yet much of the music we hear fails to capture the sheer power of love and the intensity of the feelings it brings us.  Lord Huron’s speciality is capturing such emotion.

Their latest album, Vide Noir, tells the tale of a lost soul, seeking the love who left him ages ago. Consumed by memory, he travels our world and uses drugs to ascend to another one of magic and deep, all-encompassing emotion. It is the latter world which Lord Huron hails from, each song exploring a facet of our narrator’s beautiful, perhaps mad, devotion to his love.

The best song on the album is “Wait by the River,” a sombre ballad delving into our narrator’s feelings: “If we can’t be together / I will leave this world behind / If I can’t touch your body / Can I touch the sky?”

Singer-songwriter Ben Schneider lays his emotions bare through every crescendo as he begs to the heavens; the girl means everything to him.  To touch the sky is a mere consolation prize, for the world means nothing without love.  His delivery strikes a chord with me, capturing the intensity of the love.

The instruments are as passionate as our narrator. The light guitar and upbeat drums  in “Moonbeam” couple with Schneider’s vocals, capturing the pure joy of seeing his love again, even as a hallucination. The bass features prominently, its melodies carrying us to another plane of existence. It guides the soulful laments in “Emerald Star” and “Wait by the River,” while capturing the raw energy of a high, whether from drugs or passion, in “Vide Noir” and “Never Ever.”

It is this combination of poignant vocals and meticulous instrumentals that conveys everything perfectly, from the magic behind the world to the emotions that govern it all.  Lord Huron commands the heart, drawing out our deepest feelings and letting us relive them in their songs.  By the time the sorrowful guitar of “Emerald Star” crackled through my headphones, I was nearly in tears.

I implore anyone and everyone who has ever felt a deep sorrow, a great happiness, or a love that encompassed their being to give Lord Huron the attention they deserve.

The best of TIFF 2018

Highlights from one of Toronto’s most famous yearly experiences

The best of TIFF 2018

In a city as massive and complex as Toronto, it’s hard for most people to choose one defining annual event. But for me — and admittedly, my cinephilia makes me biased — it’s always the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF).

The world-famous film festival, now 42 years old, boasted a typically jaw-dropping lineup this year. I had the pleasure of seeing a variety of movies, including inevitable Oscar favourites, future cult classics, and even two very memorable films with close-ups of semen.

Those were 10 hectic days, but below are some of the highlights of 2018’s TIFF.

For awards season followers: If Beale Street Could Talk

Barry Jenkins has returned, his name omnipresent a few years ago with the breakthrough release Moonlight. His previous feature was confident, passionate, and mature. Yet as If Beale Street Could Talk proves, Jenkins’ Best Picture-winning work was just him finding his footing. His newest effort is a sensational ensemble drama, full of rich emotion and an endless barrage of breathtaking performances.

This is not merely some awards-hungry prestige picture; Jenkins has created a unique and bold human drama. With endless sincerity, his camera drifts through a lush and tender colour palette as Nicholas Britell’s string-heavy score washes over us. If Beale Street Could Talk is an earnest and important work from a filmmaker destined to be recalled as one of our era’s greats.

For sci-fi fanatics: High Life

At 72, there are few filmmakers who have performed with the consistency and genius of French auteur Claire Denis. She’s worked with a variety of gifted performers in a vast array of genres, from postcolonial dramas — Chocolat, for instance — to one of the most emotionally distressing horror films I’ve seen: Trouble Every Day.

Her latest movie continues to amaze audiences. High Life follows Monte (Robert Pattinson), a solitary man raising his daughter on an abandoned spaceship, hopelessly alienated from any civilization. What proceeds is a frenzy of ethical and metaphysical questions, with a finale of literally cosmic proportions. Told with ethereal beauty and haunting imagery, High Life is a worthy addition to the filmography of one of cinema’s most original artists.

For arthouse addicts: Ash Is Purest White

Jia Zhangke’s Ash Is Purest White is a lengthy, genre-switching, and emotional epic. It tries its hand as a crime film, an action, and a comedy, but ultimately settles for something a little more delicate and difficult to grasp.

The movie follows a woman who, after spending five years in prison for protecting her lover — a violent crime boss — struggles to readjust into a supposedly ‘free world.’ Spearheaded by a show-stopping performance from Zhao Tao, Ash Is Purest White questions our relationship with time and memory.

For Eurodrama enthusiasts: Transit

The textures, landscapes, and characters from Christian Petzold’s latest film, Transit, all seem familiar. On the surface, there is nothing earthshattering about its tale of a man’s attempt to escape fascism in Europe via migration. Yet Petzold’s handling of temporal relations is quietly innovative. Adapted from Anna Seghers’ 1942 novel Transit Visa, the film sets the narrative in a contemporary setting without changing any of the time-specific details from the source material.

The result is a movie that blends eras into one narrative. Is it the past? The present? A near future? The device is effective at pointing out the cyclical nature of time in a critique of the seemingly undying presence of fascism. Unfortunately, Transit’s subtlety may prevent some from detecting its creativity. This is definitely one of the year’s most expertly-crafted dramas.

For mystery lovers: Burning

Burning, Lee Chang-dong’s latest movie, is a slow-simmer mystery — a film where all answers are obscured behind dense layers of mist. Based off of Haruki Murakami’s “Barn Burning,” the adaptation follows a love triangle turned haywire when sinister intentions come into the mix.

Drenched in melancholic moods and set against bleak landscapes, Burning is a lonesome ambient-fuelled nightmare. Admittedly, the narrative buildup requires dedication and patience. However, once the jigsaw pieces are spread across the table, Burning’s energy drives it to a thrilling finale.

It’s an unconventional and slow-paced thriller, certain to satisfy fans of Kim Ki-duk’s Pieta or George Sluizer’s The VanishingBurning is an investment, but one that pays off in subsequent days of reflection.

For horror fiends: In Fabric

Like a giallo fever dream merged with a psychosexual extravaganza, Peter Strickland’s In Fabric had me in stitches. Likely the most bizarre addition to this year’s Midnight Madness lineup, the movie weaves together a tapestry of characters whose lives take a horrifying turn when they come into contact with a murderous dress.

Between its eerie department store to its evil washing machines, I was frequently in a state of delightful hysteria. Unfortunately, some of the movie’s genius is squandered in a second half that resorts to redundancies, only to recapture its mojo in the final minutes, climaxing in an unforgettable frenzy of cinematic madness.

For documentary devotees: Monrovia, Indiana

For 50 years, Frederick Wiseman has ventured around the world, exploring various settings ­— some renowned, some only remarkable for their lack of distinction. Monrovia, Indiana has him venturing right into the abyss: a nest of Trump supporters.

Remarkably, none of the subjects in this film seem to discuss politics. Instead, they simply drift through their daily routines. Wiseman’s camera captures the minute details of this lifestyle, from graphic surgery in a veterinarian’s office to peculiar mattress sales.

Wiseman’s films have always been about honestly summarizing his own experience of the space he studied, and here, he excels with flying colours.

For tearjerker admirers: An Elephant Sitting Still

After Hu Bo completed An Elephant Sitting Still, his first and only feature, Bo ended his life. I mention this because such a detail feels inseparable from the movie itself. Every scene revolves around a sense of disillusionment with existence; there’s a constant anguish for the entire four-hour runtime.

The spectre of death haunts every moment.

With its desaturated colours, An Elephant Sitting Still is a bleak and intimate epic. Certainly one of the festival’s most challenging movies and a colossal and rewarding achievement.

Beneath all of the grey layers of desperation is a sliver of beauty. This movie is the product of a rare and unique artistic voice.

For crime connoisseurs: Birds of Passage

With his new film, Ciro Guerra trades in the psychedelic atmosphere of Embrace of the Serpent for a grittier and more narrative-driven feature. The product is like a more spiritual Scarface. Both movies are bullet-ridden epics depicting how greed and excess trigger calamities.

Guerra is an immensely talented filmmaker, managing to hit the conventional milestones of crime film, while injecting it with a singular energy. Simultaneously beautiful and brutal, Birds of Passage is a superb Colombian gangster tragedy of Shakespearean proportions.

For experimentalism experts: Long Day’s Journey Into Night

Word of Long Day’s Journey into Night’s unconventional structure has been circulating since its premiere at Cannes. To summarize: the film drops its opening title card 70 minutes in before switching to an hour-long 3D tracking shot for the remainder of the runtime.

Yet the film, Bi Gan’s sophomore feature, is more than just an awe-inspiring technical achievement. It’s also a tender and melancholic portrait of a man’s attempt to resurrect the past. Gan’s tender compositions toy with neo-noir tropes in a Tarkovsky-esque rumination on love.

In my opinion, this is the most beautiful and likely the greatest film that I saw at the festival; every frame sings like a celebration of the cinematic medium. It’s the perfect summation of what TIFF is all about.

TIFF 2018: Prosecuting Evil

Biopic of chief Nuremberg prosecutor Ben Ferencz also a tribute to the power of international law

TIFF 2018: <i> Prosecuting Evil </i>

Content warning: graphic descriptions of the Holocaust.

Ninety-eight-year-old Ben Ferencz is the last surviving prosecutor of the Nuremberg trials. It’s been over 70 years since he condemned the Nazis in front of the entire world, but even today, his face lights up as he repeats, by memory, a line from his submissions at trial: “The case we present is a plea of humanity to law.”

Directed by Barry Avrich, Prosecuting Evil combines Ferencz’s firsthand accounts, primary source footage, and statements from human rights experts around the world. The film is a jarring reminder of the horror that can flow out of cavernous international divisions, and of the need to universally condemn hatred across jurisdictions.   

Born in Transylvania to a Hungarian Jewish family, Ferencz immigrated to the United States when he was young to escape antisemitic persecution. When war broke out, Ferencz was a young law student at Harvard who wanted nothing more than to find a way to sabotage the Germans. Ferencz enlisted in the army and spent the months following December 1945 visiting newly liberated concentration camps and collecting evidence.

Ferencz knew at the time that there would eventually be a trial, but he could not have imagined that he would be the one to lead it. He was only 27 years old when he took on the role of chief prosecutor in the Einsatzgruppen trial: footage shows him baby-faced and fiercely determined, feet firmly planted on a stack of books so he could address the court without peering over the lectern. That young lawyer achieved the remarkable feat of looking evil in the eye: in front of the whole world, he demanded that Nazi Germany answer for its crimes. 

Nuremberg was a series of trials unlike any other. For the first time in history at such a scale, the proceedings sent a powerful message to the world that war crimes would be punished, and that evil could be prosecuted, even in times of war. Fortunately for the prosecution, there were mountains of documentary evidence, chillingly meticulous records of when, where, and how Holocaust victims had been murdered. And Nuremberg was after everyone, from the Nazi party leaders and senior officers, to the doctors who performed grotesque medical experiments, to the lawyers and judges who sullied the courts and the rule of law.

Prosecuting Evil is remarkable for allowing Ferencz to tell this story in his own words. Though his conviction for human rights and justice has never wavered, he retains complicated feelings about his time at Nuremberg to this day. Ferencz testifies to the devastatingly difficult work of visiting concentration camps and looking survivors in the eyes. To keep himself sane, he put up a mental screen and repeatedly told himself that what he was seeing was not real. Instead of calling for the death penalty, Ferencz had advocated for life in prison, but four of the defendants were hanged. These men slaughtered his people, but he still finds it alienating to be responsible for their deaths.

Hatred is an insidious force, and though Nuremberg provided some accountability, it did not lead to remorse. It is likely that the Nuremberg defendants honestly believed they were not guilty of wrongdoing; in their eyes, every murderous order they followed meant being one step closer to saving the Reich. When guilty verdicts were handed down, Nazis were marched to the prisons and the gallows with no words of apology. Hopeful for signs of closure, Ferencz visited one convicted defendant prior to his execution — only to hear, spat through the slats in the prison door, that the world would one day suffer for putting an end to the Nazi project.

By juxtaposing Ferencz’ storytelling with primary documentary footage from the Holocaust, Avrich gives the audience a small snapshot into what, as Ferencz puts it, is “incomprehensible to a natural human mind.” Viewers see the Holocaust as what it was: armies of Nazi soldiers pledging allegiance through extermination, gas chambers and tall towers of human bones, people dragged out of their homes and shot in the streets, and human beings with shaved heads and protruding ribcages, waiting for death.

In this way, the film is a testament to the power of documentary evidence in shaping the public conscience. No one can truly understand genocide without experiencing it firsthand. In a world that remains incredibly divided by conflict, it’s all the more important that film and storytelling bring former atrocities out of the shadows of history. 

As a complement to media, international law remains, at the least, a powerful communicative tool to respond to mass-scale tragedies. The horrors of World War II shocked the world into putting human rights instruments on the map. The dial in many parts of the world today moves toward isolationism, but we know all too well that Nuremberg did not put an end to international crimes. Remembering the Holocaust, and remembering Ferencz, can preserve what is left of our commitment to humanity.

“War will make mass murderers out of otherwise decent people.” Ferencz has seen it again and again over the course of his 98 years, and the only way out, he says, is law.

TIFF 2018: Manto

The biographical film, set in Partition-era India, is a timely exploration of free speech, belonging, and truth, relevant to a global audience

TIFF 2018: <i> Manto </i>

When I discovered that Manto would have its North American premiere at TIFF, I knew that it would be nothing short of a profound viewing experience.

The film features actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui, who always puts in unbelievably believable performances  and he does so again as the Urdu-language writer, Saadat Hasan Manto. It is the second feature film directed by Nandita Das, who has frequently played central roles in Indian stories with global resonance.

Just as Das’ first feature film, Firaaq, tells the stories of the aftermath of the sectarian violence during the 2002 Gujarat riots, Manto brings us to the violence of Indian independence and Partition through the experiences of storywriter Manto.

Free speech

Manto’s literature focuses on prostitution. Throughout the film, his identity as a storywriter is defined by the challenges brought onto him by court. While his portrayal of women as strong, sexual, and resistant subjects is appreciated by some as demonstrating empathy toward women, he is accused in court of being obscene and antagonistic toward the moral standards of society, despite its tacit complicity in allowing access to prostitution.

Manto’s position is simple: “If you cannot bear my stories, it is because we live in unbearable times.”

Analyzing Manto’s battles in court is essential if we are to understand the importance of free speech and, crucially, its distinction from the contemporary ‘free speech’ movements that campuses across North America grapple with.

The exercise of free speech does not occur in a vacuum; it cannot be divorced from the social context and power relations in which it is produced. Manto’s humanization of women is a direct challenge to the conservative, colonial, and patriarchal society in which he exists. The state’s attempt to silence him is an abrogation of free speech, inhibiting societal progress and threatening stagnation. Meanwhile, today’s champions of free speech defend an oppressive order, and so, in claiming that they are being silenced, they fail to understand social context and power relations.

Nawazuddin Siddiqui portrays Pakistani writer, playwright, and author Saadat Hasan Manto. PHOTO COURTESY of TIFF

Belonging

In 1946, prior to Partition, Manto was an integral part of Bombay’s secular, progressive arts and literature scene. However, as Hindu-Muslim sectarian violence intensifies, he becomes increasingly conscious of his identity as a Muslim and feels compelled to move to Lahore, Pakistan, a safe space for Muslims.

Manto leaves behind his cherished city, as well as the graves of his father, mother, and firstborn son. While one of Manto’s stories portrays the exchange of lunatics between India and Pakistan, it reveals that the real madness is in the Partition itself. After all, the artificial construction of borders, justified by the perceived difference between Hindus and Muslims, suddenly turns centuries-long neighbours against one another.

Manto is Pakistani by virtue of being Muslim, and yet belongs more to the land known as India by virtue of his upbringing, family, and career. For Manto, the Partition of India causes a partition of his own self.

When humanity comes second to identity, the result is inevitable: mass migration, genocide, and violence. The formation of rigid identities stands in contrast to the reality that we are so much more than any singular category; we are, in fact, multiple identities.

I am of Bangladeshi origin, which means that in a previous era, I would have been considered East Pakistani, and before that, Indian. The creation of these modern identities, for some, is a source of pride. To me, it is a constant othering that has haunted the Indian subcontinent for the last 71 years  I lost a grandfather due to the 1965 Indo-Pakistani war.

As Islamic fundamentalism and Hindu nationalism play increasingly dangerous roles in South Asia, an ahistorical worship of artificial differences promises to reproduce the trauma of Partition, over and over again.

The irony that India’s independence coincided with Partition problematizes the meaning of freedom — in Manto’s words, “Either everyone’s life matters, or no one’s does.”

Identifying and seeking to rectify unequal power dynamics in the context of identity politics is not, in itself, identity politics — it is a rejection of colonialism.

A film about truth

Das’ film is about free speech and belonging but, fundamentally, it is about truth. She captures this by blurring the lines between the story of Manto, and Manto’s stories. Manto’s fiction was, in a sense, reality. It reflected his truth; it was what he saw in his society.

Partition was based on a fiction that Hindus and Muslims are fundamentally different; the truth is that complex individuals should not be essentialized into one singular identity. Instead, we should be skeptical about simplistic narratives that define belonging. The role of intellectuals, journalists, and artists is to expose reality for what it is, especially when it challenges oppressive power structures.

The truth is that nothing should come before our humanity.

TIFF 2018: The Great Darkened Days

Nothing flows naturally in Maxime Giroux’s latest effort

TIFF 2018: <i> The Great Darkened Days </i>

The Great Darkened Days opens up with a The Great Dictator quote — initially delivered by Charlie Chaplin in the ’40s — now offered to us by Philippe, our main character, as he competes in a Chaplin impersonation competition.

Phillipe is a draft-dodger and a Chaplin impersonator; he is from Montréal and he misses his mother. This is all we learn about our protagonist during a film that spans over an hour and a half.

Québécois director Maxime Giroux’s latest film is a lurid fever dream that attempts to explore — and ultimately condemn — capitalism and the American Dream. Giroux constructs a world where humans are sold as pets and considered a commodity; where well-dressed salesmen randomly show up in the middle of the desert peddling cigarettes; where the cars are from the ’50s, the clothes are from the ’30s, and the music is from the ’90s.

There is a war going on, we are told, but we don’t know which one. We don’t know where we are or what time period it is. All we are offered is a cast of bizarre characters acting out bizarre things.

On a technical level, The Great Darkened Days is near flawless. Sara Mishara’s cinematography — shot in a 1.37:1 aspect ratio, the common ratio of film in the ’30s — captures Nevada’s snow-capped mountain ranges and dusty deserts beautifully.

The score, arranged by Olivier Alary, is brooding and atmospheric, achieving a sense of ominous urgency that the plot and story ultimately do not deliver on. The performances are good as well, especially those by Sarah Gadon, who plays an evil woman, and Reda Kateb, who plays a sympathetic villain.

Unfortunately, the film begins to falter 20 minutes in, when the audience begins to realize that the story will be nothing more than a collection of abstract tableaus and vignettes haphazardly sewn together, like in a cheap quilt.

Some of the scenes come off as trying too hard to be disturbing, others as trying too hard to be profound — nothing flows naturally in Giroux’s effort. In the few moments that characters interact with one another, chemistry is all but absent.

The message of capitalist powers overpowering and commodifying every aspect of our lives also comes off as tired and surface-level. Giroux doesn’t put much weight into his allegory. Nothing hits close to home, nothing feels personal.

The Great Darkened Days lacks humanity. There is no bite, no nastiness, and no seduction in a movie that should have plenty of it all. In a Q&A session following my screening at TIFF, on the topic of abstract and absurd cinema, Giroux light-heartedly remarked that “everything has to be explained. I hate that.”

Maybe it’s for the best that we don’t delve deeper into this effort.

TIFF 2018: Wildlife

Overlooked – except this time a TIFF special

TIFF 2018: <i> Wildlife </i>

Unlike many of the other films that played at TIFF this year, Wildlife has been making the festival rounds since Sundance in January. Since then, it has received rapturous reviews, but nowhere near the level of praise that films like Roma and A Star Is Born are receiving. While I have not seen those films yet, Wildlife is certainly not to be underestimated. Though somewhat overlooked by the festival circuit, Wildlife is one of the best films of the year so far.

Based on Richard Ford’s novel of the same name, the film is the directorial debut of Paul Dano. Having worked under directors such as Paul Thomas Anderson on There Will Be Blood, Denis Villeneuve on Prisoners, and Steve McQueen on 12 Years a Slave, Dano has seen incredible formalist filmmaking firsthand, and it shows in his work. His debut is assured and consistent, taking up a sombre, almost dread-filled emotional tone from the beginning and never wavering.

The plot is astonishingly bare for a movie that’s an hour and 45 minutes long. In 1960, a family of three moves to Montana, seeking to improve their lives. As told through the eyes of 14-year-old Joe (Ed Oxenbould), his father (Jake Gyllenhaal) encounters complications with his job. Each member of the family, most notably Jeanette (Carey Mulligan), Joe’s mother, must do what they can to survive, physically and emotionally. That’s it.

While it has beats of both a coming-of-age drama and a deep tragedy, Wildlife is ultimately a very simple drama, recounted with heartbreaking detail and craft. Working in the rich tradition of quiet Midwestern American dramas and taking influence from movies like Ordinary People and A River Runs Through It, Dano tells this story with remarkable self-assurance. The camera moves only when it needs to; the tightly controlled colour palette is made up of wonderfully muted pastel greys, greens, and blues; and Dano picks up on every smile, glance, and sigh that his actors give out.

What may be most remarkable about Wildlife is its sense of empathy. This comes from the feminist lens through which Dano and Zoe Kazan, his partner and co-writer, view the film’s events. Jeanette, in addition to working and coping with the loss of her own dreams, must deal with both her husband moving away and her son growing older.

A lesser film would present the actions that Jeanette takes to cope, and live with some hope of happiness as morally reprehensible, but Dano and Kazan understand not just what it means to live as a woman in a world dominated by men, but also what it means to live as a woman in a world dominated by feminine performativity.

Wildlife is a sobering depiction of what it means to live under the American Dream, and what it takes away from you — it’s the empathy that Dano and Kazan lend the characters that makes this portrait so effective.

TIFF 2018: Asako I & II

Ryusuke Hamaguchi follows a protagonist struggling to participate in her own life

TIFF 2018: <i> Asako I & II </i>

In his latest film, Asako I & II, Japanese director Ryusuke Hamaguchi confronts us with a startling warning: change, or risk losing yourself in the world. The film follows the eponymous Asako (Erika Karata), a young, quiet woman, who immediately falls in love with Baku (Masahiro Higashide) upon leaving a photography exhibit in Osaka.

Within the first 10 minutes of the movie, Asako exits the exhibit, locks eyes with the mop-headed Baku, and kisses him amidst the loud pop of firecrackers set off by young kids. It’s a scene straight out of a romance movie. But Hamaguchi’s film is anything but ­— Asako I & II is a movie that is first and foremost concerned with demonstrating how chaotic personal stasis can be.

The clash between Asako’s previous and current lives is violent, though no punches are thrown and no blood is spilled. The violence comes in the form of decisions: where will Asako ground herself in order to choose her path?

Asako behaves like a whirlwind: indecisive, nervous, compulsive. It is evident that she is disturbed by the task of making choices and participating in the progression of her own life, as opposed to being on the receiving end of the actions or decisions of others. Instead of going with the flow, she must now create it.

Asako is suspended in time. The only indications that suggest the passage of time are her changing friends and the convenient title cards noting how many years have passed. Her best friends get married, become pregnant, move to Singapore, and return. Overall, they lead lives that show personal growth and progress.

Apart from moving in with another character, Ryohei, Asako remains the same. It is unclear whether she works or whether she has any plans for the future. She is a difficult character to care about, let alone root for.

PHOTO COURTESY of TIFF

Asako I & II is subtle in its messaging: instead of blatantly feeding the audience his warning — disguised in obnoxious allegories or through characters alive solely for the purpose of pedalling a motif — Hamaguchi offers us a slice of life. This simplistic approach is effective, though not without its downsides.

The film willingly sacrifices a more dramatic, impactful story in lieu of portraying a very specific and relatively uneventful phase of a life. The viewer is offered no deep monologues or tearful soliloquies — rather, the film is concerned with painting a portrait of Asako, revealing all of her flaws and shortcomings in the subtle details. We are tasked with the responsibility of deriving drama from mundane domesticity: going out to dinner with friends, washing up, volunteering at a fish market.

Instead of a forceful confrontation, the movie is a subdued shrug. It’s a matter-of-fact whisper that, perhaps, dwelling on the past isn’t conducive to a meaningful life. There’s no gut-wrenching pangs nor call for tears at any point in the movie.

In a personal introduction prior to the screening, Hamaguchi, through a translator, implored the audience to stay until the very end so as to listen to the song that plays during the credits. The song, produced by Japanese musician tofubeats, is a wonderful musical highlight in a movie that lacked a score for the majority of its runtime.

Immediately before lively electronic beats accompany the movie’s fade out, Hamaguchi leaves his protagonist with an ambiguous ending. The audience is left with a movie that is poignant and careful in its characterizations and warnings. Ultimately though, it is too subdued and inconclusive to leave a profound and lasting impact.

Book Club: Jason Heroux’s Amusement Park of Constant Sorrow is Canadian literature at its strangest

Sadness and laughter are intertwined within the novella, and every line bristles with its own existential crisis

Book Club: Jason Heroux’s  <i> Amusement Park of Constant Sorrow </i> is Canadian literature at its strangest

What would Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis look like if it was written today by a Canadian who has an absurdist knack akin to Pynchon, Saunders, and Vonnegut? It would look like Amusement Park of Constant Sorrow by Jason Heroux, published in 2018 by Toronto-based Mansfield Press.

Heroux’s Amusement Park of Constant Sorrow is a novella that falls into the realm of magical realism. The story is a puzzle perfectly jigsawed together to capture both the mundane nature and the complexities of everyday life.

The book is set during the Age of Transformation, when everyone and everything is transforming into each other. Owen’s father, once a meaty-hunk of personhood, has transformed into a bicycle lost by Owen in front of a Chinese restaurant.

Meanwhile, Owen struggles to come to terms with his past: he used to be a dog named Scooter owned by a couple, who wants him back to be their dog. Not wanting to leave his wife, Lila, Owen goes through everyday life coming to terms with the fact that he will have to, by dictum of nonsensical yet eerily realist property laws, return to his owners and act like a dog while actually being a person.

It is through the juxtaposition of the outlandish premise with the scene-by-scene mundanity that the book derives its charm and subsequently its profundity. Scenes twist and turn between banality and absurdity. In one scene, Owen goes through the everyday motions of ordering a double double dark roast — a Canadian thing — only to get an elderly man afflicted with Tangier disease.

Amusement Park of Constant Sorrow is about messiness in a world where everything always seems in order. Heroux shows readers the volatility of a world that seems static. Binary oppositions of familiar and strange, change and stasis, and confusion and order are playfully subverted until the boundaries of said terms become indistinguishable from one another.

The brilliance of the novel is that it treats these bizarre switch ups so nonchalantly that the reader cannot differentiate between what is the familiar becoming strange and what is the strange becoming familiar: in this case, the server cannot take the elderly man back because of the store’s no-return policy.

The book is Timbit-sized — only 104 pages — making it a quick and unintimidating read in an era when most people do not read.

The short length ensures that every chapter is a rewarding experience, bubbling with absurd humour, cosmic alienation, and identity crises, often all in the same page. Sadness and laughter exist together in every paragraph, and every line bristles with its own existential crisis.

It’s the type of prose where one catches oneself unconsciously mouthing the words of each sentence as if they are under the book’s incantation. In many senses, this impressive feat of brevity is also where the book momentarily wavers. As the book draws to a close, readers will feel unsatisfied with the way the story resolves itself alongside the stagnation of Lila and Owen’s relationship.

But that’s where Heroux’s artistry shines through: in life, resolutions are always a bit disappointing, and relationships always end up stagnating at some point. It’s only by acknowledging that banality, and by showcasing it in inventive ways, that one can start to understand the maze of contemporary life. In Heroux’s world, one is always lost in that maze, dissociated with their surroundings and cosmically alone against the absurdity of the universe.

One never has a clear grasp of who they are or what they are doing as the hours slip away in conferences and phone calls. Heroux’s world is not unlike our own.

In a world where reality TV stars become presidents, most of us wouldn’t be surprised if we started to transform into mundane objects tomorrow. Heroux’s world is one where absurdity is taken more seriously than seriousness.

In one of the funniest, but also exasperating, arcs of the book, Owen and Lila install a Home Automation service that doesn’t work. They spend the rest of the novel trying to get it removed, going to lawyers and support groups in the fight against the convoluted contract from a big corporation. In one scene, after a harrowing phone call with an agent for the Home Automation company, filled with the standard frustrations of trying to cancel anything over phone, Owen is told that the service can be removed.

Upon hearing those words, Owen is flooded with “feelings of peace, tranquility, balance and harmony” and “the universe [seems] full of mysterious hidden beauty.” In those moments, Amusement Park of Constant Sorrows understands that what David Foster Wallace called “the day-to-day trenches of adult existence” are where the most important cosmic battles are taking place; the most familiar battles end up as the most mysterious.

Amusement Park of Constant Sorrows explores the forgetfulness and always-changing identities that are core to the human experience, asking that confusing question of who we are in a world that constantly transforms, but somehow stays the same.

In the everyday bureaucracy of life, that grand feeling of dissociation hits us out of the blue, and we realize that, deep down, we are not so different from the bicycles and spoons of the world. We, too, are subject to the whims of agents outside our control, merely existing, going from places day-to-day in fleeting moments that culminate in death.