Monday, December 26, 2011


This evening, Boxing Day, I find myself watching Crash. Not the more recent 2004 movie, but the one from the fall of 1996... David Cronenberg's strange little opus featuring James Spader, Holly Hunter, Deborah Unger, and Elias Kotias about people who fetishize car crashes.

I have a lot of reasons for revisiting this movie. It has a kind of bleak fascination to it that appeals to me. I can't watch it often, but I do relish watching it every so often. One reason I like it is it's filmed in Toronto, and while they make an overt point of it being Toronto, they don't pretend it's Chicago or New York or hide the Ontario license plates. But I guess the reason I like it best is that when I saw it for the first time, I was still young.

I was working at a digital media studio with a lot of very young, starving animators just new to the industry. First job for most of them, or at least, first "real" job. That's how it was for me, too, even though I was three or four years older than most of them. The woman who ran the studio was ruthless and we all kind of lived like rats in a cage in a snake exhibit, knowing we were alright for now, but always wondering who was next for the python.

One of the guys I went to the movie with that night was a bright programmer who was one of the guys who did the work in Lingo to stitch the stuff we did together and make it work right when the disks went out the door. He and I were still working at the place then, though his days, unbeknownst to us, were numbered in months at that point. Maybe weeks. It's hard to remember now. There was a group of alumni of the place who used to get together and commiserate, both with each other and some of those still "inside". There was a high attrition rate at the place, voluntary and not so voluntary.

The other guy was one of the brightest stars I've ever known in my life. I was the last animator hired there, at the start of the year, and he was among the four who preceded me. He was very young at the time. Barely in his 20s. All the other four guys had had to move to Toronto, and were living far from home. This fellow was living with his sister, a teacher. He was an idea man. Driven, smart, articulate. In truth, even I could see he was already punching well below his weight, but we all have to start somewhere. Though I was half a decade older than him, he was in many ways my mentor that year. There was talk of our product going on television, and part of his job was to work it up as a concept. Our boss shamelessly squeezed work out of him like a Texas oilman wrings crude from a rag over a barrel. We were poorly paid, and there was no overtime, and he was putting in between sixty and eighty hours a week on the project, and, I found out later, drinking himself to sleep. He was doing good work, but the financing wasn't there, so his project was shelved and he came to work with the rest of us, pushing pixels.

What a summer that was. It was my first real, full-time job, and though the pay was lousy, I felt like I was on my way. The work we were doing was interesting and often, quite fun. We were frequently recruited to do voice acting for our characters and animations. We took long, boozy lunches where we expanding our nerdly girths. We played practical jokes on each other and did hilarious little side animations. Working together under that awful sword of Damocles, I found a bond with those people unlike any I've known before or since.

At the end of the summer, in August, that sword fell. On my friend. Our boss announced she had decided he "wasn't happy working here", despite his putting more hours and sweat and pure inspiration into the work than any of the rest of us, and let him go. I felt guilty about that. For me, fun as it was, it was just a job. When the day was over, I went home. I put in some overtime here and there, but nothing like him. Generally, I watched the clock, and when it said I could go, I left. I felt like if anyone should have been sent packing, it should have been me. Not him, the brightest and most creative of the five of us; for him, it was a vocation. Things were never the same after that. I won't say the good times ended, but we'd lost one of those musketeers, and the remainder wasn't quite the "more than the sum of the parts" it had been ever again.

I kept in touch with him and in the autumn, he and I and the programmer went out to see Cronenberg's odd movie. In some ways I guess it was the apex of my experience working there. It's hard to explain, but it's come to symbolize that for me.

I stuck it out for another eight months or so after that but finally I quit and went back to a half-assed part-time "full time" job in the industry. I looked before I leaped, but I didn't expect to be where I landed as long as I was, and my career and adult life sputtered for another three years before it finally gelled. In the end my life was something completely different from what it had been there, with them. No job is ever going to have that sense of fun and freedom mixed with peril ever again. There will never be that heady, dangerous, druglike euphoria. I realize, just now, that that's why Crash is so special to me. It boils down and crystallizes my own feelings of my life that year and reflects it back to me.

I was young.

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