All Directions

In adapting his books to film, David Bezmozgis occupies two worlds

Photograph by Jon Hayes
Jon Hayes / CC BY-NC 2.0

Most Torontonians would be hard-pressed to give the neighbourhood near Bathurst and Steeles a name. Constructed with cars, not people, in mind, the leafy streets and blocky concrete apartment buildings feel anonymous. The neighbourhood feels like a way station. The people you do see on the wide sidewalks are all on their way to somewhere else.

There is one street, though, that will be familiar to fans of the novels and films of David Bezmozgis: Wilmington Avenue, which forms the backdrop for Natasha and Other Stories, the short story collection that established Bezmozgis as a major new literary voice in 2003. In the space of a month, stories from the collection appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, and Zoetrope. Natasha won him the Commonwealth Best First Book Prize; The New Yorker awarded him a coveted spot on its twenty-under-forty list, and the book became a 2007 CBC Canada Reads selection.

On May 6, Bezmozgis reprises his ode to Wilmington Street and its environs with the release of a feature film based on his best short story, “Natasha,” the coming of age story set in the neighbourhood of his own childhood. This time, however, he is looking at his old haunts through middle-aged eyes.

“When I set out to write about this place, I certainly wasn’t thinking that I was going to be forty-two one day, that I was going to feel old and feel like all this was passing,” he says, scanning the streets for signs that things have and haven’t changed. “But I think there was an awareness, even when I was in my twenties, that there was something significant that happened here, at least for me, and I thought that it could be translated for people outside this particular place.”

Based on the title story of his first short story collection, “Natasha” chronicles the comfortable suburban existence of Mark Berman, son of immigrants, during a summer in high school, and his fascinating, complicated fourteen-year-old Russian cousin. The Bermans bear more than a passing resemblance to Bezmozgis’ own family, who lived on Wilmington Avenue for much of his childhood. So do the lives of the Spektors, chronicled in his first—and rather quiet—feature film, Victoria Day. It is tempting to call this a failure of imagination. Two films, one book, many stories, all set in the same locale. But perhaps this is natural. Writers tend to write what they know. Salmon also go back upstream to spawn.

Bezmozgis is the first English speaker in his family. In 1980, when he was seven, he and his parents arrived in Toronto from Riga, Latvia, by way of Vienna and Rome. Like any immigrant, he lives in two worlds: as an only child he bore “the germs of a new vocabulary” (as he describes in “Tapka”) to his Russian-speaking parents, switching between languages and worlds and mores as necessary.

Sometimes he used those differences to his advantage. He recalls how he took to stealing little Fischer Price people from school, and “funny little beads,” so that his cousin and he would have toys to play with at home. After he broke his arm, he stuffed the trinkets into his sling. Then one day he tipped it the wrong way and they all poured out. “They thought I just didn’t understand, this little Russian boy doesn’t understand he’s not supposed to do this,” he recalls with a grin. “They’re so innocent, the Canadians.”

When you occupy two worlds, you are keenly aware of how transient, how fragile each is. Neither can be taken for granted. “It is the opposite which is good to us,” goes the epigraph to both the Natasha story and movie. The fragment, attributed to pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus, makes a fitting introduction to Bezmozgis and his work. Heraclitus writes about the unity of opposites, and shows us a world that is and isn’t the same. Or, as he is quoted over Toronto’s Don River in a bridge wrought out of iron: “The river I step in is not the river I stand in.”

This kind of poetic (and somewhat ambivalent) thinking resonates with a young, immigrant country like Canada. Ours is not a history carved into stones and outsized monuments. Each successive generation takes another crack at rewriting history, at colonizing and recolonizing adopted urban neighbourhoods. In the end, geography may play a bigger role than history in defining this vast, underpeopled country. This may explain why stories rooted in place—like those of Bezmozgis, and of Mordecai Richler—are so beloved by Canadian readers.

The Wilmington Street that Bezmozgis depicts in words and moving pictures is gone. Children still chatter and dart across the field of his old school at recess, but the skin tone of the crowd is no longer predominantly white. The trees have filled in the ravine slope behind the schoolyard where he and his cousin sometimes tobogganed. The Sunnybrook Plaza where his father first operated his massage therapy business out of a utility closet is slated for demolition. Condos and townhouses will most likely replace King David Kosher Pizza and the Bagel Nook.

“It basically looks the same, but a completely different world existed here,” he says, eyeing an older Russian lady who walks past him through the park on her daily exercise regimen. The older Soviet-era Jewish population is dying out, largely replaced by Russian gentiles. The younger generation has either moved into the city centre (as Bezmozgis himself did), or further north, where the houses are bigger. At a local deli, the author inquires about a favourite sausage his mother used to buy; he is surprised to learn that it is pork-based, but is unsure whether this signifies some kind of a change at the meat counter—or whether his parents, strapped for both cash and time, just turned a blind eye to the forbidden ingredient. Both possibilities, he says, are plausible.

As a child, Bezmozgis wrote letters for family friends who weren’t literate in English. Though he read whatever he could get his hands on—his mother would buy books at garage sales—he was never terribly bookish. “He wanted to be with the popular kids,” recalls his mother. As the son of an athlete, he played soccer and hockey until last year when he injured his shoulder. “The only difference between me and my friends was that I read more,” he says with some pride.

At McGill, where he studied literature, he spent most of his time at the gym. “It’s kind of embarrassing to admit,” he says, his blue-green eyes meeting mine directly through frames that are heavy, angular and black. (It is hard to imagine him really admitting embarrassment.) There he started a boxing club, eventually coaching fellow students. “I was in the best shape I’ve ever been.” I can almost imagine him as Alan Arkin’s Reuben Shapiro, the prizefighting ne’er-do-well father in the adaptation of Joshua Then and Now. His voice has the same raspy, masculine quality.

Bezmozgis doesn’t box any more but there is something about the way he stands, the way he holds his shoulders that makes it easy to picture him boxing still. His are not the hunched, rounded shoulders of a boxer holding up his gloves. They offer the proud, open stance of someone who does not need to protect his jugular, not now. Still. You get the sense that the gloves will come up, when necessary.

When I ask him what he liked about the sport, he says “the physical and psychological challenge. Coming from a fairly sheltered household and deliberately putting myself in peril, that was part of it.” He has no time to box any more—to do it properly would require three hours a day—and a young family (three girls, eight and under) is, as he puts it, “an immersive experience.”

“The older you get, the harder it is to find a substitute for that sense of peril, putting yourself out of that comfort zone, finding that sense of adventure,” he says. “But I think it’s important, not just for artists, but for everyone.”

When Bezmozgis graduated from McGill in 1996, his parents were less than thrilled to learn that the lit major wanted to write. “My father was not an intellectual,” he says. “Very devoted, but didn’t understand what I was trying to do.” (His father is immortalized in a story about Roman Berman, a massage therapist on Wilmington grappling with this comedown, after working as a high-ranking sports administrator and Soviet functionary in Riga.) Swinging on a swing seat on the Bezmozgis porch, while David sat inside with one of his young daughters, toys strewn around the living room, his mother explained: “David was a smart kid,” she said in her measured, Latvian accent. “It’s a difficult profession, and we came here for a better life. He can be a doctor or a lawyer!”

Despite his parents’ ambivalence about his artistic ambitions, they agreed to underwrite more schooling. “Look, to do this sort of work . . . it’s a gamble,” says Bezmozgis. “The odds are long . . . .  There was never any guarantee that it would work, just as there’s no ongoing guarantee that it will continue to work.”

The compromise was film school, which Bezmozgis argued would give him practical skills. He got into the prestigious program at University of Southern California in Los Angeles. “What I really wanted to do was write but I didn’t know how to go about doing that,” he says.

Put off by the posturing and ego among many of the narrative film students (who faithfully mimicked Hollywood shenanigans), Bezmozgis found himself drawn to the documentary program, and its very different ethos. It also had an impressive faculty: Mark Harris won two Academy Awards while Bezmozgis was at USC; Bill Hoggs had recently cut Hoop Dreams.

Despite his California training, Natasha feels more European arthouse than Hollywood American in aesthetic. Shot by cinematographer Guy Godfree, the interior, nighttime shots are very warm; the day light shots cold and blue, which gives the film a distinct atmosphere to breathe in. There are documentary elements to the film as well, many of them a function in many cases of making a virtue out of a necessity. A handheld camera gives scenes immediacy. And because the $1-million budget did not allow for building sets, they had to work with live situations, as in the case of the Berman family meeting Natasha and her mother Zina at Lester B. Pearson International Airport, or Zina and uncle Fima’s wedding at North York City Hall. The result reminds me of Moses Znaimer’s clever idea to make a virtue out of Citytv’s low-budget news crews; they just made their Toronto broadcasts seem hipper and more urgent than everyone else.

“We couldn’t afford to fake it,” he says. So producer Bill Marks made a trip to Pearson and made his case. “You go in and you’re like a documentary crew. That’s basically what we were,” says co-producer Deborah Marks. “We negotiated the actors to go behind the security doors.”

Bezmozgis often talks about the talent pool in Toronto, the craftsmanship from years of catering to Hollywood productions. The challenge, though, is to avoid also importing Hollywood’s sensibility. So he looks to Europe for artistic inspiration, citing Claude Audiard’s adaptation of Craig Davidson’s Rust and Bone and the critically acclaimed girl comes of age story, Blue Is The Warmest Colour. The documentary feel at Pearson recalls a scene at Charles de Gaulle in The Past.

On a cold day in January, Bezmozgis, his production manager Deborah Marks, and Drake Conrad, a digital colourist, gathered in a small screening room on Adelaide West in downtown Toronto to go over Natasha final colour corrections. Bezmozgis estimated he had seen the film a hundred times.

By his own admission, he works sentence-by-sentence in his fiction writing (“I wish I wasn’t so slow”); here, he was working frame-by-frame; fussier, it seemed, than the colourist himself. “David is an auteur,” said Marks. “He knows exactly what he wants and he gets it. I respect that. A lot of directors don’t know what they want when they hit the floor.”

His film projects function like sabbaticals between books. His first novel, Free World, took him seven years to write. “It’s such a massive commitment of time, of psychic energy. I need a year before I can commit to it again,” he says. They also offer a welcome chance to collaborate, after the self-imposed solitude of writing. “When it works, it’s very seductive,” he says. “Allowing people to do their jobs and improve the film . . . talented people contributing to my vision.”

Bezmozgis is often quoted as saying he’s a guy who likes plot, but his films don’t bear this out. Shots are long. Dialogue is sparse. The ending in Victoria Day isn’t really an ending, leaving with the viewer with the impression that they’ve experienced a slice of life. There is none of the tidiness of Hollywood. Things are and aren’t the same.

Natasha is a better film, more stylishly shot, more fully realized as a story, more immersive as an experience. Still, the two films are related. In Natasha, much of the dialogue is in Russian, with subtitles, conveying the sense that the protagonist, Mark, must inhabit two worlds. Onscreen, the story unfolds in the present day, which allows him to use the Internet and texting as plot drivers. Going back to the story, and back to the neighbourhood, twenty years later, he says, feels like the end to a chapter in his creative life.

Perhaps it is finally time to move on.

Sasha Chapman
Sasha Chapman is a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT, and was previously a senior editor at The Walrus.