Offscreen in the UK
Sent to Coventry
Since late September the “software” of Offscreen has moved across the Atlantic to the UK, where I have temporarily set up office at the University of Warwick to begin doctoral studies in Film & Television studies. While Offscreen‘s “hardware” (Hors Champ) remains in Montreal, the wonderful world of computer communication technology (with a bit of sarcasm intended) will allow me to continue producing my on-line magazine (though with the addition of my studies, at a considerably lesser rate). As my thesis on film and temporality develops I will no doubt subject some of you to it!
Warwick University is situated at a far enough remove from the city of Coventry, just a name for non-Brits, but a sort of house of ill repute for people in the know. Before leaving for Coventry, my British colleague and friend Peter Rist informed me that, historically, Coventry was to England what Siberia was to Stalinist Russia: when you were bad, the expression went, “we’ll send you to Coventry.” In fact the first Brits I encountered could not understand why I left Canada to study in Coventry. Coventry still retains its reputation. Classmates have referred to it as “England’s hellhole.” Economically, it just hasn’t recovered since the war. Since Coventry was home to the Spitfire plant during the war, it was hit very hard by the German’s, leaving little of its medieval beauty intact. The day after I briefly visited Coventry for some shopping, someone informed me that, per capita, Coventry has the highest crime rate in the world! But it’s not so bad. The campus is 5 kilometers from Coventry, and more importantly, within 2 hours bus travel of London, Oxford, Stratford, Birmingham, Cambridge and Warwick. What drew me here, of course, was not Coventry but Warwick’s fine Film Department (ranked 1st in the UK). I was also pleasantly surprised to discover that, overall, Warwick is ranked as the 4th or 5th (depending on the survey) best University in England (cheerio).
While not a beautiful campus, Warwick has enough good things about it to make me forget the awful York campus in Toronto, where I did my Master’s many years ago. The campus is modern, but the planners made some effort in beautifying it (some nice green spots, ponds, lake, and Canadian geese!) and retaining a human feel. The resources on campus are top notch. On top of the excellent library, sports complex and computing services, the campus houses the largest Arts Center outside of London. Their newly renovated cinema is beautiful, with a large, slightly curved screen, posh, well-spaced seats and a good sound system. I’ve already treated myself to screenings of the newly restored print of Le Mepris and Lost Highway …
Surprisingly, I’ve not experienced any of the culture shock that people said I would encounter. Being on campus may have something to do with it. Over 40% of the postgraduates here are international students. But I’ve met my share of locals (well people from England) and they’re just fine. The one thing that is more apparent here than in Canada is class. Warwick may not be Ivy League, but it certainly is middle class (this includes the International students, who all seem to have very deep pockets, myself excluded). Not surprisingly, class is far less noticeable in the Humanities Building, which houses the Film Department, than in other areas of the school. The closest I’ve come to culture shock is the variety of languages (including English) that I encounter in a day’s meandering. In just over two weeks I’ve already met people from Mexico, Greece, Cyprus, Ghana, Italy, Argentina, Japan, Hong Kong, Portugal, Spain, and Austria. To top it off are the variety of British accents. Some days I feel like I’m at a UN meeting! Especially when I’m in the huge computer room, with dozens of international students zipping off e-mails across the world.
If you consider food as part of culture, then I have to say that the standard of cuisine is lower here than in Montreal (and ooooh so much more expensive), but I get around that by eating in as much as possible. On the positive side, beer is comparatively cheap. And it’s a good thing (or bad?) because the beer here is great! Especially on campus, where you can get a pint of Guinness, Tartan’s Younger or John Smiths for less than 2 pounds (about 4 dollars). When I was travelling Italy, I never encountered a bad wine. Ditto for beer here.
Italy-England. Ah yes, football, England’s national religion. Being of Italian parentage, I found watching last week’s Italy-England qualifying football match with 500 or so yelling, screaming, drinking British supporters a humbling experience. I’m not a huge football fan, but my allegiances were with Italy (my dad would disown me if I cheered for anyone else!). But cheering here was simply out of the question. My goal was simply to watch the game and have a few pints. Though as the evening wore on and the match settled into a comfortable zone of mediocrity, it became much more fun to watch the crowd. Many students arrived at the school bar 6 and 7 hours early to secure a good seat. I went over with some nice British chaps from my residence hall. I had never experienced such one-sided partisanship, at least not from the other side! Boo’s, hisses, cheers when an Italian player hit the ground. Nationalist singsongs. Since I don’t like the Montreal Canadians, the closest to this would be visits to the Montreal Forum (another secular shrine) to watch the Montreal Canadians play among a throng of Hab fans. As the game progressed I became desensitized to the anti-Italy sentiment. After all, it was only a game and the opposing team just happened to be Italy. Any team other than Italy and I would be cheering along with them (Canada has such a bad team that I can not even fathom them having a chance). In doing so I was able to somehow partake in their joy, like being a stranger at a wedding ceremony (though I had to keep reminding myself that the score ended nil-nil, not England 6, Italy 0). Once over I stood by the door, watching the exasperated crowd file out, leaving behind a sea of toppled chairs and broken beer glasses. Many were singing, laughing, and some just sharing in the collective relief of England advancing to France. In the end, no harm done, just an outpouring of early semester excitement mixed in with football mania English style.
With London only two hours away, I plan many trips in to catch film screenings, exhibits, museums, etc. I’ve been there once already, to attend the one-day horror festival Eurofest (see elsewhere for report). The brief visit only wet my lips. There’s the BFI (British Film Institute) and its National Theatre program (which includes a series on Dracula), the London Film Festival from November 6-23, The Birmingham International Film & Television Festival from November 19-30, the controversial shock art exhibit “Sensations” at (I think) the Royal Academy, and on and on. Needless to say there is an abundance of temptation. Keep posted. Offscreen may slow down, but it won’t die!