Art by Sarah Hofmann

God Bless You, Glimmer Mirage

Exploring Vancouver's relationship to Los Angeles and Hollywood, through a collection of short letters.

To: L.A.

From: Vancouver

When I think of summer, I think of sweat. Itchy, sticky, pervasive in its discomfort. I don’t like the way it makes your clothing feel heavy, and I’m still not used to the west coast humidity even if I prefer it to the dry, languid heat of the prairies. The sun scorched its way into a record-breaking heat wave last year, forcing me to spend waking hours riding the air-conditioned train to and from the city. Everyone was doing the same thing, hoping to kill enough time to hide from Vancouver’s hot, humid breath, or waiting for a dinner proposition from a generous friend fortunate enough to have AC. I spent the day gliding over the landscape and taking note of the things I saw below. People avoided the city centers and their mirrored, concrete beating. No one was at work, and no one was out; the long uninhabited streets, molasses dripping off the sides of the world. Summer had swallowed absolutely everything. 

Everything that is, except for one street in downtown Vancouver, which was full of snow. 

This sight is inherent to the experience of living in this city, and perhaps familiar to readers in L.A. You’ll be heading to school in the middle of summer, and some poor production assistant with a high vis vest and inflated sense of responsibility will rush you away from the alley that you know more affectionately as the “poop alley” (behind a pub without washrooms) because they’re making movie magic in it. In the span of 20 minutes, you can zip through farmland, dense forest, metropolis.  It’s dizzying, and equally stunning. In the spring, the streets are dusted with pink petals that feel as if they’ve unfurled themselves for you alone. For many, including the film industry, Vancouver can be anything you want. 

Perhaps that is why it’s so alluring to young people like myself — in a short span of a few blocks, you are acutely aware of your traveling through the space — time continuum. There’s a palpable sense of proximity to a world, an industry, that has been made to feel inaccessible. Friends boast about their encounters with household names so that they themselves can feel equally as magnetic.  I stretch the truth of my proximity to well known bands and actors to my friends from home more than I’d like to admit, and I am always surprised at the ease in which I can speak about things — art, culture, post-punk bands — that previously felt foreign to me. My family insists I have been ravaged by a pretentious, neo-liberal West Coast agenda, but I feel closer to myself than I ever had at home. 

As a starry-eyed young artist, it feels like moving to the big city means that you’re making it. As if there is a kind of transit system in the minds of young Canadian artists that stretches over jagged skylines and into the beating heart of the art scene. People call Vancouver Hollywood North, its proximity to the arts and entertainment industry create a sense of identity that is inherently interconnected with the romanticized visions of adulthood that exist to you as a young person. You live here, and you see those visions play out on screen in places you’ve passed a million times. I’ve cried at so many sunsets here, and cried again watching them on screen.

When I was growing up in the prairies, I would speak to my friends about the idea of living in LA, making it big as a writer, and as a reward, living beside a glistening expanse of ocean. It was almost as if there was this script I was hoping to clambour towards. No one really knows what “making it” means exactly, or what the details of living in the city would look like, but there was a kind of dream association with the space that spread its tendrils out of American state lines and into the fevered minds of inspired Canadian youth. It’s burning, it’s dreamy, it’s citrus summer nights where your dreams might come true. In my mind, moving to Vancouver meant that the world would break open for me in the same way. At 17, I only applied to schools on the coast. I would often justify it by saying that my job prospects as a filmmaker were mainly situated here, though I’d be lying if I said that my choice wasn’t more so that I could live in a place where something felt like it was happening. That maybe, by proxy, I’d learn to happen too.


To: Okotoks

From: L.A.

I can say with full confidence that I have watched the most John Hughes movies out of anyone I know. It feels a bit too earnest to admit to that while trying to uphold my persona as a very serious art filmmaker. When I was in my early teens, and much before I realized that I wanted to work in film, I spent a whole summer slowly making my way through every movie he had been credited on as a director or writer, hanging off of every word that came from Molly Ringwald’s mouth. I credit my deep admiration for his filmography partially to the post-consumer nostalgia that I received from my parents, who are young enough to have been in their early teens as they were being made. But I also did this quite frequently — my long–running summer marathons would always consist of a kind of toothache media because in the summer, it feels right to imagine that everyone is sexy and adolescent love is real. It feels a little blasphemous to admit that the only current film releases I’ve really kept up with in the past few years have been rom-coms. It’s nice to come home from a hard day and imagine a world where you are only ever mildly inconvenienced, your parents apologize, and the biggest thing to worry about is what atrocious eighties prom dress you’ll get to dance in.

I feel like a lot of my childhood and early adolescent experiences had gone hand in hand with the movies — as if there was a sort of template that everyone understood and followed. My high school was dominated by football players and cheerleaders, and should you have been popular enough you would be invited to keg parties in the backs of pickup trucks. When I was in grade 12, I had my first kiss on the stage of our high school auditorium and for a moment, I felt like I had transcended the membrane between real and imagined teen-movie experience. With the assistance of my best friend, we created a bucket list of life experiences we had hoped to achieve in our final year of school that included romance, drinking, and buying a vibrator at the drugstore for the purpose of feminism. It sounds cliché, but that’s because we wanted it to be. When you grow up expecting a specific type of adolescent experience, you can’t help but subconsciously seek it out. Screaming out the windows of highways for the purpose of cinematic value was our passtime, as if we were driving towards a kind of youthful iconography that we could use to contextualize our emotions. I wanted my youth to feel like it did in the movies, and it did. In a lot of ways, I think about this kind of spirit as a sort of chicken and egg paradox. I wonder if my real world experiences feel like that because I was trying to make them, or because that’s how it feels for every young person in a small town. I think that perhaps without the existence of these pieces of media, the milestones we attribute to youth would look a lot different.

When I talk about my teenage years to people who grew up in the city, I’m met with awe at the similarities that it had to prominent media tropes. Of course, the  inner workings of small towns and the people who live in them are far more complicated than in film; but I also know that I am not the only one who viewed the lives that were echoed through the media we consumed as aspirational. 

As much as I make fun of the place I grew up in, I also contain a lot of love for it. Sometimes it takes you leaving a space to understand its charm. I miss the security of being able to walk home alone at 3 in the morning. I find myself reaching for visuals of expansive plains in my art. I consume a lot of media set in small towns because there’s a certain sense of otherworldly appreciation attached to it. I felt that way about films that depicted moving to the city when I was younger. [Although I don’t see myself ever moving back, I also feel a lot more empathetic to some alternate universe in which I didn’t leave.] Sometimes I feel as if perhaps I fell victim to a sort of aspirational candy, the idea that I would move to another city and everything about my life would simply fall into place. Like any good teen movie character, I would move away to metropolis and fulfill my lofty post-credit goals. Moving to Vancouver provided me with an opportunity to expand my career, and extend myself beyond the confines of my family — but I could have done a lot of that regardless of postal code. I’m sure that there are people experiencing emotional rapture while living there, because I was able to do just the same. 


To: L.A.

From: Vancouver

It’s been about four years now, and I often forget that I live in Vancouver full time. I’m not the most frequent visitor of my own body on a general basis, but there are moments when I’m sitting at work or reading a book, and I’ll wake up and remember that I’ve been hauling my bones around here of my own volition. That when I go down to the water, I’m touching it, not watching it on television. My hands are real and intelligently existing in a world where immense beauty is only a couple blocks down the street. Vancouver is stunning in a way I cannot quite describe. It is my home. When I sail over the city skyline, I always make a point to watch it, a reminder that I made myself part of it. I made it here. I worked very hard. I love this city, even when it’s trying to kill me. 

I read a statistic a little while ago that made me realize I was paying roughly the same amount of money in rent that I would if I lived in New York or L.A. My apartment is nicer than what I’d get there, but it was still a bit of a shock to see just how unliveable my city has become against cities known for housing costs worldwide. Earlier this year, I was facing an illegal eviction— and the grueling truth that outside of my previously rent controlled bubble (landlords are only able to increase rent to current renters by 1.5% annually, whereas for new tenants, the price is unregulated) I’m living here on borrowed time. I am under no illusions that the city is free of issues. Although I am in constant awe of its beauty, I am always teetering on the edge of it. I am in the last year of my schooling, and I have to wonder whether staying here is sustainable, or if I can even afford to try. I find myself weighing the value of Vancouver’s romanticism against its long-term sustainability. I like to think that the city makes up for it, but I’m starting to worry this mindset  is why rent can continue to increase in cities viewed as aspirational, and people like me will continue to pay for it.

Somehow, my life here has blended in with my life in my small town, and the life I imagined I’d have when I moved out here. I look around my bedroom and I wonder how much of it feels like a movie set because I made it that way, and how much of it is because I am in my 20’s and there’s something universal about those experiences. I’m not sure if it’s me, or the city, or a combination of the two. Maybe when I eat takeaway from my favorite sushi restaurant in bed, it feels good because it feels cinematic, and it was made that way because feeling cinematic is profitable.  I’m not sure I’ll ever stop feeling like a foreign correspondent for more than just a moment, or shake the humming worry that my beautiful experiences are beautiful because someone else wants them to be. I don’t want to see this city fall into the hands of people who don’t want to take care of it. I don’t want the actual beauty of this place to become a fleeting hope for people who aren’t part of the upper echelon of the tax bracket.  Maybe I’m just a poet, but I think being able to cry at the ocean after someone breaks your heart should be an enforceable human right. This city makes me happy, but at the end of the day it is just a city. There is value in both appreciating, and interrogating the systems that connect it to visions of success. 

There is a moment when you have lived somewhere new for long enough, when you realize that you aren’t playing house anymore. You have friends, and history — memories on side streets that can only ever exist on that specific side of the universe. I feel very lucky to call Vancouver my home. I don’t think I would be the same person without it. I’m glad that there are moments here where I feel infinitely 21, where the streetlights line up perfectly and you get your second of real-time movie magic. Though I wonder about its sustainability, I do feel like I am happening the way I wanted to when I was a teen, and I will keep falling in love over and over again with my life here because of it. Maybe one day I will move to another city, and feel even more like things are happening. More likely, I will realize even more plainly that identity has very little to do with your proximity to a gastropub. But until then, I will probably keep buying overpriced fries I cannot afford, and trying to find a balance between self-mythology and genuine awe.