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One Week…what would you do?

January 24, 2010

What would you do, if you had one day, one week, or one month to live? what live would you grab onto? what secret would you tell? what band would you see? what person would you declare your love to? what wish would you fulfill? what exotic locale would you fly to for coffee? what book would you write?

These are the questions posed by the film “One Week” (2008). Directed by Michael McGowan, this is a small, intimate film with a big echo. It is also a beautiful ode to Canada, from its lead Canadian actor Joshua Jackson, to a story centered around a Canadian young man, to the breathless Canadian landscapes that mark every frame, to a haunting score comprised of indie Canadian bands, this film is Canadian through and through.

The film opens with Ben, a young man in his 20s, sitting in a doctor’s office. We sense that it’s not a happy visit. The doctor fills the air with these words:”I’m afraid it’s not great news.” That, in moviespeak, always means that it’s not merely “not great” news, but “very bad” news. Ben is in denial, like so many who have sat in his chair before, and will after. He reacts, politely…being a Canadian and all. Ben asks about the prognosis, the treatment, all the necessary questions. Despite his polite composure, the answers are bleak and brutal, and he learns that he has an aggressive form of cancer, with very little time left.

How do you go on living in such a predictament? I’ve never been there and for that I’m thankful, but I imagine impending death puts many things in perspective. With life suddenly on the fast track one needs to downsize, prioritize, and make choices. Those things that we merely stand in order to be sensible, no longer seems sensible. The things that we bear with because we’re too lazy to search for an alternative, no longer seems bearable. The unrealistic things that we long for and put off for the future…well, they are still unrealistic, but we realize that we no longer have the luxury of time, and a distant future.

That unrealistic thing, for Ben, is adventure in the form of a vintage Norton motorcycle. “What’s the minimum?” He asks. “There is no minimum,” replies the doctor. We realize that Ben has been playing the minimum all his life – coasting, coasting along in the safe bubble of a comfortable existence. He is engaged to Sam (Liane Balaban), who everyone expects him to marry, and he can find no reason not to. She works as an actuary and is perfectly content with the amount of risk allotted in her life, and what will be their life. Ben is a school teacher and hates it. The students don’t care, likely because he can’t pretend to care enough, though he does try so awfully hard. Oh, and he is a writer with a failed first novel. Oh those writers, how they struggle against their wretched souls.

So, as you can imagine, and as we hope, Ben buys the motorcycle and embarks on a journey west, across the prairies and mountains, all the way to the sea. What started as a two day break turned into a week long adventure, and he comes back changed, thoughtful, and embraces life with a renewed hope. Um…yeah.

The general plot is a cliché and that is the fatal flaw of the film. But somehow, McGowan managed to cast the right guy as the lead and captured a journey so beautiful, with characters so lovable, that it thoroughly immersed me in the ride. Along the way we meet a ranch owner who has grown lonely and apart from her family, a hockey player having the Stanley cup (the real one) for a day, a pot-smoking cancer survivor at a roadside motel, and a travelling trekker at Banff. Ben crosses path with each of these lives spontaneously, unwittingly, briefly, and then they move on, like rail tracks that overlap and depart without ever announcing. That is life. Dealing with such a dark topic, McGowan attempts to delight through these little digressions and give us peeks into other lives, woven into the overarching theme that life is too short to waste.

Joshua Jackson is one of those guys born with an everyman appeal, yet at times his facial features project an aged wisdom. He portrays both youth and thoughtfulness convincingly, and that is important here. He is in almost every frame of the film and to be on the journey with him, we need to believe him. I did.

Please click play now:

We see Canada here like we never did in movies. It is grand, expansive, ever-changing, beautiful and peaceful. From the diverse streets of Toronto to mountains of Banff to the prairies in the middle to the pacific oceans by Vancouver, I’ve never seen a movie that covers so much of Canada. And it does so with such honesty and love. The winks to the ubiquitous Tim Hortons and Canadian Tires stores made me smile. There is no CGI effects. No grand symphony scores. It is shot, as told by McGowan on the DVD special features, by the smallest crew possible, each taking on multiple jobs, all crammed onto a bus driven across the nation. The colors are not enhanced, and the cinematography is not overwhelming, but there is an undeniable beauty, a humble beauty….so very fittingly Canadian.

The camera may be bare, but the frame is full.

Above all, “One Week” forces us to ask those hard questions that we put off to the side to make room for everyday life: Why are we here? Are we happy? Do you like the life that you are living? It’s a shame that we need something ugly, like cancer, to prompt us to focus on the beautiful things in our existence. Ben, like so many people, has put his dreams on hold after some bumps in the road. His life was incomplete – that novel he never wrote, the songs he never sang, the passion of true love that he never felt, and he thought it was ok to live without them. He had learned to do so – until this one week. While on the road little things started to rear their heads, like a conversation with a stranger who has been happily married for over 25 years, and a false accusation of foot odor by his fiancé. These little things started to build up like jigsaw pieces, and formed an image of his incomplete love and incomplete life, one he is seeing clearly for the very first time.

Sam: Did you take pictures?

Ben: A lifetime’s worth.

They say life is like a box of chocolates, that you never know what you’re going to get. To me, life is more like a series of snapshots. For most of us, we take them in happy moments and then carefully stow them away in cardboard boxes and plastic sheets. We look over them fondly from time to time, quenching our thirst with little sips of happiness, and then stowing them away again. At the end of our toiled life we look back at the faded photographs and wonder what happened? Why did we restrain our gulps to sips? Why did we wait all that time? What would have happened if…?

Well, why did we? How did we become used to the notion that happiness is something to be moderated, and not indulged? Since when did we get used to waiting? Waiting for graduation, for retirement, for later, for a future that is so far down the line that by the time we get there, we have completely lost the purpose that sets us on the journey to begin with?

Personally, I’m not willing to wait. I plaster photos over my walls, on fridges, and in between cracked paint. It may be messy, but I won’t have them fade in solitude. I’d rather die in a sea of happiness than to live an eternity in drought, teased by sips.

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

At the end of the film, on a beach by the Pacific ocean on Vancouver island, Ben takes a photo for a traveling European couple. The man tells him: “You live in one of the most beautiful countries in the world.” “I know,” said Ben, the tiniest smile curling up the corner of his mouth.

So do I.

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12 Comments leave one →
  1. January 24, 2010 6:56 AM

    I liked your review very much, and it will lead me to try and see the film.

    As an old man I am also in the position of having relatively little time left. If I was told I had only one week left I would wander the streets of Toronto with my copy of Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching, sip coffee in food courts or on park benches in summer, take some pictures, listen to jazz on my iPod and diligently search for serenity, and on most days I would find it somewhere.

    Actually that’s pretty much what I already do.

    Too passive? I dont know. Everybody has to do it their own way.

    I know you will keep on writing. You have no choice. Good luck living out all your dreams.

    Grace: thanks for that last line.

  2. January 24, 2010 4:11 PM

    You have hit on one of the most frustrating things I have encountered in my young adult life. Once people graduate from college and go out into the world, they start doing things to survive, not to live. In many cases, circumstances force them to do what they must, and not what they want. Of course, that is what marks the transition from childhood to adulthood, the struggle and growing pains from a life of no responsibility to a life filled with them, and (for some people) the truth that they are now responsible for others besides themselves, whether they be spouses or children, family or friends.

    I think, though, that some people live to survive for so long, they forget to survive to live. That’s why I have no regrets about leaving Japan, for I know that, while I was there, I saw as much of that country as I could. I made enough money to survive, and then concentrated on living. Now, I am back to surviving, but I am trying to remember to live, as well.

    Grace: It’s such a vicious cycle…we survive to live, and live to survive…and then it starts all over again.

  3. January 24, 2010 5:28 PM

    Well, shucks. It’s not available on Netflix and I don’t live in (nor have I ever visited) Canada.

    That doesn’t, however, prevent me from enjoying the country’s abundance of great pop music. Stars is just about my favorite band – Torq and Amy are pretty incredible live – and I definitely enjoyed that little reminder to listen to Calendar Girl again. You’ve heard the Sad Robots EP, I hope? A Thread Cut with a Carving Knife is one of their best songs (not to mention titles).

    Grace: Sorry, I have to go with the “Set Yourself on Fire” album. “Calendar Girl” (on the film soundtrack) and “Your Ex-Lover is Dead” just kill me…when Amy sings “the scar is a fleck on my porcelain skin…”

  4. January 25, 2010 4:14 AM

    I enjoyed your above post very much.

    I apologize for coming off too strongly in the comment I made in response to what you said on Emerson’s blog. I didn’t intend to hammer you into some absurd position that you did not hold. What I felt was that all choices are conscious. To make choices, to learn to how to choose is to take/learn responsibility.

    If we go deeper into question of whether we have any control over our psychological (and physical) make-up, then we do eventually hit a scepticism of free-will. And this does intimately touch on whether we have any control whatsoever of what we do, whether we can be held responsible.

    So when I made the objection, I can’t say that I was standing on exactly firm ground (though my point was that we have good normative reasons for understanding responsibility — that we do hold people *responsible* for crimes). But I mistook you for taking a sceptical position.

    I do agree with you that we often get arrogant when we look on ourselves as being “free”. But what I find more disturbing is that there are an abundant number of people who claim that they are ‘not a product of their environment’, and attribute their successes (or failures) to what they deserve (… through hard work, natural intelligence, whatever).

    In relation to your above post, sometimes we really need those life changing moments (though not necessarily good ones) that bring some sense to ourselves. It is often that we are like pin balls that bounce off each other caused and at mercy of forces beyond our control — so pitifully fragile and wretched. But the most remarkable thing about human beings is that we are the sort of pin balls that can plan and plot our own movements. It is as if we have jotted down all the rules of physics, thought about it, and then chose to move in such a direction and at such a velocity. We can choose when to just take off on a motorcycle and …

    Very nice website.

    Grace: no worries. It’s never black and white. We’re all in the grey somewhere in between.

  5. January 25, 2010 8:32 AM

    Funny, I just watched this movie on Saturday.

    I think you described the film quite well and the issues with it. I felt it was more of a symphony for Canada. A very enjoyable symphony.

    The subject of lost dreams and finding yourself in a place that you have never hoped nor expected is a universal one. Life throws many obstacles at people and so many of them prevent people from fufilling their life’s ambitions.

    Of course, sometimes when they reach their life’s ambition they end up as empty as those that never did.

    Life is a balance and when you fall, try and balance again. You need to add weight to one side or remove weight from the other.

  6. DAG permalink
    January 25, 2010 11:40 PM

    I haven’t seen this film; in fact, I’d never heard of it. But then, I’m truthfully not interested in Canadian cinema.

    Having said that, the movie, or more accurately your own musings about its major themes, defintely strikes a chord.

    I can’t say I always use my time wisely. Far too often I waste it, and wonder at the time gone by.

    But there is an area where I have endeavoured to expand my horizons. In the last several years, I have embarked on a number of trips abroad, any one of which would be considered by many to be a trip of a lifetime. Like the movie you describe, but without meaning to apply too literally the message it imparts, the voyage really is the destination.

    Of course, it’s been said a thousand times in the arts that a story involving travel is really about an inward journey. Where we go and what we experience should affect us in some way, test us, build our character, and change us in some fundamental way. And then, frequently, we find ourselves to have returned from whence we began. And we are different people for that experience.

    If life is a journey, and it truly is important to actually LIVE our lives, then travel and engaging (in some capacity, even if as an active consumer) the arts are certainly fundamental components.

    I’m hoping to continue expanding my own experiences. One way is to devote more time to viewing good films. A theatre nearby frequently screens foreign and “small” movies that don’t attract mainstream audiences. I’ve begun renting DVDs from Zip. And I read your blog!

    Keep writing.

    Grace: may I ask, why you are open to foreign and “small” movies but have no interest in “Canadian cinema”? Last time I checked Canada is a foreign country to the USA…

  7. Mark Mayers permalink
    January 26, 2010 1:05 PM

    This may be too simple, but I think I would try to find the best pizza and have a real Coke made with real sugar.

    Grace: Is there such a thing as Coke with “real” sugar? Isn’t it all just corn syrup? corn corn corn a.k.a. The Informant.

  8. Kitty permalink
    January 26, 2010 1:15 PM

    I’ve driven Canada from coast to coast, I’ve seen the movie One Week, and I’ve watched my husband struggle with a serious, life-threatening disease.

    I recognize your point about the general plot weakness, but I was able to over look it. I think the movie is fantastic – for me it opened up the fear and longing we were feeling in our old lives. It highlighted the fragility of every day and how easy it is to get suckered into doing safe things instead of rewarding things.

    One afternoon last February while driving home in gridlock to the burbs, I called my husband who was recently on sick leave. I told him that life is short and we weren’t happy in the burbs and it was time to do something about it. And we did. We bought a VW Van, traveled to Newfoundland with our dogs, got pregnant, sold our townhouse and bought a 17-acre farm, got chickens, all while he was battling with a large intestine stricture / obstruction from Crohn’s disease. We nearly went bankrupt, I nearly cracked from the stress. It was the hardest year of my life, and I’m so glad we did it.

    He’s recovering now, the baby is due in the early spring, the chickens are laying eggs and the van is getting ready for another year of adventures. Life is short, we should enjoy all of it.

    Grace: some films touch a part of you so personal, that its technical inadequacy is just that, a mere technicality. Your story left me breathless. I envy you, and wish you all the best. Thank you for sharing. Take care of that van.

  9. January 26, 2010 6:18 PM

    Sometimes I wonder what life seem like if I hadn’t any photos of those important moments. I’ve noticed that I basically remember all of my life’s milestones the most vividly if they were photographed and I can refer back to them anytime I like. Then I refer to images that used to possess me long ago and I am reminded of a time and state of mind that is gone. I wonder why life is like that, and why images are so inextricably linked to my experiences. What would it be like if I were blind?

    Grace: me too. We are visual creatures.

  10. February 7, 2010 9:33 PM

    As you said, the plot of movie is major weekness and I found myself cold toward this movie(I gave two stars reveiw out of four). I wanted to tell him to go to hospital instead of traveling across the country, and I wondered whether the narration in the movie is necessary.

    Anyway, Joshua Jackson is a likable hero and I hope to see him in good movies in the futrue. And the movie shows us how beautiful country Canada is. You can’t argue with that.

    Grace: I know. It’s not a great film. It is a film of Canada. And given how few of those there are, I was willing to overlook the former.

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