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Venice Without Her

Kate Park (Photo by Chris Vognar)

I was with Kate on an early summer day in Times Square when I got the call. It was Mick LaSalle, the movie critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. He was excited. Was I interested in going to the Venice Film Festival? There was this panel for something called the Biennale College, a group of microbudget films funded by the festival. They brought in critics to discuss the films with the filmmakers and other festival-goers. Mick couldn’t make it that year, and he was recommending me as his sub. Was I interested?

Uh, yes? I got off the phone and turned to Kate, who was picking out pens at the Muji store. “Do you want to go to Venice with me?” It seemed like a ridiculous question. Who doesn’t want to go to Venice? Soon I was in touch with the panel organizer, Peter Cowie, British film historian and voice that launched a thousand Criterion commentary tracks. A couple months later and we’re taking a water taxi from the airport to the Lido, under an endless sky, and checking into a shimmering hotel that looked like something out of a Wes Anderson movie, with a touch of wedding cake. “Is this real?,” we thought, as we tried not to collapse from jet lag.

That’s how Venice became our magical place.

Every September for four years, from 2015 to 2018, we vanished into the wonderment. Kate, a film lover in her own right, was given a badge as my guest; together we watched the Biennale college films, an eclectic bunch that matched Kate’s adventurous tastes. We saw countless other films: “The Shape of Water,” “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” “First Man,” “Mother!,” “Dawson City: Frozen Time,” “Beasts of No Nation.” I filed my columns to my editor at the Dallas Morning News. We enjoyed the companionship of the other regular panelists, including Stephanie Zacharek, Glenn Kenny, David Bordwell, Michael Phillips, and LaSalle. And we always made sure to get off the Lido, the island where the festival was headquartered, and explore the other islands, especially San Marco, with its ancient architecture and enchanting corridors.

Glenn Kenny, Kate Park and Chris Vognar at the 2018 Venice Film Festival (photo credit: David Bordwell)

My sense of fulfillment was twofold. I was knee-deep in the world’s oldest film festival, the annual start of the prestige film season. And I was sharing an intoxicating part of Europe with the woman I loved, falling deeper into that love with this shared experience. We tore into uncut pizzas with our bare hands. There was the time she banged her elbow getting on the waterbus, and I marched into a fancy hotel and demanded some ice. She looked at me like I had saved her life. It made me feel whole.

Kate had given me a life over the previous eight years, a feeling of trust and safety and love I had never experienced. She filled me with the best kind of wanderlust; her desire to travel was contagious. By taking her to Venice every year, I felt like I was sharing something special with the most generous woman I had ever met.       

We walked the island, making friends with the many cats and dogs we met along the way. We embarked on a quest to find the perfect gelato. I had never spent significant time in Europe before, much less a place where the water is the road and the buildings can tell stories that go back thousands of years. I tried to savor it every year, not sure when it might end. It never occurred to me that I might return without her.

These were the thoughts and memories I carried with me last month as August turned to September, and I boarded a plane from Houston to Venice.

So much had changed.

Kate died last July after an 18-month battle with a progressive brain disease. I was laid off by the Dallas Morning News when the paper basically got rid of its arts department. I descended into an emotional hell from which I didn’t think I could return. Life no longer seemed worth living. But now I was showing signs of life. Grief counseling gave me some hope. My freelance career was picking up. And Cowie, by now a dear friend, wanted to know if I was interested in coming back to Venice.

Kate Park at the 2017 Venice Film Festival (photo credit: Chris Vognar)

The question gave me pause. Between grief and COVID, I hadn’t gone anywhere since Kate got sick, and I didn’t know if I could. She was my co-pilot in everything, especially travel. She taught me the fine art of packing and made sure I procured TSA precheck status to get us through security faster. She booked all of our Airbnb stays. Plus, this was Venice, our magical place. Was I allowed to go by myself? My stomach tightened every time I thought about it. It would be much easier to stay grounded and follow the action on Twitter, holding my memories with Kate close to my heart.

But every time I asked someone, I’d get the same response: She would want you to go. She wants you to live a fulfilled life. As Peter wrote in an email, “I feel that Kate would encourage you to return to the site of some of your happiest times together.” Other times, friends would say, “She’ll be right there with you, so of course she wants you to go.” Would she ever miss a trip to Venice? Anyway, it will be a growth experience. You’ll come back stronger. To which I thought: Yes, but at what emotional cost?  

I made the decision before I could change my mind. The festival booked my plane ticket, and reserved my hotel room. I actually began to think about some of the films that would premiere there. The new Almodovar film, “Parallel Mothers.” “Dune.“ The new Leonard Cohen doc. All six of the Biennale College films, always an adventurous treat. Am I really doing this? Yes, it would appear so.

The former Texas Monthly editor Gregory Curtis recently wrote a memoir called Paris Without Her. Curtis and his wife, Tracy, made Paris their magical place over many visits and many years. When Tracy died of cancer, Curtis wasn’t sure he could ever go back. But go back he did, embracing the experience to the extent that he ended up studying French at the Sorbonne. If he could do that, then certainly I could do this.

I had my first sobbing attack on the flight over, something about the long solo flight reminding me of her absence’s finality. This would be tough. I landed in Venice in the early afternoon and allowed myself to relax during the familiar water taxi ride to the island, the spray kissing my face. I talked to Kate in my mind. “We’re here.”

I soon realized I’d be in a different hotel from the one at which Kate and I stayed. This was good. We loved that hotel. Kate was especially fond of the abundant breakfast buffet, laid out every morning with great panache. It wouldn’t feel right staying there, and eating there, without her. I quickly ran into my fellow American panelists, a smaller contingent than usual, just me, Glenn and Stephanie. The others, for various reasons, couldn’t make it.                  

The thing about Kate is that everyone loves her. Glenn, Stephanie, and Peter all adored her, her authenticity and optimism. They knew my situation, and grieved for both of us. Glenn in particular has been a rock for me over the past year or so, offering no-nonsense encouragement and support. I knew I would be among friends. But film festivals can be lonely under even the best of circumstances. You spend much of your time in dark theaters and hotel rooms. You have a lot of time to think and feel.

Michael Phillips, Chris Vognar and Kate Park at the 2016 Venice Film Festival (photo credit: Michael Phillips)

I did OK the first day. I made it to my morning screenings. I loved the Almodovar film. I hadn’t even cried since the flight over. Then I went to see the Leonard Cohen documentary. I hit a wall. Every time someone in the film started performing “Hallelujah” I turned into a quivering mess. This was an issue, as the name of the film is “Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, a Journey, a Song.” Some songs are just inherently emotional. This is one of them. Part of me must have known what I was getting into with Cohen, but I chose to see the film anyway. Somehow I made it through the screening. I stumbled out of the theater and walked back to the hotel, up a lovely narrow street that Kate and I had traversed dozens of times. More tears. I said a word of thanks that no one was around.

At the height of my grief I was barely able to process film or music. We consume art largely for the emotional stimulus, and emotional stimulus was something I strenuously avoided for about a year. Thankfully I moved beyond this period. But given the right (or wrong) circumstances, I was still capable of shutting down. I didn’t see anywhere near the number of films I usually see at a festival. Actually, I spent a lot of time in bed. I was emotionally exhausted and overwhelmed by the whole experience.  

The week went by in a teary blur. I saw the Biennale College films I’d be discussing on the panel. The panel itself went off without a hitch; I was able to perform in the moment. I enjoyed a meal with several of my colleagues. And then, wrung out, I was ready to go home, uncertain whether or not I had made the right decision in attending.

International flights are always surreal; time disappears, and you get a chance to hit a hard reset. I made it home and collapsed for ten hours, and tried to make sense of where I’d been.

Then, something unexpected. As I settled back into my life and my work, I did begin to feel strong. Maybe even confident, at least for a while. I had gone somewhere, and done something, that required courage. I had seen my peers and taken a leap back into my professional identity. I had accepted the fear, and the sadness, and kept going. This is what I constantly hear Kate telling me: “Keep going.” I had heard her. I knew she was proud of me for returning to the scene of our joy. And, yes, she was probably happy to be there with me.     

Would I do it again? Yes, I would. Getting through grief requires tangible acts of progress. And returning to Venice was a tangible act of love, and of remembrance. My friends were right. Kate did want me to go back, and hopefully more than once. Who am I to say no?

Besides, it’s Venice. Who doesn’t want to go to Venice? 


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