Thursday, October 25, 2012

Szymon Choynowski obituary

Szymon Choynowski (Simon Chase) in 1986
I just got word that Szymon Choynowski, aka "Simon Chase" died in November (2011) in Mexico City where he'd resided for that past fifteen years or so. Szymon was a deeply private person and rarely shared personal information with anyone. I feel privileged that I had become his friend and that he had re-established contact with me in the last year of his life. He was born in Poland and moved with his parents to America in 1967. I recall him talking about the Expo in Montreal, one of the first North American experiences he had. I'm not sure how much time he spent in Canada in 1967, perhaps only days, perhaps longer, but it had a lasting impact on him. Eventually his parents took up residence in Mexico City and Szymon studied filmmaking in California. Shortly after the completion of his MFA at southern California, I think it was at Cal Arts (thanks for correction Amnon ), he saw an advertisement for a job teaching in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada. He applied and was given a phone interview by Terry Marner who then hired him. Szymon put all of his worldly possessions into his car (a Volvo I believe) and drove from California to Regina to become a professor in the Film and Video Department at the University of Regina. That was probably 1982 or 1983. He bought a house near the south end of the city, a flat roofed bungalow off the main bus routes since he didn't want to see people too often. He was very popular with the students, bringing in strange cult films he'd studied in California, using comic books as references, and listening and caring about people's ideas. I took a class from him in the summer of 1984. He hosted a Christmas party within the UofR film department that Christmas, wiring speakers and coloured lights between a number of the classrooms and work rooms, There will likely never be another party like it inside of the University. One student was fire breathing, the bar flowed freely, and the students bonded like never before. Somehow over that next year, we became friends. The politics at the university were hard on Szymon. He felt that the film department head was using him in bizarre political fights with the other fine arts departments. He was in the middle of things but given no respect. Szymon told me that he liked to be anonymous  to be able to go to public places and just blend in and be invisible. However, after a couple of years of teaching, he began to encounter people who knew him almost everywhere he went. He began to withdraw from social gatherings. He covered his house windows with aluminum foil, partially to subdue the light, but primarily to disguise his presence from people outside. He rarely answered his phone. The only reason I knew we were friends was that, on occasion  he answered when I began talking on his machine. He even called me. We used to go to diners for breakfast or cafes for deserts. I drove because he had sold his car. In 1986, when the university finally offered him tenure, to promptly resigned. I helped him with his garage sale as he tried to rid himself of material and become portable again. His massive record collection which contains such treasures as an obsessively complete set of every T-Rex recording, was sold to collectors. His porn was cataloged by year and sold in bundles at the garage sale. Richard Kerr, Szymon's replacement at the university, arrived in Regina during the garage sale and came to it (my first meeting with Richard). One of the only times he allowed me to bring a camera into his house was when the courier was scheduled to take his stuff (see above, my only clear photo of Szymon). A few days later, Szymon got on a plane and flew to Montreal. The next few years I only knew of his activities through people like John McCullough with whom he'd been in a band while in Regina (they once played at the UofR student bar, The Owl, and were kicked off the stage during a ten minute performance of one chord). Through John, or perhaps someone else, I was told that Szymon looked at Regina receding into the distance through the plane window and fell into uncontrollable laughter. However, Montreal French didn't come easily to Szymon and he moved within about a year to Vancouver where he lived for a few years. He worked at a company that sold professional electronics of some nature, going by the easier to spell name "Simon Chase". Sometime in the 1990s, his parents became sick and he returned to Mexico City to care for them. After they passed away, he stayed there, always a foreigner  never mixing in. Most information about him ended until he emailed me in February 2011. His letter begins

 "Dear Gerald,  I have wanted to write to you for well over 20 years. Why didn't I? Well, I suppose for the same reason that I haven't done much of anything.I really don't want to tell you about my life, because it is best left not mentioned."

Szymon in 1973 courtesy Elin Emilsson
Szymon suffered from what he called a "Borderline Personality Disorder" and his last message to me on November 3, 2011, although in many ways far more positive than the February message, hinted again at suicide. He never wrote to me again. His friend, Mark Bloom, informed today that Szymon died in November. I did not ask how, I don't want to know. He wouldn't have wanted me to know.

In April, 2014, the following photos of Szymon and his mother were sent to me by his friend Paulina Carlisle of Michigan:
Szymon Choynowski, early grade school
Szymon's mother

Szymon Choynowski, "a few years back" (2005-2010?)
"Here's one from a few years back of Simon, his mum and Lupe, their housekeeper.   I love his glasses... I have a vintage pair of Nicole Miller sunglasses with  frames the colour of orange sherbet ... one sunny day I was out and about driving and had those on .... and T-Rex (Get It On / Bang a Gong) came on the radio ...    I was suddenly washed over by a good, carefree and almost other-worldly  feeling and a thought:   "this moment IS Simon" ... he was quite into mod fashion and of course T-Rex ..and for some reason that perfect moment on that perfect day  FELT like Simon in a way.   Either you understand OR maybe think I'm nuts!!  I have a feeling it's the former."  Paulina Carlisle, April 4, 2014
Szymon as child, always loving animals

Szymon as teenager? and potential rock star

Szymon Choynowski in his 40s?

Szymon's parents, Mieczyslaw and Hanna Choynowski

Szymon's mother in newspaper for art exhibition

Szymon, sometime after 2000


Amnon Buchbinder said...

Thanks for this post, Gerald, and sorry to hear about it. I met Szymon at Cal Arts (not CalTech) when I arrived there in 1979 -- he trained me for my job as a projectionist, was my first real friend there, and I hung out with him continuously for much of that first year and first discovered the extremely vital environment of Cal Arts through his scabrous sensibility; he was like a dark Polish cloud railing against everything that was phoney, light, and overly cheery in the California sunshine. I can add/correct a few things: he went to Regina in 1982 (I know because he came to Cal Arts for graduation in 1983 and grabbed me by the throat and shook me and said, "why didn't you tell me about Regina??" -- I being the lone Canadian in the film program at Cal Arts was expected to have "known" about Regina, but I had never been there. He had written to every single film program in North America, he told me, looking for a faculty position.). His car was a VW bug, at least in those days (it broke down twice when I was in it, Szymon insisted this could not have been a coincidence and never let me in it again). Szymon was one of the smartest, most obsessive, people I've known; he was a terrifically warm friend and yet also (as your post notes) violently anti-social. He had a great sense of humor and his harsh judgments of others were somehow always leavened by that and by his frank admission of his own weirdness. He also frequently made me see things in a new way, taking childlike delight (and just as often horror) in things others didn't even notice. Our paths crossed again in Vancouver; he arrived shortly before I left, and he helped my wife and I with an epic garage sale.
My last contact with him was a few years ago. I had been involved with a Blu-Ray the BFI put out of our mutual teacher's one feature film, and wrote the program note for the booklet. Szymon emailed me out of the blue with a hair-curling, invective-filled attack, accusing me of turning the whole thing into my own ego trip. It was so over-the-top I couldn't be offended, and when I wrote back and patiently corrected his assumptions he became instantly friendly again and I realized that it had actually been in its way a love letter. It was as though he had to test people with his negativity just as he used it to protect himself. Simon was one of the most honest people I've ever known. I'm sorry he's gone from the world.

Angelos Hatzitolios said...

I am very sad to hear about Szymon, he was practically the first person I met when I enrolled at UofR. I very vividly remember his Christmas party, the afternoon before the party he approached me and whoever else was hanging around the film dept and said “come help me with something” So he enlisted us to help him set up some movie lights with gels, the sound system and a number of video monitors on which were played a wired and wonderful mix of odd newsfootage, archival film, short films, and any number of things Szymon had collected over time. It really was like a scene out of a movie.
It seemed like in the months after the party Szymon relaxed a bit, he realized maybe we weren’t too insufferable after all and occasionally came turn up to a screening or coming out for coffee or a drink. But after a time he retreated and pretty much disappeared again.
A few days before he left he phoned me out of the blue and asked if I would mind driving him around to do some errands. I agreed and turned up at his house a short time later, as a joke I brought a video camera with me. The moment he saw the camera he slammed the door in my face. I said we should do small interview to remember him by but he refused and wouldn’t open the door unless I handed over the camera to him. He let me in and he promptly took the camera and erased the tape. I hadn’t really expected differently. But as we drove around that afternoon Szymon began to talk about, growing up in Poland, getting interested in film, going to Cal Arts, a bit about his parents. Nothing earth shattering, the kind of things anyone might talk about but for him it was positively extroverted.
I remember his garage sale, I came by hung out there for a while as people drifted by and former students came by to say good bye. He really did make the experience at Uof R interesting and positive, and I’m glad to have known him.

Unknown said...

A few years ago I started wearing cowboy boots to school on Fridays. Today, I stumbled onto Gerald’s blog and announcement about Szymon. I found this blog while looking for the correct spelling of his name online. I was looking for the correct spelling because I found a former student and wanted to know if she knew of his whereabouts. Now I know what happened to him, sort of.
I met Szymon in the winter of 1985 in my Film 200 class. I never felt so much like a filmmaker as when in his class, shooting super 8 and unspooling it onto the wall. I spent four years at the school and never had a shitty professor. Choynowski, Gallagher, Kerr, Baumann, yet Szymon remained my favourite. I learned many things from him but most of all I felt heard. He was a great listener. I never felt judged by anything I showed in class or spoke of in his presence. He seemed to be interested in what I was thinking (and perhaps amused by my small town imaginations).
I recall the Christmas party. What an event for all of us to remember! I’m not sure how much I participated in the setup but I do recall running RF cables through the suspended ceiling from room to room for the video. And am I the only one who recalls there being a Twister game on the floor!
Borderline Personality Disorder? I think Szymon would be just fine with dropping the word borderline from that self-assessment. There was much charm in his idiosyncratic ways. Can anyone confirm that he always wore the same clothes to school? Cowboy boots, black; corduroy jeans, black; dress shirt, red and black plaid; crew neck sweater, black.
One day, I asked Szymon if I could see some of his films. He was hesitant yet I don’t recall needing to construct an argument. He agreed to screen the work on one condition and that was that once I started to watch the films I had to stay until the end. I was with Rob Ramage and Szymon set us up in a small editing room with a TV and a ¾ U-matic player (he may have locked us into the room, I’m not sure).
The first film was a black and white 16mm silent film shot in and around a swimming pooling in some place much warmer than Saskatchewan. Most of the characters had fabric or handkerchiefs over their faces. The film was short… maybe 10 minutes and had nudity…ooh la la!
The second piece was a video project shot in Saskatchewan. It had a male character driving around summer-time Regina, no dialogue and it ended with some woman cutting out her heart and wrapping it in velvet or putting it into a box. Don Hall played the main character. Don Hall driving around (a lot) and this strange organ removal scene at the end. Running time on that film was 60 minutes. It tried my patience but I was compelled. After, he would not discuss the work.
Some years later I was in Vancouver and walked into an electronic store to look at video cameras. Coincidently I was with Rob Ramage who had moved out there some time prior. I heard: “Hello Roy, hello Rob”. Szymon was now Simon. He handed us his new business card. I asked him if he was ever going to make another film. He said he might take out a video camera someday and shoot something. I told him I was working on a feature and he said he would be very curious to see the film once it was complete. Then he said he always knew I would end up doing something interesting in film. That comment warmed my heart.
I don’t think I had the same relationship as some other students. We never socialized or corresponded. I didn’t call him on the phone. I did buy some books at his garage sale and a salad spinner. That white plastic tub traveled to Banff and then Montreal and was affectionately referred to in my home as the Szymon Spinner.
As a film professor, I strive to be the teacher I always wanted as a student. I work hard to be supportive, attentive, non-judgmental, and authentic. Szymon was all of those and it might be that I emulate him more than I know. Did I mention that I started wearing cowboy boots to school on Fridays?

We were lucky to have him and know him. Thanks for posting this notice Gerald.

elinez said...

Dear Gerald,
I am a friend of Simon's from High School. Some of my friends from that time (graduated in 1973), were wondering about him and I decided to look him up. I had done this on several occasions, but I guess I hadn't done it since before Nov 2011 when you posted this extremely sad piece of news with such a sensitive and precise rendering of Simon and his personality. What you describe is EXACTLY how we perceived him in our high school days. He and I would talk about anything and everything and his points of view were always very interesting and to the point. He was a great listener, and I happen to be one too, so we listened to each other and shared lovely times. We were both The Lord of the Rings fans, long before the trilogy, and discussed extensively how it could and should be made into a movie. I wonder what he though of Peter Jackson's version. I personally was very satisfied.
I am so sorry to know now that I could have seen him in Mexico and I wish I had been able to trace him before. Why do I think things could have worked out differently for him?
Thank you again for your lovely words about an amazing person. The comments you have provoked also testify to this amazing person.

elinez said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
elinez said...

Hi, one question: I would very much like to contact Mark Bloom. Would it be possible to relay this message to him? Thank you!

Gerald Saul said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
elinez said...

I hope this photo does get copied. My technical expertise is limited.
This is the Simon I know. That far away, sad look, always intense and always captivating, with a King Crimson album under his arm.

Juan Garcia said...

I had the pleasure of meeting Szymon in Mexico, the most current photographs of him exposed in the blog are of my authorship. In those years he bought him several pieces of work picotorico her mom and I would like to share some images. If possible to mail delivery information

Gerald Saul said...

Hello Juan, I would be very pleased to see and to post other photos and stories that you might have of Szymon. If you wish to contact me directly, my email is

Unknown said...

I also met Szymon in High School. We both graduated in 1973. I also have search for him on several occasions. I remember him just as in the photo that Elinez posted. I remember spending many afternoons at his parent's apartment and in his room listing to music and talking about everything under the sun. He was a reserve but his brilliance always shined. He will be missed.

Ed Dorsey said...

I knew Szymon at CalArts, as an undergrad. He in film, I in music composition. We both had jobs in the dorm. He was a character. I did not think of him for a long time, until tonight, while watching a Canadian movie (not a good one, but even things like that can jog one's memory in unexpected ways. I remember him moving to Canada and we communicated a few times after that, but then time passes and there it is. I knew about the parents in Mexico part and I remember that CalArts let him stay at CalArts to get an MFA by not graduating him for his BFA so that he didn't have to struggle with student visas and such. CalArts treated him very well in that regard. I also remember it had been years since he last saw his parents because of visa issues and such as well. I believe he was unable to see his parents until after he got the gig in Canada. He wrote me about it. I am not a saver of things, like letters, but I can say that if I was that kind of person, I would have saved that letter.

I wasn't expecting him to be no longer with us, but it was nice to see the photos because I do remember him that way. I forgot about the T-Rex stuff, though I remember he liked King Crimson, but the porn I knew about. I could handle that stuff because it just seemed silly to me. I am okay with silly.

So, I could say more, but I feel a little put out seeing now that he has passed. It wasn't what I expected, but I can say the stories told here fit my memory of him. He and I had a pretty good time, maybe because I found him intelligent and not phony. Maybe he complained a bit now and then, but if that was a reason to say something negative, I wouldn't have much good to say about anyone. I have good memories of Szymon. I will stick with those and not try to find out why he is gone. said...

I was a Fine Arts student at the University of Regina and took two film classes with Szymon. The second class was a "special studies" class and I was the only student. Basically it was me working to assist him in shooting a film. We scouted talent for the shoot, locations, arranged props etc. I can't remember the name of the film except it started with Meta....
At that time he was driving a Volvo station wagon. During the winter the car had a fire due to the block heater and burned out the front passenger seat. Szymon introduced me to Joy Division.
I knew about him being born in Poland and living in Mexico and going to University in California. He told me he learned to speak English from Peanuts comics, and he thought yelling "you blockhead" at other students was appropriate. In reality, although probably not looked upon as "normal" behavior, I'm sure some of the other students were in fact blockheads!!
The ironic thing is that his awkwardness made me feel less awkward. I set my initial film project to Marianne Faithful's song "I Feel Guilt". He asked me what I felt guilty about, everything I answered. No further discussion because I felt he understood that answer.
I truly hope but doubt he knew how much he was cared about.
I enjoyed the extra pictures that have been added.

Anonymous said...

Gerald- thank you for the detailed information and photos.

I met Szymon at Cal Arts. We became good friends and stayed in touch for many years. Reading this has brought back strong memories and emotions. He was a very unique individual.