One day, one thing gone

21 10 2012

What happens when you lose the one thing you thought you couldn’t live without?


I suspect everyone has a “one thing” they consider irreplaceable.
A spouse.
A dog.
A career.
A belief.
In some instances, maybe a car.

Something you believe that, once lost, can never be replaced. And even if something ever happens to potentially take its place, there would still be such a huge gaping hole in your life that you just wouldnt be able to get over it.

For me, my one thing was my childhood home. For thirty years it was unarguably my place of comfort. No matter where I travelled in my 20s, I always has the sweet sense that I could go home anytime, finding the big, barn-like house unchanged. When I lived in Etobicoke, Toronto, surrounded by industrial buildings and drab, low-income housing, buzzed by airplanes day and night, I was comforted knowing that back home, there were green rolling hills all year round and raspberry bushes bursting with berries in spring and blackberries in summer and coyotes howling all night long. No matter how far I went and how dreary my present circumstances, that was still there.


I carried the ideal of the farmhouse’s beauty with me everywhere. In Palestine and Israel, exploring the countryside and climbing Syrian hills, I contrasted its desert and rock-blasted landscapes with my home terrain. In Paris, I admired the layout of the arrondissements but decided I couldn’t get used to living that close to neighbours, with that little space. In Nunavut I ached with the beauty of white upon white land and seascapes, but longed for the greens of home. In China I was blown away by the Heavenly Mountains, but knew the view from my bedroom window of the distant Rockies was far more satisfying. There is nothing like travelling far to find you love best the land that you grew up exploring.

I was steeped in the farmhouse lore: how the planks for the curving staircase were once part of a dock, and its pillars, worm-ringed and knotty, had been reclaimed from a pier being torn down; that the upstairs windows came from a 100-year old Catholic church; that the original builder, a fireman, had installed a fireplace that wasn’t up to code and my parents had had to replace it.


It wasn’t the memories of the times I’d spent there, the Christmases with family, the parties and dinners I’d hosted, that kept me attached to the old homestead. I’d had fun there, countless bonfires around which beers were consumed and cloves smoked, berries picked and thrown and baked, gardens planted and harvested, people blessed and welcomed with hospitality and joy. It was more a sense of attachment to the place itself than to what happened to me there. Perhaps you can’t distinguish one from the other. But I felt I belonged there in a way I didn’t anywhere else in the world. The landscape was part of me, and I couldn’t live without it.

Or at least that’s what I believed.

Until I was uprooted against my will, I didn’t think i could be happy anywhere else. Until I moved to a little island with a little cabin by the sea, a warm stove and a room to turn into an edit suite, I didn’t think I could call anywhere else home. At least, not three weeks after the trauma of uprooting!

But that’s exactly what happened. I lost my “one thing”, thought the world was going to end, wailed and protested at length to anyone who would listen, made a “last film”, “last canning session”, “last pie”, “last garden walk through”, “last picture”, “last cry” and I finally walked away and I was… fine.

I am absolutely still fine. In fact, I think I’m better than ever, but what has happened since walking away from the farm is another story.

The point is, I only thought I needed a homebase, and I just made myself miserable for months thinking I was losing it. The truth is, I’m an adventurer. I love to explore. I am made for travel and transplants and new root systems every few years. It was shocking, really, to see how quickly I for used to the idea of living elsewhere, of loving being elsewhere, and let the ideal I held of the farm just… go.

That’s what happened when I lost my one thing. What happened to you when you lost yours?

Comments welcome.









NFB playlists

28 02 2011

NFB playlists1
I recently spent a morning browsing the NFB’s excellent resource of film playlists. The playlists have been a feature of the new website since it launched in January 2009. Invited guests and their own staff have grouped together films around themes ranging from the powerful to the whimsical, the obvious to the obscure.

I have one conclusion…. You can get lost in there! The only way I can justify spending hours watching ten of these films at a time, is by rationalizing that it’s the duty of every young filmmaker to see the work of filmmakers that have gone before them.

Thanks to the playlists, it becomes a delightful chore. They are a useful tool for whittling down the wonderful selection of films available on the website. They also provide insight into the making-of certain films and in some cases, the historical context that otherwise would be lost to someone of my generation.

NFB Roche playlist
The NFB’s Guest Playlists include film groupings by the following people, some of whom are in-house producers and filmmakers:

* Douglas Roche: The Strength of Peace (Magnus’ film Uranium, Terry Nash’s If You Love This Planet, and Martin Duckworth’s Return to Dresden are included in this list)

* Tre Armstrong: Dance, Music and Passion

* Donald McWilliams: Norman McLaren: Hands-on Animation

* Colin Low: Recollections from a Distinguished Career

* Alanis Obomsawin: a Retrospective

* Gil Cardinal: The Aboriginal Voice

* Katerina Cizek: Manifesto for interventionist Media

* Thomas Waugh, Ezra Winton and Michael Baker: Challenge for Change

* Adam Symansky: Donald Brittain

The guest authors of their collections take one of two approaches in their selections: either they focus on a theme or a particular filmmaker. Cizek’s playlist brings together 11 films on “the philosophy and practice of ‘Art as a Hammer’.” Her picks range from 1944’s short Democracy at Work to 2008’s RiP! A Remix Manifesto.

NFB symansky playlist

Symansky’s collection brings together eight Donald Brittain films, each written up with a personal recollection of Symansky’s about the “making of” of the film. The writing alone is an invaluable resource for younger filmmakers like myself.

In the NFB’s Expert Playlists, their resident collections expert, Albert Ohayon, put together six useful lists:

* 10 Great Films from the last decade you may not have seen

* The 1960s: An Explosion of Creativity

* The 1950s: Television and the Move to Montreal

* Canada’s Diverse Cultures

* Bill Mason: Beyond the wild, beyond the paddle

And finally, the Thematic Playlists comprise almost sixty collections of films and clips, intriguing because there’s such a huge variety. Where else can you access groupings ranging from ‘Winter Sports Movies” to “Canada’s got Treasures!”?

Treasures indeed.

Storytelling from the fringe

6 12 2010

“Fringe” is a word I used to dislike very much. Maybe because I’m too conservative…? Traditional? Or maybe because I’m the kind of gal who likes to include everybody. Why should we celebrate “fringe” unless we want to practice exclusion as a society? No one should be on the fringes of community!

However, my gripe with “fringe” is possibly the very reason I’m working to become a documentary filmmaker. This is what causes me to go to those the mainstream considers “on the outside” and invite them in, by letting them tell their story to a wider audience who might not otherwise get to hear it.

Telling your story is a powerful way to invite people into your life. Through storytelling, others are invited into your conversation, and you grow into their community. Memoirs, first-person narratives, personal documentary journeys – these could all be just as easily defined as “testimonials” because they testify to where we’ve been, and who we become through the individual circumstances in our lives.

With that in mind – and because it was free, thanks UBC Dialogues! – I attended a panel discussion on “Storytelling from the Fringe” Saturday at the Whistler Film Festival. You want to hear about the juicy scoop on the films don’t you? Well, sorry to disappoint, I didn’t see a single one.

Saturday night’s film A Life Ascending directed by Stephen Grynberg was sold out, and I wasn’t into seeing the German thriller The Silence, although it looks very good. So no movies for me in Whistler, however I did go later that evening to see the striking film Fair Game in a Vancouver theatre – the fascinating account of Valerie Plame being outed as a CIA agent by the Bush administration, and the “discovery” of non-existent WMD that lead to the Iraq war.)

But here’s a good roundup of the fest. I was happy to note that the one film I would have liked to see again after watching it at Hot Docs, Marwencol, won a $2,500 documentary award for “an intimate portrait of an artist who lives between fantasy and reality and whose miniaturized world magnifies our own.”

It’s an incredible film, a fascinating portrait of an artist using toys in to-scale human dramas to deal with the psychological aftermath he lives with after receiving a vicious beating. Here’s an interview with director Jeff Malmberg.

But back to what I did see…

Documentary directors Gwen Haworth (Not Kokura and She’s a Boy I Knew), Nettie Wild (director of A Rustling of Leaves: Inside the Philippine Revolution (1988), Blockade (1993), A Place Called Chiapas (1998), and Fix: The Story of an Addicted City (2002 ) and experimental video artist Daniel Cockburn talked about their experiences in making films “from the fringe.”

In Nettie and Gwen’s case they spoke about filming subjects who are often marginalized from the mainstream, and in Daniel’s case, about his extremely experimental films which – for most people – kind of defines “fringe”, even though he himself was reluctant to subscribe to the term. I’m going to focus on what Nettie had to say because her approach is closest to the kinds of stories I want to tell. And as a sought-after mentor in documentary film who has worked the longest term of the three as a filmmaker, she has a lot of wisdom to offer.

Nettie said that every day she’s filming or editing, she has to ask herself: “Why on earth am I doing this?” She said she is aware that she comes as an outsider to her documentary subjects. Whether in the Chiapas, the Phillipines, or a relationship between a drug addict and a non-user on Vancouver’s streets, Nettie gains access to a world she doesn’t come from through trust and friendship. But it can only go so far. She knows she can only “walk alongside” these people in order to tell their story – which she describes as “high stakes dramas” – and is only allowed as deep as her subjects will take her.

The answer to her question though, is the people themselves who trust her with their stories. Because they’ve been courageous enough to open up and make themselves vulnerable to a perfect stranger, she has an obligation to fulfill, a film to make. This is also why Nettie says she works for a full year following the release of any of her films to ensure it gets as wide a distribution as possible. This is to honour her unspoken contract with her subjects: they let her into their lives and in return she works hard to bring the story to the public, right next to the blockbuster showing at Cineplex.

In Nettie’s case, it seems the “fringe” element is the classic reason documentarians exist: to bring the stories of life on the lonely edges of what we know into the light of the known and acknowledged. (There’s a new book out about Nettie and her films from Anvil Press, and a retrospective of her work will be showing January 15 – 17 at the Pacific Cinematique.)

While Nettie’s stories tend to use a linear, direct-line narrative, Daniel’s experimental videos are far from linear. It took him about 3.5 minutes to explain his latest film You are here to the audience, and even then he had to say the film never makes it clear where the story is set or how his characters are related. In his case, the unconventional mediums Daniel uses to encase his stories is the “fringe” element. (Click here for a good interview with the director about the film.)

Gwen’s perspective as a filmmaker from the fringes is very different yet again.

Her up-close and personal documentary film She’s a boy I knew is an “ethnographic autobio pic” of her family and ex-wife’s experiences and emotions as the filmmaker underwent gender reassignment from male to female. In this case, the subject matter is the fringe area.

Gwen spoke about her determination to honour the voices of those making themselves vulnerable to the camera – her father, mother, sister, best friend and ex-wife – and spoke about how she strove not to centre the film around her life as a transsexual lesbian.

I thought Gwen’s comments were powerful because the tendency in filmmaking is to focus the action on the “hero” – the classic protagonist-going-through-fire. In this case the principal actor chose to truly tell this story from the fringes, from the perspective of those around her.

So far… I have to say that compared to these folk, my storytelling from the fringes has been limited thus far. But there are a few: about a Young Man who decides to quit life on the streets and his home in a Montreal squat, a Woman whose faith goes counter to ordinary human logic as she bucks the odds and brings healing through horsemanship to the “lost children of the earth”, and a couple of Trappers in northeastern BC who love the bush and animals enough to get risk getting involved in the regulatory system around oil and gas extraction.

More on that story to come…

Industry jobs are open for former oil and gas ministry underlings

11 10 2010

The Tyee and The Public Eye report this week a third case of a senior energy, mines and petroleum resources’ ministry official going “directly from being on the province’s payroll to working for a major petroleum interest.”

Michael Lambert was a former executive director of strategic initiatives for the ministry’s oil and gas division. According to his job description, he’d been responsible for developing laws and policies to “facilitate natural gas development opportunities.” Now he’s working for Encana, a major pipeline player in northeastern B.C.

In an interview with Public Eye, Lambert said one of his principle tasks at the ministry “was working on the new Oil and Gas Activities Act’s environmental protection and management regulation. “Industry, of course, would have wanted the lightest environmental reg possible, I suppose,” he commented. “That’s not what they got.”

The former bureaucrat said he was in contact with the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers during the consultation process for that regulation. But “everybody had a say and often a conflicting say,” including the natural gas producer he’s now working for: Encana Inc. Although he stressed the firm didn’t have any “undue influence.”

Lambert said cutbacks at the ministry convinced him to compete to be an environment land use planning advisor for Encana, one of several companies moving to develop British Columbia’s Horn River Basin — Canada’s largest shale gas field.” (from The Tyee and Public Eye, by Sean Holman)

Interesting, no? Or maybe it’s not a conflict of interest at all that someone would go directly from working for the government to create a new Act to regulate the oil and gas industry, to being hired by the industry itself to implement those same regulations.

I don’t know. Someone tell me I’m not seeing a plain ol’ case of regulatory capture here.

The Act itself is hardly newsworthy. Reading through it, I get the impression the OGC just wants to make doubly sure they have done due diligence in advising oil and gas companies to:

1. Communicate with “affected parties”

2. reduce to plain English the highly technical terms if their extraction processes

3. Reply to the questions and concerns of affected parties

4. Fill out the appropriate reams of paperwork to prove they have done so that….

they can get their seal of approval from the Commission and a pat on the back for all their consultative pains.

The interesting part of the new Act I found was under the “Guidelines for Consultation and Notification | October 2010.” Here, the Commission advises the Company to inform themselves of “best practices for engagement … in the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers’ Guide for Effective Public Involvement, available at”

CAPP is "the voice of Canada's upstream oil, oil sands and natural gas industry."


Is the ministry/Commission/government really that involved they would actually suggest the company to check with their own lobby group’s handbook for dealing with landowners?

Who is regulating who?

The Last Great Water Fight

22 09 2010

The Mackenzie headwaters, photo by Garth Lenz

Surprise surprise… or rather it shouldn’t be a surprise that The Walrus magazine’s biggest feature this month is about the tug-of-war between the environment and industry in Canada’s great north. Water, Site C dam on the Peace, the as-yet-unspoiled Mackenzie River, Albert’s water-guzzling oilsands, the watershed of the Great Bear Lake – it’s all there.

Environmental questions are becoming ever more crystallized through the lens of human survival, rather than seen as just another hippy pastime or an earthlover’s out-of-touch plea. It’s become about whether we will be able to survive the onslaught of natural disasters that are coming as a result of our cultural love of consumption.

I read the article and wept. It already feels too late.

CAEPLA and craziness in the Peace

7 09 2010

EnCana natural gas pipeline

I think I’ll become an evangelist soon… or (God, no!!) an activist. The longer I stay in the Peace river region, the more I become infected with this crazy desire to make a movie about it. This whole sordid oil and gas mess makes me want to grab a camera and record everything – everything!

I got a chance to speak tonight to the head of CAEPLA (Canadian Association of Energy and Pipeline Landowner Associations), Dave Core, and I’m thankful – and blown away – by the scope he brings to the picture. I’ve been talking to farmers and landowners and trappers all around Farmington, Fort St. John, Rolla and Dawson Creek for a little under two weeks now, and while the stories are consistent and troubling, I didn’t have a holistic view of what is happening, and why, until we spoke.

Dave has been involved with a number of precedent-setting cases where a little group of landowners concerned for their land stood up to Big Oil and Gas and the National Energy Board, and won. They didn’t stop development on their land altogether – they’re not anti-development – but they did win some decent concessions that forced the oil and gas companies to acknowledge that landowners deserve to be treated fairly.

Dave told me enough stories and case studies that I feel more up to speed on what has been happening across the country. What concerns this post though, is how bad things are up in northeastern B.C., and if you believe the man who’s been fighting for responsible development for twenty years, according to him it’s as bad as it could get up here. Or worse.

Class 1 farmland, in the BC Peace River region

  • Ontario farmers and landowners at least have the rights to the minerals under their dirt. B.C. landowners don’t have a right to anything other than topsoil or the clay beneath it.
  • The land is actually not theirs to be held in total privacy because, at any time, a seismic imaging crew or a surveyor can come on your land to check it out, and you can’t turn them away.
  • If they find something under that dirt, you can bet a land agent will be at your door, or will start hassling you on the phone, until you sign something that gives the oil or gas company unfettered access to your land.
  • Once a pipeline is in, you can’t move a tractor, a lawnmower, or a bicycle over the line without getting permission from the company.
  • In some cases, they will take up 30 metres on either side of the pipe, in addition to the easement area of 18 metres for a total of 96 metres around that pipe, for however many hundreds of feet it takes up on your land, and you can’t do anything to it. No farming, no haying, no planting.
  • If the company currently taking up space on your land decides to deactivate the pipeline, they simply stop the flow of gas, and leave the pipe in your dirt. To rot. Or possibly cave in. Forever.
  • And if you damage that pipeline for any reason, you’re responsible. You pay. And if you hurt yourself on it, you’re equally liable.

So what does a farmer get for all this inconvenience, for a devalued piece of shit land that now he may not be able to pass on to his grandkids because it’s worthless or contaminated?
Nope, not royalties for the oil or gas passing through those pipes.

Nor a share of the bounty, which in B.C. amounted to $98 million in bonus bids IN AUGUST ALONE, bringing the total of land lease sales to oil and gas companies to $760 million for 2010 so far.

The average farmer might get a few thousand dollars, maybe $6,000, maybe $8,000, as a one-time payout for a lifetime of inconvenience and grief.

The government just announced it’s throwing some more money at the oil and gas companies – $115 million to build roads and infrastructure in underdeveloped areas specifically for oil and gas use. You know what that tells me? More wilderness thuggery, more dead animals, more expansion into B.C.’s bush and watershed.

The more I hear about how this land is being sold up the creek for a few million bags of gold (need to pay off the Olympics much, Mr. Campbell?)…

the more I hear about landowners being flat out lied to by land agents who come to their doors, uninvited, pressuring them to sign contracts that will strip the last of the few rights they have to their land…

the more I hear about out-of-province workers being brought in to do oil and gas work – labour that was promised to the citizens of these towns and villages….

the more I see of the bad roads, high gas and diesel prices, dead deer and moose from the ridiculous number of speeding truckers, driving back from some remote jobsite and eager to get back to the bar and raise hell…

the more I hear… (I just can’t believe what I’m hearing, but these are not the kind of people that would lie to you…)

the more I hear…

the more you’ll hear about it, because it’s not the kind of tiny-potatoes issue I could ignore.

Oh, and for the double blogging joy this week…

7 09 2010

My interview with Kevin McMahon is up on Magnus’ blog Documentary Field Notes and Flash Points today.

If you’ve linked here from there, congratulations, you are a true clicking Jedi.

If you haven’t checked out Magnus’ blog then I strongly urge you to, not just because I assist him with it, but because it’s got some brilliant topics you’re gonna love.

And this week, you should check it out especially just cuz, well, you know. I interviewed a real, live filmmaker and THAT IS PRETTY COOL.

Peace out.

After a long ride to Loyola, my *beloved* Montreal campus, last fall, I was wet. I took a picture. I may not look so pretty and friendly next time we meet, so I thought you should see this.

So long and thanks for all the fish…

5 07 2010

That is the inimitable line from one of Douglas Adam‘s Hitchhiker’s Guide the Galaxy books (I think it’s the fourth in a trilogy of five). My brother Matthew is reading it right now, and it’s a trip down memory lane to pick it up again and dive with childlike delight into one of Adams’ weirdly constructed paragraphs about Ford Prefect and Arthur Dent’s excellent adventures. No one writes like Adams. If you’ve never read it and have any sort of a sense of humour at all, you might consider picking one of his books up for fun. Just leave the custard and sperm whales behind because they tend to get damaged on these trips.

But I digress.

Mist rises from the Niagara Falls high above the constant crowds. We "digressed" with a side trip there so my brother could see the Falls for the first time before heading out West for real.

I feel I’m going back in time because I’m on yet another road trip across the continent. My sixth. One could argue this many trips in ten years is un de trop, but I never get tired of road trips. It’s for a good cause: I need lots of time to think about my reasons for heading back to my native land, British Columbia, after 12 years living and working in Toronto and Montreal, to start my own documentary production company.

Sounds grand doesn’t it? And it is, until you consider the current production climate working directors et al. are suffering though. I believe Canada will fare better than most, although worse than we would have done without Harper at the helm, but still I get the sweats thinking about it.

Why am I starting a production company at this particular time? What am I, a woman of 31 years of age with virtually no field experience, doing, entering this industry at this point in time? When many esteemed directors, producers, sound techs and videographers are grasping for any work they can find? Why?

No one yet knows how to make money from webdocs. No one can figure out distribution figures when everything is being given away for free, and the consumers are now trained to expect everything to be free. No one has figured out how – aside from going to those excellent institutions the NFB/ONF and SODEC and the like – how to get money to make a film. And the only people who are getting THAT kind of money are the already working filmmakers, those who have produced at least two or three decently well-regarded films, and even THEY are having trouble getting the funds together.

I should be running straight back for the hills of Montreal, begging someone for an internship in network TV and moonlighting at McKibbon’s bar, praying there will be a job in 3-5 years when some reporter finally releases their white-knuckled grip on their job and moves on. But I’m heading out West to start editing our first project, a mini-doc about an encounter between Brazil’s orphans and a natural horsewoman.

Why? Because in spectacularly depressing scenarios like this, when everything media-related has been thrown against the wall and all the rules have changed, people can create their own opportunities. I have faith that starting out in the middle of chaos puts everyone on a level field. Chaos even creates an advantage for those who have nothing better to do than grab the tail of opportunity and see what corner they will be whipped around next. I believe that the current climate we’re living through is the most exciting, terrifying, thrilling, open-source, open-ended, adventurous time we’ve seen since New Wave met mullet hairdos. I think that if anyone can tackle this new environment, it’s those people like me, who have nothing to lose and everything to gain by jumping in now.

Tobi has finally found her true function: Amy Minksy holds up the Tobi clothes steamer.

This is a time for the pioneers and time-shapers, the innovators and inventors, the experimenters and the agitators… and the young. I may qualify in only the last category, but that’s good enough for me.

But in the meantime, on the scenic route to the exciting new world of starting a production company in the midst of all this chaos, I’m stuck inside a beige-themed RV, doing nothing much without access to the Internet.

Our trip west is taking the molasses-slow route. With two excellent drivers on board, Matt and my Dad (who never lets me forget that I’ve wrecked 4 cars in a total of 8 accidents) who don’t let me take the wheel for anything, I’m doing a lot of reading. 

Since we left Montreal a week ago I’ve already finished one ENTIRE novel – what a luxury! – Wally Lamb’s The Hour I First Believed, and I’m starting Alexandr Solzhenitsyn’s In the First Circle – the first-time-ever-issued uncensored edition. Other pieces of note: the latest issue of Maisonneuve magazine that features some heavy reading (AI, Singularity theory and the end of humanity) and heavy breathing (how one copy writer almost ended up writing excerpts for hard-core porn videos.)

So long, and see you on the other side.

How beautiful is Canada, hey?

Stories to come..

26 06 2010

I have been extremely remiss in keeping this blog up to date. Not because nothing has been happening, but because… because…

I don’t know.

I guess I’m working on other people’s blogs more than my own! Ha! More on that to come.

I hereby promise to write more regularly and be faithful to my reading public...

In the month+ since the last update I have managed to:

– attend a fancy dinner at Rideau Hall to witness the awarding of the Michener prize for journalism [Linda Gyulai of The Montreal Gazette won for her coverage of corruption in Montreal’s civic politics.] Pics to come.

– finish my three year degree at Concordia University, which took a really circutiuous 5 years, and sit through the correspondingly long convocation ceremony. [The President of Concordia managed to fit into her address a justification for the perpetually broken escalators in the 12-storey Hall building. Something to do with, “We built a brand-new building for the business school, c’mon.” Which is great for business students but not so much for the poli sci and the rest of the student population stuck walking up those escalator stairs in the Hall building.]

Pomp and Circumstance, which I endured fairly well thanks to texting and Twitter.

– assist documentary filmmaker Magnus Isacsson put together proposals seeking funding for some of his upcoming projects. [Learning the art of pitching, writing one-sheets, and arguing the merits of a story you need to know inside and out before you shoot or write a frame.]

– interview documentary filmmaker Kevin McMahon about interactive online docs vs. traditional longform films. [Managed to insult him mildly by referring to his work-in-progress as having to do with nuclear energy, instead of nuclear weapons. The interview will appear on Magnus’ blog Documentary Fieldnotes and Flashpoints.]

– host and entertain three members of my family, visiting Montreal for their first time, from Abbotsford, B.C.

Longtime friends David and Charmaine Hicks on the left, and sibs Sharla Vanderwoude and Matthew Elliott on the right, enjoying a pitcher in the Old Port.

[In which the Elliott family, who possess at least 10 cars between them back on the Ranch, are shocked to learn how far one can go using only public transit and bicycles.]

Here we are in all our Polarized glory: sisters Sharla and Tobi, and my bro Matthew Elliott, together on the metro for first time.

One of the STM's 'green' bus shelters with leafy things growing out of the top.

– pack up 12 years worth of stuff acquired while “out east” and ship it “out west”. [I own 2 articles of furniture: a solid wood coffeetable from Brazil, and a bookshelf, and waaaay more books than I can afford to ship. This is the sum of my valued (non-electronic) goods. Electronic goods and software have a value of approx 10,000 times the rest of the stuff. And my people are worth a million times the value of my electronic goods. Below, Matte Downey, aka Martha, and Charmaine Hicks, two of the people I would like to pack back west with me.]

– and now I’m en route to Quebec City for more wine and dining, more sights and pastoral landscapes, and the beginning of a family bonding road trip that promises to be fairly congenial, perhaps to the point of actually enjoyable.

Matt meets Kim, our escort around Montreal’s Old Port.

So. Many stories to come.

After all, there’s not much else I’ll have to do in an air-conditioned RV for ten hours per day on the 6+ days it will take to reach Vancouver.

oooooh, James Frey gets me riled up – which is exactly what he wants!

25 04 2010

In the time betwixt when I eat my palate-cleansing pre-dinner salad and my platter of mouthwatering lamb and quinoa tonight, I will be mulling three things. First, which questions I’ll ask Ezra Winton (of Cinema Politica fame) tomorrow about the state of Aboriginal filmmaking in Canada, following up on a story I’ve been writing for about a month now (and which I’m shopping around, if anyone is interested.) Secondly, how attractive apparel on a woman – namely 4-inch heels – will draw second and third glances from men in direct proportion to how painful said apparel is. And thirdly, why I cannot abide James Frey and will never read one of his creations, no matter how much we mutually dislike Oprah Winfrey.

(Oh and I will also be thinking about recent conversations with documentary filmmaker Magnus Isacsson, most of which are highly confidential but I’ll tell all here. Kidding! I’ll write what I can. In a bit.)

Meanwhile, to the despicable James Frey…

The Fourth Horseman of the literary world – a term coined by greater minds than mine – is in Montreal hawking his latest novel Bright Shiny Morning. Yes, that man, the Million Little Pieces guy the world couldn’t get enough of after he was outed on national television for having fabricated (or embellished, as he prefers to call it) his first book. That guy, who flouts every convention known to English writing, doesn’t use quotation marks (“ooooohhhhh!” cries the admiring public. “How very brave!”) and thinks he’s more bad-ass than Hustler S. Thompson. Yes, I said Hustler, because they’re both just that: masters of cheap literary tricks and good at playing fast and loose with the world around them.

I attended this talk at the Blue Metropolis, Montreal’s literary-get-your-book-geek-hat-on festival, titled ‘Face to Face with James Frey’. The interview was hosted by a recent professor of mine, Joel Yanofsky, who did an excellent job asking some tough questions while maintaining a civil and friendly discourse. He’s a brilliant interviewer (and I don’t say that just because he gave me an ‘A’ in Magazine writing.) You can listen to the interview on CBC radio, though I’m not sure when. It doesn’t seem to be scheduled for any time in particular on the site. Should be either on the program Ideas or Writers and Company or the Sunday Edition in Montreal.

Anyway, I have a lot to say about Frey. I’ll start with my twitterfeed as the talk unfolded:

  • At BlueMetropolis watching interview of #JamesFrey by a former prof of mine #JoelYanofsky
  • Opening question: how do you feel about memoirs now? Answer: I feel the term is bullshit.
  • “Anyone who reads a memoir and thinks it’s truth is pretty much lying to themselves” #JamesFrey
  • “I thot, F–k it,I’m gonna do James” in answer 2 ? whether it was his idea2put his name in book.#JamesFrey
  • “Moved 2 LA 2 write books 2 make money.” #JamesFrey
  • Million Little Pieces: was ttrying 2find his voice.#JamesFrey “wanted 2be the most controversial writer of my time”
  • “I use a huge amount of profanity, I don’t use paragraph indentations, I don’t use quote marks” #JamesFrey
  • He certainly does. Every third word is “profane”. #JamesFrey. And doesn’t speak in paragraphs. Seems 2think it’s cool.
  • “It was mostly about making this dream come true, which was writing this book. It was supposed2be shocking in how it was written.”#JamesFrey
  • “it was published in 25 languages. I got an extra 10 out of Oprah.” #JamesFrey “In a lot of ways it was awesome, it was perfect.” >>> referring to Oprah-outing controversy and how good it was for sales <<<
  • Claims to have HAngels bodyguards w/him when he does book tours or interviews in the US. #JamesFrey HA leader claims “you’re like us now.”>>>> that’s Hell’s Angel’s <<<<<
  • Good question: “why wasn’t the truth enough? Why wasn’t what happened to you, enough?” #JamesFrey
  • “If I can fuck a reader up, make you cry, or not be able to turn the next page, then that’s truth. I’m not interested in facts.” #JamesFrey
  • Talking about NormanMailer: “he said, ‘this happens when you write a book important enough to cause this kind of controversy’.” #JamesFrey
  • The idea that memoir is not a legitimate form of writing is… Interesting. True that what’s important is truth, not facts. But.. #JamesFrey   >>>>my commentary starting to sneak in <<<<<
  • “I’ll be back&I’m coming back with both my middle fingers up&they can all kiss my ass b/c I’m writing a book that’ll b read 50 yrs from now”   >>>>>yes, there was lots of crudeness, he seems to delight in it the way a 12 year old boy would <<<<<<
  • Re: latest book ‘bright shiny morning’ about L.A. #JamesFrey. JYanofsky calls it “‘Grapes of Wrath’ with lots more swearing in it.”
  • #JamesFrey:”You want me to write books that are either fact or fiction?Well F– you! I’m going to do exactly the same thing I did last time”
  • “Only I’m going to do it even more sophisticated this time, so you can’t tell the difference.” about his latest book #JamesFrey
  • Look for #JamesFrey’s latest attempt at fact-fiction storytelling: The Third Testament of the Bible. About Jesus in Manhatten.     >>>>>NOT a joke. <<<<<<
  • Believes American fundamentalist religion will cause a war that will destroy the world in the next 50 years. #JamesFrey
  • “I want to experience everything. As much of the best things and the worst things in life that I can, and everything in b/t.” #JamesFrey   >>>>>>> (Yanofsky asks if he would give his kids this advice, and he replies no, he wouldn’t) <<<<<<<<
  • #JamesFrey thinks his book could work or be the biggest disaster ever.”It’s about the most audacious,absurd,ambitious thing ever attempted” >>>>> he DID qualify this by saying, “by a writer” <<<<<<
  • Thankfully #JamesFrey turns down comparisons to HSThompson, Truman Capote. Says they turned into caricatures of themselves. Sure u escaped?
  • Admits 2writing &commissioning other books &having them written by younger writers. Beware! There are books out there by #JamesFrey,but not!

In conclusion:

  • My take on #JamesFrey & his problem with memoir, or any kind of storytelling that purports to be stick to the truth: those who don’t like it….
  • … are usually the ones who have an equal and proportional issue with taking responsibility for their words, and actions. #JamesFrey…
  • …just wants to write what he wants to write, and let the world be damned. Enjoy the ride while it lasts #JamesFrey. At least ur not alone

Mr. Frey’s arrogance was evident, oh-so-evident throughout the interview. He was gleeful about being labeled “notorious” and a bad boy in the world of highbrow lit. He loves being mentioned in the same breath as Norman Mailer. He’s been determined to do get to this point his whole life.

But that’s not really what bothered me in the end. Even though this whole adventure seemed like one big game to him, all of it: messing up the literary conventions, getting a reputation for being a troublemaker, making piles of money doing it, having to shelter in France because he was so reviled in the States, having Hell’s Angles bodyguards because he’s such a bad-ass, it’s not so bad. There are a lot of rich a—holes with crazy ideas about changing the entire way one field or another is played. I don’t actually quibble with any of the above.

The fact that he’s making tons of money and published in all these countries just means that he has a wider audience for his ego, but I’m sure it was always there. He can be as arrogant as his talent entitles him to, he can make as much money as the buying public will allow him to, and he can flout as many conventions as he wants. That’s his perogative.

However, I don’t buy his dismissal of the entire memoir genre as false. I get that we’re in the post-postmodern age, when everything is relative and nothing is real. Nothing you see is going to be the same as what I see, which is his argument for why the memoir is a false form of journalism. I get that. But that doesn’t mean it’s invalid. It just means you have to be extra-responsible for what you communicate. Extra careful to put things into terms that everyone can identify with, yet which are unique to your perspective and true to the situation.

Frey doesn’t seem to want to indulge in that sort of hard-won, reflective writing. He just wants to write what he wants, and “f–k everyone else.” How many times he said “F–k ’em” today, I couldn’t count. He’s simply unwilling to take the time to write something with some semblance of truth, so he resorts to his pet creation “storytelling” that he uses to excuse any combination of fancy and fact. And he bears no responsibility for it, because it’s just a story. It doesn’t matter. Fuck em.

Nor do I buy his reasons for mixing fact and fiction so gleefully and calling it “truth”. He claims that what he’s getting at in his stories, which he says are between 75 per cent and 85 per cent factually faithful, is high art and truth. He’s not about the lowly, pedestrian communication of facts, which he seems to consider a little more base than flipping burgers at McDo’s. But as humans we are forced to make decisions every day, to do or not do, and this results in the particular circumstances we find ourselves in. It’s the story of what happened, and why it happened, that’s important, not your damn recreation of it according to how you later decided you want it to have happened.

We all embellish things in the telling. No question. But anyone who so cavalierly dismisses any responsibility to tell things the way they are, not the way they feel they should be, is not writing non-fiction. They should make their money doing something else, or pretending to do something else.

James Frey: Take your illusions elsewhere. I know some think you’re a whiz and buy up your books just because they don’t know what the hell they’re reading, and they don’t care. What’s sad is that it’s precisely those poor suckers that makes Frey laugh up his sleeve the whole time, at the whole establishment, at all of America, because he’s still got everyone playing his little game.

You poor suckers.