Because it’s a film that so crucially relies on carefully developing its story, and playing out its various startling revelations with measured restraint, it’s tricky to talk about John Kastner’s Life With Murder without exposing its secrets. (Indeed, we’ve been explicitly urged by the producers and Kastner himself to check any impulse to do so.) But it’s no spoiler to say that the triple Emmy Award–winning Canadian filmmaker has produced what will likely emerge as one of the most talked–about documentaries to screen at this year’s Canadian International Documentary Film Festival, better known as Hot Docs.
Co-produced by the CTV, NFB, and Kastner’s own production company, Life With Murder tells an exceptional story that’s made all the more improbable by virtue of its verity. In January 1998, the town of Chatham, Ontario became the unlikely site of a murder, when eighteen-year-old high schooler Jennifer Jenkins was gunned down in her family home. Just as her traumatized parents were coming to terms with their daughter’s death, local police zeroed in on their prime suspect: Jennifer’s twenty-year-old brother, Mason.
Though Mason asserted his innocence, he was eventually convicted of first-degree murder, and is now serving a life sentence at a medium-security correctional institute nearly 500 kilometres from the scene of the crime. Determined to keep what family they have left intact, Brian and Leslie Jenkins remain in close contact with their son, frequently visiting him in prison, exchanging jokes and birthday gifts. Life With Murder is at once a gripping small-town murder mystery and an agonizing portrait of parents’ grief, which only deepens as the film unfolds.
Again, to say too much about Life With Murder is to effectively ruin it. But with its premiere at Hot Docs this weekend to be followed by an airing on CTV (date TBA), as well as other robust (though also undisclosed) distribution deals in North America, it is a film that demands to be seen and, afterward, seriously talked about.
Walrusmagazine.com spoke with Kastner about how he discovered Mason’s case, and the manner in which his film’s story revealed itself. (more…)
Like both of his prior novels, Sam Lipsyte’s new book, The Ask, is not embarrassed by its preoccupations. Consider its opening paragraphs, a blast of violent prose that declares, in the exaggerated voice of one of the more charmingly silly characters, what it understands to be the United States’ current predicament:
America, said Horace, the office temp, was a run-down and demented pimp. Our republic’s whoremaster days were through. Whither that frost-nerved, diamond-fanged hustler who’d stormed Normandy, dick-smacked the Soviets, turned out such firm emerging market flesh? Now our nation slumped in the corner of the pool hall, some gummy coot with a pint of Mad Dog and soggy yellow eyes, just another mark for the juvenile wolves.
“We’re the bitches of the First World,” said Horace, his own eyes braziers of delight.
Sam Lipsyte’s America, then, is in a bit of trouble. But for all the country’s woes, these sentences declare that the author’s art, at least, is well and thriving. The Ask is his first novel since Home Land (which seems more destined for cult classic status with each passing year, as word of its savage, hilarious, and addictive pleasures spread alongside the fantastic story of its rejection-filled road to publication) and it’s his bleakest, funniest, and saddest book, his most pitiless and essential work to date.
Quickly sketched, The Ask concerns the peregrinations of Milo Burke, a relatively unsuccessful advancement officer at an East Coast university, whose life is doubly disrupted by a fracture in his marriage and the reintroduction of an old friend, Purdy Stuart, whose wealth and status as a potential university donor have serious implications for Milo. Professionally indebted to Purdy, Milo becomes ensnared in a web of their old college pals and the sad life of Don, a double amputee Iraq war veteran who refers to his prosthetics as “his girls,” and who takes pleasure in discomfiting others by repeatedly massaging his stumps in their presence. (more…)
Last Sunday was Pizzageddon. This doesn’t mean that cheese and tomato sauce fell from the sky in dollops to crush government buildings and places of worship and all-you-can-eat Pizza Hut buffets, signaling the displeasure of some vengeful Neapolitan god — there is nothing religious about Pizzageddon, or at least not theistic. Rather, Pizzageddon is the ultimate pizza cook-off, at which different teams try to assemble the most delicious pie, and a winner is chosen by secret ballot. It takes place in my kitchen, and the rule this time around — for there have been many Pizzageddons — was that my wife (an ace baker) would supply the homemade dough, but the teams were responsible for all toppings, including sauce.
Pizzageddon is part of a larger custom in my family, which we have given the more modest name of Pizza Sundays, and which simply involves us making pizza, from scratch, every Sunday evening. We often make the immodest joke that Pizza Sundays is the greatest tradition in the history of the universe, and although that may be pushing it a little, it gives our friends and us something to look forward to every week, a good excuse to gather, talk about food, and share a reliably delicious meal.
The Slow Food movement has emphasized the value of taking time to appreciate your food, and to learn what its proponents call “taste education,” which aims “to retrain the senses and sharpen perception” in order to better understand the role food plays in society. The focus is on acknowledging the links between food, place, and culture, with a balance between pleasure and knowledge — of local cuisines, biodiversity, and food’s connection to the environment — and on reintroducing an idea of eating that provides a counterpoint to the mass production, instant gratification, and fat-and-sodium obsession that fuels the fast food industry. One key ingredient in the recipe for conscious eating, however, is much simpler and more intuitive than drawing a flow chart to assess the impact your Thai beef salad has on global ecosystems. It has to do with cooking, and eating, as a ritual. (more…)
The clumsy, kleptomaniac corruption that blooms so frequently in warm climates is to politics what alliteration is to prose — childish, and all too often lucrative. Take Peru, where fresh scandals have made telenovelas of the news in recent weeks.
We begin with José E. Crousillat. The Conrad Black-ish former owner of a prominent television station made his first star turn ten years ago, when he was busted taking bribes from Vladimiro Montesinos (the diabolical power behind the throne during the Fujimori regime) in exchange for providing upbeat coverage of government policy. Crousillat received an eight-year sentence in 2005 and joined both Montesinos and Fujimori in jail. But last December, current president Alan García (who had fled Peru on corruption charges after his first term ended in 1990) pardoned Crousillat on humanitarian grounds: his doctors had claimed he was nearly dead from a heart condition, prompting an appeal to spend his last days with his family.
Public sympathy, never high to begin with, evaporated altogether when, a few weeks ago, Crousillat was spotted sipping cocktails on a beach. He disappeared before he could be reeled in for a fresh medical, and continues to elude the police. No one knows where he’s soothing his valves now.
The Crousillat uproar was quickly overwhelmed by a second case involving not only past and present presidents, but potential future leaders as well. This one revolves around a private firm, Business Track, which specializes in spying on just about everyone who matters in Peru. The story began two years ago, when a series of tapes known as the “petroaudios” exposed Big Oil executives bribing senior government ministers for oil contracts. Nothing much came of the petroaudios until a few weeks ago, when Business Track released a treasure trove of even juicier dialogues. (The firm is now being investigated for espionage even as the fruit of its labours is used as evidence.) These new conversations revealed further players in the Petrogate scandal, as well as several unrelated bribings in other industries and ministries.
The Justice Department received the recordings on a single USB drive, but before the police could finish their analysis, or even duplicate the files, this nuclear piece of evidence was erased by an unknown hand within the Justice Department itself. Patchy, scintillating details have been emerging ever since, leaked from the snippets police did manage to peruse. One of the biggest emerging culprits is Jorge Del Castillo, secretary general of the ruling Apra party and heir apparent to President García in the 2011 election; Castillo is reported to have put in a few words tying him to Petrogate in no uncertain terms. On the other end of the political spectrum, Ollanta Humala, the far-left runner-up in the last election and Castillo’s strongest competitor in the next, was taped accepting money from Hugo Chavez via the Venezuelan embassy in Lima. Humala interprets this as evidence that García paid Business Track to spy on him during the 2006 campaign, lending fresh momentum to his longstanding claim that the president won the poll through fraud. (more…)
On December 24, 1968, while orbiting the moon aboard the Apollo 8 spacecraft, astronaut William Anders took one of history’s most famous photographs. As the ship rounded the grey, lifeless surface of our satellite, a pale blue-and-white dot appeared against the blackness of space; Anders picked up his camera and snapped its shutter. “Earthrise,” as the photo would come to be known, was the first widely published image of our planet taken from space. Never before had humanity seen such a view of our collective habitat.
But that planet no longer exists. In the forty-two years since “Earthrise” was taken, we have done so much damage to our home that, some say, we need a new name for it. Environmentalist, educator, and author Bill McKibben suggests “Eaarth,” which is the title of his new book. In 1989, McKibben published The End of Nature, a groundbreaking work in the study of climate change. More than a dozen books have followed, each with the unifying theme of coping with change. In 2007, he started the Step It Up program, which organized 1,400 simultaneous global warming demonstrations in all fifty US states. As a result of this action, both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, then in the heat of their presidential campaigns, signed on to the group’s target of an 80 percent cut in carbon emissions by the year 2050.
In the wake of this success, McKibben helped launch 350.org, “an international campaign dedicated to building a movement to unite the world around solutions to the climate crisis.” The group is founded on the notion that any level of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration above 350 parts per million is dangerous for all life on the planet. This only sounds like an obscure point of reference until you learn that the number currently stands at around 390 PPM and rising.
Eaarth is about living on this new planet that we have created for ourselves, and trying, perhaps in vain, to return to the one seen in “Earthrise.” I recently interviewed McKibben at Random House’s offices in Toronto. (more…)
Ian McEwan’s Solar is a climate change novel in the same way that his 2005 effort Saturday is an Iraq war novel — which is to say, it both is and it isn’t. At their core, these books are concerned less with their apparent subjects than with capturing a particular sort of post-millennial malaise — the experience of living a privileged life within a gilded age that seems fated for extinction. The seeming apocalypses beyond the horizon are more than mere vehicles for this exploration, but not much more.
Solar’s protagonist, John Beard, a Nobel laureate in physics, functions as a dark reflection of Saturday’s neurosurgeon Henry Perowne. Both are men of science who voice skepticism toward literature, and both are consumed with thoughts of global events from which they can’t escape.
But whereas Perowne is happily married (too happily for some critics’ tastes), Beard is a serial philanderer: four times divorced, and well at work on number five. While Perowne is an admirable humanist who altruistically employs his scientific knowledge, Beard is decades removed from the work that earned him renown, and he enjoys his lingering fame in a grotesquely indulgent manner that rivals Martin Amis’s John Self. Though dogmatic hawks and doves often missed the point, McEwan intended his readers to sympathize with, or at the very least understand, Perowne’s mixed feelings toward the impending Anglo-American invasion of Iraq. Beard’s internal reactions to external events are hardly so generously rendered.
As the novel opens in 2000, Beard grows weary of the constant television chatter over the protracted American presidential election: “It could make no significant difference to the world at large… if Bush rather than Gore, Tweedledum rather than Tweedledee, was president for the first four or eight years of the twenty-first century.” This prediction is on its face ridiculous, and it’s particularly absurd that a former oilman and once-and-future environmentalist vying to become the most powerful person in the world should seem irrelevant to a scientist who, over the course of the novel, is charged with ensuring the survival of humanity in the face of climatological catastrophe. Of course, at the time Beard would hardly have been alone in harbouring these sentiments. Hindsight is what ripens this folly into farce, and what wonderful farce Solar has to offer.
Beard is himself a fitting metaphor for the planet he selfishly endeavours to save, and an aptly depressing synecdoche for the species that’s condemned it to its sorry state. At once bloated and sickly, short-sighted and obtuse, he’s an expertly cast comic caricature, yet he lacks the depth of McEwan’s most convincing creations. Still, when placed in circumstances like an Arctic expedition for artists and scientists (based on the experience that inspired McEwan to write the novel), Beard offers a hilarious window into the pettiness of human nature even when faced with events of world-historical significance. Such satirical set-pieces, though largely rendered in McEwan’s typically measured elegance, are where the parallels to Saturday break down; the earlier novel is far more directly earnest. Solar’s tone is more reminiscent of McEwan’s Booker Prize-winning novella Amsterdam, which pits two former lovers of a deceased woman in a life-and-death struggle. Conspicuous in their absence, perhaps, are comparisons to his greatest novel, Atonement. But only a rarefied class of contemporary fiction earns such accolades, and to complain that Solar is eclipsed by McEwan’s earlier genius would be akin to Beard lamenting that he’s no Einstein. In the absence of perfection, a small measure of greatness works just fine.
Russell Smith has a new novel out called Girl Crazy — reviewed in the May issue of The Walrus — and he’s talking dirty all over the place. Over at the once-staid pages of the Globe and Mail, Smith has reflected on the difficulty of writing about sex. “A few years ago,” he blabbed, “I set out to write a pornographic novel (I prefer that word to ‘erotica,’ which I find cowardly).” That book, Diana: A Diary in the Second Person, is currently available in a lovely edition from Biblioasis. When it was first published in 2003 under the pen name Diane Savage, in a much uglier and cheaper edition from Gutter Press, I interviewed Smith about his foray into pornography.
“I don’t think the book stands up as a novel, and it’s not intended to be a novel,” Smith told me at the time. “Its goal is plain and simple: to titillate. I’m happy to be writing pornography.”
Despite this initially dismissive comment, Smith also confessed to serious hopes for finding a common ground between dirty books and high culture. “I do think that there is something happening in that porn and literature are converging,” Smith noted, and cited as an example Tamara Faith Berger’s Lie With Me, a book he edited for Gutter Press.
“What I would hope to do is eventually erase the barrier between them… Lie With Me is a very literary novel with these wildly explicit sex scenes. We described it on the cover as one part Molly Bloom, one part Genet, and one part Penthouse Forum, which is a very postmodern combination.” (more…)
Clothing by Evan Biddell
Photograph by Peter Balinski
Style appears less powerful at Toronto Fashion Week’s Wednesday morning event, a political discussion that takes place in a wood-paneled dining room in the basement of Queen’s Park. The Fashion Design Council of Canada (FDCC) has come to promote a motion, currently being reintroduced by two Ontario MPPs, Christine Elliott (Conservative, Whitby-Oshawa) and Cheri DiNovo (NDP, Parkdale-High Park), that would reclassify the fashion industry as part of Ontario’s cultural portfolio. This in turn would qualify fashion designers and events for public grants currently available only to projects in film and television, book and magazine publishing, interactive digital media and music recording.
The scene is a master class in juxtaposition — the fashion people are wearing cocktail dresses, fur stoles, and complicated heels, while members of the provincial NDP stand around in sweatshirts, drinking coffee. There are about fifty people in the meeting, where DiNovo, Elliott and FDCC president Robin Kay give various figure-laden speeches, and fewer still at the press conference that follows upstairs. (There, I am one of three reporters in the room. A story appears on the Toronto Star’s website within hours, but fails to rival the buzz created by Fashion Week’s runway shows and parties. Number of times this event is tweeted under the #LGFW hashtag: zero.)
“Fashion is a part of culture,“ DiNovo, tiny behind the meeting room’s conference table, preaches to the choir. Elliott repeats the big figures from a previous meeting: fashion contributes $500 million to the province’s economy annually; in Toronto, nearly 50,000 apparel workers generate $2.6 billion in revenue. Meanwhile, a civil servant in a pantsuit looks blankly at her loafered feet. As the fashion people are ushered out by more pantsuits, Kay’s heels beat an angry staccato on the hall floor.
Since 2006, Ontario has provided $169,000 for LG Fashion Week through the Tourism Event Marketing Partnership Program (an additional $7,500 per year comes from the City of Toronto). The provincial commitment is little compared to the $300,000 conferred yearly on similar local events with corporate funding, like the Toronto International Film Festival, Scotiabank Nuit Blanche, and Luminato. And next to what Quebec does, it’s nothing. Two years ago, Ontario’s neighbour poured $2.4 million into Montreal fashion’s initiatives, and in 2007, earmarked $82 million for the fashion industry as a whole (once fashion was qualified as culture, the province’s apparel employees doubled within a year). To the French and Italians, even that amount must appear laughably low. Their fashion industries have powerful government presences and are routinely bailed out during periods of crisis to the tune of billions. (more…)
Among the wonders of YouTube, not least is evidence of how highbrow the CBC was in its glory days, as can be seen from these clips from the late 1950s’ show Close-Up.
Among the wonders of YouTube, not least is evidence of how highbrow the CBC was in its glory days, as can be seen from these clips — click here for parts one and two — from the late 1950s’ show Close-Up. Pierre Berton interviews novelist Vladimir Nabokov and literary critic Lionel Trilling. At the time, the three men were at the peak of their powers: Nabokov had just published his scandalous best-seller Lolita, which Trilling, then the foremost American critic had championed. Berton was Canada’s most prominent journalist and an outspoken civil libertarian, hence the natural person to interview a much-censored novelist.
Berton’s conversation with Nabokov is notable because the Russian-born fabulist disliked being interviewed. Indeed, when televised or recorded, Nabokov preferred to work with pre-cleared questions, which he would answer by reading from notecards (his preferred writing method as well). But somehow Berton got the novelist to give spontaneous answers, making the clips a rare treat. There are many great period details in the videos, not least of which is confidence with which Trilling smokes on air, something which would now be more scandalous than Lolita itself.
For me, the best moment comes near the 2:45 mark of the first video. Trilling is commenting something to the effect, “you can’t trust a creative artist to say what he has done…” Pay close attention to Nabokov’s face when Trilling says that. You can see a very sly grin, like a little school boy whose prank has been caught out by an alert teacher.