Thursday, September 25, 2008

Choke review

My review appears in this week's WE.

By Andrea Warner
Two stars

The beauty of a book by Chuck Palahniuk is his merciless abuse of language and playfully bittersweet story arcs, combined with his curious ability to induce WTF moments every few pages. This all gets lost in Choke’s shuffle to the big screen.

Triple threat Clark Gregg, who directs, acts in, and wrote the screenplay, obviously didn’t know what he really wanted to do with the difficult source material. The film zigzags crazily, irrationally, and swoops unevenly between the bizarre and the sentimental. The result is as believable as cloning a man from Jesus’ foreskin. (Yes. This is actually a part of the film.)

Sam Rockwell stars as Victor Mancini, a sex-addicted con man with underlying Oedipal issues, who struggles to pay his mother’s (the always reliable Angelica Huston) hospital bills. He’s half-heartedly struggling to turn his life around, and thinks the key to his salvation is to find out who his real father is. And, possibly, begin a relationship with his mother’s doctor, Paige Marshall (Kelly Macdonald, who dials up the character’s cute and curiously touching side).

The direction is haphazard at best, and relies too heavily on flashbacks to explain Victor’s present-day issues. The resolution comes fast and furious and the jokes lay limp, both of which are a problem in a comedy that bills itself as being about sex and love. Unfortunately, Choke’s dirty romp is cross pollinated with a movie of the week. Instead of knocking you flat on your back, it barely leaves you winded.

Karen X. Tulchinsky interview

My new interview with Karen X. Tulchinsky appears in this week's WE.

By Andrea Warner

She’s got a reputation for playing fast and loose with the conventional rules of what a writer’s career should look like, with origins in short queer fiction, and editing a series of racy lesbian erotica, Hot & Bothered. Despite stints in screenwriting for television and film, as well as three full-length novels, Karen X. Tulchinsky is only now fully reaping the rewards of mainstream success with The Five Books of Moses Lapinsky, recently named the recipient of the One Book, One Vancouver award. Tulchinsky, who will be reading at The Word on the Street National Book and Magazine Festival this Saturday, Sept. 28, spoke with WE about her latest novel, the trials of being a Canadian author and her next creative venture.

The Five Books of Moses Lapinsky is a big departure from your previous books, which have largely had a more queer focus. How did Five Books come about?
The seeds were stories from my grandfather, who was a Russian Jewish Immigrant. I have great memories of sitting on the crinkly plastic of my grandparent’s living room sofa, while my grandfather would tell me stories of his heroic escape across the Dneister River, from Russia to Romania, at a time when the Soviet authorities did not want Jews to leave the country, and the Romanians did not want Jews to enter.

What are some of the challenges you have faced and overcome in becoming a successful author?
The hardest challenge in becoming a successful Canadian writer is balancing time and money. It’s difficult to have the focused creative time necessary to write a novel if you are working a full time job. It’s a Catch-22 situation, because generally speaking, an author does not get paid until they sell their novel to a publisher, which is usually after writing many drafts, which takes time. So as an author, you are always juggling — taking on paid work to pay the bills, then trying to squeeze in writing time. Things are only going to get harder if Canadians vote in a majority government with Stephen Harper as Prime Minister. He recently cut 45 million dollars in arts funding, and there is every indication that he intends to cut more. Frankly, it’s hard enough for writers to create books in this country, which worries me, not so much as a writer, but as a Canadian—without our own stories being told, how will we know our own culture?

You’re a novelist and you work in television as well. Is the transition seamless? How did you cross over originally?
The transition from publishing to working in television was a five year process. After Love Ruins Everything, my first novel, was published, I adapted it into a screenplay. I wrote a couple more screenplays, then applied to and was accepted into the Professional Screenwriting Program at the Canadian Film centre in Toronto. When I returned, I began to work as a writer and story editor on locally produced television shows. It’s a very different world. Fortunately for me, I adapt well to new environments.

What are you working on now? Do you have big plans for your next book or TV project?
Yes. I have more ideas than I know what to do with. I’m working on a new historical novel, called The Shoemaker’s Daughter, set between 1941 and 1977 in Russia, Vancouver, and Jerusalem. I have a screenplay adaptation of The Five Books of Moses Lapinsky in development. I’m creating several new original TV series with a writing partner, while also working as a creative consultant for a documentary television series.

Karen X. Tulchinsky will read at The Word on the Street from The Five Books of Moses Lapinsky, backed by a Klezmer Band, on Sunday September 28, at 3 p.m. in the Author’s Tent.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Love and Honor

My review of Love and Honor appears in the current WE.

Love and Honor
By Andrea Warner
3 stars

It's taken Samurai movies a while to shake off the stench of Tom Cruise, but with Love or Honor, the elegant exercise in pride and circumstance from Yoji Yamada, it may be time for a second coming.

Love and Honor takes us inside a feudal lord's castle, and into the life of Mimura Shinnojo, a lowly samurai who serves as the Lord's food taster. As played by Takuya Kimura, Shinnojo is a complex combination of arrogant egotist and charming dreamer. He longs to be more than a glorified poison-control, and his frustration is palpable.

Before he can abandon the samurai life, though, he takes a fateful bite of sashimi, toxic when prepared out of season, and is rendered blind. He retreats inside himself as his wife, Kayo (the beautiful Rei Dan), and his faithful servant, Tokuhei (Takashi Sasano), struggle to come to grips with Shinnojo's disability. Kayo is pushed out of her comfort zone as dutiful wife and encouraged by the rest of the family to seek help from the devious Lord who offers to help them, but at a terrible cost.

Shinnojo's blindness invigorates what is otherwise a fairly routine story. His accident smartly pulls at the tenuous grip we all have on our own lives. Yamada's direction, and the careful cinematography, creates an almost tentative atmosphere, as if he's tiptoeing around his volatile protagonist.

The film moves quickly, jarring only when the symbolism sinks under its own weighty metaphors (two lovebirds in a cage, one dies, one flies away). Moments like these feel rudimentary when compared with the beautifully light touch that graces every other frame. Though practically Greek in its tragedy, Love and Honor's beautiful discipline is entirely the way of the Samurai.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Yangtze River

My piece on the Three Gorges Dam and the Yangtze River has finally come out in Ricepaper.


Losing Ground—The human cost of the Three Gorges dam
Author: Andrea Warner

Its body is long, curving around the hips of mountains, navigating spaces both narrow and grand. A tempestuous nature makes it an unpredictable companion for the people who dwell along its banks. It is thoroughfare and communication channel; resource and tourist trap; graveyard and lifeblood to a culture rich with myth and memory. Along the way, cities that slowly grew from its depths now burst with concrete skyscrapers, neon lights, and millions of harried business people. In other spots, the soil along its banks feeds lush green leaves, dense with vegetables, where generations of farmers have worked the land and know no other life. It hosts human artifacts dating back 27,000 years, has resolved battles between North and South, and boasts over 700 tributaries.

It is the Yangtze River, China’s largest and most important waterway, and it’s now home to the controversial Three Gorges dam, the biggest hydroelectric project on the planet.

The Three Gorges area is thought to be over two million years old, and was at one point a series of hills and dales for the Yangtze to wind through. Erosion has helped create the modern Three Gorges—the Qutang, Wuxia, and Xiling—extending approximately 200 kilometres along the Yangtze. Seasonal rivers like the Yangtze make for beautiful, but dangerous, neighbours. Millions of people live downstream from where the Three Gorges dam has been built. Major cities like Wuhan, Nanjing, and Shanghai sit next to the river, as do thousands of acres of farmland and China’s critical industrial area. According to sources, the Three Gorges dam will minimize flooding for those downstream from once every ten years to once every hundred years.

The people on the other side of the dam aren’t so lucky.

The dam’s original proposal indicated that approximately one million people would be relocated to accommodate the Three Gorges project. The number has now soared to two million, and the government recently revealed that another four million people residing in the metropolitan city of Chongqing will likely be displaced by 2020. “Farewell cruises” have become profitable and popular tourism opportunities within the Three Gorges region, but few visitors realize the magnitude of what these cruises mean to the people who are being relocated.

Yung Chang, a 25-year-old Montreal-based filmmaker, was inspired to make his award-winning documentary, Up the Yangtze, after taking one of the “Farewell” cruises. Chang grew up with his grandfather’s stories about the region, and couldn’t help seeing his own family reflected in the faces of the people who were being displaced. Armed with a Chinese crew, some cameras, and a reasonable ability to speak Mandarin, Chang spent months interviewing various families, looking for the bigger story about the human impact of the Three Gorges Dam.

“I think China’s a country full of contrasts. What struck me when I arrived in Chongqing, the city where the movie takes place, is that when we approached the waiting cruise ship, this marching band started playing “Yankee Doodle Dandy”. That immediately was my inspiration to make the film,” Chang says. “As I took this cruise boat, I couldn’t help but think of Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now. Along the embankments of the Yangtze there were ghost towns and to me it looked quite apocalyptic, [but] it’s much more than meets the eye. One has to get off the boat, so to speak, to find the story, and I realized there was a human side to all these vacant, surreal landscapes. There was something actually going on with peoples lives.”

Relocation itself promises a variety of modern comforts drastically different than the shacks erected on many farms. The new communities are multiple family dwellings, concrete villages that stack apartments into the sky, offering running water, electricity, and air conditioning. What they don’t offer are new livelihoods for people who made their living off the land—in particular, the older generations who often lack even rudimentary literacy skills, whose lives have been devoted to harvesting the earth.

“And you know what their careers are now?” Chang asks. “They cater to tourists and they sell mats and it’s like a whole way of life upturned and displaced. Their incomes are probably being tripled because of the tourist attraction that they have become, but that’s another aspect of the film I wanted to explore: the tourism of culture. That’s what’s really happening in the Three Gorges dam region. Entire lives of people and communities are being twisted around and it’s become this kind of sad way of selling an indigenous culture.”

So how did China arrive at the resettlement of two million people? It started with a dream in the mind of Sun Yat-sen in 1919. After years of starts and stalls, the National Peoples Congress approved the project in 1992, amid a record amount of dissention. Though the dam was conceived for a number of reasons, its primary function was to generate electricity for China’s rapidly exploding population. According to one source, it was expected the dam could generate 10 percent of the electricity China consumes. However, consumption has increased at a much higher rate than originally projected, and now the dam is expected to generate just three percent of China’s electricity needs.

This is just one of the failings that Probe International, an organization based in Toronto that investigates Canadian aid and investment projects, accurately predicted almost 15 years ago.

Probe International’s Patricia Adams is an economist who has been following the Three Gorges project since 1986. She helps recount Canada’s involvement in facilitating the Three Gorges: Canada paid for a feasibility study on the Three Gorges project in 1986. When it was completed in 1989, PI accessed the study through the Freedom Of Information Act to determine if the benefits truly outweighed the costs. Nine experts from around the world were asked to independently critique the study and ultimately published Damning the Three Gorges: What dam builders don’t want you to know. Since then, PI has made it their business to bring public awareness to the Three Gorges and the issues arising from the project.

“We feel it’s important to cut through the propaganda, and to ensure the best possible information about the performance of the dam, the economics of the dam, and the social consequences are well-researched and available,” Adams says. “We publish a news service in both English and Chinese. Both were available in China, at least on the mainland, until about a year ago, and they have been locked since then.”

One of the things Adams finds most frustrating is Canada’s complicity in the Three Gorges project.

“We [Canada] like to portray ourselves as being these boy scouts around the world, but in our opinion, had the Canadian engineers been true to their engineering codes of conduct, they would never have come to the conclusion that the Three Gorges dam was the ideal or most efficient or effective or economic way of producing power, facilitating navigation, or controlling floods,” Adams says. “It’s failed on all counts. And, yet the Canadian engineers and the Canadian government wanted very much to help build the dam. The Canadian government recommended it, and the Canadian engineers recommended it, and that gave it great legitimacy. Had they said it’s not a good way to produce power, it would have been a lot harder for the Chinese government to build it.”

According to Adams, the dam was so controversial in the planning stages that foreign financers were unwilling to invest. Unwilling, that is, until Jean Chrétien reversed the Liberal party’s original decision and decided to help fund the Three Gorges through Export Development Canada and Export Credit Financing. As soon as that happened, a half dozen other European countries jumped in, as everyone wanted the contract to build what would be the world’s largest dam.

“The flood gates, dare I say, were opened for foreign financing for the dam,” Adam says. “This is Canada’s dam, and we need to take responsibility for it.”

Up the Yangtze may inadvertently be Canada’s mea culpa to those who have been displaced. The film has earned international attention and acclaim, and has managed to provide a “face” in the Yu family with which the world can connect to the larger issue of resettlement. What is more difficult to wrap one’s head around is forcible resettlement, which the film addresses when we meet the antiques dealer, a reluctant “relocatee”.

It was an accidental moment that Chang stumbled upon while scouting for stories: A farmer who, in his search for a new career, had become an antiques dealer, effectively selling off the castaway items of others who had been relocated. Chang originally believed the story was in the objects, but as the film reveals, the process of forcible relocation is a trauma that lives just below the skin’s surface and could manifest at any time. As protesters against resettlement demonstrate on the street outside the dealer’s shop, he breaks down crying while recounting his own violent relocation. He claims to have been beaten and dragged from his home.

“He was so livid that he’d never been able to express himself before,” Chang says. “That’s rare, from a Chinese male to see that kind of emotion pouring out of someone, especially in China. And, I think having a camera around really does miraculous things, almost therapeutic ways of opening people up, almost like a mirror.”

Though the segment is two minutes of a 90-minute film, it serves to remind the audience of the importance of the media in providing a platform for voices that may otherwise go unrepresented. Probe International has recently started to collect written accounts from the Three Gorges region. Compiled by a team of journalists led by Dai Qing, an environmentalist and journalist banned in China, the Three Gorges Oral History Series collects stories from the riverside towns and villages affected by the Three Gorges dam on China's Yangtze River.

Adams recounts stories of forcible relocation that have turned physically violent, as well as people who have been silenced when seeking compensation or criticizing the dam.

“[Relocation] is a bad way to develop a country and improve people’s lives,” Adams says. “Not only do you wreck their lives, but you undermine the confidence or a willingness of people who aren’t affected to make investments, take chances, and to do good things. If you see how badly people can be treated, you know, there’s no justice for these people. It makes everyone else very nervous and reluctant to make investments in their society.”

Stories like these continue to cloud the Three Gorges project, which keeps creaking forward under heavy criticism. The validity and legitimacy of harvesting hydroelectric power, versus alternative energy sources, has been brought into question. Many critics maintain that the dam will increase the threat to endangered species that make their home in the river and in the wetlands. Others speculate that increased sedimentation could make the region more vulnerable to the flooding the dam seeks to prevent. International relationships, economic stability, and Canada’s reputation abroad are also at stake.

Along the Yangtze River, villages that once brimmed with life have become ghost towns. Tourists catch glimpses from their cruise ships, amidst marks projecting when the towns will be submerged. The Three Gorges project is still two years away from completion. The Yu family’s home, farm, and livelihood have already been lost to the mighty Yangtze. Who knows what other bones it will collect by the time the Three Gorges dam finally reaches fruition?

Monday, September 15, 2008

Chengxin Wei

My Q & A with Chengxin Wei appears in this week's WE.

Q & A with Chengxin Wei of Moving Dragon

By Andrea Warner

What are some of the challenges choreography presents?
This piece, LuminUS, is my first full-length work, so creating an engaging and cohesive hour-long dance is a challenge. Plus, I am a dancer in the work, so it is sometimes difficult to gain an outside perspective.

What are you attempting to communicate with this work?
The two main themes in this piece are the relationship between the dancers' bodies and the lighting, and the relationship between the dancers with one another. The lighting plays an integral part in the work, framing the movement and creating an environment which reflects the dancers' internal worlds.

What are some of the hardest physical demands of dancing professionally?
Obviously, on a physical level, it's important to keep yourself in shape, and to take care of your body by eating well, resting well and minimizing injury. From an emotional level, creating and performing your own work can be very stressful, and I think it is important to stay emotionally healthy by focusing on the work and by staying true to yourself.

How did you get involved with dance?
This is a long story. I was selected by the Beijing Dance Academy when I was eleven years old. They came into my elementary school to recruit students, and I was the only boy from my city who was accepted that year. I have been dancing ever since then.

What do you do in your down time? How do you unwind away from the stage?
I love to read and watch Chinese kung fu movies. I also try to meditate everyday.

Miriam Toews Q & A

My interview with Miriam Toews appears online at WE.

Miriam Toews Q & A
By Andrea Warner

Your newest novel, The Flying Troutmans, just came out. Did the writing process this time around get easier versus writing your first book? What was different this time?
I don't think the process ever gets easier. It doesn't for me, at least. It's always about throwing the spaghetti against the wall until it sticks, or whatever. This time around I tried to tell myself that all the time I spent writing stuff I eventually trashed wasn't necessarily a waste of time but just part of the process.

In The Flying Troutmans you deal with the demands of familial obligation and the complicated relationship between sisters. What inspired you to tackle this?
Well, I've always thought that families in general generate a lot of drama.I needed my characters to have a good reason to hit the road. Hattie loves her sister but feels a huge amount of responsibility for her and the kids. We don't always know how to best take care of the people we love but I'm inspired by the ways in which we all try.

The Mennonite community has factored deeply in your previous work (A Complicated Kindness, and the recent film, Silent Light, in which you acted, were set in Mennonite communities). What is your relationship like with religion or spirituality now?
I'm not religious. I still consider myself to be a Mennonite, but a secular one.

Speaking of Silent Light, I reviewed the film and was absolutely heartbroken by your character's emotional bursting in the rain in the forest. What drew you to acting and particularly this film?
That was a pretty intense scene. It's the only acting I've ever done and might be the last. The director of Silent Light, Carlos Reygadas, was given a copy of my last book when he was in Germany looking for people to be in his film and then he decided to get in touch with me. At first I said no, but then I thought it would probably be fun and interesting and it was. I learned a lot.

What's next on your work agenda, aside from this book tour?
I'll write another novel. I have a small idea for one and I'm waiting for it to grow a bit. I'm also going to be working on the film script for the Troutmans, together with a great screenwriter by the name of Semi Chellas. I've never written a screenplay but I'm really looking forward to getting to work on it.

Fleet Foxes Q & A

My interview with Fleet Foxes' Casey Wescott appears in this week's WE.

Fleet Foxes Q & A

By Andrea Warner

They look a lot like any other indie band coming out of Seattle: five guys (mostly bearded), dressed in various states of button-downs and jeans, with a penchant for posing regally or vulnerably—legs crossed, folded to their sides, or tucked up to their chests. But it's not the look that has music critics drooling and legions of fans buying up their self-titled debut, released this past June. Fleet Foxes is all about sound: a finely crafted and layered amalgamation of guitars, keyboards, percussion, and vocal harmonies. The sound of the sixties with a distinctly modern infusion of present-day indie pop sensibility.

WE caught up with Fleet Foxes keyboardist Casey Wescott on the phone from his Seattle home, taking a mini-break before launching back out onto the road for the band's fall tour.

Is the band's approach to songwriting a collaborative effort?
Because we all make music in different bands, the focus is using [front-man's] Robin's basic material. Like he'll have a melody or a chord progression or lyrics, even a full song. it sort of runs the map on how we approach songs and the sorts of collaboration that occur on each song. To me it's more interesting developing Robin's ideas based on my interpretation--working with his base and adding to it.

Are you already working towards your next album?
Oh yeah, absolutely. It's hard to execute your ideas as a full band though sometimes, just because we don't have much time to practice. We work really fast though. We just need to get a few more chunks of time.

Are you working on a different sound for the next album, or an expansion on what you've done with this one?
I can say confidently that I don't know what the record's going to sound like. It's always sort of weird. It's very bizarre to me how somebody would know what the record is going to sound like before they have done it. You know what I'm saying? Even if you're just trying to execute a musical idea that you have in your mind, like, there's still so much that can happen. I would never want to put constraints on that, and so in doing so you relinquish control of what it's going to sound like.

Was it overwhelming to be signed to a label that had helped define so many different sounds and the Seattle music scene?
Oh gosh...I'm not really the type of person who gets signed to a label and looks around and thinks 'Oh, look at all my peers.' It doesn't feel like that at all. You don't feel like a peer to {Mudhoney's] Mark Arm, you know? Their roster over the years has been really rad, but I will say that growing up in Seattle, as a kid I knew people who had records with them and was exposed to them. So I had a bit of a taste of the characters. But, really, it's just all been overwhelming.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Stevie Jackson interview

My interview with Belle & Sebastian's Stevie Jackson appears in this week's WE.

Stevie Jackson interview
By Andrea Warner

Stevie Jackson wears his heart on his cardigan sleeve. As part of Belle & Sebastian, those Scottish Titans of Twee, he’s penned some of the band’s catchier, 60s inspired ditties, but he still considers himself a romantic. Jackson lands this side of the Atlantic for the first Stanley Park Singing Exhibition, invited by his friend Carl Newman of the New Pornographers. He checked in with WE over the phone from the UK, sharing his first masterpiece, seeking advice about his set list, and waxing nostalgic about the most romantic song ever written.

Do you remember the first song you ever wrote? What was it about?
Yeah, it was called “Get in the Car” and I was 14, and it was about traveling, I think, and even then I had a Beatles reference—I think it goes, actually, I’ve got the guitar here, I can sing it. At the time my voice hadn’t broke yet, so…(Sings in a slight falsetto) Get in the car and drive honey/We’re movin’ on/ Step on the gas/Let’s go honey. Actually, we got in our studio and we actually recorded it because Bobby (Kildea), our guitar player, I sang it for him one day, and he loved it. He reckons it’s the best thing I ever did. And it’s true; I don’t think I ever bettered it.

So you peaked early.
Yeah, I think it’s just the chord sequences are amazing and it was a point of discovery, and for years I never wrote another song, you know.

Have you ever written a song just to woo a love interest?
Actually, I’m working on one right now. (Laughs.) There’s this girl who I’m interested in who needs music for something, so I’m going to stick in a couple messages.

Your songs have a combination of the cheeky and beautiful. What would you say is your writing voice?
It still feels quite unformed. Maybe melancholic, reflective. I’m kind of older now, anyways, so I’m probably at the age where I reflect on things a bit. But kind of quite romantic, I think. Or, if not romantic, I’ll ponder where the romance went. A loss of innocence or something, the quest for romanticism.

What’s the most romantic song you’ve ever heard?
I really love Begin the Beguine by Cole Porter. It’s very poignant. It’s romantic, but from that loss. The actual words are just so beautiful. They’re so three dimensional, they seem to capture the human condition in some kind of way. (Goes on to recite the song’s last two verses.) It doesn’t get much better than that.

How is touring on your own different than touring with Belle & Sebastian?
Well, I’ve not really done it before. I’ve not really played much on my own—I’ve done it a bit ‘round Glasgow. How does it differ? Completely. Belle & Sebastian touring is a big machine. Although Bob’s going to come with me (to Vancouver) and I still don’t even know what I’m going to do. I’m going to try and get a rhythm section. I was on the e-mail today trying to track down one. I can send some songs down the wire and they can learn them and we can play them.

How did you spend your summer vacations as a kid?
Up until the age of 13 or so, I’d go somewhere with my mum and dad in Scotland. I wasn’t on a plane until I was 24. And, I guess after about 14, I stopped going with my parents, and just be hanging out with my friends, playing guitar, listening to records. So, I can’t say I’ve done any hunting, shooting, fishing or rock climbing. This summer I’m going to end in spectacular fashion because I’m going to Vancouver for a couple of days.

Do you get a little bit of downtime on your own here?
I’m playing on the Monday night, and I’ll be in town Saturday, so I’ll just hang out at the first day of the festival, although, if I’m playing with anyone else, I’ll probably have to be rehearsing at some point. It could just be me and Bob strummin’ guitars or something, making it up as we go along. We could just take requests from 2000 people or whatever.

The audience will fall over for you if you take requests.
Oh yeah? I know a couple Elton John numbers. Me and Bob both love “Tiny Dancer.” We can probably sing that.

Last question. Can you rank these three musical devices: handclaps, whistling, and finger snaps, from favourite to least favourite?
My favourite is finger snaps, but they’re all pretty good. When you get a few hundred people finger snapping it sounds great. Whistling was always good fun. Handclaps are great, but I’d probably put them third. It’s kind of a standard thing.