The Big Sig

A patient reclining on a vast velvet divan narrates his life history in a dimly lit room. Meanwhile, the therapist twiddles his thumbs through a 50-minute hour. This classic psychoanalysis scene has become one of the most pervasive images of therapy today, thanks in part to Sigmund Freud.

Freud’s influence on popular culture and the way we view psychology is undeniable. Ever been called “anal retentive”? Heard about the Oedipus complex? The image Freud left behind fails to capture the field of psychology as it has evolved over the decades since his work. However, the novelty of his approach is often ignored in favour of caricatures of a sex-obsessed old Austrian guy.

Among his most influential ideas, Freud hypothesized about the unconscious. His psychoanalytic theory provided an explanation for behaviour based on the interaction between conscious and unconscious drives.

According to Freud, personality is divided into three components: the id, the ego, and the superego. The interactions between these three components explain how our behaviour is shaped by conscious and unconscious drives. The conscious mind is regulated by the ego, which interacts directly with the outside world and acts as the decision-maker. The subconscious is divided into the id and the superego. The id acts as the primitive and instinctive component of personality, and tries to influence the ego to act on impulses and whims, regardless of what is proper or right. While the id acts on the pleasure principle, the superego counteracts it, and follows a moral principle. The superego is the moral force behind our actions, and regulates the ego’s interactions with the world. According to Freud, all three of these components are distributed differently in individuals, which explains how we behave according to unique motivations.

Freud also famously theorized about the “psychosexual” stages of development in childhood. He believed that personality is dependent on our experiences as children. Each stage of development corresponds with a part of the body that is stimulated during that period. For example, the second stage in development, which occurs in children two to three years old, is called the anal stage because children are more aware of (and according to Freud, derive erotic pleasure from) their bowel movements. It is also the typical time for potty-training in most children. Depending on the level of stimulation received at each stage, the child will acquire various personality traits, or in Freudian terms, fixations or retention. For example, an anal retentive person is someone who was potty-trained too early, or too strictly in their development. The resulting personality in adulthood involves obsession with orderliness and small details.

While many psychologists have criticized Freud’s views of human personality and behaviour for being too focussed on sex, the historical and social background to his theories is important. When you think of his primary clientele—affluent and sexually repressed Austrian women in the 1920s—his theories make more sense.

Wild Things makes our hearts sing

Memory has a way of stripping down childhood to its essentials. We have blurry images of the happiest moments, as well as the times that were particularly sad or embarrassing, while the more mundane passages tending to fade away. In the first 20 minutes of Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are, Max (Max Records), the very young protagonist, tries to keep himself occupied by running around his house in a wolf costume chasing his cat. He wants to play with his older sister, but she is more interested in her friends. When he tries to get his mother’s attention, she is occupied with a date. It is difficult for Max to communicate in any meaningful way to the older people who surround him, and his life generally consists of tedium punctuated by occasional retreats to the world of fantasy.

“I didn’t set out to make a children’s movie,” says Spike Jonze in the press notes for Where the Wild Things Are. “I set out to make a movie about childhood.”

Jonze’s film is based on Maurice Sendak’s children’s book, first published in 1963. Unless I heard it during kindergarten, I read it for the first time standing in an Indigo bookstore on my way to see this film. Sendak’s book is striking in its brevity: 48 pages and, except for nine little sentences, all pictures, with spare prose that evokes the simple precision of a haiku. I wish I had been exposed to it when I was younger. “That very night in Max’s room a forest grew—and grew—and grew until his ceiling hung with vines.” This is beautiful imagery, but if my enthusiasm for the book is somewhat muted, I suppose it’s because I am no longer at an age where I regularly turn to fantasy for solace. (Well, not fantasies involving friendly monsters, anyway…)

The book has only as much of a story as is needed to provide a framework for its images and emotions. The film provides Max with an on-screen mother, played by Catherine Keener, and gives the big, furry “Wild Things” names and personalities, but it remains more interested in mood than plot. Comparing a feature-length movie with a children’s storybook is really pointless, but I’d like to say that I—a Where the Wild Things Are virgin—had an easier time connecting to the film than the book, as the movie is a story about childhood for adults, not children.

Hire Spike Jonze (director of Being John Malkovich and Adaptation) to make a kids’ movie, and you get… a Spike Jonze movie. I have no idea what kids are going to make of this thing. Just as the book drew much of its power from a child reader’s instinctive feelings of fear of parental punishment and comfort in imaginary friends, adult viewers of the film will appreciate the exquisite sense of childhood melancholy that Jonze evokes with his slow pace and earthy colour palette. I predict many kids will be bored by such a meditative experience, and I suspect that childhood melancholy is an emotion best understood by those who are no longer children.

The story is told through Max’s perspective, to the point where our hero has even defaced the Warner Brothers logo (“A Time Warner Max Production”), and we are not privy to any information about his family that does not immediately affect him (in the credits, characters are known as simply “mother” and “the boyfriend”). How refreshing to see a kid in a movie who’s actually a kid, with self-centeredness and irritability to match his sweetness, and whose emotional maturation is real, but modest enough to be believable.

The imaginary wild things are all reflections of Max: Alexander (Paul Dano) is small and often ignored; Carol (James Gandolfini) is big-hearted, impulsive, and naïve; Judith (Catherine O’Hara) is sharp but casually cruel; KW (Lauren Ambrose) is kind and loving but unsure of her position in the world. These are tremendously lovable characters, all the more so because of their flaws. Unlike most voice actors in Hollywood family movies, the famous cast members approached the wild things as actual characters and not excuses for star turns, and speak their lines with real nuance and feeling. As delivered by Ambrose, the famous line “I could eat you up, I love you so” achieves special poignancy.

Where the Wild Things Are takes its sweet time. Jonze sees no need to hurry to the next contrived plot point when he can just relax and spend time with his characters. Maybe the biggest (and most backhanded) compliment I can pay to this film is that I wanted even less plot and even more of those pure scenes where Max and the wild things are napping together in a great big pile, or causing the “wild rumpus,” or wandering aimlessly in their surrounding deserts. Where the Wild Things Are is pitch-perfect at many things, and none more so than its remembrance of the deep, soothing comfort of fantasy.

VVVVv

Blackberry subway jam

This coming week, hundreds of Canadians are planning on doing something dramatic or unusual at the behest of Stephen Lewis. Dozens have volunteered to take the plunge into a dangerous environment, such as a stand up comedy club, or an apiary, and Toronto rapper K-Os will even return to his old job at the toy department in The Bay, but the big news on campus is that second-year U of T student Daniel Gray will brave the unseasonable cold to play catchy, thick-layered pop music on street corners around the city.

The Dare to Remember Campaign is an organized event started by Stephen Lewis to raise money for Lewis’s foundation to fight HIV/AIDS. It has provided Gray with an opportunity to do a social good in a challenging setting.

“I heard [Lewis] speak at the Massey Hall lecture,” says Gray who has been supporting Lewis’s organization since high school. “He’s so motivating. When he speaks, you want to do something so badly. I figured if I could incorporate my music with the experience, all the better.”

It’s hard to envision Gray realizing the complex pop songs of his first EP, A Future’s Past, as a one-man acoustic band.

“Given that my arrangements are so dense, it’s hard to make an appealing sound out of myself solo. I’m going to be busking with the loop pedal and a battery-powered guitar amp,” notes Gray.

On the EP, Gray shows off a remarkable knack for dense, yet buoyant guitar and piano pop, holding elements of ’60s sunshine and modern indie in equal regard. While addictive melodies are present throughout, what is most striking is the complexity of his composition. The result is obviously born of a very particular songwriter.

“Not that I’m closed to suggestion, but whenever I write a song, I hear it in my head on a grander scale with arrangement and instrumentation,” says Gray. “I dig intense layering, stuff like Sufjan Stevens, these types of really elaborate arrangements. That’s something I love in [pop music], layering until you hit a huge crescendo.”

Realizing his specific vision was important to him, but Gray’s father, Juno-winning engineer Gary Gray helped him with production, making the task much easier.

“He’s more in the classical world now, but in the ’70s and the ’80s he did quite a few pop records and folk stuff. He did a lot of the early Bruce Cockburn stuff and Gordon Lightfoot.”

In Daniel’s estimate, the final product is the outcome of their collective sensibilities.

“He’s so much of a perfectionist and I prefer rough edges, so it’s kind of an interesting contrast. We come from different styles, but we try to combine them into something we can both agree on. He has good suggestions, like ‘this would sound really good doubled,’ in terms of production values.”

The songs, however, are distinctly Daniel’s, given that he sings and plays guitar, drum, organ, harmonica, samplers, and everything else on the record. While his proficiency comes from an entire life spent around music—his mother is a professional violinist—Daniel started writing songs a few years ago, and only recently began considering the possibility of taking music more seriously.

“When I was younger, music to me was the Red Hot Chili Peppers, U2, or these huge bands who make millions of dollars. I was being realistic about it. I never expected that I could do anything like that.”

However, having seen the unlikely success of more off-kilter pop musicians over the last few years has provided hope of a future career. Take Grizzly Bear, for example.

“They write psychedelic folk songs and somehow they became this huge band…I’ve noticed in the last year or so, ‘indie’ music has started to reach a new fan base, unlike in the ’90s or the ’80s. There’s a smaller gap between the indie labels and the majors now. [Many] people are making a living, and touring, and having a life with it. They’re not celebrities, and they’re not making millions of dollars, they’re making a modest living. But since I’ve been exposed to that kind of thing, I’ve made records of my own and become more ambitious in what I can do with that.”

For Gray, his expectations remain modest, even though his ambitions are high.

“If I can take it to a level where I can tour as much as I can and make a living off of it, then I think I probably would. It would be hard […] but people are discovering music they normally wouldn’t because it’s so easy to share.”

Daniel Gray’s EP, A Future’s Past, is available as a free digital download at danielgraymusic.bandcamp.com. He will be busking outside of stations along the Spadina subway line this week. He is also playing a show on Nov. 7 at the Concord Café.

Book City

Maggie Helwig’s Girls Fall Down

Helwig is the associate director of the Scream Literary Festival and has also written six books of poetry. Her third novel is full of suspense and intensity. Girls Fall Down is about a photographer who tries to capture Toronto as it slips into chaos after a series of unexplained medical outbreaks. Portraying a more chaotic scenario of the city, where discomfort turns to frantic worry and paranoia, Helwig magnifies issues like racism and inequality in order to investigate them thoroughly. The reader also vividly experiences Toronto’s cityscape through the lens of the photographer.

Mark Osbaldeston’s Unbuilt Toronto: A History of the City that Might Have Been

Unbuilt Toronto is Osbaldeston’s debut novel; he also practices law and writes architecture reviews. This book gets you thinking about Toronto’s architecture and what could have been built had certain building proposals been accepted. (For instance, there could have been a highway through the Annex, or an entirely different Queen Street.) Osbaldeston encourages the reader to creatively envision a different kind of urban environment, which leaves you with a new-found awareness and appreciation of Toronto’s structure and culture.

Austin Clarke’s More

Clarke is a Barbados-born Canadian citizen. One of the more prolific writers of the five short-listed, he has published 11 novels and won a number of literary prizes. More explores the African Diaspora through the life of a black immigrant woman in Toronto. The main character, a single mother from Barbados, has struggled endlessly to raise her son alone after being abandoned by her husband. She is shattered after hearing that her son has joined a gang, and submerges herself in a flood of memories for the next four days. Through her painful recollection of the suffering involved in coming to Canada, she finds a sense of strength that is both incredibly uplifting and inspiring. Clarke’s illumination of Toronto’s multicultural dynamic and the Kensington Market neighbourhood resonate powerfully.

Anthony De Sa’s Barnacle Love

De Sa is an English professor and Barnacle Love, his first novel, was also short-listed for the 2008 Giller Book Prize. De Sa’s novel is based on his own experiences growing up in Toronto’s Little Portugal with parents who clung to a culture he never fully connected with, an issue very relevant to those born into immigrant families. Following De Sa as a little boy riding his bike around Queen Street, College Street, and the Annex creates a touching picture of what he saw and felt as he ventured out into non-Portuguese communities.

Charles Wilkins’ In the Land of Long Fingernails: A Gravedigger’s Memoir

Wilkins has published over 12 novels, and this one is also being considered for the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour, which means people think it is funny. (I most definitely do.) This story is based on Wilkins’ own experiences digging graves as a teenager. It provides a fascinating look into a bizarre reality that’s only believable because the author himself lived it. Mixing the solemnity of death with hilarity, Wilkins’ dry wit allows him to communicate his perspective on the fearful issue of death and the way we deal with it.

Paranormal Activity frightens horror purists

When the “Midnight Movie” was in its heyday, the actual movie was a mere side dish to the experience of going to a theatre at midnight and encountering whatever low-budget oddity was currently in vogue. One of the best movie trailers of all time is for John Waters’ midnight movie breakthrough Pink Flamingos (1972). The trailer shows not a single frame of the film; instead, we see interviews with people exiting the theatre, still reeling from what they’d seen and calling the film things like, “The most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen in my whole life.” Kinda makes you want to see what all the fuss is about, right?

The trailer for Paranormal Activity—a much buzzed-about horror film with a $11,000 budget, or just about $1,000 more than that of the 37-year-old Pink Flamingos—works much the same way, featuring supposed night-vision documentary footage of a preview audience being jolted and shocked by spooky happenings of the film. Through a brilliant Blair Witch-style ad campaign, word of mouth has been spreading to the point where last weekend the film hit number four on the Box Office Top Ten, despite playing on only 160 screens (a gargantuan $49,379 per-screen average).

Oren Peli is a first-time director, and so far out of left field that at press time he didn’t even have a Wikipedia page (I gleaned from his sparse IMDb profile three facts: he emigrated from Israel to the U.S. at age 19; he studied graphics and animations; and he has a spouse whose name is unlisted). As with Blair Witch, Paranormal Activity has benefited from the various myths and tall tales that have sprung up around it. According to lore, Peli was inspired by strange goings-on in his own home: the story of a couple that films their room while they sleep to monitor for supernatural activity is reportedly based on an experiment Peli himself performed. And get this: no less than Steven Spielberg reputedly believed the DVD was haunted when his bedroom doors “locked by themselves” while he was watching the film.

Fun stuff, but to his credit, Peli is much more interested in the nuts and bolts of filmmaking than perpetuating any myths. Key to the strength of a mockumentary horror film such as this, he stresses in a phone interview, are naturalistic performances. “I knew from the very beginning that once we had actors that could pull it off, which was not easy to find, we wanted to make sure that they could speak freely and naturally. So we gave them a little bit of an idea of what the scene is and a little bit of guidelines, but by having them come up with their own dialogue we were able to make sure that everything feels very natural in the setting and doesn’t feel like it’s some sort of a scripted, theatrical performance.”

Peli became interested in the film when he realized the vulnerable state we enter during sleep. “I knew that by placing the setting of all the scary things that are happening in the people’s bed, in their bedroom, that’s the one thing that you can’t really escape. And after people watched The Blair Witch Project people said, ‘I’m never going to go camping again.’ Or after Jaws people said, ‘I’m never going to go swim in the ocean.’ But if you set up the setting for all the horrific things in someone’s bedroom, then that’s what you’re going to be thinking about when you’re lying in bed trying to fall asleep.”

The Blair Witch Project is invariably mentioned in any discussion of the film, a comparison Pelin takes in stride. “It was definitely an influence. Blair Witch is the most successful movie that employed this kind of style, the cinema verité mock-umentary style, but I’ve been a fan of that since before Spinal Tap.”

“I think the style is similar,” he continues, “but the story and most of the other elements are different. So it’s still a different story. And I love that people say that it’s unique and original.”

Will Paranormal Activity really make you afraid to go to sleep at night, as many of its fans contend? “When people tell me they have trouble sleeping after watching the movie I take it as a compliment,” Pelin says.

A pause. “Hopefully it’s not going to become like a real medical problem for anyone where they… you know, they can’t sleep at all.”

What ever happened to Marshall McLuhan?

In 1964, Marshall McLuhan published Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, and completely transformed the way we understand communications. With his memorable aphorisms “the medium is the message” and “the global village,” McLuhan was one of the most influential intellectuals of the 20th century.

Many of McLuhan’s predictions have come true with the onset of globalization, the rise of the Internet, and continued technological advances in the areas of computers and telecommunications.

With such success, one would assume that the University of Toronto, where McLuhan spent most of his teaching career, would have a larger think tank dedicated to probing the implications of his work—or at least a college named after him, like his spiritual mentor, Harold Innis, has.

Sure, St. Joseph Street is known as “Marshall McLuhan Way,” and there is a small plaque about him pinned to a red brick house on the same street.

His legacy continues here at U of T with the McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology, which explores the nature and effects of the things we conceive and create in all media. A group known as the Coach House Institute, the stewards of the program, announced their plans for the program at a seminar at the Faculty for Information Studies on Oct. 14.

But the most tangible symbol of McLuhan’s legacy is a quaint but crumbling building at 39A Queen’s Park Crescent that houses the McLuhan Program. The Coach House, as it is affectionately known, seems inadequately modest in comparison with the ideas of its former occupant. If the medium is indeed the message, then the message from U of T appears to be one of apathy.

After his death in 1980, U of T shut down McLuhan’s program and re-opened it only after worldwide protest. Furthermore, it took former program director Derrick de Kerkchove over three years to attach McLuhan’s name to his own graduate program. And even after that heroic effort, the program only received a $20,000, non-renewable, one-year grant.

Fortunately, subsequent directors of the program have been able to extend its intellectual influence beyond the modest appearance of its home. It has been mainly through their efforts that McLuhan has not faded from view. The program receives significant institutional support from the Faculty of Information Studies at U of T as an independent research and teaching unit. It has also carried out several educational and academic projects inspired by McLuhan’s work, and continues to operate along the same guidelines as it did when it first opened in the 1960s.

That causes some relief for this unapologetic McLuhan-atic, but I still feel more needs to be done to promote McLuhan’s legacy—namely, educating the public about his continued influence. McLuhan understood that Canada, as a country detached from the epicent of world affairs, is the perfect place to study communications. Hopefully, the Coach House Institute will be able to shed more light on this and on “Canada’s Intellectual Comet,” so that he can shine more brightly in the future.

When ‘Black’ became ‘Bilk’

As you can probably tell by the title, Conrad: Lord Bilk of the Crosspurposes isn’t necessarily geared towards a university-age audience. When I took my seat in George Ignatieff Theatre, packed to capacity on opening night, I was pretty sure I was the only person there younger than the eponymous lord. But the charming fellow in the seat next to me, who turned out to be playwright Jim Bacque, is anything but stuffy. Before the play started, he had time to tell me a story from his student days at Trin in the 1950s, when he was able to convince the Varsity cheerleaders to dance for a photo-op on a table in Hart House’s Great Hall. He’s teamed up with former classmates Peter Russell and Martin Hunter for his latest work of mischief, this one directed at a target notoriously uncomfortable with criticism, Conrad Black.

Conrad picks up where most of the media left off, telling the story of the unflappable newspaper baron and his wacky friends and associates, all of whom share similarly skimpy pseudonyms. Bilk is haunted, Scrooge-style, by his former headmaster, who introduces himself as Bilk’s conscience and orders him to get his hands above the sheets. He is also treated to visits from his devoted and frivolous wife, and former PM Lady Thrasher (Margaret Thatcher), who—in the funniest bit in the play—defeats a block full of leering prisoners with her withering glare. The scheme Bilk eventually develops to buy the jail he’s stuck in makes more of a joke out of the American legal system than it does of Bilk. However, the plot takes a turn for the sinister when Bilk develops a scheme to privatize war.

Although this is, of course, not a realistic or tender portrayal of the man, actor Thomas Gaugh captures the weird charisma of the longsuffering know-it-all that inspired the play. Likewise, the poised and dignified Kay Montgomery offers an enjoyable caricature of the scariest British lady alive. The one character who would have benefited from a little more depth is Lady Bilk, who spends most of her time discussing her wardrobe and planning the redecoration of her husband’s cell. The real Barbara Amiel has generated plenty of poignant, interesting thoughts as a columnist for Maclean’s magazine. (She also contributed to The Varsity in the 1960s—Ed.)

Director Martin Hunter does everything he can to make Conrad’s jail cell, where most of the play is set, roomy. The obviously simple set consists of a wall (with graffiti that unfortunately does look as though it was composed by the play’s seventy-something creators), bed, and toilet. For all its highbrow references, some of the play’s most interesting humour stems from the peculiar social situation of talking to business associates in the place where you pee. The other prisoners, among whom Conrad finds an eager audience for his lectures on business, exist as disembodied voices shouting from offstage.

The play begins and ends with musical numbers, an anachronistic Gilbert & Sullivan parody that commands respect if only for successfully rhyming “slamma’” with “Obama.” The closing piece, also a parody, is not as strong, but is saved by a kick-ass solo from Lady Bilk, played by Martha Spence.

Though the audience was laughing through most of the show, Bacque and producer Peter Russell had difficulty finding a theatre willing to test out the potential legal minefield of portraying the lawsuit-happy prisoner in an unflattering light. You can’t really blame them, especially seeing that much of the play revolves around the main character’s legal machinations.

Russell, a pleasant 76-year-old who eagerly guided patrons to their seats, says there was a definite libel chill among a few theatres. Bacque has written a book about trying to get his work onstage, Putting on Conrad, due to be released in January. “People who do big things have big character flaws,” says Russell. It occurred to him that the story of Conrad Black would make a great play as he was watching Black’s melodramatic Chicago trial in 2007. As for the feelings of Conrad himself, which (such as they are) get a lot of attention in this play, Russell isn’t worried. “We think he’ll probably get a tickle out of it,” he says cheerfully.

Trinity College’s Theatre Month celebrates the 30th anniversary of the George Ignatieff Theatre. For more information on this month’s performances, which include Saints Alive! and No Exit, visit www.trinity.utoronto.ca.

Obama talks the talk, but true peace building is more than words

President Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize came as a shock to the world. Unlike most stories, this news was truly ripe for punditry. Disregarding their knowledge of the Peace Prize committee’s criteria or of Obama’s specific deeds and words, anyone could—and did—express an opinion. Many argued that Obama simply had not done enough to deserve this honour, without spelling out what they expected from him and when. The world is right to expect Obama to make good on his promises to revitalize America’s role as a global diplomatic leader after the moral depravity of the Bush years. However, these expectations have not yet become reality.

Obama has said the right things. No president, Democrat or Republican, has ever declared the intent to eliminate nuclear weapons. This pledge is significant not because it will be realized within Obama’s presidency, but because it symbolizes his commitment to set America on the path of a renaissance. No president has flown to Cairo, the heart of the Arab world, to assure Muslims that democracy and Islam are compatible, even complementary ideas. No president has so clearly and publicly stated what he thinks it takes to move Middle East peace talks forward. For this he should be lauded and encouraged to continue.

His deeds, however, have yet to advance the cause of international peace. While drastically reducing American involvement in Iraq, Obama has stepped up the war in Afghanistan with serious consequences for Pakistan. Debates continue to rage in Washington about whether to send more troops to Afghanistan. Obama has yet to restore America’s prominent role in the United Nations or to pledge support for the International Criminal Court, the moral legitimacy of which will remain only partial until America joins the ranks. Strong words on climate change are meaningless unless backed up by clear American commitments on emissions target negotiations at Copenhagen this December.

Obama is certainly a leader unlike any America has had in recent decades. But this does not mean that the world will or should expect only words. The expectations, foreign and domestic, that the president faces are tremendous, but no president has inspired so many fine minds into public service. If anyone can restore America’s role in the world, it is Obama. But this prize should be seen as a challenge, rather than an affirmation that he is inevitably on his way there.