The old, worn-down Coach House, with creaking wooden stairs and battered doors, has a homey feel to it that evokes the care and concern the press has for its writers. Since Stan Bevington founded the press in 1965, he has upheld the importance of interacting with authors to produce quality books.This summer, Coach House Press finally purchased its property—two coach houses that contain the operation’s editorial and printing offices, as well as a small warehouse —at 80 bpNichol Lane, just behind Innis College. The aging buildings will require plenty of repairs, but for Bevington, tearing down Coach House and rebuilding is not an option. With its rich history of quality printing and publishing, the houses represent everything that makes the Coach House Press a huge asset to the community.Part of what renders Coach House unique is their use of high-quality Heidelberg printing machines to produce their work.“Our industry is going through many technological changes,” mentions Bevington, “and it is really a challenge for us not to get carried away with the latest and greatest. We use really standard machines in a really standard way rather than buying new things all of the time. Our presses don’t necessarily go as fast as the new ones, but that doesn’t matter.” Coach House Press Editor Alana Wilcox is quick to add that the Heidelberg presses do “just as good, if not a better job, than the current presses.”This is not to say, though, that Coach House is averse to modern technology: the press had been using the Internet as a means of promoting, advertising, and selling the books for ages.“We got started early on the Internet,” remarks Wilcox. “Our printing company had a spin-off company that wrote the rules…you can listen to our books online and you have always been able to, but they’re still selling.”The website is continually updated with info on newly printed books, as well as book launches and other events hosted by the press. Many of these events feature authors reading from their books.“At the fall launch, you get a chance to see the author so that you can attach a personality and a voice to the writing, and we think that is really important,” says Bevington. Another way that the press integrates authors with readers is the tours that the press gives to students of all ages: “[We give] tours endlessly; students go away with the touch and feel and smell of books…and they remember it easily,” says Bevington.“It’s interesting, especially when we do tours for high school students or even grade school kids. They’ve never connected the book to the process of producing it, so they come in and watch the process from the computer files, to the paper being folded and glued together into a book. They’re just wide-eyed…really, it’s quite remarkable, it’s nice to see,” adds Wilcox.Coach House Press also gives tours to some U of T classes. “It’s very helpful for the university students to see real production as opposed to historical study,” notes Bevington. “It gives them a sense of why the paper is folded the way it is.” “[This is a] continually social space,” adds Wilcox. “People are always dropping by. You’d be surprised who you might find here one day sitting at the coffee table.”The press also enjoys showing off its efficiency to students: the Heidelberg machinery is jammed into just three rooms, and in the last one, there are three individuals working at cutting and gluing together books. The negatives for individual books are stacked on shelves in between pieces of cardboard, with labels indicating the titles for future reprinting. “Probably our most famous play book, The Farm Show, has been continuously in print since 1972 [or] ’73,” says Bevington, “so we keep our printing plates and negatives ready for making re-prints.”Some books published by the press are reprinted countless times, but Bevington states that the press’s goal is to “try to find authors that are not published by anyone else.” Every year, Wilcox receives approximately 1,000 new books ranging from poetry, fiction, drama and non-fiction about the city of Toronto—the only genres that Coach House Press publishes—and chooses the 15 best that the press will go on to print.Coach House helped launch the careers of such acclaimed authors as Michael Ondaatje and Anne Michaels, and every year it continues to choose unique and interesting writing by up-and-coming authors. In explaining the type of literature they seek, Wilcox mentions that they “try to do stuff that’s a little more unconventional, not straightforward historical fiction or something. We try to do stuff that’s a little more adventurous, experimental, avant-garde.”“We look for novels that creatively use language to make a story that we would have never expected,” adds Bevington, “whereas many publishers accept the narrative as the way to do a novel.”In addition to reprints and new literature, Coach House Press takes on special projects, such as publishing the Hart House Review and many of U of T’s literary journals. Furthermore, the press creates catalogues for the Fisher Rare Book library. “We do some beautiful work for the Fisher Rare Book Library,” notes Bevington. “They choose us because they want really prestigious work. We get to look at the finest books in the library and [make] catalogues of entire collections. Right now we’re doing a [catalogue] about Darwin—all of the books that Darwin ever published are going to be on display in the fall—and we’re going to do a catalogue that has an overview of all of [them].”Although the press has significant projects to tend to, it is now fully responsible for an even bigger one: the upkeep of the actual coach houses. For 40 years, Coach House Press had a cooperative agreement with Campus Co-operative Residence Inc., which kept their rent low and rendered purchasing their building unnecessary. Changes occurred within Campus Co-op that left the organization saddled with debt, and at one point “the plan was for us to move so that they could make houses on the laneway,” says Bevington.“But we wanted to stay. Many of our friends thought that we had published good books on Canadian literature and that we’re an asset to the community, so we encouraged the powers that be to let us stay.”“Our industry is going through many technological changes and it is really a challenge for us not to get carried away with the latest and greatest.
Coach House makes it a home
We’re Still Scared of Russia
“What exactly is going on in Georgia, anyway?” I overheard a young woman ask her friend the other day, as they wheeled vintage cruisers along Bloor Street. “I dunno, like bombings or something,” she responded. They continued on their way.I cringed a little, embarrassed for their public display of ignorance. “Bombings?” Please. But then, for no particular reason, I asked myself the same question: What exactly is going on in Georgia?Ever since the August 8th invasion of the Georgian breakaway province of South Ossetia by Russian forces, the ensuing conflict has been met with a combination of bewilderment, fascination, and frustration from the West. Despite a flurry of media coverage, interpretations of the events remain vague. What does this conflict mean and why did it happen now?The tumultuous relationship between Russia and Georgia is hardly a new development. Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili has been a vocal supporter of the West, petitioning for NATO inclusion and enthusiastically supporting the Iraq war. Western infringement aside, the ethno-political tensions between ethnic Georgians and separatist majorities in the regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia have threatened the region’s political stability for years.From a purely pragmatic standpoint, this invasion could hardly have been better timed. With the simultaneous opening of the Olympic games in Beijing and a lame-duck U.S. president squeaking out the final days of his term, one could certainly point to a window of opportunity for the Russian forces. Yet the root cause of the conflict remains a matter of debate: is this a battle for oil? Territory? Ideals? Even the most diligent probing finds no definitive answers.Thus far, the responses of the media and political figures alike have been muddled by a history of uncertainties. It’s hard to examine Russia’s actions without rekindling old fears and retreating to a familiar sense of apprehension towards an unpredictable and unapproachable Kremlin.Despite the expansion of NATO to include former soviet states, Western response continues to address Russia with the same “us vs. them” rhetoric that typified the Cold War. Even Presidential candidate Barack Obama, lauded for his resistance of stodgy Washington thinking, took the opportunity in his nomination acceptance speech to list “nuclear proliferation” alongside “Russian aggression” as 21st century threats against which Western allies must stand guard.Likewise, Russia has shown considerable discontent toward the encroachment of NATO upon its borders. There is no doubt that NATO, a Western alliance implicitly pitted against an old Russian “enemy,” poses an ideological and symbolic threat.Certainly, this conflict can be interpreted as a battle of figureheads, a game of diplomatic one-upmanship and a call from Russia to stop being taken for granted. Perhaps the recent newspapers heralding a “new Cold War” are not merely spouting histrionics. The only certainties, right now, are the numbers: hundreds of casualties, and over a hundred thousand displaced persons.
You’ve never seen anything like it: 85,000 spectators waving American flags and chanting “Yes We Can,” in tears after each of Senator Barack Obama’s promises of change and hope. Reminiscent of another important occasion in American history, Obama’s acceptance speech in Denver last Thursday paralleled Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. It was thus appropriate that Obama accepted his party’s nomination on the anniversary of King’s legendary march. As a former Senator Hillary Clinton supporter, “change” and “hope” once sounded like empty rhetoric devised in the Chicago war room to lure in gullible new voters. But after spending a week in Denver, I finally understand the power of these words.Obama’s speech at Invesco Field was historic on every level. Record numbers of supporters both attended the event and watched Obama on their television sets at home. From one of the best seats in the house, I experienced the energy firsthand. I watched Daily Show correspondent John Oliver scurry among the delegates on the floor, and waved to Governor Howard Dean and Governor Bill Richardson as they peeked out from their VIP seating. I stood next to those crying with joy that America had made it this far.The key to attending a national convention is to tune out the political pundits. When you’re lucky enough to attend one of the most important events in history, you have to block out the spin and allow yourself to experience the moment. The only news I watched last week was C-SPAN, to catch up on any missed speeches.Returning to the real world, my friends and family who saw CNN’s coverage observed, “Well, they say Al Gore’s speech on Thursday was a little rushed, and I agree.” Perhaps I still haven’t come down from my Denver high, but I could not disagree more. Similarly, television journalists continue to debate whether the Clintons did enough to prove their support for Obama during the convention.In my observation, Denver was a divided city until Bill Clinton spoke. Previously, voters fit into one of three categories: Obama supporters who thought Clinton was bitter, Clinton supporters who wanted to see her hold onto her delegates and possibly steal the election, and Clinton supporters who thought Obama fans were attacking their candidate, despite her efforts to mend the great democratic divide. Strolling the halls of the Convention Center, I heard the frustrations of them all. Some supporters were upset that the Clintons received prime-time coverage for two nights of the convention, and that the extreme Clinton supporters who were protesting Obama’s nomination by voting for Senator John McCain were receiving any coverage at all.Obama’s nomination, however, is a victory in itself. He faced numerous obstacles throughout the hard-fought primary season, and so it’s easy to understand why his supporters feel cheated that their biggest threat was a member of his own party. However, as a Clinton supporter, I know that much of the tension between Obama and Clinton was created by Obama’s supporters. Every time Obama’s pundits lash out, deeming Clinton “bitter” and claiming that “no one will ever vote for her”—even though she won the hearts of 18 million voters and nearly the nomination—her supporters are backed into a corner. They feel under-appreciated, clinging to their candidate even more. If Obama’s fans could treat Clinton with respect, her followers would be more eager to support his campaign. Even after Senator Clinton’s speech on Tuesday, Obama supporters said that while they thought it was the best speech she had ever given, they still doubted her sincerity.Bill Clinton’s speech changed everything, reminding the world of why he’s considered one of the best orators of our time. He inspired Obama and Clinton supporters to shake hands and pursue the Democratic goal of electing Obama as the 44th president of the United States. While some may criticize Obama for not being able to unite the Party, in Denver, President Clinton was the only person who could have done so. As his wife’s greatest defender and one of most admired Democrats, President Clinton needed to assure America that he believed in Obama.The message of the convention was unity: a united party and a united America. Though pundits may continue to rock the boat to make headlines, the events in Denver united the Democratic Party. When McCain released his attack commercial highlighting comments made by Senators Joe Biden and Clinton against Obama, Democrats finally realized that they were falling into the hands of the Republicans. Obama sealed the convention by inspiring a new and stronger Democratic Party with the support of the Clintons. Senator Clinton spoke on the anniversary of women’s suffrage, and Obama spoke on the anniversary of King’s “I Have A Dream” speech. It seems as though it was almost meant to be.
TIFF takes off
ADORATION – Atom Egoyan
Following the glossy Where the Truth Lies, Adoration is a throwback to the intimacy of Egoyan’s earlier, more complex work. Simon (Devon Bostick) is a half-Lebanese, half-Anglo high school student whose social circle meets almost nightly in an Internet chat room. While translating a story for his French class, he radically re-writes it on a whim, turning it into an autobiography about his fictional terrorist father. Simon’s fascinated teacher (Arsinee Khanjian), asks him to expand it for a drama presentation, but does not anticipate that he will post it on the Internet as truth. Simon’s parents, as seen in flashback, are cartoonishly pure, depicted in stilted and clumsy dialogue. Egoyan is on target in his depiction of the Internet as a breeding ground for fear and hatred, raising troubling questions about the lingering racism that that has been given a new lease after 9/11. Adoration may be flawed, but like all of Egoyan’s work, it’s both earnest and intriguing.Rating: VVVv
Ed HarrisIn the rare case that a new Western is made, it’s usually either revisionist or ironic. It is rather surprising, to see Appaloosa — a Western that is unapologetically old-fashioned. Ed Harris plays a no-nonsense sheriff with Viggo Mortensen as his loyal deputy. The pair are faced with the daunting challenge of cleaning up the small, corrupt town of Appaloosa, while vanquishing the murderous but well-connected Jeremy Irons. Meanwhile, Harris falls in love with an attractive widow (Renee Zellweger), but her affections are less than constant. Harris and Mortensen are ideal actors for this material — they’re stoic, manly, and appear to have been left out in the sun too long. Zellweger, so frequently miscast, has an ideal role. Appaloosa revels in its spare, dusty atmosphere, from the period costumes to a musical score that’s straight out of a John Wayne film.Rating:VVVV
BLINDNESS – Fernando Meirelles
When Fernando Meirelles’ Blindness opened the Cannes film festival last May, it went over like a lead balloon. It’s not hard to see why: based on the novel by José Saramago with a screenplay by Don McKellar (who also contributes one of his surlier performances), Blindness is a nightmarish work about human degradation and the downfall of civilization, a cross between Children of Men and Salo. The film depicts in eerily plausible terms what would happen if an unexplainable and incurable pandemic of blindness swept the United States. As an exploration of the implications of an end-of-world scenario, with a cast that includes Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Danny Glover, and Gael Garcia Bernal, Blindness is powerful and uncompromising, though it may not be something you’d want to endure.Rating:VVVVV
BURN AFTER READING – Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Following the success of No Country for Old Men, the Coen Brothers return with another film about a stolen plot device. A fitness guru (Brad Pitt) finds a disc containing the memoirs of an ex-CIA agent (John Malkovich) said to contain explosive revelations. Pitt and co-worker Frances McDormand plan to blackmail Malkovich, but their startling incompetence leads to assorted shenanigans. Aside from Tilda Swinton and Richard Jenkins, the actors approach this material with ironic detachment (expect much mugging). Alas, the Coens take the same alienating approach. While they seem to think that the idea of over-their-head half-wits is intrinsically hilarious, there are few guffaws. This is the Coen’s weakest film to date.Rating:VV
EDISON & LEO – Neil Burns
The villain of Neil Burns’ stop motion fantasy is an inventor named George T. Edison. Credited with inventing the light bulb and the motion picture camera, the film suggests some similarities with a certain Thomas A. Edison, and the fact that he has a son named Faraday confuses matters even more. Yet two questions persist during this film: who was it made for, and to whom could it possibly appeal? Edison & Leo begins like a movie for kids, with a tone that eventually darkens enough to include nasty violence and crude sex jokes. Despite the adult content, the characters embody the same two-dimensional archetypes laid down in the Gospel According to Disney, with voice actors (including Powers Boothe and Carly Pope) that recite their dialogue in patronizing tones they might use if reading a storybook aloud to a particularly slow-witted child. While the stop motion animation is fun for a few minutes, the characters are given so many annoying mannerisms (aggressive hand-gesturing, eyebrow-raising, etc.) that it grows tiresome.Rating: Vv
EXAMINED LIFE – Astra Taylor
In this National Film Board co-production, Cornell West, Michael Hardt, Slavoj Zizek, Pete Singer, and other contemporary philosophers are asked to explain how to live a meaningful life. It’s a surprisingly complicated question, as the film is a veritable orgy of philosophical theory. Each of the interviewees wrestle with the near-impossible task of viewing human nature and ethics objectively. A sample of the issues brought up: can secular humanists believe in objective ethics? Is revolution possible in a first-world country? Why is it more satisfying to believe that catastrophic events have a higher meaning? Can humans ever attain absolute truth? These are the types of questions that college students debate at 4 A.M., fueled by caffeine or other, more illicit substances. To Examined Life’s credit, it possesses much of the same excited spirit of intellectual inquisitiveness.Rating: VVVv
HEAVEN ON EARTH – Deepa Mehta
Chand (Bollywood star Preity Zinta), a young Indian woman, is sent to live in Canada as part of an arranged marriage. In the establishing scenes, all of the characters are dressed in traditional Indian clothing. Coupled with the fact that arranged marriage is anachronistic to the average western filmgoer, Heaven on Earth initially takes on the look and feel of a period piece. Yet the contrast is jarring when we see Chand applying make-up in a modern airplane bathroom, growing starker when her depressive husband begins beating her with little provocation. With films like Water, director Deepa Mehta has often contrasted the role of the modern Indian women with their function in the traditional family unit. Though Heaven on Earth heads for supernatural territory, Mehta is most effective with the shocking and uncomfortably realistic scenes of domestic abuse.Rating:VVVVv
IL DIVO – Paolo Sorrentino
Il Divo begins with an ‘Italian glossary,’ defining several key Italian political terms from the early 1990s. While I appreciate the attempt to keep the viewer well-oriented, I was thinking, “Wait, hang on…could you say all that again, a little slower?” Either way, Il Divo doesn’t slow down. As it covers the fall from grace of Christian Democrat leader Guilio Andreotti, seemingly dozens of true-life characters are introduced, corrupted, killed, elected, rejected, and prosecuted. Sorrentino’s aggressive directorial virtuosity recalls a Goodfellas and Casino-era Martin Scorsese, with long tracking shots, fast cutting, roving camerawork, and a general atmosphere of hyperactivity. While his style is coolly distancing rather than engrossing, I suspect Il Divo will improve upon repeated viewings, when the labyrinthine intricacy of the plot will hopefully become clearer.Rating: VVV
LA FILLE DE MONACO – Anne Fontaine
In one of his Life in Hell comic strips, Matt Groening described what he believes to be cinema’s greatest paradox: “The French are funny, sex is funny, and comedies are funny, yet no French sex comedies are funny.” La Fille de Monaco does little to dispel this notion. Bertrand (Fabrice Luchini) is a top attorney whose current trial is high profile enough that he needs 24-hour protection from Christophe (Roschdy Zem), a no-nonsense bodyguard. Almost by accident, he strikes up a relationship with Audrey (Louise Bourgouin), a sexually adventurous femme fatale who provides his life with certain fringe benefits, but also adds to his neuroses. The fact that she once had a fling with Christophe adds extra tension. The film’s first half is a light and fizzy screwball comedy with shallow characterization: Bertrand is uptight and bumbling, Christophe is scowling and imposing, and Audrey is a two-dimensional vixen. In the second half, director Anne Fontaine veers into more dramatic territory, as Christophe’s conflicted feelings about Audrey become increasingly intense. But by establishing the characters as paper-thin, Fontaine hasn’t given us any reason to care about them in the conclusion.Rating: VV
PASSCHENDAELE – Paul Gross
Ten years and $20 million in the making, Paul Gross’ Canadian war epic has lofty expectations to live up to. I suspect Gross will have a tough time with the critics, who will probably dismiss the film as corny and melodramatic. Gross stars as a shell-shocked WWI veteran haunted by memories of Vimy Ridge who falls in love with an Albertan nurse. She has problems of her own — her father died fighting on the German side, and her asthmatic younger brother is determined to fight in the war despite his 4F status. Gross goes overboard on the symbolism (at one point, he actually a carries a cross through a battlefield), and I doubt the road to Canadian box office success is paved by resurrecting the hoariest clichés from the American War Movie Playbook. Passchendaele does, however, climax with a humdinger of a battle scene that will undoubtedly become a staple for particularly dry grade 10 history classes.Rating: VVv
RELIGULOUS – Larry Charles
One’s appreciation of Religulous depends on their appreciation of Bill Maher. This documentary follows him touring the holy lands, the Bible Belt, and a few odd religious offshoots (a gay correctional centre, a creationist history museum) as he makes the case that religious institutions are corrupt and hypocritical and that faith leads to bigotry, irrationality, and closed-mindedness. While Maher interviews many, he’s less interested in debate than forwarding his own hypothesis. Is there anything to learn, for example, from the long scene where Maher runs logical rings around a guy who plays Jesus at a theme park except that Maher is more quick-witted than the average theme park worker? I wish he showed more of the intelligent religious defenders and less dim radicals. Nevertheless, Maher is smart and witty, and even if his observations are old news, they’re still fascinating. Isn’t it a little disturbing that so many people take “the talking snake” literally? Isn’t the idea of living a good life only to get into heaven an immoral one? Isn’t it astounding when a fundamentalist senator smugly proclaims, “You don’t need to pass an IQ test to get into the Senate?” I would have preferred if Maher and Larry Charles tried to spark debate instead of just defending their foregone conclusion, but Religulous is an articulate, sometimes funny, and fairly substantial defense of atheism.Rating:VVV
SUGAR – Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck
Instead of being lured to the high budget big leagues, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck have followed up their acclaimed Half Nelson with another small-scale slice-of-life, which I found even more interesting than their breakthrough. Miguel ‘Sugar’ Santos (Algenis Perez Soto) is a dynamic Puerto Rican baseball player who is invited to the United States minor leagues. Unable to speak English and placed in a country that regards him patronizingly, he finds it difficult to adapt. Sugar is a convincing film about culture shock and self-confidence, and Boden and Fleck’s nonjudgmental treatment of the characters is admirable.Rating:VVV
SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK – Charlie Kaufman
How to describe Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York, a surreal pseudo-comedy about a self-loathing playwright (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who aims to stage a life-sized version of a small city as his next production? It’s a hall of mirrors. It’s not linear. It’s cumbersome. It’s dense. It’s funny and groan-worthy, pretentious and sublime. It’s cubist, mannerist, realist, abstract, non-representational, baroque, and rococo. It’s James Joyce, Franz Kafka, Kurt Vonnegut, Philip Roth, Harvey Pekar, and Dr. Seuss. It’s Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry, Woody Allen, David Lynch, Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini — both the Coens and the Farrelly Brothers. I found this film brilliant, tiresome, fraudulent, ridiculous, intelligent, weird, moving, emotional, sterile, self-satisfied, ambitious, innovative, calculated, spectacular, sad, gross, entertaining, narcissistic, delightful, overreaching, and fun. It made me feel enthralled, excited, depressed, lonely, intrigued, exhausted, exasperated, elated, and frustrated. And so obviously, I can’t wait to see it again.Rating:VVVVV
WALTZ WITH BASHIR – Ari Folman
The principal reason to see Waltz with Bashir is the extraordinary quality and originality of its animation. For his animated documentary about the first Lebanese war, Ari Folman has taken actual audio recordings of interviews with war veterans, animating both the interviews and flashbacks in a style that brings to mind Persepolis, Waking Life, and a paper puppet show. As much as I enjoyed looking at Waltz with Bashir, the animation doesn’t suit the material. As the interviewees describe their guilt over taking part in acts that were arguably genocidal, the whimsical animation places a filter of irony in front of their harrowing memories. Only in the final moments when Folman shows archival footage of the war’s aftermath does the film achieve the emotional resonance it requires.Rating: VVv
ZACK AND MIRI MAKE A PORNO – Kevin Smith
During the long ordeal that was Zack and Miri Make a Porno, I reflected upon a brief moment in the ‘90s when Kevin Smith seemed to have the potential to be a truly interesting cinematic voice. These days, it’s more lame sex jokes from the man who brought you the bestiality scene in Clerks 2. Zack (Seth Rogen) and Miri (Elizabeth Banks) are longtime platonic friends and roommates that have hit financial woes. To pay off their debt, they decide to direct and star in a porno, with the agreement that the on-screen copulating will be strictly business. Predictably, they find that having sex changes their dynamic. While Smith’s snickering attitude towards sex and pornography will be a riot to anyone who is still in grade seven, his racial humour is unpleasant and pointless. The cast (an eclectic bunch that includes Craig Robinson, Traci Lords, Justin Long, Jason Mewes, and Katie Morgan) is game, but Smith’s profane rat-a-tat dialogue, so fresh and original in Clerks and Chasing Amy, now sounds like a guy trying to cash in.Rating: VV
Frosh it up!
“You can’t spell suck without UC!” Incoming freshmen delight in spirited cheers, chants and chimes during this year’s Frosh activities. Culminating September 5th, UTSU’s Orientation Day will feature a university-wide clubs showcase, campus parade, and free afternoon concert featuring Tokyo Police Club, Basia Bulat and Cadence Weapon. An after party will be held at the Hart House Great Hall. To all incoming students we say welcome—now don’t forget to wear flip flops in the shower.
A Brief Glimpse of Don McKellar
With a career in Canada that includes directing (Last Night, Childstar), acting (Exotica, Monkey Warfare), playwriting (The Drowsy Chaperone), and work in radio and television (Twitch City, Odd-Job Jack), Don McKellar could conceivably lay claim to Howard Stern’s self-proclaimed title of ‘King of All Media.’ His latest project, Fernando Meilleres’ Blindness (opening at the Toronto International Film Festival), is his highest-profile writing and acting venture to date. McKellar spoke to The Varsity about adapting the acclaimed novel by José Saramago.THE VARSITY: First of all, I liked this movie a lot. But if I hadn’t known you’d written it, I don’t think I would have guessed.DON MCKELLAR: Really? That’s interesting.V: Last Night aside, I don’t normally associate you with this sort of bleak material. How did you become involved with this project? Was it brought to you, or did you lobby for it?DM: I found the project. I read the book, and I guess you’re right, it’s not my ‘normal’ voice, but I definitely responded to it. I read it right after Last Night, and it’s dealing with some of the same themes with a similar storytelling strategy, but way deeper and darker. I guess I was excited about that.V: Last Night depicted quite a polite apocalypse. Some critics have pointed out that it’s a very Canadian version of the end of time.DM: That was sort of the strategy, it was more about denial. But this film is sort of the flip side to that. When I first read the book, I thought, ‘Okay, instead of these people being in denial, [they’re trying to] survive.’V: This movie is definitely interested in the implications of that scenario. When you adapt a book like this, doing it as a major movie with big stars, is there pressure to make a product that will appeal to ‘the marketplace’ while also keeping the somber tone of the book?DM: Well, there were tons of things in the book that people assumed I was going to cut, and people would always say, ‘Oh, you’re not going to have that big rape scene,’ or, ‘There’s not going to be that shit, is there?’ But I was proud to say that we sort of kept all that stuff. All the toughest stuff from the book is in the film. Actually, it’s the other stuff that I ended up cutting. The issue with the marketplace and whether you can get actors? I mean, not a lot of actresses are going to even want to do the part. So it has to do with the tone. To me, it was more about making the tone effective, and persuading people that the tone of the story wouldn’t be exploitive.V: If ever there was a tastefully filmed rape-orgy, this movie has it.DM: [Laughs] Wow, that’s good poster material. Please publish that!V: I understand that the King of Ward 3 [the self-appointed leader of the third ward at the blindness containment centre, played by Gael Garcia Bernal] is a more villainous character in the book, and [director] Fernando Meirelles said that in the movie, he’s more like a kid with a gun than straight-up evil incarnate.DM: He’s pretty villainous, but I think it’s more nuanced, for sure. In the movie, he’s more of an opportunist. He’s taking advantage of the situation. He’s a little guy: Gael is not someone who would be that intimidating if you saw him in a bar. But he’s frustrated by his lost eyesight, because he’s obviously got this kind of aggression. Also, I tried to make it so he’s doing [exploitive things] for a purpose: he’s trying to protect his ward. He’s sort of misguided, but he obviously has a sadistic side. In the book he’s just sort of bad, bad, bad.V: It works with Bernal’s qualities as an actor.DM: It works completely with Gael. I also always liked the idea that he starts [monopolizing the camp’s food supply] partly on behalf of the ward; he’s trying to keep their spirits up, in a way. But in a weird way.V: How did you collaborate with Meirelles? Was there a lot of discussion of the material during pre-production and shooting?DM: Yeah, totally. Fernando and I were very close. I don’t think that’s always the case. It’s certainly not always the case in Hollywood, and it wasn’t the case in Fernando’s last film, The Constant Gardener, where he had problems with the writer. We were in constant communication. It was so important because a lot of the stuff in the script is really visual, and I had to explain what I meant, because it’s hard to describe some of it.V: The motif of the white light seems like something that was discussed very early on.DM: Yeah, and a lot of that stuff is in the script, but it needs explaining. As a matter of fact, I think that’s one of the reasons he cast me, [because] he wanted me around.V: I was curious if the part of the thief was one you wrote with yourself in mind. It’s not exactly the role I’d normally associate with the Don McKellar persona.DM: I tend not to think of casting when I’m writing because I think it can block a writer, but Fernando saw a lot of Canadian films when he was shooting in Canada, and of course saw a number of mine, so he asked me. So you think it’s very different from my stuff? That’s good to hear.V: Well, Twitch City?DM: Yeah, I don’t think he cast me based on Twitch City.
‘Yes’ vote sparks potential Steelworker strike
Update: The Steelworkers have announced that members voted 87 per cent for a strike mandate if no agreement with U of T admin is reached. The deadline is midnight, Sept. 7.After months of negotiation, the United Steelworker Local 1998 voted for a strike mandate last night. Though official results have not been announced, sources close to the union report that the union voted “yes” by a landslide majority. This could mean a strike as early as Sept. 8, the first day of classes, if admin and the union are unable to come to an agreement by then. The strike mandate would considerably increase the union’s bargaining power, demonstrating support for its negotiating team.Both union and administration will be looking to avoid an actual strike, which will only happen if the parties come to an impasse in negotiations. “The most successful strike is one that doesn’t need to take place,” reads the Steelworkers website. “When the members of a Union demonstrate strong support for their bargaining team, there is often enough pressure on the Employer to reach a settlement.”The site also notes that after a comparable strike mandate in 2005, the Steelworkers won a settlement by their deadline. U of T’s unions have been negotiating with the administration over the summer on issues ranging from salaries and pensions to job security and retirement. Steelworkers Local 1998 covers 3,500 administrative, technical, and student workers at U of T. Though the union cannot discuss gains due to bargaining protocol, representatives say there is still much ground to cover.Allison Dubarry, president of the Steelworkers and member of the negotiating team, said that keeping wages in pace with inflation is a chief goal. “Our members feel [the effects of inflation] every time they go to the grocery store, go to fill up their car, or buy anything,” she said.The Steelworkers have been at the table with admin throughout the past week and may continue negotiations into the weekend. “Obviously we want to reach an agreement with Steel, and they want to reach an agreement with us,” said Angela Hildyard, VP of human resources & equity at U of T. “We’re all working towards that common goal.” The VP was optimistic, stating “I am confident that we’ll reach a deal with them […] we’ve made a lot of progress.The Canadian Union of Public Employees have also been negotiating with the admin. CUPE 3902, which represents part-time teaching staff, has a very similar list of grievances. The Local, in concert with the Graduate Students’ Union and others, recently persuaded the university to fulfill their 2006 promise to award graduate students $15,000 in addition to tuition for the 2008-2009 school year. Their website states that, “Although this is an important victory over the administration’s recalcitrance, it is not a new gain, but merely the defense of a previous one […] the current round of bargaining […] has only just begun.”Steelworkers and CUPE have met with each other, and with other unions in the University of Toronto Employees, to talk bargaining strategy. Robert Ramsay, president of Local 3902, said of the partnership, “We have a shared vision with Steelworkers about what quality public university means, about what quality secondary education means… [It’s] not just quality instruction but also a quality environment, and so improving the condition for workers in Toronto across the board is a huge part of that.”According to UTSU VP external Dave Scrivener, students also have a role to play. Union gains can mean student gains, like the $15,000 for grad students. Scrivener also mentioned strikes in which students came to the aid of unions, as was the case at Carleton University last September. The VP even compared student grievances to union ones, saying students’ tuition troubles are not so different from unions’ wage battles. “Steelworkers and CUPE have been major allies and supporters of students in the past,” said Scrivener. “It’s only appropriate that students are making sure that we’re there for the unions.”
New research helps track bees
A unique project is underway at York University. Researchers plan to obtain a “DNA barcode” of close to 20,000 bee species.DNA barcoding is a technique that originated five years ago at the University of Guelph. It uses a small sequence of a species’ DNA to identify and differentiate it from other species. This technique, currently in use at Guelph University, employs part of a mitochondrial gene as the coding region. The specific gene can be obtained from live specimens or certain museum specimens. Guelph researcher Mehrdad Hajibabaei and integrative biology professor Paul Hebert, along with researchers at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History and the University of Pennsylvania, were the pioneers of this research.To date, scientists have identified 19,231 known species of bees, with between 1,500 and 2,000 already barcoded. In addition, approximately 521 different species of moths and butterflies in Costa Rica have been identified.There are several reasons why this practice is beneficial. Arguably its greatest value is providing scientists with the ability to track endangered species. Bees also serve an enormous function in the food chain.“About one-third of the food we eat has been pollinated either directly or indirectly by bees,” said Dr. Laurence Packer, a professor of biology and environmental studies at York University. “Even if you only ate beef, cattle often forage alfalfa in the winter, and alfalfa is pollinated by bees.”A major obstacle concerns taking the project to a global scale. The process of collecting samples in war-torn areas such as Central Africa and Afghanistan is difficult, and the insects themselves are often tough to capture.“Many species are known only from their male or female specimens, and until we see them mating, we won’t know for sure if they are the same species. Also, some species appear identical but have different DNA,” said Packer. “So there is a fair bit of chaos. We’re looking to create some real order.”This research is also of concern in the context of declining honeybee populations in North America.According to the Apiary Inspectors of America, the total loss of the insects among 384 beekeeping operations surveyed between September 2006 and May 2007 was 31.8 per cent, with 51.9 per cent reporting unusually significant losses. The Ontario Beekeepers’ Association reported that almost 27,000 of the 76,000 hives in Ontario were killed in 2006. Many of the remaining colonies were badly weakened.Studies have been done to confirm the benefits of bee barcoding. According to Hebert, species-level identification is definitely possible with DNA barcoding, proving that categorization can go beyond simply naming genus or family.In addition, he claims that in about 20 years, DNA bar-coding will be able to archive 10 million of the planet’s animal species. Only 1.2 million have been identified as of yet.