Editorial: Flat fees will hurt students

Turning points in history usually fly by unnoticed, only to be discovered in retrospect. But we’re pretty sure that 20 years from now, U of T students will look back at this as the week when everything changed.

The Faculty of Arts and Science Council has approved a program of flat fees for full-time undergraduate students. Next, the proposal will go to the Business Board, and eventually Governing Council. If it passes without amendment, by 2011, new students taking three to six courses will have to pay for five.

The proposal is deeply flawed, and it has been rushed through in a mere two weeks without proper deliberation, debate, or scrutiny. The diversity of opposition on campus is revealing. Student unions are, predictably, opposed, as are leftist groups on campus.

But the economics department also voted against the initiative. Several professors criticized it at the meeting. The Program Fees Implementation Committee, which reports to the faculty, had one student, the president of the Arts & Science Student Council. He claims that the only consensus reached by the committee was that September 2009 was too soon to implement the plan, due to lack of research. It’s clear this is not a normal policy change, with a broad coalition behind it. This radical proposal, a taking place at the largest faculty at U of T, will dramatically alter the culture and social makeup of our university.

Much has been written about the impact flat fees will have on student engagement. But there are even more important issues at stake. Flat fees are a tuition increase seemingly targeted at students least able to bear it: those who work long hours, parents, and caregivers.

With the flat fee threshold set at three courses—lower than other universities implementing flat fees, which have set thresholds at four or 4.5 courses—these students will have to pay full tuition or drop to part-time status. As part-time students, they will not receive interest-free OSAP, and will have access to fewer scholarships and bursaries. Even basic benefits like daycare subsidies are tough to obtain without full-time student status.

There has been a lot of arm waving about increased financial aid under the new system, but the fact is that Arts and Science will be in deficit years into the future with or without flat fees. It’s difficult to imagine where new aid would come from. There has also been no discussion of how it would be distributed. Would any be available to part-time students? What about students who don’t qualify for low-income bursary programs but must still finance their education through OSAP and bank loans?

We also note a number of troubling aspects to the Faculty of Arts & Science Committee meeting that passed a revised version of the initial plan on Monday.

The meeting itself was rushed. Twenty minutes was taken up by Dean Meric Gertler’s initial presentation in favour of the proposal, which left only an hour for discussion. Critics voiced their concern, and Gertler was given the chance to respond. No one else was granted such extensive speaking rights.

The initial proposal would have taken effect in September 2009. Under the revised plan, students with a course load of four credits will be considered full-time in September, and the threshold will be lowered to three credits for September 2011. The revision does not change the nature of the proposal, only lengthens the timeline. This is by no means a concession—it’s an obvious attempt to assuage the harshest critics in the here and now, to the detriment of future students who will be offered no part in the discussion.

This timeline shows that flat fees are a long-term change, though they are being pushed through due to a short-term problem—the suspension of endowment payoutsin the face of the recession, resulting in a $5-7 million forecasted deficit. Once implemented, flat fees are here to stay. Flat fees is a permanent response to a supposedly immediate problem.

At the meeting, Gertler was asked whether an increased course load would affect student life. Gertler stated that there is “no systematic evidence” that an intensified course load adversely affects student life. In fact, there is no evidence either way, because no one has conducted the research.

If systematic evidence is Gertler’s priority, you would think he would have supported a motion put forward by the St. Mike’s registrar, to effectively see how things go in 2009 and wait until later to pass the changes for 2011.

Gertler shot down this proposal on the basis that he wouldn’t ever want to be subject to the complaints he’s heard over the past two weeks again. Apparently, whatever burden flat fees will place on students is nothing compared to how public opinion taxes Meric Gertler.

But for the sake of future students, we hope that Gertler, Governing Council, and President David Naylor think hard about what all of those complaints mean. They mean that Arts & Science students don’t want to be burdened by yet another financial concern. They mean that undergrads are desperately trying cling to their fleeting extra-curricular lives. They mean that the needs of the students, the heart of this university, are being denied once again. If this is the turning point that defines this administration, then they should have turned down the other road.

Are you going to Scarborough? Better leave early

The term “Scarberia” originated in the ’60s and denotes a deserted area seemingly far from Toronto. For me, the word is a way of comparing Scarborough’s transit service to that of an underdeveloped hinterland.

All Torontonians have a love-hate relationship with the TTC, but anyone commuting from Scarborough would agree that we’ve been shafted. Scarborough has three meager subway stops. The Bloor line extends west through Etobicoke, and ends within sight of Mississauga. When you get to the east end of the line, Kennedy station, you can take a number of infrequent buses, or hop on the RT.

The deceptively named Rapid Transit line opened in 1985 after the TTC was charged with finding a way of connecting Toronto to the developing Scarborough Town Centre. Instead of building subways, the city opted for a cheaper solution by installing a rail line for above-ground passenger cars.

Originally, there were hopes that the RT line would reach Malvern and even Pickering. In the mid ’70s, political changes altered plans and budgets numerous times. Today, the RT is an embarrassing six stops long, five of which are barely used. When the car turns, it screeches like nails on a chalkboard. When it snows heavily, passengers are forced to map out alternative bus routes.

Most passengers get off the RT at the Scarborough Town Centre and descend two levels, where buses pull out as soon as passengers arrive. If it’s not rush hour, they’ll be waiting 30 minutes for the next bus to pull in late—if it comes at all. Instead of abundant rail lines, Scarberians have ended up with aging passenger cabins that won’t last another decade, complete with a make do system of connecting buses.

Scarborough residents who can’t afford personal transportation and don’t want to hurt the planet will only face more problems as the area grows substantially. One area of rapid growth is enrollment at Scarborough campus. UTSC has many commuting students, 57 per cent as of 2005. When the student union announces monthly metropass sales, a line extends well beyond 10 metres to the end of the Student Centre for at least two days.

At the campus UPASS referendum last year, students voted against an automatic metropass. The lack of an opt-out option is frequently cited as a reason, but perhaps students are frustrated with an inefficient, outdated system. Having taken courses on both campuses this semester, I have noted only two cases when the ride between Scarborough and St. George took under 60 minutes. People taking this commute are losing time that could be used for assignments, study, or even sleep.

The Ontario government is pushing a plan to extend the RT up to Sheppard Avenue by 2015, but this isn’t enough. The TTC has proposed its Transit City plans to build new light-rail lines around the city that connect and extend subway routes. These would essentially be trams with lanes separated from the streets, extending all the way out to Malvern and (thank God) UTSC by 2014.

After the plan was first advertised, UTSC students were buzzing. When it was announced that the 2015 Pan Am Games might take place at UTSC facilities, announcements continually highlighted the pressure it would put on Toronto to finally implement better transit.

I’m not asking for a perfect system, just something that actually works. It’s clear we have a plan that could solve a lot of looming problems, but a worldwide recession and urban-unfriendly federal government threaten these plans. Scarborough faces an inefficient, dying transit network. What governments, the TTC, and citizens need to do is opt for something more expensive that will pay off in the long run. Otherwise, Scarborough will be notorious city-wide for its Soviet-style efficiency.

Arts & Science council passes flat fees proposal

The Faculty of Arts and Science Council passed the flat fees proposal Monday, requiring all incoming students to pay a flat fee irrespective of their course load. Before it can be adopted, the proposal has to be voted on by the Business Board on April 27, and then by Governing Council.

Starting September 2011, all Arts & Science students taking three courses or more would pay for five. Students taking less than three would pay by the course. Currently, the average full-time student takes 4.5 courses.

ASSU president Colum Grove-White circulated a six-point document criticizing the proposal, which he said was fundamentally flawed.

Dean Meric Gertler cited the faculty’s projected $5- to $7-million deficit this year, due to the suspension of endowment payouts during the ongoing recession, and a near-$40 million cumulative deficit. “FAS is actually the last undergraduate division on the St. George campus to adopt a program fee,” said Gertler. “So this is not radical. There are many other universities in Ontario that charge their students on a program fee basis as well.”

Critics fear that the move will hurt low-income students and academia at U of T.

“I was unhappy with the proposal to charge students a flat fee, especially those taking three,” said St. Mike’s registrar Damon Chevrier. “I’ve worked directly with students since 1968. Pay-as-you-go has been a feature of life at Arts & Science since probably 1969 or 1970, and it has been what I would consider one of the strengths of the faculty.”

Gustavo Indart, an economics professor on the council, said it would be more fair to raise tuition than to implement flat fees. “What they’re doing now is penalizing students who are not taking a full load, who are going to be paying for something they’re not receiving. It’s a short-term solution–the solution should come from the main source of funding for universities, which is the government,” Indart said.

Students and professors have said that a threshold of three full courses is much too stringent, and one of the harshest in Ontario. Gertler said he expected that most students will step up to a higher course load, and complete their degrees faster, if they have to pay for five courses anyway.

Biology professor Mounir Abouhaidar said at the council meeting that his students often take a reduced course load to improve their academic performance. Scott Mabury, chair of the Program Fee Implementation Committee, admitted that the committee had done no quantitative analysis to investigate the relationship between higher course loads and GPA.

“The research that we have been able to find indicates that there is no systematic statistical relation between the number of courses a student takes and their GPA,” Gertler later said to The Varsity. “We used three because this is how we define part-time and full-time. It is consistent with how other faculties define full-time,” said Gertler. He said the PFIC had found that at the 10 Ontario universities which have a flat fee, the threshold ranges from three to four courses.

To qualify for OSAP, students have to take a full-time course load—and would have to pay for five courses.

Gertler said the proposal addressed financial concerns in two ways. The faculty will add $1.5 million in grants, and flat fees will be phased in, starting with a threshold of four full credits and dropping down to three in 2011.

Critics say the gradual implementation will only delay the disaster.

ASSU and U of T Student Union leaders at the meeting pointed out that while aid money is directed at the poorest of the students, those ineligible for these grants will fall through the gaps in the system.

“We will keep the PFIC in place for as long as the implementation takes. We will be planning to add more students, more college registrars, more undergraduate coordinators into the committee,” Gertler said.

At the moment, the FPIC is a closed committee with only one student, ASSU president Colum Grove-White, Mabury, who is the only faculty member as chair of chemistry, will begin as vice-provost of academic operation July 1.

The committee will monitor how long students take to complete degrees, enrolment in courses, changes in financial aid applications, class sizes, student engagement ratings, and TA hours and faculty/staff appointments,. They report directly to Arts & Science administration.

Gertler could not say how the student body or the faculty at large might be able to participate in the monitoring process.

Obama Watch

As the leaders of the wealthiest 20 nations descended onto English soil last week to convene for the G20 summit, the current status of global financial markets weighed heavily on their minds. In an effort to reach consensus, the leaders formulated a plan to further stringent regulations on markets and address the plight of the poor by pouring billions of dollars into the International Monetary Fund. Naturally, summit discussions centred around global finance, but, as The Guardian noted, environmentalists were disappointed by the lack of united effort on the part of all G20 members to tackle climate change more aggressively.

President Obama’s eight-day visit to Europe left the world transfixed. Many at home and abroad watched with eagerness as the new president swept through meetings, speeches, and dinners, leaving most of Europe in swooning adulation. It certainly would have served him well to make the case for more green investment and innovation, especially to developing countries whose economies are increasingly dependent on non-renewable oil and coal.

The United States is currently grappling with its own energy woes, but the president has affirmed his belief in turning a crisis into an opportunity. Two Democratic congressmen have already put forth groundbreaking legislation to strengthen national emission standards, boost power generation from renewable energy sources, and increase energy efficiency in all areas of government, manufacturing, industry, and transportation. The most important provision lays out a plan to develop a cap-and-trade system, whereby a limit is imposed on the amount of greenhouse gases companies can emit. These companies must have an emissions permit for every ton of CO2 released into the air; should they find themselves unable to stay within the limit, they can purchase additional permits from other companies. If they maintain optimal efficiency, they can sell their permits. The ultimate goal is to move towards a lower carbon economy, reduce pollution in the atmosphere, and reward companies that are the most efficient.

Business advocates and conservatives alike will certainly incite a push back to protect the status quo. But, the notion that investing in environmental initiatives will stifle the economy is simply absurd. Environmental legislation could lift sagging unemployment numbers by creating new jobs in a developing industry. Innovation in green technology and infrastructure can set the path for greater energy independence and allow more revenue to be generated. The United States cannot lessen the global carbon footprint without the coordination of other countries. It’s understandable that emerging economies like China, India, and South Africa would want to accelerate their industralization and afford all the same luxuries that the U.S., Canada, Japan, and much of Europe enjoy. However, the world’s consumption of dirty electrons grows even less sustainable. The steps taken thus far by the Obama administration and Congress are praiseworthy, but their leadership on the world scene is crucial.

Leading by example can convince reluctant nations that there is more prosperity and opportunity available in clean energy and a healthier climate.

Critics decry meeting proceedings

Students and professors packed the room and spilled into the hallway at the Faculty of Arts and Science Council meeting on Monday, where the council voted to implement program flat fees. Critics spoke up against the proposal, but they were left disappointed when they didn’t get a chance to address faculty dean Meric Gertler’s rebuttals to their comments. Student leaders also panned Gertler’s last-minute change to the proposal’s implementation for next year.

Program flat fees mean that starting in 2011, new full-time Arts and Science students would have to pay for five courses when they take three to six courses. Part-timers would pay on a per-course basis.

The highly contested fees came before the Program Fee Implementation Committee—a group struck by Gertler, comprised of one student, 11 admin and one faculty member soon to become a vice-provost—in March.

According to Arts and Science Students’ Union president Colum Grove-White, the group’s student rep, the only thing the committee decided was that flat fees would not begin in September. The proposal has been pushed to the forefront since then. UTM representative on the committee, Diane Crocker did not confirm tihs, but said that the satellite campuses decided not to implement the proposal owing to lack of research. Gertler said he did not know whether or not the committee had reached such a conclusion, because he wasn’t on it.

“I tried to work within the system,” said Grove-White. “But then they cheat you.”

On Monday, the Faculty of Arts and Science council was supposed to vote on the original flat fees proposal, which would affect new students taking three courses or more. But in a last-minute move, Meric Gertler, Faculty of Arts and Science Dean, announced he had upped the cutoff to four courses for 2009.

“He talked more than anyone in the meeting. We didn’t even get to vote on the amendments to the proposal,” Grove-White said.

When Grove-White called the point out of order, arguing that new information had been presented, the chair of the meeting replied that the change occurred in the implementation of the motion, not its wording.

“It’s really suspicious that Gertler came in and changed it at the last minute,” said David Scrivener, vice-president external of the U of T Students’ Union.

Gertler has already been criticized for rushed timing: research into flat fees only started in June 2008. The U of T community found out two weeks ago.

“We made a decision in the first week of March, when it became clear that our financial situation was quite severe, and wasn’t going to get any better,” said Gertler. Arts and Science is facing a $5 to $7 million deficit this year.

Cell and systems biology professor Mounir Abouhaidar said at the meeting that flat fees tackled financial realities and not academic ones. “One reason [that people are not enrolled in a full course-load] is because they need the money, and they need to work part-time,” said Abouhaidar. “Another reason is some of the students, if they take a full course-load, are not going to be able to handle it.”

Meric said the argument was “unhelpful” and presented a “false dichotomy” between academics and finance. Abouhaidar was visibly frustrated that he did not get a chance to respond. “If the dean had promised to put $2 million back in scholarships for the needy, out of the $10 million net profit per year, I would have supported it,” he told The Varsity.

“Essentially what the faculty is focusing on is the finances, because they are short of money, and they want to recover the money. This is not really the right way, but it is the easy way.”

During the last two weeks, Grove-White has been lobbying voting faculty members to vote down the proposal.

“At the meeting, some of the faculty members saw the temporary four-course cutoff as a compromise. But it’s not, you’re prolonging the demise of student life for two years,” said Grove-White.

In a last attempt, Grove-White and St. Mike’s registrar Damon Chevrier proposed an amendment to the motion. “Instead of moving to full implementation in 2011, I asked them to review the document and vote on it again,” Grove-White said.

That motion was defeated by a vote of 20 to 26.

With files from Naushad Ali Husein

Giving Inner Peace a Chance

Last August, I spent a long weekend at an organic farm with a group of dreadlocked, free loving, neo-hippies who tried to talk me into practicing yoga. A number of part-time yoginis were throwing together an impromptu morning session on the grassy knoll across the way from the composting toilet, and it wouldn’t matter that I had no prior yoga experience because, as a particularly pungent stranger assured me, the first time is all about “finding your body.” I wasn’t sure what that meant, but I was more than a little put off. I wasn’t aware that my body was ever lost. Where could it be, and how was yoga supposed to help me find it?

I sought clarification. Not one to plunge headfirst into foreign activities, I canvassed friends and strangers with a flurry of yoga-related inquiries. Apart from the whole body- finding issue, I was especially concerned with one particular question: what was so great about yoga that warranted the risk of making an ass of myself in front of a horde of spiritually liberated flower children? “It’s good for the body and the soul,” a friend advised me. She spoke with great authority on the subject, and if I weren’t both a curmudgeon and a skeptic, she might have convinced me.

The fact that I was in this situation was strange enough on its own. While I consider myself to be something of a free spirit and maybe even a little earthy, any honest self-evaluation would suggest otherwise. I don’t know how to set up a tent or start a bonfire; I will always choose coffee over herbal tea; I eat meat, white flour, and refined sugar; I pay for haircuts and I shave my legs. I am the stilted progressive of my circle of friends, and after years of denial I’m mostly okay with that. However, my boyfriend is the co-director of Samba Elegua, one of Toronto’s most hippie-friendly Kensington Market party bands, and I often find myself in situations where I have to defend my staunch closed-mindedness. On the occasion that a well-meaning samba artsy suggest I tag along to a yoga class, I politely respond with a pointed, “I’m not that kind of girl.”

In the context of Toronto’s urban jungle, my notion of “that kind of girl” generally referred to one of two things: either a totally un-cynical granola muncher, or a yuppie. While I simply felt boorish compared to the former, I have always been secretly terrified of turning into the latter. These are the women who, when I worked in an upscale Annex boutique, would traipse into the store pushing $1,500 SUV strollers with yoga mats strapped to their backs, sipping green tea lattes as I feebly tried to sell them artesian handbags. I would watch these women with disdain as they examined themselves in the mirror, immaculately coifed and flawlessly accessorized, and realize that given a few years and an actual income, I would likely be swayed into entering their photogenic world. The possibility was so tragically un-badass that I rebelled. No yoga, no pilates, no meditating for me. Bring on the coffee and beer. Non-organic, cage-bred chicken with a side of Funyuns? Yes, please.

I held out until this January. My friend Cara had acquired free passes to a new hot yoga studio and insisted that I try it out. I would have resisted if it weren’t for the fact that her own daily yoga practice had rendered her petite frame into what those in the know like to call “the yoga body.” In a few short months, my slightly curvy and vertically challenged friend had achieved the kind of long and lean silhouette that people pay money for, and she seemed boundlessly happy and energetic to boot. Some people use drugs to get high; for Cara, it’s all about the yoga. While I wasn’t sure about “finding my body” in the spiritual sense, if I could “find” some muscle tone within my shapeless figure, this yoga thing might be worth the plunge. Besides, a little serotonin never hurt anyone.

The studio, situated above Future’s bakery, was a clean and quiet space. The practice room was lit with natural light that poured in from two well-windowed walls and smelled vaguely of essential oils. After a few minutes of laying in the misleadingly monikered “corpse pose,” a kindly-voiced instructor roused the class into a series of gentle stretching postures. “Don’t worry if you can’t do everything I’m doing,” she told us, knowing there were newcomers among the crowd. “Be okay with where you are right now.” It was a stark contrast to the workouts I was accustomed to, grueling half hour stints on elliptical machines made possible by the little drill sergeant inside my head that berated me to push through the pain, lest I surrender to pussydom. I may be a glutton for punishment, but permission to be a bumbling novice was surprisingly reaffirming.

After I finished my first 90-minute hot yoga session, I was drenched in sweat and utterly exhausted. I was surprised to find that every single muscle in my body felt as though it had been worked. Yet, the process had hardly been torturous. It’s a lot easier to push yourself to the limits of your physical ability when a soothing voice is encouraging you to breathe and relax than when you’re bullying yourself through a boring cardio routine. Whether or not yoga suited my rep—which I’m pretty sure only exists inside my head, anyway—those wacky poses had me at hello.

I became a yoga tourist. Most studios offer rookies a $20 “first week” of unlimited yoga sessions, so I signed up for one after the other, bouncing from studio to studio, practicing almost daily. After about a month, I ran out of hot yoga studios within a 20-minute walking radius and considered making further treks, until I found out about my favourite studio’s “energy exchange” program. As it turns out, most yoga studios operate largely through volunteers who perform weekly reception or cleaning duties in exchange for free, unlimited sessions. I got a hold of the studio manager, and within two weeks I was set up with a work trade.

It’s been about a month since my Saturday nights became devoted to cleaning my yoga studio. It’s a tiresome job, but I don’t mind it so much. It may be annoying to scrub sweat stains off the floor at 10 p.m, when everyone else in the world is getting their weekend on, but those few hours per week have allowed me to keep up with my practice, and it’s worth it. Ever wondered about the widespread evangelization of the “yoga lifestyle?” (If you’ve ever walked through the Annex, you should know exactly what I’m referring to.) Try a session, and notice how it makes you feel afterwards.

I, the eternal cynic, now practice yoga in a 37-degree room three times per week. Granted, I still have some problems with certain aspects of yoga culture, particularly its inaccessibility—unless you’re doing an energy exchange, practicing yoga at a studio can be quite expensive. But, at the same time, I consider myself proof that you don’t have to be a downtown yupster or patchouli-scented bliss case to get a kick from Downward Dogs and Tree Poses. I’m benefiting tremendously from my own practice and am trying to encourage others to take up this ancient art, either through studios or more affordable places like Hart House, U of T’s Athletic Centre, and the YMCA. I love that it gives me something positive to focus on for 90 whole minutes at a time, and also appreciate the fact that, for the first time in my entire life, my body looks better naked than clothed.

Chicken Soup for the Eco-Soul

Politicians and senior U of T administrators talked green at the Sustainable Energy Fair last Saturday. Around 40 people gathered in Sidney Smith as speakers praised U of T and exhorted more environmentally friendly measures. Among the speakers were Ontario Minister of Natural Resources Donna Cansfield, U of T president David Naylor, and Ingrid Stefanovic, director of the Centre for the Environment.

“We’ll have to reconsider not only how we produce, but rethink how we consume,” said Naylor, who emphasized U of T scholars’ contributions to environmental research. He also mentioned a plan to retrofit the Faculty of Architecture building.

Naylor has been criticized for refusing to sign the Presidential Climate Initiative, a commitment among university presidents in North America which includes completing “a comprehensive inventory of all greenhouse gas emissions” and making a sustained effort to reduce them. Thirteen Canadian universities and colleges have signed on to the Presidential Climate Initiative, as well as hundreds of American schools.

Naylor argued that for a campus as large as U of T, any greenhouse gas estimate would be inaccurate and therefore useless. “It’s like saying you’re going to measure the chemistry of chicken soup,” Naylor told The Varsity, calling the PCI “more show business than substance.” He added that he is more interested in what campus environmental groups are doing.

Paul York of Students Against Climate Change accused Naylor of “greenwashing,” and only paying lip service to environmental initiatives. In an email, York criticized admin for investments in fossil fuel companies like Imperial Oil. He also pointed out that environmentally conscious courses are not required for students in engineering or business, though those fields can have a great impact on the environment.

“I feel that Mr. Naylor had not done his due diligence in terms of making this campus more sustainable,” wrote York. “To suggest that U of T has done its part is not true. It has not even really begun. As with the Harper government, what is lacking is the will, not the means.”

David Berliner, UTERN president and fourth-year environmental health student, followed Naylor with an optimistic speech. He said it is easy to become overly technical when engaging environmental issues. “There’s still room for dreaming yet,” he said, emphasizing the need to address new challenges with creative solutions.

One of Berliner’s priorities is uniting student groups, staff, and faculty to promote dialogue and supporting various efforts to make the campus more sustainable. When asked if he thinks corporate funding is a potential conflict of interest in funding environmental efforts—the fair was sponsored by Bullfrog Power, a wind and hydro power company—Berliner said it doesn’t necessarily have the same ethical qualms as something like drug research. “Done properly, I don’t think there’s any conflict of interest,” he said.

The sustainable energy fair also hosted community and campus groups such as the Green Energy Act Alliance and U of T’s Bike Chain, a group that helps students learn basic bicycle mechanics. Discussion panels, Segway rides, and films screenings rounded out the day’s events.

Scenes from a Brothers Bloom Press Junket

It’s an early September afternoon at the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival and I am at the press junket for The Brothers Bloom, director Rian Johnson’s con man comedy starring Rachel Weisz, Adrien Brody, and Mark Ruffalo. All four are participating in a series of roundtable interviews with journalists from around the continent. I’m sitting in a room with eight or nine film critics, most of whom I’m unfamiliar with, running the gamut from serious scribes to gossip hounds. I think one of them is infamous quote whore Earl Dittman, but I can’t be sure.

The Brothers Bloom is Rian Johnson’s second film, following the 2005 neo-noir Brick, and his first with a substantial budget and big stars. “It’s a big disconnect for me going from Brick, which was a movie made basically with some friends, and coming into this. Frankly, there’s a big part of me that was terrified. But then, a big part of the movie is about faking, so…” Laughter ensues.

Johnson returns to the topics of con men and fakery throughout the junket. “The essence of a con game, I think it was Ricky Jay who described it, is: imagine you’re in a play that goes on for two or three weeks and everyone else is in this play, and you’re the only one who doesn’t have a script. That’s the essence of a big con.”

He continues, “What really got me started was the notion of a con man love story. Part of what got me excited about it was: could you do a love story? Can you build up to an emotional payoff at the end instead of just a clever twist?”

A journalist interrupts and asks in all seriousness, “Did Anne Hathaway’s current situation play any role in the inception?” This is followed by a long description of Anne Hathaway’s alleged con man ex-fiancé.

“Are your scripts always inspired by the National Enquirer?” someone asks.

Johnson shouts, “Yes!”

Rachel Weisz is the most beautiful woman I have ever seen. Maybe this is reckless hyperbole, but I doubt it. Her performance is one of the best things about The Brothers Bloom—she’s charming and funny.

She’s also amazingly cheery in person, maintaining her disposition when asked why she wasn’t in The Mummy 3, diplomatically reporting that it was because, having just had a baby, she was unable to spend several months in China. Uh-huh. She laughs kindly at everyone’s jokes, even the one I made. Ever make Rachel Weisz and a roomful of journalists laugh? Hoo boy, that’s a story for the grandkids.

“Rian was completely unique,” she says. “He’s equally as laid back as he is intelligent, and for him the whole process is about having a wonderful time.” Surprisingly, few of the questions posed to her are Brothers Bloom-related, but we do learn that she doesn’t think Valentine’s Day is a big deal, and that she keeps her Oscar in her bathroom.

Adrien Brody is asked, “Was this your easiest role to play because all actors are con men?”

“Well, that’s an assumption,” he laughs. “When I was very young I was a magician. When you’re a boy, the idea of creating this illusion of a magic trick and pulling the wool over somebody’s eyes and watching their fascination with that is phenomenal. And acting, to some extent, is that.”

The discussion turns to the craft of acting, and Brody talks of how his past characters stay with him. “They linger. They’re ghosts in a way. I don’t feel haunted by ghosts, I feel that they live among us. I don’t find them incredibly negative, even if they bring up a level of sadness in me. It’s something I experienced and absorbed somehow. It affected me, and is now part of my consciousness. In a sense, it made me more of a man.”

A pause. Someone blurts out, “Where do you keep your Oscar?”

Brody replies sternly, “I don’t discuss that.”

Mark Ruffalo is the last to enter the room, and the conversation quickly turns political. “If John McCain wins this fucking election I’m moving out of the United States!”

“Did you say that four years ago?” I ask.

“Uh… yeah. Something like that. I keep threatening, like anyone cares.” Hindsight has rendered this exchange bittersweet. Yes, the Democrats won the White House, but dammit, Canada could have had Ruffalo!

A critic asks, “Have you ever [had to promote] a movie you didn’t like?”

“Oh yeah, all the time!” says Ruffalo cheerfully. “Y’know, it’s no secret, the romantic comedies are not really my favourites…”

Just Like Heaven,” someone whispers into my ear.

Referring to the con man characters, Ruffalo says, “They have this threadbare elegance to them,” he says. “They’re well-dressed, but their suits have been stuffed in a bag for a few days.” He pauses. “And that’s kinda what it’s like being an actor. You’re kinda selling something. I mean, here I am right now, hawking a movie, y’know? And I’m trying to get your confidence to go and see it, and it’s all sorta tears of a clown.”

This Film Is Green

Environment-first Canadian short film racks up awards