Serious. Films reviewed: Beirut, Abu, Indian Horse

Posted in Canada, Canadian Literature, documentary, Dreams, Espionage, Indigenous, Islam, Lebanon, LGBT, Ojibway, Racism, Residential Schools by CulturalMining.com on April 13, 2018

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

Spring film festival season is on now. Look out for Cinefranco featuring films from Québec; Human Rights Watch Film Fest with films from around the world, and here’s a new one: The Toronto International Porn Film Festival! This week, though, I’m looking at some serious movies. There’s a spy thriller set in Lebanon, a family memoir in Pakistan and Canada, and a drama about Canada’s residential schools.

Beirut

Dir: Brad Anderson

It’s 1972 at the US Embassy in Beirut. Mason (Jon Hamm) and his wife are hosting a party for bigwigs from Washington. Helping out is Karim, an earnest 12-year-old Palestinian kid who they treat like a son. But all is not well. His best friend, Cal, a CIA agent tells him something’s up with that cute little boy so they’re just going to take him away to a dark cell somewhere for awhile.

What–? Mason objects, but just then, gunmen enter the embassy, kill his wife, and drive off with the boy. Mason’s life is ruined. Ten years later he’s back in the States, staying just sober enough to keep his job as a labour negotiator… when out of the blue comes an urgent call: top government officials wants him back in Beirut, but they won’t say why.

He is met by Sandy (Rosamund Pike) in the now wartorn city, who fills him in. Militants have kidnapped an American and have asked Mason to negotiate. Turns out the kidnappee is his old friend Cal, and the kidnapper? Little Karim, now all grown up. Can Mason defuse the tensions, negotatiate a trade between the CIA, the Mossad, the PLO, the Lebanese government, splinter groups and corrupt officials? Or will the intrigue and subterfuge prove too much for him to handle?

Beirut is a neat and taut action thriller with lots of suspense amidst the twists and turns. (The script is by Tony Gilroy who did the Bourne trilogy.) Poltically, though, it’s a total mess. The film is loaded with visual “shorthand”, so 1982 Lebanon is represented by a woman in a niqab beside a camel on the beach! Really??  This isn’t Saudi Arabia in 2018, it’s Lebanon in 1982.  The movie also implies that every Arab child is a potential terrorist in the making.

Still the acting is good, the pace brisk and the game-theory-fuelled plot is fascinating to watch.

Abu

Wri/Dir: Arshad Khan

Arshad is a little kid growing up in Pakistan to an Army engineer dad and an upper-class mom. He likes dancing to disco music and being flamboyant. And by his teenaged years he’s secretly dating another boy. The parents find out and he is deeply humiliated.

Later, the family moves to Canada, where he stands out for a different reason. Suddenly, he’s Pakistani, he’s an immigrant, he’s a person of colour – with all the racism that comes with his new identity. Arshad gradually feels his way through an unfamiliar, racialized setting, as a South Asian, as a Canadian, as a gay man, and as a political activist. His parents veer in the opposite direction. They gradually turn to fundamentalist Islam, which they learn about in their new home. Can this family stay together?

Abu is deeply personal film, that serves as both a tribute to Arshad’s parents (Abu means father) and a look at his own life. It’s filled with family photos, videos, and interviews – his parents were movie enthusiasts who recorded everything. These random vignettes are strung together with an unusual plot device – an animated version of a dream he has that proves prophetic. Though the story is routine, much like what countless other new immigrants to Canada experience,  I love the way the film puts everything – history, pop culture, music – into a larger context.

Indian Horse

Dir: Stephen S. Campanelli

Based on the novel by Richard Wagamese

It’s the 1950s in Northern Ontario. Saul Indian Horse (Sladen Peltier as young Saul; Forrest Goodluck as teen Saul; Ajuawak Kapashesit as adult Saul) is a young boy  raised by his grandmother (Edna Manitowabi) who teaches him the Ojibway ways. Until the day government officials arrive in a fancy car who literally pull him out of his grandmother’s arms. They leave him at St Jerome’s a Catholic residential school where they can “kill the Indian in him”. Right away they cut off his hair, forbid him from speaking his language. The school is run by cruel priests and nuns, who abuse the kids physically and psychologically. Some are tortured, even locked up in a cage in the basement. Saul is a survivor and stays out of trouble, unlike his best friend who can’t hack it… and suffers terribly.

Saul comes up with a way to get out of the place: hockey. He’s seen it on B&W TV at school and it speaks to him. He’s sure if he learns to skate and practices on his own every morning, hockey will save him. He’s helped by way of a deal he makes with Father Gaston (Michiel Huisman), a friendly priest who takes a liking to him. It turns out Saul’s right – he is a fantastic player. He joins a native hockey team up north and slowly climbs his way up the ladder. He faces racism and discrimination at every step but he keeps his identity and sense of self. Eventually he gets drafted to the NHL and sent to Toronto – their first indigenous player. But deep inside, something from his past is eating away at him. What will become of Saul? Will he succeed in his dreams? Or will his experiences at the residential school drag him down?

Indian Horse is a deeply moving story, starring indigenous actors playing Saul at each stage of his life. It exposes a recent, shameful part of Canadian history, and one that’s still being felt today. The movie is not perfect or without flaws — it was made with a limited budget, and isn’t a Hollywood-style pic with a feel-good ending. But I think it’s a really good drama about an important topic, and one that should be required viewing across this country.

Beirut, Abu and Indian Horse all open today in Toronto; check your local listings. Also opening is the fantastic, realistic drama Lean on Pete which I reviewed here last September and is also on my New Year’s list of best movies of the year.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com.

Canadian sex and violence. Films Reviewed: Hollow in the Land, Birdland, Badsville PLUS Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool

Posted in British Columbia, Canada, Canadian Literature, Fetish, Gangs, LGBT, Mystery, Sex, Thriller, Toronto by CulturalMining.com on January 26, 2018

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

Who said Canada is “nice but dull”? I’ve got three new indie Canadian movies this week, chock full of sex and violence. There’s torrid sex among the towers of Toronto, a bludgeoned body in the mountains of BC, and a gang war in the steamy southwest. …plus a UK romance set in Liverpool.

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool

Dir: Paul McGuigan

It’s 1980 in Liverpool. Peter (Jamie Bell) is an aspiring actor who gets a surprise call from an older actress. She’s in the UK performing on stage in The Glass Menagerie and wonders if she can come by. Gloria Graham (Annette Bening) is a former movie star who won an Oscar in the 1950s. She talks like Marilyn Monroe and looks like Gloria Swanson. She was once known for “playing the tart” in Hollywood dramas. Now she wears large sunglasses and silk scarves over her hair.

Peter is surprised to hear from her again. He met her a year ago at a London rooming house which led to a torrid affair spanning two continents. He visited her at her beach house in California and followed her to New York. But she dumped him unceremoniously at her Manhattan apartment and he never understood why. And now she’s back again asking to stay with him in his working class home with his dowdy mother Bella (Julie Walters). Is it because film stars don’t die in Liverpool?

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is a wonderful romance based on Peter Turner’s memoirs about his encounters with a once famous actress twice his age. Bening is perfect as an over-the-hill diva who still sees herself as a Shakespearean teenaged Juliet while rejecting aging and her own mortality. And Bell is endearing as the starstruck Peter.

The story is straightforward but the director experiments with style. Peter has flashbacks while walking through a door signalled by a subtle change in lighting and music. And surprising results come from identical scenes which are shown twice but with very different points of view.

Definitely worth seeing.

Hollow in the Land

Wri/Dir: Scooter Corkle

It’s nowadays in the BC interior, a land of mountains, pulp mills and grow-ops. Ally (Dianna Agron) is a pretty but tough woman in her twenties, blonde hair beneath her hardhat. By day, she works at the town pulp mill, and at night looks after her 17-year-old brother Brandon (Jared Abrahamson). And every so often she spends the night with her lover Char (Rachelle Lefevre). Ally may be Brandon’s sister but she acts like his mother, warning him to stay out of  trouble with the cops – or they’ll throw him in jail, just like their dad. He’s in prison for running down a teenager while drunk. And the kid he killed happenis to be the son of the family that owns the pulp mill. Which is very bad news in a company town.

The two cops – friendly Darryll (Shawn Ashmore) and hard-ass Chief (Michael Rogers) – never let them forget it. So when a dead body turns up, and Brandon is the chief suspect, only Ally believes in her brother. It’s up to her to play detective, follow the clues, uncover the motive, track down the killer and find her brother who ran away into he woods. And she has to do all this before the killer kills her.

Hollow in the Land is a pretty good detective mystery/thriller, but with a few problems. I get that it’s noir so most of the scenes are at night, but you’d think they’d light up people’s faces properly so you can see who’s who. But the BC locations are amazing. The movie starts out very confusing, with dozens of characters and a foggy plot, but as it develops, it gets much more interesting. And Diana Agron is great as Ally – tough but tender — who carries it through to a satisfying end.

Birdland

Dir: Peter Lynch

It’s present-day Toronto. Shiela (Kathleen Munroe) is a tough as nails former cop with her own security firm. She’s a whiz with surveillance cameras and disguises. Her mild-mannered husband Tom (David Alpay) works at a museum cataloguing bird carcasses. But when she discovers he’s having an affair with a mysterious woman in a blue kimono, she decided to investigate. But when the affair leads to murder she realizes it’s all much bigger than she suspects. And someone is trying to cover it up. There’s an oil magnate pulling strings, a protester, a femme fatale, a nightclub entrepreneur, and a cop — her ex-partner — investigating the crime. And they all seem to share the same hobby — BDSM sex parties. Who is the killer? Who is having sex with whom? And who’s behind the conspiracy?

Birdland is full of politics, Big Oil, the police, museums, nightclubs, detectives, and kinky sex. And everything is projected against a fabricated bird metaphor:  there’s a man named Starling, an ornithologist, a nightclub with a bird concept, characters who sing Lullaby in Birdland, a bird rescue team… But what’s the point? The “bird” themes don’t come from the characters, it’s superimposed on them. There are some cool concepts and images in Birdland, but it just doesn’t work. I was never sure if I was watching a messy story to justify the not-so-sexy, softcore porn, or if the sex was there to justify an extremely confusing plot. It might work as a miniseries but it packs in too much stuff for a single movie.

Badsville

Dir: April Mullen (Written by Benjamin Barrett and Ian McLaren)

It’s a dead-end town in the southwest in the 1950s (or 60s?). Wink and Benny (Ian McLaren and Benjamin Barrett) are lifelong friends and members of the Kings, a local gang. Wink works in a greasy spoon and hangs with his buddies in the seedy bar or bowling alley. He serves as a mentor for Lil’ Cat (Gregory Kasyan), a local kid with a junkie for a mom. Wink wants him to “stay gold”. The Kings are mainly Latino while their rivals, the Aces, are white. They regularly meet to rumble, meaning big fistfights supplemented with metal pipes and pieces of wood, all lit up by blazing oil drums.

Sounds like fun.

But when he falls for Suzy (Tamara Duarte) a newcomer with a secret past, it looks like things are going to change. Wink might finally achieve his dream – escaping Badsville for a better life in Colorado. And this is what pushes Benny over the edge. He loves Daddio – that’s what he calls Wink – and not just as a friend. So he sets in motion a series of events that he hopes will stop Wink from leaving, but that end up putting all their lives in jeopardy.

Badsville is a new take on classic exploitation gang movies and SE Hinton novels. We’re talking Jets and Sharks here, not Crips and Bloods. And they’re not in high school either, they’re much older. The film looks at masculinity and friendship with a bit of racial politics in the mix. Directed by April Mullen, it’s a first effort by the two non-actors who play Benny and Wink, and also wrote the script. It’s low budget and not perfect – but it works.

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, Hollow in the Land, Birdland and Badsville all start today in Toronto; check your local listings.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com.

Divided personalities. Movies reviewed: Al Purdy Was Here, Legend, I Smile Back

Posted in 1950s, 1960s, Biopic, Canadian Literature, Cultural Mining, drugs, Mental Illness, Movies, Organized Crime, Uncategorized by CulturalMining.com on December 4, 2015

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

People want their friends to be consistent, reliable, regular. But personalities don’t always work this way. This week I’m looking at three movies about people with shifting lives and divided personalities. There’s a US drama about a drug-addicted, bipolar stay-at-home mom; a British biopic about identical twin gangsters, and a Canadian documentary about a poet with a second life.

Purdy-at-typewriterAl Purdy Was Here
Dir: Brian Johnson

Literature once ruled Canadian culture, with poetry at the top of the CanLit heap. Dudek, Layton, Cohen, Atwood, Bowering, MacEwan, Borson… But things change, and names get lost. This documentary looks at one of those poets, a man named Al Purdy. Have you heard of him? There’s a statue of him in Queen’s Park, about 100 metres away from here.

Purdy is born in small-town Ontario and drops out of school. He joins the Air Force, works with dynamite, and rides the rails all the way to Vancouver. In the 1950s he survives on UI and roadkill. AL+&+friends+at+the+A-FramePicture a bigger-than-life man in loud plaid pants with a foghorn voice. He’s imposing, obnoxious, and happiest talking loudly with a beer stubby in his hand. He makes his mark in Montreal among the better-educated English poets, depending on his prose poetry and rough working-class persona to pull him through. But what became of him?

This movie fills in the blanks. It uses amazing old snapshots, recordings and CBC footage, chapbooks, memorial concerts and twitter feeds to memorialize Al Purdy. It concentrates on the A-frame he built by hand with poet Milton Acorn. The house falls into disrepair so a bunch of writers and musicians get together to physically fix it up. The movie also uncovers the fact it was his wife’s work and salary that let him live the life of a poet. And some skeletons in the closet of another forgotten life. For example it was his wife’s income that let him live as a poet. This movie brings musicians and poets together again, and brings Al Purdy’s poetry back to life.

LegendLegend
Wri/Dir: Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential)

Reggie and Ronnie Kray (both played by Tom Hardy) are gangsters in London’s Bethnal Green, in the 1960s. They make their money through extortion and gunrunning. They are well known to the police, but they still go on with their work with impunity. They’re also identical twins: they may look the same, but their personalities are night and day.

Reggie is popular with the ladies, a real charmer, while Ronnie prefers sex with guys. Reg is the shrewd businessman while Ronnie is more of the brawler. Reggie can hold his own in a fight, but Ronnie’s the really scary one, the loose cannon, ready to explode at any moment, guns ablazing.

Diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, the movie begins with him locked away in a high-security Legendhospital for the criminally insane. Reggie strongarms a psychiatrist to declare his brother sane but the doctor puts it on Reggie to make sure Ronnie always takes his meds. (He doesn’t)

One day Reggie meets Frances (Emily Browning) the younger sister of one of his drivers. She’s 16, a petite, beautiful wide-eyed ingénue. They share a lemon sherbet candy, and bam! they fall in love. (She serves as the movie’s narrator). She likes everything about him… except the gangster stuff. And his brother. But Reg courts her relentlessly, even climbing up a drainpipe to her second story window to avoid her mum’s disapproving glances.

Ronnie, meanwhile, is pursuing his own interests: building a mythical utopian city in far-off Africa. And hanging out with his two boyfriends.

02They join forces with Payne (David Thewlis) a man with a middle class accent, an impressive office and a big moustache. He acts as the frontman, while the Krays lurk behind are the muscle. They sit in the background looking threatening, rarely having to raise a finger. Soon enough they’re taking over nightclubs, moving banknotes on the black market, and even doing jobs for Meyer Lansky the US mafia kingpin (who founded Murder Inc.) And the money is rolling in.

Things seem to be going great, until Reggie spends some time in jail and Ronnie takes charge. Uh oh. LegendTheir businesses start to unravel at a rapid pace. What will happen to them now? Can the Kray twins handle a rival gang, the police, the mafia, the House of Lords, their love interests… and their own sibling rivalry?

I like this movie – the music, the look, the acting are all great. I did have some trouble understanding Ronnies lines (is it his cockney accent or his mumbling voice?) And having Tom Hardy play both the twins is pretty impressive. It really feels like two separate people. They even get in fist fights and end up wrestling on the floor.

But the central love story — Frances and Reg — just didn’t grab me. It didn’t seem quite right, ‘t works well as an action-filled historical biopic, but fizzles as a romance.

oYXOpY_ismileback_03-HIGHRES_o3_8706150_1438094935I Smile Back
Dir: Adam Salky

Laney (Sarah Silverman) lives in a nice middle-class home with her husband Bruce (Josh Charles) and her two kids, Eli and Janey. Bruce is an insurance agent who loves playing basketball with their kids. Laney loves them too but finds even dropping them off at school an almost unbearable chore. So she fills her days popping pills, snorting coke, and getting drunk. Or sleeping with random guys she meets in dive bars. She even has an ongoing fling with her best friend’s husband (and her husband’s best friend), who keeps her supplied with meds. She takes lithium to handle her mood swings, leaving her like a depressed zombie when she takes it. But when she skips her meds she goes wild – irresponsible, extreme, always searching for new sexual adventures. She finds herself waking up in strange motel rooms hungover from extreme drunken excess.

That she can handle. It’s her role as the good stay-at-home mom – and the guilt that comes with it – is almost I Smile Backunbearable. She ends up telling off mothers teachers or anyone who rubs her the wrong way.

Bruce’s patience is almost limitless, but she repays this by getting even more difficult to handle. (Does he suspect she’s sleeping with strangers?) And then there are her kids – some of her worries rub off on Eli who has horrible dreams, turning to weird, nervous habits to keep calm. She realizes she’s hit rock bottom when she goes to check on her sleeping kids and ends up masturbating with his teddy bear. Oh Lanie — get a grip! She checks into rehab to try to get back to normal, But lurking in the background is something from her past involving her dad who she hasn’t spoken to in decades.

I Smile BackCan Lanie handle her spiraling decline? Will rehab save her? Can she learn to see her kids again and just smile back? Or will she end up homeless, drunk and beaten up in a dark alley?

I Smile Back is a hard movie to handle. It’s not fun – it’s disturbing, shocking and depressing. But Sarah Silverman pulls it off. We’re used to seeing her as a comic, pushing the limits with her shocking potty humour and dirty jokes. But what’s really chilling is seeing her doing the things she jokes about but for real, not for laughs. Worth seeing.

Legend, Al Purdy was Here, and I Smiled Back all open today in Toronto: check your local listings. 

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com.

 

 

 

What is a piece of popcorn worth? Movies reviewed: Payback, Jeff, Who Lives at Home

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies, for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, genre and mainstream movies, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

So did you hear about that poor guy in Michigan? Apparently he just wanted to go to a movie, but when he got into the theatre they literally held a gun to his head and forced him to buy a very expensive bag of popcorn! Literally! Can you believe it? …Oh — wait a sec. I’m wrong. Turns out he just didn’t think the price they were charging for popcorn and candy was fair. So he’s launching a class action suit.

Question: is it fair for movie theatres to charge 6 bucks for a bag of popcorn? Are moviegoers exploited and ripped off? Of course we are – everyone knows that, but we’re OK with it. Right? I mean you’re in that theatre paying to see Images projected on a screen — the ultimate deception.

If the candy’s too much then don’t buy it — they’ll get your money one way or another. I think popcorn is up there with the huge screens, surround-sound, velvet curtains, plush seats, grand lobbies and skeezy washrooms. It’s the movie experience. These seemingly random parts are all part of a larger coherent whole.

This week I’m reviewing two movies that look at fate, morality, destiny, and retribution. One is a documentary about things you must pay back, the other a comedy about paths you must follow.

Payback

Dir: Jennifer Baichwal

Two farmers, Llesh and Ilir live in northern Albania in a lush valley surrounded by grassy hills and snow topped mountains. A few years ago, when Ilir went to complain that Llesh was farming his land, there was a fight, and it may have involved Llesh’s wife… in any case Llesh pulled out a machine gun and shot Ilir in the gut a few times. He survived, but according to the 16th cenutry Albanian ethics code the Kanun, Llesh owes Ilir a debt. So Llesh and his family are poor now, trapped inside a shack and not able to farm.

This is just one of the many tangents this movie takes you on a look at debt – moral, ecological, monetary, and legal debt, — along with penitence, guilt, and retribution. They’re all very interesting stories – Latino tomato farmers in Florida fighting for fair treatment; a fisherman in the gulf enduring ruin after BP’s mishandled oil disaster; and a look at various Canadian prisoners – a petty burglar in Ontario, and Conrad Black (!) in Florida, both serving their time, repaying their debt to society. The documentary parts are alternated with talking heads — like Louise Barbour, Karen Armstrong, and Raj Patel — commenting on law, economics and religion.

This movie is sort of based on the Massey lectures Margaret Atwood gave a few years ago – a brilliant look at the words around lending, borrowing, owing and being owed. I say “sort of”, since it almost seems like one of those romantic thriller movies that say they were inspired by a true story. Jennifer Baichwal’s documentaries usually find a starting point and then, like a Stephen Leacock character, they fling themselves onto a horse and ride madly off in all directions.

Is this a problem? Not really, because even if they’re all over the place, the subjects she chooses are all interesting. And the movie is so visually rich (cinematography by Nicholas de Pencier) with images — from ceramic figures through a pawn shop window, to staggering, long aerial shots of the BP oil slick creeping across the Gulf of Mexico – that are as fascinating as any of the things people are saying.

I do get the feeling that Baichwal realizes it’s all over the place, so, to tie it all to Margaret Atwood’s book she adds long, literal scenes of Atwood hunt-and-pecking on her laptop, or Atwood reading from her manuscript. The talking head expertss are on screen too briefly to stick in the mind, except Conrad Black – who seems to have changed his mind about debt, retribution, and prisons.

In any case, Payback is a great visual riff.

Another movie that seems, superficially, to be about random drifting is

Jeff, Who lives at Home

Dir: the Duplass Brothers

(I reviewed this after seeing it at TIFF, but it held up very well this second viewing — I actually liked it better this time.)

Jeff (Jason Segel) is part of a dysfunctional family that fell apart when the father husband died years ago. Mom works in a lonely office cubicle, douchey Brother Pat (Ed Helms) sells paint and is destroying his marriage, and Jeff, who’s 30, still lives at home – sits around his mother’s basement in his underwear, to be exact. He smokes pot, eats chips, watches TV, and waxes philosophical about the cosmos… while sitting on a toilet. He’s always waiting for “signs” to tell him what to do., like in the Mel Gibson movie.

Well, one day he’s forced to leave home for downtown Baton Rouge to get something for his mother (Susan Sarandon)’s birthday. But, when someone on an infomercial says his life will change by the words “CALL NOW!”; and at the same time a strange, threatening wrong number wanted to talk to “Kevin”, he starts off on a (seemingly) wild goose chase all around the city.

So Jeff embarks on this grand mission – one that eventually ties in with his brother’s failing marriage and his mother’s love life — because he knows, he just knows, that his actions will change the world. Will Jeff find Kevin? Will Pat forget about Hooters and Porsche’s and think about his wife for once? And will Mom ever get to kiss under a waterfall?

This is a good, enjoyable comedy. I like the Duplass brothers, who used to make low-budget, ‘mumblecore”, semi-improvisational super-realistic movies. They have a few quirks – little camera emoticons – I don’t know how else to describe it – where the camera zooms in to nudge-nudge, wink-wink to the viewer that something funny is happening like a visual laughtrack– but the movie’s good enough that it doesn’t bother me after awhile. This one, Jeff, Who Lives at Home, is their biggest budget and most mainstream one so far, with stuntmen, and chase scenes, and big name cast. But I like this direction they’re taking – it’s not a sell-out, just a very funny, light comedy.

Payback and Jeff, Who Lives at Home both open today. And Margaret Atwood and Jennifer Baichwal will be there for a Q&A at the screenings on Friday and Saturday. Worth a trip just for that — Margaret Atwood is very entertaining. Also playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox are the fantastic Japanese animated films Spirited away and Princess Mononoke. And at the newly re-opened Bloor Cinema, look out for the daily HotDocs documentaries playing now. This is Daniel Garber at the Movies each Friday morning on CIUT 89.5 FM, and on my web site CulturalMining.com.

 

October 16, 2011. Toronto. An Interview With Derek Hayes, Author of the New Book “The Maladjusted”

Daniel Garber: I’ve read all of your stories many times, but now I’d like to hear you talk a bit about them. There’s a tone of black humour in this book, Derek, but would you say most of the short stories in your new collection, The Maladjusted (October, 2011, Thistledown Press) are comedies or tragedies… and why?

Derek Hayes: I think they are tragic for some of the characters, but not in any way that matters to anyone but themselves. And for this reason I hope readers will find the stories funny. I’m interested in characters that for their own personal, deeply-rooted reasons have bad habits about how they think about the environment they live in.

I know the title of the book comes from the name of one of the short stories, but is it safe to say that the protagonists in most of them are having trouble fitting in… in social situations, workplaces, or relationships?

Yes, each story has at least one character who has trouble fitting in. I’d also add that it’s not the social situations, workplace or relationship per se that is inherently troublesome, but the characters thinking that is distorted or “off” in some way.

Most of the stories are told through the point of view of the male characters; do you see a bit of yourself in those guys, or is it more often your impressions of people you observe?

I definitely see myself in some of the characters. And others. It wouldn’t be much of a surprise for people close to me to know that I suffer from anxiety sometimes. But the actual details of the stories are madeup. It’s easy to take material from my own life and adjust, exaggerate, fabricate in order to make a narrative that works on its own terms.

A lot of your stories take place overseas — why is that?

About twelve years ago I worked in Istanbul for a year and then Taipei, Taiwan for two years. Three of the most enjoyable years of my life. I met a lot of interesting people and for lack of a better way of saying it, felt “alive” for the first time in a few years.

What’s your favourite story from the collection?

I think most writers of short stories would be reluctant to pick one, or maybe some writers would. I can’t speak for others I guess. I tried to arrange the collection in a way to keep the reader engaged, interspersing the more neurotic of the stories throughout so as not to exhaust readers.

I think some of your characters are just a little bit odd or off, while others are way out there. Which type of personality is harder to capture in writing?

The ‘way out there’ characters are more difficult to capture. Perhaps like the author is trying too hard. For a story to work readers have to feel a connection to a character, and if a character is too strange, readers may feel manipulated or put off. But having said that I’m not so sure I’m thinking about any of this when I’m writing a story.

Congratulations on your first published book, Derek! I know you have some great novels to follow.

Yeah, I have three novels. Mentee is about a struggling teacher. Kadikoy is about expats in Istanbul, and The Streets is about a basketball coach. It’s also about a guy who is looking for his mentally ill brother. All of which, you, Daniel, edited by the way 🙂 And you edited The Maladjusted. I’ll take this opportunity to thank you for that as well.

Thanks Derek, and thanks for the interview.

Derek Hayes will be launching his book across Canada with a series of readings, beginning October 19th in Toronto.

  • October 16: Ottawa, Nicholas Hoare (downtown), 5-7p.m.
  • October 19: Toronto, Type Books on Queen West (near Trinity Bellwoods Park), 7-9p.m.
  • October 23: (with Sean Johnston) Vancouver, Cafe Montmartre (downtown), 7-8p.m.
  • October 29: London, Oxford Books  (Oxford and Richmond), 2:30-4:30p.m.
  • November 20: Edmonton, Thomson/ Wright House, 1-2 p.m.

Here’s an excerpt from Derek Hayes’s The Maladjusted:

I climb out of my fourth floor window and onto the fire escape landing, where I look down the alley for Ming. Spring has come and it’s starting to warm up a little. I’m wearing a white robe and flip-flops, and carrying a basket that is attached to a long rope. Inside the basket is the exact amount of money for a medium vegetarian pizza, a bottle of Pepsi and a side order of garlic bread. This is the special from Tony’s. Like an old house-ridden Middle Eastern woman, I lower down the basket of money to Ming, who is standing below the fire escape. Ming is non-judgmental, waiting patiently on the ground, as if all his customers order in this way. He takes the money and places the food into the basket. I carefully pull my dinner towards the fourth floor, stopping just before it reaches the metal landing. I remove the box of pizza and bottle of Pepsi and the garlic bread and yank the basket over the rail. I lie down on the cool surface of the fire escape landing and rest my arm on the warm pizza box.

For the first fifteen days of each month I order a pizza from Tony’s. Then I run out of money. Until the end of the month I live on crackers, canned tuna and tomatoes, which I buy in bulk. My belly fluctuates in size according to the time of month, just as a python’s shape changes depending on what it has eaten.

I’ve got to find somewhere else to buy my groceries. Three weeks ago, as I was leaving Value Mart, I said goodbye to two men, probably fathers, who were waiting for a taxi. They gave me a look, from which I inferred that they thought this was strange. So I told them that I have a mental illness. They said that they were sorry. I refuse to go back there.

I don’t watch TV. I have nothing in common with Chandler, Joey or Ross. My alley’s good for entertainment. My fire escape is on the fourth floor and, because of some creepers – really weeds that I’ve tended that have climbed up from some dirt in three mouldy flowerpots – I am afforded some camouflage, allowing me to watch while being unobserved. The alley teems with life, with meth-heads providing the main drama. Look at them now. The one with the stringy blonde hair, all ninety pounds of him, has picked up a dead mouse and is holding it by its tail. The other has a garbage can lid, thrust out as a shield. He’s trying to knock the rodent from the other kid’s hand, his head craned back in revulsion.

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