Thursday, July 10, 2014


The movie Borgman by Dutch director Alex van Warmerdam is quite a ride. A bizarre movie. You know, that kind of movie you are sitting in and you are so perplexed and excited by what's happening that afterwards you need to just sit down on a park bench and process what you just saw.

The film starts with an almost throwaway epigraph: "And they descended upon the Earth to strengthen their ranks" and the camera pans a spring countryside that has not yet come to life. Swarthy-looking men are gathering, getting weapons (one is a priest) and deliberately moving towards something violent. But we are left in the dark, never sure where our footing is. Nor is this conflict ever really explained or detailed.

Men are hiding in the Earth underground and when they hear the other men with guns and swords approaching, they escape. Barely. This is not a mystical or CGI kind of experience. It's quite literal and very engaging: men running through thickets of trees, terrified of getting caught.

Then later, one of these men (looking like a homeless guy) shows up at the door of a wealthy Dutch family and asks if he can take a bath. When he is turned away, violence erupts but now it's too late: the sympathetic wife secrets him into the back guesthouse after the husband has left for work. Is this homeless-looking man up to something nefarious? Clearly he is but it's never made clear. Later his friends join him in the seduction of this family and the movie continues along almost like a parable, an allegory though there is no nice framework to set alongside the movie that makes the parable-like allusions clear.

I kept asking: "What is happening?" from beginning to end. It's not that it didn't make sense logically but there is no sense of  movie-logic here: things move along as if pre-destined and the actions of the characters are not mandated by free will. Other odd allusions: X's mysteriously tattooed on backs; scars on characters' bodies; surgeries being done on children which are never explained. Issues of class play in the background but nothing is ever determined nor is there a "message" to take away. Is it a treatise on destiny or fate? Are we supposed to feel nihilistic at the way our class determines our futures so that we have very little free will in shaping our own futures? Or is this reading too much into it?

It's a very interesting film and one I want to see again if only to get closer to some kind of resolution. Make more mistake: one doesn't leave this film understanding anything more than when one first arrives at it. But in terms of how movies operate, it's worth seeing and the acting is stellar.

Borgman is playing at Cinema du Parc all this week and next.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Kiss of the Spider Woman by Manuel Puig

I was over at a friend's place the other day and she had a copy of Manuel Puig's Kiss of the Spider Woman on her coffee table. Since she (like me) is surrounded by books, I knew she wouldn't miss one so I asked if I could borrow it.

The next day, I read most of it in one sitting. It's a fascinating novel. The book starts out as a conversation between two unnamed characters and it's only as the story progresses that the details are fleshed out: the two are in prison and are sharing a cell. One is a political prisoner and we learn more and more about his tale as he opens up to his cell mate. The other is in prison for "unnatural" acts (basically for cross-dressing though there is some intimation that he slept with someone underage). Molina (the trans character) tells the plots of movies to the other to pass the time which raises all kinds of limitations to their viewpoints. Valentin (the revolutionary) is allergic to bourgeois morality and values (materialism, romantic love), something which the overly romantic Molina needs to survive. Notions of performing genders comes into play here, Molina adopts the guise of the woman that he feels he is by modeling his notions of gender, his values, his approach to love, etc., on movies and how he sees biological women perform their genders.

For Valentin, though, being together with Molina allows him to express his vulnerabilities in a way that he's never been able to, admitting his own fears, his own views of his weaknesses, the ways he doesn't conform to the blustery machismo he performs in his own right (even if he is also an intellectual and a leftist).

The edition I have has all these annotations which relate to Freudian theories of sexual development which are highly irritating (pages and pages of psychosexual longings that are spelled out in clinical and theoretical terms, etc.) that seem only tangentially related to the story (besides, I don't need someone pointing out all the Freudian references in the plot, thank you very much). I'm not sure if these insertions are part of Puig's original or if they were added in by the translator and/or editor of the American edition. At any rate, they make the work feel incredibly dated. Also the views of homosexuality seem dated as well: though the writer is compassionate, we've come a long way since the mid-70s on defining gay identity and trans-identities which all seem to get lumped together as part and parcel of homosexuality.

But besides the above, the novel itself is really interesting. Formally it's unusual but there are so many things worth thinking about here: gender, class, leftist politics, Argentine politics, power. I won't give away much more but suffice it to say that this book is a great summer read and I wish that Manuel Puig were better known.

The movie version of this came out when I was in my very early teens though I don't think I've ever seen it. Still, I might wait a few months and then rent the film though typically I try to see the movie before I read the book whenever possible. William Hurt won an Academic Award for his Molina and Raul Julia (an actor whose work I really liked) plays Valentin. Julia died young in 1994.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Ida by Pawel Pawlikowski

Summer is my chance to see movies which I often can't during the year and yesterday I saw Ida. A fascinating little gem of a movie.

The film is set in 1961 in Poland and tells the story of a Anna, a young would-be nun who is told that her aunt, after many years of silence, has asked to meet her. The girl is an orphan, we are told, but we know nothing about her past or circumstances that have brought her to be raised in the convent. She has never left since arriving as an infant. She doesn't want to leave to meet her aunt but the mother superior insists.

Thus begins an odd little romp: one part personal journey, one part road-movie, one part historical exploration. Her aunt is a deeply troubled woman and tells Anna almost immediately that her name is Ida and that she is Jewish. Anna has no reaction to this and the tense first few moments of the encounter with her hung-over, half-dressed 40-something year old aunt ends with her deciding to go back to the convent, to end this solitary life adventure.

But sitting in the train station, the aunt's heart softens (we see an earlier shot of her in her capacity as a judge, mindlessly watching a trial that has to do with one neighbor cutting another's hedges and how this represents non-socialist behavior, etc.) and she and Ida return to her house. The stark shots, the austere background noises: all of that remains the same but the film warms up almost immediately and the two set out to find the bodies of Anna's parents (and Wanda's sister).

It's not useful to explain more of what happens because it gets at the heart of why the movie is so interesting but it involves a road trip and a young handsome saxophone player in a nightclub.

This leads me to one of the most interesting things about the movie: the music. Most of it is incidental (characters playing records or musicians playing on-stage in a bar) and there are only a few scenes with actual background music. Other than that, silence permeates this film. Not only silence from music but not as much dialogue as one might expect.

I kept thinking of Kieslowski while watching this. Not that Pawlikowski is a similar type of story-teller. In fact, they are radically different kinds of story tellers and the only thing that they have in common is their (often) bleak settings and the fact that they are both Polish. Kieslowski uses music in (at times) manipulative ways, appealing to our emotional lives less than to our intellectual ones.

But I appreciated Pawlikowski's vision a great deal. It's not a flashy film; it's very, very understated and he allows his viewers to be intelligent and sophisticated without handing them pat little morals or emotions on a platter. Because there are no answers: the past is our constant companion. Whereas Kieslowski was interested in the ways we find identity and then locate the bonds which connect us to one another, Pawlikowski is interested in how we live within the framework of the past, putting its painful episodes away or letting them overpower us.

Ida is playing at Cinema du Parc  (with English subtitles) and at Excentris (with French subtitles) all week.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Finding the time to read

I've been noticing this year that even professional readers are talking about having to carve out time to read books. At the Festival this year, several hosts confessed that they needed to take a week and just read books assigned to them for an event coming up because they'd been too busy all spring to find any time to read. This is the first time I remember hearing this from so many people.

And even when I think about my own time, reading is never something that just comes naturally. I have to schedule time to read. I have to make it a priority or my time will simply disappear. After all, there are movies to see, TV shows to binge-watch, not to mention social events, friends, walking the dog, etc.

Tim Parks considers this issue in his recent article and also what it means to read nowadays. He predicts that certain stylistic features that readers used to revel in, passages which required a reader to slow down and re-read, admire, etc., this kind of writing will disappear. People simply don't have the time to revel in long descriptions or repetition for style's sake.

272 pages: I like this size of novel
I was remarking on this a while back. I was reading Sarah Waters and while I loved the book, one thing which irritated the hell out of me was having 95 page chapters. I just couldn't break up my reading into such long chunks. Generally, I read on the metro, at home after work, before bed, on Fridays, and over the weekends. I don't have any children. But even so, it's hard for me to sit for an entire hour uninterrupted and read. I can do it sometimes but it's not very usual (though it used to be: I remember spending entire afternoons in a chair when I was younger and before I had a cell phone beeping or other distractions).

I think, too, that our reading habits have resulted in these series books: Knausgaard, St-Aubyn, writers who take a story and then write a new "installment" every couple of years. This used to be a death-knell in North American publishing (though the Japanese have been doing this for a long time) but it's now part of the literary landscape. And I have to admit I like it: I like not having to over-commit to one book for a week or two. If it's short, I can read it in a day or two and then move on to something else. Then go back and read Part II later, re-immersing myself in the story.

At any rate, it will be interesting to see how our frenetic and stolen moments of reading will affect the way books are published marketed and consumed.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Boy by Marie Howe

The Boy

My older brother is walking down the sidewalk into the suburban summer night;
white T-shirt, blue jeans - to the field at the end of the street.

Hangers Hideout the boys called it, an undeveloped plot, a pit overgrown
with weeds, some old furniture thrown down there,

and some metal hangers clinking in the trees like wind chimes.
He's running away from home because our father wants to cut his hair.

And in two more days our father will convince me to go to him - you know
where he is - and talk to him: No reprisals. He promised. A small parade of kids

in feet pajamas will accompany me, their voices like the first peepers in spring.
And my brother will walk ahead of us home, and my father

will shave his head bald, and my brother will not speak to anyone the next
month, not a word, not pass the milk, nothing.

What happened in our house taught my brothers how to leave, how to walk
down a sidewalk without looking back.

I was the girl. What happened taught me to follow him, whoever he was.
calling and calling his name.

From What the Living Do

Monday, June 2, 2014

Blue Metropolis 2015 and some photos of 2014

So that's it. A few weeks of down time, and 2014 is crossed out. A new Festival is now in the works.

For 2015, the Blue Metropolis Montreal International Literary Festival takes place from April 20 to 26, 2015. 

We already have a number of authors confirmed and a few exciting projects in the works.

In the meantime, thanks to everyone for making 2014 a raging success. The 16th edition of Blue Met involved 233 events in 9 languages with the participation of over 100 authors from 15 countries. For Blue Met produced and co-produced events, as well as events produced by our partners, we maxed out at 32,000 visits for Festival-related events. Wow!

More importantly, we increased the attendance of hotel-based events by a whopping 35%!

Those are great numbers, people!

What I always say, though, is that we can never really rest too comfortably as the pressure is on to top 2014 by an even more successful 2015.

Now a few photos:
Writer David Foenkinos and Rene Homier-Roy in conversation at Librairie Gallimard

Zombies at Bedtime Stories, our sold out fundraiser, Lion d'Or

Metropolis Azul winner Luis Alberto Urrea in conversation with Writers & Company's Eleanor Wachtel, Grande Bibliotheque

Michael Enright & 2014 Blue Metropolis Grand Prize winner, Richard Ford, Grande Bibliotheque

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Blue Met 2014!

Thanks, everyone, for making Blue Met 2014 such a success! We sold out many events this year, had increased attendance overall but particularly in our venue hotel events. Some highlights included Heather O'Neill and Shelagh Rogers, Ondjaki and Paul Kennedy, Richard Ford at the BAnQ, Bedtime Stories, Slate Culture Gabfest, David Foenkinos at Gallimard and our Tribute Alice Munro.

Now we have to do it again...looking towards 2015!

We were in the office yesterday and will be shortly today, as well, but then we're out the rest of the week so please be patient if it takes a week or so to get back to you.

Also note that I am away all of next week and most of the following week. So if you have ideas, suggestions, comments, complaints, let's discuss in June.