Monday, October 31, 2005

Through God's Eye

Originally published January 19, 2002 in The News (Mexico City)

Intricate art connects Huichol with their spiritual beliefs

Throughout Mexico, vestiges of an uneasy balance between pre-Hispanic cultures and the Spanish conquest linger. Scenes of cathedrals built on top of ancient temples, for example, demonstrate a country born of both worlds.

In Guadalajara, famously advertised as the most Mexican of cities – birthplace of mariachis, centre of the tequila industry – evidence of indigenous cultures is no t readily seen behind the colonial and neoclassical architecture and the proudly mestizo people.

However, in the suburb of Zapopan, next to the Basilica, a museum honours the traditions of the Huichol tribe of Jalisco and Nayarit – one intriguing example of the juxtaposition, rather than blending, of Catholicism with indigenous beliefs.

Begun in 1961 by Father Ernesto Loera, who wanted to raise funds for his mission among the Huichol as well as to preserve their heritage, the museum offers a glimpse into a culture which, thanks to its relative isolation in the Sierra Madre, has been largely inaccessible to tourists and the encroaching world. The Huichol, according to ethnologist Peter Furst, “represent the only Mesoamerican population whose aboriginal ideological universe has remained basically unaltered by Christian influence.”

These beliefs are spelled out in the museum's displays, which cover both everyday life, including houses, clothing and government, and spiritual beliefs, illustrated with the yarn designs and beadwork that have become the Huichol's artistic trademark.

Yarn artworks, a relatively recent production, have their roots in God's eyes, small offerings made of yarn which serve as a window into the spiritual world for the Huichol. Today's larger, more elaborate yarn designs are produced for sale – one hint that the Huichol way of life can hardly be considered untouched by the outside world. Still, they retain images of important symbols,such as deer and corn, two of the most important natural elements defined in the Huichol mythology.

“Through their artwork, the Huichol encode and document their spiritual knowledge,” noted Susana Eger Valadez in her book Huichol Indian Sacred Art. “From the time they are children, the Huichol learn to communicate with the spirit world through symbols and rituals. Thus for the Huichol, yarn painting is much more than mere aesthetic expression.”

For example, one yarn work in the shape of the sun, illustrated with animal and plant images, celebrates one of the most important forces in the Huichol world. “In the indigenous world, the sun gives us the greatest gifts and illuminates the path of the shaman,” explained the artist, Julio Carrillo Acosta. “when the shaman reaches the highest level of shamanism, he comes into contact with all creatures.”

The hallucinogenic cactus peyote plays a central role in the Huichol quest for enlightenment and shamanic power, as well as in their art. Every spring, a group of Huichol make a pilgrimage to the hills around Real de Catorce to collect peyote and partake in rituals at this sacred place, which they know as Wirikuta.

Many of the yarn artists begin their creations with no previous pattern, allowing their fingers to follow their imaginations and their memories of peyote-induced visions. Several of their colourful creations are on display in the museum, and the gift shop contains many small and large pieces for sale, along with beaded sculptures and other crafts.

The museum signage is translated into poor English, sometimes with unfortunate results. For example, the term “Maarakame,” referring to Huichol shamen, is rendered as “quack doctor.” Still, the explanations for the Huichol world view are worth wading through for the insight they offer into the beliefs of a living culture not readily available to the average sightseer.

The Huichol Museum is located at the Basilica of Zapopan, Plaza de las Americas, corner of Hidalgo and Pino Suarez. Guadalajara city buses to Zapopan can be caught along 16 de Septiembre heading north.

Life and death in Guanajuato

Originally published in The News (Mexico City)

Cervantino Festival, Mummy Museum draw tourists to colonial city

For a city famous for death, Guanajuato is decidedly alive. Mummies and murderous legends aside, I felt its vitality when I followed musicians through the narrow cobblestone alleyways of the historic centre; when I was approached by costumed characters presenting me with flyers for upcoming theatre performances; and when I succumbed to people-watching in one of the outdoor cafes surrounding the main plaza, watching musicians break into song at the promise of a tip and street vendors animatedly bartering with potential customers.

Directionally impaired at the best of times, I was challenged over and over again by the city's winding, poorly marked streets and alleys, set on top of a subterranean road system. But to get lost in Guanajuato is to discover a destination at every turn. Even a simple corner store is likely to be housed in a beautiful colonial building.

The city owes much of its physical beauty and cultural wealth to the silver mines discovered in Guanajuato State in the 1500s, which drew wealthy Spaniards to the area. Today, students are the youthful soul of the city, both foreigners studying Spanish in the city's many language schools or locals attending the University of Guanajuato, considered one of the best in the country for performing arts.

"If you haven't been to Guanajuato, you haven't been to Mexico," I was admonished more than once in my two-year stay in the country.

It's an overstatement, but this unique city does embody much of the spirit of Mexico itself - a spirit that laughs at the spectre of death, one prone to finding any excuse for a celebration and to welcoming strangers into the fold.

The exuberance of the city explodes into joyful mayhem in October with the yearly arrival of the International Cervantino Festival. Cervantino performances spill over from Guanajuato's many indoor venues into open-air performances in streets and plazas. Young and old, Mexicans and foreigners, drunk and sober, all combine into a potent mix of culture and party.

Mummy Museum embraces the macabre

Contrast this burst of life with the year-round favourite haunt of Guanajuato visitors, the Museo de las Momias (Mummy Museum). Those curious for a glimpse of the macabre and Mexico's obsession with death can get their fix at two permanent exhibits.

More corny than scary is the section devoted to the "Cult of Death." Despite a sign cautioning impressionable people and those with cardiac problems to beware, the average elementary school haunted house is slightly more frightening. We filtered past displays such as spooky holograms, torture devices illuminated with strobe lights, and a skeleton displayed under green light in a partially opened coffin - since, according to the sign, the man died of radiation exposure and to let his remains hit daylight would cause it to crumble instantly.

The museum's showcase exhibit is the naturally mummified corpses, first put on display in 1870. Disinterred from Guanajuato's cemetery in order to make room for more bodies, the mummies are a product of the arid conditions and unusual soil composition of the area. They are displayed as tastefully as possible in glass-enclosed coffins, though their grotesque expressions convey that they may be resting in something less than peace. Our guide pointed out the contorted mummy of the man buried alive, one of a pregnant woman and another of a fetus, proclaimed the "world's smallest mummy."

Death has a life of its own

To dismiss the museum as morbid is to miss the point. Even death has its own over-the-top celebration in Mexico, November's Day of the Dead holiday. This is the time of year when spirits of loved ones return, marked by families creating offerings of the deceased's favourite foods, tequila or beer, even a poem ridiculing some of the departed one's traits.

Stores boast skull-shaped candies, skeletal mariachi band figurines and sweet breads decorated with a skeleton motif.

"The word death is not pronounced in New York, in Paris, in London, because it burns the lips," wrote Mexico's Nobel-prize winning poet Octavio Paz in his book of essays, Labyrinth of Solitude. "The Mexican, in contrast, is familiar with death, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it; it is one of his favourite toys and his most steadfast love."

Second home of Don Quixote

If mummies can be one of the most vivid experiences of a trip to Guanajuato, it should be no surprise that even a fictional character has taken on life here. The image of Don Quixote crops up everywhere, from T-shirts to coffee cups to posters sold on the street. The reason is simple: The roots of the festival reach into the 1950s, when students from what is now the University of Guanajuato performed sketches from Don Quixote author Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra's works.

The city has embraced its identification with Cervantes and the Cervantino Festival to the point that one of its best museums is devoted to nothing but art related to Don Quixote. The building for the Museo Iconografico del Quijote (Quixote Iconographic Museum) was once an 18th-century private residence, now elegantly housing the impressive collection of art. The famous Don Quixote by Pablo Picasso is an odd gilt replica, but there is a lithograph by Salvador Dali and a sculpture by Mexican artist Sebastian, among many other originals, as well as commemorative coins, nuts-and-bolts figurines and tapestries representing the Man of La Mancha, sometimes with his trusty sidekick Sancho Panza.

After a trip to the museum, you'll recognize the 15th-century-era outfits worn by the estudiantinas, groups of professional musicians decked out in leggings and black velvet cloaks with gold trim. The group gathers outside the San Diego church near the Jardin de la Union at around 8:30 p.m., inviting all within earshot to follow them on a pied piper-like concert, called a cajelloneada, through the serpentine alleys. The performers sing, dance, tell stories and jokes, and force the willing crowd to clap, dance and drink copious amounts of wine.

Guanajuato legends and history

Our cajelloneada ended at the site of one of Guanajuato's most famous legends, the Romeo-and-Juliet-esque story of the Callejon del Beso (Alley of the Kiss). The narrowest of the narrow alleys, its most famous point is where two balconies stand less than a meter apart, allowing a person on one to lean over and kiss someone on the other.

Eight-year-old Juan led our group through the short passageway, relating the tragic legend of the daughter of a Spanish nobleman stabbed to death by her own father for sneaking such a kiss from her forbidden lover. Fact or fiction, the story draws a perpetual convoy of visitors to the alley, where elementary school children exchange the tale and a couple of mildly suggestive jokes for a modest fee.

From bloody legend to bloody history: Guanajuato is fiercely proud of its role in the 1810 War of Independence. Home-grown hero El Pipila - Juan Jose de los Reyes Martinez - was a miner who torched the Alhondiga de Granaditas grain storage building during the insurrection, killing the 300 Spaniards barricaded inside. He is commemorated with a mammoth, hideous statue overlooking the city.

Callejon de Calvario leads intrepid walkers up to the El Pipila statue, or local buses run frequently from the Plaza de la Paz. Forget the monument - the view from its base is incredible.

Here, this colourful, charismatic city spreads out before your eyes. In the distance, people gather at the Jardin de la Union. In the heart of this Catholic country, the baroque Basilica stands out at the centre of the city; penitents and sightseers alike mill in and out. The University of Guanajuato, just barely visible from the lookout, draws artistic souls into its halls. Streets and alleys move with the to and fro of workers, students, tourists, buyers, sellers.

Guanajuato in panorama seems to be channelling the spirit of Mexico, summed up by none other than Don Quixote: "Until death, all is life."

The city is served by the Leon airport, located 40 km from Guanajuato. Hotel reservations are imperative during the Cervantino Festival. Mexican tourist office 1-800-482-9832.

A newbie's guide to Vancouver

Four steps to landing on your feet in a new town

When I arrived here, it surprised me to learn that Vancouverites sometimes refer to their home as a no-fun city. Growing up in Alberta, it seemed Vancouver was the place everyone wanted to live ... if only they could afford the rent. But I soon realized it was destined to be no fun for me if I didn't find a way to get involved in my community and make instant friends. Who cares if there's activity all around you when you're clueless about where to go - and have no one to go there with?

Step One: ParticipAction

If I were a Spice Girl, I'd be Klutzy, not Sporty. Still, team sports are a great way to meet people and have an instant group of drinking buddies, so I dusted off my sneakers and hunted down opportunities to play volleyball, the one sport I showed a glimmer of aptitude for way back in high school.

Once you pick your sport, a good place to start is community centres, which offer a range of activities for any level. Check out the "Parks and Recreation Guide" option in the drop-down menu at www.city.vancouver.bc.ca to browse the variety of programs offered.

Vancouver Sport offers leagues and tournaments in a variety of sports, including volleyball, basketball, and ultimate (you know, the Frisbee game). You can register as an individual and they will hook you up with teammates, and there are socializing opportunities through casual post-game beers as well as organized events. There are lots of other leagues out there - find the sport that interests you under "Sports/Athletic Clubs & Organizations" in the Yellow Pages.

Step Two: Do Unto Others

Volunteering in your community lets you work with others toward a common goal - always a bonus when trying to meet kindred spirits. Try the Go Volunteer website or call Volunteer Vancouver at 604-875-9144 to find a match for your skills and interests.

Step Three: Sign Me Up

I had a boss who complained that he took courses like soap making and cooking to meet women, but after a quick glance around the room, often realized he was stuck in a class he didn't care about with women he wouldn't consider dating. But why not take a class you're actually interested in, where you will be surrounded by like-minded people doing something you enjoy?

The Vancouver School Board's Continuing Education and the city's Parks and Recreation Guide both offer general interest courses. Other organized ways to meet people include Toastmasters or Newcomers Clubs.

Step Four: All By Myself

Yes, it's intimidating, but even a shy person can suck it up and do things solo. Some people thrive on exploring a new city on their own. If you're not one of them, take baby steps - take a book to a park, stop in at a library reading, look through the Georgia Straight's listing for events - just get out there and smile. It's hard to meet people if you're sitting at home wishing you had someone to do things with.

The key to making connections in a new city is to first make the connection between your interests and the possibilities out there. You don't have to be a pro to enjoy a recreational sport league, but you might not want to sign up for basketball if your fondest memory of the game is being picked last in gym class 20 years ago. Love reading? Volunteer to read to an isolated senior, or join a book club through your local bookstore. Have a talent for basketweaving? Improve those skills through a continuing education course. Just leave the soap making classes to those who really want to make soap.

(Originally published February 2003)

Sunday, October 30, 2005

An explanation of my sudden productivity

I suppose I should explain to regular readers that this weekend's frightening flurry of posts is not an indication of the pace of things to come. I'm in the process of posting some old articles done for other publications, mostly the newspaper I worked for in Mexico that was sold and shut down six months after I left. (There's no connection between my leaving and the demise of the paper. I think they could have managed to scrape by without me.) I decided I should finally revise my copywriting/editing site where these were housed, since I'm no longer taking on random freelance projects, but I didn't want to completely abandon the writing samples that were slightly more interesting than tree bylaw and cemetery brochures.

Going to the birds

Originally published in The News (Mexico City), July 6, 2002

Flamingos and tourists alike flock to the Celestun Bird Sanctuary


How can you go wrong in a city full of music, hammocks, and jewel-encrusted bugs?

Merida, the capital of the state of Yucatan, is the peninsula's centre of commerce and a stopover for many travelers on their way to points such as Cancun, Chichen Itza, and the Ruta Puuc. It is also a destination in its own right, packed with indigenous history and colonial architecture.

The Zocalo in particular entices visitors and residents with its evening music and dance events, and the streets surrounding it are where most of the sights and shops - containing the ubiquitous hammocks and not-uncommon live bug jewelry - are located.

But Merida, however lovely, is hot. Very hot. With temparatures during our stay of over 40 degrees Celsius, my traveling companions and I fled the city and it sizzling streets in search of cooler sea air, which we gratefully embraced at the Celestun Bird Sanctuary, an hour and a half drive from Merida on the Gulf of Mexico.

There are egrets, cormorants, anhingas, pelicans, herons and albatrosses among the 300 known species to be spotted, but most people flock to Celestun for a glimpse of thousands of Caribbean flamingos.

The most popular way to explore Celestun is by renting a boat, which will take visitors to the flamingo lagoon and around various islands hosting nests of birds and pools of fish, as well as through shady mangrove tunnels.

One boat seats from four to eight people, depending on how shallow the water is - if there are too many people on board, the boat will be grounded near the many bird-filled islands.

Celstun was declared a Special Biosphere Reserve by the federal government in 1989, offering some protection for the flamingos' fragile environment. With too much disturbance, the birds' feeding patters are affected and they may face death or the relocation of their colony.

Our boat driver, Jesus, kept a respectful distance from the wading birds, but photo opportunities were abundant as they waded, ran, flapped and flew at their own leisure. One of their most impressive party tricks is flapping their wings just enough to walk on water. But with an average wingspan of 1 1/2 meters and a line of black feathers only visible in flight, it is worth waiting to see one fully take off. Elegant, thin birds whose body mass seems to consist entirely of wings, the flamingos in air are pink arrows.

Jesus also trawled for the tiny pink worms the flamingos eat which, along with shrimp, give them their distinctive colour. Until they reach maturity, however, flamingos are a greyish colour - a state they would revert to if their diet lacked these foods rich in carotenes.

Though catching a glimpse of them is unlikely, Celestun also provides sanctuary to endangered mammal species such as ocelots, jaguars and spider monkeys, as well as to sea turtles and crocodiles. Jesus tells us that when the waters rise, the flamingos must sleep on the forested shore, leaving them vulnerable to attack from the crocodiles. Otherwise, he ways, they sleep on the spits of sand that rise from the lagoon.

Bird-watching can be a hungry sport, but seaside restaurants selling specialties filete mojo de ajo, ceviche and shrimp or oyster cocktails dot the shores around the town of Celestun. Many have showers and change rooms for that obligatory post-lunch dip in the Gulf.

For a glimpse of Mexico's breathtaking natural diversity and an escape from the heat and bustle of the nearby Yucatecan tourist meccas, Celestun offers an idyllic daytrip from Merida.

(Also published at Solutions Abroad)

Ghost Dog delivers killer entertainment

“Nothing makes sense anymore,” says a character in Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (now available on DVD).

In a movie where a black American man follows an ancient Japanese code to serve his Italian-American mafia boss, the most likely explanation is that the protagonist is not following the same definition of sense as most others.

Forest Whitaker is Ghost Dog, a character who, if not exactly crazy, is not exactly sane, either. A hired assassin, he works for the mafia underling who once saved his life. When a hit goes wrong, however, the mob turns on Ghost Dog.

“If one were to say in a word what the condition of being a samurai is, its basis lies first in seriously devoting one's body and soul to his master,” reads Ghost Dog from his bible, Hagakure: The Way of the Samurai.

But does the master-retainer relationship have any meaning when the master doesn't follow – or even know about – the samurai code? Ghost Dog seems not to care.

In fact, he seems not to care about much. An almost palpable melancholy emanates from Ghost Dog, who becomes animated only in the presence of his beloved carrier pigeons. Whitaker brings an oddly innocent quality to the role, allowing the viewers to be drawn to the introverted character.

His alienation from the world around him is nicely told in brief encounters with others in his neighbourhood. His best friend is a Haitian who speaks only French, which Ghost Dog does not understand, and his only other human connection is with a little girl named Pearline. Their interactions provide some genuine levity in the occasionally blackly comic but often sombre film.

Images of death abound, including the not-so-subtle name he adopts, and his actions indicate a man who is living a kind of life after death.

In the end, Ghost Dog's reliance on the samurai ways seems to be a contradiction he does not understand. He quotes the Hagakure: “Although one would like to change today's world back to the spirit of 100 years or more ago, it cannot be done.”

With his isolationism and reverence for the ancient Japanese code, Ghost Dog does not fit into the world he has created for himself.

Directed by Jim Jarmusch (Dead Man), Ghost Dog lingers on its character development and philosophy without abandoning the shoot-em-up action to be expected in a story about Mafiosos. It also sends a nod or two in the direction of obvious influence Akira Kurosawa, director of the Japanese classic Rashomon.

Originally published in The News (Mexico City), October 2, 2001.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Taking on Toluca

Originally published in The News (Mexico City), February 23, 2002

Nondescript city contains beauty, inspires bravery

When contemplating daytrips from Mexico City, few people think of Toluca, famous for ... well, for being colder than the Distrito Federal, thanks to the high altitude. And, if you can believe shop signs, for making an orange liqueur called moscos. Plus, for fame of the Hollywood sort, the Julia Roberts-Brad Pitt film The Mexican was partly set in the splendour of the Toluca International Airport.

Yet the capital of the state of Mexico does have other enticing attractions to make the 30-peso, hour-long bus ride from Mexico City worthwhile, such as beautiful plazas, colonial architecture and fascinating museums. At the top of the list is the Cosmovitral, a spectacular botanic garden whose highlight is not the thousand or so varieties of local plants, but the panoramic stained glass windows.

Sunlight filters through vivid panels of red, orange, blue and green glass created by Tolucan artist Leopoldo Flores Valdez. The ethereal glow surrounds alcatraz lilies, cacti and other reminders of Mexico's rich diversity of fauna, and illuminates scenes of mankind's struggles, represented by dualities of birth and death, light and dark.

The circular window by the entrance has a fiery design reminiscent of Leonardo da Vinci's Vitruvian Man, while at the opposite end of the Cosmovitral is a womb-like representation of procreation.

After gaping in awe at the splendid scenes on glass, we found the paths and ponds to be perfect places to stroll and get away from the traffic and noise of the industrial city that surrounds it.

The State of Mexico Cultural Centre, a complex including three museums and a library, is another Toluca destination not to be missed. Located just outside the city, it consists of the Popular Culture Museum, where an impressive collection of arts and crafts includes some spectacular Trees of Life, the Anthropology and History Museum, containing a wealth of pre-Hispanic artifacts, and the Modern Art Museum, which boasts works by Rufino Tamayo and Diego Rivera.

To make the trip to Toluca complete, we indulged in two gastronomic rarities. In a demonstration of the power of marketing, we bought a bottle of the sickly sweet moscas despite gagging on the store sample, and despite never having heard of it before encountering the store sign: "Coming to Toluca without buying moscas is like going to Acapulco without swimming in the ocean."

After a shot of the 86 proof moscos, the second culinary unknown seemed less scary. Across the street from the botanic garden is a nondescript restaurant specializing in chapulines - that's grasshoppers - a pre-Hispanic edible most often encountered in Oaxaca.

In 1575, Spanish conquistador Francisco Hernandez wrote: "Here I see these Western Indians who devour tadpoles with great enthusiasm, which are something our fellow countrymen are horrified to see, or even name, and they also eat grasshoppers and ants. They regard as great delicacies many things that no other inhabitants of the world would think of eating."

We ourselves would not have thought of eating grasshoppers, but were up for an adventure. And after all, the restaurant sign assured us they were a tasty delicacy. I imagined - hoped - the creatures would come in a preparation that disguised what they were, but the waitress brought a dinner plate full of nothing but fried grasshoppers, legs and all, and an order of tortillas. Crunchy and salty, like strangely seasoned potato chips, they were tasty smothered in lime and salsa and even, when bravery permitted, eaten solo.

So for culinary adventure, cultural enrichment and relaxation, Toluca is only a day trip away from Mexico City. Just beware the power of its advertising.

Darkly funny Panic hits sweet note

For a movie called Panic, writer and director Henry Bromell's feature film debut (now available on DVD) is surprisingly quiet, funny, and touching. If it's possible to have a sweet movie about a family of hitmen headed by the coldest parent this side of Mommie Dearest, Panic is even almost sweet.

Despite the title, the movie emits not so much a sense of hysteria as a sense of the inevitable. Though the plot's unfolding is full of mapped-in-advance revelations, the talented, name-brand cast breathes vitality into an understated film.

“I've got two jobs,” says Alex, played by William H. Macy with hints of his befuddled Fargo role. “I run a small mail order business out of the house – lawn ornaments, kitchen gewgaws, sexual aids, things like that. And the rest of the time? I work for my father. I kill people.”

Alex, going through something of a mid-life crisis, yearns to quit the family business but is afraid to confront his father – ruthless Michael (Donald Sutherland), intent on building a dynasty. Alex visits a psychologist (John Ritter) to work through his angst, unintentionally drawing him into dear old dad's web.

Tracy Ullman is Martha, the clueless wife unaware of her husband's other career but aware of his unhappiness, while Neve Campbell pulls off with grace her role as the vulnerable woman who attracts Alex.

It is a lesser-known actor, though – young David Dorfman, playing Alex and Martha's 6-year-old son Sammy – who shines through Panic. He acts as Alex's moral impetus – what Alex will not do for himself, he will do for his son. Never overly cute, Dorfman also steals the best lines of the movie.

Writer/director Bromell comes straight from the world of television (Homicide: Life on the Street, Northern Exposure) with this studied and ironic vision of a man caught in an emotional trap. His deft touch, along with the finer performances of the cast, pull the audience along to the final escape.

Originally published in The News (Mexico City), October 24, 2001.

Friday, October 28, 2005

October Random Reviews

DVDs:

This will likely be the last Random Reviews post, at least in this format, since I've resigned from DVD Verdict and will be posting any movie reviews I do in this blog. Sadly, a critique of a painfully boring movie was my swansong with the site, but it doesn't tarnish the great experience I had with them.
  • Shall We Dance - The seventh Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers film is made memorable by the music of George and Ira Gershwin. The plot is flimsy, the jokes are lame, but it's Fred and Ginger, George and Ira, and you can't take that away from me. Click here for the full review.
  • The Moon and Sixpence – With a tagline saying “Women are strange little beasts,” this humorless movie is a strange little beast. Based on the novel by W. Somerset Maugham, which was based loosely on the life of Paul Gauguin, The Moon and Sixpence is stripped of all Maugham's wit and wisdom, leaving melodrama and the psychological exploration of characters I don't care about. Click here for the full review.
Books in Brief:
  • Shalimar the Clown by Salman Rushdie – this book is not so brief, and it's been a busy month, but I'm still amazed to realize it was the only thing on my nightstand this month, and I'm not even half finished it. Rushdie's prose is beautifully intricate and the story is absorbing. Told from multiple viewpoints, the book flips from Los Angeles to Kashmir to ... be continued next month, when I finish. Click here for my post on Rushdie's recent appearance in Vancouver.

"People do not seem to realize that their opinion of the world is also a confession of character."
- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Monday, October 24, 2005

Q&A: House, M.D. writer Lawrence Kaplow

Read the article on Blogcritics based on my interview with Lawrence Kaplow, one of the writers of House, M.D. ("Paternity," "Detox," "Control," "Kids," "Honeymoon," "Autopsy"):
Constructing House: An interview with House, M.D. writer Lawrence Kaplow
But for more Kaplow quotes and less Diane dissection, the following is an edited, partial transcript of the interview:

I know you previously worked on Family Law and Hack. How did you get your start on TV?

LK: I started out as an assistant first at Clueless, then Chicago Hope, and then I met Marjorie David, who brought me over to Family Law, where Paul Haggis gave me my break. That's where I met David (Shore), and David has brought me along to Hack and then to House. So we've been working together for 5 years now.

Did you have an interest in medicine or medical shows? Is there a lot of research involved?

LK: There's a lot of reading involved. There is quite a bit of research. I do enjoy science, so that part comes easy to me. I suppose everyone has their pre-med moment in high school, dissecting fetal pigs, perhaps wanting to be a doctor. I took that maybe a step further than most. In high school, during the summers, I worked at Temple Medical School. I'm not quite sure why I did that, but I enjoyed science, and it was fun. We were operating on sheep - it was crazy. It was a doctoral program, and this guy was studying lymph and pulmonary arrest and all of a sudden I found myself operating on six or seven sheep over a summer, which was a really cool experience. So yeah, I like science.

OK, so you've got quite the medical background! I don't think I ever had a pre-med moment in high school.

LK: Really? Come on, everyone had one!

Well, kind of. I like science ... but no, even on House I have to cover my eyes when there's too much blood and guts.

LK: I guess in "Sports Medicine" there was a moment when the guy throws the ball and his arm breaks. I winced then.

Oh yeah.

LK: There was a snapping sound in episode three this year ("Humpty Dumpty") when they amputated the guy's hand, when they cut into his wrist. I winced then too. Aside from that, the gore doesn't bother me. In real life, I can't watch it. If there's a sports injury on TV, I look away, but on the show, it's not really a problem.

Is there anything of yourself in the character of Dr. House?

LK: I'd say the imprint is truly David. He created the character and we're all lucky enough to get to write him, because he's a lot of fun. But I think all the writers bring a little bit of themselves to the table. I think some of House's most adolescent moments are in my episodes. House playing air piano, House snorting Benadryl, those sort of things. They're outrageous but they're fun. I think we're all teenagers at heart, and he does the sort of things we'd like to be able to do or say, so writing for him is easy.

It does sound like it would be a lot of fun.

LK: It is a lot of fun. We have a lot of fun pushing limits as far as we can.

He's always crossing the line of what we think of as acceptable behaviour, and for the most part the audience is cheering him on, but do you ever worry about alienating people if you take it too far? Do you ever censor yourself?

LK: Not really, because all of his actions are, I think, justified. And his actions are for the benefit of his patients. What he says doesn't necessarily follow what he does. If you look specifically at his actions, they're all designed for one thing - they're constructed to benefit the patient. So no matter how outlandish he is, you can always count on House doing the right thing to save a life. I don't think we can get too outrageous, because so far he's always been in the patient's corner.

There are times, like in "Control" where he lies to the transplant committee and the patient gets the heart, that I'm cheering him on, but as we learned in "Detox," somebody else died because they didn't get that heart. Are you always on House's side when you present an issue like that, or do you look at it as a way of presenting a grey area of ethics?

LK: It's a grey area, and it's worthy of discussion. House is an advocate for his patients, not all patients, just as other doctors are advocates for their patients. And everyone is moving that line, lying about what their patients have taken so that they get the heart or the liver. So who's to say, really, that what House has done is wrong?

Did you have any trepidation over showing things like addiction as a viable alternative, or showing a pregnant 12 year old in "Kids"? How do you approach those more controversial issues?

LK: In "Kids" - I wrote that with Tommy Moran - it's a larger issue I think, and that is the maturity of kids today, and some of the things that parents push their children to do and be. So in our minds, this was a little girl who's being treated like an adult. Because she was treated like an adult, she made adult choices, and in the process forgot that she was a little girl. We get to see the consequences of that, which I don't really view as controversial. I think it's just really cool to expose that.

And how about showing the addiction as probably the best solution for House? Was there any worry that people might take that the wrong way?

LK: "Detox" is another one that Tommy and I cowrote. House's point is that he doesn't take drugs for recreational purposes. There's always a medical reason for it. He takes drugs because he's in pain, not to get high. That would be his argument. I think it's a defensible argument. There are lots of people who need pain medication in order to do their jobs, and if they are in pain, they can't do their jobs. Now, does House take advantage of that? Maybe.

It's suggested that maybe he does, yes.

LK: What do you think?

I think we're shown that he takes it during emotional times for him, which suggests it's not just about the physical pain.

LK: Well, I think we all medicate ourselves in one form or another for a variety of reasons, whether it's emotional pain or physical pain, and it's not just drugs. It could be candy, ice cream, name it. And we're going to go deeper with all that stuff as the season goes on and try to get at the core of what his drug use is – is he just getting high, or is there something else going on.

You are going to explore that a bit more, then?

LK: Gently. You don't want to move too quickly.

It seems that starting with "Honeymoon," we're seeing more of a self-destructive House. We're seeing alcohol use as well as Wilson warning him that it's "all about speed." Is that fair to say, or is it more of the way he's been all along?

LK: It's an interesting point. It's one that I'm writing right now. I'm writing an episode called "Happiness" that deals with exactly that. House does some pretty outlandish things in this episode, and it raises the question: is this only about addiction or is he self-destructive? Does he have some sort of death wish? What does House want in the end? Those are all questions that Wilson is going to put in his face. We're going to see how he responds, and I think it's going to be a lot of fun.

Do you know when that episode is going to air?

LK: Looks like it's going to be #12, so that's going to air in January. We start shooting beginning of November.

I know at one point there was a different ending to "Honeymoon." How does an episode change from when you write a script to what appears onscreen?

LK: What do you mean a different ending?

[Oops. If it had occurred to me this might be a surprise, I would have framed the question differently.] Wasn't there supposed to be a bar fight at the end and instead it was ...

LK: Now how did you hear that?

On the Internet, of course.

LK: I don't know how that stuff gets out. We had a writers meeting where we discussed how to end the season - this was 12 writers sitting in a room - and we talked about the ending being a bar fight. And then John Mankiewicz and I cowrote the finale, and we had a version with the bar fight at the end.

When we were discussing it, it was a little too much. House instigates this fight solely to get pummelled, because he feels bad. And even though we wrote it, it wasn't really House. House has developed into a character that you can sometimes predict, although you never really know with him. But that event in particular didn't feel like House. He would not do that, go to that length. It just felt like that was a loser move, and we don't think of him that way, so we changed the ending to make it a little bit more real. Which I think was successful. What would House do, after losing the love of his life? Well, he would retreat. And so I think it was a satisfying ending, him testing his leg, and then taking a pill.

Yeah, I thought it was a better ending. It seemed more like House was beating himself up rather than going and getting a bar patron to beat him up.

LK: Yeah. It was a cool bar fight, though - chairs being thrown, bottles. It was a really cool fight.

You didn't shoot it, did you? There's no way it's going to end up on a DVD?

LK: No, there was no need to, because we all agreed that House wouldn't do this. And I don't know why we thought he would. I guess just sitting around the table it made sense - this would be cool, seeing House in a fight. Yes, it would be a cool moment, but would House actually do that? It seemed unrealistic.

So are all the writers involved in planning the season?

LK: Yes. We get together as a group at the beginning of the season. We sort of loosely map out character arcs, where we're going to go with each character. Then we're individually responsible for coming up with the various medical stories, and then we integrate them with the character beats. And sometimes they're stand-alone episodes and sometimes there's a progression where we follow a story arc for several episodes. But for the most part, they're stand-alone episodes.

So the character really comes first and then you put the medical mystery on top of that?

LK: No. It's a little sleight of hand, actually, because all you remember from an episode are these little character moments. But if you read a script, you would be surprised to read that they're 90% medical mystery, with just a dash of character. There are only maybe eight pages of character stuff per script, and the rest is medical mystery. So the most important thing for us in breaking the stories is these "A" stories, the medical mysteries, because without that engine, it's a really boring show. But it's deceptive, because if you look on the web or see what people are talking about, they're talking about character moments, which occupy not a lot of space.

It seems there's a blend, where the medical part of it reveals character.

LK: It's integrated. We definitely marry the character elements to the story elements, which I think is what makes the character elements resonate. Otherwise, they're just sort of hanging out there, and then in 42 minutes it's pretty difficult to tell an engaging story or to tell some emotional character story in that amount of time. So what we do is layer it in through the mystery, so we're actually able to tell the character story through the medical mystery. At least in our more successful episodes, that's what happens.

Dr. House especially has a huge collection of quirks and interests and talents. How do you all keep track of what's already been revealed and keep a consistent vision for the characters?

LK: Do we?

[Laughs] I think for the most part, with House.

LK: I think if you look at anyone, they do have varied interests. It's just that we're lucky enough to really focus in on this guy every week and bring him to light. So I don't think there's much under the sun that he wouldn't find interesting. He finds human nature interesting. Why people get angry. Why people choose their mates. How they choose their mates. Internal jealousies in his department. He finds all those things interesting. He finds life interesting.

But is there a trick to knowing that you mentioned he understands Portuguese in one episode, and speaks Spanish in another episode? Do you keep track of those things?

LK: Katie Jacobs, one of the executive producers on the show, always thought House would be multilingual, and it makes sense. Several of the doctors we've spoken to have backgrounds in other languages. There are journal articles in other languages. Someone like House, certainly during his rehab, probably had a lot of time to study obscure things and keep his mind occupied while he was recuperating. So I don't think it's unbelievable.

No, no, that's not what I was saying. More how you keep track of what's been said about the character so you don't contradict yourselves in the future.

LK: I'm not sure how we would contradict ourselves. His interests are so varied. I'm not sure there would be a script where someone would challenge him on his inability to speak Portuguese. I would be surprised if that came up in script.

All right, fair enough.

LK: I guess the simple answer is we don't.

He's such a blend of intellectual and juvenile, compassionate sometimes but pretty much a bastard. It seems like it would be a fine line between making him too elitist or lowbrow, or too soft or too abrasive. Is it difficult to juggle that, or is that part of the fun of the character?

LK: That's part of the fun of the character. Absolutely. We have a really good time pushing those limits. I think there's a fundamental question of what do you want out of your doctor. Do you want him to be nice? Or do you want him to be good?

If you can't have both.

LK: Well, sometimes you can. With the doctors that I've spoken to for my family, a lot of them are just pure scientists who don't communicate very well, but they're really good at what they do. I'd much rather have that person taking care of me than some guy who can hold my hand, because I think I can find someone to hold my hand, but I don't know that I can definitely find someone to cure me. So I'd much rather have that. I think that's part of the fun of writing this character. He can get away with it, because he's the one guy you really want on your case if you're sick.

I think, also, it's not that the audience forgives him his rudeness, it's that we want it. That's an appealing part of the character, that he's funny and he's sarcastic.

LK: Yes, he's all those things. He's a lot of fun to write. We have a very good time pushing buttons, but not just for the sake of pushing buttons. Everything that House says, every response, is justified, no matter how rude – at least in his twisted mind. He has a reason, which in our logic could be messed up.

But we enter his world and we know why he's saying what he says.

LK: We root for him, and we root for his rudeness. We all encounter it every day and he says the things that we would like to say.

How deliberate is the pacing of the episodes? Like in "Detox," that was one of the most intense episodes, and there were no clinic patients for comic relief, but there was the scene with the masseuse and other funny moments. Do you think about the need to lighten the mood, or tone down the one-liners, or is it more instinctual?

LK: I hope that it's organic. There have been a few instances in the series where I think we've intentionally inserted a clinic beat, but not just because we need to lighten it up because of the pace. It was more just we need to insert a clinic beat. I mean, this is part of his daily life and that's part of the fun of the episode. It didn't really have to do with the rhythm of the show, the way the show was going. It was more like this is the show, and he does do clinic duty, and the clinic beats are fun. I haven't really seen it where it's because the rhythm needed to be broken up.

The “A” stories, the mysteries, are so difficult to break. In a cop show, you can go anywhere. You know: "The bad guy's at the wharf." All of a sudden the cops are off. But we're in a very tight box, medically. We have three medical consultants on the show, and we write something and we're told: "you cannot do this; the body doesn't work this way." So there's only so many places we can go, which makes it very difficult.

How do you work with the medical consultants? Do you write the script and then vet it through them, or do they have input at the beginning?

LK: It depends. David Foster, who's a writer on staff, is a doctor, and he's been instrumental at the beginnings of stories. We have two other medical consultants, Harley Liker, who's a professor at UCLA as well as has his own private practise, and Lisa Sanders, who teaches at Yale and writes the New York Times column "Diagnosis" in the Sunday Magazine. Those are our three consultants. So Harley and Lisa vet the scripts after they've been written. Sometimes if we get stuck, we'll get Harley to help us finesse a point. I guess you can compare it to orthopaedic surgery; when we're really just trying to break bones to make the structure work, we generally go to Foster to outline the big picture.

What can we expect from season two that we haven't seen before?

LK: I think you've gotten a taste already. We're going to continue to challenge our audiences. Obviously from what you've seen in the first three episodes, they are not your basic stories. I think we've done a really good job in presenting a Housian take on familiar things. Like the episode "Kids," any other show would have shown an epidemic. That would be the episode. And in "Kids," we showed while the epidemic is going on, one little aspect in the background, and I think that's the show. What House finds interesting, I think people will find interesting.

All the praise that the show has gotten, we're all incredibly gratified to work on the show and watch it grow as it has. It's been a blast.

Do you keep track of fan and critical reaction to the episodes, or do you try to keep a distance from that?

LK: It's nice that you get instantaneous feedback, and it's funny because it comes in waves. When you write a script, there's the instantaneous feedback of the staff, positive or negative. Then there's the feedback from the studio, positive or negative. Then from the network. So it goes through these phases. And then you shoot the thing, and then you look at the cut, and there's feedback from that, and notes on that, does it work, is it successful, how can we make this better. And then by the time it goes to air, it's gone through so many permutations and so many hands, and everyone's done their job to the best of their abilities.

And Hugh (Laurie) ... he is ... if you were to sit on the set and watch him, it is unbelievable the performance that he delivers day in and day out. It's just amazing.

[Suppressing bitter jealousy that I cannot sit on the set and watch him, and looking on the bright side:] Yeah, it comes across on TV as well.

LK: Yeah. Yeah. The whole cast is excellent, but certainly, he is a ... pleasure.

So ... what was I just saying? What was your question?

[Laughs – it's easy to get sidetracked by admiration of Hugh Laurie's performance.] I was asking about fan and critical reaction.

LK: Oh yeah. So by the time it gets on the air, then there's the feedback of friends and family. Or the staff. They saw your episode, how was it, blah blah blah. But then there's this other, weird sort of universe on the web which is incredible to read. There's the House website on Fox, there are all these Yahoo groups, then there's Television Without Pity. You can get a review of your episode in depth. It is unbelievable the detail with all these people out there who are TiVoing the episodes, rewinding back and forth, "is that what he did?" Which is so cool, because all that stuff - a lot of it, anyway - is intentional. We went to great lengths to place it there, and the fact that they're picking up on everything that we're laying out for them is awesome.

Have you seen on the Television Without Pity site that people are obsessed with the ball on House's desk?

LK: Yes.

Would you reveal what the ball is?

LK: No.

No?!

LK: Sorry. [But I can tell he's not sorry at all.]

Isn't it weird that the ball is what people are obsessing over?

LK: And there's the white board. They haven't really come up with much on the white board yet, though.

Oh, there's some talk about the white board.

LK: There's "love the white board," "obey the white board." But no thoughts on it like there is about the ball.

No. I think because we know what the white board is, you know. The ball seems too big to be a tennis ball.

LK: Yes. The white board must be a white board.

I think it's great that there's a venue for all these people to talk to one another about the show, and we have a lot of fun reading them.

[Trying desperately not to end on the sad combination of stupid question and rejection:] Do you have a favourite episode that you've written?

LK: I guess I'd have to say that "Autopsy" is probably my favourite. I don't think that it's a typical episode of House. We see House in a different way in that episode than we've seen him in others. Generally he berates the patient, and yet in this one he just has a very frank conversation with her and that conversation is incredibly emotional. I felt connected to the material from the very beginning. I'm very proud of that episode. I think it really came off well. Deran Sarafian, who directed it, did a great job and Sasha (Pieterse), the actress who played the nine year old, was amazing. At the act three break, she did that scene seven times in a row, identically. It was amazing to watch. So yeah, I would have to say that one.

But they all have their moments. I love him playing air piano in "Control." Every single script has its little moments that you love.

Links:

Constructing House: An interview with House, M.D. writer Lawrence Kaplow

Much of the considerable praise attached to Fox's House, M.D. has focused on Hugh Laurie's incredible performance of an incredible character - the caustic genius we should love to hate, but instead love to love. None of that praise is undeserved. Laurie adds the soul and the sublime finishing touches to Dr. Gregory House.

But there is also a team of writers constructing that character, led by Emmy-winning creator David Shore, and that team deserves equal praise. Lawrence Kaplow is among them, and even he sounded almost reverential in a recent interview as he struggled for words to describe how Laurie interprets their work.

“Hugh ... he is ... if you were to sit on the set and watch him, it is unbelievable the performance that he delivers day in and day out. It's just amazing,” Kaplow raved, demonstrating that proximity doesn't destroy the magic Laurie creates onscreen, in a performance that builds on the rave-worthy scripts.

Kaplow wrote some key episodes last season, including “Detox” (with Thomas Moran), where House's Vicodin use is explored, and season finale “Honeymoon” (with John Mankiewicz), which had House reluctantly saving the husband of the woman he loves. This season's poignant “Autopsy,” however, is the one he's most proud of so far. In it, House attempts to prolong the life of a nine-year-old girl with terminal cancer, after ensuring her wishes are considered.

“We see House in a different way in that episode than we've seen him in others. Generally he berates the patient, and yet in this one he just has a very frank conversation with her, and that conversation is incredibly emotional,” Kaplow explained. “I felt connected to the material from the very beginning.”


The Medicine: “Without that engine, it's a really boring show.”

Though there's a lot of research involved for the medical drama, “I do enjoy science, so that part comes easy to me,” said Kaplow, who ended up operating on sheep at a medical school during his high school summers. Abandoning his “pre-med moment,” he began his television career as an assistant on Clueless and Chicago Hope before writing for Family Law, where he met Shore, who later brought him to Hack, then House.

Kaplow described planning for the House season as a collaborative process. The writers map out the character arcs together, then the individual writers come up with patient stories for their episodes, assisted by three medical consultants.

The most crucial part is structuring the medical mystery, but “it's deceptive,” he said, “because if you look on the web or see what people are talking about, they're talking about character moments, which occupy not a lot of space.”

The medical mysteries, then, are the framework for character exploration. In “Detox,” for example, the tension of whether House's Vicodin withdrawal is causing him to make uncharacteristically bad decisions is what's most memorable about the medical aspect, not exactly what the bewildering array of wrong diagnoses are. However, it's the trail of symptom clues and diagnostic deductions that guides the audience through the episode and through the mind of House.

“We definitely marry the character elements to the story elements, which I think is what makes the character elements resonate,” said Kaplow. “What we do is layer it in through the mystery, so we're actually able to tell the character story through the medical mystery.”


The Character: “What he says doesn't necessarily follow what he does.”

Because of that medical and character story integration, we often learn more about House through his reaction to the patient of the week. In “Autopsy,” selfless nine-year-old Andie is determined to scrape as much time and as many moments of joy as she can out of her short and painful life. In contrast, House whines about his hayfever, acts defiantly reckless, and alienates his only friend. He also refuses to acknowledge that Andie could be self-aware enough to understand the limitations of her life and be willing to embrace it anyway, in a theme that illuminates his own issues and inability to do the same.

“Autopsy” has House at his most obnoxiously, deliciously Housian, making his usual cutting remarks about his team (to overly emotional Cameron: “You’ll just get all warm and cuddly around the dying girl and insinuate yourself, end up in a custody battle”) but also training his equal-opportunity sarcasm on the idealization of kids with cancer (“It’s basic statistics some of them have to be whiny little fraidy cats”). He doesn't make his “parade of the bald circus freaks” remarks in front of the patient, but he does hammer them home to oncologist Wilson, whose impression of Andie is ridiculed by his friend at the same time as he faces the heartbreaking possibility of losing her fight for life.

“We have a very good time pushing buttons, but not just for the sake of pushing buttons,” said Kaplow. “Everything that House says, every response, is justified, no matter how rude – at least in his twisted mind.”

In Andie's case, House has humour on his side. As shocking as some of his comments are, they are put-it-on-a-T-shirt funny (“I’m not terminal, merely pathetic, and you wouldn’t believe the crap people let me get away with”). He also has an element of truth on his side. Having a terminal disease does not make someone a saint. And he has a higher purpose on his side. House questions Andie's bravery not just from a foundation of profound cynicism, but from a clinical perspective that it could be another symptom to write on his beloved whiteboard.

“If you look specifically at his actions, they're all designed for one thing - they're constructed to benefit the patient,” Kaplow pointed out. “So no matter how outlandish he is, you can always count on House doing the right thing to save a life. I don't think we can get too outrageous, because so far he's always been in the patient's corner.”

This trait, plus the charisma Hugh Laurie adds, gives the writers freedom to push the limits of House's misanthropy, allowing him to say the rudest comments to make a point, and, for the most part, not horrify the audience or make them wonder too loudly why the man isn't fired or killed. (He has been sued and punched.)

“He can get away with it, because he's the one guy you really want on your case if you're sick,” said Kaplow.


The Issues: “Who's to say that what House has done is wrong?”

House is the doctor I would most want on my case if I contracted a mysterious disease, and the one I would least want on my staff if I were running a hospital. I often find myself cheering for him, then realizing I really should be opposed to what he's done – like his lie to the transplant committee in last season's Kaplow-written “Control,” a lie that put his bulimic and therefore higher-risk patient on the top of the transplant list.

“It's a grey area, and it's worthy of discussion,” Kaplow acknowledged. “House is an advocate for his patients, not all patients.”

By presenting complex issues about transplant ethics, clinical trials, and patient rights through such a compelling character, we see his point of view. But one of the most impressive feats of the writers is allowing viewers to make up their own minds. There is something noble but also shortsighted about House, who often lands on the side of individual good over greater good. It's possible to admire the character without buying completely into his actions, because we understand his motivation to fight for his patients (whether they want him to or not), but we also get Wilson, Cuddy, or Foreman credibly challenging his position.

House's Vicodin use, flamboyantly used as punctuation in many scenes, is one of those issues that has been challenged, leaving the audience satisfyingly unsatisfied. When the writers deftly delve into the intricacies of House's warped psychology, such as his drug addiction, they ensure a question is raised for each one answered.

“He takes drugs because he's in pain, not to get high. That would be his argument,” reasoned Kaplow. “I think it's a defensible argument. There are lots of people who need pain medication in order to do their jobs, and if they are in pain, they can't do their jobs.”

“Now, does House take advantage of that?” he continued. “Maybe.”

In “Detox,” we learned that House is dependent on Vicodin physically and, probably, emotionally – he admits the first point, but it's Wilson who implies the last before backing off. Still, we do see him frequently pop pills before bracing himself to see a patient or his ex-girlfriend Stacy. And since she came back into his life late last season, a suspiciously empty bottle of alcohol has made a few appearances, too.

“We're going to go deeper with all that stuff as the season goes on, and try to get at the core of what his drug use is – is he just getting high, or is there something else going on,” Kaplow promised.

He is currently writing an episode called “Happiness” – safe money is on that being an ironic title – to air in the new year. “House does some pretty outlandish things in this episode, and it raises the question: is this only about addiction or is he self-destructive?” he revealed. “Does he have some sort of death wish? What does House want in the end?”


The Fun: “We root for him, and we root for his rudeness.”

The show is not all character angst and medical drama. The wickedly clever humour – brought nimbly to life by Laurie, who was best known before House as a comedic actor – is nailed in a series of quotable one-liners and absurd situations, especially involving the clinic patients. (“Well, not everyone can operate a zipper. The up, the down ... what comes next?” he mock-sympathizes with the man who tried to perform a do-it-yourself circumcision.)

As entertaining as it is to watch House say and do outrageous things, it seems it's equally entertaining to write those outrageous lines and actions. “I think some of House's most adolescent moments are in my episodes,” Kaplow confessed. “House playing air piano, House snorting Benadryl, those sort of things. They're outrageous but they're fun. I think we're all teenagers at heart, and he does the sort of things we'd like to be able to do or say, so writing for him is easy.”

New episodes of House return next week, after a month-long baseball hiatus. Tune in Tuesday, November 1, at 9 p.m. on Fox, or Global in Canada.

(For more on my interview with Lawrence Kaplow, including more of his thoughts on House, the ending to “Honeymoon” as originally conceived, and fan reaction, see the Q&A.)

(Cross-posted to Blogcritics.)

Links:

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Movie Review: The Squid and the Whale

The Squid and the Whale was by far my favourite of the movies I saw at this month's Vancouver International Film Festival. Ignore the fact that I only saw two. Squid is one of my favourites of any movie I've seen this year, anywhere. It's both charmingly bitter and bitterly funny, with compulsively watchable characters of varying degrees of unlikeability, and beautifully textured performances from the cast.

The tension between the Berkmans, Bernard (Jeff Daniels, Pleasantville) and Joan (Laura Linney, You Can Count on Me), is part emotional detachment, part power struggle. When they sit down with their sons, 16-year-old Walt (Jesse Eisenberg, Roger Dodger) and 12-year-old Frank (Owen Kline, son of Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates) to discuss their separation, even that fraught moment becomes a conflict over what will become of the cat in the new joint custody arrangement.

Bernard, once a famous writer, is now a professor who clings to his past glory and elevates his own ego by trampling on others', especially his eldest son's. He's such a master of it that Walt idolizes his father and imitates his insufferable elitism. Walt dismisses works he's never read as “minor Fitzgerald” and attempts to impress a girl by calling the ending to The Metamorphosis “Kafkaesque,” an adjective he's heard his dad use - causing her to mumble in confusion that, yes, it would be, given that Kafka wrote it.

Walt would be insufferable himself except that we see how he is manipulated by his father, who clings to the power he has over Walt while he flails to hold on to his precious identity. As Joan's writing starts to attract attention, the bewildered Bernard can't comprehend what his life has become. Exiled from the comfortable family home, he lives in a run-down place in a less prestigious neighbourhood and begins an affair with one of his students, Lili (Anna Paquin, who – ick - played Daniels' daughter in Fly Away Home), despite the fact that Walt is also attracted to her.

As corrosive as Bernard is, he's also pathetic, and Daniels imbues him with a bewilderment about what his life has become, and how little it matches his elevated view of himself, that is comic and occasionally touching. While The Squid and the Whale has been seen as something of a poison pen script to writer/director Noah Baumbach's own father, writer Jonathan Baumbach, Bernard's uncomprehending sadness tempers the bitterness.

Because Bernard is so clearly an elitist, egomaniacal gasbag, and Joan is more sympathetic, it's easy to try to categorize them as bad parent versus good parent . But while Joan's flaw's are perhaps more subtle, she shows flashes of profound selfishness and a propensity for giving her sons a little too much information about her sex life.

In the dad versus mom debate, Walt is clearly on the side of dad – calling Joan a whore at one point – while Frank is initially on the side of mom. But it's young Frank who realizes early that neither is the path to carving out his own identity. In defiance of his father's elitism, Frank decides he's a philistine, just like his dopey tennis coach Ivan (William Baldwin), who, it turns out, happens to be an active part of mom's sex life.

The metaphor of the squid and the whale is made visual – though, I confess, not necessarily completely clear – at the end of the film, when Walt visits that exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History. It's a moment of clarity for him, though, as he finally sees the smothering influence of his father, and yet Baumbach resists creating a tidy ending for his complex characters.

(Cross-posted to Blogcritics)

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Obstacles

Just got back from a great two-day seminar. I spent the first half inspired by the simple online tools we could use to promote better two-way communication in the organization I work for, and the second half despondent at the limitations that will prevent us from implementing them.

I'm responsible for electronic communications, if “responsible” is defined as “the one who must futilely plead with the IT department to support projects I want to implement, then bang my head against a wall in frustration.”

Corporate communications is beginning to use blogs, wikis, and podcasts to engage employees who would much rather be sneaking glances at celebrity news or sports scores than reading the Intranet. It's an exciting trend seeing some great successes. We have the ideas, we have the motivation, we have the talent. We just don't have the control over our own website. We can't do any of them internally. Screw "challenge" and "opportunity," those PR buzzwords. This is a "problem."

Ironic that technologies popularized by average Joes in their basements are beyond the reach of even some large organizations. Time to get creative. Or take a seminar in the Art of Effective Pleading.


"No problem can withstand the assault of sustained thinking."
- Voltaire

Monday, October 17, 2005

Because someone asked ...

It's viewer mailbag time, as my fellow House addicts and I suffer through a month of deprivation. B.W. writes about my "Humpty Dumpty" review:
"I’d love to read an enlargement on your statement that '…Alfredo is not the only egg man.' My initial impression was that it was Cuddy who suffered the fall—a fall from grace in House’s eyes.”
Sometimes I'm cryptic because, even though I'm writing my House episode reviews for Blogcritics after the episode has aired, I don't want to get into every detail that might ruin it for viewers who haven't seen the episode yet. Sometimes, I'm just cryptic because it all makes perfect sense in my mind. This was a bit of both - I didn't want to get into the meat of the final scenes too heavily, but hoped it would be clear that I meant that House is the other “egg man.”

He's damaged, in his words. Unable to be put together again, in my interpretation of his words. I think he was being honest with Cuddy. He thinks she's a good boss, much as it pains him to say it, and the only one who would put up with his crap, because not only does she feel some responsibility for damaging him, but she sees him as he could, but, in his view, never will be:

House: Cuddy…you see the world as it is and you see the world as it could be. What you don’t see is what everybody else sees. The giant, gaping chasm in between.
Cuddy: House, I’m not na├»ve. I realize—
House: If you did, you never would have hired me. You’re not happy unless things are just right. Which means two things. You’re a good boss. And you’ll never be happy.


B.W. continues:
“It’ll be a long time before I forget the unbelievable nastiness of (Cameron's) condescending little 'you just couldn’t love me' speech in 'Honeymoon,' followed by Stacy’s vicious and unnecessary 'you’re the one' revelation. ... And he just takes it—doesn’t retaliate, doesn’t get into a who-hurt-whose-feelings-more contest with them—because, well, he’s House. And in the little universe I inhabit, House is one of the most fundamentally decent fictional characters I’m ever likely to encounter.”
I see things quite differently. I have a hard time seeing House as a victim, or as someone who doesn't retaliate. In fact, I think he attacks as a form of preventive retaliation. Which is a pretty cryptic statement, too, so let me explain ...

I think he instigated both situations, with Cameron and Stacy. He has told Cameron she must be damaged, quizzed her on whether she's lost a baby or been sexually abused, answered her question about what he thinks of her by stating what she thinks of him - in a heartbreaking scene for what it revealed about his own issues, but hardly fair to Cameron. He has played games with her from the start. I don't like how her character has been portrayed, saying things I can't picture any actual adult woman saying, and I particularly didn't like the "you just couldn't love me" line, but I'm not prepared to call it nasty, just cringe-worthy.

He instigated the events with Stacy, too. While her husband was dying, he tried to taunt her into revealing that she still had feelings for him - after quizzing her on her sex life and her husband on their marriage. She came to him later to answer the question he asked her. Don't ask the damn question if you don't want to know the answer.

Which isn't to say I don't think he's a decent person. I do, but I think he's more interesting than simply decent. His motives aren't always pure. Sometimes he just wants to get the dirt on people so he can figure them out as a puzzle. Many of us don't like being treated like puzzles. And he often gets people to reveal themselves through manipulative or brutal methods. Sometimes it's for a decent reason, like trying to find out what makes Cameron tick so maybe he can help her do her job better. Sometimes for his own curiosity or selfish reasons, like trying to see how Stacy still feels about him even though she's married.

So when he's a recipient of similar manipulative or brutal methods, I can't cry “poor House.” Well, I do, because he is damaged in ways a whole lot deeper than the leg, and doesn't have the emotional adeptness to deal with his issues. So even when he's being a bastard, I feel for him. But in a lot of ways, I think he's the engineer of his own misery, and I can't vilify Cameron or Stacy or Cuddy for that. And I don't love the character any less for thinking he's an outright bastard sometimes. I think it's part of the genius of the show.

Links:
"Do not overestimate the decency of the human race."
- Henry Louis Mencken

Saturday, October 15, 2005

When fans react

I like to know things I have no real need to know. I can't just wonder if an egg actually will stand on end during a vernal equinox, I need to Google it and find out (answer: you can do it at any time if you're coordinated enough, which I'm not, and therefore have no use for this information). Quantum physics has no useful place in my life, but I was on a quest to understand it, until a medical physicist friend of mine told me she thinks there are pieces of the theory missing to make it fully comprehensible, and another person said her renowned physics professor says if you think you understand, you don't.

My current quest is to understand the behind-the-scenes world of television, because it's a mysterious world of people doing something I view as interesting and valuable, and understanding is my expression of appreciation. As part of that quest, I've been following the blogs of a few television screenwriters. A couple of weeks ago, one of my favourites wrote something that both bothered and enlightened me, and hearing a few writers talk about their work habits recently has kept me coming back to what he said.

Dead Things on Sticks guy (aka Denis McGrath, a television writer living in Canada) mentioned the recent public exchange between two writers on Lost, basically an argument about their work process. His post, Why the Room is Like Vegas, actually illuminates some of how that process works, at the same time as it says fans should not be made aware of how the process works:
"Fans will never get it, and the further they try to get it, the more poison is introduced into the process."
I understand what he's saying, and don't quite disagree with it. Fans don't have the knowledge to fully understand one piece of information out of context, and their reaction to that one piece of information can be unfair. But I want to get it, I don't think it's an impossible task, and I think the poison is not in the fans' actions, it's in the writers' potential reactions.

As a kid, I loved Anne of Green Gables to pieces – literally. I had a series of several copies since they would inevitably fall apart from frequent rereading. I wanted more. The second book, Anne of Avonlea, was great. I wanted more. Anne of the Island was pretty good. I still wanted more. Well, by the time Anne and Gilbert got together, married, had kids and grandkids, the characters and stories had been so diluted that it was no longer the Anne I knew and loved. I not only didn't want more, I kind of wanted to erase the thought of the last books from my mind.

Author Lucy Maud Montgomery died long before I was born, so she wasn't catering to my online demands, and I have no idea if it was money, or public demand, or her own desire to see what came next, or a combination that inspired her to keep writing about Anne.

But it still demonstrates an important point: sometimes fans shouldn't get what they want. Sometimes the writer needs to know what works best dramatically, whether that's keeping the lovers apart, stringing out the central mystery, or ending the story at a satisfying point.

And that's Dead Things guy's point, too, except I can't agree on the isolationist view he proposes. I think writers should know how their fans are reacting to their show, both for the gratification of knowing people care, and the understanding of how their work is being interpreted, even if they have no intention of catering to specific demands. And fans should be aware that it's not practical or even desirable to have an entire series mapped out in detail from beginning to end, and that dramatic decisions don't necessarily have to be popular to be best for the show and keep people watching.

I recently asked a writer about the behind-the-scenes process (for an article I'll be posting in just over a week), and I don't want to feel guilty for my curiosity. I want to know because I'm interested, and I know many other people who are interested, too. I have no practical reason for needing or wanting to know. I have nothing to do with the information but think "Cool. Now I know."

I recently saw writers Margaret Atwood and Salman Rushdie give talks in Vancouver about their writing processes (more on the Rushdie talk is here). Atwood made the same comparison Dead Things on Sticks guy does, with magicians revealing their secrets. Except Atwood took it a step further – I suppose she had to, since her lecture was on revealing the secrets behind the writing of five of her novels. She said that even knowing how magicians perform their tricks, she will never be Penn or Teller. She doesn't have the hands. She doesn't have the passion. The audiences of those two talks I attended are not now equipped to be the next Margaret Atwood or Salman Rushdie. As Atwood said, you need innate talent, hard work, and luck. But we went away satisfied with a glimpse behind the scenes of work we admire.

To take it back to television writers and the Lost kerfuffle, you do get into the tricky area of the rabid online fandom. One-to-one engagement with random Internet strangers has its pitfalls for anyone, not just writers of beloved series. If they wade into the midst of that fandom, it can be like entering shark infested waters wearing bacon pants. There are fans who aren't curious in the simple pursuit of information. They are curious to fuel their passion for second-guessing, speculation, and, often, superiority.

I don't think it matters how much or how little that person knows about the process. Part of their fun is derived from playing back seat writer. They are not just curious about what comes next, they want to drive what comes next. They don't want to sit back and enjoy the ride the writers take us on, until we realize at the beginning of season six that what people have been telling us for over a year is true – The West Wing is just not what it used to be, it never will be again, and how the hell can C.J. be Chief of Staff after everything that came before?! Um, to use a random example.

But those fans have a legitimate right to pursue their fun just as much as I have a right to pretend I can understand a little about the process. Both are forms of appreciation. But while second-guessing can be done in a vacuum, understanding can't.

(Cross posted to Blogcritics.)

"The possession of knowledge does not kill the sense of wonder and mystery. There is always more mystery." - Anais Nin

Sunday, October 09, 2005

DVD Review: Childstar

Don McKellar, who cowrote, directed, and stars in this movie, also cowrote and starred in one of the best Canadian television series, Twitch City, as well as classic Canadian films like Highway 61 and Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould and the less-Canadian The Red Violin.

Childstar is McKellar's take on the US film industry in Canada, centred on, as you might imagine, a child star. Taylor Brandon Burns (Mark Rendall) is the titular character, a 12 year old famous for his role in a generic family sitcom (starring Alan Thicke of Growing Pains as the dad). Pompous Taylor lands a role in a movie being shot in Toronto, with a ridiculous plot about the son of the American president taking control after his dad is kidnapped by terrorists. Feeling the pressure of stardom and tasting the debauchery his fame can buy him, Taylor runs away, leading to a frantic search and panic on the set.

The movie offers us glimpses of life on a movie set, complete with inept director, idiotic actor, faded former child star Chip (Brendon Fehr, Roswell), frantic producer (Dave Foley, NewsRadio), and neglectful but manipulative stage mom Suzanne Burns (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Single White Female). McKellar plays Rick the driver – actually an experimental filmmaker who begins as Taylor's chauffeur and ends as his tutor and confidente, while sleeping with his mother.

McKellar's eccentric dry wit permeates the film, but it isn't the raucous comedy the plot might suggest. Rick becomes disgusted with the exploitation of the child star as a commodity, by his mother, by the industry, and even by the child himself. I can't help but cringe at my own hypocrisy that I can't imagine a film getting away with the sexual themes involving 12-year-old Taylor if the genders were reversed, but his unchildlike demeanour is part of the point – this is a child who has more power than the adults around him.

The despondent has-been Chip represents the end Taylor is heading towards: "When they hit puberty, we chew them up and spit them out; they spend the rest of their lives entertaining us in the tabloids." This point is hammered home at the end, but it's a fun and intriguing journey to get to the too pedantic final scenes.

Despite the title, Rick is the driver of the film in more than just his job title. It's his journey we follow more than Taylor's predictable and sound-and-fury-signifying-nothing storyline. "The film has quite an unusual structure. Taylor is certainly the chief focus and in many senses 'the star,' but he is not really the protagonist, exactly," explained McKellar during an online Q&A at the First Weekend Club website. "In some senses he’s the antagonist."

Childstar isn't for children. It's a biting look at the egos and machinations behind the scenes, and plays like a satire of the movie industry. McKellar, however, claims it's more fact than hyperbole. "Every crew member, agent and actor I talked to seemed to have a ready child star nightmare at hand. I compressed them all into Taylor," he said. "At least one major nameless ex-child star gave his stamp of approval to the script. I don't think the film is an exaggeration in the slightest."

There is an uneven tone to the film, from sly, dry wit, to over-the-top cartoonish scenes, to poignancy, but it blends into an entertaining if ultimately unsatisfying mix. "I was really trying with this script to make things unpredictable," McKellar said. "That was one of my chief goals. Not to abandon conventional movie storytelling, though, but rather to toy with it, set up certain conventions and twist them around. Sometimes to play it like the movies – because that’s the world these characters live in – but sometimes make it surprisingly real or true."

The acting provides a similarly unpredictable range with fairly predictable characters. McKellar and Leigh draw on genuine emotion as well as quick wit to make their potentially unlikeable characters compelling, Rendall effectively shows the confused kid inside the privileged jackass, and Foley, Thicke, Gil Bellows as a slimy agent, Eric Stolz as Taylor's dad, and others provide over-the-top comedy. I don't know if the film earned any money from product placement, but if so, Coke might want their money back. The villainous agent played by Bellows is constantly, conspicuously holding a can of Diet Coke – it functions as the hipper, more commercial equivalent of a black hat and twirled moustache.

The DVD contains one of the best "making of" featurettes I've seen recently. It follows McKellar during and after the shoot, and interviews the producers and actors behind Childstar. This is no PR puff piece – it focuses on McKellar's creative process and the intricacies of shooting within the contraints of budget, time, and weather. There is apparently a director's commentary track under Set Up rather than Bonus Features (why, DVD producers, why?!). Unfortunately I had already returned the disc before discovering that, but I'll likely put this in my DVD rental subscription again to check it out, since McKellar proves in the featurette that he's an entertaining and informative commentator.

(Cross posted to Blogcritics.)

Links:
  • Quotes are from the First Weekend Club discussion, when McKellar graciously answered every question asked of him during their first DVD Club Q&A on October 7. See the First Weekend Club forum.

  • Childstar official site, which contains McKellar's explanation of the inspiration for the movie, cast bios, and more.

"This is a story about growing up and finding your voice in a world where you are bombarded by the American sitcom notion of family, happiness and manufactured contentment."
- Don McKellar

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Nonreviews

Childstar

Don McKellar, who cowrote, directed, and stars in this movie, is one of those people who probably has more than his fair allotment of talent. Childstar is about, as you might imagine, a child star. The movie isn't for kids, though. It's a biting look at the movie industry – exaggerated, I hope. My incentive for watching this DVD now is that McKellar is going to be answering questions in the First Weekend Club's forum on Friday, October 7, and while I may not have any brilliant questions for him, I'll definitely be seeing what he has to say. Check out http://www.firstweekendclub.ca for more information, and sign up to participate in the online discussion at http://forum.firstweekendclub.ca. (The First Weekend Club encourages Canadians to see Canadian films at the theatre on opening weekend.)

3 Needles


I saw this at a Vancouver International Film Festival screening last night, and will probably write a full review when I've absorbed it a bit more. Written and directed by Thom Fitzgerald (The Hanging Garden), 3 Needles is thought-provoking, intelligent, and funny, but also piles horrible events on top of tragedies, and ended up being a movie I admired more than liked. It tells the intertwined stories of three sets of people on three continents, all affected by AIDS, and stars Chloe Sevigny, Lucy Liu, Sandra Oh, Shawn Ashmore, Olympia Dukakis, and Stockard Channing. I'm seeing The Squid and the Whale tomorrow.


The Moon and Sixpence


I'm writing this post as another in my long list of procrastination activities. I should be writing my final review for DVD Verdict, on the 1943 film The Moon and Sixpence, but I'm finding it difficult, partly because I hated the movie. (But not in the fun way where I have a lot to say about it - more in the puzzled “but I liked the book, didn't I? Am I just not remembering how bad it was?” way.) And partly because when I finish writing this final review, it will be over. And while you might argue that, yes, that's the idea of quitting something, it's still a little sad.

"Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task."
- William James