Little Men

Spoilers abound in this post, so if you haven’t seen Ira Sach’s latest film, I’m about to ruin the ending for you. Okay?

There were about 15 minutes left of Little Men when I thought to myself, “This indie flick totally measures up to the glowing critic reviews—it’s subtle, complex, and focuses on a really relevant topic.” And then the ending forced me to reconsider what I had just watched.

Little Men is about two young teenaged boys from either side of the tracks, socio-economically speaking. A white family in Manhattan inherits a Brooklyn building, which includes a street-level dress shop that makes little-to-no money. The store is run by a Hispanic single mother who is savvy enough to know what’s coming. The heart of the story is the friendship between the boys, Jake and Tony, who are for the most part unaware of the growing severity of their parents’ dispute.

Sachs deserves a lot of credit for how he represents the conflict of gentrification on a personal level. Every character here is believable and draws out our empathy. There are no black hats. But while this human-level approach makes for clearly motivated characters critical to the film’s success, Sachs fails to address the big fallacy of gentrification, that it is a natural and inevitable process where there are no villains but only good intentions. Little Men attempts to portray gentrification as a process that equally affects the gentrifier and gentrified, but trying to artificially level the stakes of a white landlord family—the father has the luxury of failing at acting while the mother supports them with her psychiatry income—with those of a struggling immigrant family creates a false premise.

There are hollow liberal ethics at play here that ultimately form a cynical view of redressing privilege. At no point does the landlord family entertain any alternative to their course of action—perhaps because Sachs, like most of us, cannot imagine one—nor does the shop tenant put forward an action plan to adapt. Both sides of the dispute are intractable because the storyteller here accepts a conservative position that life is tough and our system is immutable. The underperforming dress shop must be shuttered. That’s just the way it is. What other options are there?

There’s no question whose gaze we possess as viewers. If we saw things through the immigrant family’s experience, there would be no swelling crescendo of music at the end or coming-of-age wistfulness for Jake. A middle-aged single mother has lost her main source of income, and the likelihood of further disadvantage for her family has increased.

While both boys applied to art school, only Jake makes it in—an outcome that feels gross considering his father’s predictive outburst when he tells Tony his application will be rejected, not to mention the pep talk he gives to Jake later that implies success is his birthright.

The final scene in an art gallery is what unraveled things for me. On a field trip, Jake and his art school classmates silently sketch paintings on the wall when he notices Tony with his school friends on the other side of the gallery. While Jake and his peers are solemn and focused, Tony’s crowd jokes around; they are unserious non-artists. Jake’s father was right: his son is the talented one deserving of this opportunity, not Tony.

Like earlier in the film, when Jake rollerbladed through his new multiethnic neighbourhood, he becomes an outside observer of his non-white peers, forever separated from them by the racially informed economic brutalism that underwrites his success in life. Because that’s just the way the system works. What could we possibly do to change things?

Cue swelling music.

 

 

George Saunders_Atlantic

I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of listening to George Saunders talk about the craft of writing or his own creative process. As a recovering screenwriter, I’ve spent years on projects where it seemed like everyone involved wanted to impose rules onto a story, to make it into something that checks all boxes and functions like a perfect little machine.

It took me the better part of a decade to discover that this approach to writing corrodes a story’s authenticity. It turns original storytelling into a system of telegraphed clichés that chip away at the potential for surprise, both for the writer and the audience.

Saunders is pretty good at articulating what a more creatively free writing process looks like: “A bad story is when you know what the story is, and you’re sure of it,” he says in this video from The Atlantic. This flies in the face of most advice screenwriters get to conform to precise structure and hew away the odd bits of ugliness.

I love hearing someone at his level speak in a positive light about the impossibility of storytelling. It’s the kind of advice that encourages me to continually open up the same damn Word files and work towards some uncertain result.

Dostoyevky’s Lumbering Karamazovs

by Sean on May 10, 2016

in Reading

KaramazovMy recurring suggestion that novels should have a bit of ‘flabbiness’ in them in order to highlight the author’s vision or personality—to convey what their open world looks like, to borrow a gaming term—has been successfully countered by Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.

While I lamented the absence of this quality in otherwise solid books like Patrick deWitt’s Undermajordomo Minor and Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, both of which could have benefited from a less exacting grip on story beats, The Brothers Karamazov goes so far in the other direction that I was thirsting for a shred of plot to buoy my interest. Of course, the book has to be seen in its socio-historical context and within the author’s overall oeuvre—etc, etc—but looking at this through purely a reader’s lens, I thought that spreading a thin (albeit compelling) plot across ~800 pages demands too much.

I’m glad I made it through the whole thing, though, and this hasn’t soured me on Dostoyevsky; Crime and Punishment is one of the most gripping reads I can recall. And my impressions of The Idiot or novellas like The Gambler and The Double from my undergrad years are pretty positive.

In The Brothers Karamazov, it’s not the bombastic, overwrought monologues that bother me so much as the painful lack of a strong edit. You can see the author losing the thread, then spotting a glimpse of it and chasing off in another direction only to find there’s nothing there either. It’s like watching someone walk through a sparsely furnished house and flicking the lights in each room on and off; they’re looking for something, but you don’t know what and they don’t know how to tell you … because maybe they don’t really know what “it” is.

That motive to pursue some meaning greater than the plot at hand is what I love about the novel as a form. It doesn’t matter to me whether the author clearly articulates what it is they’re trying to reveal, only that they’ve made the effort to look for something bigger in the first place. I think you can feel some earnestness of ‘the search’ in most great art.

However, The Brothers Karamazov does this so much that it falters under its own weighty ambition. (Cormac McCarthy suffers from this at times too, as demonstrated in Blood Meridian.) It’s a book written at the height of the author’s fame, published just one year before his death, but it unfortunately doesn’t age well and is better left to academics or readers who want a challenge.

You Will Remember MeDuring a recent performance of You Will Remember Me by François Archambault at Tarragon Theatre in Toronto, I realized that I’d make a terrible theatre critic.

The production is solid and I have few disagreements with this review from Glenn Sumi, my colleague at NOW Magazine, and yet I couldn’t help thinking about how the play could have been better, despite all its praiseworthy aspects. I was rewriting it in my head throughout the performance, selfishly thinking of the missing scenes or the characters that should be cut.

That’s not to say I didn’t like the show—just that my mind was engaged with the many places I wished the story had gone but didn’t. (This is how a theatre critic would shoot him/herself in the foot.)

Mostly, I was distracted by the reductive portrayal of dementia as just memory loss. It’s far more humiliating, tragic and darkly comedic than simply forgetting names and facts. While I don’t think Archambault intends to represent dementia in a strictly realistic way—he instead focuses on creating a thematic connection with Quebec’s political scene—in narrowing this complicated disorder to a one-note character tic, You Will Remember Me misses a chance at something more powerful.

Too much time is spent setting up the captivating central relationship between the main character, Eduoard, and a young woman, Berenice. I’ll be vague here on purpose to avoid spoilers. It’s this connection that allows the play to escape its repetitive reminders of Eduoard’s faulty memory and situational confusion. Berenice gives us access to him in a deeper way because she’s the one character who doesn’t try to correct his constant misremembering—she indulges in it, though for reasons that aren’t entirely clear.

Because Eduoard’s dementia has no rough edges, the stakes overall feel artificially imposed, particularly with regard to his failing marriage. His wife is supposed to be at her wit’s end, but we’ve only seen her husband as a charming inconvenience. At worst, Eduoard is an inoffensive reminder of the inevitability of aging and, ultimately, of death. There is no rearing head of cognitive decline or meaningful demonstrations of how this can wear on family members who feel compelled to help but unable to make a difference.

You Will Remember Me proves that stories about dementia don’t need to be total downers, but I’m not convinced that the complicated ugliness of a mental disorder needs to be streamlined in order to tell a satisfying story. My hunch is that there’s more satisfaction to be found in confronting it with a holistic approach.

My Winter 2016 Reads

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This past winter—it feels good to say it’s in the past—I dedicated a lot of time to reading magazines and newspapers, but I still kept reading books when possible. Here are a few of the ones I enjoyed over the last few months. Undermajordomo Minor by Patrick deWitt I really enjoyed deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers, a book that took a […]

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2015 Year in Review

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Each year, I post a round-up of the major changes, projects, and milestones in my writing career. As with previous years, 2015 was chock-full of creative development and surprises. Here are a few of them. New Writing I completed a six-month creative writing mentorship through the University of British Columbia, during which I was able to create a “proof-of-concept” […]

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New Essay on Obedience in THIS Magazine

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THIS Magazine has published my newest essay online and in their November/December 2015 issue, which is centred on ideas of how to build a better world through our kids. My piece was inspired by a dinner I had at my girlfriend’s family home, during which there was a moment that got me thinking a lot about my approach to obedience […]

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New Essay on Writers + Social Media

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Back when the weather was warmer and I could bike around Toronto without my hands turning to ice, I pitched and submitted another essay to Full Stop. (Check out my earlier essay on grieving through writing here.) This time, I wanted to focus on how writers engage with the public today and why some—such as Jonathan Franzen—have […]

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My Summer 2015 Reads

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It’s been an incredibly busy summer so far. I’ve been working with some great new clients and will be sharing more of my creative work in the future. As always, I still carve out time to read as much as I can and try to stay on top of what’s new in the publishing world. Here […]

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My New Essay on Grief-Themed Books

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Full Stop recently published my essay on grief-themed books from Karl Ove Knausgaard, Paul Auster, and Joan Didion. “Why did you want to write about such a heavy subject?” you may ask. Well, I’m not altogether sure what compelled me to write this piece. The idea hit me the moment I looked over at a stack of […]

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