When I saw The Witch several months ago at TIFF 2015, I was already pretty hyped up after having read the reviews out of Sundance several months earlier. The experience didn’t disappoint. The film delivered on its promise of a truly rich and creepy atmosphere, lush visuals, a viscerally affecting score, an impressive level of attention to detail and period accuracy, and a story that would get under your skin and scare you in a refreshingly more profound way than the average new release jump-scare shocker.
And yet, and yet.
Even though it’s a visually stunning film with haunting music and great performances, I left the theatre feeling uncomfortable about something that I couldn’t put my finger on for several days. Eventually, it dawned on me.
My problem with The Witch is that there’s a real witch in it. Or many witches, as you discover by the time you get to the admittedly striking final moments of the film. Many reviews have singled out the ending as especially powerful. And I would agree with them, if the film hadn’t made such a point of highlighting its own historical accuracy (the opening credits even mention that much of the dialogue is lifted directly from accounts of the time).
We all understand that the persecution of witches in our history had far less to do with magic and spells than it did with the subjugation of women. It may not have been the way that the people of the 17th century saw it, but it is obvious to us today that women were persecuted for witchcraft because their voices and their sexuality were seen as dangerous, unwieldy and terrifying to puritanical society – and not because they were actually Satan’s hench-women. The Witch pulls a weird bait-&-switch on this point.
Robert Eggers is fully aware of the above, and The Witch treats Thomasin’s budding, pre-teen sexuality, and her brother’s and father’s fear of it with great subtlety and care. Eggers makes it excruciatingly obvious just how much the simple fact that she is a woman will harm and undermine Thomasin in life. It isolates her from her family and sets her up to be persecuted for something she isn’t guilty for. It’s a no-win situation and it’s really well done.
The exhaustive research and painstaking execution of every historical detail are so obvious in The Witch that every conflict between Thomasin and her siblings or parents seems like a stark, honest snapshot of injustice. That is, until you get to the end and think back on the entire story as perhaps a lengthy and methodical recruitment process of a new, young witch into the local coven. Then, all of a sudden, you might see that her family members were right to fear and condemn her, because even though she may not have realized what was happening to her – it was happening.
It’s like saying “yeah, we made you think that this was about keeping women down but actually this persecution … it’s justified, because those women are actually witches and they are in league with the devil.” Whether intentional or not (my bet is: not), that feels like a wrong and jarring conclusion to arrive at.
Was it just me? Did anyone else have this reaction?
While on our ‘babymoon’ in Quebec City I’ve been really amused by how often a visibly pregnant woman (me) gets offered alcohol in restaurants. When Colin ordered a half-litre (for himself) at dinner the other night, they automatically brought and poured two glasses. Two nights ago, we got complimentary cranberry-infused vodka shots with the meal (again, I got one without being asked). So, I’ve been eating for two, and Colin’s been drinking for two, all trip!
This vacay is all about reflecting on the past and looking forward to a whole new life and getting ready for baby and all that, so I’ve been thinking a lot about how difficult I expected not drinking to be, and how easy it has actually been. I mean, I had a sip of the wine, but that was all I needed and not having more was super easy. And it has been super easy for the past six months – which is definitely the longest I’ve gone without drinking since I came of age.
I thought not drinking would be hard because I love drinking. I didn’t do it every day, but I certainly drank several times a week and really enjoyed it. So now the real question is: will my drinking habits be permanently changed by this, or will I go back to them after I’m done carrying or nursing a babe?
Here’s a list of ten things I have found much harder and/or more frustrating than not drinking:
- Not being able to tie my shoes or really do anything that involves bending all the way over without extreme discomfort. I take my flexibility for granted!
- Not being able to sleep through the night without getting up to pee (several times).
- Not being able to sleep, period. Especially not unless I’m being propped up by a million pillows.
- Not being able to enjoy extreme heat (in hot tubs, saunas, steam rooms & the like).
- Having to keep to a rigid and frequent eating schedule (this one has been especially difficult).
- Not being able to climb two flights of stairs without getting winded.
- Not being able to stop myself from crying at the dumbest things (like TV commercials).
- Being constantly way too hot.
- Being ridiculously clumsy.
- Back pain. And hip pain.
Not drinking is a breeze compared to all that other nonsense. But all the complaining aside, I’m actually having a wonderful time. Being pregnant is fun and weird and I love it!
In 2015, I joined Goodreads and set myself a very ambitious goal of reading 50 books over the course of the year. I managed approximately 30, and I feel very good about that. It’s definitely a higher number of books than I had read the year before, or for a few years previous. For 2016, I’m setting a goal of 30, but given the fact that I’m due to have a baby in three months, I’ll consider myself lucky if I make it to 15. We’ll see how it goes.
Here’s a list of ten, in alphabetical order, all of which I really enjoyed. I don’t know how many of these books deserve to be on a lifetime-tops list, or whether all ten really knocked me on my ass, but each stayed with me for one reason or another and I enjoyed them all enough to recommend them.
One thing that made a difference to my reading pace was the fact that Colin and I got a subscription to Audible this year, which means that technically I didn’t “read” all of the books below – I listened to some. I thought that my listening attention span wouldn’t hold for a full-length novel (I do ok when it comes to podcasts, but the idea of listening to something that’s 10 or even 20 hours long … I was skeptical). I discovered a few things about my listening ability. I’m perfectly capable of listening to a 20-hour story and not letting my attention wander, as long as it’s a particular kind of book. Relatively straightforward, plot-driven fiction works. Headier lit or complex non-fiction doesn’t.
One of my favourite books of the year was the very dense José Saramago novel, The Double (which I read because the film Enemy is based on it). Great movie, by the way, and phenomenal book. I highly recommend both. I know that if I’d tried to listen to The Double, I would have given up. The language is too dense and lush and my mind would wander in ways that it never does when I’m looking at the words on a page. I gave up on Colson Whitehead’s Zone One on audio for the same reason, but might pick it up on paper at some point.
On the other hand, I really enjoyed listening to The Cuckoo’s Calling and The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith, books one and two in a straightforward-but-fun detective series that didn’t end up making it to my top ten. It turns out the books were actually written by J.K. “Harry Potter” Rowling under a pseudonym – an interesting piece of trivia that’s only relevant because I was shocked (after a number of enjoyable but disappointingly sexist hardboiled detective tales) to read one with interesting female characters that weren’t victimized in cliché ways (though it was still about a tough guy gumshoe). Turns out it was written by a woman. There are no coincidences in this world.
My top ten are listed below, in alphabetical order. I didn’t realize until I compiled the list that I ended up with a fairly even split between male and female authors (though men outnumber women on my total 2015 list), but I’m glad about that. The ones I listened to are marked with an (A).
Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting by Pamela Druckerman
I’ve been reading (or at least skimming) a lot of baby books. Many are helpful, many are just as unhelpful. Most thankfully show their biases early so that I can give up on them if they don’t seem to fit into my personal child rearing philosophies. This one was fun because a lot of the advice sounded sensible and useful (though some definitely did not!) but also because it was one mother’s personal memoir of the confounding early years of parenting. She was a sympathetic character to follow, and unlike a lot of books that focus on alarming what-ifs or the technical ins & outs of birthing and handling babies, this one was a bit more fun to read and left me feeling less stressed, rather than more.
Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes (A)
Colin put this book on his Audible wish list because it sounded intriguing and we both really enjoyed it. Lauren Beukes very skillfully blends good mystery plots with a hint of fantasy. The book follows a number of intersecting stories that circle tightly around the grisly and bizarre murder of a boy, ultimately converging on a pretty satisfying climax. After I finished it I sought out one of her earlier books, The Shining Girls, about a serial killer who seems to defy the laws of time. Both books really feel like crime stories, and the fantasy elements blend seamlessly in to her prose without ever feeling tacked on or outlandish. I’m not a fantasy fan (in the Lord of the Rings sense) but I am a huge fan of good magic realism, and that’s what this feels like. It’s really well done.
The Double by José Saramago
Beautifully written, confounding, funny and fantastical story about a mild mannered history teacher who discovers that, living in the very same city as him is his absolutely-identical double. Naturally, he becomes obsessed with confronting the double, a decision that is destined to lead to a lot of strange results. Hard to discuss this book in terms of “plot” because so much of it happens inside the heads of the two men. I sought out this book because I’m a big fan of the film that was adapted from it (Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy) and because I truly couldn’t imagine what the novel-version of that story could possibly look like. Very, very different from the film, as it turns out, and it gave me a few interesting perspectives on the choices made in the film, which play with the “explanation” in a way that’s quite different from the book.
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
In addition to signing up for Audible this year, I also bought an e-reader. The Goldfinch was recommended by Kobo and I bought it on a whim before I’d even heard of it or realized that it was a critically acclaimed, Pulitzer Prize winning bestseller. I found the lengthy memoir-esque story of Theodore Decker (who as a boy does one impulsive thing that changes the course of his entire life) incredibly engrossing. Beautifully written, with lots of true-feeling observations from childhood, and a character of a troubled Slavic best friend that I really thought nailed a lot of “Slavic characteristics” without resorting to stereotype. The Goldfinch is definitely not the sort of book I ever pick up for myself, but I enjoyed it a great deal.
The Group by Mary McCarthy
Another victory for the Kobo Marketing Machine™, The Group was recommended to me after I finished The Goldfinch, in that “if you liked that, you might like this” way that algorithms work. I have no idea what Kobo thinks the books have in common (they were both written by women? They are both about … people?) but I’m glad I took a chance on it. The book is about the post-graduation lives of eight female Vassar College grads (class of 1933). I had somehow (inexplicably) never heard of Mary McCarthy before, so at first I didn’t realize the book wasn’t contemporary, but was actually written by a woman who herself graduated from Vassar in 1933. I was really impressed with the way she captured the struggles of being a woman in the ’30s (in a way that feels incredibly relevant in the present day). Now that I know she lived through it, I’m marginally less surprised that she was able to capture it so well, but far more impressed with how much her observations about the inner struggles of these women (with marriage, career, children, everyday sexism, and so on) still ring true today.
Horrorstör by Grady Hendrix
Full disclosure: Grady is a friend of mine, but I promise that is not why his book made it onto my list. Grady’s one of the funniest people I know. He’s charming and fun and tells a great story and I always knew he was a talented writer (his Kaiju Shakedown column archive is totally worth your time), so of course I was hoping I’d like the book. I did. It’s really funny, and scary, and has some amazingly gross parts, and the ending is satisfying (it’s about an employee in an IKEA-knockoff shop who must contend with some unexpectedly supernatural problems on the job). Do I even need to say anything more than the phrase “haunted IKEA” to pique your interest? No. I’m thrilled that the book has been a big success and that I can honestly recommend it to people looking for a fun horror read. I’m looking forward to Grady’s next book, My Best Friend’s Exorcism, which is coming out very soon!
Lock In by John Scalzi (A)
I don’t read much sci-fi, but I listened to this book after Colin selected it on our Audible account, and I loved it. It’s a murder mystery that takes place in a very plausible near-future in which a large percentage of the population has been struck down by “Haden’s Syndrome”, a virus that causes total physical paralysis but leaves its victims completely ok mentally, “locking people in” to their own minds. In this near future, scientists have figured out how to allow “Hadens” (as they’re colloquially called) to re-join the physical world by letting them control robot bodies in which their minds can dwell while their physical selves lay in beds at home or in hospitals. The story is actually about an FBI agent (who happens to be a Haden) trying to solve a murder that may have involved another Haden. The mystery is good, but what’s truly fantastic about the book is how fully fleshed out this world actually is. It’s incredibly well thought out and detailed. Lock In was accompanied by a bonus novella, Unlocked: An Oral History of Haden’s Syndrome, which compiles the “testimony” of scientists, politicians, historians, survivors and sufferers into a complete account of how the disease spread, how treatments were researched and discovered, and how the world changed as a result. It feels disturbingly, eerily plausible.
Night Film by Marisha Pessl (A)
I don’t recall who recommended this book but I’m grateful to them, because it was definitely one of my top faves this year. Another “mystery story”, this time about the seeming suicide of Ashley Cordova, the daughter of a mysterious and enigmatic underground horror filmmaker, Stanislas Cordova (formerly prolific, now a total recluse). Bootlegs of Cordova’s works are traded and watched on a cinematic black market for people who seek out the most extreme and disturbing of experiences. Never appearing but totally omnipresent, the spectre of Cordova hangs over the book like an ominous cloud – a great counterpoint to the not-always-all-that-brilliant-or-competent Scott McGrath, the disgraced writer (disgraced after an article on Cordova nearly destroyed his career) and would-be detective who takes it upon himself to “solve” the case of Ashley’s death. I was so totally won over by Marisha Pessl’s complex story structure and engaging prose that I immediately sought out her previous novel, Special Topics In Calamity Physics, a winner on title alone. It’s high on my 2016 reading list.
Transferral by Kate Blair
Full disclosure: Kate is another friend on the list. I’ve known for years that she was a talented writer with a lot of determination and a hell of an impressive work ethic, so I was incredibly happy and proud of her this year when she published her debut novel. Transferral is a YA novel about an alternate-reality London in which the government has figured out how to transfer diseases from one person to another, and uses this as a way to punish criminals and keep the rest of the population healthy. When a prominent politician’s sixteen year old daughter gets tangled up in the case of a man who may have been the unfair victim of these policies, she decides to dig deeper and begins to question her father’s tough-on-crime policies as well as her own belief that the transferral program is good and just. Transferral was a fun, quick read that I will absolutely be buying for the young readers on my future Christmas and birthday lists.
The Troop by Nick Cutter (A)
I’m a fan of Craig Davidson, the Canadian author whose novel Rust and Bone was adapted to the 2012 Cannes hit & award winning film by the same name (I really disliked the film but that’s no fault of Mr Davidson’s). I’m currently reading Cataract City and really loving it too. I discovered this past year that Davidson has a horror alter-ego, Nick Cutter, and hoooooooly shit is he ever good at writing horror. I don’t read much horror but reading (or rather, listening to) The Troop was a very intense, visceral experience. I often only-semi-jokingly refer to it as an exercise in trying not to dry heave every five minutes. This book is about a scout troop camping on an isolated island off Canada’s east coast, who encounter a sick stranger whose “infection” the boys must now contend with. The prose – the descriptions of what exactly the disease is, and what it does to the human body – is so incredibly disgusting (in the best possible way, as I’m sure you understand), I was genuinely taken aback, and had to take frequent breaks while listening. I like to put on an audio book while I’m cooking sometimes. Not this one!! Cutter/Davidson did a phenomenal job of capturing the characters of the young scouts, too. It can be hard to get kids right, but he nails it, which makes it all the more upsetting when they start getting infected by the mysterious bug. Highly recommended, but only if you’ve got a very strong stomach.
This fall and winter have been soooooooooo overstuffed with work and travel and life changes that it has felt a bit like the turducken of seasons. Once again, I turn to cooking when I am stressed out. I made this mushroom lasagna from Plenty a few weeks ago when I was overwhelmed by the task of filing for tax credits for Birdland. Spoiler alert: I am still overwhelmed by this task, which is not yet 100% done, in part because I am waiting on info from other people, which at least makes me feel better and less like a procrastinating, incompetent lump.
Mostly, I feel like a delightfully happy dumpling (i.e. good lump, not bad lump), good moods being the best symptom of pregnancy that I’ve experienced so far. I haven’t blogged about being pregnant because we just announced it on the social medias a couple of weeks ago, but here we go: I am nearly six months pregnant, so you can look forward to several exciting posts over the next three months about how sore my hips are and how much my walk has turned into a waddle. Whee!
I have been joking that I thought producing a movie would be the biggest thing I did in 2015! Turns out, I’m producing something waaaaaaaay bigger, to be released into the world in early 2016. In addition to good moods, I’m also experiencing a thrilling plethora of symptoms that I had never heard of before – insane dreams, an occasionally bloody nose, sensitive gums, a numb thigh (pinched-nerve related), constant exhaustion, post nasal drip, heartburn and occasional bursts of weeping. My skin is also super dry, but maybe that’s just “winter”. I have not had morning sickness or cravings, aka the only two symptoms anyone ever talks about.
For the past few months, we’ve been inching closer and closer to finishing Birdland, which is an absolutely thrilling fact, truly. I’m kind of sorry that I’ve been too exhausted and preoccupied by the crazy changes happening in my life (and body) to throw myself fully into the final few months of post-production, but I’m also incredibly glad that it’s no longer my job to steer the ship at this stage of the game. I’m also especially pleased that the completion date for the film (even if we fall a bit behind schedule) will be at least a month before my due date. Good timing! I never ended up writing about the pickup shoot dates that we rocked in August, but they went great, and our editor Caroline did a superhuman job of sculpting all our footage into a real movie. She is a wizard, truly. We locked picture last month and are now embarking on the next grand adventure: sound!
There are more fascinating aspects to the sound post production period than I really understood before. ADR (i.e. dubbing over lines that were mumbled, not recorded perfectly, or flubbed in some other way – in our case, we also added a few offscreen lines that weren’t in the script originally), foley (you know, like what the guy in Berberian Sound Studio does), editing the dialogue, adding the score (ours is being composed by two supremely talented musicians), crafting the sound design (the various non-musical elements that will shape the atmosphere of the film) and mixing it all together so that it sounds perfectly. It’s a lot of work. Many weeks’ worth.
Now that sound work is well under way, I can focus on tying up all the other loose ends – the aforementioned tax credit application, analyzing the cost reports to see if we’re over or under budget, get ready for the big job of submitting to film festivals, putting out press releases, promoting and marketing the film and working with our distributor / sales agent on the whole big plan of putting it out into the world.
In the meantime, I intend to focus on tying up as many other work-related loose ends between now and March as I possibly can. That includes finishing a few projects for REEL CANADA, delegating the bulk of my Royal-related work to other people, and getting as much Shudder work done as possible, so that we don’t risk falling behind during the baby-hiatus that is to come in late spring. It is all very daunting, but I have to say, I am very, very excited to be very busy with something that isn’t work in 2016. I’m a bit burned out on having five jobs. A few months ago I joked about how I could never decide on which job to quit because they all take turns being heartwarming. Thankfully, life has decided for me. I’m not quitting any of them, but I’m taking a good long break from them all. Perfect!
p.s. next time I’d add more parmesan & feta to the cheese in the very-cheesy mixture for this lasagna. It was delicious but kind of lacked salt.
By Friday, that sore throat has turned into a tired, woozy but thankfully not feverish feeling and a stubborn cough. At least the throat’s not sore anymore. It might be a sign that I’m going to cycle through all the symptoms quickly and feel right as rain in two days. Could happen, right?
Friday starts out with some non-TIFF work, a meeting with Tim Reis and our post-production friends at The Royal about some post work that we’re hoping to do on Tim’s debut feature, Bad Blood, later this fall. It’s a super fun film that I’m very excited to be helping out on, and I think that a bit of polish on the sound and colour will really take the quality and style up several notches. Plus, any excuse to bring Tim back to Toronto, because he’s basically our favourite dude.
After an extended lunch/meeting about Bad Blood I had to race downtown to another meeting, this one about a TV series that I can’t talk about yet but am very excited to be part of in whatever capacity. I made the dumb decision of taking a taxi from John and Wellington down to the back (west) side of the ACC, which should only have been a 15 minute walk but turned into a nearly 30 minute drive because of some insane traffic. Is it always like that downtown, or what? Am I just blissfully unaware of the nightmare that drivers live every day in this town? Anyway, I should have walked, it was nuts. I arrived late but the meeting went smoothly anyway and I’m very excited about the potential of this project.
I went back to the hotel for a nap, where I proceeded to grumble and groan a lot about whether I would be able to make it to Midnight Madness (I can get a bit babyish when I am sick, lemme tell ya) but in the end, I rallied for one important reason: Friday was Moms at Midnight day!!! Colin’s folks came into town (they’re staying with mine, because our families are the cutest ever) and the two moms came out to see Takashi Miike’s completely zany Yakuza Apocalypse. They loved Why Don’t You Play in Hell? two years ago so we figured Japanese insanity might be their thing?
Went for an all-curing bowl of pre-midnight ramen at Ramen Raijin (on Gerrard at Yonge, so about as close to the Ryerson as humanly possible) before enjoying some serious yakuza/mom time. I was about as tired as I’ve been all festival, but definitely glad I went. Plus, the moms got to meet Miike! He looks like a disembodied head in this picture, but trust me, up close, his outfit was extreeeeeemely cool.
Sometimes, the only thing that really helps at the end of a grumbly sick day is moms. ❤
Back to movies! On Thursday I managed to see three films and have a nice dinner and make it to bed early.
I woke up a bit tired and unwilling to invest too much emotional or intellectual energy into anything I was seeing, because I was already feeling drained and in need of some feel good pick me ups.
First up, I saw Our Brand Is Crisis, the Sandra Bullock number loosely based on a real story of an American political consultant who helps a Bolivian presidential candidate win the election. There’s actually a 2005 documentary (same title) which tells the story of the real strategists and the real election, which I’d love to check out because the fictionalized version left me feeling a bit weird. I can’t put my finger on what was wrong with it (I think the ending, which is both jarringly hopeful and too-easily-redemptive, had something to do with it) but there was something about the largely comedic tone of the film’s first half that just didn’t gel with the truly depressing outcome. I was really hopeful since it’s directed by David Gordon Green, who has more hits than misses books, but … I’m not sure about this one, and I’d love to read up on the actual situation.
Next up I saw Mr. Right, which is basically a really dumb story about a kooky girl falling in love with a charming hitman. And vice versa. It doesn’t matter how dumb it is though, because Anna Kendrick and Sam Rockwell are so incredibly charming, charismatic, likeable and delightful to watch that the film ends up being greater than the sum of its parts, and very funny and enjoyable.
My final film of the day might end up being one of my faves of the fest. Basically the feel-good film of the year, Born to Dance is a dance film from New Zealand that manages to be incredibly fun and fresh in spite of having pretty much the same plot as every other dance film since the dawn of cinema. There are a few key differences that made it stand out, mind you: it’s about Maori teens, it features an openly gay character (who is a total badass and not at all a stereotype), plus, actually, an entire gay dance crew who totally rock out in the film’s big dance championships finale. The lead actor is so adorable and the film is such a heart-warmer that I honestly can’t recommend it highly enough.
Post-movies, I met up with Colin and a friend (who also happens to be our L.A. lawyer – we need one of those cuz we fancy) for dinner near the Royal, so that we could give him a tour of the cinema and enjoy some downtime in a non-TIFF neighbourhood. It felt so nice. I miss home!
I came back to the hotel, ready to go to bed early and get a great night’s rest, and then felt the familiar and unwelcome tickle of a sore throat. The dread TIFF cold! HOW COULD I POSSIBLY BE GETTING IT WHEN I HAVE TAKEN IT SO EASY!? Seems unfair, doesn’t it? I haven’t even been hung over once!
Another one-film day full of non-TIFF responsibilities. Another hard-to-reschedule-and-inconveniently-timed appointment, another screening of an even more new & improved version of Birdland, and in between an extravagant lunch at the CN Tower’s rotating 360 restaurant with a big crew of Midnight Madness directors.
The food was delicious, the company was lovely, I got a chance to meet the 100 directors of Southbound and the lovely gents who directed Lace Crater and The Girl in the Photographs, both of which I was really charmed by. I never go up to the top of the CN Tower (and why would any Torontonian, unless they’re entertaining out of towner friends or family from abroad?) but it’s a lovely reminder of just how green this city is. The director of Der Nachtmahr said that he had no idea Toronto was so “science fiction”. I wasn’t sure exactly what he meant, but he clearly meant it as a compliment.
I really needed to take it easy on Wednesday because I hadn’t gotten nearly enough sleep the night before, so instead of trying to push myself to see any films or get anything done, I just relaxed until dinner time and then snagged rare private time with Colin, who had a two hour window before Midnight to eat with me and have a drink with the Southbound crew, who were doing it right at the Imperial Pub (aka the only decent place to drink that’s a stone’s throw from from the Ryerson (and by “decent” I mean “a great dive”)).
I’d seen a rough version of Southbound during Colin’s programming process and really liked it, especially the all-the-stories-are-actually-connected structure of it (disconnected stories are the one thing that often turns me off of anthologies, though there are lots that I do like, V/H/S (by the same producing team) included). But, even though I’d seen it before, seeing it again with all the effects done, and a great score and really effectively scary sound design, I have to admit I was legitimately scared several times. Kudos to Roxanne Benjamin, the only female director in Midnight Madness 2015, for not only directing a segment but also producing this joint. What a badass babe.
A highly successful one movie day. They don’t all have to be endurance tests, y’know?