Saturday, May 19, 2012

THE SAMARITAN - a gritty thriller set in the Big Smoke

Full disclosure:  David Weaver who co-wrote and directed this picture is a guy I know and like.  This is his third feature and I 've known him since he came back here from grad school and was trying to make his first.  He is a nice guy, a smart guy, and a talented guy.

Last night, a screenwriter friend of mine and I attended one of his opening weekend screenings.  It was Friday night at twilight at Dundas and Yonge.  There were break-dance guys with a floor and a ghetto blaster dancing on the corner.  There was a mime dressed as Batman letting tourists take pictures with him for donations. There was a guy doing masterful chalk drawings.  The TV screens and the neon lights flashed overhead.  It was warm, the first night of the first long weekend of summer. The city felt packed and rocking.  I said to my friend who is now a young mom  "You know, it feels good to be out here on Friday night.  We should do this more often." 

Inside, the mall and the multiplex were big and weirdly quiet. I guess a lot of people did go to the cottage after all.  Once the film started, we were back where Toronto feels like a pulsing place.  THE SAMARITAN  is a slick, good-looking film with a plot turn a minute.  Samuel L. Jackson, who anchors the film and gives it heart, plays a man released from prison after 25 years who wants to just get on with having a normal life.  He was a con artist who murdered his partner when a scam they were pulling went South.  The sins of the father are revisited on the son who turns up at Jackson's apartment trying to lure, then coerce him back into the con game.  Seems his father's murder failed to deter the son from going into the family business.

In theatre, we talk about"willing suspension of disbelief" .  You need a certain amount of that to get pulled through the labyrinthine plot-turns to the bloody conclusion of this picture.  The film has a noirish look and the troubled young woman at the centre of this owes a debt to certain noir dames from the past but this is more action-packed thriller than anything else. There are car chases, dead bodies, violent fights, crap bars, diners and gun-play a plenty.

This much plot in a film tends to be a bit at the expense of character development. The cast is good and engaging but like the stylish and slick Marivaux I saw last weekend, the film appealed more to my head than it did to my heart.  I loved the look of the picture.  It held my interest and unlike many  films I see, it had a clear start, middle and ending. I see way  too much stuff where I  get to the end and think," How the hell did we end up here?"  It's  a slick, enjoyable ( if you like gritty violence and messed up relationships) well-constructed genre picture.

Given how hard it is to get a feature film made in this country, I'm prepared to give a medal to damn near anybody who manages to get it done.  Weaver's made three now, which puts him in a realm with few people in English Canada. I was glad to have seen it and I look forward to what Weaver will make next.

After the past two weekends, I've had way more than enough crime and violence on stage and screen.  It's time for some romance and some comedy.  I will try and  take you to a happy place with me next week.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

CRASH and some thoughts in the aftermath...

This afternoon, on the last afternoon of her run, I went to see Pamela Sinha's one-woman show CRASH. Written and performed by Sinha, and directed by Alan Dilworth, the show is about shattering loss: the loss of a father, the loss of innocence, the loss of faith, and the near-loss of sanity after a horrifyingly sadistic sexual assault.

The show has had uniformly great press and a sold-out run.  No wonder: Sinha was nothing short of electrifying.  Today the audience was full of her old friends from theatre school.  The narrator and the "girl" she speaks about are two sides of the same person:  the one before the assault, and the one who remains afterward. There wasn't a dry eye in the house at the end of today's performance.  With brilliant use of slides, two sets of stairs, a milk crate and a door, Sinha has transformed a tale of terrible trauma into a powerful work of art.

I wanted to see Pamela's show and I dreaded seeing this show.  Dreaded it because a woman I've known since we went to the same high school together was going to stand there and talk about a character that had sexual assault change her life. I can relate.

"Girl" in the play and I are not alone. The most recent Stats Canada report on sexual assault (2007) contains some fairly disturbing statistics. About half a million people a year are sexually assaulted in Canada.

The random stranger assault is the least common: 18%  - and most likely to get a conviction. If you are the victim of a level 3 assault by a stranger (your life is in danger) 68% of charges will result in a conviction when there is enough evidence to proceed to trial. For the most part, they are the ones you hear about in the news. That still means 32% of those guys are on the street somewhere.

Girl tries desperately to remember what the assailant looked like but she can't.  She does figure out who did this to her, but it is uncertain he can be arrested, that he can be caught.

Most victims however, over 80% are sexually assaulted by someone they know. Remember, these stats are for REPORTED assaults, where the victim went to the police, and tried to press charges.

4 out 5 reported sexual assaults happen to women, but that means 1 in 5 happen to men. It is estimated that one in four women and one in six men are sexually abused or assaulted in their lifetime.

The authors of the Stats Canada report that 97% of sexual assaults reported to police are committed by men.

Half the sexual assaults reported to the police occur to children. The next biggest cohort is 15-24. Rape is a crime of power-over, and the younger you are and the smaller you are, the less power you have. Most victims, 80% are assaulted by someone they know: a parent, a teacher, a relative, a co-worker, a date, a neighbour, an acquaintance, a sibling, a coach, a family friend.

Half of sex offenders are married or in a relationship. They are not drooling mouth-breathers.  They are frequently quite seductive, and charming, and good-looking. That is how they lure their prey. They seem nice.  They are not nice, not at all.  They are masters of deceit, blame-shifting, and coercion.  They pick young people, vulnerable people, and trusting people, because those people are easier to manipulate.

Even when victims can get past their fears, self-blame, and embarrassment, go to the police, and report these predators, maybe losing a job, or a family, or their home, in the process, it doesn't mean anything is going to happen to the perpetrator. That's not the fault of the police.

When they are reported, without hard evidence, like a rape kit, or a wound from a weapon, or a dead body, there are rarely charges, never mind a conviction, in a sexual assault. Of the 1 in 10 cases of assault that are reported, only in about 37% of the cases is the evidence deemed sufficient to CHARGE the perpetrator.  You don't see that on LAW AND ORDER. 

More than 60% of REPORTED sexual assaults NEVER even lead to charges.  If you are charged, you have about a 50% chance of being convicted.  Conviction rates in sexual assaults are among the lowest of any for violent crime. 

Nine out of ten sexual assaults are not even reported.  Again, according to Stats Canada, the rate of REPORTING has declined steadily for ten years. Why don't people bother to report?  Think about what those conviction numbers mean.

Of reported sexual offenders, only 15% ever get convicted. 85% of reported sex offenders and 100% of unreported rapists and gropers and child molesters get away with it, consequence-free. Perpetrators know this full well:  if they slip their victim a pill-laced drink, or get him or her really drunk, or are a little too hands-on with their staff in a bad job market or a highly competitive field, or groom that neglected or battered kid into silence with gifts and attention (“he gave me toys"one grown man said to me about the man who abused him as a 12 year old) or physically/verbally/emotionally abuse the financially dependent partner/kid into zero self-esteem before they sexually abuse them and tell them if they were "good" this wouldn't happen, or refuse to stop at a kiss good night at the door, and push the girl into the empty house, or use physical force on the immigrant maid, or the 23 year old journalist  in the hotel room, or violently rape, and then dump in a ditch, the prostitute or the street kid they paid for a blow job, they will still, in 2012, probably get away with that sexual assault, or two, or ten, or more. For the most part, sexual assaults go unreported, and unpunished. 

For many young people their first experience of sex is an assault. A whole lot of men and women are violated and abused sexually and emotionally when they are very young. Their trust is shattered.

The pain and fear and rage in the aftermath are indescribable, and never completely go away.  Sinha showed that so viscerally today, it was impossible to remain complacent.

In an age of global travel, and job mobility, men can go around the world, and have sex with kids, or commit violent sexual assaults, and only in rare circumstances, ever get caught, and even more rarely, convicted. Graham James was in Mexico working with kids, when he was arrested the second time, after he'd already been convicted in Canada for sexually assaulting minors.  The Catholic Church simply moved priests who molested children around from parish to parish ,where they carried on molesting more children.

By letting 95% of sexual assaults go unpunished, we are teaching young people that one of the perks of power, mostly adult male power, is the ability to physically and sexually abuse less powerful people with impunity, and no consequences. This is how rape culture is perpetuated, and serial rapists get to carry on, leaving broken people, and shattered lives, in their wake.

Our crap conviction rate says, loud and clear, that with a few, rare exceptions, no one will be punished for using and abusing your body, against your will.   

Like Sinha's brilliant show this afternoon, Theo Fleury's book gives a great overview of the aftermath of sexual assault and its long-term effects on victims.

In his case,  the abuse he experienced as a young hockey player led to substance abuse, tanked marriages, emotional damage, and a legacy of pain and rage. Fleury gives an insiders' look at the Graham James case, and the number of people in professional hockey who covered for James, while he continued to abuse boys.  Penn State U is the same thing all over:  ten boys, fifteen years, and a total wall of denial from the accused:

The Truth and Reconciliation Committee hearings on the residential school system and the Pickton Inquiry are still ongoing, with generations of survivors telling their awful stories of violence and betrayal by both perpetrators and the justice system. Meanwhile, there are more than 79 missing aboriginal women in Manitoba, right now, and not one person charged.

According to Stats Can ,you are most likely to be assaulted if you are between 15-34, female, and work at night. Every night you go out, ups your chances of being assaulted.

When I was in that age group, and worked at night, I was groped more times than I care to remember, followed home from the bar where I worked (I had a big male room-mate who was home that night, thank God) and sexually assaulted twice: once in my room in the rooming house where I lived, by a male colleague who drove me home from a work dinner, and didn't take no for an answer when I asked him to leave, and once, coming home on the subway. 

Luckily for me, the violent subway attacker didn't succeed in knocking me unconscious by grabbing me by the hair and hitting my head on the tile floor of the subway station, which was his first move. I fought like hell, managed to escape with my life, and bruising all over my body, and ran screaming up the stairs to the conductor,who called the TTC police.  He did not manage to rape me, but he did scar me for life. For months afterward, I had handprints on my body. My palate was so bruised from him sticking his arm in my mouth to stop me from screaming, I couldn't drink a hot beverage for months. I bit him, and that was when he dropped me, and that's how I escaped.

Like the character in CRASH, for years afterward, I couldn't remember what he looked like. The police were really nice, and they really wanted to catch the guy, but I couldn't identify him. I lived in terror that he would come back, and find me one night, on a bus. I cut off my hair.  I moved back to Winnipeg, and lived with my parents. When I came back here, I moved into a high security building with guard dogs and cameras.

Every time I see the” 50 Shades of Grey “ poster when I come from home from my job at night these days, with the handcuffs on the subway next to the  television monitor with the warnings about an assault at Downsview station this past week, I feel upset and angry. I got home last night from work, and the author was being interviewed on the radio.  The Globe and Mail has run three articles on the damn thing.  I called the TTC and asked that the posters be taken down and told them why.  They did it.

In a society where women and men are routinely sexually assaulted, with few if any consequences for the perpetrators, I find linking sex to violence both horrifying and repulsive. 

I have a real problem with promoting the idea of sanctioned sexual violence. Given the reality of sexual assault, glamorizing violent power-over sex between men and women is both stupid and socially irresponsible.  Women die to be tied up and hit alright.   Robert Pickton, Paul Bernardo and Russell Williams all tied up their victims, and beat the crap out of them, and that is a fact, not a sexual fantasy.  There’s a pile of dead bodies to back me up.

The RCMP is currently investigating an internal sexual abuse scandal. 

Sure let's encourage more men to think what most women want is violent, aggressive, coercive, power-over abusive sex. Violence against women and children domestically and socially, abuse of power and sexual abuse aren't problems anymore. Loosen up.

This is a load of dangerous bullshit and perpetuates the myth that women "ask for it" or "secretly want it", that is, want their boundaries and bodies disrespected, and trammeled over, want assault and abuse. "50 Shades of Grey" isn't about a long-term couple who are financial and social equals deciding to try something different one night.  It's about a man who is older than his girlfriend, a man with more power, and more money, sexually dominating her.  This sounds like an old-school, misogynistic abusive fantasy to me, and yes, I know a woman wrote the damn thing. I fail to see anything sexy about a rich, powerful man beating a stupid kid with Daddy issues, with or without her permission, and plenty wrong.

As a culture, we need to stop making excuses for sexual abuse, and physical assault, by anyone, anywhere, under any circumstances. We need to untie sex from violence and power-over, not further entrench the notion that sex comes with with violence, physical abuse and "dominance".  There's way more than enough  "I am bigger than you and more powerful so I can do what the hell I want" going on out there sexually now, as evidenced by a half-million sexual assaults a year. 

If we really believed in “safe, sane and consensual” it would be dead easy to convict for sexual assault, not bloody nearly impossible.   Women who "bottom", that is, agree to be dominated, in the BDSM community are speaking out, and saying assault is a real problem in their community.  This will come as no surprise to anyone with two synapses.

If the BDSM "community" is serious about being "safe, sane and consensual" they will stand at the vanguard of outing every single abuser in their community, not abet concealing them. Until this happens, we as a society are well to be wary, really, really wary of  encouraging a fetish of violent sexualized, male aggression, domination and degradation of women. We have plenty of uncharged rapists running around already.

Two weeks ago, The Globe and Mail online was full of letters from men saying the outing of Strauss-Kahn as an accused (but not convicted) serial rapist was a play by Sarkosy, a political move, to discredit  the Socialists by the Americans.  No:  it was a move by women he'd raped, and tried to rape, to speak up because many men and women are tired of the "power equals a license to abuse" equation, and the police can't help much, try as they might. 

Strauss-Kahn's lawyer referred to him as a “libertine”.  NO:  Strauss-Kahn is a sexual predator. The journalist he tried to rape was a friend of his daughter's. The journalist's own mother discouraged her from reporting the assault. How do women condone the sexual abuse of other women?  How is this OK?

“Outing” is a controversial practice but it did a lot to end hypocrisy and double-speak around society’s attitudes to homosexuality. We need to start “outing” rapists and sexual predators, and guys with a track record for domestic violence: not have women telling other women that powerful men abusing women and kids is something to put up with.  Strauss-Kahn and Graham James are, to me, a start.

I have nothing but admiration for the men and women brave enough to out sexual predators.  Theo Fleury, Tristane Banon, Sheldon Kennedy: you people are heroes.

I'm not as brave as Fleury or that young Tristane Banon who reported, even though Strauss-Kahn is off, scot-free. I never want to see the man who assaulted in me in my house again, ever.  Inspired by Pamela Sinha, I am speaking out here today against the notion that violence against women is OK, as a way of trying, in some measure, to right an old wrong. It sure as hell isn't OK with me, nor is it OK with most men and women I know.

I called the rape crisis centre in researching this post and found out it is possible to make a thing called a"3rd party report".  It is a report for people who are assaulted by someone they can't charge, and reporting in that way is safe and anonymous. It is a way to maintain a paper trail on predators.  We need to make sure every victim knows they have this right, and encourage them to use it.

We need to treat sex as what it is: a privilege of adult life that we take away, along with your liberty, if you use it to abuse others. Dating safety and sex education need to go hand in hand.  Young people need to be taught at school, how to talk about sexual boundaries, how to enforce sexual boundaries, and  how to report sex abuse.  We need to teach young people safe ways to handle aggression and how to manage anger. They need to be taught what an abusive relationship looks like, and what sexual coercion is.

Since so many people now date using internet websites, I'd like to see all dating sites legally compelled to keep  “bad date” lists, and ban reported abusers, as well as convicted sex offenders. As to all these worries about "false reporting":  again, according to Stats Canada, an estimated 2-4% of sexual assault reports are false. It is a criminal offense to make a false report.  Believe me, it is not easy to report a sexual assault.

Sexual assault is sex-negative. Without consent, it is sexual assault and it is criminal.  Kink should not be used as yet another rationalization, or cover, for sexual abuse. Enough already.

Sexual relationships of any kind are often far from completely safe, or sane. According to Stats Canada, 50% of sexual assaults occur on dates, and only 2% of date rapes are ever reported, in large measure because it is so tough to get a conviction. Most women are raped at home. If you’re alone with someone who out weighs you by 50 to 100 pounds, and is half a foot to a foot taller than you are, you’re in a plenty high-risk situation as it is. 

I can tell you from direct personal experience that sexual assault messes you up for the rest of your life. After years of therapy, I still struggle in the aftermath.

I'm not in favour of anyone hitting anyone ever, except in self-defense. Keep your 50 shades of amoral rationalization to yourself.

I hope Sinha's harrowing, brilliant play gets a remount.  It will haunt me for a long, long time.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Jocelyn's games of Love and Chance at CanStage

Matthew Jocelyn and a crew of talented and styling people mounted a new translation of Marivaux's romantic farce to exceedingly mixed press here in Toronto this spring.

M. Jocelyn returned to Toronto after a lengthy tenure in Europe and he has definitely gone "Continental" in this production, emphasizing broad physical comedy and the clown aspects of commedia dell'arte from which Marivaux borrowed his plot.

Much of the set is a hall of mirrors and the production is shiny, stylized and superficial.  This is not wrong and not bad:  in fact most of the people in the small audience were laughing hard last night at the antics of the lovers. It's a three door French farce where the servants switch places with the masters.

Here's the thing:. many of the critics who have slammed the production didn't understand the style AT ALL. Jocelyn has done this as a stage cartoon to illustrate that love and passion can make fools, great big fools of us all. The servants channeled reality television stars to good comic effect. The relationship between love, lust and lies was the black water beneath the shimmering surface of the poetic language.  It was a smart production.

Not many actors in English Canada are well-trained in this style.  We train comedians at Second City and at comedy school. If you want to train as a clown you mostly have to go to clown school after you finish theatre school.  I see more work employing these methods on the outer fringes of the theatrical community than I do on the main-stages of English-language theatres.  Most of these actors in this production came here from Montreal where the French influence (at the National Theatre School for instance) is part of their training.  I admired Jocelyn's fresh approach even if it wasn't entirely to my taste. I found the actors and the production charming and amusing.

Do I wish there had been a bit more emotional depth, more warmth,more humanity, less cynicism?  Yes. Was this a bad show?  No not at all.

When you take great risks, you are going to fail on occasion, you aren't going to please everybody all of the time.  I have never sensed this as Jocelyn's goal.  I think he is truly trying to give us a theatre that plays on a world stage and not a world stage of revivals of American musicals and coffee-table book productions of "safe " scripts.

Here's the thing:  we have a commercial theatre in this city.  We don't need CanStage to be doing what the Mirvishes are doing. SoulPepper is doing repertory and revivals of older 20th century stuff as are both of our main theatre festivals,  Shaw and Stratford..

I have seen some of the best theatre I have seen in this city since I returned a year ago at CanStage under Jocelyn's tenure.  The work has been risky, cerebral and on occasion, electrifying. Some of it ( I Send You This Cadmium Red....Red) has worked brilliantly. Even the hot messes have at least been interesting messes. I do wish he would bring Atwood's THE PENELOPIAD to the mainstage.

Has he lost subscribers?  Yes.  Regime change should mean a shake-up, not more same-old, same old. We are never going to get younger people back into the theatres by continuing to do the  "safe" shows in the same way. When you do a renovation of a house or a relationship and an artistic director and an audience is a relationship, sometimes things are going to get worse before they get better.  I hope Jocelyn's board is going to take a deep breath and back him for the long haul.  He is a much needed breath of fresh air.

Ouzonian forgets that CanStage is not the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, which is the only big game in a town of 800,000 people. There are no Mirvishes in Winnipeg:  there is a road house across the street that also houses the ballet and the opera. MTC brings CanStage productions and Shaw productions and Stratford productions and does murders and comedies and musicals because they are the only big game in town and they have to offer something for everybody.  Toronto is not the same city or the same market nor should CanStage be programmed in that fashion.

MTC's mainstage season in 2011 opened with "GRUMPY OLD MEN: THE MUSICAL".  Yes, they have the most subscribers in the country. In Toronto, I can head to Stratford or over to King Street if I want to see a big, flashy musical.  I can't tell you how glad I am that whatever Joceyln puts onstage, that will not number among the offerings.

The very talented young actress I was with loved last night's production.  Jocelyn is the choice of a new generation of theatre artists and audiences.  I hope his marketing department can figure out how to work around the old guard press and get more young people in those seats.  Nestruck at Globe and Mail says subscriptions are holding.  I only wish him best and I look forward to seeing his next season.