Saturday, November 11, 2017

An Evening and Master Class with Atom Egoyan

Poster of UBC Event
Most unfortunately, I could not attend the annual Quinn Memorial lecture at UBC this year! The main reason was problems with scheduling as I would have had to cancel my classes in addition to finding a suitable substitute and all this would have been even more work than simply going to work. My apologies for that and hopefully I can re-arrange my commitments so that I can attend, ruminate and blog about this wonderful event come next year.

In lieu of this, I had the opportunity to attend another UBC event, the Master Class with renowned Canadian film director Atom Egoyan. When I first received the email of the upcoming talk, I did not hesitate and bought a ticket immediately. I marked the day on our kitchen calendar many days in advance. I could not believe that I would not only be in the same room with this esteemed director but also perhaps be given the chance to ask a question, shake his hand and get a selfie and / or an autograph. The latter I realize is more or less passé these days, a circumstantial relic of the non-technological past.

As it turned out, I arrived early that evening. This allowed me to get a rather good seat; yet to my slight dismay, the first and half of the second row were already reserved. As this was a special opportunity for film grad students to see and meet the iconic Canadian film-maker, they were immediately and conveniently assigned the best seats of the house, so-to-speak. Notwithstanding, my seat was not too bad as the (hastily taken) photo above can demonstrate for our intents and purposes here.

The evening began with a couple of (redundant?) speeches and a showcase of the centennial celebration of UBC with a brief video of some sorts. My focus throughout was on the man sitting in front of me who was close enough to be poked. Yes, this actually crossed my mind! I considered it something one could cross off one’s eternal bucket list, namely to poke a Canadian legend. Believe me, at one point I did lean forward with my hand still idly lying beside me.

What would be the worst that could happen to me? I would sincerely apologize to him and explain the reason for my poke. Depending on his level of humility and sense of humor, he might even smile or perhaps use it as an anecdote at another of his upcoming talks. I would be indelibly entwined in his memory as the man who poked him at UBC.

Now why would I go to such length and effort of poking Atom Egoyan? Let me tell you that he is among my Top 40 directors of all time. It may not sound like much, but you should see the list of these world-renowned directors. Exotica (1994) was my introduction to his oeuvre and what an introduction it was indeed! That movie blew me away and I would say it is tied with Arcand’s Jesus of Montréal (1989) for best Canadian movie I have ever seen!

Furthermore, I quite enjoyed his Adjuster (1991), a film that was decidedly different from other types of films I had seen. Felicia’s Journey (1999) impressed me as well but not so much due to its erratic and rushed ending (that is, if memory serves me right) and his most celebrated film to date The Sweet Hereafter (1997) failed to impress me much. Ever since then, for one reason or another, his more recent movies fell under the radar; in addition, I had read movie critics feeling let down by this undoubtedly talented director. Yet my most recent film of his was Remember (2015) with Christopher Plummer, a film that was expertly made but proved to be problematic on different levels. One day I shall put my thoughts on it in writing in the form of a movie review.

Yet back to the evening and sorry for the diversion. To make a long story short, I did not poke. He was then (finally!) invited to the podium and delivered his speech. It started off on a notably false note for me. He alluded to the sexual allegations that are haunting Hollywood these days and that he felt disgusted about it. Of course, I completely agreed with him but unfortunately, there seemed to be no connection or relation with his actual talk, which focused on his upbringing and his experiences of film-making. I felt that he used current events as a hook but one that did not lead anywhere but was used merely to make himself look and appear good. In other words, a type of Ego trip (coincidentally the first three letters of his chosen last name).

Yet over the course of his talk, he did win me over with some of his personal anecdotes as well as observations on the task of film-making, some of which I will aboard here. First off, he talked about his upbringing in Victoria as a very young Egyptian-born Armenian who spoke not a word of English. That resonated with me because I had gone through similar experiences where I was thrown into a country and culture without having any target language skills to get by with.

In his case, he had at least some, if merely feeble and symbolic support from his father. It was he who told the kindergarten teacher that should his son utter a particular phrase in their language, it meant he was hungry; any other phrase simply meant he needed to go to the washroom. Yet when young Atom verbalised his need to go to the washroom, he was given a sandwich instead. This not only confused the young boy but made him aware and averted him of the delicacy and fragility of communication.

We may think we have the means to communicate but that may not be the case. Misunderstandings abound or lurk around the corner. This would happen too when he would talk about his ideas for films or literary adaptations. At times people would say they understand, but he knew that they did not. At other times, writers would disagree with him until they saw the finished product, as was the case with both Felicia’s Journey and The Sweet Hereafter. To his credit, it must be very difficult to give someone a clear picture of the contents of one’s mind, so, more often than not, he would let the images speak for themselves once the film was made.

Egoyan explained that his reason for adapting other people’s materials was because he himself did not have access to those worlds and experiences. Then we would take their materials and adapt them in his idiosyncratic ways, which might or might not resonate with the original author. Film adaptations of literary works are a tricky subject and it is about both preserving the essence of the original work but also adding one’s unique and visual touch to the content. 

Either way, what this showed me was that film-making was a lonely process. Writing certainly is as writers spend most of their time alone producing sentences that are stitched together carefully and then finally presented as a fixed piece of work. In film, it seems that although you are constantly surrounded by people as there are many others involved in the film-making process, in the end, it is an equally lonely endeavor. Although he works closely with actors, some of them prefer not to talk much, as was the case with Kevin Bacon, according to the director. All and all, the only one who knows where all of this is going and how it will all look once put together will only be in the mind’s eye of the director. Yet once all the elements combine and come together, the finished product can then be shared with others.

One of the things that strikes me about films as well is the use of music and I was glad but not particularly surprised that Egoyan himself relished that process. It is often the final but oh so important touch to the film. It is the carefully selected bits of soundtrack that give the film its necessary depth and often identity. That is an important part of film-making; the other would be to imbue your characters with empathy. That way stories can resonate with us and even so-called “cold” film-makers like Michael Haneke show empathy even for dubious or downright despicable characters.

The evening ended with a Q & A session. My question would have been about his relationship with technology. Although technology represents an important part of his films, it is also portrayed as an alienating effect. I wanted to know how he felt about this himself. He alluded to some of it as he told us, with some visible regret, that the old and intimate experience of sitting in a dark room with strangers and seeing the actions projected on a screen was slowly dying out. Instead, we stream movies. That has led to an explosion of content and although it is often of very good quality, it is too much to consume for any single individual.

I decided to postpone my question for a little later in person. We had been given a ticket that would be converted to a drink of our choice, for me it was an unexpected but very welcome glass of red wine. At the reception, I literally hung around in the vicinities of Atom Egoyan who was approached by many attendees with numerous questions and comments.

I stood there patiently, waiting for him to notice me. But unfortunately, people would butt in or slightly shove me to the side. But no matter, I had the iron resolve to abide my time. I was going to ask him my particular question about technology and end it on an ironic note with a selfie of the two of us. There! Finally, he took note of me and raised his eyebrows and walked half a step in my direction before he was pulled over to the side by one of the organizers. There was thereafter another photo-op with certain people after which I was immediately forgotten again.

After some more futile waiting, I decided to leave the scene. I had seen and heard enough so that I could sit down and type away for a blog post. It was not overall as personally satisfying as I would have liked but then again it also reminded me that in the end, even film-makers, who are the equivalent of celebrities for me, are human after all.

Although I appreciated Egoyan’s sense of humour and his (apparent) modesty, in the end I realized hat even great filmmakers are human. As is the case with any artist or celebrity, we impose upon them qualities they may or may not have, and whether we realize this or not, we put them on pedestals. I was glad to have seen and met this great director, but at the same time it slightly chipped away some of my adoration I had for him. After all, even the great turn out to be made of flesh and blood and not that different from the rest of us and in the end, we end up feeling slightly conned and deceived.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Existential Burden: On Guilt and Innocence in The Fall by Albert Camus

Original French Book Cover of La Chute
In the words of his fellow French philosopher (and often rival) Jean-Paul Sartre, the novel The Fall (1956) by Albert Camus is "perhaps the most beautiful and the least understood" of his works. I love the cautionary disclaimer of “perhaps” thrown in there for good measure because Sartre at the time was still at odds with his one-time friend who had tragically died in a car accident. 

Notwithstanding, the other parts of the sentence certainly ring true as The Fall is not as read nor hotly discussed and debated as opposed to the more known and celebrated works of Albert Camus, such as The Stranger (1942) or The Myth of Sisyphus (1942).

In my view, The Fall is not his best novel; that honour I would bestow upon the exemplary The Plague (1947), but I found the ideas expressed in his last work of fiction to be of great interest and relevance for existential philosophy. There are many themes that are dealt with in the form of dramatic monologues by Jean-Baptiste Clamence, a self-proclaimed judge-penitent who has fallen from grace. Once a reputable lawyer who (supposedly) used to help the poor and widowed, he ends up sick and lonely in an apartment in Amsterdam.  

When Clamence started off helping widows and orphans, he was highly respected by his peers and society in general. However, he did not lead an authentic life. He may have helped the blind cross the street and shown many other good deeds in front of others, but deep inside he had done so only for attention and acknowledgement. His actions were self-interested and, worse, they hardly reflected his true inner disposition and feelings, which in fact tended towards its opposite direction, ranging from disinterest to even disgust of his fellow beings.

One night, while walking down the streets of Paris, he notices a young distraught girl by the Seine. He pays her no notice. She jumps and cries for help but instead of coming to her rescue, he quickens his steps and deafens his ears; he even refuses to read about her fate the next day in the papers.

Yet this event remains in his memory and literally resurfaces a number of times in the novel. The most persistent haunt is an indiscriminate laugh (the derisory voice of conscience) that he hears on various occasions, which he feels is aimed at him. In such a way, he carries with him his share of guilt over his refusal to act and potentially save the girl’s life.

Actions are an important part of existential philosophy; they are meant to propel us towards engaging with life in a chaotic and desolate world. After the indelible horrors of World War II, people had lost faith in traditional forms and pillars of meaning, such as God and religion, while humanity, warts and all, had come into sharper focus. Valuable and veritable action existed in helping others and it was considered a manner of alleviating suffering and injustice both of which abounded in the world around us. 

Moreover, actions served as standards of judging and evaluating a life; a good and decent person was not one that merely prayed to the heavens or asked God for forgiveness, but one who physically made the world a better place. In that sense, morality should be expressed in tangible forms and not serve as mere thoughts or an empty mouthpiece; put differently, ideology ought to be enmeshed with actions.

Essentially, we are free but that comes with a price. We need to take responsibility for our deeds and we will be judged by others as well as judge ourselves in the process. The problem is that we all carry guilt with us and none of us are innocent, according to Camus. The fact that the world cannot give us pre-packaged bits of truth and meaning but that we have to figure it all out for ourselves makes the whole endeavor more difficult and cumbersome.

That is the reason, why Clamence is a judge-penitent. He judges both himself and others, while he repents his own actions and lack thereof. The other issue that complicates matters is that people generally do not lead authentic lives; they are either dishonest towards others, themselves or even a combination of both. Clamence claims to know the truth and that elevates him over others, but he is still caught up in the sticky web of the world as he cannot exist without others.   

Existential guilt has been explored in other works, most memorably in Franz Kafka’s The Process in which its protagonist K. gets arrested one morning despite being innocent of any specific crimes. It is the guilt of humanity, the mark of the cross on Cain’s forehead that makes him guilty despite feeling or believing to be innocent. We cannot disassociate ourselves from this, but we can try our best to face it and then deal with it as best we can.

Nobody is exempt of this guilt, not even Jesus. Why did Jesus so quickly give himself up to the authorities knowing that we would face death? Believers may say that it is to purge the world of its sins with his blood, but Camus claims that Jesus was not the innocent sheep himself. On the Day of Innocents, Herod sent out his army to kill infants and children, while Jesus managed to escape with the help of an angel. Although essentially cleared of any wrongdoing himself, Jesus must have felt pangs of conscience that so many innocent children had died instead as well as because of him.

This could be the reason why Jesus did not put up a fight and quickly gave in when the time came. This would also, according to Camus, explain his cry to God, why He had forsaken him, a doubt not only in the Deity’s possible non-existence but also an accusation of not interfering with the slaughter of many innocent people. This information, these particular lines of lament and accusation had been, however, suppressed (censured) by all gospel accounts, with the exception of Mark.

Camus then engages in a bit of pun and wordplay, which unfortunately loses its impact in translation. Despite all the somber philosophy, there is substantial amount of humor in his writing. Jesus chose his apostle Peter to be the founder of the church. Yet it was Peter (Pierre in French) who would betray him three times, and yet he was supposed to be the rock (“pierre”) of the Church. Jesus must have been aware of the delicate irony of the situation, says Clamence.

The novel is also surprisingly frank and forthcoming about sexuality, especially considering the time it was written, namely a few years before the so-called sexual revolution. Clamence decries the double standards and hypocrisy of society and he claims to bed both respectable women as well as prostitutes in the same hotel bed!

Moreover, he says that when he engaged in debauchery, namely sex and alcohol, all it did was help him forget about the guilt and pain for a while. In such moments, he would manage to lose himself and find some temporary comfort and relief. Yet such actions were not a sign or expression of freedom but rather a form of evading responsibility and action as one would become enslaved to them and eventually still wake up to an unchanged situation of existential guilt and suffering.

In a world where excess and debauchery are often viewed as the ultimate forms of pleasure and enjoyment as well as a carefree existence and life of freedom, it is interesting to note that all of this is merely another form of escapism. True permanent pleasure cannot be gained from such vapid and superficial experiences or lifestyles.

On its face value, existentialist philosophy may seem pessimistic, especially with its heavy reliance on guilt and loss of innocence. Yet what I like best about this branch of philosophy is the fact that it gives us something to hold onto. This something may be vague and not clearly defined, but it forces us to become who we are and to face the world as genuinely as possible. In all of this, our deeds speak louder than our words and we cannot isolate ourselves from others but must interact and exist with them.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Philosophically Speaking: An Interview with Amy Leask

Colorful aura with black hole center
Philosophy – you can’t live without it and, in fact, you shouldn’t! If life is bread, then philosophy is your butter. To spread (!) this metaphor a little more, the butter melts and unites with the bread and they transform into one indistinguishable oily substance. Put differently, I think philosophy is deeply entwined with life, and vice versa.

When teaching philosophy, my first question is whether philosophy is relevant to life. It is, of course, a rhetorical question but since my students might be inclined to mischievously say no, I have added the subsequent appeal: Please say Yes! The follow-up question is to explain how or in what ways, philosophy is relevant to life.

I have thought to commence a series of interviews on the very topic of philosophy. In fact, I have had the pleasure to pose some philosophical questions to Amy Leask, who is, among many other things, a philosopher, writer and interactive media producer. What I find most impressive about her is not only her passion for philosophy but also the desire to apply it to life and to communicate this to everyone. She teaches children, young adults, parents and educators about the value and importance of philosophy.

In fact, one of the problems with philosophy is that it is often misunderstood or is simply equated with convoluted academic thinking. Yet philosophy has and should have its footprints plastered on our daily life as it is a critical skill for survival and success. It is something everyone can benefit from and it can be applied to many different fields, including film, music, literature, and politics. In order to appreciate the breadth and depth of philosophy alongside its more playful aspects, here is Amy Leask’s interview in full:

1. What do you do for a living? Why?

I’m a children’s interactive media producer. I create eBooks, cartoons, apps and games that teach philosophical questions and critical thinking to kids, so “Why” is my bread and butter. Before I got into this space, I spent over a decade teaching young adults philosophy, and was concerned that learners weren’t learning to argue, or reason their way through information, both of which are vital skills. It seemed like they couldn’t disagree with each other without getting angry, and there were so many amazing questions they’d never thought to ask.

My present work allows me to explore different media as a writer, which is challenging and wonderful. There’s really never been just one kind of thinker, and I love coming up with new ways to reach a diverse audience. I love the community of creators I get to work with, I love our audience of precocious, funny kids, and I love going to bed at night knowing that I’ve put something positive out there.

2. What three adjectives would you use to describe yourself?

Curious, quirky and unrefined. I don’t think I could do what I do for a living if I didn’t have these qualities.

3. What’s something that has always amazed you as a child? Does it still amaze you?

When I was little, I was blown away by words and how powerful they were. I marvelled at how big people could use them to do phenomenal things. If you choose your words correctly, you can make people laugh, or get enraged, or want to get up and change things. I don’t think I’ve ever outgrown that fascination. I still read things that blow my mind, and consider it an accomplishment to write or present something that sounds just right. When someone tells an amazing joke, I want to hug them. 

When someone utters the perfect insult, well, officially I’m offended, but secretly, I want to high five them for their craftsmanship. I can’t sleep after reading something truly inspiring. I find myself looking for evidence of language in other species too, and wonder if they get the same kick out their words as we do out of ours.

4. How would you personally define philosophy?

When I was in first year philosophy, our professor described philosophy as “a blind man in a dark room, looking for a black cat that isn’t there.” It’s an interesting analogy, but it makes philosophy seem totally inaccessible and frustrating, and I’d like to think it’s inclusive and empowering.

For me, philosophy has two components. It’s about big questions that don’t have easy answers, but that are part of what it means to exist and be human. It’s also an ever-growing set of rules for reasoning. I would describe it as a combination of the vehicle and the road map.

5. Why did you choose philosophy over say history, psychology or political science, for instance?

I fell in love with philosophy because it’s full of grey areas. I really like having to really work for an answer, and having the opportunity to rethink it. The kinds of questions philosophers ask are so compelling and multifaceted. Where else do you get to wonder what it means to be a person, or what love is, or if we have freedom?

I’ve stayed in love with philosophy because it presents itself in so many different forms, through different media. Filmmakers can be philosophers, as can novelists, cartoonists, chefs, musicians, athletes. A philosophy class or two never hurt anyone, but really anyone who thinks is capable of doing it in some way, shape or form.

6. What can philosophy do and not do for us?

Practicing philosophy is a direct route to developing critical thinking, communication and problem- solving skills, all of which are in short supply these days. It’s so much more than just contemplation for its own sake. It’s a way to sift through the fog of information we’re faced with. It’s also a way to keep in touch with ourselves and our relationships with others.

What philosophy can’t do is present one clear answer to a question. You’re never really done when you take on an argument.

7. Why do you think people are so suspicious of philosophy?

Leading an examined life is a little scary for most of us. It involves admitting that we don’t know, and that we’re sometimes wrong. Being rational and taking on tough questions forces us to be honest with ourselves in ways that are really challenging. Gloria Steinem has this great quote that applies to philosophy: “The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.”

Some aren’t fond of philosophy because it isn’t a finite science, and it doesn’t often provide a lot of certainty. My students used to badger me for the answer that I would give full marks to, and it took a lot of explaining for them to understand that I was mostly interested in how they were thinking, not what they were thinking.

Many still associate philosophy with academia. They think it isn’t something that people do in their daily lives, but rather, an area of study. I think there’s still a place for academic philosophy, but there’s also a movement to make it more practical, more accessible, and to encourage it in children and other groups who are traditionally left out of the conversation.

8. Who is your favorite philosopher, and why?

I’m an existentialist, so I’m into de Beauvoir, Sartre and their contemporaries. I think this is because so many of them were also writers, and their ideas were conveyed through novels, plays and poetry. However, I see philosophy in a whole lot of other sources too. In my mind, really good comedians are philosophers, as they’re constantly asking “Have you thought about X like this?” I think I’ve had just as many epiphanies listening to George Carlin, Robin Williams, Russell Brand or Margaret Cho as I have reading actual philosophy books.

9. In today’s world, technology has become part of everyday life. Do you think that computers are capable of thinking and / or feeling? Could they fall in love?

Machines that think and feel (or at least the possibility of them) are forcing us to rethink what we consider to be human, which is exciting. It’s possible that computers could be taught to think and feel, or to love, but it would probably be in a different way than humans do. However, non-human animals think and feel and love in different ways than we do too. Thinking/feeling machines would compel us to take another look at other living organisms, which I think is a healthy thing to do.

A bigger question would be whether we want to create machines that can do everything that we do. Technology is supposed to be created in aide of us having better, richer lives. Something I’ve always wondered is why we feel we need machines to be like us. To what end?

10. Do you have a catchphrase? If not, what would it be?

I’m going to defer to Shakespeare: “Better a witty fool than a foolish wit.” I’d rather look like a dork and  come up with a few useful ideas than be composed and refined and say very little.

11. Now it’s your turn: What would you like to ask me!

(Note: The tables have turned here and Amy Leask is allowed to ask me a question, which ended up being three in number!)

What big ideas do we have that no longer serve us, and how do we let them go? Why are we holding onto them in the first place?

That is a big question indeed, Amy, and I will try to give my small answer to it. The biggest issue here is that people are afraid to be wrong so they adamantly insist on being right all the time! In our day and age, science has advanced in many ways but it has not (cannot?) shed light on a number of important matters, such as life’s meaning and purpose or the afterlife.

So then we have philosophy and religion eagerly stepping in to fill the void. They are in themselves filled with big ideas. Once you have convinced yourself of one of them, say the existence or non-existence of God, you will find it hard to let go of it, especially if you have invested a lot of time and energy into it. 

Say you have been a fervent non-believer (for argument’s sake) for decades now and suddenly you witness what could only be called a miracle. You would wish to dismiss it and try to find a logical answer to what has just occurred. It is hard (but not impossible) to be open to change and to let go of one’s cherished convictions, whatever they may be. We hold onto to them because they give us a bit of comfort in a world that more often than not does not make a lot of sense and does not provide free security blankets.

What happens to socks that get lost in the dryer? Seriously, I need to know. I’ve got a couple of favourites that have gone MIA.

They reappear in another dimension. The dryer actually works as a time-warping device that breaks down the time-space fabric and catapults the dry socks into a spinning black hole. There they are caught up by gravity until the black hole itself implodes and the socks reappear on the feet of another person in another time and place. That’s at least what I think happened to one of my socks but I could be wrong.

Thank you so much for participating in this interview and for providing us with thoughtful responses on these issues! Hope you had as much fun as I did and hope our readers do too!

(If you are curious about Amy Leask's work, feel free to visit her sites at and