Biology of Story =
1278 distinct media items, including
113 interview subjects, woven through
66 “principles” by which story works with us
52 “practices” by which we work with story
11 mini-documentaries exploring focused themes
6 indexes
3 years of work
1 interactive documentary
…Viewable in an infinite number of ways

Of course, numbers never tell the whole story. In fact, numbers seldom tell a story at all. Rather, we tell a story about the numbers.

The first story about these numbers is the story of a lot of hard work by a wonderful team of people. I’m very proud that just in a few days we’ll be sharing with you the results (so far) of their work.

Next is the story of a unique, web-based creation: a combination of artpiece, documentary, research tool and educational resource, innovating the digital possibilities of moving image form and content.

But most of all the story we want to tell about these numbers is about taking a step back from Story.

When you take a step back from something you can see it more clearly. We spend most of our time wrapped up in stories. Wrapped up in Story.

Our means for producing and sharing stories are proliferating exponentially. The impact of our narratives on our lives, our societies, and the life of the planet has never been greater.

We pay a lot of lip service to story. But maybe we need to not take it quite so much for granted.

Biology of Story invites us to begin to discern with a new clarity the patterns and purposes, the principles and practices, that define Story.

It accomplishes this not by telling a singular story, but by offering each user the opportunity to explore a multiplicity of viewpoints in their own way, discovering the living pattern that connects them.

The pattern of story.


Some pretty big waves have rolled through my life since September, 2012, when I was last blogging here.

One of those waves is a huge piece of work known as Biology Of Story, a massive interactive documentary I’ve been making with the folks at Helios Design Labs, a talented group of students and recent grads, with support from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.

I’m now maintaining a blog within Biology of Story;  I will probably do some cross-postings, if I can find the groove. Meanwhile, it’s a few days before Biology of Story goes live, so I’m going to be posting here in the leadup!

Home page


The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson, USA) Very much a companion to Anderson’s Blood Will Have Blood, this is another richly detailed period piece about an intense, ambivalent relationship between a young man and an older, charismatic but monstrous mentor. Like its predecessor, the film provides no easy answers or directives as to how to interpret what we are seeing, other than perhaps to see the nature of character itself, or at least the American character, a little more clearly. Seems that for Anderson it’s a titanic, self-creating thing, stretched over a frightening void. The performances here by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix are themselves titanic, elevating their characters to the scale of mythic giants. Seymour’s L. Ron Hubbard clone is beguiling and frightening, and Phoenix’s lost soul, cast adrift by his time in the war, is a genius-level film performance of great pathos. The post-WWII period is brought to life with great vitality and conviction.The film seems to be an allegory of the meaning of that time; Anderson is after something bigger than just the early days of a phony religion. Johnny Greenwood contributes one of the most sheerly masterful scores I’ve heard in ages. The film has the bottomless quality of really good art.

Free Angela and All Political Prisoners (Shola Lynch, USA) Radical chic, apparently, is not dead! Kind of amazing that TIFF presented this specialty-channel type doc as a Gala. It is absorbing viewing no doubt, and a story worth telling. Though it’s great to hear Angela Davis talk about her experiences, the film is pure hagiography, determined to avoid seeing anything from more than one point of view. It’s not that I want someone to speak up for Dick Nixon and Ronald Reagan. But when will we be able to take a more complex view of the sixties’ social conflicts instead of continuing to try to, at least implicitly, re-fight them? Yes, Angela’s acquittal was worthy of celebration. But that doesn’t mean the pretensions of radical ideology don’t deserve interrogation just as readily as the sanctimonious pronouncements of state power. The film is pure romance.


The Last Supper I can’t really review this movie. In spite of handsome production values, it seemed to be establishing itself with a mixture of bombast and pictorial stiffness that wasn’t promising, and I fled the cinema after a half an hour looking for something more appealing. Which proved to be:

Clip (Maja Milos, Serbia) This film boldly follows a bunch of Serbian teenagers, in particular, 16 year-old Jasna. Her and her friends’ lives mostly consist of honing their porn-star styles, and using their cell phones to videotape themselves having sex with their loutish boyfriends. The lead performance is a heartbreakingly vulnerable portrait of a teenager dangled like a puppet on a string by her hormones, her inability to connect with her family, and her desperation for the approval of her future wife-beater of a boyfriend. The setting is a relentlessly depressing suburb of run-down housing blocks, and one wonders if the teenagers’ hyperbolic vitality is a desperation to transcend it through the energies of their own bodies. In comparison, the adults seem already dead. On-screen sex acts raise the difficult-to-watch quotient considerably, but the film’s constant alternation of a clinically objective POV with the views of the characters’ own cell-phones works brilliantly throughout. Some have accused the director of being a provocateur, but I felt she was extremely true to her subject.



I Declare War (Jason Lapeyre & Robert Wilson, Canada) I loved the concept of this movie – an all out wargame between a bunch of barely pubescent boys — for about five minutes. By then it had become clear that the filmmakers were determined to have their cake and eat it too, treating the events as though they were a game and as though they were real, without distinction. (Either could have worked, or a gradual transition from one to the other; but the film fudges them from the very first.) This sets every scene against itself so that little of what the characters does makes any sense.  Stiff line readings of stylized dialogue from the young cast further enhance the impression of filmmakers too in love with their own ideas to think clearly about what they are doing. Visually and sonically the film is extremely impressive, especially given its probably very low budget. Now the filmmakers need to learn a few things about audience suspension of disbelief, and about working with actors. The movie sure looked like it was fun to make, though, and the young cast’s pleasure in the charade is probably what kept me in my seat — barely.

I Declare War

Room 237 (Rodney Ascher, USA) A movie about movies, or one movie in particular: The Shining, as watched obsessively by a number of interview subjects. We hear them talk about their theories while the filmmaker cannily uses clips from The Shining and a wide range of other films as illustrations. Most of the theories are surprisingly compelling, and the film provides a nice meditation on the way that movies knit themselves into our mental lives. The film does not judge the theories at all, which is probably good; in fact, though, it seems to believe in all of them, and a hundred others, since together they amount to an affirmation of the god-like mastery of the film director, for which Kubrick has always been the number one totem. As a result there is something curiously airless and joyless about the whole affair. Perhaps no consideration of art based on total control can be either satisfying or ultimately revealing.


Room 237

Show Stopper. (Barry Avrich, Canada) A jazzy documentary about the rise and fall of Canadian theatre and film impresario Garth Drabinsky. The film tells this story well, capturing its world-class ironies with precision through well-done interviews and tons of video clips. Ultimately more of a broadcast piece than a film festival work, but I did enjoy it.

Show Stopper


TIFF 2012 Day Three

Cloud Atlas  (USA/Germany; The Wachowskis & Tom Tykwer) Wow. At the moment this feels like the most exciting mega-budget movie I’ve ever seen. Not just because the movie is an exciting experience, though it is, but because it genuinely, and with profound hope, opens up new storytelling doors. Deftly and purposefully weaving together six plotlines and six different movie genres – period adventure, period romance, conspiracy thriller, geezer comedy, cyber-punk, and post-apocalyptic adventure – it is also a terrifically original film of ideas. We already knew that The Wachowskis and Tykwer were genre stylists and technical virtuosos, but the big game they are after here – for me they bagged it, though the mass audience remains to be seen – is nothing less than inspiring the viewer with a new vision of humanity (and, incidentally, a post-genre cinema of the mainstream). I haven’t read David Mitchell’s novel – I certainly will now – but who would have expected the most thematically rich and spiritually provocative movie of the festival so far to be, from a financial point of view, the most mainstream? The strategy of giving its cast multiple roles is much more than gimmick, it’s an illustration of the film’s themes about the recurrent and evolutionary nature of experience. The relish the actors take in their characters is one of the deeply human pleasures that grounds the film.  Cloud Atlas clearly states its argument: “Our lives are not our own. From womb to tomb we belong to others. And with every crime and every kindness, we give birth to the future.” Against this, as spoken by all-purpose villain Hugo Weaving: “There is a natural order to this world, and those who try to upend it do not fare well.” To see the truth of the former statement, the filmmakers ask us to look to a broader horizon. They succeed brilliantly and honourably.


The Place Beyond the Pines (USA, Derek Cianfrance)I didn’t see Derek Cianfrance’s first film, Blue Valentine, but jeez, I will now. His new film has a faithfulness to character that put my heart into its hands, and swept me up into a compelling sense of moral hazard. It’s one of my favourite things in a story: the conviction that characters’ souls are hanging in the balance, that human choice is the most consequential thing in the universe. The film has a surprising three-part structure that works beautifully, following three interrelated characters in sequence; the structure is not some indie gimmick, but a simple and well-conceived method for exploring, in very particular terms, the universal need for redemption. The filmmaking is vivid and textured, and the performances have great dynamic range. My one complaint is the ripping off of Arvo Part (his piece Fratres, with a few notes rearranged) for the soundtrack. The tone is right but it’s never a good thing when a director falls in love with his temp music.

Dead Europe (Australia, Tony Krawitz) For much of this tightly woven allegory, the horror-movie sound design was getting on my nerves, given that it’s a naturalistic drama, not a horror movie. By the end, I realized, it is a horror movie – it even deals in the uncanny. But the horror is not that of serial killers or monsters, it’s the horror of history. This is what an Australian photographer visiting his parents’ Greek homeland for the first time discovers. He’s pooh-poohed his mother’s claim that a curse awaits him. In its unraveling, the story of one family becomes a deeply unsettling microcosm for the curses of history. A well made film that somehow manages to go down easy in spite of the heaviness of its subject, perhaps because of terrific performances, a dark wit, and a director tightly in control of his material.

Dead Europe

Call Girl (Sweden, Mikael Marciman) In spite of the stylish filmmaking and compelling 1970’s period recreation, Call Girl is badly undone by its lack of commitment to telling a story. It weaves together a vice investigation into a prostitution ring involving government figures, with the experiences of some girls being drawn into the ring. The filmmakers have it all figured out and give us nothing but a predetermined schematic, in which all the characters are types. No emotional involvement is achieved, and the morally complex terrain is so caricatured it seems that the intent is to prove a theorem that supposed sexual liberation is just a cover for predatory abuse. This is as valid a theme as any other, but it’s not dramatically earned here because there are only stick figures to enact it. Meanwhile, the film is quite happy to titillate its audience with nubile young bodies. The best thing is a turn by the brilliant Pernilla August who, with no help from the script, makes Madame Dagmar Glans into a fascinating and convincing character, showing how much a great actor can do just with bits of business.

Call Girl

The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology (UK, Sophie Fiennes) I loved The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, a guided tour by Slavoj Zizek of the psychoanalytic dimensions of cinema. Zizek is an entertaining lecturer, and the concept of having him appear within what seem to be the sets of the film clips upon which he is commenting works brilliantly to cause us to reimagine our experience of the films and of cinema in general. I felt myself literally psychoanalyzed by the film. This followup is pretty much a continuation, using the same methodology to talk about how ideology functions. I stayed only for the first hour. The film was becoming a bit repetitive, and I was feeling less patience for the fact that, although Zizek’s insightful readings open up new perceptions, his relentlessly materialist view also closes down others that I find extremely important. Nevertheless I will definitely be seeking the film out to watch the whole thing (and now I also want to watch the first one again).


Zizek in Pervert’s Guide

Stories we Tell (Canada, Sarah Polley) A personal documentary which investigates a well-buried secret about the director’s relationship with her parents. Polley’s off-the-charts emotional intelligence is on full display here, as she gets her four siblings and her father and family friends talking and weaves together their occasionally contradictory stories. She makes extensive use of both real and re-enacted home movie footage, and if I have one quibble it’s that these visuals much too consistently provide literal illustration of what is being said. But this is a thoughtful, moving and courageous look at both a particular family and the stories that all families tell about themselves.


Stories We Tell

The End of Time (Canada, Peter Mettler) Peter Mettler’s perennial quest is the use of cinema to investigate the nature of perception. As with his Gambling, Gods and LSD, which dealt with “transcendence,” he is here nominally tackling a vast theme, in this case “time.” But I find Mettler’s films less interesting on a conceptual level than on an experiential one. He’s a brilliant image-maker, and The End of Time  showcases his most ravishing images yet — indeed you won’t find a more beautiful documentary anywhere – and the editing is so rigorous that every shot shines like a jewel. While the filmmaker’s spare narration is effective, I could have done without the many voice-over comments from others musing on the subject of time, generally with banalities that seemed crushingly obvious next to the poetry and delicacy of the images. Perhaps that was the point. Mettler is less interested in getting us to think than to see.

Blackbird(Canada, Jason Buxton) I contributed to this film peripherally, as a story editor – one of five, according to the credits. So I won’t review it.

Berberian Sound Studio (UK, Peter Strickland ) This starts off promisingly, with atmosphere and style, something I was definitely craving after a day of highly earnest stuff. It takes about twenty minutes to realize that the director has absolutely nothing up his sleeve but style, which would be okay but he runs out of even that pretty quickly and begins to repeat himself to diminishing effect. The wonderful Toby Jones plays a meek, British sound designer working on his first horror film, in 1970’s Italy. The film’s rather clever conceit is that, though it all takes place in the foley studio/mixing theatre, we never actually see the actual film being worked on, we only hear it. The subject of Berberian Sound Studio is apparently intended to be Jones’ gradual mental breakdown. The problem, though, is that you can’t show someone losing their grip on reality if you never establish reality. Worse, the film is virtually plotless – it seems like maybe they only shot half the film, out of sequence, and then had to patch something together with what they had. Perhaps most unforgivably, for a film buff film, it gets many of the details wrong. The actual technical and creative processes depicted make no sense in terms of the way audio post-production took place in the 70’s (or now). (A more trivial point: the film in question seems to be a mixture of Argento’s Suspiria and the very different German Mark of the Devil, a combination that makes little sense.) This was one of those screenings where you could hear the whole audience heave a collective sigh of dashed expectations when the end credits started.


Every once in a while they let me away from the University long enough that I can immerse myself in the Toronto International Film Festival, which takes place at a time of year that is otherwise academically disruptive. Because I help out the TIFF organization during the year with this and that, I am usually given a pass, but most years it just sits there and laughs at me (plus, it’s not transferable!).

By the time an opportunity rolls around to do a proper immersion, I’m never sure if I’ll get into it. Many years as a festival programmer, and attending a great many festivals as a filmmaker, in some ways eroded the magic. But when I actually have the opportunity to do nothing but attend films, the magic comes back!

Day Zero was a work-in-progress screening of Wiebke von Carolsfeld’s film Stay. I worked on this as a story editor. It was nice to kick off the festival with a film from next year. Not surprisingly to anyone who saw Wiebke’s debut Marion Bridge, her new film is delicate and true, beautifully directed with terrific performances from Aidan Quinn and Taylor Schilling. I will say no more.

After the Battle (Baad el Mawkeea; Egypt, Yousi Nasrallah) This film promised sociological fascination, and delivered more than that. Set in present-day Egypt, it explores the social contradictions exposed but not resolved by the Tahrir Square revolution. The subject is the unlikely friendship between an affluent young female advertising executive who has been radicalized by the revolution, and a horse/camel jockey/tour guide whose business has been destroyed with the collapse of tourism, and who was humiliated on Youtube when he was beat up by the Tahrir Square crowd after riding into them on his horse. The filmmaking is polished, and if the tone is a touch earnestly soapy, this is more than redeemed by winning performances from professionals and non-actors alike. There’s a convincing sense of life filling both characters’ worlds, as the film’s ponders how the chasms of class and values that characterize its society can be bridged.

After the Battle

Kinshasa Kids (Belgium, Marc-Henri Wajnberg) Make this into a TV series – now! The plot is almost non-existent, but the setting – the slums of Kinshasa, which have the post-apocalyptic grit that will probably be missing from Dredd 3D – is stunning. The frame overflows with life, and the eponymous kids, street urchins abandoned by their families as witches, who form a band called “The Devil Does not Exist,” are charming and utterly real. At one level the film hits all the predictable clichés about overcoming adversity, except that the conviction and skill of the performers (including  a range neighbourhood characters in addition to the kids), and the filmmakers’ natural style and genuine and heartfelt engagement with everything in front of the camera, make it convincing, pleasurable, even revelatory.

Kinshasa Kids

The Hunt  (Jagten; Denmark) Thomas Vinterberg is back! He kind of lost his way with a some big international flops, but now The Hunt provides a brilliant matched pair with his debut film The Celebration. Where that emotionally brutal masterwork ripped the lid off a family deformed by hidden sexual abuse, The Hunt goes in the opposite direction, looking at the moral panic of a (similarly enclosed) society ready to believe false accusations of abuse. What’s amazing is how the opposite situations come round to the same ugly shadow projections (in one case on the victims, in the other on the supposed perpetrator – rather like the first and second half of Night of the Hunter: in the first half the community refuses to see what the Preacher is; in the second they form a lynching party). Both films take startling looks at male power and male vulnerability. The Hunt explores these themes with, if anything more nuance and depth, and just as much savagery; though the filmmaking is more conventional, and the film doesn’t convey the same sense of revelation.

Mads Mikkelson gives a quietly explosive performance as a dedicated kindergarten teacher falsely accused of abusing one of his charges. For a while the film skirts with misanthropy, a sense that the plotting is being guided by having all characters make the worst possible decision at any given moment, but ultimately its look into the heart of darkness gains complexity and is utterly convincing.  The combination of themes (primal masculine issues of bonding and initiation, the emotional vulnerability of men as nurturers and the particular nature of male emotional pain, as well as the broader collective issues of scapegoating) with the film’s nominal subject (an accusation of abuse) is startling. And the final note is brilliantly disturbing and true.

The Hunt (Jagten)

Pieta Middling Kim Ki-Duk with his characteristic mix of tenderness and cruelty; the purity of a fable; the poetry of the extreme. A pitiless enforcer for loan sharks is gradually humanized by the intrusion in his life of a woman who claims to be his mother.  The intriguing situation and story are hampered by a weak central performance, and a lack of rigour in details and cinematography, which undersell the richly textured location. (Digital artifacts on the output projected didn’t help.) The story takes on a compelling gravity, and the film has interesting things to say about the nature of revenge, but falls well short of the impact it might have had (in spite of the “tsk”ing of the industry audience at Kim’s more extreme moments).


What a joy to see Harold and Maude (1971) on Criterion’s new blu-ray. I saw this film at least a dozen times theatrically, probably many more, and every few years on DVD. I can say with certainty that the Blu-ray, projected on my home screen, looked better than those 35mm prints. Details I had never noticed were visible.

The film’s vibrancy in this new format seemed like a metaphor for its everfresh status as a classic, and it drew me into a deeper consideration of what makes it so special. If you asked me for a list of the greatest films ever made, I would think in terms of historical significance, films that had advanced and shaped and defined the medium’s formal and narrative possibilities. On that score, I am not sure I’d even think to include Harold and Maude. It’s a very small film. Yet there is no denying that it fulfills certain capacities of narrative art with a purity and intensity that have been achieved by few other films.

I first saw Harold and Maude in early 1973 at Toronto’s “Original 99 cent Roxy.” This was a large (800 seats) old neighbourhood movie house in a working class east-Toronto area, conveniently located near the subway. Every night they showed a different double bill, for 99 cent admission (very cheap even in the day, when a first-run movie cost about $3.00, there was no such thing as VHS or pay TV, and the only other rep house in Toronto was the Revue, which showed single-bill second run art films for $2.25.). The first feature started at 7:00, the second started at a specified time a few minutes after the first one ended, and then the first one got a repeat screening around 10:30 or so, again depending on the running times. Their programming ranged across cinema history, but of course consisted mostly of films from the past 15 years, for which prints were readily available. Films that proved popular with their audience were brought back regularly. It was the kind of cinema that would make cult films, because so many people would go there without even knowing what they were showing, drawn by the low price, the accepting attitude towards the consumption of illegal substances in the audience (on the weekends you would get a contact high from the smoke hanging in the air), the limited alternatives, and the quality of the programming: adventurous in its scope but reliable in its quality. Audiences themselves were also more adventurous in those days, I think – because, paradoxically, more sheltered. Nowadays a 14 year-old (that’s how old I was when I went to see Harold and Maude this first time) who never leaves his parents’ basement can be expert in even the most obscure types of cinema. But in those days you had to go to the Roxy.

That first time, I had not gone to the Roxy to see Harold and Maude. This was its first rep screening in Toronto, locally the very beginning of its triumphant march to cult status. I had read a dismissive review of it a little more than a year previously during its first run by Clyde Gilmour, the movie reviewer in the Toronto Star. That, and Paramount’s ad campaign had left me with the impression that it was some sort of clunky romance, a big-studio attempt at being offbeat and countercultural – the screens had been awash with such turkeys in recent years. No, I was at the Roxy to see a film for which I had read an interesting review in Cinefantastique, at the time the one slick, intelligent, professional magazine about horror/science-fiction/fantasy films: Jerzy Skolimowski’s Deep End, also a recent Paramount release, but an independently made British/German co-production by the Polish writer/director. I was a huge Polanski fan (I knew of Skolimowski as the co-writer of Polanski’s first feature, Knife in the Water) and had developed a strong taste for realistic portraits of abnormal psychology with horror-film overtones. The fact that Deep End’s focus was on a boy my age only made it more intriguing.

As it happened I arrived early, and caught the last third of Harold and Maude, arriving just in time to see Harold chop off his hand during his second blind date. Wow! This movie was up my alley! I was immediately captivated by its tone, its combination of wide-eyed enthusiasm and sardonic humour, very close to the way I experienced at the world.

Harold’s Second Date

Deep End did not disappoint (and it also became a film I watched repeatedly at the Roxy — and I recently saw it again on a terrific Blu-Ray from the BFI!). Afterwards, though the next day was a school day, I stayed to watch in its entirety the second screening of Harold, before taking the long subway ride home, suffused with the joy of discovery.

Harold and Maude came back to the Roxy every few months, its audience building, and then it got picked up by the other rep houses that, as a result of the Roxy’s huge success, were then sprouting up around the city. Finally it came back for a lengthy second run at the Cinecity, a lovely and technically superb cinema with a huge screen that had been built into an old postal station at Yonge and Charles. (It’s now a Starbuck’s.) I was regularly dragging friends to see it.

It was my wife Elyse, whom I married about midway between my discovery of Harold and Maude in the cinemas and my first time watching it on DVD, who pointed out that she and I had more than a bit in common with the title characters (minus the sixty year age gap): she the ebullient and extroverted lover of life, artist in ever-changing media, who had been described as a little old lady even as a child; I the introverted, moody, perennial adolescent with a taste for the macabre.

In spite of these (and many other) differences in our character, when Elyse and I met we discovered that our smaller number of shared passions were so important to us, they far outweighed the differences. One of those shared passions was Harold and Maude. Elyse had not been quite such an early adaptor as I – she is a few years younger, and not quite as cinematically obsessed – but she was certainly the first among her friends and like me was returning to the film repeatedly, dragging different friends to see it, having decided that it was an ideal litmus test of character.

On screening Harold and Maude last night, it struck that there are three things that make it so special.

One is the film’s thematic purity. There are few types of titles more inherently trite than the names of two characters. Yet this film redeems the whole genre. It demonstrates how much can be achieved through the encounter of two contrasting characters, with something to bring them together, something to pull them apart, and a capacity for transformation. Most of all, though, it is the clarity with which the thematic forces of life and death meet in the encounter between these two souls.

Second, is the film’s marvelous craftsmanship in the way it tells its story. Scene after scene has been boiled down to its comic essence and builds to a brilliantly off-kilter punchline.

Third, and perhaps most movingly for those involved in filmmaking, it is brilliant proof of what can be achieved in a collaborative art form, an achievement that is usually diminished, obstructed and/or corrupted by forces of ego and commerce. That it somehow so fully bypasses these is what makes the film truly miraculous. Colin Higgins wrote Harold and Maude when he was a third year film student at UCLA, and it was sold to Paramount by Edward and Mildred Lewis (he was working for them as a groundskeeper at the time, and Edward happened to be a well-established producer who knew Robert Evans, Paramount’s head of production). Higgins went on to a successful career as a writer-director, but his other films are shallow and trivial confections. 21-year-old Bud Cort, who had made several promising appearances in films preceding this, basically never gave another performance of any significance. Hal Ashby of course remains one of the best American directors of the 70’s, but his work and his spirit were increasingly chewed up by the system (I recently read the somewhat dispiriting biography by Nick Dawson). One is left with the impression that the film was a miraculous gift to them, as much as to us.