Grrr Power: Maureen Medved Transforms Her Novel into a Powerful Piece of Literary Cinema

Monday Magazine | January 31, 2008
Timing is everything in The Tracey Fragments. Cinematically, the screen adaptation splits and shuffles, offering a narrative roulette that virtually forces the audience to sit up and pay attention. And if you flip back to Vancouver-based author Maureen Medved’s original novel, you’ll find a similar emotional kaleidoscope of shifting time frames and stream of consciousness insights in the bleakly defiant perspective of the 15-year-old protagonist.

But the timing has also been perfect for the already award-winning film project as well; not only was the star, Ellen Page (Hard Candy), just nominated for an Oscar for her work in the critical darling Juno, but about an hour before I call, Medved heard she had just earned herself a Genie nomination for her screenplay of The Tracey Fragments—one of five Genie noms the movie picked up this week. “I was actually quite stunned,” says Medved. “I wasn’t expecting it—I was hoping for nominations for the film, but in terms of adapted screenplay, I was taken aback. It’s very exciting.”

Vividly brought to life by acclaimed director Bruce McDonald (Highway 61, Hard Core Logo), The Tracey Fragments offers us one of the most memorable screen protagonists of Canadian cinema: Tracey Berkowitz, a self-proclaimed “normal girl who hates herself,” the no-tits girl most likely to be picked on by schoolyard peers who can only find a quantum of solace in a rock-and-roll fantasy life with the hunka-hunka-burnin’ cool new kid Billy Zero. But while many may well (and somewhat deservedly) only see Page’s performance up there, it really is Medved’s Tracey who’s riding around on that bus, naked in a shower curtain.

Created over a number of years through a series of monologues, short pieces in literary magazines and eventually a novel (“I was never sure if it would be an Eric Bogosian book of monologues, a play or a screenplay,” says Medved), it’s directly because of the author that Fragments ever got made into a movie. Despite original interest by another director—similarly stylistic Canadian filmmaker John L’Ecuyer (Curtis’s Charm)—Medved says she always felt McDonald was the ideal choice . . . so much so that she had her agent send him a copy of the novel once it was completed. “It was kind of a backwards way to go about it,” she admits.

But Medved says she had been following McDonald’s career since his 1989 screen debut with Roadkill and, having found a kindred spirit in 1996’s thrash epic Hard Core Logo—which debuted just as she was finishing the original Fragments novelization—she felt he was the perfect director to bring Tracey to life. “I thought, ‘This guy could really tap into this character; I think he’d really like Tracey; I think they’d really like each other, person-to-person,’” she recalls. “And when I finally spoke to Bruce, I knew that was exactly right.”

It seems the critics, or at least film festival jurors, agree—The Tracey Fragments has already picked up a hat trick of awards at the Atlantic Film Festival (best director, best Canadian feature and best actress) and the Manfred Salzgeber Prize (awarded to a film “that broadens the boundaries of cinema today”) at the prestigious Berlin Film Festival.

Medved—an assistant professor at UBC’s creative writing program—-says tackling the screen adaptation wasn’t as challenging as it may seem, given the novel’s unique literary approach. Describing herself as a “film freak,” Medved says she’s always had a cinematic approach to writing. “I totally love the cinematic form,” she says, noting that she applies the same visual approach to her fiction. “Each scene is a visual picture, like a scene from a film, so the adaptation process wasn’t as challenging as it could have been if I hadn’t seen the novel that way in the first place.”

Citing such diverse influences as Lily Tomlin’s Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe (“That was a huge

inspiration to me”), Midnight Cowboy, Spalding Gray, Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria, Susan Seidelman’s 1982 punk paean Smithereens, Lydia Lunch and the whole postpunk era (“You know, that late ’70s/early ’80s punk rock/New York performance art/theatre scene”), Medved says there’s also one other character to whom Tracey owes a creative debt.

“This is going to sound so corny, because it’s been quoted so many times in reference to The Tracey Fragments, but it’s Holden Caufield,” she says. “He’s the only character in literature and film who spoke to me, because he was searching for something on that really deep level. I wanted a female character who takes risks, gets screwed over and tries to find the truth—but I couldn’t find what I was looking for exactly: somebody who was gutsy and honest and raw and said it all, just poured it out, and wasn’t afraid to look stupid or didn’t have to seem feminine . . . someone who was just totally real, the way women really think.”

But while Medved’s strength is in the writing, McDonald’s is clearly in the visual arena. The Tracey Fragments not only picks up where Mike Figgis’ 2000 film Timecode left off, it’s also an evolutionary work of cinematic styling with strong roots in Canadian culture (notably Norman Jewison’s multi-framed 1968 classic The Thomas Crown Affair and the foundational work of NFB animator Norman McLaren).

Medved recalls that McDonald always had a multi-frame approach in mind. “He explained to me how he wanted to do it and I thought, ‘Oh, that’ll be interesting.’ But he actually managed to take my screenplay and do it. There’ve been other films that’ve used this technique, but not like this. Bruce took it to a whole new level we haven’t seen before, outside of music videos. When I finally saw it, I was totally blown away. This is visual art; this is what film is supposed to be about.”

Visual panache aside, what lies at the heart of these Fragments is the strength of Tracey herself. “What I was looking for is the belief that you can go right to the edge, fall off, get smashed up and not only survive but come out better than you were before you went in,” says Medved. “That’s the kind of story I needed to hear. It doesn’t always turn out good—it’s usually pretty horrible—but it wasn’t that great for Holden Caufield either. He ends up in a psych ward trying to piece together the fragments of his life. That’s the kind of thing that happens to people when they least expect it. That experience of hitting the edge can be very healing; it gives us hope in a bigger, lesser way.”

And the moral? Being a teenager sucks, says Medved, but it’s worth surviving because you learn and grow. Just ask Tracey; she may be riding around on a bus wearing nothing but a shower curtain, but that’s exactly where Medved wanted her to be. “I wanted that image of her marching away in a majestic way, wrapped in a shower curtain like she’s royalty,” she explains. “She’s got a kind of pride and dignity she didn’t have before.” M

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Founded in 1975 to provide a critical voice in Victoria's political and cultural communities, Monday Magazine continues to shake British Columbia's conservative capital city with tell-it- like-it-is features and reviews. Targeting educated, active adults and Victoria's growing youth market, Monday...
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