Colonial Report from the Dominion of Canada (above the 49th Parallel):
Toronto International Film Festival 2013: Nordic/Scandic Cinema
One of the best things about the Dominion of Canada is that for much of the year, about 80% of its land mass inspires such delightful Weather Channel warnings as: ‘Exposed skin will freeze in under 30 seconds’. I am certainly acquainted with the effects of the weather in the colonies, but save for very few examples, the cinema seldom captures the effects, or rather, the results of said meteorological joys. These delights include the important cultural implementation of physical/ psychological abuse, alcoholism, gambling addiction, criminal activity, suicidal tendencies, devil-may-care iconoclasm, mordantly perverse humour and my personal favourite, deep numbing depression. Luckily, the magisterial Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) was, this year, engorged with such cinema – all hailing from the Nordic regions and Scandic cultures of Europe, mostly programmed by the very fine curator and critic Steve Gravestock, who is not only an international programmer specialising in said Nordic fare, but holds the related position of being topper of all things cinematically Canuckian at TIFF. Here in this report, you’ll find a nice sampling of my thoughts on a variety of Nordic bonbons I saw at TIFF – some with a fine sense of humour and many so painful that they remind one of the famed chockie treat ‘Spring Surprise’ – those milk chocolate orbs that melt in your mouth and jettison steel bolts out through your cheeks. Some believe this grotesquely painful sweet comestible is a satirical invention of the Monty Python lads, but one must never forget that those Oxbridge Boys toured our fair Dominion in their early years and became acquainted with Canada’s own big joke, our very own ‘Spring Surprise’, which, of course, is no spring at all.
Concrete Night (Pirjo Honkasalo, 2013) ****
The sins of our fathers and mothers, and their fathers and mothers before them, have a way of swimming about the viscous fluids of creation as aberrant DNA, and if the sins of society offer no escape, the cycles of aimlessness, desperation, pain, poverty and violence keep repeating themselves ad infinitum.
Such is life in Helsinki.
Such is the portrait of despair painted with murkily exquisite monochrome by master Finnish filmmaker Pirjo Honkasalo, who last delivered The 3 Rooms of Melancholia, a devastatingly moving 2004 documentary portrait of the effects of the Chechen War upon the children of both Chechnya and Russia. In that documentary, she brought an extremely formal beauty to the proceedings, but with her first drama in years, Concrete Night seems to allow for even greater stylized approaches to the material. Never, in recent memory (save perhaps for Ulrich Seidl), has ugliness and despair seemed so beautiful.
Read Greg Klymkiw’s extended review of Concrete Night on his film blog.
Concrete Night is based upon the 1981 novel of the same name by Pirkko Saisio. Honkasalo wrote the screenplay adaptation to update the period to the present, though to be blunt, the movie feels like it’s set in some kind of timeless never-never land. Shot in a striking monochrome by cinematographer Peter Flinckenberg, the movie pulses with squalid expressionism and a kind of street poetry that feels like a cross between Charles Bukowski and a skewed Byronic romanticism. This is, of course, exemplified by the film’s main character, Simo (Johannes Brotherus), a young man who lives in a horrendously cramped apartment with his alcoholic single mother (Anneli Karppinen) and his older brother Ikko (Jari Virman). Simo is plagued by nightmares of suffocation and drowning, while Ikko and his mother seek the solace of booze. In Finland, it would seem that despair is a family affair – as it should be!
Much of the film takes place while the brothers journey into the heart of a dark Helsinki night. The portent becomes almost unbearable and it’s only a matter of time before we’re plunged into an explosion of numbing, excruciatingly vicious violence. Most extraordinary of all is how Honkasalo drags us over the hot coals in such a cerebral manner and yet, for every clear touch of her directorial hand, we never feel like we’re watching anything less than something raw and real.
We watch in utter dread, hoping that Simo makes the right choice. Life, of course, is never that simple. Then again, neither are great films. Sometimes, for viewers to hold on to what is dear, we need to stumble out of the cinema infused with the horror, the unalterable truth, that cycles of violence, poverty and abuse are seldom broken – that to break free requires more than personal choice, it also demands societal intervention.
And that is often easier said than done.
Watch the trailer for Concrete Night:
We Are the Best (Lukas Moodysson, 2013) ****
Three very special little girls on the cusp of puberty are horrifically surrounded by conformist girlie-girls and immature boys toying with societal expectations of machismo. Two of the young ladies are self-described punk rockers, while a third comes from a goody-two-shoes ultra-Christian background (but with punk desires roiling beneath her veneer). Joyfully and with great satisfaction, the trio find each other in an otherwise antiseptic Sweden, where most of their peers, teachers and family are still clinging to outmoded values, yet pathetically attempting to inject cliched tropes of modernism into their otherwise prissy, protected worlds.
Our pre-teen rebels form a punk band, resulting in a happy hell breaking loose, which, however, is threatened by a combination of their newfound overt expressions of non-conformity and all the normal conflicts of puberty. These conflicts have a potentially disastrous effect upon their quest to prove, to themselves and the world, that, as the film’s title declares: We Are the Best!
I’ve read a lot of nonsense lately that this film is a ‘return to form’.
‘Hogwash!’ I say. ‘Harumph!’
As if one of the great contemporary filmmakers of our time needs to find his way back to his earlier roots when he has, in fact, never abandoned them. Moodysson is one of contemporary cinema’s great humanist filmmakers, and all of his films have generated – at least for me – levels of emotion that are rooted ever-so deeply in the richness and breadth of humanity. We Are the Best! is, however, Moodysson’s most joyous film, and furthermore is an absolutely lovely celebration of a time long past and the virtues of non-conformity, which – for better or worse – created a generation of really cool people.
The screenplay, co-written by Moodysson and his wife Coco Moodysson, is based on the latter’s graphic novel Never Goodnight and though I have yet to read it myself, the movie wisely feels like a top-drawer graphic novel on film, with great characters, wry observations, keen wit, a perfect balance between visual and literary story beats, and several entertaining layers of ‘Fuck You!’.
On one hand, I feel like I might be reading far too much into the movie, that my take on it is based too closely upon my own experiences during the cultural cusp years of 1978-1982. You see, as fun and celebratory as the picture indeed is, I couldn’t help but feel while watching it – not just once, but twice on a big screen – a very gentle hint of melancholy running through the piece.
Ultimately, I do feel this melancholia is intentional, since every aspect of the film’s setting is pulsating with the horrendous sort of conformity that needed to be challenged. Set in 1982, a period which for me felt very much like the beginning of the end, and not just at the time, but certainly in retrospect (which must certainly be a place the Moodyssons’ are coming from themselves). One felt like the world was entering an intense phase of conservatism to rival the 50s, but without the cool repressive iconography of that decade. The 80s were all about stripping everything down, yet in a kind of tastelessly garish fashion. Film critic Pauline Kael titled her collection of reviews from this period ‘State of the Art’ – a horrendous phrase that came to describe everything that was so appalling about the 80s.
In spite of it all, there was, during this period, a blip of hope. While it lasted, it was beautiful. Moodysson’s protagonists, like so many of us during that period, needed to affirm our non-conformity by declaring that we were, indeed, the best. What’s special about the film is that every generation of non-conformists discovers this, and Moodysson has very delightfully and, I’d argue, importantly delivered a tale of considerable universality.
Watch the trailer for We Are the Best:
Sex, Drugs & Taxation (Christoffer Boe, 2013) *****
‘Fear and Loathing in Denmark’ is certainly one way to pitch Christoffer Boe’s perverse, manic, absurdly hilarious and sometimes dangerous (but absolutely gratifying) belly flop into this fact-based tale charting a 20-year-long unlikely friendship that began during Copenhagen’s swinging 60s. Generating its own parallel universe to the drug-and-booze-fuelled delirium in Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the 1998 adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s 1971 semi-autobiographical novel, director Boe tosses us aboard his very own hallucinogenic rollercoaster ride, which comprises the properties of both the English title of his film, Sex, Drugs & Taxation, and the very appropriate Danish title Spies & Glistrup.
Thompson’s addled satirical literary meanderings were pointedly subtitled ‘A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream’ – meanderings rendered even more satirically addled (delightfully so) by Gilliam. First serialised in Rolling Stone magazine, then published a year later in standalone hard copy form, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas celebrated a debauchery that, during the 70s, could be the only possible way to view an America that was well on the trajectory of a slow crash and burn. Boe, however, aims his satirical eye at a very specific dream, which initially was not part of any sort of collective nationalistic hope or wish, but instead belonged to two men. Their grand, mad dream eventually became a national dream, and, like Thompson’s American Dream, took its own fork in the road – choosing instead an eventual boulevard of broken dreams.
Just as Thompson’s novel and Gilliam’s film were rooted in mediated reality, so too is Boe’s film – maybe even more so. Ripped from Danish headlines, Sex, Drugs & Taxation turns out to be a worthy fantasia of the strangest corporate dynasty in Denmark’s history. In fact, the dreams of two men were really only one man’s dream – its mastermind. The other, in retrospect and within the context of Roe’s film, is a dim-bulb-ish recipient of perks born from the practical realization of the dream, his hedonistic enlightenment, so to speak (and not as big an oxymoron as one might think).
The aforementioned dreamer is corporate tax lawyer Mogens Glistrup (Nicolas Bro), a paunchy, balding, bucktoothed family man with a cockeyed visage who lives vicariously through the antics of his boozing, whore-mongering chief client, best friend and crazed, vacation travel magnate Simon Spies (Pilou Asbaek). Glistrup took a back-room position while Spies was the public face to all of Glistrup’s legal chicanery.
Glistrup’s surface goal was to make his best friend Spies filthy rich, but in so doing, his real desire was to crack the strangely intricate tax laws of Denmark and find a legal way to keep Spies on a zero tax base, which he hoped would extend to all of Denmark. Glistrup, you see, was a genius, and most probably insane. He believed that paying taxes was not only wrong, but that it was immoral for a country to collect taxes. To be sure, Boe’s film is a complete miasma of back-room business world and government bureaucracy back-stabbing, and the details of this world of high finance, law and government are never simplified, but laid out in all their complexity. None of this, though, is ever dull, since every single story involving corporate shenanigans and the malleability of jurisprudence is indelibly tied to some of the most outlandishly grotesque and hilarious indulgences in sex and drugs.
There are moments in the film so gloriously absurd, so sex-drenched, booze flooded and drug charged that one can do little more than soar along with a movie that dazzles us with stylistic flourishes, compelling storytelling and characters as engaging ads they are reprehensible. Sex, Drugs & Taxation feels like a film that’s not only set in another age, but one that was made at a time when cinema knew no boundaries, and as such, proved both immortal and universal. It’s a great picture, and like all great pictures, it’s got shelf life branded onto it.
It’s a movie that’ll stay with you, grow with you and be around long after you’re gone from this Earth.
Colonial Report from the Dominion of Canada (above the 49th Parallel):
Toronto International Film Festival 2013: Documentaries
Canada is home to Hot Docs, one of the biggest and best international documentary film festivals in the world, and almost nothing worth seeing in factual cinema skips their notice.
That said, the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) is one of the biggest and best international film festivals in the world – period. The breadth of programming includes, of course, documentary cinema, and while the number of titles is clearly lower since Hot Docs more than admirably picks up that slack every spring, in the fall, TIFF screens its fair share of high profile docs. Most are world premieres with a few designated as North American premieres.
This section of my annual TIFF report focuses on five feature docs that screened during the 2013 festival, with subjects as diverse as a movie about a movie, a movie about a very famous beekeeper, a movie about Sir Edmund Hilary, a movie about international adoption and a movie about Jews presumably not being as funny as they used to be. You’ll find everything from the great to the good to the not-so-good and, yes, the ugly. So saddle up and join me on a cinematic horsy ride through the colonies, your ever-so-loyal Dominion of Canada, with my report on a mere smattering of documentary product that was on display at the majestic madness that is the Toronto International Film Festival 2013.
When Jews Were Funny (Alan Zweig, 2013) *****
Alan Zweig made two feature films this year. The first was unveiled in the spring of 2013 at Toronto’s Hot Docs. Entitled 15 Reasons to Live, it was inspired by his friend Ray Robertson’s book of the same name.
Zweig kept the book’s 15-chapter headings to structure his film – Love, Solitude, Critical Mind, Art, Individuality, Home, Work, Humour, Friendship, Intoxication, Praise, Meaning, Body, Duty and Death – and then searched out 15 stories that best exemplified each reason to live. He shot and cut each story separately and laid them out in the aforementioned order. Each tale was honed to perfection in the cutting room first and then the transitions from tale to tale were finessed. At times these transitions were subtle and gentle, while others delivered my favourite kind of cut – the cut that takes your breath away. Literally. These cuts, when they work, are not jarring either – they kind of slide in and sidle up to you and before you know it, you’ve been winded.
This structural approach works just perfectly. The film shares an architecture similar to that of Dubliners by James Joyce and Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson. It’s a literary structure that Zweig renders, quite astonishingly, into pure cinema. Each book has several great short stories that work fine on their own as such, but when taken all together, they generate an effect not unlike some dazzling combination of a full novel meshed with a mesmerizing tone poem. This cinematic application of Anderson and Joyce’s literary approaches are precisely the thing that, with this film, launched Zweig as a filmmaker into some kind of stratosphere.
Stylistic and structural leaps and bounds are one thing, but Zweig used them to make a film that brought together everything that makes his work so goddamn special; all the compassion and humanity your heart could possibly desire in a perfectly cohesive package celebrating life itself.
Zweig’s first feature-length documentary Vinyl (full disclosure: I was a producer of this film)
was not about the music, but rather, the obsessive collecting of the arcane platform the music was laid down to, the vinyl, the thing itself. As for the accumulation of vinyl, the film never resorts to the obvious – it’s not a film about what’s so quaintly eccentric about collecting, but what, in fact, is missing from the lives of those who do – Zweig’s included.
Then came I, Curmudgeon – the title should speak for itself. Of the numerous ’negative’ personalities (again including Zweig) who are examined, one of them (sort of) jokes that he genuinely fears that the first words his child will learn are ‘Mama’, ’Papa’ and ’Asshole’.
I especially remember that my own response to this moment was to chuckle with considerable health – a bit of the ol’ humour o’ recognition. While watching the scene, I remembered how cute I thought it was when my daughter at age two would, from her booster seat in the car, yell out as we drove – just like her road-rage-afflicted Daddy – ’MORON!’
Some time later I realised she was not referring to the idiot Toronto drivers as ‘moron’, but, in fact, innocently thought the word for ’car’ was not ’car’, but…’moron’. (Zweig once told me I was the most negative person he knew. I balked. Mostly because I thought Zweig was the most negative person I knew. He tempered his charge, though, and said, ‘No really, you are, but you’re in denial.’)
Zweig’s third feature doc was Lovable. Somewhat less infused with self-loathing, he decided to train his camera upon women who chose to remain single. Of course, at the time, Zweig was single and had been for some time – not by choice – and he was curious as to what would drive those from the opposite sex to choose that lifestyle. (Of course, making so much out of being single he couldn’t help but allow a few threads of delectable self-loathing to creep in.)
These first three feature docs comprise a sort of semi-intentional ‘mirror trilogy’, so named as Zweig, between his penetrating, incisive and often very funny interviews, appears on camera, but only reflected in a mirror. His reason for this – initially – was that it ’looked cool’, but he later revealed it was because he could manipulate the way he appeared on camera and even to himself as he confessed to hating his appearance.
Zweig’s fourth feature documentary was A Hard Name. He is heard off camera conversing with his subjects, but no more mirror. This had nothing to do with him – well, not completely, anyway. This turned out to be a film that never fails to devastate those who watch it. Zweig talks to a group of hardened criminals, ex-cons who never, ever want to go to prison again. These were men who’d spent most of their lives institutionalised in one way or another, but now do whatever they need to do to make sure they never put themselves in a position where they’d have to do time.
There have, of course, been many documentaries about ex-cons, but none like this. It is, first and foremost, a film about forgiveness – societal forgiveness of these men, to be sure – but mostly the courage it took for these ex-cons to forgive themselves and, in some cases, the individuals and institutions responsible for abusing them in their early lives. For his efforts, Zweig won a Genie, the Canadian equivalent to the BAFTA or Oscar. For once, it could not have gone any other way, and it didn’t. The picture that should have won Best Feature Documentary – won!
Then came the aforementioned fifth feature doc, 15 Reasons to Live and now, in the very same year, he premiered his sixth feature-length documentary film at the Toronto International Film Festival. But before I discuss When Jews Were Funny, you’ll note I’ve referred to all the aforementioned as Zweig’s ‘feature documentaries’, but if truth be told, his latest feature doc is actually his seventh feature film.
In 1994, Zweig directed his first feature. The Darling Family is a tremendously moving and superbly directed film adaptation of the play by Linda Griffiths, and is an ambitious, powerful and sadly neglected dramatic motion picture that should have been seen and celebrated well beyond the brief shelf life it occupied. Its pedigree alone demanded far more attention than it received even in Canada.
Griffiths is one of the leading lights and true pioneers of Canadian theatre. She wrote and starred in Maggie and Pierre, the hit show about Maggie Sinclair and her relationship and influence upon her very famous husband, the late, great Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau. The show played consistently to sold-out houses across the country. The Darling Family enjoyed a healthy, though milder box-office success than the incisive and bitterly funny satirical work about Canada’s First Lady. In many ways, though, The Darling Family might well be the play that Griffiths is best remembered for – no small thanks to a film that’s as fine an interpretation as any playwright could hope for.
Not only did Zweig brilliantly adapt this bleak kitchen sink two-hander – a sort of Canadian amalgam of gritty 1970s cinema and the ‘Angry Young Man’ genre from the UK’s 1960s New Wave – it starred its original theatrical cast, with Griffiths herself opposite the great Alan Williams as her co-star.
Williams, of course, was the legendary playwright and actor from the UK who was referred to England’s Hull Truck Theatre by none other than Mike Leigh, where he mounted his astounding one-man show The Cockroach That Ate Cincinnati, a huge hit in Britain. When he brought the show to Canada after an extensive European tour, it grabbed the Land of Maple Syrup by the short hairs and played coast-to-coast to sold-out houses. Williams emigrated to Canada not long after, and became one of the Dominion’s most prolific and successful playwrights. Now considered one of its most stalwart character actors in film and television, he also had a stint on the faculty of the famed University of Winnipeg theatre program, wherein he nurtured a huge whack of Canada’s best theatre artists.
So here’s a film from a hit play with two of Canada’s best and most beloved actor/playwrights (not to mention a haunting score by eventual Life of Pi Oscar winner Michael Danna) and it came and went without a trace. It did, however, receive a to-die-for review by Canada’s leading film critic, Geoff Pevere, in the country’s ‘newspaper of record’, The Globe and Mail. Pevere delightfully suggested that The Darling Family was perhaps the ’most perverse date movie’ audiences would ever encounter, but in his estimation, an ideal date movie.
I can’t argue with his assessment. The Darling Family is an utterly harrowing 90 minutes that wallows in the roiling emotional torment experienced (in one mega kitchen sink) by a middle-aged couple verbally jousting on opposite ends of a decision to abort a child. As date movies go, it certainly beats Sandra Bullock clomping about with Ryan Reynolds.
Alan Zweig has always been about humanity, and all his work has been infused with compassion. The subject matter (save, perhaps, for 15 Reasons to Live) might – to some – suggest otherwise, but it’s the surface darkness, the often mordant wit, the unflagging care he takes with his subjects, his refusal to let any of them off easy, and his determination to dig deep into the marrow of humanity that places him at the forefront of the world’s master filmmakers.
He’s a great interviewer – probing, insightful, funny, thoughtful and entertainingly conversational – and this, if anything, characterises a good chunk of his style. This wends its way through all his documentaries and it’s one of many reasons why it’s impossible not to be riveted by them.
He’s got an original voice as a filmmaker, in more ways than one. Firstly, there’s his voice – you know, the one lodged quite literally within his vocal chords. Nobody, but nobody can sound like Alan Zweig: a perverse blend of Eeyore in the Disney Winnie the Pooh cartoons and a craggy been-there-done-that cigar-smoke-throat-coated Borscht-Belt stand-up comic. And secondly, ABSOLUTELY nobody can make movies the way he does.
Perhaps the most telling aspect of Zweig’s original approach is that he is, first and foremost, an avid collector. His films are populated with large casts of subjects and these individuals are inextricably linked to the themes of the films, but as such, he pulls from them the things that make each one of them unique.
What he does with his filmmaking is to collect his subjects. Yes, he collects people; he steals and hoards their images (Stealing Images is the title of his classic short drama that won the very first TIFF Best Short Film prize in 1989) with the same passion he collects vinyl or books or movies or tchochkes. BUT unlike the inanimate objects he normally collects, he can’t purge himself of his collection of subjects by dropping them off at the Goodwill Store. They belong to him. Through his films, Zweig gets to keep them forever, not just for himself but also for the world.
If there’s any difference between his 2013 films and his previous work, it’s that he forced himself into maintaining a strict number of subjects to add to his collection. In 15 Reasons to Live, there is one key departure: he tells each person’s story separately without the documentarian’s crutch of weaving in and out of his subjects’ lives, stories and perspectives.
When Jews Were Funny might well be the picture to finally put Zweig over the top, and if there’s any filmmaker who deserves this more, I can’t even begin to imagine who they might be. His entire output is ripe for discovery beyond North America, and frankly, even within his own country.
A common question from some of the more befuddled subjects in the new doc goes something like: ’Is this about being Jewish or comedy?’ A fair question, but frankly, in the sense that Jews and comedy seem to be inextricably linked within the very ethos of North America, it’s probably safe to say it’s about both. In fact, it sometimes seems like the entire Ashkenazi diaspora was solely concentrated in Canada and the USA, where the seeds of stand-up comedy as we know it today were sown during the early part of the 20th century.
The sufferings that led European Jews to the ’New Land’ are incalculable. Yet, Zweig’s film proves (or at least confirms to the converted) that North American humour would not exist without Jews and, in fact, would not be as brilliantly funny and distinctive as it is without the influence of non-Jewish European prejudices, ethnocentrism and hatred foisted in their direction.
Through the subjects Zweig interviews, When Jews Were Funny furthermore presents the perversely provocative and vaguely horrific notion that without purges, pogroms and the Holocaust, the world might well have been bereft of the stand-up style and genius of Henny Youngman, Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen, Rodney Dangerfield, Don Rickles, and the list goes on, for a light-year or two at the very least.
As a film, I can’t say I’ve ever quite seen its like before. I could, of course, probably say this about all of Zweig’s films. The fact of the matter is that they are endowed with the surface tropes of the documentary genre, but he continually subverts all expectations and plunges you into the least expected territory and in a style uniquely personal and finally very much his own – so much so I predict that we’ll eventually see new generations of filmmakers drawing from his approach and using it as a springboard for their own work. This, of course, is what all great art inspires, and Zweig is poised perfectly to do this.
On its surface, When Jews Were Funny features an off-camera Zweig interviewing a wide variety of stand-up comedians who share one thing beyond their profession – they’re all Jewish. He begins his journey with some of the greatest surviving legends of comedy: Shelley Berman, Jack Carter, Shecky Greene and Norm Crosby. It’s this old guard who reject Zweig’s theories about Jews and humour almost outright, though all of them, via his interview style, come round to acknowledging the Jewish influence upon humour, save perhaps for Jack Carter who seems fairly steadfast about refusing to concede.
Watch a clip (Shelley Berman) from When Jews Were Funny:
While the sweet Shelley Berman never comes out and agrees, his separation of humour and Jewishness starts to move closer in proximity, especially during a joyously heart-rending moment when he delivers the very thing Zweig is really searching for, and why Zweig equates Jewish culture with comedy in the first place. It’s one of those extraordinary moments we can thank cinema for – and when it comes, there isn’t a dry eye in the house.
The middle-aged and younger comedians are occasionally confused by what exactly Zweig is looking for (though a number of them ‘get it’ immediately and expound upon it brilliantly). The extraordinary thing, though, is that the journey Zweig takes us on, and that we take with him, happens during his conversations. If he has an agenda, he never shows it, and in fact, it’s as if the process of making the film – the journey itself – is what allows Zweig (and the audience) to discover the wisps of those things that haunt all of us.
When you grow up, you equate popular culture of that specific time with your own ethnicity, your own religion, your family, your community, your values – all those things that shape and mould you – with what comes at you from a television, radio, movie screen, record player, magazine or newspaper, and all those you hold dear – mothers, fathers, siblings, extended family, neighbours, friends – are, yet again, inextricably linked.
Most of Zweig’s subjects confirm this. A few of them are absolutely captivating when they do so.
David Steinberg full-on addresses the very nature of suffering experienced by the Jewish people and its relationship to humour when he declares: ‘The thing that helps humour is oppression, the thing that kills humour is assimilation. If you’ve had a great childhood, a good marriage and a little bit of money, you’d make a lousy stand-up comedian.’ He also makes the point of how funny his own family was – his dad and aunt, for example, would switch to Yiddish and shoo the kids out of the room for fear they’d hear the filthy jokes emanating from their mouths.
David Brenner echoes this. He describes his dad as someone who was funnier than the entire range of great comedians put together, and tells a great story about how he’s been taught that humour exists in everything. The fatherly advice here is that to do this, one must make use of a ’third eye’, or as his dad termed it, ’the Funny Eye’ – that thing you use when looking at anything. Needless to say, the example Brenner provides is hilarious.
In fact, there isn’t a single subject who isn’t funny in the film. Almost all of them tell one or two specific jokes, but most importantly, when they’re addressing the topic at hand, they’re equally hilarious. Howie Mandel slays us with his description of how Jews can never betray themselves by feeling good; how they need to shovel every morsel of suffering into their soul when they try to say something positive, so that their faces contort into hideous grimaces, not unlike someone with the worst case of constipation imaginable as they attempt to squeeze a rock-hard turd out of their tuchus.
Bob Einstein (AKA ‘Super’ Dave Osborne) might be the only comedian interviewed who seems utterly humourless, especially since he accuses Zweig on camera of not knowing what he’s talking about, not knowing what he wants and, at one point, not even listening to him. That said, the very conflict – the meeting of two great curmudgeons, if you will – is supremely enjoyable and yes, it’s funny.
Watch a clip (Norm Crosby) from When Jews Were Funny:
‘Jews own humour and I’m proud to say that that’s true,’ says Steinberg, but it’s Gilbert Gottfried who astutely points out that Jewishness is so often muted. He states that all of the characters on Seinfeld are clearly and obviously Jewish, but that the show (and so many others like it) goes out of its way to pretend that the characters are not Jewish. Gottfried’s incredulity on this point is knee-slappingly mordant. He points out that even if a Jew converts and changes his name, he’ll still be herded into ‘whatever mode of transportation is available to be taken to whatever mode of extermination exists.’
This is a great film – brave, brilliant and personal – but (and that’s a big ’but’) its power is ultimately in its universality. Ultimately, I think there are three core audiences for this film, but that doesn’t mean they necessarily exist in separate vacuums. They might be different, but they’re all going to be infused with the same spirit.
The most obvious target would be almost anyone of Jewish heritage. I do, however, say ‘almost’ because there appears to exist a minority of this ethnic group (or, if we must, religion) that might not appreciate Zweig’s picture. Though, frankly, it’s probably a minority of one.
Allow me to explain.
I had a shocking, though telling and funny experience during the 2013 TIFF. I was scanning the humungous schedule boards displayed in the TIFF Bell Lightbox to see if I could squeeze a seventh film into what was supposed to only be a six-film day. A lady stood beside me, also scouring the board. Noticing my media badge she said, ‘I’m looking for something I can take my 80-year-old mother to tonight, but I don’t know what to choose.’ I immediately recognised the distinctive North Toronto (a huge Jewish enclave of the city) timbre in her voice.
‘Have I got a picture for you!’ I beamed ever so Eureka-like. ‘When Jews Were Funny!’
I could almost taste the bile spewing from her as she spat out, ‘Alan Zweig?’
‘Yeah, Alan Zweig. It’s his new picture. You’re not a fan?’
‘A fan? You ask if I’m a fan? I hate Alan Zweig!’
‘What’s to hate?’
‘What’s to hate? His kind of Jewishness and how he represents the Jewish people is offensive.’
She admitted she had yet to see the film, but based upon previous work – none of which has any ‘Jewishness’ save for Zweig, a Jew who happens to be the filmmaker of said ‘offensive’ films – she explained that he was among many Jewish people in the entertainment business who didn’t offer what her idea was of what it really meant to be Jewish.
‘Well, what is that?’
‘What does it really mean to be Jewish?’
‘You have to ask?’
I didn’t answer. Instead, I bravely suggested Zweig’s film might surprise her.
‘No!’ she said, as if banging the final nail herself into Christ’s flesh. ‘It’s not for me.’
Like I said, a minority of one, no doubt. It did, however, warmly remind me of the scene in Zweig’s movie when Howie Mandel does a hilarious riff on how all Jews answer questions with questions.
So, aside from Jews, the second big audience will probably be anyone – goyim, that is – and especially, I think, those of some manner of Eastern European persuasion who belong to the generation that grew up with the stand-up comedians popular during the 1950s and 70s. As a number of subjects point out, much of the humour is dependent upon the distinctively Yiddish cadence in the delivery, one so familiar to Eastern Europeans that it creeps not so subtly into their own ‘delivery’.
Finally, the third audience will be anyone who loves great movies brimming with insight, humour and the eternal quest for those defining elements of one’s past that now seem gone forever, save for one’s memory of them.
And it’s this journey that is the most profoundly moving element of the film, one that pretty much anyone, no matter what their ethnicity, race or religion will respond to. We are all haunted by those things that shaped us in our youth and the reality of how everything changes – fleeting, flickering ghosts that wither away and dissipate before us. When Jews Were Funny is a film that makes us long for those things that were once tangible, but now reside only in our spirit. If anything, we’re all His children and I can think of no better way to share in this collective desire to clutch at our past with dear life through the very special eyes of His chosen people.
Jodorowsky’s Dune (Frank Pavich, 2013) ***
If we imagine a world without Star Wars, we can imagine a world where cinema was not dying as it is now. If we imagine a world where Alejandro (El Topo) Jodorowsky beat Star Wars to the punch with his planned film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s classic science fiction novel Dune, we can imagine him laying the groundwork for a new and different kind of film spectacle, rather than the empty state-of-the-art 80s blockbusters that spawned endless rollercoaster rides masquerading as movies.
Frank Pavich’s feature documentary is as close as we’re ever going to get to seeing what might have been one of the great movies of the late 20th century. A mere five-million-dollars short of becoming a reality, the film was to star Mick Jagger, Salvador Dali and Orson Welles. Seeing this doc is to indulge in the creative excitement that went into every second of preparing this epic motion picture. We experience Jodorowsky’s pride (albeit with a tinge of melancholy) at planting seeds for the future greatness of others from a movie that was never made. The films exists only in a massive frame-by-frame storyboard book with the screenplay and Jodorowsky’s notes – a document used to raise additional financing in Hollywood, but which was instead passed around to one filmmaker after another. Hollywood accepted the genius, but rejected the artist and, sadly, his film.
Watch the trailer for Jodorowsky’s Dune:
Burt’s Buzz (Jody Shapiro, 2013) ***
Jody Shapiro is a genuine creative producer and ‘Odd’ might well be his middle name. Working with Guy Maddin in the latter stages of the great surrealist’s career, Shapiro also became Isabella Rossellini’s chief collaborator on her Green Porno series.
Shapiro is clearly a natural to lovingly document the life of Burt Shavitz, the bearded hippie whose face adorns ‘Burt’s Bees’ health-store products. The film is mostly all-Burt-all-the-time. The camera loves him, and his low-key irascibility allows Shavitz to engagingly spin his own story – the city boy who moved to the backwoods to become an avid beekeeper. With assistance from the woman he loved, the company grew to gargantuan proportions and the shy country gentleman became a brand.
There’s melancholy to the tale since Burt was not happy with corporate life, and his love life dissipated. He sold his shares in the company and his ‘brand’ for peanuts. He continues, however, to make a decent living doing personal appearances.
Shapiro wisely bounces between the solace of Burt on his farm and the genuine adulation he receives during live appearances. This simple, but effective, juxtaposition presents the contrast, conflict and two sides of the coin that is Burt Shavitz. It’s essentially a sweet, funny and loving portrait of a man, his dog and his bee farm. He occasionally trots out to do a horse and pony act at trade shows and malls, but he enjoys the adulation afforded him by the fans and, most of all, his fees allow him the privilege of living most of his life the way he likes it best – in solitude among hills, trees, birds and, of course, the bees.
Watch the trailer for Burt’s Buzz:
Beyond the Edge (Leanne Pooley, 2013) **
Sir Edmund Hillary’s climb to the top of Mt. Everest in 1953 is the thrilling subject of Beyond the Edge. Alas, the picture falls short of its potential, in spite of considerable technical wizardry and clearly exhaustive research. Unrestricted access to archival material (including gorgeous 16mm colour footage, Alf Gregory’s legendary 35mm stills and what seems like every audio interview with the participants that’s ever been laid to tape) makes the film’s failure all the more frustrating.
Three key elements extract their toll: the filling in of blanks with newly shot dramatic recreations (ugh!), the abominable 3D, and the over-zealous attempts to match colour for the myriad of audio-visual materials. That said, the 3D is especially problematic. It’s maddening how the moronically polarised 3D glasses darken everything to distraction. Where this hurts the most is in the historical motion picture footage and stills, the colours of which are so vibrant that in 3D they pale in comparison. Just try popping the glasses off periodically (during any picture in 3D, frankly) and you’ll see how egregious the process is.
For the overall colour grading, an extreme post-modernist approach would have been far preferable to matching and muting the colours. State of the art, however, seems to have been the ruinous goal. A film that pushed aesthetic boundaries rather than technical ones might have been far more vital. I’m sure a boundary-pusher like Sir Eddie might have even agreed.
Watch the trailer for Beyond the Edge :
The Dark Matter of Love (Sarah McCarthy, 2012) *
I wanted, but ultimately could not, respond to this tale of love and bonding between three Russian orphans (among the last to be allowed adoptive parents from outside Russia since Vladimir ‘Just Call Me Uncle Joe’ Putin outlawed international adoption) and their new Apple Pie American family.
Seeing these Russian kids flung into an America that spun the world into a major financial crisis and various wars, an America that seemingly learned nothing from the chaos created by its political and corporate leaders and, worst of all, that sense of gaudy consumerism coming to life on-screen before my very eyes, all conspired to make me wonder what that movie would have been like to see instead of this one – which, sadly, is not very good. The Dark Matter of Love is supposed to be a story about kids who need love, want love, but have never experienced love. How do you give love to a child that doesn’t know what love is? Well, it’s not rocket science – with great difficulty and patience.
The American family in question are clearly fine and generous people with plenty of love to give. We see their frustration at not getting love back, the jealousy experienced by their biological daughter and the overall turmoil that building a new family unit results in.This is all undermined by the regrettable accent placed upon the ludicrous application of certain psychological principles rooted in the film’s title – that love is a matter of science, and that in extreme situations such as this, one must turn to medical professionals. From a strictly moral standpoint, I had problems swallowing this. For my liking it’s all too typically Dr. Phil (the famous reality TV talk-show shrink who presents a hugely rated barrage of suffering Americans and offers all manner of platitudinous pop-psychology to ease the pain).
Worse yet, the film emphasises the gobbledygook of a duo of scientists and trains its camera on them as they watch footage of the family trying to cope – spewing their babble as if they were bloody sports commentators – treating the emotional gymnastics of the family as if they were engaged in a particularly strenuous football match.
The film never really allows us an opportunity to experience what could have been a very moving documentary involving a genuine dilemma faced by thousands, if not millions of families. There is, or was, a great movie in here. In fact, it could have been one of several movies far more engaging and vital than this one proved to be.
The Unknown Known (Errol Morris, 2013) ****
Ace documentary filmmaker Errol Morris is back in familiar territory with this one-on-one exploration of the life and times of George W. Bush’s Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, the clearly gifted master of political doubletalk, misinformation, disinformation and perhaps one of the most dangerous, despicable and evil Americans of the past decade. Much like The Fog of War, Morris’s exploration of Robert McNamara, Defense Secretary during the Vietnam War, the veteran filmmaker hits his new subject with tough questions, attempting to paint as honest a portrait as possible of a political mastermind of legal mass murder, or, if you will, the war against terror. McNamara was a different beast, though. He at least seemed to be telling the truth. None of that – truth, that is – appears to be on display here.
With a malevolent grin, Rumsfeld makes you think he’s letting the cat in the bag slip out, but in the same breath, he’s letting you know the cat’s still in the bag, and that his final word on the matter will always ensure that the bag’s indeed in the river. In fact, we never get a clear picture of anything from Rumsfeld. It always seems clear, but never feels truthful. In several contexts, Rumsfeld is caught completely contradicting himself and hilariously ignoring and/or talking his way out of his obvious falsehoods and/or discrepancies. We’re witness to one magnificent turn of phrase after another. The man is a master spin-doctor and, even more astoundingly, he might actually be the best generator of juicy sound bites in the world – ever. Here’s a tiny, but choice grocery list of a few of them:
‘All generalisations are false, including this one,’ he proclaims.
‘The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,’ he opines on weapons of mass destruction, or lack thereof, in Iraq.
Watch a clip from The Unknown Known:
Rumsfeld treats us to one of his astounding humdingers (which Morris uses for the film’s title): ‘There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. These are things we don’t know we don’t know. The unknown known, however, is a thing that we know, but are unaware of knowing.’
The whole movie is a hoot from beginning to end, but what we’re ultimately presented and left with is 96 minutes of lies – or, at the very least, what Rumsfeld wants us to hear, even if he knows we don’t believe a word.
The man has no shame. None. He could have been a president.
Colonial Report from the Dominion of Canada (above the 49th Parallel):
Toronto International Film Festival 2012: A great year
Ah, dear Brothers of the Order, a revelation occurred during my daily flagellation session, administered so graciously and zealously by my Redskin Brothers up here in the North Country of Our Great Dominion of Canada. After securing, at great savings (and in support of the entrepreneurial activities of our Noble Savage charges), a carton of contraband All Natural Native cigarettes at Bertha’s Smoke Tent, I ventured deep into the woods to meet my trustiest flagellator, John Ramsay.
He stripped me naked with considerable savagery, tossed my Black Robe into a bonfire, forced my legs apart and insisted my arms stretch to the Heavens. In an ‘‘X’’ stance, my hands and feet were brutishly tied twixt two Maple trees. My dear, loyal, and ever-so-willing John Ramsay began tearing flesh from my back with a switch fashioned from several bramble bushes. During the intensity of these Jesuit Relations (of a decidedly different brand), the streams of my blood, fertilizing the soil of the Niagara Escarpment, inspired additional notions to cascade along my fevered cerebellum.
With each stroke, with every new rivulet of blood formed, and every gnash of the teeth to stop me from betraying my inherent crying grandmother-hood of pain ready to pierce the quiet of the wilds, I began to formulate the opinion that this had indeed been a great year for cinema at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) 2012. One gem after another passed before my eyes.
Without further rumination, allow me to illuminate you with a clutch of encapsulated commentaries from one of the world’s largest film festivals. I indulged in several days of sweet cinephiliac flagellation. Here then, for your edification, are a few high and lows.
Let us pray…
ANTIVIRAL (dir. Brandon Cronenberg, 2012)
Accompanying me to the TIFF screening of this first feature from David Cronenberg’s son was Julia Klymkiw, my 11-year-old Cub Reporter at the Klymkiw Film Corner. Upon leaving the theatre, I asked what she thought about it. ‘Well, I kind of liked all the blood, but the movie itself was pretty fucking stupid.’ I couldn’t have said it better myself, so I’ll let the child’s summation stand. To elaborate, Antiviral was indeed one of the worst horror films I’d seen in quite a while. This moronically pretentious poppycock about a world where celebrity diseases are marketed to a public that can afford them plods along dourly with no evidence of panache, humour or filmmaking talent.
The picture has excellent production value (a no-brainer given that producer Niv ‘The Red Violin’ Fichman is Master of Canadian Eye Candy – nobody makes better-looking movies in the Dominion than Mr Fichman) and features a couple of amusing supporting performances from Malcolm McDowell and Nicholas Campbell, neither of whom seems at all embarrassed to be in this landfill site of a movie. The son of Canada’s True Master Filmmaker neglected to take a shot of his dad’s talent disease. Antiviral is the result.
Argo (dir. Ben Affleck, 2012)
Everybody at TIFF loved Argo and this adulation continued during its subsequent theatrical release. Directed by Ben Affleck, who affably plays CIA ‘extractor’ Tony Mendez, it’s a competent fictionalised portrait of the real-life rescue of American embassy workers in Iran, who were hidden in the home of the Canadian ambassador during the 1980 hostage crisis.
Alas, the film’s racism and ethnocentrism are both aimed squarely at Iranians with typical Hollywood vengeance. Representing the entire populace as savage, devious and, as a bonus, stupid grinning bozos, too enamoured with American popular culture to do their jobs properly, the picture made it impossible to succumb to its offerings. America’s greed, deception and need to control the rest of the world to serve its elite of corporate rulers is afforded a tiny mention at the beginning of the movie, then discarded. It’s as if this nod to the historical slow boil America instigated 30 years before the events depicted was disingenuously designed to please liberal audiences who could feel good about marching shoulder to shoulder with the right wing as they all commingled to worship America’s superiority. It’s time for Oscar to come calling.
Baby Blues (dir. Katarzyna Roslaniec, 2012)
Nobody makes movies quite like Katarzyna Roslaniec. In Baby Blues, the spirited Polish director tackles everyday challenges young teenage girls face in the modern world. Her touch is never juvenile, clichéd, didactic, humourless, nor rife with the dour bludgeon of political correctness, or worse, the moralistic, ultra-conservative, by-the-numbers-after-school-special-styled dreariness so prevalent in similarly themed works from North America. Her movies rock! Big time!
Baby Blues focuses on a teenager with a baby sired by her unwitting slacker boyfriend. She is bound and determined to keep it, but on her own steam, thank you very much. Roslaniec injects the picture with a verité nuttiness, allowing her to take a whole lot of stylistic chances, yielding one indelible moment after another. One of several sublime sequences is unveiled just after Natalia (Magdalena Berus) experiences a harrowing encounter with judgemental health care workers. Roslaniec holds on a shot of the teen, now looking more like a little girl than a burgeoning young woman, huddled on a metro train with her sick baby clutched tightly in her arms. She holds and holds and holds on the shot and when it feels like she’s going to finally cut out, the shot holds even longer.
Other moments are equally powerful, most often in scenes where Natalia and her amiably clueless dope-smoking boyfriend Kuba (Nikodem Rozbicki) are navigating the unfamiliar waters of domestic life and parenthood. Roslaniec so beautifully and truthfully captures how these two young people try adapting to the responsibilities that come from being parents. What she finally evokes is truthful – infused with life itself.
End of Watch (dir. David Ayer, 2012)
This surprise treat at TIFF turned out to be the best cop picture I’ve seen in years! Hanging by the slenderest of plot threads, this mostly episodic belly flop into the maw of every harrowing moment the brave boys in blue face daily made for an always-jolting ride. Writer-director David Ayer follows two loyal partners, beautifully rendered by Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña as they go about their daily grind in South Central Los Angeles. The close pals eventually stumble upon something much bigger, finding themselves on a drug cartel hit list.
The opening minutes are shot through a patrol car’s windshield-eye-view of the cops’ turf, accompanied by a portentous reality-TV-styled voice-over. At first you think Ayer’s gone nuts until he reveals that Gyllenhaal is a part-time law student putting himself through university as a cop and studying filmmaking as an elective. As such, he’s shooting everything on the job to make a documentary as a class project. When he’s not shooting, the rest of the film is mostly pieced together with a variety of surveillance views and hardware wielded by young digi-cam-obsessed villains. Add great dialogue, superb realist detail, actual locations plus magnificent performances and it adds up to harrowing slam-bang entertainment.
Krivina (dir. Igor Drljaca, 2012)
Not a single shot is fired in director Igor Drljaca’s stunning feature debut, but the horror of war – its legacy of pain, its futility and its evil – hang like a cloud over every frame of this powerful cinematic evocation of memory and loss. The film’s hypnotic rhythm plunges us into the inner landscape of lives irrevocably touched by inhumanity in a diaspora of suffering that shall never escape the fog of war.
Miro (Goran Slavkovic) lives in the New World. That is to say, he’s an immigrant to Canada. Having left the former Yugoslavia when civil war broke out, he’s moved from city to city, job to job and home to home. Hearing that his childhood friend Dado might be alive, Miro leaves the grey, lifeless Toronto – a world of cement and darkened office tower windows – a city so cold, so strangely inhospitable that a reconnection with his homeland, his past, his memories of a time when his own country was at peace is what grips him to embark upon an odyssey like no other. The land of his birth is rich with natural beauty, but also shrouded in mystery. It haunts Miro, as it haunts us. As he talks to one person after another, we see the toll of war etched into their ethos. This clearly affects Miro as it does us.
Director Drljaca uses the poetic qualities of cinema and plunges us into an experiential work of art that affords the unique opportunity to find within ourselves the sense of loss that war has instilled in the characters, the world at large and, in fact, all of us – whether we have experienced it or not. Supported by an evocative score, soundscape and cinematography, Drljaca is a filmmaker to watch. He will continue, no doubt, to deliver great work.
The Master (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson, 2012)
I can’t ever recall the same electricity in any screening of any movie in the 25-or-so years I’ve been attending TIFF. Hundreds of scribes packed the hugest auditorium of TIFF’s Bell Lightbox complex. The pre-screening buzz in the cinema was low, not unlike the sounds emitted from a hive of happily prodigious bees. The lights went down and the house went completely and utterly silent. Then it began. Anderson’s insanely provocative exploration of post-war America reels you in. You feel a bit like ‘Bruce’ the shark in Spielberg’s Jaws, chomping on a sharp hook that Robert Shaw’s mad-eyed Quint keeps hitting, taunting, tugging, twisting and pulling. You try to escape, you fight madly not to succumb, but succumb you do.
Inspired by the mad Scientologist L. Ron Hubbard, Anderson weaves a hypnotic tale of a young veteran and his mentorship under a charismatic cult leader. If you are lucky enough to see the film as it’s meant to be seen in 70mm, you get the added bonus of diving into Anderson’s masterly use of the medium. It is an epic scope, but an intimate epic with Anderson’s eye examining the rich landscapes of the human face. And what faces! Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams and Laura Dern suck you deep into their eyes and, ultimately, their very souls.
When I left the cinema, I couldn’t explain to myself what I had just seen and why it so powerfully knocked me on my ass. What I can say is that I can count on one hand the number of films that were not only hypnotic, but in fact, seemed to place me in a literal state of hypnosis. The Master is one of these films. I saw it a second time – riveted, yet wondering if I still loved it. I queried George Toles, my old friend, mentor and screenwriter of Guy Maddin’s masterworks, about his experience, explaining, of course, my recent dilemma. His response was this: ‘The movie neither asks for my love, nor wants my love, but I give it my love anyway.’ A third viewing corroborated this for me.
Room 237 (dir. Rodney Ascher, 2012)
If you’re a movie geek, you’ll immediately get the significance of this engaging feature documentary’s title. If you aren’t, you’ll learn it refers to a room in an isolated old hotel where something horrific happened (and likely will again) in Stanley Kubrick’s crazy scary, creepy and hypnotic 1980 film adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining.
A cool blend of cine-mania and conspiracy theory, Room 237 is not a traditional making-of documentary or even a critical appreciation in the usual sense. Using a treasure trove of clips and stills from all things Kubrick, director Rodney Ascher interviews five people who’ve spent an unhealthy number of waking hours over an ever MORE unhealthy number of years, dissecting hidden meanings they claim are buried within Kubrick’s scream-fest.
Whilst I’m a tad sceptical that The Shining is an apology to the world from Stan the Man for faking the entire Apollo moon programme, some of the other fruit-loopy theories (subliminal Holocaust allegory, anyone?) are not without interest. The most intriguing postulation (backed by its believer’s meticulous reconstructions) asserts that one specific room on the set could not exist within the architecture of the Overlook Hotel. Ascher never makes fun of the cinematic conspiracy theorists and, cleverly, they appear off camera in voice-over. The images are virtually all Kubrick all the time and provide visual evidence to bolster said theories. The movie also makes you ponder Calumet Baking Soda. Please discover that nugget on your own.
Stories We Tell (dir. Sarah Polley, 2012)
Nature, nurture and the manner in which their influence upon our lives inspires common threads in the telling of tales that are in turn relayed, processed and synthesized by what we think we see and what we want to see are the ingredients that make up Sarah Polley’s latest work as a director.
Her Oscar-nominated Away from Her was a well-crafted dramatic plunge into the effect of Alzheimer’s upon a married couple. Take this Waltz blasted a few light years forward, delivering a film that’s on one hand a wonky-plonky romantic comedy and on the other, a sad, devastating portrait of love gone awry, and all the while being perhaps one of the most progressive films about female passion and sexuality made in a modern, contemporary North American (though specifically Canadian) context.
Stories We Tell is something altogether different and, in fact, roots Polley ever so firmly in contemporary cinema history as someone who has generated a bona fide masterpiece. It is first and foremost a story of family – not just a family, or for that matter any family, but rather a mad, warm, brilliant, passionate family who expose their lives in the kind of raw no-guts-no-glory manner that only film can allow. Most importantly, the lives exposed are as individual as they are universal and ultimately it’s a film about all of us. It is a documentary with a compelling narrative arc, yet one that is as mysterious and provocative and profoundly moving as you’re likely to see.
Love permeates the entire film – the kind of consuming love that we’ve all felt at one point or another. We experience love within the context of relationships most of us are familiar with: a husband and wife, a mother and child, brothers and sisters (half and full), family and friends, and yes, ‘illicit love’ (at least within a specific context in a much different time and place). Mostly though, Stories We Tell expresses a love that goes even beyond our recognisable experiences of love and runs a gamut of emotions.
The film is often funny, to be sure. It is, after all, a film by Sarah Polley and is infused with her near-trademark sense of perverse, skewed, borderline darkly comedic, but ultimately amiable sense of humour. The great American author of Armenian heritage William Saroyan titled his episodic novel (and Oscar-nominated screen story) The Human Comedy, something that coursed through his entire canon and indeed is the best way to describe Polley’s approach to telling stories on film. She exposes truth and emotion, and all the while is not willing to abandon dollops of sentimental touches – the sort we can find ourselves relating to in life itself.
There is a unique sense of warmth that permeates Stories We Tell, and by so employing it, Polley doesn’t merely tug at our emotions: she slices them open, exposing raw nerve endings that would be far too painful if they were not tempered with an overall aura of unconditional love, not unlike that described by those who have survived a near-death experience. The emotions and deep feelings of love in Polley’s documentary are so enveloping, I personally have to admit to being reduced to a quivering, blubbering bowl of jelly each time I saw the film.
Four screenings later and her movie continues to move me unconditionally – on an aesthetic level, to be sure (her astonishing blend of interviews, archival footage and dramatic recreations so real that they all blend together seamlessly), but mostly on a deeply personal and emotional level.
At the heart of the film is a courageous, vibrant woman no longer with us. Polley guides us through this woman’s influence upon all those she touched. Throughout much of the film, one is reminded of Clarence Oddbody’s great line in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life: ‘Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?’ I try to imagine the lives of everyone Polley introduces us to and how if, like in the Capra film, this vibrant, almost saint-like woman had not been born. Most of those we meet in the film wouldn’t have been born either and the rest would have lived lives with a considerable loss of riches.
And I also think deeply on the fact that this woman was born and how we see her effect upon all those whose lives she touched. Then, most importantly, I think about Clarence Oddbody’s line with respect to the child that might not have been born to this glorious woman – a child who might have been aborted. I think about how this child has touched all the lives of those in the documentary. The possibility that this child might have never been born is, within the context of the story relayed, so utterly palpable that I can’t imagine audiences not breaking down.
I can’t imagine the loss to all those people whose lives this child touched. And the world? The world would genuinely be a less rich place without this child.
THEN, it gets really personal. I think about all those in MY life who could have NOT been born – people who are very close, people (two in particular) who have indelibly made a mark on my life – people whose non-existence would have rendered my life in ways I try to repress.
And I weep. Kind of like Brando says as Col. Kurtz in Apocalypse Now: ‘I … I … I cried. I wept like some grandmother.’
Most of all, my tears are reserved for the film’s aura of unconditional love, its incredible restorative power. Sarah Polley is often referred to in Canada as a ‘national treasure’. She’s far more than that.
She’s a treasure to the world – period.
And so, finally, is her film.
From the Dominion of Canada, I bid you: Bon Cinema!
Colonial Report from the Dominion of Canada (above the 49th Parallel)
This is a true story.
I was conceived in Detroit, Michigan.
My father was property of the famed National Hockey League (NHL) team the Detroit Red Wings. For a couple of years, Dad played for a variety of their ‘farm teams’ in Northern Michigan, which meant he was almost always on the road, carted along icy highways in rickety buses across several states.
Once he was brought into the fold of the team itself, Mom and Dad were nicely ensconced in the birthplace of Motown. Dad was the backup goalie to the legendary Terry Sawchuck. All his teammates referred to him as ‘The Little Uke’ and Sawchuck as ‘The Big Uke’ – two generations of Ukrainian goaltenders rubbing elbows with the very best players in what is still considered the golden age of professional hockey within the original Six Team League of the NHL.
Given that he was backing up the greatest goalie who ever lived, Dad only played one NHL game. It’s still in the record books. Detroit was playing against the New York Rangers and they did not have a backup goaltender. Their goalie, Gump Worsley, had taken ill and was unable to play. Rather than cancel the game, Detroit’s wily general manager Jack Adams offered my Dad to take Gump’s place.
After that season, like all professional hockey players at the time, Dad went back home with Mom so he could get a job. This was before a players’ union existed and even the biggest stars needed to work in the off season – selling cars, working construction or, as in my Dad’s case, performing general labour for my uncle’s plumbing company.
Mom and Dad never went back to Detroit. Dad broke his ankle and was laid up. Jack Adams offered a friendly ‘Tough break, kid’ and when Dad recovered, he needed to support his family, so he became a cop. He did play for Canada’s national hockey team in the 1960s, and in the late 1970s he became a beer salesman and quickly worked his way up the brewery’s ladder. He became a sales promotions supervisor, using his hockey connections to sponsor numerous World Cup hockey events and back several World Hockey Association (WHA) teams with sponsorship.
It is, however, those days in Detroit that I’m especially sentimental about. During the late 1950s, I was swimming about in my mother’s belly as she carried my added girth around Motor City. Being a hockey wife is a lonely existence, and as detailed in numerous films about hockey, hockey wives seek the company and comfort of other hockey wives.
OK, granted I was still in my mother’s womb, but I am convinced (as is she) that my love for movies began in Detroit. One night, when the men were on the road, she accepted an invitation from another hockey wife to go to the movies. Mom didn’t pick the movie, nor did she pick the venue, nor did she agree that walking home after the movie was the best idea – this was, after all, downtown Detroit. And though it probably wasn’t quite as dangerous after dark as it is now – a blasted-out war zone – it was still DOWNTOWN DETROIT.
Do the math on that, folks.
So, there I was, floating ever so gently in Mom’s womb as she and the other hockey wife attended a re-release of Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers – a movie that’s plenty chilling even today, but during the hysteria of Cold War America it scared the living bejesus out of her.
After the movie, the other hockey wife insisted they walk home. My Mom still gets gooseflesh of the creepiest kind when she thinks about seeing that movie then walking along the dirty, dark, downtown Detroit streets – grizzled barkers outside ‘gentlemen’s clubs’, rollies dangling from their lower lips while huckstering the womanly delights within, trench-coat-adorned bachelors ogling any female worth ogling, sidewalk-hugging tramps reeking of urine, their lips and chins encrusted with dry vomit, roving bands of malcontent youth malevolently taunting anyone passing by, cheaply plumed hookers zealously guarding their turf as they eyeballed the environs for potential clientele, and several dark, empty blocks save for an occasional flash of a Zippo flash or mysterious cough from pitch-black Jacques-Tourneur-styled shadows – with me nestled in her belly, umbilically soaking up the sights, sounds and smells of the city I desperately craved to be born unto.
I reiterate – DO THE MATH!!!
Mom noticed my obsession with movies when I was only three years old. Long after everyone was asleep, I’d sneak into the living room, turn on the television set and watch late-night movies. She’d catch me sitting in front of the TV, not unlike the little blond girl in Poltergeist. Some nights she even found me staring at the old ‘Indian Head’ test pattern long after the late shows were over.
I was conceived in Detroit.
So too was my lifelong love affair with the movies.
* * *
It takes a lot of courage to watch a man out there night after night. I know the players get most of the glory, but I think the women who wait at home for them at night deserve most of the credit. They must have to love the game as much as the man does.
– Toronto Maple Leafs owner to the young singer in love with the team’s star player in the classic 70s Canadian hockey movie Face Off.
I first saw the movie Face Off with my Dad when it played in Winnipeg first-run in a huge, packed-to-the-rafters old downtown picture palace. Even as a kid the aforementioned speech was not lost on me – I’d heard many stories from my Mom about life as a ‘hockey wife’. Oddly, I heard more stories from her about those days than from my Dad. I enjoyed hockey, but if anything, I think it was more the world of hockey that appealed to me.
I loved, for example, the old Winnipeg Arena – referred even back then as ‘The Barn’. It held 10,000 people and on big game nights, the smoke was so thick from cigars and cigarettes, it looked like the fields of battle I recall watching on the battered 16mm film prints of the National Film Board of Canada’s (NFB) Canada at War series – prints that I happily still own and occasionally un-spool upon my Bell and Howell Autoload projector.
On game nights, Dad would take me in through the media entrance guarded by Jimmy, a kindly, grizzled old hockey player with a wooden leg, then lead me to the northwest corner where the craggy sportswriters were assembled – smoking butts and trading quips. We’d stop for a pre-game horse-piss in the legendary Winnipeg Arena washrooms, which, rather than urinals, had open troughs to expunge one’s geysers of urine.
Most games, I sat way up high. Dad would deposit me in a seat near a staircase that led to the ‘Barn’s’ heavenly heights and I’d watch him eventually mount a rickety catwalk as he proceeded to a press box high above the ice and even higher than the worn portrait of Queen Elizabeth and the score cube emblazoned with the logo of Export ‘A’ cigarettes.
Once ensconced in the press box, he’d ply all the sportswriters with free Carling-O’Keefe beer, just to make sure they’d mention his brewery’s hospitality and support in their articles and broadcasts. (I remember one sports writer referring to Dad in an article as ‘Big Julie from that great Oriental beer company Car Ling’.)
Halfway through the final period of every game, it was my solemn duty to go back to the car and start it. Dad liked getting into a warm car – especially in 50-below weather. I’d sit there, burning gas, turn on the radio, listen to the end of the game, then proudly hear Dad on the post-game analysis – picking the three stars and, more often than not, getting a few plugs in for his beer.
On a few rare occasions, I’d get the opportunity to sit in the players’ bench – usually of opposing teams. Dad loved nothing more than to say ‘hello’ to old pals now living in cities all over the continent and, invariably, they’d invite his ‘little shaver’ to enjoy the game from the coolest vantage point in town. This once afforded me the distinct pleasure of witnessing one of the bloodiest bench-clearing brawls in hockey history between the Quebec Nordiques and the Winnipeg Jets at ice level.
Perhaps even more thrilling were the eye-level views of soapy genitalia in the dressing room after the game – a delight also shared by my future friend, filmmaker Guy Maddin. Though we eventually met as young adults and roomed together, and I eventually produced his first three features, Guy and I inexplicably did not meet in childhood, in spite of the fact that our hockey dads were mutual friends and, most notably, that we shared often identical childhood memories of the ‘Barn’.
As kids in the 60s, when our dads were touring together through Europe during national championships, we eventually reminisced about the eerie trans-Atlantic cable calls we’d respectively get from Chas (Guy’s Dad) and ‘Big Julie’ (my Dad).
Do the math.
Detroit + exposure to Don Siegel in the womb + Winnipeg + Hockey + soapy genitals = Movies.
Hockey is, of course, as Canadian as maple syrup, peameal bacon, geese, moose, beavers, pouding chômeur, poutine, national inferiority complexes and Norman Jewison. As such, one can only wonder why the most Canadian movie NEVER made by a Canadian in the Dominion of Canada was Slap Shot, George Roy Hill’s hilarious hockey satire with Paul Newman.
That said, many years before everyone’s favourite salad dressing magnate and the Hanson Brothers cracked heads like so many eggs, yielding runny crimson yolk matter upon the fresh, white ice, Canada did indeed generate a terrific piss-and-vinegar hockey picture: Face Off.
Written by George Robertson (based on material by Neil Young’s dad, sports writer Scott Young), directed by stalwart TV helmer George McCowan (who would happily go on to direct the utterly insane 70s horror thriller Frogs) and starring a very handsome Art Hindle (who went on to scare the shit out of movie audiences as Brooke Adams’s pod-victim hubby in Phil Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers remake) and the delectable Trudy Young (former child star and every young Canadian boy’s wet dream from the long-running kids show Razzle Dazzle), Face Off blazed onto Canadian screens in 1971.
This was truly a movie by Canadians for Canadians. They embraced it wholeheartedly – not just because it was a genuinely good picture, but for the amazing on-ice action. Face Off is historically significant for a number of reasons, but most importantly, it contains the only existing 35mm film footage of actual NHL hockey action.
In spite of this, the original elements to generate new prints went missing, and it’s suspected the negative had been thrown out by mistake after producer John F. Bassett’s untimely death from brain cancer in 1985. With one decent existing print left in the whole world, the Toronto International Film Festival’s Film Reference Library (TIFF) and the visionary Canadian home entertainment company Video Service Corporation (VSC) undertook the painstaking, expensive and worthwhile toil of restoring the film – frame by frame – to high definition.
The movie straddles the best of both worlds: it is part of that amazing early period of Canuck features that not only reflected English Canadian culture, but did so with the distinctive 70s darkness so prevalent in the work of Canada’s neighbours south of the 49th parallel.
On the surface, Face Off is a simple, oft-told tale of star-crossed lovers, doomed from the start. The movie is all the more melancholy as we experience WHY they should be together, but also get a God’s-eye perspective of WHY they won’t be together. As the narrative un-spools, we hope things will work out for the best, but anyone who knows and loves the best 70s movies will guess that the relationship will be thwarted.
The emphasis on darkness was not only the 70s way, but the Canadian way. Canuck pictures from this period shared the tone so apparent in the work of Scorsese, Schrader, Toback, Lumet and others. Where the two countries differed was in ‘production value’. Naturally lower budgets plus the National Film Board’s influence resulted in Canadian films that blended traditional, classical storytelling with an almost neo-realist approach – less razzle-dazzle, more dour-dazzle.
As a kid, Face Off was a revelation. For someone living in a country inundated with American popular culture, yet feeling you were, as a Canadian, not American, it was a movie that captured the essence of living in the Dominion, but unlike most Canadian culture broadcast on television – happy fiddlers and trilling Irish tenors from the Maritimes, game shows where the grand prizes were pen and pencil sets, kids’ shows with visibly drunk ventriloquists or adventure shows always set in the wilderness – Face Off was cool. Why wouldn’t it be? It had a hunky hero; a former kids TV starlet, great hockey action with cameos from the greatest NHL stars and globs of blood spilling on the ice.
Of course, the movie captured so much of what I had already experienced in the world of hockey – the locker room camaraderie, the wood-paneled smoky taverns, the cheap suits adorning the men, clutches of sports reporters and the parties.
Most resonantly, Face Off captured the place of women in this world of gladiators on the ice and the players’ masters in the back rooms – something that was not lost on me even as a kid. At one point in the film, the coach, played by the late, great Canadian character actor John Vernon (the evil prison warden in Chained Heat, Clint Eastwood’s nemesis in The Outlaw Josey Wales, the slimy San Francisco mayor in Dirty Harry, Dean Wormer in Animal House and the malevolent Mr Kapital in Dušan Makavejev’s Sweet Movie) has a chilling conversation with star player Billy where he imparts the following advice: ‘Kid, everything in life has to be in its proper place. Even the wife, eh.’ Billy regards this with a mixture of scepticism and acceptance. Poker-faced, he responds with: ‘Something to think about.’ The Coach delivers the final knockout verbal blow: ‘Just don’t think about it. DECIDE!!!’
For Billy, it IS a tough decision. He’s not only being seduced by the game, his teammates, his bosses, but by fame itself. At one point, Billy and his folk-singing girlfriend Sherri clash when he gloats over his ‘bad boy’ press in the sports pages. When she accuses him of being ‘just like the rest of them’ (the patriarchal world that has attempted to put HER in her place), Billy responds, ‘No, I’m not’. Billy brashly, directly and romantically takes the bull by the horns, looks Sherri in the eyes and says, ‘I’m younger, stronger and tougher and that’s why you dig me. You know that’s right. We both know it, eh’.
And here, for me, the Canuck clincher comes when Billy adds: ‘So dry your eyes and put on something warm. I think we both could use some fresh air’.
Ah, young love in Canada.
A stroll through sub-zero winter snow and all will be well.
* * *
If you could read my mind love, what a tale my thoughts could tell.
Just like an old time movie, about a ghost from a wishing well.
In a castle dark, or a fortress strong, with chains upon my feet.
You know that ghost is me. And I will never be set free,
as long as I’m a ghost that you can see.
If I could read your mind love, what a tale your thoughts could tell.
Just like a paperback novel, the kind the drugstore sells.
When you reach the part where the heartaches come,
the hero would be me,
and heroes often fail.
And you won’t read that book again
because the ending’s just to hard to take.
– ‘If You Could Read My Mind’, theme song as sung by Gordon Lightfoot in the 1973 Canadian hockey picture Paperback Hero.
Like Face Off, Peter Pearson’s Paperback Hero indelibly captures hockey and its relationship to Canadian culture, but most importantly, how American culture had such a strong influence upon those who lived even in isolation. Starring Keir Dullea (Dave Bowman from 2001: A Space Odyssey) as Rick Dylan, a hard-drinking, brawling, womanising small-town hockey player on the flat prairies surrounding Delisle, Saskatchewan, it’s also typical of 70s Canadian cinema. Blending elements of the documentary tradition it combines an almost neo-realist approach to the drama with considerable darkness and cynicism.
Curiously and coincidentally, both Face Off and Paperback Hero were both produced by John F. Bassett. I not only first saw both movies with my Dad, but Bassett had married into the family that ran the mighty brewing empire my Dad worked for. Bassett’s daughter, the eventual famed tennis pro Carling Bassett, was even named after the company Dad orchestrated hockey promotional tie-ins for.
Then again, it’s a small world that Paperback Hero is all about.
In addition to Bassett, the key creative team included director Peter Pearson who came from a television news background while cinematographer Donald Wilder, who shot Face Off and eventually one of Canada’s highest grossing hits, Meatballs, spent a good portion of his career as a documentary shooter. Pearson and Wilder not only excelled in the area of the hockey practices and matches – again, full of rough and tumble action as well as the bloody fisticuffs on ice – but also captured the details of small-town Canadian prairie life more distinctively than pretty much any Canadian film.
A ramshackle community centre and arena, the local bar smelling of decades worth of beer suds soaked into the floors, greasy diners, wide streets under a jet blue sky, flat yellow fields of wheat and mustard seed as Gordon Lightfoot mournfully crooned on the soundtrack – all this and more were indelibly rendered by Pearson and Wilder.
Rick Dylan is also the quintessential Canadian hero of the period. His whole world exists in Delisle – he’s a big fish that subsidizes his low-paying hockey career as a laborer. His off hours are spent drinking and carousing with his best friend, the restless, unhappily married Pov (John Beck – who played James Caan’s second banana ‘Moonpie’ in Norman Jewison’s Rollerball). Dylan has a caring fuck-buddy in the local barmaid Loretta (Elizabeth Ashley, a TV veteran and 70s male-angst cinema’s go-to gal for pictures like Frank Perry’s Rancho Deluxe and Thomas McGuane’s 92 in the Shade), but his real designs are on the college-educated Joanna (Dayle Haydon, model, Playboy bunny and star of Quebecois/Euro-trash soft-core delights such as Spermula and The Girls of Madame Claude), daughter of the hockey team’s owner Big Ed (Canadian TV stalwart Franz Russell).
Rick, like all good Canadian heroes, has not grown up. He considers himself a superb marksman and dons the garb of a cowboy, encouraging people to call him ‘Marshall’ Dylan (after James Arness as Marshall Matt Dillon from TV’s long-running Gunsmoke series). Rick’s primary nemesis (aside from himself) is the town’s local law enforcement official, Burdock (George R. Robertson), who’s itching for an excuse – any excuse – to put an end to Rick’s shenanigans.
For me, Rick has always been a fascinating character. Again, I first saw the movie as a kid first-run on a big screen. Living in a prairie city like Winnipeg, surrounded by yahoos with the same kind of small-town mentality, and indeed, living in a city bordered by similar topography and a multitude of tiny hamlets just like Delisle, there’s this weird sense – especially if you’re even vaguely outside of the norm – of feeling like you don’t belong where you are, but that you can’t belong anywhere else.
Hockey is really the only thing that roots Rick (plus the minor celebrity status that fuels his ego). He’s the ultimate outsider. He doesn’t really care about anyone else. He uses the women in his life as receptacles for his man-seed, and his journey is essentially that of a man who begins with a delusion that intensifies to the point that he’s a threat – not only to those around him, but frankly, to himself.
Thankfully, some of us living on the prairies found the movies.
The rest were like Rick Dylan. They were the ghosts who could never be free so long as those who might inexplicably care about them could see them – the wannabe heroes who, by virtue of their delusions, always lost.
* * *
Ooh and it’s alright and it’s coming on
We gotta get right back to where we started from
Love is good, love can be strong
We gotta get right back to where we started from
-Maxine Nightingale singing ‘Right Back Where We Started From’ on the soundtrack to Slap Shot
1977 saw the momentous release of what is still the greatest hockey picture of all time. In her rave review of Slap Shot, Pauline Kael in the New Yorker noted that ‘George Roy Hill, who directed two of the ten biggest money-makers of all time, will probably have a third’ with the raucous satire of minor league hockey violence. Anyone who saw the picture – whether they cared about hockey or not – might have wholeheartedly agreed with this prediction.
From a truly great script by Nancy Dowd, who spent a year on the road with her minor league hockey-playing brother Ned Dowd, director Hill generated a grand underdog tale of the cellar-dwelling Charlestown Chiefs and their rise to glory when foul-mouthed, irascible player-coach Reggie Dunlop (Paul Newman) transforms them overnight into pop-culture sensations, inspiring them to crack open as many heads as score goals.
Hill, a critically underrated filmmaker who churned out a whole mess of hit movies (including The World of Henry Orient, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting), directed this picture with the kind of fervor and aplomb that yielded one magnificent comic set piece after another. He seemed to be on some kind of crazed overdrive – making the movie as if it might be his last.
Dowd’s screenplay is utter perfection. Not only does she capture a world that seemed familiar to me from all those seminal years of experiencing many aspects of it from the inside, but I have spoken with players from all levels of the business (including my Dad), who all give high marks to the film for capturing so many details that rang incredibly true. (And yes, they all acknowledged it was ‘Hollywood-ized’, but to a considerably lesser degree than they expected.)
Dowd created a great collection of characters – right from the leads down to the tiniest roles – and the dialogue she had barking out of their mouths is right up there with the best comic dialogue in movie history. She deftly balanced the machismo of the world with the lives of all the women in it and created several indelible portraits of ‘hockey wives’ – most notably Jennifer Warren as Reggie’s ex-wife, whom he keeps, almost stalker-like, trying to get back, and Lindsay Crouse as the neglected alcoholic wife of a player who cares more for his slobbery dog than for her.
In spite of Kael’s prognostication, Slap Shot was a flop – everywhere except in the Dominion of Canada. Above the 49th parallel, Hill’s violent comic masterpiece was a blockbuster – not only upon its initial release, but also for many years afterwards.
In the late 70s and early 80s, it could take forever for major studio releases to make it to broadcast television and since this was prior to the home video boom, theatrical re-releases were extremely common. Pictures could do very well in re-release (most notably Gone with the Wind and classic Disney titles), but in Canada, Slap Shot had three MAJOR re-releases in a period of about five years following the first theatrical release.
Universal Pictures backed these reissues with substantial TV and print ad-buys, which yielded grosses to more than justify the expenditures. By this point, I was working as a programmer and film buyer for independent cinemas across three major provincial territories and the grosses for my theatres were astounding.
The bottom line is this: Canadians love their hockey and Slap Shot delivered the goods. That it took a major American studio picture about the subject to achieve blockbuster status (if only in Canada) has been a thorn in the side of Canadian cinema. Don’t get me wrong, though. Face Off and Paperback Hero both did excellent business in Canada, though in the rest of the world they died without a trace. In fact, both pictures were weirdly and respectively re-titled for American release as Winter Comes Early and The Last of the Big Guns.
In the post-Slap Shot period, The Hounds of Notre Dame, a sadly unheralded Canadian hockey picture directed by Zale Dalen, was a lovely 1980 ode to the famed Saskatchewan kids’ hockey coach Father Athol ‘Pere’ Murray. Played by the legendary Canadian character actor Thomas Peacocke, the movie focused on the Boys Town-styled school for wayward youth Murray built in the middle of Nowhere, Saskatchewan.
The good Father was a hard drinking, two-fisted son of a bitch who whipped his bad boys into shape by inspiring them academically through the glories of hockey. Murray used hockey like a big-stick metaphor for success in all things, and in fact, he churned out many of Canada’s captains of industry and politics with this no-nonsense approach. In fact, the school went on to receive most of its funding to keep its doors open from former students who went on to unparalleled financial success.
One of the most memorable sequences in the picture is Murray ignoring a blinding snowstorm, which on the Canadian prairies is usually not the best idea. He bundles the boys in their hockey gear, shoves them all into a ramshackle old bus, gets them to the big game and back to the school – all in one piece and in weather where exposed skin will freeze in less than 30 seconds.
It’s a lovely picture. Although it was released theatrically across Canada, it came and went with little fanfare and is forgotten by all except those lucky enough to have seen it.
After The Hounds of Notre Dame, the big question in the Dominion was: ‘Where, pray tell, is the Great Canadian Hockey Movie?
Canadian TV movies in the 90s briefly flirted with hockey. Atom Egoyan’s still pungent Gross Misconduct, told the true story of Canadian hockey player Brian ‘Spinner’ Spencer (brilliantly played by Daniel Kash), driven by his mean, two-fisted dad (Peter MacNeill) to use his fists to get him to the top.
Egoyan superbly renders this violent biopic, which is punctuated with a steady stream of ironic inter-titles to announce every perverse episode in Spinner’s out-of-control ascension in the NHL and his eventual downfall. Egoyan uses his cold, observational approach to capture every vicious blow on the ice, Spinner’s addiction to crack cocaine, his consorting with prostitutes and a variety of lowlifes and the murder rap he beat by the skin of his teeth.
One of the more harrowing sequences involves Spinner’s drunken dad taking a TV station hostage when one of his son’s earliest games was blacked out in his home province by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. While Spinner plays his heart out, RCMP officers open fire on the armed elder Spencer, blowing him tidily away. Equally harrowing is a similar moment at the end of Spinner’s tragic life.
Jerry Ciccoritti’s superb Net Worth, dealt with the struggle for a players’ union in the NHL and, according to my Dad, was not only a fine rendering of the period, but featured a brilliant performance by Al Waxman, who, he said, captured Detroit manager Jack Adams to perfection. Dad would know. In spite of being cited by the legendary goalie Ken Dryden as a personal hero in his book The Game, Dad (as mentioned above) was subsequently booted by Adams after he broke his ankle. For me, it was especially cool to see Wings players I’d actually met over the years through Dad rendered as characters in a movie.
Both of these 90s TV flicks were decidedly revisionist takes on the sport, and as such, they most deservedly earned consideration in the pantheon of our fair Dominion’s finer cinematic hockey efforts.
Other than Egoyan, Ciccoritti, Pearson, Dalen and McCowan’s pictures, and yes, George Roy Hill’s immortal Slap Shot – which of course, is not Canadian, but feels like it could have been, or at the very least is one of the few non-Canadian movies that somehow captures the ethos of Canadian hockey – the Dominion’s cinematic output has been pretty spotty.
Canada did manage to yield a few utterly dreadful blips on the cinematic hockey radar; Charles Biname’s lame by-the-numbers 2005 biopic of Maurice Richard, The Rocket, a loathsome comedy about South-East Asian players in Canada called Breakaway, and last and certainly the least, the utterly inept Score: The Hockey Musical.
But again, where, oh where, was the truly Great Canadian Hockey Movie?
Would I, in my lifetime as a member of this great Dominion ever see a hockey picture sprung from our collective colonial loins that I could truly call . . . my own?
Would the bitch goddess ‘Success’ never again bless us with a homegrown hockey picture to be proud of?
As the great Peggy Lee once crooned, ‘Is that all there is?’
* * *
Kid, you’ve got this thing. The shit. The stuff. The fuckin’ grit. You got it, like me. But like me, that’s ALL you fuckin’ got. And like me, you’re no good to anyone doin’ anything else. Don’t go tryin’ to be a hockey player. You’ll get your fuckin’ heart ripped out.
-Liev Schreiber as Ross Rhena, the toughest enforcer in hockey, imparting advice to the sweet young brawler Doug Glatt (Seann William Scott) whom he’ll eventually be squaring off with in Michael Dowse’s Goon.
The wait is over!
The Second Coming is here!
Call it The Rapture, if you will.
Based upon Doug Smith and Adam Frattasio’s novel Goon: The True Story of an Unlikely Journey into Minor League Hockey and with a screenplay co-written by everyone’s favourite Canuck comic geniuses Jay Baruchel and Evan Goldberg (Superbad), director Michael Dowse offers the Great Canadian Hockey Movie:
Etching the tender tale of the kindly, but brick-shit-house-for-brains bouncer Doug Glatt (Seann William Scott), who is recruited to a cellar-dweller hockey team in Halifax to protect the once-promising forward Xavier Laflamme (Marc-André Grondin), Dowse captures the sweaty, blood-spurting, bone-crunching and tooth-spitting circus of minor league hockey with utter perfection.
The camaraderie, the endless bus trips, the squalid motels, the brain-dead fans, the piss-and-vinegar coaches, the craggy play-by-play sportscasters, the bars reeking of beer and vomit and, of course, Pogo Sticks (those delicious deep-fried wieners on a stick surrounded by corn meal batter) – it’s all here and then some.
Goon delivers laughs, fisticuffs, and mayhem, and yes, even a dash of romance in a tidy package of good, old-fashioned underdog styling.
Comparisons to Slap Shot, however, are inevitable.
George Roy Hill’s untouchable classic features a variety of near-Buñuelian set pieces:
Can anyone ever forget the interview with the Quebecois goalie when he describes what it’s like to be in the penalty box? ‘You sit dere,’ he says in his thick joual accent. ‘You feel shame’.
Or Paul Newman taunting an opposing team member about his wife going ‘dyke’ with the mantra, ‘She’s a lesbian, a lesbian, a lesbian’.
Or the foul-minded Moe Wanchuk (the late character actor who played Nick Nolte’s utterly reprehensible father in The Prince of Tides), releasing a steady stream of gems, like when Killer Carlson (Jerry Houser, the sexual braggart teen from Summer of 42) must spend a night in jail and he’s advised of his right to one phone call and Moe kindly suggests: ‘Why don’t you call a massage parlour?’
Or college boy Ned Braden (Michael Ontkean), who refuses to fight during a bench clearing brawl, and instead, skates out onto the ice to perform a strip-tease.
Or the coach (Strother Martin), who tenderly reminisces about an inveterate masturbator who’d commit vicious acts of violence on the ice to whack off in the penalty box.
Or, finally, can any hockey movie – even a Great CANADIAN Hockey Movie like Goon – ever top Slap Shot‘s Hanson Brothers (the immortal triplets adorned with glasses sporting coke bottle lenses and played by genuine World Hockey Association goons).
From ‘putting on the foil’ (making their knuckles super-lethal by affixing plenty of Alcan to them) to manhandling the drink machine (‘Took my fuckin’ quarter!’), to skating in formation like deadly Marx Brothers, to smacking the helmets of the opposing team in their bench, to a Hanson berating a disrespectful referee admonishing them during the national anthem (‘I’m listening to the fuckin’ SONG!’) or the immortal slap shot that sends a puck sailing into the side of the organist’s head, and last, but not least, Paul Newman’s observation upon first seeing the Hanson Brothers in their hotel room (‘These guys are retards! They brought their fuckin’ TOYS with them!’): hockey has never seemed so real and surreal all at once.
Well, Dowse and his team are smart. They know you don’t fuck with the Citizen Kane of hockey movies and instead try to move in a more, shall we say, esoteric direction.
While Goon might not have individual set pieces on a par with Slap Shot, it more than makes up for this with an emotional core that Dowse’s previous comedies were also endowed with. Both his Fubar movies presented the adventures of two mega-heavy-metal Alberta hosers who, on a comedy scale, far exceeded the considerable laugh count generated by SCTV’s Bob and Doug McKenzie and Dowse’s own extraordinary It’s All Gone Pete Tong, a melancholy, though very funny mockumentary about a deaf DJ that has the mythic qualities of genuine tragedy. Dowse might well be one of the greatest filmmakers in the Dominion who successfully blends artistry of the highest order with commercial appeal.
One of the things Goon does very well is bring Dowse’s humanist qualities to material that on the surface might seem anything but human. Baruchel and Goldberg’s screenplay seems almost tailored to Dowse in so far as it’s impossible to imagine anyone else bringing the film so successfully to the big screen.
A perfect example, and one that places Goon in its own sphere outside of George Roy Hill’s classic, is the difference in how both films treat the key villain. Slap Shot provided the legend of Ogie Ogilthorpe (played by Ned Dowd), the worst goon in hockey history. Goon goes a step further and utilises a fabulous Ogilthorpe-styled character that is all flesh and blood.
Ross Rhena (Liev Schreiber) is the goon to end all goons. (Uh, yeah. Liev ‘FUCKING’ Schreiber! This is one great actor and he delivers one of his best performances here.) Rhena is, in effect, a goon’s goon. And what Dowse and team do here is perfect. They create a character with a bit of sentimental, old-guard flavour.
In one tremendously moving scene, Doug and Ross meet face to face in a squalid diner and engage in a conversation worthy of every great sports picture that ever featured the grand old man and the eager young up-and-comer.
In this scene, Dowse one-ups Slap Shot by imbuing this indelible scene with truly elegiac qualities and adds far more resonance to the final punch-out in the film. In contrast, Nancy Dowd’s screenplay uses Ogilthorpe as someone we hear about often enough, but when he finally appears, the film doesn’t really exploit his legendary status in an active way, nor is he really tied into a central conflict. Baruchel and Goldberg’s screenplay really delivers the goods here.
The other cool element of their script is placing Glatt within the context of his family as well as providing a more contemporary view of homosexuality. Glatt comes from a strangely dysfunctional Jewish family where Dad (Eugene Levy) explains that one of their sons is brainless and that the other is gay by tossing out the excuse that the boys are ‘adopted’. This is funny, but it also hurts. It’s a deep cut that resembles some of the domestic issues dealt with in Dowd’s screenplay.
However, where Slap Shot realistically, given the time period and world, is replete with any number of homophobic references (the funny line where one of the players wonders if the fact that a guy’s wife has gone dyke automatically makes him ‘a fag’ springs to mind), Goon presents two gay characters who are not only comfortable with their sexuality, but in the case of Glatt’s brother-in-law (hilariously played by Baruchel himself), brashly proud and irreverently delightful. With him the movie delivers a gay character who gets an opportunity to balance the still homophobic attitudes within both traditional families and the world of hockey.
Right across the board the casting and performances in Goon are first rate, but the revelation here is Seann William Scott as Glatt. His sweet, goofy, still-boyish appeal is so infectious, you actually enjoy seeing this happy-go-lucky lug doing what God intended him to do – bust heads. Based upon his great performance here, I suspect Mr Scott can finally add Glatt to his American Pie laurels as the immortal Stifler. From now on le canon de l’homme qui est Stifler can simply be le canon de Seann William Scott.
Another astounding achievement is that you will never – in your life – see so much man-on-man carnage on the ice as you will in Goon, and it’s not just a matter of quantity – the quality of the carnage is pure, exquisite bravura pulverising.
It is a beautiful thing!
If Slap Shot is the Citizen Kane of hockey movies, Goon is The Magnificent Ambersons of hockey movies – only here, imagine a work that rekindles the butchered glory of Orson Welles’s masterpiece (with a few Touch of Evil dollops) on the blood-spattered hockey rinks of Canada!
It is a beautiful thing!
And fuck it – let’s stretch the Orson Welles metaphor further. A great director needs a great editor. Welles had Robert Wise (an editor with the soul of a director). Dowse is blessed with Reginald Harkema (an editor with the soul of a director, ‘natch!). Harkema’s earlier films as a director include the brilliantly anarchic ode to Toronto Kensington Market activists Monkey Warfare and the utterly insane biopic of Manson’s deadly paramour Miss Van Houten, Leslie, My Name Is Evil.
As an editor, he has delivered the goods for such Canadian filmmaking icons as Guy Maddin, Bruce McDonald, Don McKellar and Malcolm Ingram and if there are better editors in Canada than Reginald Harkema, I frankly have no idea who they are. The cutting in this film is utter perfection. Harkema slices and dices both comedy and action with equal aplomb.
Now granted, a director had to get the proper coverage for an editor to work such magic, but I was utterly floored by the cutting of the sequences on the ice. The sense of pace and geography is impeccable. Though Dowse has chosen a cuttier mise en scÃ¨ne than George Roy Hill, this doesn’t result in the sort of horrible mish-mash of cutty confusion in virtually every other contemporary action sequence. Harkema makes every cut a DRAMATIC beat and this is finally what contributes to Goon being endowed with both drive and emotional resonance.
It is, indeed, a beautiful thing!
The Dominion of Canada finally has its very own Great Canadian Hockey Movie.
Slap Shot generated huge box office in Canada, and Goon is following in these footsteps proudly. Its opening weekend made it the highest grossing movie in the entire Dominion.
* * *
Thinking about all these great Canadian hockey pictures, I can’t really put my Dad out of my head. Other than Goon, we saw all of these films together, or at least had opportunities to discuss them at length. Sadly, in 1999, (and ironically on the night I was acting in a boxing picture), I got a call on my cell phone from Mom. Dad had suffered a major stroke and was not expected to live. I boarded the first available flight to Winnipeg and spent the next week at his side in the hospital.
I was tremendously moved by the constant flow of visitors to his room – old hockey players, coaches and sports reporters. What really choked me up, though, was the parade of sweet-faced young men from a local minor league hockey team called the Manitoba Moose.
Years earlier, Winnipeg lost its major hockey franchise the Winnipeg Jets, but this didn’t seem to faze my Dad at all – in fact, the new minor league team was the highlight of his retirement. He volunteered his services on a number of fronts. Firstly, he was the guy who met all the new players at the bus depot, took them to their quarters and settled them into their new team and home. Secondly, he went to every practice, helped the guys out in the locker room and imparted sage advice. Thirdly, and amazingly, he’d don his goalie equipment – the same equipment he’d kept and maintained from the days he played in the NHL for the Detroit Red Wings – and this 66-year-old man would get on the ice and in the net and let 18-year-old kids fire slap shots at him. One of the guys who came to visit in the hospital told me that ‘Big Julie’ almost never let a goal in the net.
In fact, the day before his stroke, he was on the ice, strong as an ox and taking shots from all these young lads in the old Winnipeg Arena. (Then again, in the early days of hockey, when goalie masks were being developed, Dad would moonlight as the guy who stood in the net, taking slap shots to his face to test mask prototypes. He was a tough customer!) Though the doctors were strongly suggesting he be taken off life support, Mom refused. A day later, he was conscious.
He’s still alive. During the years after his stroke, he was in no shape to get on the ice anymore, but the Manitoba Moose team treated him like one of its own. He got season tickets to the games, a pass to the VIP room and even a special parking pass that allowed my cousins (who all took turns driving him to the games) the opportunity to park right by the VIP entrance. He should have been using a walker, but often refused to do so, and being parked near the entrance allowed him to proudly walk into the arena – slowly, but without having to suffer the sub-zero temperatures for too long.
Even more moving than anything to me is when the team annually gave out an award in his name to some sweet young hockey player who’d demonstrated the highest level of community service.
These days, the Manitoba Moose are gone. The NHL and the Winnipeg Jets have returned. He listens to their games on the radio – the same station he used to do post-game analysis in the early years of the Jets. Like so many old hockey players, he’s gone back to a certain obscurity – the tickets and passes have gone the way of both the original Winnipeg Jets and the Moose.
That said, hockey is still his life and I hope, on my next trip back home, I can watch Goon with him on DVD. Somehow I think this would add a necessary full-circle closure to our mutual experience of enjoying all the Great Canadian Hockey Movies together.
But until then . . .
. . . from the Dominion of Canada on the northernmost tip of the Bruce Peninsula, I bid you a hearty ‘Bon Cinema!’
Colonial Report from the Dominion of Canada (above the 49th Parallel)
Toronto International Film Festival: It’s All about the Stars, but There Are Good Movies Too
Although a major city in Our Fair Dominion, Toronto bears the distinction of being the biggest, most pathetic provincial backwater to blight the massive landmass that is Canada – a country in which the majority of the population resides along a 100-kilometre strip just above the Canada-U.S. border, from, to borrow a line from ‘America the Beautiful’, ‘sea to shining sea’. That said, together with Montreal, Toronto is home to some of the more culturally significant events and organizations in the country.
This is the eternal dichotomy and a truly salient example of the two solitudes that have been an endless trademark of life here in the colonies. In La Belle Province, the divide between French and English is more obvious, but Ontario is quite another thing, as the real base of power remains rooted in the most repressive, pole-up-the-ass Presbyterianism – the reigning capital of which was and still is the city of Toronto.
This, of course, is what makes Toronto such an unlikely centre of culture in the Dominion. One of Canada’s true literary giants, Scott Symons, devoted his life and writings to exposing this dichotomy – railing against the country’s old-money establishment residing in Toronto’s leafy, affluent and decidedly ramrod-up-the-rectum enclave known as Rosedale.
Symons referred to these power brokers as the ‘Bland Men’ of Toronto. I, however, prefer Symons’s more colourful description of what rules Toronto. In his great novel Civic Square, Symons coined the indelible phrase The Smugly Fucklings. (Symons always regretted adhering to his publisher’s advice and NOT sticking to The Smugly Fucklings for the novel’s title.)
Symons, without a doubt, hit the nail on the head. Toronto, and by extension much of English Canada, is in the hands of the Bland Men, the Smugly Fucklings. What distinguishes them from the usual dyed-in-the-wool new conservatives of Canada (our own version of America’s woeful Tea Party) is that they are educated, erudite, purportedly liberal and imbued with a desperate need to be cooler than cool. Parading through the city with haughty, smile-bereft faces, their buttocks clenched within an inch of their lives and adorned in the fashion ‘styles’ of Hugo Boss – these are the gatekeepers of all culture for the Great Unwashed of Our Fair Dominion.
Is it any wonder then that the question I am asked most by ‘normal people’ about my experience at the Toronto International Film Festival is not, ‘Have you seen any good movies?’ but rather, ‘What movie stars did you see?’
Toronto is a city so desperate for acknowledgment that it is the centre of the universe that it will do anything to ensure this status. The residual effect is that culture of the highest order is on display in this city ruled by the Bland Men. It exists because of those who merely purport to be on the cutting edge. In fact, I suspect they desperately want to be the thing they’re most afraid of and it is precisely this lip service to alternative culture that inadvertently offers world-class events. The Smuglies have no idea how truly un-hip they are, but it is their desire to be seen as NOT what they are that gives so many of us a reason to hate Toronto, but at the same time, to not completely abandon it because we’d otherwise be bereft of culture.
And so it was, and so it remains, that the Toronto International Film Festival is one of the premier cultural events in the world. On one hand, it is a glorified junket for the American studios, while on the other, it offers hundreds of movies you might never see anywhere else. It is at once a film festival where the Great Unwashed of Toronto pathetically crowd around the police-patrolled barricades protecting the various red carpets – hoping that they might possibly snatch a glimpse of Brad Pitt or Madonna – and where the rest of us, thanks to the wide variety of motion pictures assembled by The Men Who Would Be Kings of Cool, are kept hidden for days on end in the dark, our eyes glued to the screens and dining at the trough of great cinema.
* * *
TIFF 2011 proved to be a pretty banner year for me. Between North American and world premieres of a wide variety of pictures, I was one happy fella.
Of course, there were many dubious inclusions that seemed to be on display for their star-appearance quotient, but thankfully, the accent was on the pictures themselves.
Here then, are a few highlights and lowlights of the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival.
* * *
A Dangerous Method (2011) *
When David Cronenberg is good, he is very, very good. When he is bad, he’s cerebral. A Dangerous Method is dour, dull and decidedly humourless, though the first few minutes do suggest we’re in for a hootenanny of the highest order. The score, oozing with portent over a twitching, howling, clearly bonkers Keira Knightley, thrashing about in a horse-drawn carriage as it hurtles towards Carl Jung’s Swiss nuthouse, initially suggested a belly flop into the maw first pried open by such Cold War wacko-fests like The Snake Pit or Shock Corridor. Alas, Cronenberg seems to have abandoned his pulp sensibilities and instead appears to be making an Atom Egoyan movie. Sorry David, Atom Egoyan makes the best Atom Egoyan movies. Cronenberg’s unwelcome return to the cold and clinical approach from his pre-Eastern Promises and A History of Violence oeuvres quashes all hope for a rollicking good wallow in lunacy. Come on, David, we’re dealing with psychoanalysis and sex here. A little oomph might have been in order.
Lord knows Cronenberg’s dealt deliciously with both before – most notably in The Brood. It starred a visibly inebriated Oliver Reed, crazily cooing about ‘the Shape of Rage’ amid spurts of horrific violence laced with a riveting creepy tone. Most notably the movie provided us with the indelible image of a semi-nude, utterly barmy Samantha Eggar adorned with monstrous pus sacks dangling from her flesh, licking globs of gooey, chunky afterbirth from a glistening mutant baby expunged from one of the aforementioned pus sacks.
No similar shenanigans are on view in A Dangerous Method. It’s pretty much a Masterpiece Theatre-styled period chamber drama with Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) jousting with his mentor-rival Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and Jung spanking Keira Knightley, a daft want-to-be-psychiatrist with Daddy issues. Sadly, no proper views of open palms connecting with buttocks or slap imprints on said buttocks are afforded to us.
We do, however, get an abundance of yammering.
* * *
The Deep Blue Sea (2011) ****
Keira Knightley is used much better here than in Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method. Oops, wait a second, I mean Rachel Weisz. OK, well, if Keira Knightley HAD been in this movie, I suspect she WOULD have been put to rather better use here, but she’s not, so she isn’t. I am indeed referring to the Knightley doppelgä;nger, or rather, the doppelgä;nger of Rachel Weisz, or rather, I mean…
OK, fuck it! In the parlance of Monty Python: ‘Start Again!!!’
Terence Davies coaxes an astonishing performance from Rachel Weisz in The Deep Blue Sea, a heartbreaking, sumptuous and tremendously moving adaptation of Terrence Rattigan’s great play of the same name. Rattigan’s theatrical explorations of class and sex have made for rich film adaptations, most notably The Browning Version, Separate Tables, The Winslow Boy and The Prince and the Showgirl. Rattigan, given the discriminatory criminalisation of homosexuality in England (his frequent collaborator, the closeted director Anthony Asquith, was the progeny of the man who signed Oscar Wilde’s arrest warrant) chose to primarily reflect on gay issues and culture by utilizing a critical dramatic look at the often troubled lives of straight couples.
Nowhere is this more powerfully rendered than in The Deep Blue Sea, which Davies has adapted with considerable homage to the play’s tone and themes while using the source as a springboard for his own unique approach to affairs of the heart. (While Davies oddly reduces the role and importance of the play’s one clearly gay character, one suspects he did this to focus more prominently on the trinity of its central characters.)
Davies might well be one of the most important living British filmmakers. Working in a classical style with indelible compositions, creating a rhythm through little, no or very slow camera moves and infusing his work with a humanity seldom rivalled, Davies recognizes the importance of cinema as poetry – or rather, using the poetry of cinema to create narrative that is truly experiential. (I doubt any audience member will forget the haunting underground tracking shot during the Blitz – as evocative to the eye, ear and mind as anything I’ve seen.) I’d go so far as saying that Davies might well be the heir apparent to film artists like Alexander Dovzhenko and Sergei Paradjanov – exploiting the poetic properties of cinema in all the best ways.
Here we feel and experience the tragic tale of Hester (Weisz), who leaves her much older, though loving husband, the respected judge Sir William (Simon Russell) when she meets the handsome, charming Freddie (Tom Hiddlestone), a former RAF pilot who allows her the joys of sex for the first time in her life. Alas, Freddie’s a bit of a rake and soon tires of domesticity, and Hester is driven to seriously contemplating suicide. Sir William wishes desperately to have her back. The eternal dilemma is that Freddie doesn’t love Hester as much as she’d like, nor does Hester feel as much love for Sir William as he does for her.
The triangle is played out with Davies’s trademark style and a welcome return to pubs thick with smoke and filled with songs sung by its inebriated denizens. Harking back to Distant Voices, Still Lives, the songs here are not so much a counterpoint to the drudgery of the characters’ lives as something indicative of an overwhelming malaise born out of repression and class.
Davies dazzles and moves us with his humanity and artistry. It doesn’t take much to give over to his stately pace, and when we do, we’re drawn into a world that can only exist on a big screen, while at the same time providing a window on the concerns of days gone by that are more prevalent in our contemporary world than most of us would care to admit.
* * *
Keyhole (2011) ****
Full disclosure: I produced Guy Maddin’s first three feature films, lived with him as a roommate (I was Oscar Madison to his Felix Unger – Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple sprang miraculously to life on the top two floors of a ramshackle old house near Winnipeg’s Little Italy district), continue to love him as one of my dearest friends and consider his brilliant screenwriting partner George E. Toles to be nothing less than my surrogate big brother.
Most importantly, I am one of Maddin’s biggest fans and refuse to believe I am not able to objectively review his work. Objectively, then, allow me to declare that I loved Keyhole. What’s not to love? Blending Warner Brothers gangster styling of the 30s, film noir of the 40s and 50s, Greek tragedy, Sirk-like melodrama and odd dapplings of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame and Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit, it is, like all Maddin’s work, best designed to experience as a dream on film. Like Terence Davies, Maddin is one of the few living filmmakers who understands the poetic properties of cinema, and this, frankly, is to be cherished as much as any perfectly wrought narrative.
This is not to say narrative does NOT exist in Maddin’s work. If you really must, dig deep and you will find it. That, however, wouldn’t be very much fun. One has a better time with Maddin’s pictures just letting them HAPPEN to you.
The elements concocted in Keyhole to allow for full experiential mind-fucking involve the insanely named gangster Ulysses Pick (Jason Patric as you’ve never seen him before – playing straight, yet feeling like he belongs to another cinematic era), who drags his kids (one dead, but miraculously sprung to life, the other seemingly alive, but not remembered by his Dad) into a haunted house surrounded by guns-a-blazing.
Populated with a variety of tough guys and babe-o-licious molls, Ulysses is faced with ghosts of both the living and the dead, including his wife Hyacinth (Isabella Rossellini – gorgeous as always and imbued with all the necessary qualities to render melodrama with joy and humanity), her frequently nude father (the brilliant Louis Negin – perhaps one of the world’s greatest living character actors, who frankly should be cast in every movie ever made), chained to his bed, uttering the richly ripe George Toles dialogue and Udo Kier (the greatest fucking actor in the world), whose appearance in this movie is so inspired I’ll let you discover for yourself the greatness of both the role and Udo himself.
Keyhole is, without a doubt, one of the most perversely funny movies I’ve seen in ages and includes Maddin’s trademark visual tapestry of the most alternately gorgeous and insanely inspired kind. For movie geeks, literary freaks and Greek tragedy-o-philes, the movie is blessed with added treats to gobble down voraciously.
Like all of Maddin’s work, it’s not all fun and games. Beneath the surface of its mad inspiration lurks a melancholy and thematic richness. For me, what’s so important and moving about the film is its literal and thematic exploration of a space. Strongly evoking that sense of how our lives are inextricably linked to so many places (or a place) and how they in turn are populated with things – inanimate objects that become more animate once we project our memories upon them – or how said places inspire reminiscence of said objects which, in turn, inspire further memories, Keyhole is as profound and sad as it’s a crazed laugh riot.
Of all the pieces about the movie that I bothered to read, I was shocked that NOBODY – NOT ONE FUCKING CRITIC – picked up on the overwhelming theme of PLACE and the SPIRIT of all those THINGS that live and breathe in our minds. It was the first thing to weigh heavily upon me when I first saw the movie. It has seldom been approached in the movies – and, for my money – NO MORE POIGNANTLY AND BRILLIANTLY than rendered by Maddin, Toles and their visionary young producer Jody Shapiro.
All the ghosts of the living and the dead (to paraphrase Joyce), the animate and inanimate, the real and the imagined, these are the things that haunt us to our graves, and perhaps beyond. And they all populate the strange, magical and haunting world of Keyhole – a world most of us, whether we want to acknowledge it or not, live in. We are all ghosts and are, in turn, haunted by them.
* * *
i am a good person/i am a bad person (2011) ***1/2
A dervish derives inspiration from God and does so with complete and total devotion, honouring the Creator with continuous, strenuous forms of physical manipulations, such as exercise or dance that involve literal whirling at breakneck speeds. Influenced by both John Cassavetes and Mike Leigh, Canadian filmmaker Ingrid Veninger is also developing an approach to her humanist form of dramatic cinema that is clearly all hers.
In fact, Veninger might well be cinema’s only living equivalent to a whirling dervish. Like a dervish, she honours her Creator (cinema), her prophets (Cassavetes, Leigh and others), then whips her creative concoction into a frenzy – literally living and breathing cinema – producing film from within herself, her devotion and life itself.
With her previous work and second feature as a director (she’s written, produced and acted in so many more), Modra, a personal dramatic exploration of her Slovakian roots, Veninger was on the cusp of embarking upon the film festival circuit. This got the dervish whirling. She wrote a script about a filmmaker taking a trip to Europe to present her film on the film festival circuit. She cast herself as the filmmaker Ruby, and her own real-life daughter, talented young actress Hallie Switzer (female lead of Modra) as Ruby’s daughter Sara. With ace cinematographer Ben Lichty and sound recordist/boom operator Braden Sauder, Veninger and Switzer blasted across the pond from Canada to Europe and made a movie. The screenplay, already workshopped and in final draft, accompanied the group who knew that as long as the structure of the story was adhered to, there would potentially be room for rewriting depending upon the exigencies of production.
The movie, i am a good person/i am a bad person, is funny and heartbreakingly moving, and while full of ‘realistic’ touches, it never descends into Canadian Cinema Dreariness 101 and is, in fact, imbued with a sense of scope to allow its tenderness and intimacy to shine in all the ways they should in movies.
The world is, of course, replete with father-son pictures, but mother-daughter relationships – in terms of numbers and quality – pale in comparison. This is a film that contributes admirably to this relatively rare tradition.
Ruby is a loveable scatterbrain. Her film, a crazed, seemingly political avant-garde celebration of – ahem – the penis, is set to premiere overseas at the – ahem – Bradford International Film Festival in dear Old Blighty. Eighteen-year-old Sara is dragged along on the trip to be her mother’s assistant, though one gets the feeling that deep down, Mom craves some one-on-one quality time with her burgeoning daughter.
Sara is decidedly serious – in general, but especially on this trip – and Mom’s carefree spirit is driving her up the wall. Mom, not totally oblivious to this, is still intent on having a good time. Things in Bradford reach a bit of a head and it’s decided that Sara will go to Paris on her own to visit with relatives and Ruby will forge on to a screening at the Arsenal Cinema in Berlin. As mother and daughter each face personal challenges, it also becomes glaringly apparent how much they need and love each other.
I suspect it might not be too much of a spoiler to suggest that hard decisions are wrought and events inspire more than a few tears from even the most hardened viewers. Those who stick with the seemingly freewheeling spirit of the picture are rewarded a thousandfold during the extremely moving finale.
Filmmakers of all stripes will, I think, get a kick out of the sequences shot in Bradford and Berlin. How many times have filmmakers heard the rather embarrassed words from festival directors – as Ruby does in the film – ‘It’s a much smaller house than expected, but they’ll no doubt be a spirited bunch.’
It’s also worth mentioning that i am a good person/i am a bad person is full of humour – gentle bits of human comedy and full-on Bridesmaids-style blowjob and scatological humour. Strangely, this doesn’t temper any of the sentiment, but in fact, enhances it. And unlike Bridesmaids, i am a good person/i am a bad person NEVER overstays its welcome. The picture is taut, trim, hypnotic and passionate.
Kind of like a whirling dervish.
* * *
Drive (2011) *1/2
This is exactly the kind of movie I hate seeing at major international film festivals – especially at TIFF. It clearly feels like a glorified press junket screening with its star trotted out every which way and the picture opening theatrically on thousands of screens one week after its festival screening, while the festival is still on at that. That said, I don’t usually mind if the movie is any good, but Drive most certainly isn’t.
Fast cars and existential male angst make for great bedfellows – or rather, they MADE for great bedfellows. The 1970s were full of them, the tent posts being Monte Hellman’s Two Lane Blacktop, Walter Hill’s The Driver and Richard Sarafian’s Vanishing Point. Drive comes closest to Hill’s nutty car chase thriller, but lacks that picture’s drive (as it were) and pulp sensibilities blended with art-house-style chic. Nicholas Winding Refn, who delivered up a compelling one-man-show with Bronson, falls too in love with his good taste. Besides, how could Refn even hope to compete with The Driver when it features cop Bruce Dern referring to the title character played by Ryan O’Neal and uttering in full-on noir-speak: ‘I’m gonna catch me the cowboy that’s never been caught. Cowboy desperado!’
Aside from choice scumbaggery from Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman as the gangster villains in Drive, we get too many eyefuls of Ryan Gosling staring soulfully at pretty much everything and everyone – adorned, no less, in a ridiculous Scorpion jacket.
Gosling plays a movie stunt driver who doubles as a heist getaway driver and who falls in love with his dewy-eyed, perpetually open-mouthed and equally soulful neighbour. He agrees to help out her recently released jailbird husband to pull a heist that goes horribly wrong and predictably leads to the aforementioned bad guys, who coincidentally are backing a stock car Gosling will be racing. It’s fine when a genre picture keeps it simple and stupid, but the plot of Drive is, well, just plain stupid.
The car chases are proficiently handled, but have none of the urgency of the true greats; some of the violence is satisfactorily shocking, but the movie – loaded with pretension and fake portent – seems even more disingenuous than, say, a Michael Bay movie.
At least, we all know Bay is a knothead. Refn clearly has more going on upstairs, but he’d have been far better off playing things with the same kind of relentless pulpiness he brought to Bronson instead of a preciousness that just drags the movie down to Dullsville.
* * *
Here are a few capsule rewrites of some of the films I covered daily during TIFF 2011 on The Daily Film Dose website.
50/50 (2011) ****
50/50 is a comedy about cancer. The incongruity of this might seem off-putting, but the fact remains that rendering cancer dramatically with humour seems to be the best medicine (artistically speaking and otherwise). 50/50 does so with utter perfection. It’s the laughs, the human comedy, the on-screen knee-slappers that are the very elements which render the drama with so much poignancy and yes, pain. Adam (Joseph Gordon-Leavitt) is a public radio reporter with talent, commitment and a bright future. When he is diagnosed with cancer his life quickly unravels and everything he holds dear begins to dissipate – including his chances of survival. Before you get the impression this is a total downer, allow me to say two words: SETH ROGEN!!!!! One of the best young actors in the business, he plays Adam’s mega-pot-ingesting (‘natch) best buddy and offers friendship, company, support, endless laughs (for Adam, but by extension, the audience) and dope (a most convenient painkiller for cancer victims). Director Jonathan (All the Boys Love Mandy Lane) Levine’s exquisite direction covers the excellent screenplay by Will Reiser with the assured hand of an old pro. That said, Levine’s only in his 30s and this is his third feature film. One can only wonder what the ‘kid’ is going to generate when he actually IS ‘old’.
You’re Next (2011) **1/2
You’re Next is an energetic home invasion horror thriller crisply directed by filmmaker Adam Wingard, who delivers up the scares and gore with considerable panache. The picture is chock-full of babes including a mega-kick-ass heroine – an Aussie chick whose character, it is revealed, was raised in a survivalist compound Down Under. (I kid you not! An Aussie Survivalist Babe!!!) The killers wear ultra-creepy animal masks (like those really cute lifelike ones you can buy for your kids at Zoo gift shops) and dispatch their victims with considerable aplomb.
The first two-thirds of the movie proceed like a rabid bat out of hell. An affluent couple (the female half played by the still delectable Re-Animator babe Barbara Crampton) are celebrating their 35th wedding anniversary in a country mansion and have invited their kids and assorted significant others to join them. The characters share bloodlines straight out of some lower-drawer Albee or O’Neill play and the conversation round the dinner table plays out with plenty of funny, nasty sniping. Great stuff! Then the killing starts! Even greater! And then, a boneheaded plot twist one sees coming from miles away. Uh, this is not great! Not good! Not even passable! Thankfully, the carnage continues, but for this genre geek, the movie never quite recovers from a twist that was probably meant to be clever, but instead feels like a red herring that isn’t one at all, but the real thing that we’re supposed to be knocked on our butts by – NOT! Never fear, though, there’s still that Aussie survivalist babe. Now THAT is original!
Carré blanc (2011) ****
Harking back to great 70s science-fiction film classics like The Terminal Man, Colossus: The Forbin Project, A Boy and His Dog, Silent Running and THX 1138 – when the genre was thankfully bereft of light sabres, Wookies and Jabba the Hut, when it was actually ABOUT something – Jean-Baptiste Léonetti’s debut feature film Carré blanc is easily one of the finest dystopian visions of the future to be etched upon celluloid since that time. The tale rendered is, on its surface and as in many great movies, a simple one. Philippe (Sami Bouajila) and Marie (Julie Gayet) grew up together in a state orphanage and are now married. They live in a stark, often silent corporate world bereft of any vibrant colour and emotion. Muzak constantly lulls the masses and is only punctuated by announcements occasionally calling for limited procreation and, most curiously, promoting the game of croquet – the one and only state-sanctioned sport. Philippe is a most valued lackey of the state – he is an interrogator-cum-indoctrinator – and he’s very good at his job. In fact, with each passing day, he is getting better and better at it. Marie, on the other hand, is withdrawing deeper and deeper into a cocoon as the love she once felt for Philippe is transforming into indifference.
In this world, though, hatred is as much a luxury as love. Tangible feelings and simple foibles are punished with torture and death. Indifference, it would seem, is the goal. It ensures complete subservience to the dominant forces. Love, however, is ultimately the force the New World Order is helpless to fight and it is at the core of this story. If Philippe and Marie can somehow rediscover that bond, there might yet be hope – for them, and the world. It is this aspect of the story that always keeps the movie floating above a mere exercise in style (which it is in large part). Love becomes the ultimate goal of Léonetti’s narrative and thanks to that, he delivers an instant classic of science fiction. The best works in this genre ARE about individuality and the fight to maintain the incommutability of the human spirit, which might, after all, be the only thing we have left – not just in future times, but now.
God Bless America (2011) ***1/2
Frank is a very kind person. He kills people. But they deserve it. Played with pathos and deadpan humour by Joel Murray, Frank is a hard-working American. He’s been diagnosed with a fatal disease. His wife has left him. His daughter is a shrill brat who won’t visit him on custody days because he ‘forces’ her to do arts and crafts, visit the zoo and play in the park (instead of being glued to video games). After work he stays home. Alone.
Home is a man’s castle, but not this man, not this home. His neighbours are poster children for strangulation at birth. Night after night, Frank cranks the volume on his TV to drown out their Neanderthal conversation, a cacophony of verbal and physical abuse, wham-bam sexual activities and constant caterwauling from their genetically stupid infant. What he endures on TV is precisely what indoctrinates the feeble minds of America. Channel-hopping to reality TV, a white trash ‘hose’ digs a blood-soaked tampon from her vagina and flings it at another. An endless parade of wags dump on the disenfranchised and insist: ‘God hates fags’ while images of Barack Obama as Adolph Hitler and news reports of homeless people burned alive buttress ‘Bowling on Steroids’ or the reality TV star Chloe, a nasty teenage girl who treats everyone like dirt. On his drive to work, the car radio is an aural assault from Tea Party types.
At the office he has to listen to his simpleton colleagues moronically regurgitating everything he endured on TV the night before. A tiny bright spot turns dark when the receptionist openly flirts and files a sexual harassment complaint. He loses his job, returns home and turns on his TV to drown out his Jello-brained neighbours.
There is, however, a solution. Frank, you see, is a Liberal – a Liberal with a handgun. He does what all Liberals must do when civilization is on the brink, This is a mere 15 minutes into God Bless America and at this point I laughed so hard I ruptured myself. From here, the movie doesn’t let up for a second – especially once Frank begins a spree of violence against intolerance with a gorgeous, sexy teenage girl. They’re a veritable Bonnie and Clyde – fighting for the rights of Liberals who are tired of the mess America is in.
Director Bobcat Goldthwait makes movies with a sledgehammer, but it’s a mighty trusty sledgehammer. He has developed a distinctive voice that began with the magnificently vile Shakes the Clown, and with this new film he hits his stride with crazed assuredness. Some might take issue with the way he lets his central characters rant hilariously – well, beyond the acceptability of dramatic necessity – but I have to admit it’s what makes his work as a filmmaker so unique. He creates a world that exists within his own frame of reference, which, at the same time, reflects aspects, and perspectives that hang from contemporary society like exposed, jangled nerves. God Bless America fights fire with fire. It’s the American Way! Even for Liberals.
The Eye of the Storm (2011) **
I have no doubt that Nobel Prize-winner Patrick White’s novel – which this dreary movie is based on – is not without merit, but if your idea of a good time is watching a harridan spewing vitriol, then by all means feel free to partake of Fred (The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith) Schepisi’s rendering of The Eye of the Storm. For close to two hours we get to watch Charlotte Rampling chastise her spoiled adult children (the ubiquitous Geoffrey Rush and the wonderful, but wasted Judy Davis). With Mom close to horking out her final globs of life, the kids have made the trek to Australia from Blighty and Gay Paree respectively to ensure their inheritance will rightfully fall into their laps. We watch as this trio trudge through the turgid drama and seldom feel anything but contempt for all of them and wonder why it is we’re being dragged through this sludge at all.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m a sucker for screen harridans. Mind you, I usually prefer them when they’re slugging it out with each other in melodramas like Robert Aldrich’s Whatever Happened to Baby Jane – not dour British-Australian co-ventures we’re supposed to take seriously. One of the more sickening subplots in The Eye of the Storm involves Geoffrey Rush having his knob plunged and polished by one of Rampling’s caregivers – a comely young thing that (for God knows whatever reason) is genuinely charmed by him. We are also afforded endless flashbacks via Rampling’s dementia. In one of them, she seduces the buff young stud sniffing around Judy Davis. I know how this must sound ever so – ahem – appetizing, but I can assure you it is more than enough to induce major chunk-blowing.
Every year, it seems we get more and more movies like this – dull chamber dramas full of rich, old people with Commonwealth accents who crap on each other (and by extension, us) for two fucking hours, and we’re supposed to actually feel something for these miserable, privileged twits. I suppose they keep getting made because there’s always money available for such pictures. They’re relatively cheap to make, attract major actors, carry a veneer of respectability, are often based on acclaimed literary properties and can be directed for a song by filmmakers well past their prime. And, of course, they get programmed into major international film festivals.
Killer Elite (2011) *
What this lame duck action thriller is doing in a major international film festival like TIFF is beyond me. It’s the sort of movie that suggests festivals are little more than a junket opportunity for bad movies that need all the help they can get and/or an excuse to parade a bunch of stars into town. Though inspired by a not-so-manly-titled book called The Feather Men, it has chosen to rip off its title (sans the word ‘The’) from a solid Peckinpah action picture from the 70s starring James Caan and Robert Duvall. The Killer Elite is far from Sam’s best work, but I’d argue one frame of it beats this noisy, jack-hammering and ultimately leaden, meandering macho-man movie.
What will keep Bloody Sam from rolling in his grave is that this is, at least, not a remake of his movie. Basically we’ve got two old buddies – Jason Statham and Robert De Niro – who work as soldier-for-hire assassins. After a dull, contrived opening action set-piece, Statham’s character decides it’s time to retire. De Niro doesn’t. He’s kidnapped and used as ransom for Statham to take another job. The target is Clive Owen (sporting a stupid-looking moustache) as a rogue British operative. Cat and mouse ensues. The idea of an action movie starring these three thrills me to bits. Unfortunately, they’re wasted in an action movie directed by someone who clearly has no idea how to direct action – another contemporary genre picture with lots of bluster, far too many close-ups and/or boneheaded herky-jerky camera moves and attention-span-challenged editing.
W.E. (2011) ***
The King’s Speech gave me pathological haemorrhoids. Thankfully my piles receded after seeing Madonna’s W.E. This vaguely feminist fairy tale crossed with fashion porn is a wildly stylish, dazzlingly entertaining and sumptuously melodramatic flipside to the aforementioned horrendous Oscar-baiting nonsense. Instead of Colin Firth spluttering with nobility as King George VI in television director Tom Hooper’s painfully earnest snooze-fest we get an exuberantly acted reverie into the life of Wallis Simpson (Andrea Riseborough), the snappily dressed American divorcee who wooed King Edward VIII (James D’Arcy) into her boudoir, forcing him to abdicate for the woman he loved and thus allowing his stuttering, half-wit brother to mincingly don the Crown of Jolly Old England, hoist Blighty’s sceptre and eventually provide inspiration for the aforementioned haemorrhoid-inducer of a movie.
The love story in W.E. is told rather goofily through the eyes of Wally (Abbie Cornish) – named thus by her Wallis Simpson-obsessed mother. Wally is married to a philandering, alcoholic, abusive psychiatrist (Richard Coyle) and spends her days wandering through Sotheby’s public viewing of Wallis and Edward’s soon-to-be-auctioned worldly goods. There she meets the dreamy Evgeni (Oscar Isaac), a brilliant Russian musician moonlighting as a security guard. He’s an olive-skinned, high-cheekboned Fabio with a Slavic accent and a great Jason Statham dome. He tinkles the ivories with passion and reads Rainer Maria Rilke. He’s a catch! Instead of immediately plunging herself onto Evgeni’s schwancen, she mopes about wondering why her hubby dinks around on her while sticking herself with hypodermics full of progesterone – hoping that she’ll get herself a bun in the oven. And then there’s Sotheby’s. There, she ogles Wallis and Edward’s finery and slips into dollops of their passionate love story – even occasionally getting visits from the ghost of Wallis, who dispenses Miss Lonelyheart’s advice.
OK, I bet you’re thinking this all sounds kind of stupid. Well, it probably would be, but Madonna’s insane, passionate direction yields a movie experience that is pure romance. Via cinematographer Hagen Bogdanski, Madame Ciccone allows the camera to glide and whirl its way through the dress and décor of the filthy rich with such abandon that she creates a magical world that we’re very happy to be a part of. Many critics are pouncing on Madonna for this movie. In this day and age, when it’s harder and harder to finance a movie and next to impossible to get a movie directed by a woman off the ground, an easy target is someone who is as rich, famous and powerful as she is. There’s a reason she’s rich, famous and powerful. She has exceptional style, savvy and talent. Most of all, making a movie about Wallis and Edward and focusing on Wallis is – dare I say – something we’d ONLY see from a female director. So it’s Madonna. Why the fuck not? W.E. is one of the most entertaining movies I’ve seen all year. I feel like a virgin all over again.
Killer Joe (2011) ****
At one point during William Friedkin’s Killer Joe, an unexpected roundhouse to the face turns its recipient’s visage into a pulpy, swollen, glistening, blood-caked skillet of corned beef hash. Said recipient is then forced at gunpoint to fellate a grease-drenched KFC drumstick and moan in ecstasy while family members have little choice but to witness this horrendous act of violence and humiliation. William Friedkin, it seems, has his mojo back. We’re in Jim Thompson territory here as we delight in a tale of a white trash family living in a trailer park, who hire the services of a hitman to knock off a relative for insurance money. It’s nasty, sleazy and insanely, darkly hilarious. This celluloid bucket of glorious untreated sewage is directed with Friedkin’s indelible command of the medium and shot with a terrible beauty by ace cinematographer Caleb Deschanel. Friedkin, the legendary director of The French Connection, The Exorcist and Cruising, dives face first into the slop with the exuberance of a starving hog at the trough, and his cast delivers the goods with all the relish needed to guarantee a heapin’ helpin’ of Southern inbred Gothic. This, my friends, is the kind of movie they don’t make anymore. Trust William Friedkin to bring us back so profoundly and entertainingly to those halcyon days. Oh, and if you’ve ever desired to see a drumstick adorned with Colonel Sanders’s batter, fellated with Linda Lovelace gusto, allow me to reiterate that you’ll see it here. It is, I believe, a first.
* * *
My capsule reviews above were all published in longer-form at Daily Film Dose along with several pieces by my colleague Alan Bacchus.
All in all, this proved to be a most satisfying edition of the Toronto International Film Festival. In addition to all of the above I managed to squeeze in over 20 movies in 10 days. Other titles I saw included Jonathan Demme’s final trilogy of Neil Young concert movies (Neil Young Life), a satisfying picture with All Neil All the Time and a stunning set-piece in honour of the victims of the Kent State Massacre; a moving and entertaining documentary on one of our great songwriters (Paul Williams Still Alive); Lars von Trier’s staggering Melancholia; Steve McQueen’s well-directed, but overrated Shame, a dramatic exploration of sex addiction that’s high on style, but lacks humour; a great Willem Defoe performance as a man tracking the Tasmanian tiger in the not-so-great The Hunter and a wretched low-budget post-apocalyptic thriller taking one slice out of the lives of non-cannibalistic survivors called The Day.
The city of Toronto and its major international film festival may well be too smug for their own good, but all is well in the colonies when so many great movies are on view.
From the Dominion of Canada, I bid you: Bon Cinema!
Colonial Report from the Dominion of Canada (above the 49th Parallel):
Cinematic Delights in Honour of Jack Layton (1950-2011)
The Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition in the Dominion of Canada
I have sad news from the Colonies.
Jack is dead.
The Official Leader of the Opposition passed away in his Toronto home on August 22, 2011. On direct orders from our Monarch’s representative, the Governor-General-in-Council, Jack became the first House Opposition Leader in the Dominion of Canada to receive the honour of a state funeral. Though the late Sir Wilfred Laurier was technically the first opposition leader to be so honoured, he’d previously held the position of Prime Minister – protocol dictated his lofty send-off.
Jack, however, was not Prime Minister.
He would have been.
You see, The Honourable John Gilbert Layton (referred to by friends, family, colleagues, wags, pundits, supporters, enemies, acquaintances and the millions who’d never even met him as ‘Jack’) devoted close to 30 years of public service to Canadians as a Toronto city council member, deputy mayor, acting mayor, Member of Parliament, leader of the left-leaning New Democratic Party (NDP) and finally, after the historic 2011 federal election, he became the Official Opposition and was poised to duke it out in the House of Commons with Canada’s Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper (a not-so-closeted dictator and almost oxymoronically, a not-so-closeted libertarian).
During the election campaign of 2011, a cane clenched firmly in the right hand, Jack vaulted from planes, trains and automobiles – as it were – criss-crossing the country AFTER recently beating cancer and undergoing hip surgery. Jack the Juggernaut overtook the once-reigning, now-pathetic federal Liberals (easy enough given the wishy-washy egghead leader Michael Ignatieff), but also drove his party to the highest levels of support in Canadian history. Most importantly and stunningly, Jack dealt a powerful blow to the separatist movement by thoroughly decimating the traitorous Bloc Quebecois, winning a whopping 59 of 75 seats in the mostly French-speaking province.
Jack proved to be the real force behind Canadian unity.
Jack was a maverick! And I love mavericks! Hell, as nutty as he is, I even love Prime Minister Stephen Harper – he too (at least in my own world of equal opportunity acknowledgment) is a right-royal-maverick-fuck.
Jack, however, took the maverick cake in politics – he was, in my humble opinion, a veritable Sam Peckinpah of the Canadian political landscape. He steadfastly became an early and continued advocate for the rights of AIDS victims, the working class, the homeless, visible minorities and all those disenfranchised elements of society that had become easy targets of derision for those on the right wing.
Jack had little use for the Status Quo. That said, his remarkable favouring of ‘the little guy’ was not the usual knee-jerk bleeding-heart Liberal lip service – he fought the good fight (though some chose erroneously not to believe it) for ALL Canadians in our fair Dominion. Fairness was the key word when it came to Jack.
Jack wanted a world where everyone was treated with compassion – rich and poor alike.
I loved Jack.
On the day of his state funeral service, I chose to celebrate his life in my own private way. I chose to celebrate cinema in his honour.
Something tells me he wouldn’t have minded at all.
HOW I FIRST MET JACK
In 1995, Jack sold me several humungous flesh-coloured prosthetic penises.
The prosthetics proved prophetic in more ways than one.
Jack was the official auctioneer at a charity auction for Toronto’s ‘Buddies in Bad Times’, the first theatre in Canada devoted to queer culture (and for many years, my home away from home).
I was producing a feature film called Bubbles Galore, a porn satire I co-wrote, which would eventually star legendary triple-X queen Nina Hartley, porn-star-turned-performance-artist Annie Sprinkle, Penthouse Pet Shauny Sexton, a bevy of exotic dancers and a who’s who of Canada’s acting community – all of whom had performed on the Buddies stage – including Daniel MacIvor (legendary Canadian playwright, actor, theatre director and filmmaker), the late Tracy Wright (Highway 61, Last Night), Sky Gilbert (founder and then-Artistic Director of Buddies), Andrew Scorer (Happy Town, Cube 2, Jack of Hearts), the late Ed Fielding (the nude jogger in Welcome to Mooseport), Peter Lynch (legendary Toronto theatre actor), Thea Gill (Lindsay Peterson in Queer as Folk), Rosalba Martinni (Where the Truth Lies, Slings and Arrows) and Kirsten Johnson (eXistenZ, Eclipse and one of Canada’s most acclaimed visual artists).
I needed props – very special props. So I decided to see what I could scare up at Buddies’ charity auction and at least put some money into the pocket of this great theatre company.
Jack was a born auctioneer. This made sense, of course. He held a doctorate in political science and was – for many years – a brilliant lecturer, and by this point, one of the country’s most articulate politicians. He performed his role at Buddies with gusto – describing the bevy of butt-plugs and other sex toys/aids with all the snap, crackle and pop of a 42nd Street barker (from those halcyon days before the NYC clean-up).
In Apocalypse Now, Marlon Brando as Col Walter E. Kurtz says: ‘I see a snail crawling along the edge of a straight razor.’ Kurtz pauses – as only Brando could – and then rasps: ‘That’s my dream!’
My dream, whenever I think of Jack publicly shilling sex toys at Buddies, is imagining him in front of the now-defunct Rug Room on 42nd Street, hustling prospective customers to enter the den of iniquity to see the ever so charming ‘live dildo-dipping beauties’.
Have I mentioned yet that Jack was a good sport?
But I digress.
The props I needed were strap-on, life-like penises. And they… uh… had to be BIG!
In the late 70s and throughout the 80s, Russ Meyer started outfitting all the studs in his pictures (Supervixens, UP! Beneath the Valley of the Ultra Vixens) with ludicrously engorged schwances of the prosthetic persuasion. In homage to the brilliant director of Faster Pussycat Kill! Kill! I wanted all the male actors in my film to be equipped with similarly endowed dinky-toys. During the shoot of Bubbles Galore I recall Daniel MacIvor quipping that after people saw him in the movie, his cachet at Woody’s (Toronto’s finest gay bar) would rise (so to speak) due to the massive member popping from his pants virtually every minute he was on screen.
Jack’s spirited sales job was enough to purvey the prop penii (yeah, not a word, but it should be) directly into my greedy mitts to then be strapped on our male stars (save for the late Ed Fielding, whose endowments rendered prosthetics of such length and girth completely unnecessary).
Years later, Bubbles Galore became the centre of a controversial shit-storm when the former Reform Party (now Canada’s Conservatives – ruled by PM Stevie-Boy) used my little movie just prior to their national convention in Ottawa to drum up headlines and crap all over the reigning Liberals. A front-page headline in Canada’s National Post, the paper-formerly-owned by famed jailbird Conrad Black, screamed: ‘LESBIAN PORN FUNDED BY GOVERNMENT’. Similar headlines followed as well as a flood of TV news items and talk radio yammering.
At the time, I couldn’t figure out what the fuss was about. It was pretty much a slow-news-day story that lasted far longer than it should have. The movie was explicit, to be sure, but it was about porn, not really the thing itself. That said, like all satire, it did straddle the lines of being the thing it satirized which, of course might have shot well over the heads of the right-wingers.
The few times I ran into Jack at parties over the years, I’d remind him of his fine hucksterism at Buddies. He’d laugh and (I assume) pretend to remember me. I did, however, never ask him if he ever saw my movie and how he would have responded to the Bubbles Galore controversy if he’d been involved in federal politics at the time. I should have, but never did. It’s probably best to imagine his response since no politician at the time rallied to the defence of the film.
In fact, to this day I’ll never forget the pathetic, cowardly response of Canada’s Liberal Heritage/Culture Minister at the time, crapping on the government agencies in the portfolio providing arts funding, blaming the Conservatives (who weren’t even in power when the film was granted funding) and then releasing a massive, putrid bovine dump on the movie – admitting to not seeing it, nor intending to see it.
The total amount of government shekels awarded and approved by juries of peers was $120, 000 – not the most princely sum, especially compared to the millions stolen by the Progressive Conservatives during the Airbus/Schreiber Affair, through the Goods and Services Tax and in entering into a moronic Free Trade agreement with the United States that fucked Canada royally. In the end, it fucked America too. (Something Jack himself commented on to President Barack Obama.) As for the Liberals, they too eventually defrauded taxpayers of millions of dollars during the Canadian sponsorship scandal in Quebec.
Hmmm. In retrospect, I’d like to think Jack might have rallied to the film’s defence if he’d been a Fed at the time. After all, the picture was not only a satire on the porn industry, but thematically proposed that sex workers should never be criminalized and/or demonized, but should in fact be supported by making the sex trade a safe place for them to work – and furthermore for women to take control of a male-dominated industry – one in which they were its primary commodity.
Screw it. Jack would have been there swinging for the right to make the film with government support. He was never afraid of taking positions unpopular with the Status Quo. Besides, it was Jack who sold me schwancen galoren.
What a guy!
* * * * *
MOVIES FOR JACK
The Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition officially took office on May 2, 2011. On July 25, the entire Dominion of Canada was stunned when Jack announced he would need to take a temporary leave from his activities to battle a new diagnosis of cancer and get adequate rest before returning as Opposition Leader to unsheathe his sword against that of PM Harper when the House of Commons would resume on September 19.
Jesus Christ! Jack already beat cancer, got over hip surgery, fought the most stunning battle in Canadian political history, preserved Canadian unity and was poised to decimate the right wing in the colonies during the next four years.
Jack was a fighter.
He’d lick the Big ‘C’ again.
So, fuck you God! Fuck you, religious right! Fuck you, fake conservatives. I say: ‘fake’ because the Progressive Conservatives were crooks, but they were ‘old style’ cons who valued Canadian culture – so much so that cultural funding on a Federal level was never (in my experience) more bountiful than under Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. It was a trough all artists in the Dominion dined on ever so swinishly.
Two days after Jack’s announcement of his temporary leave, I was one of numerous individuals in the Canadian film industry to get an email from Sarah Polley.
Sarah is not only one of the best actors in Canada, but she has proven to be one of the Dominion’s best filmmakers, serving up the astounding short drama I Shout Love, the tremendously moving Academy Award-nominated Away from Her and her soon-to-be-unveiled Take This Waltz starring one of the world’s most gifted Canadian funny men, Seth Rogen.
Sarah Polley is a maverick. I love mavericks and I most certainly love Sarah.
As if she isn’t/wasn’t busy enough, Sarah always made time for ‘the little guy’. Since her earliest years, the former child star of Terry (out-of-his-fucking-mind) Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and the beloved family TV drama Road to Avonlea Polley had maverick qualities and activism hard-wired into her genetic code. For example, at the height of its popularity, Polley up and left Avonlea in protest over the increasing ‘Americanization’ of the Canadian series produced by Canuck Kevin Sullivan in collaboration with Disney. And, speaking of Disney, it’s been reported that she attended some public function the Mouse-Eared conglomerate was sponsoring and refused a dim-witted studio executive’s demand that she remove a peace-sign button affixed to her blouse.
Who needs peace when you can start another useless fucking war?
Through her teens and 20s Sarah continued to confound and delight movie fans the world over as she blossomed into adulthood – engaging in several political protests wherein she was physically assaulted by goons (uh, the fine members of Toronto’s Police Department), while on the silver screen she performed some truly major-zombie-ass-kicking in Zack Snyder’s surprisingly effective remake of George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead and butted heads with a crazed creature created from gelatinous amphibian goo cloned with her character’s own DNA in Vincenzo Natali’s deliciously fucked-in-the-head monster movie Splice.
Sarah became revered and respected as one of our Dominion’s most powerful and persuasive activists and artists.
For many years, she’s fought strenuously for a theatrical exhibition quota system in English Canada to bolster Canadian cinema. It’s a cause close to my heart and I long for the day she finally wins this good fight.
Socially, politically and culturally, Sarah Polley has led the way on so many fronts and, I might add, NOT in that annoyingly fashionable way contemporary Hollywood stars have done. Sarah was an activist early on in her life – long before celebrity activism became so degraded. She came by it truthfully, honestly and one might even say, innocently.
Like Jack, she has always fought for the rights of what’s genuinely right.
She’s also funny and has one of the most perverse senses of humour I’ve ever encountered. Sarah Polley is probably one of 10 people on this planet who actually gets the insanely muted knee-slappers that Atom Egoyan occasionally dollops like globs of rich sour cream into the dour, though flavourful borscht of his movies.
She’s also a thoughtful and generous human being, which, finally brings me back full circle to the email she sent two days after Jack announced his temporary leave.
In it, she wrote:
Hey smart film people that I know…
Olivia Chow [Jack’s beloved wife and a prominent NDP Member of Parliament] asked me to put together a list of movies for Jack while he’s at home. I’m thinking I’ll just go buy a whole bunch and leave them in a care package on their doorstep in the next few days. I’m trying to come up with a list of movies that are inspiring in some way – and frankly – I’m not exactly an encyclopaedia of film and could use some help and suggestions… can you send a list of your favourites?
Keep in mind that this was a private gesture on Sarah’s part and the last thing she’d want is for anyone to publicly tub-thump her stalwart ring-leading in a drive to provide Jack with a whack o’ inspirational and uplifting movies to keep his spirits buoyed during this latest battle with cancer. The fact is, however, this – nobody suspected Jack would die. We all believed he was in recovery mode – that he’d beat this thing again. It made perfect sense that his beloved Olivia would ask an activist-artist extraordinaire like Sarah to recommend some inspirational movies and more importantly, that she would turn it into a collaborative, cooperative affair, asking friends and colleagues for help.
They responded immediately. Not only was Sarah flooded with suggestions, but many people dropped movies off at her home to pass on to Jack. The love and generosity of spirit among these members of the Canadian movie business speaks volumes about them as human beings, but also speaks to the love so many had for Jack.
Sarah, by the way, is someone who always makes a big deal about being film illiterate. This is utter nonsense. When she received my insane 40-or-so pages of must-see movie lists when she attended Uncle Norm Jewison’s Canadian Film Centre in 2001, she began reeling off a bunch of obscure titles on my list – agreeing with their inclusion and even suggesting a few she felt needed to be there. I’ll excuse her this self-delusion.
I was thrilled to provide a few suggestions in response to her email. I initially went a tad overboard and fired off a crazy list of 50 movies. Sarah responded – not at all about the breadth of the list – but instead wanted to know what titles were TRULY uplifting.
‘I don’t mean uplifting for YOU. I mean for humans.’
‘Yikes!’ was my first thought. She’s right, of course. I’d included titles like Ulrich Seidl’s Dog Days (two hours of depravity – brilliant and cinematically inspiring depravity, but yeah, not uplifting in any way, shape or form. I quickly revised my list – keeping the truly inspirational pictures in there and dropping some of the more – shall we say ‘challenging’ titles or rather, those that are inspirational in a purely cinematic sense.
I won’t reel off my entire list here, but it might be of some interest to provide of few of my top picks. (You can rest assured that Chariots of Fire is not on this list.)
Save for the first film listed in this category the rest of the titles are in alphabetical order.
Grab a whack o’ these yourself and prepare to soar.
High. Very high indeed.
How Green Was My Valley
‘Men like my father cannot die. They are with me still, real in memory as they were in flesh, loving and beloved forever. How green was my valley then.’
This profoundly moving John Ford classic was my first and most emphatic choice. Replete with painterly compositions, uplifting Welsh choral music, childhood memories of a place and time so perfect, yet filled with tragedy, hardship, triumph over adversity and the importance of holding on to the spirit of those we love, it is unquestionably the perfect picture to raise anyone’s spirits and one I’ve seen well over 100 times.
‘If I knew things would no longer be, I would have tried to remember better.’
Barry Levinson’s brilliant, sprawling, autobiographical tale of Eastern European Jewish immigrants in Baltimore charts the value and importance of communication – REAL communication between human beings and the insidious eradication of personal connection in an increasingly impersonal world fraught with the pitfalls of technological advancement.
Bob le Flambeur
‘I was born with an ace in my palm.’
Jean Pierre Melville’s glorious tale of a silver-domed Gallic charmer, an old dog gambler who’s beyond learning new tricks and applies what he knows best – old-school values – to make one last big score. Steeped in romance and atmosphere, the picture allows us to see humanity in all its splendour – its flaws AND its indomitable spirit.
‘I heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.’
This was John Huston’s last film. His perceptive eye, his acute sense of the story’s natural cinematic rhythm and the staggering brilliance of every single performance are enough to commend The Dead to its rightful place as one of the great films of all time. I obviously can’t say this about every movie, but I will about this one – it’s perfect! What’s especially amazing about the movie is that Huston adheres to the literary qualities of James Joyce’s original material and manages to do so in ways that are wholly and supremely cinematic. This is a movie about love – or more pointedly, PASSION. The final third of the movie is without a doubt one of the most exquisitely wrought series of emotionally wrenching scenes you’ll ever experience.
The Enchanted Cottage
‘Do you know what loneliness is, real loneliness?
This movie is insane! Two ugly people residing in the said enchanted cottage eventually fall in love, and within the confines of the cottage, become physically beautiful to each other. They don’t make movies like this anymore. They should. It has more to say about love and the relationship between sexual attraction and physical appearance than most movies I can think of. The picture’s got impeccable direction from ace studio hack John Cromwell plus a script by Herman Mankiewicz (Dinner at Eight, The Pride of the Yankees and – fuck me! – Citizen Kane) and the great RKO scribe DeWitt Bodeen (The Cat People, The Curse of the Cat People, The Seventh Victim and I Remember Mama) and an impeccable quartet of performances from Robert Young, Dorothy McGuire, Mildred Natwick and Herbert Marshall. This is one motherfucker of an inspirational picture!
The Friends of Eddie Coyle
‘I spent most of my life hanging around crummy joints with a buncha punks drinkin’ the beer, eatin’ the hash and the hot dogs and watchin’ the other people go off to Florida while I’m sweatin’ out how I’m gonna pay the plumber. I done time and I stood up but I can’t take no more chances. Next time, it’s gonna be me goin’ to Florida.’
I’ll never forget the first time I saw The Friends of Eddie Coyle as a kid with my ex-cop Dad. It was a movie that stayed with me and haunted me for the 30 or so years since first seeing it. Robert Mitchum delivers his greatest performance as the title character. From Eddie Coyle’s first appearance – heavy-lidded, baggy-eyed, paunchy, world-weary and shuffling with the gait of a once-physically-powerful man now consigned to the throbbing aches of late middle age – we pretty much know he’s doomed. The movie deals unsparingly with the disenfranchised and what leads them to The Life they live. What I’ll never forget was my Dad’s response at the end of the movie. ‘That’s the way it is, kid, that’s just the way it is,’ he said to me, with more than a little sadness in his voice, and with many long years under his belt as a cop, dealing with guys just like Eddie Coyle. Seeing the movie now, Dad’s words still hold true. Only now, as an adult, I see Eddie lumbering through the inevitability of his doom – those same words emblazoned, no doubt, on HIS brain. ‘That’s just the way it is.’ And, yeah, it’s really fucking depressing and not uplifting at all. It is inspiring though to anyone who fought or continues to fight strenuously against ‘the way it is’.
The Ghost and Mrs Muir
‘You must make your own life amongst the living and, whether you meet fair winds or foul, find your own way to harbor in the end.’
From Joseph L. Mankiewicz (All about Eve), this is one great love story! Rex Harrison works overtime etching an irascible and charming sea captain – his body long departed, but his spirit still beating. His final monologue to the sleeping figure of Gene Tierney before traversing back to the spirit world is one of the great show-stopping moments of screen acting. I can’t think of a better movie for people in love to watch together.
Meet John Doe
‘Oh, John, if it’s worth dying for, it’s worth living for.’
One could drop a bunch of Frank Capra titles into a fish bowl, pick one and know – beyond a shadow of a doubt – that it’d be supremely uplifting. That said, it wouldn’t be Meet John Doe. So many of Capra’s pictures shared the ideals Jack Layton stood for, but this one bursts at the seams with them. There’s a strange darkness to the film that’s hinted at in Capra’s other movies, but never fully exposed the way it is here. When an ordinary guy is duped into becoming the public face of a corporate/government campaign that pays surface lip service to the plight of the disenfranchised he manages to bring hope back into the lives of millions of people – real hope! This is a lot more than the Status Quo bargained for. Capra and his brilliant screenwriter Robert Riskin expose the sort of inherently evil machinations used to mute movements designed for the good of all kind. In a sense, their ordinary guy becomes a Frankenstein monster run amuck – fighting for truth, justice and fairness for all. Capra eventually drags us through the film-noir-like mire engineered by the power brokers, but the movie ultimately proves that perseverance will always yield a light at the end of a long, dark tunnel.
Nights of Cabiria
‘There is some justice in the world. You suffer, you go through hell then happiness comes along for everyone.’
Federico Fellini continually explored the notion of redemption via false prophets. And I do not mean Christ, but rather, those within, and most often at the highest levels of any organized faith, who seek to dominate and control by proselytizing distorted teachings to the weakest and most vulnerable of society. Cabiria (Giulietta Masina) is just such an individual and it’s no surprise that even the film’s title states clearly that we are to journey through the Nights of Cabiria. It’s the darkness of night that roots us in a place from where we are allowed to find the light, an idea not far removed from the aforementioned Meet John Doe. This simple tale of a waif-like, almost Chaplinesque figure of innocence (or naïveté) that works the world’s oldest profession to preserve a higher standard of living is ultimately about her search for a state of grace. She looks for love and instead finds redemption. This is a picture guaranteed to have you soaring higher than you ever thought possible. That’s the real greatness of Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria – it allows you the freedom to be weightless within the overwhelming spirit of humanity.
‘There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh. Did you know that that’s all some people have? It isn’t much, but it’s better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan.’
Preston Sturges made many great social comedies about the plight of the poor and working poor, but his crowning glory is still this hilarious, romantic and heartbreaking odyssey of a successful studio director (Joel McCrae) who gets it in his head to stop making celluloid cotton candy (like Ants in Your Pants and Hey-Hey in the HAYLOFT) and devote his energies to making a movie about the plight of the homeless. But first, he needs to divest himself of all comforts. With a dime in his pocket he hits the open road to experience the misery of homelessness and gets far more than he could ever have imagined – including romance with the peek-a-boo-coiffured Veronica Lake. Sturges’s dialogue is still unbeatable. It puts the best contemporary comedy writers to utter shame. His actors spit out their words like machine guns and the overall pace of the movie almost never lets up, and when it does, it’s to deliver wallops of heart-wrenching emotion.
So those were 10 of 50 or so movies I recommended Jack see. Sarah Polley blasted down to Bay Street Video, bought a bunch of movies, painstakingly affixed Post-it Notes to each with the name of whoever recommended it and a brief description of who they were in the movie business. The movies she couldn’t find, she typed up on lists with the names of those who recommended them and Jack’s wife Olivia intended to use Netflix. Sarah placed the movies in a basket, hightailed it down to Jack’s house and left the goods on their front porch.
Jack called Sarah soon after. He left a message on her answering machine. Sarah relayed the following to all of us via email:
‘It meant so much to him that the recommendations came from so many people in our community. He read all your ‘bios’ that accompanied your suggestions and was thrilled.’
A few weeks later, Jack died.
Sarah got a personal note from Olivia. In it, she made reference to the movies:
‘The beautiful film collection kept him company in his final days. They kept him laughing, kept him inspired and kept his spirit up.’
Movies are like that. They really are a great gift to mankind.
Deep down I guess that when I made a list of inspirational movies for Jack, I tried to also think about who he was, what he did and what he represented to so many Canadians. A part of me wanted to select movies that would not only entertain but address issues and themes close to Jack’s heart.
I recently asked Sarah about Jack. She expressed the following sentiments: ‘Jack lifted my spirits time and time again with his tireless efforts on causes that were supremely un-sexy at the time he was championing them – gay rights, homelessness, violence against women, the environment. Every time I see a bike lane or that big wind turbine down by Lake Ontario I think of him. He was also the only person who I felt ever raised the issues of the film and television community eloquently in Parliament. Above all though – I think he redefined what it means to be a public servant. He dedicated most of his life to making this city and this country better and more equal and just. I don’t think I’ll ever meet anyone again who works that hard.’
Out of the ridiculous amount of movies I recommended to Jack via Sarah – one stands out: David Lynch’s The Elephant Man. It’s the story of the hideously deformed John Merrick, who spent much of his life in the late 19th century being abused and exploited until taken under the wing of Dr Frederick Treves. The movie details the unflagging efforts of those who attempt to breathe humanity into this poor man’s life. The end of the film is sad, yet uplifting. Merrick, who could never sleep lying down, as the weight of his head would choke him, spent his nights sitting up. One night, after a seeing a glorious, magical stage production, he retires to his room and decides to remove the pillows from his bed that would buffet him up through the night in order to breathe. He nestles into the bed, takes one last look at his mother’s picture and places his head back to sleep ‘normally’. Lynch creates a series of indelible images to represent Merrick’s final death dream. In it, among glittering stars, Merrick’s long-dead mother appears to him and whispers ever so gently:
‘Never, oh never, nothing shall die.’
I feel the same way about Jack.
NEXT ISSUE: PART TWO of my cinematic tribute to Jack Layton will detail what I did on the day of his state funeral, including a trip to my favourite movie store Sunrise Records, visiting with Vincent Price’s daughter, stalking Hayden Panettiere and a full review of The Complete Jean Vigo, the Criterion Collection Blu-ray I bought that very day and watched in Jack’s honour. It seemed fitting to watch Vigo on the day of Jack’s funeral. Vigo was one of the greatest film artists of all time. His legacy – Zero for Conduct and L’Atalante – both continue to inspire, but he left our good Earth far too early and one can only imagine the greatness to follow.
Just like Jack.
From the Dominion of Canada,
On the northernmost tip of the Bruce Peninsula,
I bid you a hearty:
Colonial Report from the Dominion of Canada (above the 49th Parallel):
Leaving Home: The Maestro of Rimini Meets the Master of Baltimore
Fellini Series a Perfect Climax to the First Year of the Toronto Film Festival’s TIFF Bell Lightbox
To you, my dearest, deviant readers of the Electric Sheep persuasion, please accept 1001 jugs of Canadian maple syrup’ worth of pardons for my falling behind on the regular reportage you’ve come to expect on the state of cinema here in the Colonies. From my fallout shelter at the tip of the Bruce Peninsula in the Dominion of Canada, I can say quite readily that I had myself one major league annus horribilis that beat even an affliction of anus fissurae. A dreadful mishap resulting in a hard drive crash that wiped out several years’ worth of writing (including my book on the art and craft of the screenplay) forced this grown man to retreat into the bush for the solace that can only be provided by blasting a Baikal semi-automatic Russian assault rifle at pesky critters (gotta love the Coyote bounty here in the Colonies) and a few, not-so-pesky critters (like Black Bears) that make for mighty fine eating. Hunting season was good, but poaching season was even better.
Ultimately, it was the opening of TIFF Bell Lightbox at the Toronto International Film Festival (horrendously abbreviated as ‘TIFF’) in the otherwise loathsome city that takes a five-hour drive from my home in North Country, which provided me the necessary post tenebras lux. Being a denizen of rural splendour meant even more rockin’ good news – a full family membership to a year-round film festival cost this redneck-hoser-cineaste only 75 smackers, and even with the price of gas, thanks to those pesky terrorists that our Dominion’s American neighbours are taking good care of, it surely was no skin off my anus (as it were) to blast down south to the metropolis with a few jars of open liquor, a chub of sausage that I won at the Royal Canadian Legion Meat Draw and a firm resolve to dine at the TIFF Lightbox trough of great movies.
Here we are then, almost a full year since the ribbon was cut on this joint located in the heart of Hogtown at that big, old city block now known as Reitman Square. ‘Twas so named after the Canadian movie director Ivan Reitman – who ya’ gonna’ call when you’re needing a big old American studio hit? Simple questions got themselves simple answers: a Canadian, of course.
And what better way can there be to celebrate life in the Colonies, but with a humungous series of movies devoted to an Italian? Not just any Italian, mind you, but the super deluxe pizza adorned with double cheese and Canadian back bacon of Italian movie directors: Federico Fellini. Who says you need a Russian assault rifle when you’ve got yourself a few weeks of the Maestro o’ Movies to put things right again in the world?
So uncork that jug of Donini Red and let’s talk Fellini!!!
The summer of 2011 will surely go down as some kind of a milestone in our fair Dominion with the magnificent TIFF Lightbox exhibition entitled ‘Fellini: Spectacular Obsessions’ – a veritable buffet of movies, photography and all manner of paraphernalia devoted to the boy from Rimini who took the world by storm.
In the Lightbox Gallery (until September 18), a series of very cool explorations of the maestro’s celluloid dreams are on display, organized by the inimitable towering inferno of cinephilia that is the Lightbox directeur artistique Noah Cowan, from an exhibit first curated by Sam Stourdzé and produced by NBC Photography (and including additional support from Cineteca di Bologna and the legendary production designers Dante Ferretti and Francesca Lo Schiavo). We can gaze to our heart’s content at exhibitions focusing on the La Dolce Vita Trevi Fountain sequence, Fellini’s fascination with grotesques and, among other delights, a terrific photographic tribute to Italian tabloid shutterbugs, who were eventually dubbed paparazzi, based of course on the famed character created by Fellini himself.
This is what you do BETWEEN the movies.
Ultimately, given the state-of-the-art cinemas in Lightbox as well as the sort of attention to details of presentation that’s become an almost lost art, it is finally and undoubtedly the MOVIES that matter most.
And what movies they are!
Several Fellini-themed series have already, or will be, unspooling. The most delicious strands are ‘Days of Glory: Masterworks of Italian Neo-Realism’ and the ‘Fellini Dream Double Bills’.
The magnificent Lightbox projectors aim their beams upon post-war Italian cinema in the first series mentioned above. From such luminaries and contemporaries of Fellini as Vittorio De Sica, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Luchino Visconti and Roberto Rossellini we get an excellent array of films that forever changed how pictures were made. The latter series includes a clutch of luscious double bills comprised of one Fellini picture paired with the work of another filmmaker who was influenced by the maestro and either compares or contrasts with his work – all chosen by a mouth-wateringly eclectic mix of motion picture mavens.
For me, it is these double bills that truly tantalize both the taste buds and the gonads. What is Italian cinema, after all, without food and sex?
Among several pairings, Canada’s art-house darling of the Armenian persuasion Atom Egoyan served up a double trouble double bill of 8 1/2 with Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Beware of a Holy Whore.
TIFF topper Piers Handling dove into the deep end of a post-modern peepshow that is Fellini Casanova and Hal Ashby’s Shampoo.
Noah Cowan thrusts us ever so deeply and prodigiously between the firm celluloid buttocks of homoerotic splendour on August 26 with Fellini Satyricon and Derek Jarman’s Sebastiane.
Earth, Fire and Water helmer Deepa Mehta ladles out the delicately spiced curry of Nights of Cabiria and Satyajit Ray’s Devi on August 18.
And lest we forget, on August 28 TIFF dishes out a combo platter of 8 1/2 and cuisinologists Oliver and Bonacini’s sumptuous gourmet Italian meal.
All in all, it’s programming of the highest order.
On August 8, everyone’s favourite From Reverence to Rape gal Molly Haskell tosses a few buckets of cinematic delectability into the trough that is MAN and comes up with a double bill that seems such an obvious pairing – Fellini’s I vitelloni and Barry Levinson’s Diner.
This combination of titles, in its perfect simplicity, speaks to so many levels (all two) of the male psyche. In doing so, both pictures reflect women on a surface level that is finally much deeper than one might expect. By placing men under a microscope – both discovering and displaying a seemingly shallow series of thin layers beneath their rough skin – the films reveal through their respective lenses that it is in fact the women who display a depth far more indelible than the male characters acknowledge and that both movies themselves deliver in terms of literal on-screen time.
In his extremely positive review of Diner, Roger Ebert seemed mildly disappointed with the aspect of character dimension when he wrote, ‘For all that I recognized and sympathized with these young men and their martyred wives, girlfriends, and sex symbols, I never quite believed that they were three-dimensional’. He then immediately appeared to convince even himself as he wrote that this might well be the point: ‘It is, of course, a disturbing possibility that, to the degree these young men denied full personhood to women, they didn’t have three-dimensional personalities.’
One might actually be able to say the same thing about I vitelloni, but then, one would be slightly off base I think. Both Fellini and Levinson spend as much time as possible (and necessary) with the much larger number of male characters as opposed to the women, but still deliver what I think are extremely deep portraits of all concerned.
I think it is all in the details with these two films.
Two films separated by almost 30 years that feel like they were separated at birth; two films that are now respectively 58 and 29 years old and have not dated one bit (in terms of filmmaking technique); two films vibrant, exciting and filled with the sort of detail and nuance one seldom sees in contemporary cinema; two films that speak directly to everyone on so many levels and are so universal that they have stood the test of time and indeed deserve to be called classics of cinema.
One is set in Rimini.
One is set in Baltimore.
It’s BECAUSE the characters are so rich that the stories can play out as brilliantly as they do – two different time periods of their actual production, two similar time periods in terms of where their respective stories unfold – and hit one on a very deep and personal level.
Both movies play like they could have been set – for ME – in Winnipeg.
Others, no doubt, feel like the films could have been set in their own hometown.
In 1939, Sherwood Anderson wrote ‘that man’s real life is lived out there in the imaginative world’ and he furthermore worried that writers were potentially betraying the world of imagination in the lives of all men – that good writing, GREAT writing needed to come from writers finding and then understanding the imagination of reality.
On that level, I believe both Fellini and Levinson have achieved this. They have tapped into reality and used imagination as a springboard towards that thing we all look for in both life and art: truth – and a universal truth, at that.
Two movies. Two directors. Two stories.
In the universal language that is cinema.
‘There is only one great cause for remorse – to have failed to look after one’s own interests.’
â€“ Italo Svevo, Confessions of Zeno
‘The young man’s mind was carried away by his growing passions for dreams… he closed his eyes and… stayed that way for a long time and when he aroused himself and again looked out… the town of Winesburg had disappeared and his life there had become but a background on which to paint the dreams of his manhood.’
â€“ Sherwood Anderson, Winesburg, Ohio
The first time I saw Barry Levinson’s Diner was Friday, October 15, 1982 – first-run in Winnipeg at a north-end suburban twin theatre called the Garden City Cinema, located in the shopping mall a few blocks away from my childhood home. I sat and watched this great picture, consumed (nay, reeling) with emotions, memories and feelings of a distant past, a not-so-distant past and a present that were all reflected in this portrait of male layabouts in a Baltimore of 1959 (my year of birth).
Here was a movie written and directed by someone 17 years my senior, (who himself was only 17 years old when his film was set) with a tale told in a city and time far from my own, and yet everything I witnessed on this first viewing reminded me of those three aforementioned periods of my life.
Where the shopping mall now stood, there used to be vast, open, flat prairies that reached as far north as the shores of Lake Winnipeg (where I and a future filmmaking partner both had summer cottages). The field itself was several hundred acres of an abandoned farm replete with tall grasses, well-worn monkey trails and a long-empty ramshackle house that we’d cycle out to as pre-teens on our banana-seat three-speeds and hang around in as if it were our own private clubhouse.
It wasn’t our own clubhouse, however.
By daring to transgress upon the party house of some early-20-something-want-to-be bikers, we were, at least to our minds, risking our safety within inches of taking our own lives. As terrified as we were of these party-hearty petty criminals on wheels, we also admired and respected them from afar.
These long-haired burly boys – mostly of Eastern European and/or Aboriginal extraction (or a mix of the two) – spent hours hanging in a corner booth at the local diner, the Thunderbird Restaurant (or, as everyone called it, ‘The T-Bird’).
And as we sat there, (not unlike the two generations patronizing Levinson’s diner – the early 20-something layabouts and the 40-something businessmen-cum-gangsters) we talked, and the young men talked.
The T-Bird was home to the Centennial Burger, a three-patty, four-bun monstrosity smothered in chilli sauce from bottom, through middle and finally, on top. The burger itself, respectfully named after the birth of Canadian Confederation, was served up in a cottage cheese container. You were given a knife, fork and spoon to shovel this meaty delight down your gullet.
However, if you ordered the ‘platter’, you got yourself a pile of French fries, which, like all good Canadian boys, you ordered with that special cherry on the ice-cream sundae. Concealed beneath your thick-cut fries was a cosy comforter of oil-slick-thick, brown-coloured savoury gravy. One of the pals I saw Diner with for my first screening had earlier spent the summer in his hometown of Buffalo, New York, and got his first helping of the picture there. He’d been living in Canada for a few years and had come, like any good landed immigrant in our fair Dominion, to appreciate the culinary glories of French fries adorned with globs of rich gravy.
This inspired him to mention to me that the screening of the film with an American audience elicited continued displays of displeasure from the Buffalonian movie-goers. The very notion of fries with gravy was so foreign and distasteful to them that a chorus of ‘eeewwwsss’ accompanied every appearance of this taste treat.
Eventually, in my own life, the distant past turned into the not-so-distant past, and I and my pals from the old neighbourhood found ourselves sitting in our own regular booth at the T-Bird – now adorned in Lumberjack plaid – and the bikers, now full-fledged members of the Los Bravos motorcycle gang, were draped in the colours of their outfit.
And as the bikers sat there, they talked.
And as we sat there, we talked.
When the not-so-distant past transformed to the present (at least in the context of 1982), I had left the Lumberjacks (which we called ourselves – modelled on the Monty Python sketch no less) well behind and now spent endless days in the company of a new group of young men.
There was the English professor from Buffalo, the English professor from Idaho, the boy wonder philosophy professor from the Maritimes, a gaggle of assorted young men (including myself) without ‘real’ jobs, and we sat at the Bar Italia on a tiny Corydon Street strip of Winnipeg’s Little Italy.
Though not one of us was even remotely Italian, we shared one thing with the groups of Italian men surrounding us. We sat around, often at the same table, and we talked.
We called ourselves The Drones.
And indeed, drones we were.
Specifically, we belonged to the human order of social hymenoptera that would be classified as the Lasius niger of the male branch of the Formicidae – our bonds as strong as they were competitive – mating with as many females as were available, but often suffering rejection after a single coupling. Most importantly, and in spite of this, much like the characters in Levinson’s picture, ‘we’d always have the diner’.
One evening at the Bar Italia (our own Fells Point Diner), the formicine banter had been even more fast and furious than usual. It had reached such a crescendo that when the jabbering ceased, we could only do what came naturally at such junctures and sat in silence.
Spent from our discourse, the sound of needles dropping was shattered when our pal, the Boy Wonder Philosophy Professor, offered up the following:
‘You know, I really love you guys. Really. I do. I really, you know, love you.’
We regarded this with the solemnity of deep appreciation and understanding.
The Boy Wonder, waiting for just the right silent cue, continued:
‘Sometimes I wish we could just walk down the street holding hands. You know? Just, you know, holding hands.’
We all understood, and again our silence acknowledged this fact.
‘Even now,’ the Boy Wonder continued, ‘it would be so wonderful if we could just hold hands and give each other kisses when we wanted to.’
We looked at him.
‘It’s nothing sexual,’ he assured us. ‘It’s just an expression of our love for each other.’
We nodded in hearty approval until one of us, my Roommate, a former bank teller and future filmmaker, decided to chime in.
‘I love you too,’ he said, ‘but if we did hold hands and if we did kiss each other, we’d have to eventually go so much further.’
The Boy Wonder arched an eyebrow.
My Roommate clarified his position: ‘We’d eventually have to put our dirty cocks in each other’s mouths.’
As Kurt Vonnegut Jr. would say, ‘And so it goes’.
And so it goes. And so it went, that we found ourselves, every single one of us Drones, sitting together in the Garden City Cinema on October 15, 1982, and watching our life on celluloid.
I had come – we all had come – full circle.
A heaping helping of Fellini’s I vitelloni at the urging of our American English professor friends soon followed this momentous screening of Diner. Home video was still in its infancy at this point so a copy (of this, or anything like it) was impossible to rent. No matter. The Drones delightedly assembled in the living room of Professor Idaho where he unleashed a version of the picture that originated with a rented 16mm public domain print (which had a marginal subtitled translation that was almost impossible to see when the white letters appeared over anything remotely white), then shot off the screen at the university on 3/4″ tape, and dubbed back onto VHS for our viewing pleasure.
The Drones saw many movies in this fashion. Seeing physically degraded versions of great films might – for some – seem a tad sacrilegious, but when great work broke through the barriers of such presentation, you knew you were watching greatness incarnate.
Make no mistake, either.
I vitelloni is not only a great picture, but it’s the grandfather of all layabout male loser pictures.
The haunting images beneath the opening titles finds the maestro’s camera perched from a God-like view upon the winding small town streets of Rimini as a group of men, arm in arm, appear from around a corner while we hear them singing a rousing song, which is quickly drowned out by Nino Rota’s score.
And what a score! It’s sentimental, emotional, jaunty, sad and malevolent – when it needs to be one of those things or a combination of them.
Once the titles finish, we’re perched in a seaside outdoor club where the town has gathered for the crowning of Miss Mermaid of 1953. A celebrity panel has been selected to choose the winner while a scarf-adorned tenor sings on stage.
Here Fellini introduces us to our main characters – in one of the cleanest ways imaginable. So simple and so effective is this introduction that it became an almost de rigueur approach to presenting characters in a film. The camera dollies and/or cuts to each of the vitelloni (translated from Italian to mean either young calves held to be fattened for slaughter and/or idle young men of the provinces) and the narrator introduces each one by name, delivers a brief evocative description and, of course, we get an image that seems to indelibly capture exactly who each one of them is. (Think back on Henry Hill’s introduction to all the gangsters in Scorsese’s Goodfellas – it’s almost a carbon copy of Fellini’s approach.)
And from this point on, we follow the gentle episodic tale of these men in their late 20s and early 30s who refuse to grow up.
There is Alberto (Alberto Sordi), the jovial, unemployed party animal who lives with his mother and sister Olga (Claude Farrel), the latter of whom is supporting the family, but also – much to the dismay of her mother and brother – carrying on with a married man. Leopoldo (Leopoldo Trieste) is the ‘intellectual’ of the bunch, a poet – also unemployed. Soulful Moraldo (Franco Interlenghi) is the youngest of the vitelloni and though unemployed, yearns to have a life beyond the small town. Riccardo (Riccardo Fellini, and yes, the maestro’s real-life brother) has a gorgeous tenor and lives for moments like the Miss Mermaid contest or weddings (when he can sing ‘Ave Maria’ to the delight of all). He is – wait for it, folks – unemployed. And finally, no group can be without a leader, and this duty rests upon the shoulders of the unemployed Fausto (Franco Fabrizi), the stylish, handsome and incurably horny ladies’ man. He’s impregnated Sandra (Eleonora Ruffo), Miss Mermaid of 1953, forced into a shotgun wedding and made to take a job in a religious goods store.
Barry Levinson’s Diner has an equally evocative introduction to its cast of layabout characters. Instead of a formal score, much of the movie is packed with 50s rock and roll and R&B hits – usually used as source. Like I vitelloni, the picture begins during a big social event, but instead of a trilling tenor on the soundtrack we hear the faint strains of ‘Shout’ as Modell (Paul Reiser) makes his way through the hallways and finally into the dance area of a community centre where a kick-ass cover band is doing a rousing interpretation of the great Isley Brothers hit while young couples dance up a storm.
We don’t get an immediate sense of who Modell is – other than the fact that he’s well dressed and seems rather affable. In 1982, most of us didn’t know Paul Reiser, but if one did (or indeed, does know), then we would have had some idea that he was going to be screamingly funny with his trademark deadpan nebbish delivery.
Reiser’s first lines are drowned under the music and all we can faintly hear is that he’s looking for a character called Boogie who, once revealed, is none other than a very young, handsome and stylishly coiffured Mickey Rourke. ‘Nuff said if you know who Mickey Rourke is, but at the time he was a relative unknown.
Boogie, once summoned by Modell, enters a room in the basement of the facility to find Fenwick, a preppily attired little rich boy drunkenly smashing windows. When Rourke asks Fenwick why he’s behaving so erratically, Fen responds with a goofy grin and a singsong lilt in his voice, ‘It’s a smile’.
Fenwick is also played by a relative unknown (at the time), Kevin Bacon, perfectly cast as the perpetual fuck-up with a heart of gold.
We’re briefly introduced to the other members of the Baltimore layabouts upstairs at the dance, but the manner in which Levinson chooses to do this gives us even more insight into the characters.
It’s seemingly in opposition to how Fellini does it in I vitelloni, but is in actuality very similar, the only real difference being that the sequence is rooted in a completely different culture.
I vitelloni offers up a group of layabouts in an old Italian town in the provinces where people mostly walk to get to and fro. Diner, on the other hand, is American as all get out. This is a Baltimore suburb where everybody has a humungous Detroit City gas pig to get from place to place and once we’re out of the dancehall, we get a fantastic cut to a wide shot of a veritable convoy of stylish vehicles making their way along a rural side road as we hear Jerry Lee Lewis belting out ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On’ through each car’s respective tinny radio speakers.
Levinson places his camera inside each of the cars and we get snippets of his crackling dialogue, which paints perfect bite-sized portraits of each character in a few lines.
Modell is in the passenger seat as Boogie drives. At this point, we’ve already been given a fair bit of information about Boogie from the dancehall scenes. Boogie’s a bit older than the rest, a real charmer, semi-street-wise and as such, looked upon as a sage. So here we get Boogie driving while Modell gives us a hint of the hilarity to come when Reiser delivers the hilarious mini-monologue in which he describes why ‘nuance’ is not as good a word as ‘gesture’. Rourke’s deadpan reaction to this is as priceless and funny as Reiser’s delivery.
When Levinson settles inside Shrevie’s (Daniel Stern) car, his wife Beth (Ellen Barkin) at his side, we know immediately that this is not the happiest of marriages. The couple is cordial on the surface, but there’s a huge distance between them. Beth discusses the upcoming marriage plans between Eddie (Steve Guttenberg, whom we have met very briefly at the dancehall) and his fiancée.
Beth expresses shock that Eddie is insisting that the bridesmaids wear blue and white in homage to the Baltimore Colts football team. Shrevie couldn’t care less. He jokes it’s a good thing Eddie didn’t insist upon black and gold, the colours of the Colts’ arch-rivals the Pittsburgh Steelers. Beth clearly fails to see the humour.
With this exchange Levinson deftly provides a huge piece of the puzzle to our film’s primary layabout Eddie – and let me stress, we have barely seen Eddie. To this point, he might as well be a background player. When we finally meet Eddie, we’re brilliantly primed to understand his impending nuptial trepidation and completely swallow the fact that he’s designed an extremely tough football quiz his fiancée must pass for the wedding to actually go through.
This, of course, becomes one of the central issues dividing the men and women of both Diner and I vitelloni – communication (or lack thereof) between the sexes. In both films, the men – in spite of occasional differences – have one another. They have common ground, which is, ultimately, conversation – communication.
It is just not so with the women, who in both films are relegated to the sidelines. In I vitelloni, when Fausto and Sandra return from their honeymoon in Rome, she keeps trying to get in a word edgewise about their experiences there. She is ignored by the other men, and it is Fausto who blusters in and carries the conversation about their exploits. In Diner, when Shrevie and Beth exit the movie house where they’ve just seen A Summer Place, Beth looks at the one-sheet displayed out front and tries to make conversation – pointing out that the writer of this Troy Donahue epic was the same person who wrote The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit. Shrevie looks longingly at his buddies. Beth keeps talking. Shrevie keeps not listening.
The ultimate explosion in this communication divide comes during the now-famous scene where Shrevie furiously chastises Beth for incorrectly filing his vinyl collection. He yells at her while hurling invectives. He berates and calls her stupid for putting James Brown under the ‘J’ section and even more viciously/stupidly displays total incredulity that she’s filed James Brown in the rock and roll category instead of R & B.
When Sandra in I vitelloni finds out that Fausto has been fired from his job for making an inappropriate pass at his boss’s wife, her face is, at first, frozen in a state of disbelief, and it is only when Fausto dons his pathetic please-let-me-explain hang-dog that actress Eleonora Ruffo transforms before our eyes and displays a hurt so deep, so utterly heartbreaking, that Fellini’s decision to have her bolt from the room at the precise moment she does comes as a relief to both the audience and, to a certain extent, to Fausto.
In Diner, when Beth asks Shrevie why he yells at her all the time, his response remains centred on HIS needs. Barkin, like Ruffo, transforms her face into such a pitiful expression of pain we almost want to punch him. Shrevie’s especially idiotic response is that his filing system represents his true passion – music. He further berates her for never asking him ‘what’s on the flipside’ of his collection of hit 45rpm vinyl.
Beth responds even more pointedly, asking Shrevie if he ever yells at his friends the way he yells at her. (OK, guys reading this – ‘fess up! How many of you have heard this question from a woman you love? Be honest now!)
His flustered comeback could almost be touching when he whines that music helps him remember important events in his life and that the first time he met Beth, Clarence Henry’s ‘Ain’t Got No Home’ was playing.
With both movies, Levinson and Fellini always make sure to temper the drama to relieve the pain somewhat and importantly, to reveal humanity in their characters and situations. They do this through humour, of course.
Shrevie, upon blasting out of the house after his argument with Beth, is found at the top of a great cut behind the wheel of his car singing along to ‘Ain’t Got No Home’ as Clarence Henry’s screeching falsetto (along with Daniel Stern’s hilarious mimicry of it) fills the soundtrack.
Fellini delivers one lollapalooza of laughs after another in the scenes following two genuinely harrowing dramatic sequences. Coming home after yet another infidelity, the stench of sex with another woman all over his fingers, Fausto puts on a happy face when he sees Sandra in bed with their new-born baby. When he reaches out to caress little Moraldino, Sandra defiantly refuses to let him do so. The next morning, she takes the baby and leaves Fausto.
Fellini outdoes himself here. Fausto, for the first time, is genuinely disgusted with himself – even more so as he begins a frantic, futile search for Sandra. With each scene in this sequence, Fellini charts an unforgettable, believable and thoroughly earned (in a dramatic context) transformation in Fausto’s character. Shot by shot, cut by cut, we not only see increasing fear, but a realization of how much he truly loves Sandra. And no offence intended, but actress Eleonora Ruffo is such a mind-numbingly gorgeous babe and the character she etches is so loveable that it’s yet another reminder of how in the movies, as in life, men are especially susceptible to not seeing what’s in front of them until they’re threatened with losing it.
For once, we experience genuine heartbreak associated with Fausto’s character. Granted, it also reflects upon and reminds us of Sandra’s heartbreak, but in so doing, it serves to make his fear and regret all the more harrowing.
Ah, but maestro Fellini won’t drag us through the muck forever. He follows this up with the now famous and much loved scene where Alberto gives the roadside workers an ‘up yours’ gesture and a big raspberry fart bleat as his vehicle passes them. He furthermore yells out what losers they are for actually working – triumphant in his ‘victory’ until the vehicle breaks down a few feet away from the burly hard-hats.
As if this wasn’t enough of a knee-slapper, Fellini follows this up with an even more hilarious scene where Fausto gets what’s coming to him. Suffice to say he receives something that’s both humiliatingly funny and completely, utterly deserved.
Both movies are infused with obvious autobiographical elements as well as the qualities of neo-realism. That said, both filmmakers move well beyond these fundamentals of great cinematic storytelling.
Fellini, for example, actually left Rimini at the age of 19 and was not so much a vitellone as a great admirer of the vitelloni in his hometown. In terms of the neo-realist qualities of both pictures, it is true they shot on actual locations – often with ‘real’ people as opposed to ‘just’ actors. Fellini, however, hardly shot in Rimini since Alberto Sordi determined the entire production schedule and locations were often chosen based upon what part of Italy Sordi was playing in on a live theatre tour. Most tellingly, Levinson shot in his hometown of Baltimore, but his beloved Fells Point Diner had to be recreated by a company that actually specialized in designing, building and providing period diners to entrepreneurs wishing to set up such businesses for themselves.
There is also no question that Fellini and Levinson were blessed with phenomenal ensemble actors who behave like they’ve been genuine friends for years. Levinson has a foot up in one aspect of the filmmaking process – at least to English-speaking viewers. Levinson’s dialogue teems with life and vibrancy. The diner conversations are so funny, so true, that most audiences (of both sexes – though I’d argue, especially men) are completely swept away with the words on the page and how brilliantly the actors capture them. As I don’t speak Italian, I can’t completely vouch for Fellini’s words on the page. While I vitelloni has a new and seemingly better subtitled translation, nuance in dialogue is harder to ascertain. Thankfully, his astounding actors always keep one’s eyes glued to the screen and the rhythms of the dialogue always feel spot on.
In a strange way, I do think Fellini (and his co-writers) delivers a script that manages to provide female characters that are more rounded than Levinson’s are. The beleaguered Sandra finally comes alive in ways that Beth can’t, given certain structural differences rooted in themes that are unique, I think, to the Italian, as opposed to the American, experience.
Given the matriarchal power of women in an Italian Catholic context, which subtly overtakes patriarchy in ways that the men are utterly incapable of dealing with, Sandra does indeed have a whole lot of ‘fight’ in her and it’s that fight that gives Fausto the biggest boner of his life.
Within the melting pot context of post-war America, women as objects, as trophies, as property, always seemed to supersede any fight they try to display (at least within a dramatic context in films from or about this period). On the eve of his wedding, Eddie is terrified he’s ‘gonna be missing out on a lotta things’, and this feeling is buoyed when one of his pals asserts, ‘that’s what marriage is all about’. The mother/whore syndrome seems even stronger within an American context than the Italian one.
After an especially joyous scene at a strip club, Eddie goes for coffee with one of the strippers. His heart-to-heart with her is perhaps one of the most poignant scenes in Diner. The stripper expresses how she longed for marriage, but that it just never seemed to work out. In spite of (or maybe because of) this, she’s the bearer of the most sage advice of all. She asks Eddie if he loves his wife-to-be. He replies that he’s ‘told’ her repeatedly how much he loves her. The stripper’s response caps everything perfectly. ‘Yeah,’ she says, ‘but did you ever show her how much you love her?’
Even still, Levinson continues with a clear choice he’s made from the beginning. We never see Eddie’s fiancée, and even in the haunting and extremely moving scene near the end of the movie where she tosses the bouquet of flowers, we do not see her face. Compared to the fellowship of men who never want to grow up, women, it seems, are almost always faceless.
It’s a brave and powerful move on Levinson’s part to make this dramatic choice.
Finally, where I vitelloni and Diner truly deliver the goods is in their final moments of happiness, joy and melancholy – none of which are falsely tacked on, but genuinely earned. Reconciliation and love play a huge role in both movies and both make one soar at the end in ways that only movies can.
Fellini does, perhaps, have a slight edge over Levinson here. The restless, sensitive Moraldo in I vitelloni is, almost from the start of the picture, a character who both loves his aimless life and buddies, but yearns for, and wonders if there could be, something more.
When Moraldo finally boards the train to leave everything behind, he looks out at his home as it passes by. What Fellini shows us from Moraldo’s perspective is a series of images, which in the context of I vitelloni both breaks our hearts and lifts us to the heavens all at once.
Moraldo, like the young man at the end of Sherwood Anderson’s great piece of 20th-century American literature, Winesburg, Ohio – like Fellini, like Levinson and yes, like the Drones and all such young men the world over – looks from the passing train as his hometown disappears.
What remains is all that possibly can remain.
‘His life there had become but a background on which to paint the dreams of his manhood.’
From the Dominion of Canada,
On the northernmost tip of the Bruce Peninsula,
I bid you a hearty:
Colonial Report from the Dominion of Canada (above the 49th Parallel):
Autumn in the Dominion of Canada Yields Bounty from India:
A Conversation with Aamir Bashir, the director of Autumn – Part One: The Political Context of Kashmir, Personal Beginnings of Aamir Bashir, Movies and Mohawk Cigarettes
Taking a break from boozing, hunting, trapping, fishing and fighting with my manly buds in the bush up here on the northernmost tip of the Bruce Peninsula in the outer regions of the glorious Dominion of Canada, I sallied forth in early September to the normally cold, creepy and empty concrete wasteland of Hogtown to partake in the 2010 edition of the Toronto International Film Festival (bearing that truly unfortunate acronym TIFF) whereupon I saw 36 movies, hustled some new properties, caroused with old friends I only see on the festival circuit, filed numerous reviews, missed a party I wanted to attend because I had stupid electrical problems with my car, and in spite of this, still managed to attend more parties than I cared to (and not one on par with those held at the Tobermory Royal Canadian Legion Hall – all north country festivities driven by the inimitable thump-thump-thumpety-thumping of the illustrious DJ Scubalicious).
Inevitably though, one can only hack so much clean country living while staring at endless Blu-rays in the cottage (now newly equipped with a glorious off-grid solar electric system fulfilling my wife’s need for green living and my need for libertarianism), a red-blooded fella’ such as myself ultimately desires total immersion in cinema.
In spite of my ire over TIFF’s boneheaded decision not to show Monte Hellman’s new picture Road to Nowhere, which premiered in Venice (where it garnered a Lifetime Achievement Award for the fiercely independent auteur), but apparently wasn’t good enough to screen in the city of Smugly Fucklings, there were plenty of fine movies to see in the festival’s new stomping grounds in the financial district of the aforementioned cold, creepy and empty concrete wasteland of Hogtown.
In addition to the festival’s pilfering of south Toronto’s majestic-mega-multiplexes to unspool their wares, we were blessed with the arrival of the new festival headquarters known as Lightbox (please note I refuse to mention the corporate sponsor that demands its name preface the otherwise deliciously named venue). An architectural nightmare from the outside (fitting in ever so blandly with the rather ugly financial district), it sports a spectacular environment within, chockfull of several magnificent state-of-the-art auditoriums that will be devoted to cinema of the highest order all year round (in addition to TIFF itself).
* * *
One of the best movies I saw at TIFF was Autumn (Harud), an exquisite independent film from India by Aamir Bashir. The picture’s world premiere was in Toronto and will continue its festival run during The London Film Festival in the UK, Rotterdam and, no doubt, other fine venues of world cinema. This is a picture that totally caught me off guard – it is measured, delicate and replete with the sort of observational details that could have descended into ass-numbing pretension – especially in less assured hands (and frankly, even in those that should know better).
Autumn screens at the London Film Festival on October 19 and 20. For more information go to the LFF website.
Set in the Kashmir province on the northernmost tip of India (I think I’ve got an obsession with northernmost tips), Autumn tells the tale of those who live amid violence, terrorism and poverty, with only a bleak future ahead of them. After an unsuccessful try at militancy following the disappearance of his brother, the film’s central character Rafiq (Shahnawaz Bhat) exists in a perpetual walking cat-nap, alternately loafing with his friends and working a dead-end job (morning newspaper delivery). Life for Rafiq moves slowly and is punctuated only by bursts of violence around him. Through the course of the film, scattered gunshots are heard, bombs go off and at one point, he and his buddies discover a man on the verge of dying with a gaping bullet wound to the belly (which eventually leads Rafiq to a slightly better job).
Though haunted by his brother’s disappearance, Rafiq wishes to move on. There is the overwhelming feeling of the inevitable – that his brother has been kidnapped by the security forces and/or killed, and certainly, Rafiq seems to accept this, though his parents refuse to believe their eldest son is dead. This cloud of non-acceptance hangs heavily over their home. At one point, Rafiq’s father Jusuf (Reza Naji) suffers a nervous breakdown – adding more strife and tragedy to a situation foreign to most of us in the West, but a matter of course in so many other parts of the world.
Films such as this have been extremely prevalent during the past 20 years – especially so in the new millennium, but seldom have these works transcended their subject matter the way Autumn does. (Good subject matter tends to blind the eyes of people who should know better. They will often extol a film’s virtues based solely on what the picture is about, ignoring the style and craft, which can frequently be run-of-the-mill at best.)
With Autumn, director Aamir Bashir unflinchingly presents a world where death, destruction and corruption are endless – an eternal plodding state of aimlessness and despair. Life is cheap and can end very quickly. Our filmmaker captures this eloquently through a camera-eye that seldom moves and reflects the day-to-day mundane activities of Rafiq as if the very act of living feels like an eternity – like death itself.
Shots will often hold longer than audiences might be used to, but the detail and observation within these shots is so exquisite that we experience a highly evocative portrait of a life lived merely for the sake of survival. This is NEVER boring – it is the stuff of great drama – etched with the kind of command one usually experiences in the work of such masters as Yasujiro Ozu, Satyajit Ray or Carl Dreyer, but almost never in the work of young, contemporary filmmakers.
Scroll down for the full review of Autumn.
Needless to say, when I reviewed the film for Daily Film Dose, I received plenty of responses from those who immediately wished to see the film, but the note I received that truly excited me was from Courtney Goldman, one of my filmmakers in the Editing Lab at ‘Uncle’ Norman Jewison’s Canadian Film Centre (where I continue to preside as the Senior Creative Consultant in the Film Department after stepping away from a 12-year-long stint as the Producer-in-Residence in order to continue making my own films, after an admittedly lengthy hiatus). Courtney had already seen Autumn, loved it and very much appreciated the review – always an extra special treat for me when it comes from one of my charges, but where I immediately got that extra special gooseflesh was when she mentioned her personal acquaintance with the filmmakers.
I knew immediately that Aamir Bashir was someone I wanted to meet and write more about. Given the film’s title, it was only appropriate we finally met on a crisp fall day with typically overcast Toronto skies (which are overcast with smog when clouds are not present).
Armed with Hogtown’s best coffee from the Cherry Bomb Café in the Parkdale district, I bundled Aamir and his partner Shanker Raman into my pathetic gas-efficient Toyota Yaris (oh how I miss my gas-piggish 1976 lime green Pontiac Laurentian) and drove to the leafy enclave of High Park.
We settled under a picnic canopy and started to talk.
Greg Klymkiw: One of the things I find about cinema over all the other art forms is that because technology, industry and commerce are so inextricably linked to the art, and because it’s essentially an art of the 20th century and now the 21st, the advancements, technologically and otherwise, have been so rapid there are certain vocabularies of cinematic storytelling that filmmakers have barely scratched the surface of and…
Aamir Bashir: …and moved on.
Yes, and that’s always driven me a little crazy because in actuality, it’s not the ‘moving on’ that’s the real problem, but the…
…the ‘leaving behind’.
Yes, the forgetting of certain techniques. It’s so unfortunate.
Your film, of course, has a very unique style by contemporary standards and yet it has a vocabulary that used to be fairly common that blends with current approaches and in so doing is something very new and unto itself. Now I’d like to start with your background. You were born in Kashmir?
I was born in Kashmir and I spent my early schooling life there and in summer 1990 left to study history at St Stephen’s College. That sort of coincided with the beginning of the insurgency in the late 1980s.
[After an ongoing series of border disputes and several rigged elections, an insurgency began to fight Indian rule. India accused Pakistan of instigating and training mujahideen, an Arabic word meaning strugglers or those strugglers who will do jihad which, in turn, refers to struggling with internal faith, struggling to uphold Muslim ideals and within the controversial context of interpretation, participating in Holy War. The results of the insurgency have been thousands of ‘disappearances’, deaths and ‘terrorist’ attacks.]
You obviously have a perspective on your world before and after the insurgency and I’m curious about what it was like growing up in the pre-insurgency years – as a kid in Kashmir. What were some of the highlights of your life there at that time?
It was pretty idyllic. Kashmir is a beautiful place, especially the access to nature – you just have to drive an hour in any direction to find it. My school was heavy into nature activities, so there were always summer camps and skiing in winter, swimming and regattas and lots of outdoor activities throughout the year. My uncle, who I dedicated the film to, was a journalist who owned his own daily newspaper called Aina (‘the Mirror’), which he edited and published. So from a very young age, I was exposed to the politics of the place. My uncle was only 45 years of age when he died, almost homeless. He was evicted from his house by the government on the pretext that his uncle who had migrated to Pakistan gave the house he was living in to him. They have a law that when someone evacuates their home, the state custodian takes it over.
[For a variety of reasons, Bashir’s late uncle, Shamim Ahmed Shamim, didn’t exactly endear himself to the state.]
He started his political career with the most powerful party in Kashmir at that time, which is still the ruling party today, the National Conference. My uncle was a protégé of Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah, who was also called Sher-e-Kashmir or the Lion of Kashmir. He was the Prime Minister of Kashmir, which was an autonomous region. After starting his career with the National Conference party, my uncle gradually rebelled and became an anti-establishment figure. His writing, his editorials – he was a lone voice against them.
[Shamin Ahmed Shamin, in a 1969 Aina personality profile, wrote the following about Sher-e-Kashmir: ‘Was Sheikh Abdullah a successful politician? There can be more than one opinion about it. Was Sheikh Abdullah a good man? This is a moot question. One thing beyond dispute is his patriotism. He loved Kashmir to distraction. He could sacrifice the world’s kingdoms for the sake of Kashmir. His entire life has been an expression of this love. It is for the sake of this unfathomable love for Kashmir that Kashmiris turn a blind eye to his faults and see only his virtues.’]
In that sense even at a young age I was politically aware and I do remember local governments falling due to the machinations of the Union government – coalitions wanting this or that and not getting it. Cinema played an important part in the insurgency. Lion of the Desert is considered as a catalyst for the insurgency. This was the only film in English that ran – four shows a day for months. Normally, English-language films would only play twice a day and the rest of the screen time was taken up with Bollywood titles. Lion of the Desert, though, proved so popular it took Kashmir by storm, and soon you started hearing audience members shouting out political slogans during the shows while it was playing.
[Lion of the Desert is the epic war film from the 80s starring Anthony Quinn and Oliver Reed that depicted the exploits of Arab Muslim leader Omar Mukhtar and his fierce battles waged during World War I when Libya was conquered by the Italians who, for their part, ruthlessly and brutally subjugated the peoples of Libya. Substantially financed by Libyan ruler/dictator Muammar Gaddafi, the picture was directed by Moustapha Akkad, best known as the producer who bankrolled John Carpenter’s Halloween and presided over all the sequels in the franchise. I recalled enjoying Lion of the Desert when I first saw it in the 80s. Watching it again recently, I have to admit the picture kicks major ass. Akkad directs with passion, the battle sequences in particular are phenomenal and more than make up for some of the clunky dialogue sequences. The picture even presents an Islamic point of view that is extremely convincing and heartfelt. The sad irony is that Akkad was killed in a Jordan hotel targeted by a suicide bomber.]
And what place did religion play in your childhood?
As far as religion is concerned, I grew up in a fairly liberal atmosphere at home. Also, the neighbourhood I grew up in was not only mixed but fairly cosmopolitan by small-town Kashmiri standards – comprising journalists and civil servants from other parts of India. The only time I remember my mother insisting that I offer my prayers was when my uncle [Shamin Ahmed Shamin], her brother, was dying of cancer. Those prayers – all prayers at home were in the Muslim tradition – went unanswered. Besides, going to a Christian missionary school, the oldest educational institution in Kashmir, and getting a daily dose of stories from the New Testament, made sure that I had a fairly religious upbringing, which of course was instantly negated by a Western, rationalist education. All in all, it was fairly confusing and more than enough to keep me away from religion.
Your uncle’s literary militancy aside, much of the pre-insurgency life seems, as you already said, so idyllic.
Kashmiris were for a long time not considered a volatile bunch of people. I remember whenever small troubles took place, one policeman with a bamboo stick used to control a crowd. From there to what it is now, it is quite a transformation. Even when the insurgency began, Kashmiris used to say that the Kashmiri militant is not really a revolutionary because all you needed to do was deliver one slap during interrogation and the Kashmiri militant would vomit everything – ‘I didn’t do anything!’ This is the joke within the Kashmiris. We were never hardcore.
One thing I’ve always been interested in is the notion of colonisation. Canada, of course, was a colony of Britain. In fact, because of the Commonwealth, we’re really still beholden to the Crown – so much so that I wanted, from the beginning, to call my film column for Electric Sheep, which is UK-based, ‘The Colonial Report from the Dominion of Canada’. I have benign childhood memories of the idea of living in a ‘Dominion’ and certainly as a child with Eastern European immigrant grandparents, I heard stories of Anglo-inflicted racism. Even my dad, who was born in Canada, would refer to Anglo-Canadians with a bit of a sneer as ‘The’ English. Not just English, but the English, so even he felt this dominance of Britain. And of course, all of this is incredibly benign given the utter horrors perpetrated upon Canada’s aboriginal peoples by British colonisation. What are your thoughts on colonisation?
Well, the idea of India only happened during the British time. It was never one single unit or one single nation – it was a bunch of trading zones brought together by the British, so in that sense, we owe the idea of India to the British. That’s why Gandhi, when he was fighting for independence, was trying to delay it for a while because, according to him, the people, this so-called nation, was not ready to be an independent nation. As for our experience, I went to Christian school founded by Cambridge priests, all our judicial and bureaucratic institutions are British, our railways were set up by the British, so it’s all there – it’s all there.
But what has happened now – at present – is that India itself is behaving like a colonial power with its own people. That is happening not just in Kashmir, but also in seven individual states in the northeast and across the Red Corridor, or the tribal belt of India, which goes from Central South India all the way up to Eastern India. Along this belt, tribal peoples live in mostly forest land and have been labelled ‘Maoists’. Of course, leftist guerrilla groups support them, and it’s probably an even bigger problem than Kashmir is right now, but it’s just that the media highlights or wants to club Kashmir with this ‘bad’ Islamic problem across the world.
Here, in this Red Corridor, it’s even more colonial than ideological because big industry along with the state wants to go in there and rape, pillage and plunder whatever they can – these beautiful forests that mining companies and others want to destroy are one thing, but the people living there will be displaced. The government brazenly wants them to change their lifestyles, they want to move them into concrete buildings and give them television sets. Local police officers and people who are in charge of security say, ‘All we need to do is give them TV sets’. They just become consumers themselves because they’re not dependent on the forest anymore.
So India is actually a colonial power itself and it scares me. It’s a scary place and of course, the west is backslapping India as an ’emerging power’, ‘an economic power’ and all that. The whole middle class has bought this idea that these tribal peoples, these ‘Maoists’, or Kashmir, are an obstruction to our progress – that if these people in Kashmir will just get jobs there will be no problem.
[At this point in our conversation, I was reminded of Bashir’s depiction in Autumn of all the disenfranchised young men in Kashmir – with no future, no motivation, dead-end jobs if jobs at all – a world where jihad seems like the only way to break free of colonial repression and domination and my mind shifts back to… cinema.]
When did you fall in love with movies? Was it gradual? Was there one epiphany or several?
In the early 1970s, in our neighbourhood there was one TV set – it was state-run television – and whether the movies were colour or black and white, the TV set itself was black and white, so that is how we would watch them. Everyone would descend upon this one household that had the TV on Sundays and watch this movie in the living room. Everybody’s there – a sea of slippers outside, everybody’s sitting down and there’s literally no room to walk, or step or stand. I must have been four or five years old at that time…
And what type of films were they?
Most of the films were Hindi. They were mushy and romantic and all the kids would cry, thinking about the ‘poor mother’, the ‘poor kid’ or whatever was happening on the screen. And that was one experience. That was my introduction to cinema. But when I was 14 or 15, that’s when the VCR came.
The VCR exposed me to a whole new world of movies. That’s when my parents, during one winter, went for a holiday, and I had to stay back home to prepare for an important exam coming up. They gave me a little bit of money for groceries and I remember spending almost all of that money on movies and not on Hindi films, but Hollywood and English-language movies from The Godfather to Ryan’s Daughter to Taxi Driver to British sex comedies – everything! I must have seen over 200 movies that one winter.
So the VCR was the explosion for you?
I’m just trying to place this in context since I’ve got at least 12 to 15 years on you and whenever I meet filmmakers from slightly earlier generations, it’s that whole Tarantino thing of watching movies on VHS. My own epiphanies with all of the same pictures happened on a big screen.
Oh yes, I did have the experience of seeing many movies on the big screen as well because my uncle had press passes and I got to see movies in a special press box separated from the rest of the audience. The movies in the theatres though were almost always Bollywood, so it was truly the VCR that I consider as being the most significant period for me – when my view of storytelling, how to tell a story, changed. Of course, there were a few English-language movies I would see on a big screen. I remember watching The Blue Lagoon. When I came out of the theatre, my physical education teacher from school was there and he was like, ‘What are you doing here?’ And yes, I guess I would occasionally sneak out in the evenings to see English movies on my own, but one movie I remember going to see on a big screen was Kramer vs Kramer, with my parents.
Of course, and the stuff you watched on VHS was probably a lot cooler than the English-language stuff you saw on a big screen.
My dad used to take me to see a lot of cool movies on a big screen – many of which would have been considered inappropriate for children to see, and I can tell you my life certainly changed when he took me to see The Wild Bunch when I was about 9 years old. On a big screen no less!
I need to see Lion of the Desert again.
Actually, forget about Lion of the Desert. If any picture inspires and galvanises people in India, it’s Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi.
A big-screen picture for sure.
Yes, but one that plays every year on television and is screened reverently by everyone…
So, after that point at which you discovered a new way of telling stories and you went to St Stephen’s to study history, was there any plan at that time to get involved in movies?
Oh no, no plan to do that at all. In fact, there was no plan at all.
That sounds familiar – my entire early 20s were basically no plan – other than slacking and doing cool shit I enjoyed doing. Say, do you mind if I have a cigarette?
Please do. Would you mind if I tried one of yours?
Oh yes, my pleasure. I’m smoking these fabulous All-Natural Natives that I get from one of the Mohawk reservations in Buffalo. I even occasionally get them in Toronto from a Vietnamese mob source. I can also get Canadian brands manufactured by our Aboriginal brothers on Indian land up north. I prefer the American ones, though. They have fewer additives.
[By this point, we light up the full-flavour cigarettes and begin puffing away.]
The thing with the Mohawks is that they came to this point where they said, ‘Fuck it! Our people like to smoke, but the White Man is poisoning us, so let’s make our own cigarettes.’
[We both share hearty laughs over this and begin coughing.]
Of course, these will kill us too.
I don’t like the cigarettes from America, the Marlboros and all those. They don’t taste right to me.
What do you think of these?
Oh, very nice.
An old acquaintance of mine, Camelia Frieberg, the producer of Atom Egoyan’s really great early work, used to smoke Bidis. She got me hooked on them for a long time. Are those still popular?
Just with old hippies now?
Yeah, old leftist intellectuals.
[End of Part One]
Next month, we will continue the discussion with Aamir Bashir and focus on his acting career in Bollywood, his collaboration with co-producer, co-editor, co-writer and director of photography Shanker Raman – who will also join the conversation – and last, but not least, the development and making of Autumn and the unique pacing of the film.
Note: The above piece included some plot summary used in my original review published at Daily Film Dose during the Toronto International Film Festival.
To coincide with the film’s European Premiere at the London International Film Festival, I am now republishing my Daily Film Dose review in its entirety:
Autumn (2010) dir. Aamir Bashir
Starring: Shahnawaz Bhat, Reza Naji
The proper pacing of a movie can be a seemingly amorphous goal for many filmmakers. The whole problem, I think, is in the notion of whether something is too slow or not fast enough and what precisely defines and contributes to an audience detecting, then reacting to a picture when it lugubriously shuffles along. That said, and where the confusion can come in, is when even a break-neck speed in terms of cuts, movement and/or line delivery contributes immeasurably to creating a dragging effect. Audiences (and I’d argue most reviewers) aren’t always aware that it’s a supersonic speed that, more often than not, induces boredom and/or sore sphincters.
I have often tarred and feathered the cinematic output of Iran (and recently added Kyrgyzstan to my ass-numbing-by-country list), but of course, it has less to do with my desire to be obnoxious than with the fact that there ARE rules to the grammar of cinema – the biggest being that a filmmaker must ALWAYS be serving the story and its forward movement, and furthermore, serving the dramatic beats in a style and manner that hammer them home the best.
Autumn is a stunning new film from India that, for the most part, is snail-paced, but in spite of this, I cannot recall a single moment when my mind wandered or when my eye strayed to my iPhone to check email. My eyes were super-glued to the screen. I couldn’t take my precious asymmetrical globes off the picture if I tried. Part of this is director Aamir Bashir’s desire to tell his story in a manner in which it’s all important for us to experience the minute by minute, hour by hour, day in and day out, emptiness in the lives of Kashmir’s young men.
Living amid violence, terrorism and poverty, and with only a bleak future ahead of him, our central character Rafiq (Shahnawaz Bhat), after an unsuccessful try at militancy following the disappearance of his brother, exists in a perpetual walking cat-nap, alternately loafing with his friends and working a dead-end job (morning newspaper delivery). Life for Rafiq moves slowly and is punctuated only by bursts of violence around him. Through the course of the film, scattered gunshots are heard, bombs go off and at one point, he and his buddies find a man on the verge of dying with a gaping bullet wound to the belly (which eventually leads Rafiq to a slightly better job).
Though haunted by his brother’s disappearance, Rafiq wishes to move on. There is the overwhelming feeling of the inevitable – that his brother has been kidnapped by the security forces and/or killed, and certainly, Rafiq seems to accept this, but his parents refuse to believe their eldest son is dead. This cloud of non-acceptance hangs over their home like a heavy, dark cloud. At one point, Rafiq’s father Jusuf (Reza Naji) suffers a nervous breakdown – adding more strife and tragedy to a situation foreign to most of us in the West, but a matter of course in so many other parts of the world.
This is the story of a world where death, destruction and corruption are endless and by extension, while life is cheap and can end very quickly, while it goes on, it seems to be an endless, plodding state of aimlessness and despair.
Director Bashir captures this eloquently through a camera-eye that seldom moves and captures the day-to-day mundane activities of Rafiq – it’s as if the very act of living feels like an eternity – like death itself. Shots will often hold longer than audiences might be used to, but the detail and observation within these shots is so exquisite that we experience a highly evocative portrait of a life lived merely for the sake of survival. This is NEVER boring – it is the stuff of great drama – etched with the kind of command one usually experiences in the work of such masters as Yasujiro Ozu, Satyajit Ray or Carl Dreyer, but almost never in the work of young, contemporary filmmakers. Bashir is, by trade, an actor, but I sincerely hope he continues to find subject matter that inspires him as much as that on display in Autumn so he can give up his ‘day job’ and dazzle us again and again with his astounding command of cinematic storytelling.
This is a story that DEMANDS a measured pace. The picture is almost neorealist in extremis and there is little by way of overt lyricism – save for the few lyrical moments in the lives of the characters; most notably when Rafiq’s chum sings a haunting song as the young men laze about under the autumn sky and the lads encourage him to enter a television variety show for amateurs with talent and, most importantly, when Rafiq becomes drawn to taking photographs using his late brother’s camera. The pace is what PRECISELY allows for small moments like these to take on almost mythic proportions within the narrative itself.
Too many art and/or independent films almost annoyingly wear their slow pace like some badge of honour. This is why such pictures give this slower approach a bad name – their ‘artistry’ feels machine-tooled.
Not so with Autumn. This is one of the most stately and profoundly moving films I’ve seen in recent years – it is replete with compassion and humanity, using its exquisite, delicate pace to examine and remind us how precious every second of life on this earth is.
From the Dominion of Canada,
On the northernmost tip of the Bruce Peninsula,
I bid you a hearty:
Colonial Report from the Dominion of Canada (above the 49th Parallel):
Frank Cole: A Life Remembered
For me, September is a month of melancholy and elation. It is that time of year when all Canadians in the film business turn their attention over to the Toronto International Film Festival. Veterans of the event spend 10 days alternating between darkened cinemas, with quick forays outside for much-needed cigarettes and scrounging as much free food and drink at endless parties. We stand in lobbies, trading thoughts on what we’ve just seen, but the most hardened wags are seldom listening to each other, instead looking for that brief lull in the conversation to jump in and spew out their own words of wisdom, which, of course, are equally consumed in one ear and out the other by everyone else in the pack, desperately waiting for that hallowed juncture to jump in and do the same. We’ll all have the same complaints – year in and year out: the festival is just a cheap junket for the studios, the festival is too big, the festival used to be friendlier, the general public are a bloody nuisance with their unwieldy backpacks slamming into us as we jump lines with an air of self-importance. And yet, we’re all still there: it’s easy to avoid the junket atmosphere if one is writing for publications that care little for puff pieces on Hollywood stars, the festival – as big as it is – still offers an opportunity to see just as many movies, if not more, friendliness is in the eye of the beholder and the general public are just ultimately a necessary evil we can all avoid by just seeing movies in the secret press and industry screenings, the festival within the festival. Things really don’t change. And personally, I cannot imagine being anywhere else at this time of year. I’ve been attending the Toronto Festival for 23 years now and while there are three other great festivals in Canada this time of year (the glorious, down-home laid-back Vancouver, the European-flavoured celebration of all cinema not American at Serge Losique’s World Festival in Montreal, and the utter cutting-edge madness of Montreal’s Nouveau Cinema, still led by the stylishly irascible Claude Chamberlan), it is Toronto that finally holds my happiest and saddest memories. The best moment was being at the Toronto Festival when a truly new wave of English-Canadian cinema was burgeoning, and my thoughts at this time always gravitate to Frank Cole and first experiencing his pure cinema, his pure obsessive originality and perhaps most importantly, his genius. Genius is hard to come by and certainly hard to describe, but you know it when you see it. And in 1988, I experienced genius in all its splendour at the Toronto Film Festival – in Frank Cole’s first feature film A Life. It’s those things you don’t forget that keep the bar high, and Frank set the bar to stratospheric heights.
* * *
Frank Cole, an Ottawa-based Canadian filmmaker, crossed the Sahara Desert on foot from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea. This feat of endurance earned him a permanent home in the Guinness Book of World Records. Cole’s final journey to the vast, inhospitable land led to a permanent resting place at the Michigan Cryonics Institute in Detroit. As per his last will and testament, Frank Cole’s remains were cryogenically preserved.
Cole believed death was a disease that needed to be cured and though he is no longer with us in a traditional sense (as in, alive), I sincerely hope and pray that wherever he is, he still believes it.
He was happy to admit to people that his sojourns across the infinite grains of sand terrified him to no end, and what eventually killed him was what he feared the most. His last challenge was to cross the Sahara again, from the Atlantic to the Red Sea and back again – a return journey by camel. He never made it. Not long after first setting out from Ber, he was severely beaten, robbed of all his possessions, tied to a desert shrub and left for dead by bandits.
Frank Cole left this world, leaving us to wonder what miracles of cinema he had yet to create, what tricks he had up his sleeve to cheat death. His legacy will be forever enshrined in the work he did create. He left us with two shorts (A Documentary and The Mountenays) and two features (A Life and Life without Death).
On the basis of these works, Frank Cole might well be one of Canada’s (and for that matter, all of cinema’s) most important filmmakers.
Upon the world premiere of A Life in 1988 at the Toronto International Film Festival, known more brashly in those halcyon days as ‘The Festival of Festivals’, I sensed from the opening few minutes that it was never going to let go. Nothing, and I mean nothing, could have prepared me for such an astounding, eye-popping and gut-churning experience. Its grip upon me held throughout the course of the festival, then for weeks, then months, then years afterwards. Now, as I write this re-assessment almost 25 years later, all I can think about is the opening paragraph of what is no doubt the most influential film review of Pauline Kael’s career. On October 28, 1972, the first few sentences of this legendary review declared the following:
‘Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris was presented for the first time on the closing night of the New York Film Festival, October 14, 1972: that date should become a landmark in movie history comparable to May 29, 1913 â€” the night Le Sacre du Printemps was first performed – in music history. There was no riot, and no one threw anything at the screen, but I think it’s fair to say that the audience was in a state of shock, because Last Tango in Paris has the same kind of hypnotic excitement as the Sacre, the same primitive force, and the same thrusting, jabbing eroticism.’
In retrospect, I only wish I had been able to muster something similar when first reviewing Cole’s picture in 1988. Then again, I was hardly Pauline Kael – not even a burgeoning one.
At the time, I was just shy of my 30th year on this planet and though I had been toiling in the trenches of film reviewing, journalism, exhibition and distribution, I was a relative newcomer to actually making movies, and as such was quite overwhelmed with the promise Canada’s relatively young industry held and how I might, in some small way, contemplate being a part of it.
This, more than anything, influenced my approach to reviewing Cole’s extraordinary picture since cool shit was starting to really happen in Canadian cinema. Reviewing A Life as a prairie-based correspondent for the now defunct, but by Canadian standards, legendary trade magazine Cinema Canada, I wanted to shout to the rooftops that Cole’s picture was leading the charge, but when I read the piece now, I think I fell rather short of that lofty goal. In fact, it was a rather unattainable one since I was right in the middle of what could only be contextualised in retrospect. It was, however, a good old college try.
By this point, French Canada had several new waves (and continues to do so) and on the English side, David Cronenberg, Donald Shebib, Don Owen, Phillip Borsos and Zale Dalen had made some striking inroads at earlier junctures, but nothing like our Québécois confrÃ¨res. The fact of the matter is that French Canada was extremely proud and protectionist about its truly distinct society. English Canada was also distinct, but in much subtler ways – especially given the physical proximity to America and the common bond of the English language. In fairness, however, the differences weren’t that subtle. Those of us in the Dominion spoke the Queen’s English as opposed to the bastardised, drawling, mush-mouthed, inbred American English and even our more working-class vernacular had more in common with the clipped, pointed and musical English spoken by our aboriginal brothers (or, for that matter, the joual-tinged English of the Québécois of Montreal’s East End).
But 1988 felt different. Something decidedly new and exciting was happening in the few book-ending years leading up to and following the year Frank’s feature premiered. Even veteran David Cronenberg was on the cusp of a new phase with Dead Ringers.
In the early 90s, German filmmaker Alexander Bohr was so taken with what was beginning to happen in late-80s English Canadian cinema that he produced and directed a ZDF documentary about the phenomenon. It was titled, appropriately enough, Strangers in their Own Land. This, more than anything, typified much of the art and culture in the Dominion of Canada – especially among tail-end baby boomers and Gen-X-ers.
A rag-tag group of late-20-early-30-something whippersnappers, they had little use for the status quo (Canadian-in-name-only dramatic series and movies of the week aimed at international, but primarily American audiences) and absolutely no desire to be part of dour National Film Board of Canada documentaries about children with learning disabilities who had finally found teachers they could really relate to. Most definitely, they were not going to take the path demanded on the side of traditional Canadian government financiers who were looking for product that would develop an industrial base, which led to too many expensive, overblown, dull-as-dishwater glorified television movies masquerading as features.
Strangers in their own land, indeed!
At this time, English Canada yielded (or was yielding) work by the new, young iconoclasts; Patricia Rozema’s I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing, John Paizs’s Crime Wave, A Winter Tan by the five-director collective of Jackie Burroughs, Louise Clark, John Frizzell, John Walker and Aerlyn Weissman, Atom Egoyan’s Next of Kin and Family Viewing, Guy Maddin’s Tales from the Gimli Hospital, Bill McGillivray’s Life Classes, Peter Mettler’s Scissere and The Top of His Head, Anne Wheeler’s Loyalties, Bruno Lazaro Pacheco’s The Traveller, Brian Stockton and Gerald Saul’s Wheat Soup, Greg Hanec’s Downtime, Bruce McDonald’s Roadkill, and numerous cutting-edge short films like John Martins-Manteiga’s The Mario Lanza Story, Alan Zweig’s Stealing Images, Francis Damberger’s Road to Yorkton, Nik Sheehan’s No Sad Songs, Lorne Bailey’s The Milkman Cometh and Richard Kerr’s Last Days of Contrition.
And then there was Frank Cole.
Frank was definitely a stranger in his own land. The son of a Canadian diplomat, Frank spent many of his formative years in locales far more exotic than Ottawa. Brooding, handsome, intelligent and creative – he began with the still image and eventually, under the mentorship of Peter Wintonick (Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media), he turned to cinema.
The Dominion of Canada seems the perfect place for a stranger in one’s own land to thrive as an artist. The sheer physical vastness of the country has any number of regions that are as infinite, desolate and awe-inspiring as the desert that beckoned Frank Cole. With the majority of the Dominion’s population congregated within 100 kilometres of the border between Canada and the United States, the rest of the country is almost exclusively wilderness. The frozen tundra of the North West Territories, the barrenness of the Rock, the unending and oldest mountain range in the world within the Shield, the flat, Ocean-like properties of terra firma on the Prairies and the seemingly infinite glaciers and towering heights of the Rocky Mountains all might suggest that Frank didn’t necessarily need to leave Canada to find danger and desolation, but so goes the cliché: the grass is always greener on the other side.
That said, Canada has always inspired a ‘grass is always greener’ frame of mind in many of its best and brightest. Published in 1977, the late Charles Taylor’s brilliant book Six Journeys: A Canadian Pattern, presents a series of biographical essays on extraordinary Canadians who ‘followed a lonely path in search of a more sustaining vision’ than Canada could ever offer them, in spite of the fact that Canada’s ‘Calvinist rigidity’ might well have been the defining influence upon their work as artists and/or as political figures. Taylor’s book surely might well have considered Frank Cole as a seventh subject had it been revised at a later juncture.
Taylor’s introduction to his book declares the following: ‘More than most people, Canadians are prejudiced in favour of the ordinary – we honour all those pioneering virtues which impose restraint and engender mediocrity. Revolutions produce heroes: it is one reason why the Americans have had such an abundance of exemplary figures. But we lack a revolution, and our rebellions are notable mainly for their ineptitude.’ I cannot argue at all with Taylor’s assertion that the Dominion of Canada seems obsessed with the ordinary – this is often a reigning feature of so much of Canadian cinema, television and literature – but where I might part company with Taylor (ever so slightly and in a quietly Canadian manner) is in the notion of Canadian revolutions being infused with ‘ineptitude’. While this is true of many of them, a number of our country’s revolutions have been ‘quiet revolutions’ – not unlike the sweeping changes that occurred in French Canada between 1960 and 1968 that laid the groundwork for self-determination, cultural nationhood and separation. (Coincidentally, this quiet revolution and its aftermath were examined in detail and foreseen by one of Taylor’s subjects, the iconoclastic writer and first true champion for gay rights in Canada, Scott Symons.)
In the brief period leading up to and following the unleashing of Frank Cole’s A Life in 1988, it is safe to say that a quiet revolution was very much in full swing among a small band of cultural insurrectionists – the best and brightest of Canadian cinema. Movies in English Canada were changing and this was not lost upon critics, programmers and audiences outside of Canada (though much less so within). I feel strongly that Frank Cole was at the forefront with his quiet and quietly revolutionary A Life.
The promotional material generated for the launch of A Life during the Festival of Festivals in Toronto declared that Frank’s film charts ‘a man’s survival amidst death in a room and a desert.’ Both room and desert seem rather appropriate metaphors for Canada itself and certainly within the movie, both locations have the claustrophobic properties of a prison cell – one with literal walls, the other fortified by an all-seeing force of nature with the power to bestow both life and death upon those who dot its immense and virtually infinite landscape.
Survival, it would seem, is (and was, and perhaps in his afterlife, will always be) Cole’s primary concern – whether it be within physical man-made borders of walls or the ostensible limits of the immeasurable.
Early in the film Cole’s off-camera voice queries a jowly, liver-spotted old gentleman in a pointed yet strangely genial tone: ‘Are you afraid of dying, Grandpa?’ The old man seems perplexed, perhaps even slightly intimidated by the camera, and replies, quivering and moist-eyed, that he is indeed not fearful of death.
The camera truthfully captures its subject in an evocatively grainy monochrome and with such a tender, personal eye that the old man’s reaction tells us one thing verbally, but visually, his answer feels rather inconclusive (or perhaps, all too conclusive). In a similarly styled approach near the end of the film, Cole assaults us with the image of an old woman lying on her deathbed gasping for life (or, perhaps, death) while an off-screen voice pleads, ‘Live!’
These two gut-wrenching sequences, so strangely moving, yet disturbing and finally, irrefutably life-affirming, are bookends to a journey that is bleak, barren and sometimes harrowing.
The voyage proper begins after the black and white sequence with the old man. The monochrome yields to full colour, focusing primarily on the interior environment of the film’s central figure, a buff, poker-faced young man played by Cole himself. A series of oddly composed shots of inanimate objects greet us and in each one, they are shoved out of the camera eye; Cole appears to be ridding the Spartan room of what little it has in it.
We’re then battered with a group of strangely disconnected images; a bare, white wall as a nail is driven into it, a telephone call that never really comes and is never really answered, a lithe young woman with a handgun stuffed into her panties and, most disturbingly, a little girl who runs headlong into plate glass – at first in silence, then followed a few beats later with the sickening, almost excruciatingly painful sound of the glass smashing.
All images described above are cross-cut with recurring shots of Cole chiselling, hammering, measuring and sanding. The sound of his labour becomes increasingly grating. Adding to our ever-heightening disorientation and anxiety is the fact that we’re never sure what he’s building and that he’ll never leave this barren interior. In terms of pace, this is expertly timed. We feel like this self-imposed banishment will last for the rest of the movie. It’s uncannily and precisely at this moment when Cole shifts gears – not necessarily in terms of pace, but in locale. We move from one tomb to yet another.
The first exterior shots are simple optical manipulations as a series of sun-dappled head-and-shoulder freeze frames of Cole place him directly in front of several backgrounds that flicker behind. It’s as if the camera itself is sealing him in a crypt, though Cole’s off-screen narration explains it (or, if you will, not at all) when he proclaims, ‘I did this to feel alive’.
Perhaps the very process of making the film is what keeps the on-camera Cole from pulling the trigger of the same gun that was previously stuffed into the woman’s panties and is used later by her as she writhes on the floor and then shoots herself in the eye – a steely phallus delivering death through the one orifice that allows for the only on-camera persona to witness and/or participate in the proceedings.
After putting himself through the most rigorous paces in the interior sequences, Cole transplants himself into the Sahara, risking his life and cheating death to provide a series of stunning exterior images to contrast and parallel the claustrophobia of the room. In the room, for example, we see a snake slithering helplessly and aimlessly across the hardwood floors, while in the desert we see Cole crawling desperately across grains of sand. In the room, we hear the sound of wooden matches being repeatedly struck and extinguished, tossed onto the hardwood floor as the snake slithers over them, while in the desert, a jeep is doused with gasoline and torched as the camera slowly pulls away until the jeep becomes a flickering speck on the infinite horizon of the Sahara.
Cole’s vision is daring, psychologically complex, thematically layered and created by someone with a clear command of the filmmaking process and endowed with a supreme form of artistry. Given the stately pace, we have the option to think about what we see as we see it, or leave those thoughts until after viewing the film and instead allow a series of terrifying, lonely and often beautiful images to wash over us and to open up emotionally, viscerally to a cinematic world that cries for some sense of understanding and passion, not merely for the subject, but for the world, for all of us.
A Life is particularly revelatory in the sense that death, as a final act on this earth, is one of solitude, where we are truly alone with our body and spirit, and when the body goes, so does the spirit – alone into an infinite void.
The film’s emotional core comes from Cole’s seeming sadness and desperation, yet one oddly leaves this experience with a sense of elation, of fulfilment and with the feeling that perhaps there is A LIFE beyond the mere drudgery and suffering and pure survival that Cole so evocatively and painfully explores.
This is a film of lasting value and Cole must be forever remembered as an artist of uncompromising bravery and vision.
His small core of collaborators must also be commended – Jean-Yves Dion’s desert photography, Carlos Ferrand’s interior work and Vincent Saulnier’s stunning sound design are of a level and quality so far beyond the mediocrity of most films made in Canada – far beyond anything seen when the film was made, and now, nearly a quarter century later, that fact has not changed.
These days, it’s very difficult to see Frank’s films. To launch the recent publication of Life without Death: The Cinema of Frank Cole, an exquisite book from the Canadian Film Institute in Ottawa edited by Mike Hoolbloom and Tom McSorley, there have been a handful of screenings of A Life (in addition to full retrospectives at film festivals in Rotterdam, Wroclaw and Jihlava). The book itself includes a DVD copy of Korbett Matthews’s fine documentary film, The Man Who Crossed the Sahara and numerous writings on Frank’s work from a myriad of writers including John Greyson, Peter Mettler, Mike Cartmell, Geoff Pevere and my own original review of A Life published in 1988 in Cinema Canada magazine – a review that I have here revised extensively based on both my initial memories and a recent screening of the work.
Time always declares the final verdict on such matters, but it is safe to say enough time has passed to declare this film a masterpiece. In fact, A Life demands the sort of enshrinement that few Canadian films genuinely deserve. It has its own life. It continues to pulse, breathe, and survive.
Its spirit lives on.
From the Dominion of Canada,
On the northernmost tip of the Bruce Peninsula,
I bid you a hearty:
Colonial Report from the Dominion of Canada (above the 49th Parallel):
Black and White Reality: a Sermon and Review – Alain Cavalier’s Le Combat dans l’Ã®le
While ‘love’ is an overused word, even by yours truly, I must proclaim wholeheartedly:
I LOVE black and white movies.
I’m not saying I prefer black and white to colour, or that it’s superior in any way.
As a matta uh fakt, I shorley dew luvs a great color pitcher as much as the next fella’.
For me, however, black and white photography – when used in movies – forces the deep examination (or at least acknowledgement) of various shades of grey with respect to the political, thematic and/or emotional qualities of the work itself. While it might be argued that my preference for cinema in b/w is purely subjective and relates strictly to preferring the ‘look’, I’d counter that the visual qualities take a back seat to cinematic storytelling elements, which indeed go far deeper than mere surface.
One of my favourite movies of all time is Alexander Mackendrick’s Sweet Smell of Success, a picture that details the grimy nightlife of New York press agents and gossip columnists. It is a world where Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis), a press agent, will pimp out a young woman he genuinely likes to a foul-minded sleaze ball who has the power to grant a very special favour; a world where JJ Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster), a gossip columnist, delights in wielding his power to destroy people just because he can; a world where, in spite of endless acts of dishonesty and cruelty, redemption – even for the most fetid – might be just around the corner.
Finally, there is the character of the city itself – a city seen mostly at night, from dusk to dawn – full of violence, excitement, electricity, deception and despair. It is a city where the gossip columnist Hunsecker, upon witnessing a violent drunken altercation outside a nightclub, literally salutes the swill around him and declares, ‘I love this dirty town’.
Seen through the b/w lens of cinematographer James Wong Howe, the atmosphere of Sweet Smell of Success and its setting – both exhilarating and rank with people and places of the most odious variety – would, if filmed in colour, make a completely different film. It would be as different as the New York of the 1950s was compared to the sadly gussied-up New York of today. The world of Sweet Smell of Success can only exist in monochrome – a world replete with multi-layered emotions, desires and intentions. In a contemporary context, colour is often seen as ‘reality’ whereas anyone consciously choosing b/w is seen as applying a heavy brush of artifice and mediating the vision in some impure, unreal fashion.
If anything, b/w can often reveal a world that is all too real.
As a filmmaker, I always found myself drawn to the properties and magic of b/w. In fact, I still do. God help me for this, but depending on the property, I have, for the past 12 or so years, suggested b/w to many of my filmmakers at Norman Jewison’s Canadian Film Centre. And of the 10 independent films I produced from the late 1980s to mid-1990s, five of them were in b/w (two of which were directed by Guy Maddin). B/W was employed in both Maddin pictures to recreate an earlier cusp-period of cinema, and also because monochrome seemed to be the best way of capturing that dreamlike, hallucinogenic atmosphere the films were deeply rooted in. Surreal, but imbued with logic, or if you will, dream logic (not unlike, say, David Lynch’s Eraserhead).
As the producer of Maddin’s third feature Careful, I was heartbroken to be the arm-twister who had to convince him to shoot in colour rather than b/w. The making of a tough artistic decision (based, alas, on the exigencies of financing) led to a process comprised of pain, rumination, exploration and lovers’ quarrels – intense break-up-then-make-up gymnastics that yielded the important yet delightfully insane post-coital (as it were) idea of shooting in b/w for theatrical release and then using the cheesy early-90s colorisation process for video and television release.
Realising that some colorised b/w classics had a rather quaint aura and were vaguely reminiscent of early two-strip Technicolor is what led to the final decision of shooting with colour stock since the cost of colorisation technology at the time was prohibitive and it wouldn’t have provided firmer control over the final look.
Using a combination of (now-defunct, at least in Canada) AGFA colour stock and Kodak b/w (that would eventually be colour-tinted), Guy created an archaic duo-chromatic mise en scÃ¨ne where each scene would have no more than two dominant colours. This was not only a visually cool approach, but thematically and emotionally it made perfect sense within the context of the George Toles and Maddin-penned tale of repression that explodes in shame, guilt and depravity. In a sense, I still feel that Careful is a b/wmovie, or rather, a black and white picture in colour.
As producer of Bruno Lazaro Pacheco’s experimental feature narrative City of Dark, my obsession with b/w led to importing 16mm b/w Ilford film stock from the UK (16mm in order to run and gun like Godard and his ilk since we had literally hundreds of locations to cover with a tiny documentary-sized crew), getting the footage processed by one of the best b/w 16mm timers in Canada (an amazing old hand at this, Mr Geoff Bottomley, who ran a tiny, grotty little lab in the bowels of the Ryerson University film department in Toronto) and finally, having the elements blown up to 35mm at NYC’s legendary DuArt Laboratory with many of the same technicians who had worked on the b/w timing of Woody Allen’s forays into monochrome. All this was to create a somewhat contemporary, yet vaguely retro dystopian world where dreams are stolen via technology. Again, the literal shades of grey were rendered to allow the viewer to delve even further into the thematic and emotional shades of grey.
In the end, though, all cinematic art involves the application of artifice – hence my guilt-free preference for b/w. The use of black and white might seem more artificial, but ultimately, it is no less ‘real’ than colour.
* * *
I discovered the great Alain Cavalier picture Le Combat dans l’Ã®le (1962) in the days leading up to Dominion Day (sadly renamed Canada Day in the 1980s) – a magnificent celebration instituted by Mother England among Commonwealth nations to celebrate their official status as dominions under the watchful eye of the greatest colonial power in the world.
I viewed Le Combat dans l’Ã®le on high-def in my hideaway on the extreme northern tip of the Bruce Peninsula – a piece of land that was colonised not once, but twice – first, rather benignly by the French and secondly, less benignly by the British. In both cases, the Peninsula’s Native Indians got screwed while everyone else got rich and powerful.
The first colonisation resulted in the Huron Nation helping the French kick Iroquois butt for explorer Samuel D Champlain and institute a fur monopoly. Once the French buggered off, the Huron suffered a mass genocide at the hands of the Iroquois who, not surprisingly, came back for sweet revenge.
The Peninsula was re-populated with the Ojibwe who migrated from the northwestern regions of Upper Canada. They too were eventually fucked over, but this time, by the British, who brought pestilence along with scads of land-gobbling inbred miscreants from the northern reaches of the UK to ‘pioneer’ or tame, if you will, the wild land. The Dominion of Canada is, of course, still a colony of the UK, although it has maximum self-determination, unlike the aboriginal nations before it.
In any event, it seems utterly appropriate for me to have watched the fabulous new Zeitgeist Films DVD release of Le Combat dans l’Ã®le within the context of a colonial celebration in a region endlessly pillaged by the masters of colonisation. This was, after all, a picture made in the waning days of France’s Algerian War when le beau pays was fraught with division regarding its place as a colonial power.
This, of course, was not lost on the filmmakers. Reflecting those turbulent times, director Alain Cavalier crafted an intensely powerful film – passionate, boldly political, charged with violence, rife with betrayal and sexy as all get-out.
And get this – it’s in black and white!
And yes, the shades of grey within the narrative itself begin early on in the proceedings as we’re introduced to Anne (Romy Schneider) and Clément (Jean-Louis Tritignant). Anne is a former actress who has abandoned her artistic calling to fulfil the role of dutiful wife to Clément. Her hedonistic qualities seem unfairly hemmed in by this arrangement and though she appears to love her husband, her happy-go-lucky nature in social situations wavers between innocent and overtly flirtatious.
Clément, clearly smitten with her charms when they’re alone, is less so in public. The magma jealously roiling in his head would be better served if it travelled to the head located in the southerly nether regions below his torso. With Romy Schneider as his wife – a catch if there ever were one – he’s a lucky fella indeed!
Then again, the picture itself is firmly rooted in a neo-noir world where seemingly lucky (or unlucky) guys can never properly see what’s staring them right in the face. This is certainly the deal with rock-headed Clément. He comes from a wealthy family, holds a cushy, work-free position with his Father, a powerful industrialist, and yet, seeks rather pathetically to become ‘political’. He chastises Daddy for kowtowing to Liberal sentiments, leaves the firm and allows himself to be duped by conservative extremists into assassinating a key left-wing political figure.
In spite of all this, Anne is devoted to him. While she leaves Clément after one of his upper-magma-head outbursts, she soon returns to be his loyal sex kitten. When he’s betrayed after a foiled assassination attempt, his mug plastered all over the newspapers and television screens, she turns into his faithful moll and heads on the lam with him.
Things go awry when they shack up with his old chum Paul (Henri Serre), a sensitive lefty who eventually cottons on to Clément’s right-wing terrorist shenanigans. When our not-so-clear-headed hero takes off on an odyssey of revenge, Anne falls in love with Paul, who rekindles her acting career and a belief in a life of gentle compassion. It is, however, just a matter of time before Clément returns and wants Anne back, and given his transformation from a misguided, somewhat inept terrorist into a cold-hearted killer, the proceedings inevitably point to a showdown. And what a showdown it is!
This is, if you haven’t guessed already, one terrific picture!
Given the state of the world at this point in time, Le Combat dans l’Ã®le seems as vibrantly relevant as it must have been upon its first release in 1962. We currently live in a world where America, purporting to be a saviour, is little more than a colonial power – using Band-Aid solutions to pacify its near-Third World domestic conditions and forcing itself upon Muslim nations in order to control their wealth. Equally, we live in a world where young men on the extremist Muslim side, some from desperate straits and others from positions of privilege, are duped into committing acts of violence in the name of God and ultimately, to maintain control of the wealth America seeks to steal from them.
The puppet masters in both cases have everything to gain, while the puppets have everything to lose. And this is why Clément is never fully reprehensible as a character, at least not during the first two-thirds of the picture. Jean-Louis Tritignant’s great performance allows us to empathise with Clément. Through a sexy, tough-as-nails exterior we see a character who thinks he is making active decisions, but is, more often than not, manipulated by those who are quick to take advantage of his need for political fulfilment. In a sense, Clément reminds me of Tom Neal’s hapless, hard-boiled oaf in Edgar Ulmer’s noir classic Detour – so easily seduced, so easily duped, so easily abandoned – and we do feel for him in spite of all his miscalculations and failings.
I love how Cavalier’s script (with dialogue by Jean-Paul Rappeneau) adds very subtle details to Clément’s character, which in turn force Tritignant to engage in the thespian callisthenics of subtle, delicate shading. Perhaps the best example of this is the manner in which Tritignant conveys his relationship to his father and to his family’s money: there’s a sense that what he needs is not acceptance, coddling or an easy ride from his pÃ¨re, but love – pure and simple – a love that might have saved him from the arms of an evil seductress.
That seductress is not a nasty ice-blooded femme fatale as in Detour, where she is played by the late, great Ann Savage (whose final role was as Guy Maddin’s mother Herdis in My Winnipeg). Clément’s temptress in Le Combat dans l’Ã®le is something far more insidious – the extreme right wing and its insatiable need for power through colonisation, exploitation and deadly terror tactics.
This is, after all, neo-noir as opposed to film noir – where misplaced idealism more than takes the place of a flesh-and-blood hottie.
If anything, the entity Clément admires most is what brings him down. He seeks acceptance from nobody other than himself – a worthy enough goal, but one that renders him irrevocably and tragically prostate to the whims of New World Order-styled power brokers.
Another fascinating element of Cavalier’s picture is the use of trinity within the narrative structure. This is manifested on a thematic and character level through the numerous triangles that stem from Clément himself. The first involves Clément, his wife Anne and his almost romantic obsession with the Bitch Goddess of the right wing. The second concerns his inability to bond with his father, his intense need to find his way in the world through politicisation of the most reprehensible kind and the fact that, ironically, his father is as much a part of the New World Order as the crackpots Clément is aligned with. Thirdly, and perhaps most tragically, is the literal love triangle between Clément, Anne and his old childhood pal Paul.
As played by the sensitive, aquiline-featured Henri Serre, Paul is Trintignant’s opposite in every way, and given Anne’s warmth and vibrancy, he becomes the left-wing White Knight (or, if you will, Red Knight) in Shining Armour. Serre, by the way, was certainly no neophyte when it came to love triangles, having played the role of Jim in the ultimate cinematic rendering of the ménage Ã trois, Francois Truffaut’s Jules et Jim – released, incidentally, the same year as Le Combat dans l’Ã®le.
Trinity is, of course, an extremely important element within the context of classical cinema, and Cavalier comes from a great tradition of French filmmakers who dazzled us with their commitment to traditional storytelling form while, at the same time, maintaining clear, individual voices. While Cavalier made this picture during the period of the nouvelle vague he is closer to the spirit of Jean Renoir, HG Clouzot and Jean-Pierre Melville (who delightfully makes a cameo appearance in the picture as un membre de l’organisation) than to the style-over-emotional-substance approach of Jean-Luc Godard.
Le Combat dans l’Ã®le is the work of a great artist who works within a very structured narrative environment – approaching his mise en scÃ¨ne with the assuredness of a master, in spite of the fact that this is his first film. This is especially astounding to me. When it comes to contemporary filmmakers and their debut work, so much emphasis is placed by reviewers on pure (albeit occasional brilliant) visual flourishes, or worse, Christopher ‘One Idea’ Nolan-like trick-pony approaches to rendering drama, that Cavalier’s mature, intelligent and genuinely emotional work in Le Combat dans l’Ã®le makes most of the aforementioned lot look like a playpen full of rank amateurs. Cavalier’s precision and attention to story detail is something that more young filmmakers should emulate, while those who should know better need to bestow fewer accolades upon masturbatory workouts.
And despite the claims of auteuristes and their apologists, movies are not made in a vacuum. With this debut feature, Cavalier was blessed to have as producer and mentor Louis Malle, a great classical filmmaker in his own right for whom Cavalier served previously as an assistant director. In addition to the co-authorship of Jean Paul Rappeneau (who would go on to direct Cyrano and The Horseman on the Roof, contemporary entries in the French classical cinema sweepstakes, though far less dazzling and more workmanlike than the works of Cavalier, Clouzot, Melville, et al), Le Combat dans l’Ã®le is stunningly shot in magnificent black and white by Pierre Lhomme, who went on to shoot, among many others, such classics as Melville’s Army of Shadows, Philippe de Broca’s King of Hearts, Someone behind the Door, one of the great French Euro-trash thrillers starring Charles Bronson, Jean Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore and mon préféré du bonbon pervers du cinéma, Dusan Makavejev’s Sweet Movie.
Cavalier’s most prominent collaborators, however, are his fabulous trio of central performers. Schneider, after many historical roles in form-wrenching period girdles, made her debut in this contemporary story and acquitted herself magnificently as Anne, the woman who acts as a deadly wedge between the two leading male characters. (With this film, Schneider also proves, that the girdles were, except for adherence to historical accuracy in her previous work, completely unnecessary.)
Serre as Anne’s lefty saviour has, without question, never been better (save, perhaps, for Jules et Jim). There is both peace and sadness in his eyes, yet his transformation from a gentle, lonely man to someone infused with both the passion of love and the requisite savagery needed for self-preservation makes him a more-than-perfect male counterpart to Trintignant.
All said and done, however, Jean-Louis Trintignant, who eventually gave an equally stunning performance (in a somewhat similar role) in Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist, continually delivers the unexpected in the role of Clément. One aspect of his performance I have yet to mention is his eventual transformation into a major creep – from an empathetic dupe, he slowly morphs into something that is, frankly, skin-crawlingly malevolent. It’s here where one pines for his character’s redemption even more vigorously than before, all the while sensing futility in such an exercise.
Shades of grey, it would seem, never offer easy solutions or pat feelings. In Le Combat dans l’Ã®le, they offer a rich neo-noirpatisserie of the highest order, deliciously, thrillingly and densely layered.
Oh yes, and have I mentioned how great it looks in black and white?
From the Dominion of Canada,
On the northernmost tip of the Bruce Peninsula,
I bid you a hearty:
A Deviant View of Cinema – Features, Essays & Interviews