Toronto International Film Festival 2010 – Part 1

Black Swan

Toronto International Film Festival

9-19 September 2010, Toronto, Canada

TIFF website

Greg Klymkiw tells us about some of the highlights of the Toronto Film Festival.

Black Swan

I love this movie to death! To pinch myself to see if I was dreaming, I attended a second showing during the 2010 edition of the Toronto International Film Festival with my wife and 9-year-old-daughter in tow. Bearing a passing resemblance to The Addams Family we settled in for an evening of prime family entertainment. I wasn’t dreaming. Black Swan is exactly the sort of film we’ll all look upon as a milestone in cinema history. It’s Powell/Pressburger’s The Red Shoes meets Mankiewicz’s All about Eve meets Verhoeven’s Showgirls with heavy doses of Polanski’s Repulsion – and then some!

Black Swan plays at the London Film Festival on Oct 22, 24 and 25. For more information and to book tickets go to the LFF website.

Director Darren Aronofsky etches the tale of Nina (Natalie Portman), a ballerina driven to achieving the highest level of artistry, brutally encouraged by crazed impresario Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), thwarted by her possessive, narcissistic mother (Barbara Hershey), terrified at the prospect of failure exemplified by an ageing prima ballerina (Winona Ryder) and most of all, facing the threat of extinction by Lilly (Mila Kunis), an earthy rival with less technique, but greater raw passion – something Nina desperately needs to wrench from the depths of her soul to move beyond mere technical virtuosity. O, glorious melodrama! Replete with catty invective hurled with meat-cleaver sharpness, corporeal cat fights, blistering mother-daughter snipe-fests, swelteringly moist masturbation, scorching lesbo action, furious anonymous sex in nightclub washrooms and delectable over-the-top blood-letting, Black Swan is one motherfucker of an ice cream sundae with not one, not two, not three, but a jar-full of maraschino cherries in a pool of glistening globs of red syrup on top.

The performances are expertly pitched to melodrama. Miss Portman commands with such bravado that it will be the performance to beat in the coming awards season. Mila Kunis is raw, gorgeous and sexy as all get out. Winona Ryder proves to be a worthy successor to the suffering bitch goddess Susan Hayward. Barbara Hershey drags us into the demonic bilge barrel of great movie harridans. While last, but certainly not least, Vincent Cassel is a perfect impresario: part genius, cocksman and Mephistopheles.

Some have already referred to Black Swan as ‘The Red Shoes on acid’. They couldn’t be more wrong. Powell/Pressburger’s The Red Shoes is already on acid. From my vantage point, Aronofsky’s Black Swan is pure crack cocaine – a free-base dose to rival that which lit Richard Pryor up like a flaming Weihnachtsbaum.

This is a rewrite of a review that first appeared during the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival at Daily Film Dose.

***

Modra

Consider this review a love letter to a true artist, an artist who has created a film so delicate, inspiring, moving and heartbreaking that it connects with all who see it on a very personal level.

So.

To now begin.

You!

You were born in the former Czechoslovakia – Bratislava, to be precise – but you are too young to have experienced the phenomenal rise to power of Alexander Dubcek and his extraordinary Prague Spring – the grand cultural explosion that infused a national pride that threatened to topple Russian domination. As a young adult, you knew the Prague Spring was cool – not only was there Milan Kundera’s great book The Unbearable Lightness of Being, but there also existed Philip Kaufmann’s sumptuously romantic and sex-drenched film rendering of it. And as Kaufmann brought the Russian invasion so sadly to life on film, you can’t – try as you might – remember being clutched in your mother’s arms as your family flees the Russian tanks rolling in during that horrendous year of 1968 when the Spring turned to a communist-ruled Winter once more.

Or perhaps you remember all too well. The brain is a powerful machine, as is the soul. Your parents’ reminiscences of that time, your experience of being the child of immigrants who were forced to leave everything they loved behind to give you the life you never would have had under communism, your sense of childlike wonder that grew within you and stayed in your heart long beyond childhood – all this and more still might have managed to retrieve these memories and allow you to blossom into the artist you are – to blossom within your soul, the soul of a Slovak!

You grew up in Canada – as Canadian as maple syrup (but with more than a few dashes of Neil Young) – and yet something nagged at you about your beginnings, your parents’ struggles, the painful inability to connect with family left behind (for fear of communist reprisals against them) and always wanting to discover your roots. At the age of 17, you visited the ‘old country’ and reconnected with your family and ethnicity. Returning to Canada, you worked as an actor, a producer and eventually a director.

You are Ingrid Veninger – an auteur of the highest order: the real thing and then some.

Frankly, there’s a film in the above, but as an artist you have taken it so much further in your extraordinary solo directorial feature debut Modra. After producing such ground-breaking Canadian feature films as Gambling, Gods and LSD and Nurse Fighter Boy, co-directing the fabulous experimental short URDA/Bone that premiered at the New York Film Festival and the exquisite feature film Only that was feted with a screening at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and festivals all over the world, you took the next logical step and solo-directed Modra.

Like your co-directorial effort Only, you continued to craft a film comprised of tiny, tender moments and infused with the warmth and love of family. Only starred your son Jacob Switzer as a young boy living in a small Northern Canadian town who, along with a young girl the same age, discovers the simple pleasures of life, the glory of nature and most importantly, love.

Modra stars your 17-year-old daughter Hallie Switzer as Lina, a young lady who, like yourself, takes a trip to the ‘old country’ to connect with her roots. Having just broken up with her boyfriend, she drags along a platonic pal Leco (Alexander Gammal) who has a bit more on his mind than friendship. During the weeklong trip, both kids discover that they have little in common and romance is not going to be part of the equation. However, all of Lina’s old world relatives think they’re a couple. As Lina finds her roots, she finds herself and so does Leco. Most importantly, they discover the value of connecting as human beings and the true power of friendship and shared experience.

To say this movie had me squirting tears would be an understatement. I chocked up emotionally at several points, but also wept tears of appreciation for the movie’s consummate artistry. While Modra, much like Only, feels unscripted, it IS, in fact, beautifully scripted, and the natural performances of the kids, the real friends and relatives in Bratislava and your magnificent probing directorial eye, add up to a film where art meets life, and in so doing, creates a lovely collection of those precious cinematic pieces of time that make us realise again how precious life is, and at the same time, what a glorious, wonderful gift the art of movies is.

My love letter draws to a close. It’s nice to review a movie this way – especially when it’s a movie so infused with love.

***

Stake Land

Imagine Cormac McCarthy’s The Road ejaculating the seed of post-apocalyptic despair into the foul egg of vampirism that is Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend until a putrid vaginal maw barfs out a cinematic love child in the form of Stake Land.

This intelligent, super-cool, super-scary and super-knock-you-on-your-ass dystopian sci-fi horror picture is set in the heartland of America where ignorant Bible Belt Christians bearing arms, hole up in fortress (gated) communities, killing non-believing heathen rather than vampires. Due to a mysterious virus, the bloodsuckers have taken over much of the world and the Jesus-nuts believe this pestilence was wrought by God to rid the world of sinners. Martin (Connor Paulo), a young boy whose parents have been torn to shreds by the creatures, is rescued by the legendary Mister (Nick Damici), a no-nonsense vampire hunter who, like the character of Neville in Matheson’s great novel I Am Legend, is known to the Bible-thumping survivalists as the meanest, nastiest vampire killer of them all. Not unlike The Road, man and boy journey across America in search of a ‘New Eden’ (Canada, no less). The antagonist, a skin-headed, bible-spouting madman is always on the prowl for women – fer rapin’ anna breedin’, uh course. Even the vampires seem benign compared to this whack-job.

In addition to Jim Mickle’s tremendously directed suspense and action scenes, the writing is first-rate. While I might have preferred a bit more humour, I’m thankful it didn’t descend to the annoyingly silly tongue-in-cheek laugh-fest-grabbing level of Zombie Land. The screenplay delivers a nasty, solid, straight-up 70s-style dystopian social commentary that never feels sledgehammer-like. Written by star Damici and director Mickle, it’s especially gratifying that the script distinguishes between fundamentalism and genuine faith – avoiding the kind of knee-jerk pot shots usually levelled against Christianity.

Into the mix, they’ve written a terrific role for Kelly McGillis (Top Gun, Witness) as a middle-aged nun who is saved by Mister from a gang rape. The nun uses her faith to impart the kind of wisdom missing on both sides of the fence and the writers draw the character so that she’s a genuine human being faced with a crisis of faith.

Intelligence and artistry aside, though, this movie delivers what all true genre fans would want. The carnage is superb, the make-up effects on the vampires is first-rate (l love how they look like zombies/demons) and we also get two MAJOR babes all genre films must have in the form of the delectable Danielle Harris (the token female eye-candy) and McGillis – long-in-tooth (as it were) in all the right ways.

Most importantly, and especially given the title, I for one, was utterly delighted that Stake Land features several magnificent sequences involving the driving of wooden stakes into the hearts, throats and bellies of the vampires.

These days, a good stake is rare indeed.

This is a rewrite of a review that first appeared during the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival at Daily Film Dose.

***

The Ward

A cinematic math equation to demonstrate genre success:

Veteran genre-meister John Carpenter (The Thing, Halloween) directs a horror film set in the 1960s where none of the babes have hairstyles remotely resembling 60s dos. + One mouth-wateringly hot Amber Heard (All the Boys Love Mandy Lane), incarcerated in a creepy old asylum after committing arson in her sexy under garments. + As luck would have it, the ward Amber gets thrown into is replete with babes. + One by one, the babes are butchered. + Amber keeps seeing a weird chick wandering the halls, but is told it’s just her imagination and when she insists and persists, Amber gets manhandled by burly male nurses who zap her with electro-shock therapy and truss her lithe body into a straightjacket. + In one of the more disgusting moments in horror movie history, one of the babes in the ward is electro-shocked until… well, I won’t ruin it for you, but trust me – it’s pretty fucking gross! + The ghost is one super-gnarly monster: mucho-drippings of the viscous kind. + A creepy psychiatrist appears to be engaging in (what else?) unorthodox experiments upon the babes in the ward. + An ultra-butch ward nurse manages to give Louise Fletcher a run for her money in the Nurse Ratched Mental Health Caregiver Sweepstakes. + Tons of cheap scares that make you jump out of your seat and, if you have difficulties with incontinence, you are advised to bring along an extra pair of Depends. + A thoroughly kick-ass climax leads up to the delivery of a Carrie-like shocker ending = One free blowjob for the Toronto International Film Festival’s Midnight Madness programmer Colin Geddes for selecting the film and especially for getting me into the sold-out midnight screening after I fucked up getting my ticket from the right place at the right time. Said blowjob shall occur once someone carves glory holes into the public washroom stalls of the new Bell Lightbox complex where the festival and its year-round Cinematheque are now housed. One free blowjob and rim job shall be bestowed upon John Carpenter for making this film. Said delights for Mr Carpenter shall occur once he finishes (I kid you not!) jury duty in El Lay, which, alas, kept him from appearing in Toronto to do a Q&A session.

And that, genre freaks, is your Mathematical equation for the day. It all adds up. Real good.

This is a rewrite of a review that first appeared during the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival at Daily Film Dose.

Greg Klymkiw

Autumn in the Dominion of Canada Yields Bounty from India

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Autumn

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.

Exactly!

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.

Ah-ha!

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?

Definitely.

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.

Oh, definitely.

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!

That’s great!

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?

Oh no…

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:

‘Bon cinema!’

Greg Klymkiw

Colonial Report from the Dominion of Canada #3

Frank Cole

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 — 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 confrères. 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.

Forever.

From the Dominion of Canada,
On the northernmost tip of the Bruce Peninsula,
I bid you a hearty:

‘Bon cinema!’

The 35th Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 9 to 19.

Greg Klymkiw

Colonial Report from the Dominion of Canada #2

Le combat dans l'île

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’île

‘Love.’

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 scène 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’île (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’île 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’île 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’île 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 père, 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’île 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 à trois, Francois Truffaut’s Jules et Jim – released, incidentally, the same year as Le Combat dans l’île.

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’île is the work of a great artist who works within a very structured narrative environment – approaching his mise en scène 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’île 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’île 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’île, they offer a rich neo-noir patisserie 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:

‘Bon Cinema!’

Greg Klymkiw

Colonial Report from the Dominion of Canada #1

Rod Serling

Colonial Report from the Dominion of Canada (above the 49th Parallel):

The Golden Age of American Television – a personal history of vintage dramatic TV and a review of the Criterion Collection’s DVD set of live TV drama

I was first introduced to vintage American and British programming by virtue of the fact that my hometown of Winnipeg was so remotely situated in the Canadian Midwest that there was no cable television during the 60s. Eventually, one side of the mighty Red River got cable, but I not only lived on the wrong side of the river, but the wrong side of the tracks in the Eastern European enclave of Winnipeg’s North End.

Via rabbit-eared antennae, our Dominion’s national public network, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), was responsible for domestic product that was mostly dreadful or, at best, watchable as kitsch. Especially pathetic were game shows where grand prizes often amounted to pen and pencil sets, or Hymn Sing with its array of spiritual music, or Don Messer’s Jubilee, a variety show devoted to East Coast fiddling and trilling Irish tenors. Happily, CBC programmed some American shows as Wonderful World of Disney and, thank Christ, The Beverley Hillbillies.

The real magic was CBC’s acquisition of British programming. Before the Dominion of Canada had its own formal constitution, it was overseen by England through the British North America Act. In fact, during childhood, each school day ended (as did most public events) by singing ‘God Save The Queen’. (The Dominion, is frankly, still subservient to the monarchy, but slowly and unhappily, British traditions in Canada are now so much dust in the wind.)

Prior to the 80s, British programming on Canadian television was especially memorable, with substantial helpings of Sir Francis Drake, Til Death Us Do Part (eventually remade in America by Norman Lear as All in the Family), Danger Man (with pre-Prisoner Patrick McGoohan), the Danger Man spin-off Man in a Suitcase, all the various Gerry Anderson sci-fi puppet extravaganzas, the cooler-than-cool Roger Moore in The Saint and my favourite of all, The Adventures of Robin Hood, starring the inimitable Richard Greene and sporting a catchy theme song (parodied on Monty Python’s Flying Circus in the Dennis Moore sketch). In later years, I discovered Robin Hood had been shot entirely in 35mm with scripts written by blacklisted American writers like Waldo Salt and Ring Lardner Jr. For a brief period in the 70s and early 80s we were even treated to a portion of that magnificent explosion of British sitcoms that included Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em, Man about the House, Up Pompeii, On the Buses and Steptoe and Son. A key thing to note here is that while many of the programmes were contemporary, just as many of them were vintage productions made years earlier, but we assumed they were all new shows.

Amusingly enough, the Dominion of Canada was always protectionist about shielding Canadians from American culture and instead exposed us to British programming on domestic TV. The Dominion of Canada deemed anything remotely British as ‘Canadian Content’. This went a long way in suggesting to Bohunk immigrants and the born-in-Canada Bohunk progeny of said Bohunks that this is what it means to be Canadian.

Having to always deal with the demands of Lower Canada (Quebec) and smatterings of voyageur ancestors dotted across the Dominion, Canada needed to institute an all-French-language broadcast service – thus yielding a beast known as French CBC. It was pretty useless to Winnipeggers as nobody other than the French people who lived on the other side of the Red River in the voyageur enclave of St Boniface actually spoke French. However, the one great thing about French CBC was that it played French movies. Many of these pictures offered glimpses of nudity, which, of course, was of utmost importance to 7-year-old boys (of all ages).

Television nirvana finally reached Winnipeg in the form of KCND, a tiny independent American TV station 100 miles south, on the other side of the 49th parallel. The Dominion of Canada had plenty of advertising revenue to spend and business-owners in Winnipeg lined up to feature their commercials in tandem with the razzle-dazzle programming of ‘Uncle Sam’. KCND was strictly bargain basement and not affiliated with any major network though to kids, tired of fiddlers from Newfoundland and joyful Canucks winning useless pen and pencil sets on stupid Canadian TV, KCND was… AMERICA!

All the station could afford to show were syndicated packages of older American TV programming from – you guessed it – the ‘Golden Age’ of television (50s-early 60s). Just as tantalising were packages of B-pictures – mostly horror movies on a great show called Chiller Thriller or endless Bowery Boys, Ma and Pa Kettle, Bomba the Jungle Boy, Charlie Chan, Mr Moto and other glorious second features. An entire generation of Canadians in Winnipeg, no less, were treated to Perry Mason, The Donna Reed Show, Leave it to Beaver, I Love Lucy, The Honeymooners, Mr Peepers, Mr Ed, The Untouchables, The Rifleman and Death Valley Days.

Many continuing American dramatic series (including sitcoms) had an anthology flavour. In one episode, you could parachute anywhere in the run and know exactly who all the main characters were. What counted were the individual anthology-styled dramas. One-off guest characters fuelled the drama. Their story was the one that often counted.

It was, however, pure anthology series linked thematically that really caught my attention – every episode had a different story and different characters, occasionally introduced by their creators. (I often wonder if anthologies were closer to feature film that way and if this accounts for my distaste in TV drama that forces us to follow a story and character arcs over more than one season.) My favourites were genre pieces like Rod Serling’s ground-breaking The Twilight Zone, the nasty and often darkly humorous Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspense and the always terrifying monster-fest The Outer Limits. Many episodes of these pure anthology series were corkers of the highest order and corkers are what I value most in drama. I need to be whacked across the face with a two-by-four. I want my insides pummelled into pemmican. I want my eyes and ears to be dazzled. Most of all, I want greatness.

For me, good became and now is, simply not good enough.

I’m a junkie.

Every fix must be more intense than the last.

There was, however, something I had yet to experience.

It was live.

And it was drama.

From the late 1940s to the late 1950s, a unique form of TV drama gripped America – live dramatic broadcasts. Some were adaptations of literary classics such as Wuthering Heights, Julius Caesar and The Turn of the Screw, but the properties that captured the imaginations of the public, critics and, most notably, sponsors were the live dramas based on original material or daring adaptations of contemporary American literature.

The productions themselves were initially based in New York and rooted in the East Coast tradition of American theatre. Sponsors assisted in substantially underwriting the costs of production. Many of the regular anthology programmes bore the names of corporations keen to align themselves with the best in cultural programming. These were companies devoted to cranking out junk food bereft of nutritional value and manufacturing products that not only contributed to the destruction of the environment, but also to the acceleration of global warming. The makers of Kraft Dinner (dried egg noodles, powdered cheese and flavour-enhancing monosodium glutamate) and Cheese Whiz (glass jars full of easy-to-spread processed cheese loaded with deadly, but delicious trans-fats) delivered Kraft Television Theatre. The largest maker of tires (when you’re done with them, just burn them or toss into ditches in the countryside) endorsed drama on The Goodyear Television Playhouse. The purveyors of a product that only Superman could bend (but needed to emit billowing clouds of poison into the air to create it) conveyed first-rate drama on the US Steel Hour.

The list goes on. (It might be of some interest to note that the great Playhouse 90 was based in Hollywood and was financed not by a single sponsor, but several. This worked nicely until the national lobby group representing all the companies supplying the fuel needed for most of the gas ovens in America decided to advertise on the live broadcast of Judgment at Nuremberg. This forced the network to bleep out references to ”gas ovens” and ‘gas chambers’. Sponsor-based censorship was finally rearing its ugly head and soon, this programme became the last live dramatic anthology series.

Live TV drama offered much in the way of greatness and especially developed a way of creating drama that was unique and exciting and, which, due to its high costs, will probably never happen again. In its heyday, the live TV production team and cast had anywhere from two to six weeks (and anywhere in between) to extensively rehearse performance, blocking, lighting and camera moves, and then… on whatever night the broadcast was to happen, with frayed nerves all round, the drama was performed live – replete with all the brilliance and glitches that come from the immediacy of such performances.

One of the special features on the Criterion Collection DVD The Golden Age of Television is a John Frankenheimer interview. He notes that every director he knew personally during the period, including himself, suffered severe back problems for the rest of their lives due to the indescribable tension a director went through during a live show. Directors, in spite of the extensive rehearsal, were responsible for making decisions regarding the camera switching (almost always three cameras). Standing at the ready, the directors needed to allow for actors not hitting marks, dropping lines or even taking advantage of miraculous moments that happened when the camera was rolling and a look, a gesture and/or a shot nobody counted on was too astounding NOT to be captured.

When a live show would prove to be extremely popular, it required a complete re-mount weeks or months later (in order to preserve the purity of a live performance). Due to the substantial time differences between the East and West Coasts of America, the Western audiences were provided with a kinescope of the live production. The kinescope was created when a 16mm camera was aimed at the best monitor available and the live programme was literally filmed off a TV screen.

Thank God for kinescopes. These live broadcasts were seen once and once only. In fact, after the initial broadcast and subsequent West Coast kinescope presentation, these works of art were never seen again – at least not until the 80s when the Public Broadcasting Corporation of America (PBS) secured, re-mastered and presented kinescopes on a limited series entitled The Golden Age of Television.

This PBS series also featured introductions from American actors and interviews with many of the living participants of the original live dramas (included on Criterion’s DVD, with new material also). Criterion is making these shows available to audiences who will see these masterpieces for the first time ever.

For my money, there isn’t a loser in the bunch.

Blending radio drama with live theatre and cinematic techniques (along with those of live television itself), the productions are a perfect example of cusp-period artistic expression. As Guy Maddin explores in his continued re-imagining of that glorious cusp-period of film history – the part-talkie – we are, with these live television dramas, reminded of the fact that so many vocabularies of visual storytelling were never quite given an opportunity to last long. While one is grateful they didn’t overstay their welcome, one also wonders how many great works were NOT made in the mediums of film and television due to rapid technological advancements leaving certain approaches to storytelling behind in favour of offering something ‘new’ and ‘improved’.

In this Criterion package, one of the best examples of cusp-period technique is Bang the Drum Slowly. Adapting Mark Harris’s novel, it tells the story of Henry (Paul Newman) and Bruce (Albert Salmi), respective pitcher and catcher for the New York Mammoths baseball team. Henry is a dreamboat-star of the highest order – equally beloved by fans and players alike – and geeky Bruce is the object of derision from most of his fellow players. When Henry learns Bruce is dying from an incurable disease, he is obligated to keep it to himself (lest Bruce be dropped from the roster), thus allowing his pal to finish out the rest of his short life with dignity and on the baseball diamond.

From the beginning, scriptwriter Arnold (And the Band Played On, Tucker: The Man and His Dream) Schulman and director Daniel (A Raisin in the Sun, Fort Apache – The Bronx) Petrie had their work cut out for them. How to translate a tale that spans two baseball seasons, numerous locations (including dugout action) and a huge cast during one live hour of drama is the challenge. Ultimately, it’s handled with the kind of originality and efficiency that only this cusp-period method of visual drama could tackle.

The beginning of the drama is pure simplicity. Henry approaches the camera and speaks directly into it – introducing himself as the ‘writer’ of the story about to unfold, politely informing the audience of its scope and asking them to use their imaginations in order to run free with the drama to truly appreciate it. All of this is delivered in character and as the drama progresses; Henry is our guide through the story. While his eyes become our eyes, he still holds his own as a character of complexity. And most of all, I love the idea of a drama literally telling us to use our imaginations – a brave, bold move I wish we could see more of.

The performances are first-rate. Albert Salmi as the dying catcher finds just the right balance between good humour, earnestness, dopiness and down-home likeability – he’s Lenny from Of Mice and Men, but armed with a catcher’s glove (and playing off perfectly against Henry, who is equally Steinbeck-like, a pragmatic, yet compassionate ‘George’ figure).

It’s no surprise how impossible it is to keep one’s eyes off the smouldering Paul Newman. It’s a star-making turn but the very cusp-medium approach allows us to behold Newman deliver a stunning monologue after Bruce dies. Newman is so moving, that I dare anyone to experience this final address direct to the camera and not shed more than a few tears – not just for the gorgeously rendered words he speaks, but the sheer virtuosity of his performance.

A Wind from the South, also directed by Daniel Petrie, features an exquisite performance from Julie Harris as the spinster-ish Shevawn who contentedly runs a guesthouse in the Irish countryside, living vicariously through the lives, travels and adventures of all those who pass through her doors. When a disillusioned, American business executive makes a stopover, they both discover their mutual passion and need for love. Harris is so warm, lovely, delicate and controlled that she commands the screen for the full hour. She also handles writer James (Love among the Ruins) Costigan’s rich romanticism with exactly the sort of restraint necessary to bring it into the realm of the poetic.

A different sort of poetry is displayed in No Time for Sergeants, a strange little comedy featuring the screen debut of Andy Griffith as a naïve, dim-witted, corn-pone philosopher who gets drafted into the army with a cheery optimism that borders on a pathological refusal to acknowledge anything that is in the least way negative. Griffith, prior to this, was performing in live one-man shows that were part stand-up comedy and part semi-autobiographical performance art. To place someone with no on-camera experience in a live drama beaming to millions was especially daring, but it paid off beautifully. It made Griffith a star and he followed this up with his astounding performance in A Face in the Crowd and the long-running television sitcom The Andy Griffith Show. The screenplay adaptation by Ira (Rosemary’s Baby) Levin, allowed for the main character to walk right up to the camera and address the audience face to face. What is often looked upon as a cheat and/or lazy writing is, in fact, as visually compelling as the flashiest camera pyrotechnics.

Delbert Mann’s live television direction of Paddy Chayefsky’s Marty is also revelatory in displaying the simple power of great writing and acting. Rod Steiger plays a lonely butcher who lives with his mother. He has no prospects of ever marrying. When he meets a plain young woman in a dance hall, they hit it off and, for the first time, he might have found love.

Many live TV dramas were remade as theatrical features and the Academy Award-winning version of Marty starring Ernest Borgnine is what most people are familiar with. While that picture is not without merit, it’s this version that brings out the best of Chayefsky’s writing – so much so that the humanity and tenderness of the characters and dialogue makes us wonder why he never explored this side of himself in addition to his usually acerbic sledgehammer satires (Network, The Hospital). And, while to some, this might be blasphemy, one also wonders why the makers of the theatrical feature version didn’t do everything in their power to retain Rod Steiger in the title role.

One of the things that make this TV version work is Steiger. Sure, Borgnine is Borgnine, but in addition to his girth and everyman qualities, he also has that lasciviously tongue-wagging butt-ugly mug that’s more suited to a Peckinpah picture. Each time Borgnine comes on screen, he looks like he’s more interested in taking the lead on a train pull or gang rape. Steiger, on the other hand, with his soulful eyes, beefy jowls and hangdog expression is the epitome of Marty.

To see this sad schlub, sitting at home, waiting for the phone to ring (a brilliant reverse on the usual female version of this scene), breaks our hearts. When Steiger, on the verge of tears, holds back sobs when he talks about his need for love, he is so truthful that I was compelled to squirt geysers of tears at the telly. This production, once again, perfectly represents the power of live television drama – it’s often about the writing and the performances.

Direction, however, never takes a back seat. It’s the directors who ultimately shine in terms of using this unique cusp-medium to bring out the best in the material and their actors. The legendary John (The Manchurian Candidate, Seconds, Birdman of Alcatraz) Frankenheimer interprets JP Miller’s astonishing screenplay for Days of Wine and Roses with such mastery that seldom have we been dragged through the horrifying depths of alcoholism as we are in this production. Blending live studio action with pre-taped sequences, we bop around between Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, detox sequences and harrowing booze binges.

Cliff Robertson and Piper Laurie are riveting as the married couple who seek solace in booze – desperately trying to claw through the muck of their marriage, swinging back and forth from sobriety to drop-dead drunkenness. Watching in flashback, we see the ultra-successful ad executive who uses booze to entertain his clients to a point where booze becomes his one true love. This is astonishingly frank, even by contemporary standards. Seeing him hook his young wife to the bottle so she can share in his joys of inebriation is positively horrific.

Frankenheimer delivers a rollercoaster ride of despair using techniques that seem to be striving for cinematic, big-screen qualities – making the drama lifelike by being bigger than life. This production is, in fact, so great, one can only wonder why the mediocre Blake Edwards was entrusted with the eventual film version, which is not without its moments (notably in Jack Lemmon’s interpretation of the role handled by Robertson in the TV version), but lacks the verve of Frankenheimer’s rendering.

Frankenheimer also delivers the goods with the revelatory production entitled The Comedian. From a novella by Ernest (North by Northwest, Sweet Smell of Success) Lehman and powerfully adapted by Rod Serling, this is, without question, one of the most harrowing dramatic show business exposés ever committed to film/tape/kinescope. Again, it is the simplicity of the basic premise that creates layers of complexity for both director and cast to drag us through the muck of nastiness and corruption.

Using everything at his disposal, Frankenheimer pulls off some kind of miracle. Bouncing from location to location and including – I kid you not – montage and the horrendous visual anchor of an oversized photo of the leering monster of the title, Frankenheimer is indeed a director at the pinnacle of his power. The opening sequence is a rehearsal of a live comedy broadcast and cuts between the performance itself, the master control booth and behind-the-scenes action. Within a live TV drama, Frankenheimer actually recreates the making of a live TV extravaganza. How cool is that?

Mickey Rooney plays Sammy Hogarth, a hugely popular TV comic making the leap from a half-hour show to a full 90-minute special. Hogarth demands more than perfection – he demands worship from all his collaborators. He is, without question, one of the most grotesque, repugnant characters in 20th-century drama. Much of this is due to Rooney. His performance is truly a revelation. While I always admired his work as a child actor in the numerous Rooney-Garland musicals and his moving portrait of the wartime telegram delivery boy in The Human Comedy, nothing could have ever prepared me for his performance in this mean-spirited drama. Rooney’s hurricane-like command of every scene he’s in is so powerful that even when he’s off-screen, his influence over all the supporting characters is not only felt, but it’s as if he’s in the same room with them – poking, prodding, cajoling, haranguing and tearing strips off everyone’s back.

The people most susceptible to his nastiness are his long-time gag writer with a bad case of writer’s block (Edmond O’Brien, the revenge-bent everyman from the great noir D.O.A.) and his brother, a weak, whining simpleton – originally promised the job of producer, but reduced to Sammy’s slave and bearing the biggest brunt of the comic’s ire.

Playing Sammy’s brother is the legendary crooner Mel Torme, whose career in movies was mostly reserved for second banana roles in musicals. Torme is downright snivelling, so pathetically subservient to his older brother that we initially feel sorry for him, but his subsequent actions are so appalling that he ultimately appears as little more than a cretin. It’s a great performance and one can only wonder why we never saw more of Torme on the big screen in roles to rival this one.

Kim Hunter (Stella in Elia Kazan’s version of A Streetcar Named Desire and, lest we forget, Zira, the cute female chimp in Planet of the Apes) plays Torme’s long-suffering wife, who is fed up with how pathetic her husband is and demands he stand up to Sammy. Like everyone in this drama, though, she eventually puts herself in an utterly degrading position to get what she wants.

Oh yeah, did I mention that Edmond O’Brien’s character is so desperate to drag himself out of his writer’s block that he plagiarises the un-used work of a dead comedy writer?

Well, here’s the other revelation – this is ultimately the story of an utter monster who turns everything and everyone around him into bottom-feeding, soul-bereft plankton and yet, like so many live dramatic television broadcasts of the period, the programme sizzled in terms of audience and critical response.

It was based on a work by Ernest Lehman that bears more than a passing resemblance to the nasty feature film Sweet Smell of Success, but at least that story had Tony Curtis’s charming press agent Sidney Falco. Nobody, but nobody, has anything resembling charm in The Comedian. (Interestingly, veteran character actor Whit Bissell delivers a great performance in The Comedian as sleazy gossip columnist Otis Elwell, a character from Sweet Smell of Success.)

Within the Criterion special features, Kim Hunter unfairly suggests that Serling’s writing for men was far superior to his writing for women. Looking at the Serling pieces in this collection, I take strong exception to this. Granted, Serling was obsessed with exploring the innate warrior heart of men in a contemporary peacetime setting, and given the era these pieces were written, it makes perfect sense. The female characters offer support rather than take the lead, but the writing is rich and vibrant. And certainly, The Twilight Zone features some of the strongest female characters of that period.

Serling’s primary interest, it is true, was telling two-fisted tales of men on the battleground of life. Decidedly two-fisted was his script Requiem for a Heavyweight. Nicely directed by Ralph Nelson, Serling etched the story of boxer Mountain McLintock (Jack Palance), a former contender for Heavyweight Champion of the World who is so punch-drunk that the Boxing Commission doctor informs his manager Maish (Keenan Wynn) that he can’t allow Mountain to fight anymore. Maish is devastated. He’s secretly placed a bet against Mountain with the mob, betting his boy will fall in the third. Alas, for Maish, Mountain takes seven rounds of punishment and Maish is into the mob for thousands of dollars.

Mountain is at wit’s end; boxing has been his whole life. When he visits an employment office he pours his guts out to a sympathetic job counsellor (Kim Hunter) who sincerely believes Mountain can contribute to society working with kids in the field of athletics. Maish, however, has other plans for our hero. He decides to commit Mountain to a series of pathetic wrestling matches. It’s easy money, but hardly a dignified way for a former heavyweight contender to earn a living.

Thanks to both Serling’s brutal dialogue and Jack Palance’s visceral, moving performance, Requiem for a Heavyweight is extremely harrowing. Mountain faces a life drowning his sorrows in booze and trading exaggerated fight tales with other punch-drunk (and just plain drunk) former boxers. We’re forced into Mountain’s perspective as he peers through a beer glass into a mirror that shows how the rest of his life could be spent. It’s a story of exploitation, loyalty and finally, seeking a way out, and so doing, finding both redemption and a new future.

As dark as it is, Serling deftly wends his way to an ending replete with hope – it’s neither cheap, nor shoehorned. It’s perfectly natural, and for once, we get a story that has its cake and eats it too – dragging us through muck, but subtly pointing to a glimmer of a new life. There’s a slight ambiguity to it, but by the end, we’re grateful that Serling has not drowned the heavyweight in complete and total despair. There is, at least, a chance to clamber out of the pit, and that, ultimately, is worth its weight in gold.

Last, but surely not least, this truly great Criterion Collection of live dramas leads us to even more gold. Rod Serling’s script for Patterns might be the most savage work in the bunch. Set against the nasty backdrop of corporate roulette, we are witness to the decimation of a kindly, old-fashioned company man, Andy Sloane (Ed Begley), at the hands of Ramsey (Everett Sloane), a fierce CEO bent on tossing out the old and bringing in Fred Staples (Richard Kiley), the new, a lean up-and-comer to replace Andy.

We watch in horror as the shark-like Ramsey unrelentingly berates Andy in front of everyone. However, when fresh-faced rookie Staples realises the worth of the old man, he decides to work with him instead of against him. Not only does this raise Ramsey’s ire, but it forces him to manipulate things so old Andy looks bad while Staples shines.

When Staples moves in for the kill he rips Andy limb from limb, leading to the ultimate deathblow. Young Staples, appalled and in protest, resigns. Ramsey will have none of it. What poor old Andy refused to do was fight back, but what Ramsey wants is an executive who will fight him tooth and nail and, if necessary, slice his throat as handily as he sliced Andy’s. This, according to Ramsey, is what makes good business.

Staples considers, then agrees to stay, but only if the terms of his right to decimate Ramsey are written into his contract, including the right to fulfil old Andy’s dream to physically beat Ramsey to a pulp. Ramsey, looking like he has the biggest hard-on of his life, agrees. These are, after all, the patterns of manhood, the patterns of business – teamwork based on warfare and pure warfare for the good of the corporation.

Serling is on a soapbox, but the script never obviously betrays this fact. The dialogue crackles with authenticity and like the best of these dramas, Patterns is pure post-war American nastiness. The desperation, so common in post-war film noir, transforms into vicious warfare.

The work of artists like Serling, who had seen military action, is fraught with the sort of raw-edged, uncompromising, take-no-prisoners attitude. (A short list of such filmmakers would include Samuel Fuller, Sam Peckinpah, Frank Capra, Oliver Stone and John Ford – good company!) Having served in the Philippines during the Second World War – where death surrounded him constantly – Serling used his life experience and writing skills whenever he could to promote social consciousness (and certainly, his obsession with death was more than apparent in his brilliant anthology series The Twilight Zone).

Patterns, of course, deals with a number of issues – the most important being the shift from old-style corporate ethics and responsibilities towards workers and consumers to the bottom-line mentality of protecting the corporation’s profits and garnering the widest possible margin for the shareholders. Within these thematic concerns lies the true drama of the piece – an old man being repeatedly scavenged like so much carrion, yet with a few breaths left, he holds, so desperately with dear life, to a mere shred of his dignity. The drama of Rod Serling’s Patterns becomes so harrowing one can hardly believe such emotional truth and maturity could exist on a television screen.

Yet it does.

At least in that twilight zone called The Golden Age of American Television.

From the Dominion of Canada,
On the northernmost tip of the Bruce Peninsula,
I bid you a hearty:

‘Bon Cinema!’

Greg Klymkiw

Colonial Report from the Dominion of Canada above the 49th Parallel

Bruce Peninsula

Dearest Cineastes of the Celluloid Ecumenical Order that is Electric Sheep:

I launch this colonial report on the art of cinema from the northern-most tip of the Bruce Peninsula in the Dominion of Canada above the 49th Parallel. Since landing on these remote shores of the Niagara Escarpment, I have borne witness to a wide array of fine cinema in addition to the flora and fauna of this magnificent UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve. I am touched by the spirits of my long-dead Brethren of the Holiest of Orders when they, with their Black Robes and Rosaries, first traversed this grand Peninsula and penned their anthropological tomes oft-referred to as The Jesuit Relations.

With one road in and one road out, it is here, where a thin layer of soil allows some of the oldest trees to rest atop rock formations chiselled by the Great Spirit during the last Ice Age, that I can peacefully experience all that cinema has to offer. Like my Jesuit brethren, my flesh and soul will be pierced – not by implements of aboriginal torture, but rather through the feats of technology that deliver a means of experiencing cinema of the highest and lowest order. Nailing my feet to the floor of my rustic cabin, I attempt, for the umpteenth time, to sit through Béla Tarr’s Sátántangó as white-tailed deer feed upon lichen and moss affixed to boulders; magnificent orbs dotting the terrain like fossilised pellets expunged by the prehistoric Lepus americanus.

And just as the Jesuits experienced the wrenching pain of flagellation, I too alternately experience the Heavenly heights of pure orgasmic pleasure when at dusk, with the newly re-mastered Blu-ray of North by Northwest cued up, I notice a bulky figure on hind legs dining greedily from the bird-feeding trough. Hungry blue jays (Cyanocitta cristata) fret needlessly as their convenient source of nourishment is snorted back. ‘Fear not, little ones,’ I call out, ‘The delectable treats will be replaced by morning and the noble Ursus americanus will retreat into the forest and out of the gun-sights of the locals (Hosers bobus dougus mackenzieus Canadianus) who, ensconced within the venerable Royal Canadian Legion Hall, prepare for the Great Hunt over a breakfast of rye shooters and Molson Canadian beer chasers’.

A strange brew, indeed!

Aptly, I pen my exploration of cinema from the village of Tobermory, a hamlet in Upper Canada that was named by its Irish, Scottish and British pioneers after the town in the Hebrides where Powell and Pressburger’s film classic I Know Where I’m Going was set. Coincidentally, the colonial namesake played host to the North American premiere of the aforementioned picture in the late 1940s wherein hundreds of peninsula denizens journeyed via ox-cart to celebrate the picture’s entry into our Dominion above the 49th Parallel.

When I first happened upon this Garden of Eden during one of its six weeks of summer, throngs of vacationers bloated the population of 300 to 30,000. Due to the overwhelming number of churches on the Peninsula, I had automatically assumed this was a pious community, but an overwhelming joy enveloped me when a sign hanging from a local business caught my eye as a beacon of unimagined permissiveness – ‘GS Watersports’. With salacious elation, I was most familiar with ‘GS’, an acronym for ‘golden showers’ and ‘watersports’, also in the quaint parlance of avid fetishists at such délicieux newsgroup cyber-hideaways as ‘alt.binaries.pictures.erotica.sex.fetishes.golden_showers’.

I approached a seemingly friendly and comely young lass at a souvenir and ice cream stand on the sidewalk near ‘GS’, pointed to the sign and queried her regarding the village’s spécialité de la perversion. She curtly informed me that Tobermory is – due to clear water, unfathomable depths, ancient rock formations and hundreds of shipwrecks – one of North America’s most sought-after scuba diving locales. I furthermore asked her why transport companies in the early days of the colonies used the tip of this deadly peninsula as a key port. Alas, a horrendously porcine American family who wished to order triple scoops of frozen dairy product interrupted her and she was unable to provide an answer. The question regarding so many ships going down in an obvious death trap is a mystery to me, but current residents seem grateful to the long-ago-drowned and rather boneheaded seamen, whose sacrifices provide locals a livelihood beyond hunting, trapping, fishing, fucking and boozing.

The joys of cinema and nature are ever so boundless on these far Commonwealth shores. As I write these words of welcome to this regular column for Electric Sheep, I prepare to view a magnificent new Criterion Collection DVD entitled The Golden Age of Television and look forward to providing you next month with a personal history of American anthology television and a detailed review of the above mentioned masterwork of home entertainment – small screen gems worthy of a large screen.

And this then, dear readers, is how I plan to explore the world of cinema from these colonies. Armed with Blu-ray, DVD and laserdisc players, a battery of remote controls, my trusty laptop, a strong satellite wifi signal courtesy of the Canadian Coast Guard, a roaring fire in my stove, a Baikal semi-automatic shotgun on my lap and picture-window views to remind myself of the flora and fauna when I briefly avert my eyes from the high definition screen, I hope Рin this quiet paradise of our fine Dominion Рto illuminate, inform, tantalise, engage and perhaps, to entertain you in the wonder of what was, over one hundred years ago, wrought by the immortal Brothers Lumi̬re Рwhen moving images first passed through light, and magic appeared, as it always should, larger than life itself.

Greg Klymkiw

Next month: The Golden Age of American Television

London Film Festival 2013 – Part 4

The Witches
The Witches

BFI London Film Festival

9 – 20 October 2013

London, UK

LFF website

As this year’s London Film Festival draws to a close, we review more films from the 57th edition. Some better, some worse.

Check out Part 1, 2 and 3 of our 2013 LFF coverage.

The Witches (Cyril Frankel, 1966)
’Nothing can eat your soul,’ states the voice of reason, Miss Mayfield (Joan Fontaine), just before the mission school she has been running in Africa is attacked by freaky mask-wearing witch doctors and she dissolves into a blubbering mess. Months later she is back in England, supposedly recovered from her ordeal, but still clearly brittle. She is delighted to be offered the post of headmistress in the archetypal English village of Heddaby. Everything seems delightful at first, with colourful characters and rolling fields, but slowly bits of weirdness creep in, and all the locals seem overly concerned that schoolgirl Linda (Ingrid Brett, frankly, hot) should be separated from her would-be boyfriend as soon as possible. When the boy falls suddenly ill, and a headless plastic doll with pins in its chest is found, it becomes clear to Miss Mayfield that something is up, but as she begins to pry, her fragile state comes under strain, and under scrutiny.

The Witches is largely a woman’s picture, with Miss Mayfield (and her oddly Thatcherite hair) at the centre, and Linda and her mum, newspaper columnist/community leader Stephanie Bax (Kay Walsh), pushed to the fore, with the men supporting, at best. Alan Bax (Alec McCowen) is especially useless: ‘I wanted to enter the church but I failed,’ he says, and seems to spend much of the film going silent and sloping off whenever the conversation takes an awkward turn. It’s an atypical Hammer from 1966, adapted from a Peter Curtis novel by the great Nigel Kneale. I’m not sure how much is Kneale and how much Curtis, but the confluence of’ ‘old ways’ hoodoo with modern science is a Kneale trope, and certain lines have that spark of offbeat realism (‘I’ve got veins!’). The way that the full import of the words ’give me a skin for dancing in’ are left to dangle in the viewer’s mind is sublimely horrible. But time and again the full impact of the script is let down by pedestrian staging, and meat–and-potatoes cinematography. There are some nice shots and the occasional visual coup (a writhing, jerking cloth doll on a pentacled floor is authentically nightmarish). But a film in which the lead character may be losing her marbles should look a lot more deranged than this, and the climactic witches’ sabbath looks, unfortunately, like the rehearsals of an off-Broadway musical. All things aside, though, it’s a bit of a forgotten gem, looking ahead to elements of The Wicker Man and Rosemary’s Baby. Occult madness in sleepy England is always a winner, and Leonard Rossiter pops up as a doctor. Well worth checking out. MS

The Zero Theorem (Terry Gilliam, 2013)
Christolph Waltz plays Qohen Leth, a black-clad man in a day-glo world – a loud, irritating future of intrusive technology and automated intimacy. Not that he wants intimacy. He just wants to be left alone at the fire-damaged church he calls home, where he is hoping to receive a phone call that will explain his existence. After a strange encounter with the mysterious Management (Matt Damon) at a party held by his boss (David Thewlis), he is granted his wish to work from home, as long as he works on a hush-hush project, an attempt to assemble a computer model of an insanely complex equation. He makes better progress than most in a task that has driven others to despair, but still begins to lose his mind under the pressure. A therapy programme (Tilda Swinton) proves unhelpful, so sexy Melanie Thierry, as a kind of virtual call girl, and a teenage wizkid (Lucas Hedges), are brought in to keep him working, turning his ordered and isolated life upside down in the process.

Terry Gilliam’s latest is restless in its own skin, feeling like a hugely absurdist science-fiction satire trying to fight its way out of a five-hander play, or an intimate study of modern madness lost in an overactive hyperkinetic playground. Zero Theorem takes you to the edge of a black hole, and the beach of a tropical island at permanent sunset, but still feels claustrophobic. Where the likes of Minority Report are thematically dystopian, but fetishise the gleaming technology, Gilliam has a cartoonist’s eye for bullshit: the street advertisements in his lousy future address passers-by as the wrong sex, the pizzas sing annoying ditties, and digital communications are a great new way to not listen to each other. As you would expect from this director, the environmental detailing, the sheer visual exuberance, is something to behold. I heard ripples of delight spread around me at the screening from some shots, but this is, essentially, a beautiful boat without a goddamn motor. The earlier, kandy-koloured-Kafka scenes evoke a sense of stress and alienation many people in 2013 will be familiar with, but for the most part Leth’s problems, his goals and desires, are just too abstract and peculiar for easy identification (especially when he’s determinedly throwing off the advances of Thierry). Elements of the OTT visual dynamic obscure the storytelling. Forward momentum drops away, and the suspicion begins to grow that nobody knows where this is going or how to satisfactorily end it. It’s a film with many incidental pleasures, but little purpose. A downbeat, pretty, befuddled mess. MS

Watch the trailer for The Zero Theorem:

How We Used to Live (Paul Kelly, 2013)
Filmmaker Paul Kelly has built up a fine body of work over the last decade devoted to chronicling London’s hidden corners and gems, through films such as Finisterre and This is Tomorrow. His latest is a lyrical love letter to London’s post-war past, beautifully composed of footage housed in the BFI National Archives. With just the right amount of narration delivered by a throaty Ian McShane (and written by Bob Stanley and Travis Elborough), the film almost wordlessly lets the audience glide through the transformation of London into a modern city.

A blonde woman in a long white coat wanders lost among the bombed-out ruins of her neighbourhood; wrecking balls smash through the remaining walls of destroyed terrace homes; London Bridge is dismantled before its move to the US. The men in bowler hats commuting to work in the City are replaced by boys with long hair and leggy girls in mini-skirts. In one of the most engaging sequences, a skateboarder threads his way through the crowds crossing a bridge over the Thames to the sounds of Saint Etienne. The excellent soundtrack, composed by the band’s Pete Wiggs, terrifically sets the mood, from some jazzier numbers to more sombre notes, and in many ways it serves as the fabric that binds the interwoven images together. It’s easy to immerse yourself in the hypnotic visuals, and find delight in the little details that fill the frame with every shot. But what is most strikingly revealed in How We Used to Live is how much of the old London remains – shop fronts may have changed, cafés and clubs are gone, but the heart of the city, the people, are still there. SC

Watch the trailer for How We Used to Live:

Sx_ Tape (Bernard Rose, 2013)
Jill is a would-be artist being filmed going about her business by Adam, one of those boyfriends incapable of putting the camera down in films like this. She paints a little, they have sex, shop, eat, annoy each other. Try to have sex again, before being rudely interrupted. He wants to show her something: a huge abandoned hospital where ‘naughty women’ used to be sent to have abortions. The perfect venue for an art show. She breaks in, he, reluctantly, follows and then bad things happen to Adam and Jill and later arrivals Ellie and Bobby, the film’s regulation aggravating, macho arsehole.

It seems a little mystifying as to why Bernard Rose chose this script to mark his return to the horror genre; it’s a late jumper onto the ‘found footage’ bandwagon, passably executed and pretty unpleasant. There’s a theme, of sorts, about the abuse and exploitation of women, but it gets lost among the shock tactics. Too often the illogicalities felt preposterous rather than nightmarish, and the series of endings on offer at the climax of the film (none of which resolve the film’s police station-set opening sequence) seem to confirm that nobody really had a handle on this mother. I’d be lying if I said I was bored. Or that there was nothing here of interest, but films like this need to develop some solid, creepy ideas to really pay off, and this just ain’t working. MS

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. GK

Watch the trailer for Jodorowsky’s Dune:

Pioneer (Erik Skjoldbjaerg, 2013)
A pleasingly paranoid Norwegian thriller from Insomnia creator Erik Skjoldbjaerg. It’s the early 1980s and American and Norwegian diving teams are collaborating on a project which will exploit the oil and gas deposits to be found under the ocean floor in the Norwegian Sea. This is deeper than any diver has been before, and to this end the American team have developed a special breathing mix which should enable the teams to operate below 500m. But things go horribly wrong during the first test dive at sea, and Petter (Aksel Hennie, great), a dedicated diver with little outside life, becomes obsessed with finding out why, bringing him into conflict with political and commercial forces who want the tests over, and the money to start rolling.

As with Insomnia, a standard thriller set up is made much more interesting by a derangement of the senses. Petter is experiencing little blackouts, lacunae in his ability to function, and we are left unsure as to exactly how compos mentis he is – we have already seen him hallucinate a seabird into existence in the dry-run test of the opening sequence – so when he starts throwing accusations around, and breaking into offices to steal medical files, a suspicion remains that this might be all in his head. Decompression chambers here are used as instruments of torture, and places to isolate the inconvenient. Everything is murky, motives are obscure and, as in The Conversation, the evidence is open to interpretation. Pioneer plays games with focus, becoming increasingly woozy and warped as it goes on, and in the closing sections of the film Petter and the viewer have a case of the bends, which is not the best state to be in when unravelling a conspiracy or fending off shadowy killers. Good stuff, with an occasionally wonderful soundtrack by Air.
Potential viewers should be warned that this film contains Norwegian hair. MS

Watch the trailer for Pioneer :

We Are the Best! (Lukas Moodysson, 2013)
For all you punkety rockety girls out there, and those who love them: this is your new favourite film, you just don’t know it yet. With We Are the Best! (which is based on his wife Coco’s graphic novel), Lukas Moodysson returns to the inclusive humanism of his earlier work (Show Me Love, Together), rather than his pass-the-razor-blades phase (Lilya 4-Ever, A Hole in My Heart) or his what-the-bloody-hell-is-this phase (Container). It’s a simple tale: two 13-year-old girls, Bobo and Klara, are outcasts at school, mainly because it’s a bad place and time to be ferociously dedicated to punk rock: Stockholm in the early 1980s. Partly out of spite, they get the metal band Iron Fist thrown out of the practice room at their local youth centre on the pretext that they have a band, and having booked the room, they decide that they might as well start a band for real. Undaunted by their lack of talent, but aware that they ought to have somebody on side who knows what they’re doing, they recruit Hedwig, a Christian and another outcast, on guitar, and the film follows their trials and tribulations as they attempt to get it together for their first gig.

There is very little conflict here (an unfortunate haircut incident, a falling out over a punk boy), just a lot of brilliantly observed business about families and schools and pop culture and all that other stuff you have to negotiate when you’re 13. The girls are adorable, fearless and bulletproof, wide eyed and vulnerable, with their own cool punk chic (it involves a lot of scarves) and Moodysson perfectly captures that age when you can be obsessing over nuclear annihilation one minute and having a food fight the next. There is a great sense of time and place, and fun to be had about the difficulties of being a rebel when everybody’s so tolerant and accommodating (Swedish punk songs of the period seem pushed to find stuff to complain about). We Are the Best! finds time for everybody – youth club workers, parents, and hell, even Iron Fist are people rather than characters. There may not be a great deal to the film other than a little slice of time, but it’s bloody delightful – a warm, spiky hug. MS

Grand Piano (Eugenio Mira, 2013)
The experience of watching Grand Piano is something like wandering around a Victorian folly – a cunningly constructed, visually appealing exterior that knowingly obscures a lack of substance. Directed by Eugenio Mira, this giallo-influenced film stars Elijah Wood as Tom Selznick, a classical pianist who is about to perform in front of an audience for the first time in five years after a disastrous concert led to his retirement. The occasion: a tribute to his mentor a year after his death, and the once-in-a-lifetime chance to play his priceless grand piano before it’s shipped to Switzerland.

Wood effortlessly conveys all the stress and stage-fright that threaten his come-back performance, and his anxiety is only magnified when he discovers that there’s a sniper in the theatre threatening to assassinate his glamorous, movie-star wife if he plays a wrong note during his grand finale. There is a point to the slightly absurd plot, which is finally revealed towards the end of the increasingly bloody stand-off (although Mira does well with delivering an ambiguous ending). But it’s not the film’s premise that makes the movie appealing – it’s simply great fun to watch, an entertaining 90-minute visual treat. The art design is excellent, while the blood red tones that infuse the cinematography lend a terrific atmosphere to the thriller. There’s some clunky writing and ham-fisted acting by the more disposable characters at play, but in the end it all seems like part of the game. SC

The Sacrament
The Sacrament

The Sacrament (Ti West, 2013)
After his slow-burn Satanic chiller The House of the Devil and offbeat ghost story The Innkeepers, Ti West continues on his idiosyncratic path with a faux documentary investigating a religious cult in a far-off land. Presenting itself as an ‘immersionist’ Vice piece, it perfectly captures the mixture of reckless bravery and self-conscious ‘craziness’ that typifies the magazine through the characters of reporter Sam (AJ Bowen) and cameraman Jake (Joe Swanberg). When photographer Patrick decides to visit his former junkie sister Caroline in the commune she has joined, they tag along to document the reunion. Although they are met by intimidating armed guards when their helicopter lands on the island, their initial interviews with commune members seem to paint an idyllic picture of life at Eden Parish. But after a bizarre on-stage interview with Father, the charismatic cult leader, the surface begins to crack, and a far more sinister reality is revealed.

Very restrained in its use of violence, The Sacrament is about a disturbingly realistic kind of horror, recalling the Jonestown Massacre and similar fanatic cults. Key to the film’s emotional power is the complex character development, one of Ti West’s greatest strengths, helped by tremendous performances from the excellent cast. Aimy Seimetz is both unnerving and pitiful as the screwed-up sister who has traded drug addiction for another kind of escape, and Gene Jones is extraordinary as Father, a frighteningly intelligent, creepy, manipulative man, who also desperately believes what he preaches. There is a great sense of human tragedy in all of the characters, including the gung-ho reporters who sober up as they become the unwitting catalysts for horrifying violence. An intelligent, original, category-defying gem. VS

Virginie Sélavy, Mark Stafford, Greg Klymkiw, Sarah Cronin

A Deviant View of Cinema – Features, Essays & Interviews