Cast: Udo Kier, Geraldine Chaplin, Matthieu Amalric, Charlotte Rampling, Maria de Medeiros, Louis Negin, Géraldine Chaplin
The co-writer-directors talk about the perks and pitfalls of collaborating, Udo Kier’s haircut and the best remedy against forgetting people’s birthdays.
No barrier could hold what is unashamedly unleashed in Guy Maddin’s The Forbidden Room, and equally there is no stopping the wonderfully twisted mind of the Canadian filmmaker as he consistently pushes further the various ideas he has developed in his previous films, from his hypnotic debut Tales from the Gimli Hospital (1988) right through to the magical and haunting Keyhole (2012). This time, Maddin has co-written and directed the film with his collaborator Evan Johnson (who has been working with Maddin since 2009). Together they have crafted a perfectly chaotic, yet fiercely formal, billet-doux to the lost, destroyed and forgotten films of previous decades by reimagining their very essence, sometimes based on little more than the original title of the films or the bare bones of their narrative. Immersing itself in a mad melange of wild plotlines, colour saturations, tints and overlays, the film initially evolved out of an even more ambitious project called Seances. Maddin and Johnson made lost films in public, filming at the Pompidou Centre in Paris and at the Phi Centre in Montreal, and these films will be made available next year on a website devised so that each user’s experience is unique and unreproducible. Part of this complex project, The Forbidden Room can and should be watched a number of times, not only to discover the cinematic treasures it hides but to appreciate the relentless effort and sheer love that went into its making.
Pamela Jahn sat down with Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson at this year’s Berlinale to talk about the perks and pitfalls of collaborating, using intertitles in talkies, Udo Kier’s haircut and the best remedy against forgetting people’s birthdays.
Pamela Jahn: You’ve been working together on other projects in the past, but this is the first time you are officially co-directing. How did that come about?
Guy Maddin: We all worked together on the companion piece to this project, the interactive website called Seances, ‘we’ meaning Evan and I, and also our third writer Robert Kotyk. We co-created it just through discussions in the screen editing room. But when it came to shooting, Evan and I were very close together, we’re inseparable. I consult with Evan for advice all the time. I tend to hold the camera more often…
Evan Johnson: I never hold it.
GM: But you have done on other films, on My Winnipeg and other short films, you’ve actually done the cinematography, so occasionally you do shoot. And it’s basically all just filmmaking. In the same way I long had a guilty conscience about my editor John Gurdebeke because, if an editor gets a bunch of found footage and makes a documentary out of it, he’s called the director, but if he’s just editing footage that we’ve shot, he’s called the editor. And I remember years ago, before I started working with Evan even, I asked John if he wanted to be called the co-director, but he said, no thanks, he’d rather be paid. So I kept him to that but I do try to give a shout out to him as a fellow filmmaker. And Evan is my co-director because he, too, is a filmmaker, even though our duties aren’t exactly the same. I couldn’t have made the film without him, or the editor, but John got paid eventually and Evan and I haven’t, so there’s that. Evan also does editing, or assistant editing for John, who gets things in a rough draft from us. And he does all the colour timing and effects along with his brother, the production designer Galen Johnson. I don’t do any of that, but I sit in a big comfy chair and write intertitles, the silent movie text.
What inspired you in the first instance to use both dialogue and intertitles in your films?
GM: I first became inspired to include intertitles with dialogue by the precedence set in Josef von Sternberg’s The Scarlet Empress. I like the way he uses intertitles with lots of dialogue and I thought, yeah, why would you abandon this wonderful vocabulary unit, just because you can have actors talk? Why not put these intertitles in which you can really establish a lot of flavour, in which a lot of expositional work can be done. And just like the way a child – if he or she learns a new word – doesn’t cough up the last word, so the vocabulary just keeps getting bigger and bigger. So, we kept the intertitles as an option here as well, even though our movies are essentially talkies.
The film is multi-layered with different storylines, genres and characters. How did you decide how to connect the various parts and, eventually, to frame everything with a prologue on how to take a bath which feels like another film within the film?
GM: When we were shooting some of the larger elements – there is a Filipino ‘Aswang’ vampire film and lumberjack-‘saplingjack’ film – we knew that those where going into the feature, and we knew ‘How to Take a Bath’ would be part of it. But then we had to start planning the links, and some of that was done after the shooting was done, which meant we had to go back and shoot some transitions. The narrator of ‘How to Take a Bath’, Louis Negin, and I ended up in Havana last year on a vacation together, and at one point I put him in a room – he didn’t really know what was happening – and I just pulled out my camera and there I had him. I mean, it’s clearly not shot the same year, the same country, the same camera, because I just opened up the laptop with his lines on it in really large font, and I just sort of scrolled down for him while holding the camera, so he could read the lines. But I love that because I’ve always loved the way my granddaughter could just gleefully slap together items and make a collage or a drawing, something with a noodle glued on, and I love the way Ed Wood or Oscar Micheaux did the same thing with film. And so I thought, well, I need some transitional exposition from Louis, and I’ll just take my camera and shoot this stuff before he goes to the beach.
Despite the dipping in and out of different storylines you end up with a surprisingly classic melodrama-like structure that carries the film.
EJ: We literally structured the whole thing like a classic Hollywood movie.
GM: Yeah, we bought Robert McKee’s book on how to write a screenplay, or a story, or whatever it is called – I never said I read it, but I bought it. But no, we worked way harder on this. I like working quickly on set, but I’ve always kicked myself for working too quickly at the screenwriting stage and never writing a second draft, and this time, we did second and third drafts of each different episode even. It took a long time, but I really enjoyed collaborating with Evan. I have always feared confrontation, and whenever I drew up designs for sets, half the time, the production designer would say, ‘No, you can’t have stairs’. I think I made eight movies before I finally got three steps in a movie! So in a way, collaborating was actually just compromising heartbreak and me hating myself for not sticking up for myself. But in the writing room we’d all collaborate and we argued things through and whenever it got personal – we can argue quite vehemently – there was no hurt feelings, and I think I learned that from Evan and it feels really good. And since his brother is the production manager there is none of that other stuff either. I got stairs, I got other things… I understand that things needed to be cheap but I was never just told, ‘no, you can’t have this or that’. And because they are brothers, they almost always worked things out between them and I never had to deal much with that. Before, my editor was my collaborator, and the most important collaborator was the happy accident, but now I have many collaborators and I really love collaborating.
You mentioned the Seances project earlier. Can you tell me a bit more about it?
GM: We shot a bunch of our own adaptations of long-lost films at the same time in Paris and in Montreal, in some cases with the same cast even, like improvised live ‘happenings’. That’s going to be an internet interactive, where anyone visiting the website can call their own a seance of lost cinema: little fragments of films will come up and interrupt and combine and collide to form new narratives. The programme will generate a title for that film, you’ll watch it and then it’ll be lost again. The programme creates and loses unique films and the title will be entered in an obituary list. Hopefully the two companion pieces will help each other, that’s the master plan.
Are you using some of the footage from The Forbidden Room when creating those seances?
GM: There is a little bit. Some the stuff from the film will be used as raw material in Seances, but it will be much altered in many cases, because they are alternate plots that you can change to incredible degrees by just re-wording the intertitles. That part gets hard because you have to come up with a completely different story that somehow fits the same edit – that’s the part that has racked my brain the most. But it’s really fun, it’s really satisfying when you come up with a plot that somehow fits. I guess it’s somewhat akin to Woody Allen’s What’s Up, Tiger Lily? where he took the whole movie and changed its plot, but I’ve never seen the film, I’ve only read about it. And with Seances, there are literally 500 billion different permutations that are possible and I still don’t have a concept of that number, so every now and then I go, ‘Are we really losing and destroying those movies afterwards?’ But yes, we are!
You’ve also made an incredible effort reworking all the palettes and colour-timing the raw material, as if to give it a new life of its own.
GM: At one point we discovered that movies weren’t just being lost in the 20s and 30s but that the Khmer Rouge destroyed many films in the 70s and sometimes they even murdered the directors. And there were low-budget exploitation films that were getting lost just because there was only one print and the director lost track of it, or he died and his widow didn’t care, something like that. There were lost films from all over and, for example, when Evan was colour-timing that little musical number with the obsessive man he decided to give that a lurid 70s palette. Whether or not it reads as that is beside the point, but it just felt ‘nower’, not just imitating the very limited two-strip Technicolour palettes of real film history – basically a blueish green and a pinkish apricot – but creating other palettes as if from a parallel universe of something.
EJ: I think in that case it was more Udo Kier’s haircut.
GM: Yes, Udo had a blonde Moe Howard thing going that determined the palette. It was really despairing while shooting because it was my first experience shooting in raw colour HD video and I just didn’t have the right attitude, I wasn’t seeing things that were really beautiful. But I have a lot more courage now, knowing how much the footage can be fixed. I actually made a colour movie way back in 1992 (Careful) where I controlled the palette literally by painting everything. I would paint people’s faces, their clothing, the walls… I even painted the plants, literally. But because we were so poor on this film, we had to take our props from anywhere and there was just no palette to the naked eye, no order, no control, no art, no thought put into the colour. I just couldn’t afford to think about it, so it had to be added later.
Given the low budget, you worked with an incredible cast. How did you convince them to take part in the project?
GM: They just seemed to be up for an adventure, because there is no way they could have known what exactly they were doing. I just told them they’d be acting in public. They saw the scripts eventually because they had to memorise some lines in some cases, but I think they were just up for finding out. We didn’t waste time asking people who would just say no. It was just a matter of meeting everyone for a coffee or lunch, one on one, talking to them for a little while and, every time, they agreed to show up. I couldn’t believe it. I was just waiting for them to just storm out of the set, but they never did.
As always in your work, there is a great sense of humour in the film.
GM: I’m a laughter slut, ho ho. I always take a laugh. I know people earlier in my career didn’t know whether the laughs were intended or not, so it made people very uncomfortable or embarrassed for me to the point where they had to go home early. But then, because I never quite had the nerve to make a joke, if it got laughed at, fine, but if not then I could save my dignity and the joke hadn’t failed. This time though, I started to make some changes and I made some conspicuous gags – although they are not that conspicuous, there are still probably not more than two people laughing at once.
You talked about your obsession with dreams before and there are some Freudian references worked into the film. Are you a fan of his work?
GM: I am a fan in theory, but I think my publicist at the Sundance film festival described me as a six-year-old pervert…
EJ: a cross between Eisenstein, Italo Calvino and a six-year-old pervert.
GM: Exactly right. I’ve only read a little bit of Freud, on the interpretation of dreams, standing up in a book store and it just ruined dreaming for me for the next couple of months because I was interpreting them while having them. And I like having dreams, they just come out of me and mystify me, and I start figuring them out later, but I don’t need Freud’s voice nattering in my ear all the time telling me what to think. So I just have a basic cartoon understanding of what’s going on, just like a lot of people probably did before he existed anyway.
How much of this film derived from your dreams?
GM: A few episodes came straight from dreams – that I am willing to admit. I don’t know about Boba and Evan. But there are a few guilt dreams and empowered-ness dreams… The dead father one is a recurring dream I’ve had since my father died in 1977. But there are other things like forgetting wives’ birthdays… there are not just dreams, they happened in real life too, and then they revisited me as nightmares over and over again. It’s about time to get over that. And what I’ve learned is that by making movies about things that really matter to me, things that I have experienced, I sort of cure myself of them. It’s a form of therapy. I don’t know what kind of therapy that is, aversion therapy maybe, where you just make yourself sick of something, because in the act of making something that matters to you into a movie, you have to turn it into work units, you have to cast the thing, you have to design a set, you have to shoot it, edit it, sound design it, then you have to talk about it with people and by the time it’s finally over, you’re cured. I’m cured of My Winnipeg, I’m cured of my childhood, so now I am finally cured of forgetting peoples’ birthdays – I am going to keep forgetting them, but I don’t care anymore.
Colonial Report from the Dominion of Canada (above the 49th Parallel)
In the late spring of 2010, Jody Shapiro joyfully announced on Facebook that he was headed to Winnipeg to produce Keyhole, a new Guy Maddin fantasia starring Jason Patric, Isabella Rossellini and Udo Kier. I immediately sprang into action and furnished him with my most recently updated Greg Klymkiw’s Guide to Winnipeg (see sidebar for all the gory details). The following is our exchange on Facebook after Jody received it:
JODY: Thanks so much for the Guide. You’ll be pleased to know I’ve circulated it to the entire cast and crew and personally handed hard copies to Jason, Isabella and Udo.
GREG: Why do I have a feeling Mr Kier will take special interest in some of my suggested activities?
JODY: Hah! Agreed. Maybe Guy will do some of the things in your Guide to Winnipeg with me.
GREG: Can you do me a favour?
JODY: Name it.
GREG: At some appropriate moment of privacy and solace, would you (a) kneel before Guy on my behalf to pay him that special homage that only those who adore him with all their heart truly can and (b) whilst nimbly offering said tribute from the deepest pit of my soul, make absolutely sure that the photograph of me as Akmatov in The Heart of the World is firmly affixed to the top of your head so that his eyes are trained greedily upon my visage?
JODY: Done. Aaaaaannnnnnndddd done.
* * *
There’s a special language that develops, a shorthand, if you will, when two gents become acquainted, bonded forever, if you will, by sharing relationships with the same object of affection and, furthermore, communicating and/or commiserating, if you will, about said object of passion. Depending on the parties involved and how deep their respective repressions are, how dark and cosy their respective closets are, and how comfortable they be with each other’s mutual peccadilloes, one can safely say the aforementioned ligatures of manly gentility also apply to the greatest love/marriage of all; that between a movie producer and director. To wit, one can safely define Canadian surrealist film artist Guy Maddin and his relationships with producers within the following: beforeTwilight of the Ice Nymphs and afterTwilight of the Ice Nymphs. Acknowledging the happy aberration within these parameters, Vonnie Von Helmolt’s first-rate producerial gymnastics with Maddin on Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary, the ‘before’ in this equation would be myself, and the ‘after’, none other than the charming, brilliant, deeply committed artist and filmmaker Jody Shapiro, who began his odd professional-artistic history with Maddin some nine years after mine had ended.
Jody is the director of the all-new Burt’s Buzz, a supremely entertaining documentary portrait of Burt Shavitz, the man whose face adorns a myriad of sweetly gooey products hogging shelves of health stores and pharmacies the world over. Shavitz’s insanely ubiquitous honey-infused lip balms and other body applications that bear the moniker ‘Burt’s Bees’ and his life story will receive a Canadian theatrical premiere at TIFF Bell Lightbox (the year-round home for all of TIFF’s activities, including the Toronto International Film Festival) on 13 June, following its American theatrical debut on 6 June 2014. Jody’s film also enjoyed a successful world premiere during TIFF 2013, so it seems entirely appropriate the film launches here for the general movie-going public here in the Dominion of Canada.
Watch the trailer for Burt’s Buzz:
Yes, Virginia, Santa Claus is a myth, but at least there really is a Burt.
When I recently pinned Guy to a wall and asked if he’s ever harboured masturbation fantasies involving Shapiro, he blushed, shook his head rather unconvincingly, lowered his gaze from mine and instead launched into reciting his own unique Tod Browning-like scene (not unlike the bizarre Browning pitches detailed in the great biography Dark Carnival by David J. Skal and Elias Savada). Maddin’s Shapiro-inspired scene (which hopefully will tuck its way into some future Maddin endeavour) goes thusly:
‘I see Jody at the TIFF premiere of one of his films – he’s outside the theatre stressing about getting comps to his friends. A hundred comp requests have been cavalierly tossed off in recent email correspondences. In this hypothetical (and cruel) scenario, some of the friends feel guilty that they haven’t shown much interest in Jody’s filmmaking over the previous years, so they figure they can pay him a compliment by requesting free tickets to his show. Many of these intend to go, but as the premiere approaches they realize they would rather not go. Some of them get as far as the theatre where they are greeted by long anxiety-inducing line-ups, and the sight of Jody on tippy-toes trying to find his comped friends. For his part, Jody would rather he didn’t have so many friends, especially the ones failing to show up 15 minutes early as he requested. He would much rather be inside, hyperventilating and prepping his introductory remarks, but, no, he must find these friends. Now all the stomachs are churning. Oh, the all-round anxiety! As is often the case with funerals, this strong feeling – of dread in this case, not grief – is an aphrodisiac. Jody’s friends, some not even knowing each other, throng cheek-by-jowl together outside the theatre and bond over the atmosphere hanging over the festival. Soon they pair off and fall into nearby bushes in ardent clinches! (I’m thinking now of the bushes outside Elisabeth Bader Theatre!) And there they stay, forestalling dread and anxiety by attempting to satisfy their lusts of odd providence, and the excitement only gets more and more unbearable the closer Jody’s ever-searching footsteps come to their illicitly and thoughtlessly trysting bodies. I see the scene ending, as it must, with Jody returning to the theatre, now packed with those of the unknown public who lined up in the stand-by queue, the filmmaker’s pockets bulging with comps lovingly set aside for acquaintances who got off betraying his devotion. Hot! Super hot!’
My immediate thought is this: I wonder if such an inspirational confluence of passionate bodily juices would even remotely cross the cerebella of Shapiro’s childhood friends from his North York stomping grounds on Osmond Court near Steeles and Leslie – friends he’s maintained close ties with since those halcyon days among the sleepy, grassy suburbs of Mel Lastman Land (Mel being the longtime King of North York, one-time Mayor of Toronto and furniture salesman). And how about Jody’s parents? His school teacher/principal Mom and key Ontario government consultant Dad? Might they envision their son, a nice Jewish boy from the land of majestic synagogues, delis, creameries and bagel shops embroiled – no matter how inadvertently – in such Maddinesque shenanigans? Well, perhaps not, but Shapiro proudly maintains he was never expected to enter the stereotypically staid world of ‘professional’ activities involving accounting, lawyering, doctoring or dentistry.
‘My parents were always 100% supportive of my need to pursue art,’ says Shapiro as we puff cigarettes on the sunny outdoor Gabby’s King Street patio – conveniently across from the majestic TIFF Bell Lightbox complex.
In fact, other than to smoke my endless supply of bargain-priced Aboriginal ciggies, art is what’s brought Shapiro to the neighbourhood this very day. During the previous TIFF he marvelled at the huge display boards in the Lightbox lobby, which thousands of people pay homage to – scouring the ever-amorphous schedule of world cinema. ‘They’re designed, hand-crafted for utility, but they’re also beautiful in and of themselves. They represent one massive snapshot of an important cultural event – not just in this city, but the world,’ says Shapiro. ‘I asked Cameron [Bailey, TIFF Artistic Director] if the boards were archived but given TIFF’s storage needs, they eventually make a trip to the recycle bin.’
So what’s a feller like Shapiro gonna do? He photographs them, of course – his goal now is to photograph them every year from here on in and eventually – ‘Maybe a book, maybe an installation, perhaps even a permanent exhibit somewhere. Most importantly for me is that these photographs will exist as a record’ – of what once was, is and will be.
This makes complete sense, of course, as does his family’s support. There was probably never a time in Shapiro’s childhood and adolescence when he wasn’t looking at life through a camera lens. ‘Pictures tell stories,’ Shapiro offers. ‘Stories are everything.’
This early obsession with visual storytelling grabbed him by the lapels and hung on for dear life. As a teenager, he fell in love with the immediacy of the Polaroid SX-70 camera and used it to tell stories with a ‘single image’ and upon graduating from High School, armed with a portfolio that might have been the envy of most burgeoning Yousuf Karsh aspirants, he entered York University’s Fine Arts program where he began his studies in photography. He eventually switched to film and video. ‘Most of my time,’ he explains, ‘was spent waiting for a darkroom’. Mostly, though, his love of storytelling and his desire to capture a reality that was mediated through a lens drew him closer to pictures that moved.
Here, one major event changed his life immeasurably. He volunteered to give Rhombus Media partner Niv Fichman (The Red Violin, Last Night) a ride up to York for a guest lecture. Shapiro lived, by this time, in the Annex downtown, which one would presume was an ideal location for him to offer this kindness. Unfortunately, Shapiro did not own a car, so he needed to travel way up to North York, borrow his Mom’s vehicle, drive back downtown and wait outside for Niv. Then, the battery died. Neither Shapiro nor Fichman will ever be mistaken for grease monkeys and this spanner in the works proved a most vexing challenge, which they eventually pulled off with aplomb (and a bit of assistance from the roadside service of the Canadian Auto Association – one of the Dominion’s unsung heroes during the frequent inclement weather here in the Colonies).
Once the vehicle was roadworthy, the two gentlemen forged northwards. Shapiro was then afforded the opportunity to converse and hit it off with the head honcho of what was, at the time, the world’s leading production company devoted to classical music documentaries for television.
After graduation at York U in 1994, Shapiro joined the Rhombus team and never looked back. This became his real film school – one in which he assumed a variety of roles – learning from such brilliant directors as Larry Weinstein (September Songs: The Music of Kurt Weill) and Barbara Willis Sweete (Yo Yo Ma: Inspired by Bach) and, of course, one of the world’s most outstanding producers, Niv Fichman.
And it was here where Shapiro eventually met Guy Maddin in late 1999. Fichman had brokered a brilliant deal with TIFF to celebrate the festival’s 25th anniversary and the Preludes were born: a series of short films helmed from coast to coast by Canada’s most acclaimed directors, which Shapiro would be producing in the field. The films are endowed with high points, to be sure, but nothing – and I do mean nothing – comes close to the dizzying epic scope of Guy Maddin’s The Heart of the World.
‘The first time I met Guy was over the telephone,’ says Shapiro. ‘We were supposed to get acquainted and have an initial production discussion. I knew his work to this point very well and I must have spent days preparing for our chat, but all we talked about for an hour – maybe longer – was baseball.’
Shapiro has always believed that filmmaking should be fun, and in that he was influenced by Maddin, who urged him to treat the act of filmmaking as playing in a big sandbox. ‘It really was this collaboration with Guy that nailed it for me,’ notes Shapiro. ‘Fun truly became, and continued to be, the order of the day.’
Maddin, for his part, thinks the world of Shapiro, as a highly valuable producer and mensch of the highest order. ‘Look,’ insists Maddin in that way of insisting that only Maddin has. ‘The guy served 10 grinding years under the delightful thumb of Niv Fichman at the Rhombus dream factory, learning every aspect of filmmaking from top to bottom – at first, I’m sure, mostly bottom.’
Bottoms have always been integral to Gay Maddin’s art also, and he continues to wax eloquent on the matter of Fichman’s attention to Shapiro’s own bottom and subsequent moves up the ladder of love, the ladder of cinematographic epiphany. ‘I can think of no better place for a bright young thing to learn as much as Jody did, stuff they never teach you at film school,’ Maddin explains rapturously. ‘Rhombus stresses the slow massaging of the deal, getting to know the filmmakers organically. A great deal of stress is put on diplomacy, and with that, necessarily, on eating well with big league talent. Jody learned his diplomacy very well indeed and there is no more gracious man working in the business. He’s unafraid of titans as we approach them hat in hand to help us on our projects.’
I have to personally agree with Maddin. I first met Jody on the set of Heart of the World. Guy asked me if I would play the role of Akmatov the industrialist and I accepted immediately. This was a bit of long-gestating unfinished business twixt Guy and myself after I turned down the lead role in Tales from the Gimli Hospital to go to law school, but then never bothered to go – by which point, he’d recast it and I leapt on board as its producer. And now, here I was, so many years later – on the set and utterly in awe of this ‘kid’ Shapiro, tear-assing all over the place like a whirling dervish – even picking up a camera and shooting like some kind of Sven Nykvist on speedballs.
Maddin confirms Jody’s prowess as a versatile creative producer. ‘Jody’s a superb cinematographer. When he and I had trouble keeping DOPs on My Winnipeg – it turned out we were offering so little money we kept losing our cinematographers to other projects, including, in one case, a local French CBC-TV puppet show – we just decided that he would do the shooting, and we never regretted that. We saved $500 and he did a much better job than anyone else could have!’
The Shapiro-Maddin collaboration continued for several pictures. According to Maddin, the reason this relationship worked so well was Shapiro’s ‘impeccable sensitivity to the concerns of others, but iron will in his resolve to get results. That’s a rare combo in Canadian film, which is normally a roiling mess of deferential passive-aggressives enraged by how collaborators failed to intuit the most ardent hopes in others.’
While producing Maddin’s The Saddest Music in the World, Shapiro developed a close friendship and creative bond with star Isabella Rossellini. Between his own producing and directing stints (prior to Burt’s Buzz, Shapiro helmed the magnificent Ice Breaker and How To Start Your Own Country), he embarked upon Green Porno, Rossellini’s immortal series of short films sexualizing nature in all its glory. ‘Isabella is the Jean Painlevé of her day,’ says Maddin. ‘With a singular bio-comedic manifesto, an inscrutable tone so delicate it could easily get crushed by the distractions of simply making the work, it was Jody who was instrumental in helping her see her mission through. He frequently produced, directed or co-directed, and even shot the episodes.’
Rossellini, serving as an Executive Producer on Burt’s Buzz, concurs: ‘If it wasn’t for Jody’s special style of making films, I would have never been a director. He knows how films can be made diligently and meticulously, but without the many assistants running around and numerous memos and call sheets. This style actually gave me the courage to direct.’
Maddin adds: ‘Jody is there – as close to conception as is humanly possible and he’s there right till he put on his midwife’s hat. Do midwives wear hats?’
Well, Burt Shavitz certainly wears a hat and he’s been midwife to billions upon billions of bees and frankly, given Shapiro’s pedigree, could there be anyone better to tell Burt’s story than the meticulous, amiable Shapiro? Upon meeting Shavitz through Rossellini, who’d been contracted by the Burt’s Bees Company to be a spokesperson for their product, Shapiro was immediately taken with the bearded old hippie. Rossellini suggested the company hire Jody to shoot a series of interviews that they could use for archival purposes. Shapiro spent a few days getting to know Burt and interviewing him. Going through the footage, Shapiro was convinced a documentary film existed in there somewhere. When he heard that Burt, this supremely private old guy, happy to just be alone on his farm, would soon be taking a promotional tour to the Far East, Shapiro launched into action immediately. A film about Burt Shavitz had to be made.
‘This was the juxtaposition I needed,’ said Shapiro. ‘This is the story I wanted to tell – a private man who occasionally must become very public.’
Hearing Shapiro talk about his film – why he wanted to make it and how he’d be approaching it – was music to my ears. This was exactly why I was so thoroughly and immensely entertained by Burt’s Buzz. The film is mostly all-Burt-all-the-time and for me, was just what the doctor ordered. The camera loves the guy, and his low-key irascibility allows Shapiro to indelibly capture him as the man himself engagingly spins his own story – the city boy who moved to the backwoods to become an avid beekeeper, then, with assistance from the woman he loved, saw his business grow to gargantuan proportions. The shy country gentleman became a brand until melancholy set in and he became unhappy with corporate life. He then experienced the dissipation of love when he engaged in an affair with an employee. This is when his former lover and practical head of the company reportedly forced Burt to sell out his shares for peanuts.
There are certainly any number of strands to this story for any filmmaker to go in and sever the jugular – most notably the implication that Burt is forced out for reasons of sexual harassment, and the unavoidable fact that his former company and, importantly, his image are being used by a corporate entity that now owns the whole shooting match of Burt’s Bees, an entity seen in some circles as anything but a model citizen of natural, whole, healthy remedies.
Burt Shavitz, you see, is no longer just Burt Shavitz – everything he was, is and continues to be, especially as the face of Burt’s Bees (both in terms of branding and in public appearances) – is owned by the dreaded Clorox Corporation.
Shapiro maintains a sense of ambiguity around the issue of Burt’s potential engagement in sexual harassment, which I’d strongly agree with. Given that Shavitz comes from an era of free fucking galore, he’d have no idea what sexual harassment was if it came along and tore out a fresh asshole in his posterior regions. Not that that should be an excuse, but I genuinely feel the guy is a charming, ruggedly handsome rake, but because he also does have a degree of naivety coursing through him, I’d have no difficulty in believing he could be duped into signing a dotted line based on allegations of said harassment – never by the ‘victim’ in question, but in fact, by ‘the woman scorned’ – the woman he was once in love with and, the film implies, might still be in love with.
At the end of the day, this is great storytelling.
As to the whole issue of the Clorox connection, Shapiro maintains: ‘That would be a different movie. It’s not the one I wanted to make.’ As a viewer, I agree. It’s certainly not the movie I’d have personally wanted to see. Burt Shavitz is just too damn cool and I’d prefer to spend time with him – not a story dealing with environmental ironies. That so clearly isn’t Burt’s tale.
Besides, one of the astounding bits of information Shapiro relates is that the company sold back the rights to all his original interview footage with Burt for practically nothing. Even more amazing is that they signed every piece of legal documentation Shapiro needed to make the movie his way – without any approvals of any kind. They signed everything before Shapiro proceeded to make the movie. They then gave him unfettered access to anything and everything. If Shapiro had wanted to make either a promotional film or one that shredded the company from top to bottom, he had every right and all the permission he needed to do so.
He was interested, ultimately, in the man himself.
This is echoed by one of Shapiro’s biggest champions, Steve Gravestock, a Senior Programmer with TIFF and the topper of their Special Canadian Projects and, in general, all things cinematically Canadian. ‘Jody has lots of the qualities good directors have, he’s energetic, committed, curious,’ says Gravestock. ‘I think his rarest quality, particularly within the filmmaking world, is that he seems sort of ego-less. At least, he doesn’t seem to be driven by it either exclusively or primarily. That trait served him well as a producer obviously but it is also probably one of the most important attributes a documentary filmmaker can have. It allows Jody to respond to and profile his subjects in a way devoid of overt editorializing. He has made films about people whom most or many would dismiss as eccentric or just plain nuts, but being dismissive isn’t in his films at all. That doesn’t mean that he’s overly sympathetic to his subjects or functioning as a cheerleader or lacks his own point of view, but he has that kind of clear-eyed empathy allowing us to encounter these people without leaping to easy value judgments.’
At one point, during our time together, Shapiro reveals how insanely busy he’s been with school. ‘School?’ I ask. He responds that he’s studying at George Brown College to be a chef and hopes to soon be interning at a friend’s restaurant. My response is almost dismissive – as if this is just some kind of a hobby. ‘Oh, that makes perfect sense,’ I offer and then add, ‘Cooking – especially at a heightened level – is clearly a fabulous creative outlet.’
Shapiro lowers his head then raises it with a smile. ‘Look, I really have no idea what the future’s going to bring for me in the film business. It’s not like what I do puts me in a position where I can actually apply for a job. I can’t actually be hired for anything.’
‘Fuck off,’ I tell him. ‘You’ve just made a movie with your own money, you own it free and clear, you’ve got John ‘Fucking’ Sloss’s company FilmBuff handling sales and Burt Shavitz is beloved all over the world. On that alone, the movie’s going to sell to millions of his fans. And what? You’re going to chuck it all and be a chef?’
He smiles demurely, excuses himself and heads to the little boys’ room. I’m wondering if he’s pulling a Burt Shavitz on me. Two days later, I got my answer. He sent me a text message that reads: ‘Just made this in class tonight. I thought of you immediately.’ Attached is a photograph of the most mouth-watering Ukrainian food I’ve laid eyes on since my Baba died. I wonder if her spirit has somehow parked itself in Jody’s soul. Then it hits me like a truckload of kishka. I remember that Jody’s grandfather served up some of the finest delicacies this side of North End Winnipeg and that side of the Montreal Main at the long-gone Quality Kosher Kitchen at Dundas and Spadina.
A few weeks later, I’ve dragged Jody to Jilly’s, one of the finer Gentlemen’s Clubs in Toronto, which sadly, will soon be shuttered because of the endless gentrification of the biggest city in our fair Dominion. While we’re getting private dances in the V.I.P. room, I tell Jody my fantasy of buying the building to save this shrine to the magnificence of the female form and forevermore keep a safe harbour for the young fellows of the local Hell’s Angels (formerly ‘Satan’s Choice’) to continue celebrating birthday parties.
Shapiro smiles and admits, ‘I have a fantasy, too. It’s a perfect fit for this obsession you have of always drawing parallels between us, but this time, it has nothing to do with Guy.’
‘Do tell,’ I plead like some chub in the Steamworks Baths in Toronto’s Church Street Boys Town.
‘Well, I may be a lot more Klymkiw-esque than you think,’ he answers saucily. ‘I’ve recently gone into full-on survivalist mode.’
‘You’re finally building a fallout shelter?’ I ask whilst Wanda, a comely platinum blonde, grinds into my crotch.
‘I’ve teamed up with Michel Hunter, an executive chef who hunts,’ he declares proudly whilst demurely gesturing to Flossie, a nubile African-Canadian adorned in a fluorescent pink wig, that he’s happy with her gyrations at a greater distance than my own. He continues: ‘The two of us are working on a photo book about wild game hunting and preparation. I’ve now cooked four different squirrel dishes! Delicious!!!’
He paused wistfully then said, ‘You know that thing I mentioned to you when we last met? The cooking thing? Well, I really have become obsessed with cooking and I’m finally staging in a real kitchen when I have the time – working the line and everything. My fantasy is that I’m training to be a chef and may one day switch careers.’
Ah, I think, he’s not genuinely abandoning his brilliant filmmaking career. Nestled in the comfy red-velvet-lined comfy chairs at Jilly’s, I can’t get an image out of my head – one that’s married to Guy Maddin’s words from his sex-charged Tod-Browning-like idea for a scene in a movie involving Jody.
I think long and hard about the Ukrainian food he prepared. I see the soul of my own Baba and the soul of Jody’s Zayde swishing about in the very depths of Shapiro’s soul – their ‘trysting bodies in ardent clinches’. It becomes clear to me that there could be a lot worse than making movies and cooking. Kind of like Burt Shavitz enjoying the adulation afforded him by fans in a Target store and his fees from that allowing him the privilege of living life the way he likes it best – in solitude – his loyal dog at his side amongst hills, trees, birds and, of course, the bees.
From the wilds of the northern-most tip of the Bruce Peninsula in the Dominion of Canada, I bid you a hearty ‘Bon cinema!’
Burt’s Buzz is released theatrically in selected US cities on 6 June 2014 and at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Canada on 13 June 2014.
A collaboration between filmmaker Jim Jarmusch and composer Phil Kline
World premiere: 26 January 2014, Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra’s New Music Festival
Venue: Centennial Concert Hall, Winnipeg, Canada
Artistic directors and curators: Alexander Mickelthwate, Matthew Patton
The grand, red-carpeted Piano Nobile of Winnipeg’s Centennial Concert Hall rests majestically under several chandeliers, which are not unlike bushy, shimmering inverted Christmas trees the size of the four-storey early 20th-century neo-classical corporate buildings that continue to dot the downtown streets of this once-powerful Midwestern Canadian burgh that reigned for three quarters of a century as a transport hub so vibrant it was dubbed ‘Little Chicago’.
These days, one is more likely to see tumbleweeds scuttling across Winnipeg’s wide avenues rather than people, but on blisteringly subarctic nights like this one, 26 January in the year of Our Lord 2014, one spies a few mighty snow-ploughing tractors and, sadly, weather-beaten panel vans filled with humanitarian aid workers dispensing hot coffee, sandwiches and blankets to the city’s homeless who stumble, Dawn of the Dead-like, o’er the icy streets under the warming influence of Lysol and cheap cooking wine from nearby Chinatown.
This is the Winnipeg currently governed by Mayor Sam Katz and a city council working in the grand tradition of those civic rulers before who, for personal gain, destroyed a once-great city’s genuinely vibrant downtown.
There is, however, no such blight within the warm confines of the palatial home to the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra where a happy post-performance reception takes place in homage to a night in which history, albeit cultural history, has been made here in Historic Winnipeg, the Forgotten Winter City of Death, Dreams and Dashed Hopes.
The guests of honour are none other than celebrated American filmmaker Jim Jarmusch and his collaborator, composer Phil Kline. They are here to present the world premiere of what will be the first of several public offerings of an exciting new work-in-progress, an opera entitled Tesla in New York. This collaboration between the pair of childhood chums, now well into their august years, bears the armament of their mutual love, appreciation and admiration for the legendary inventor Nikola Tesla.
Jarmusch himself is an impressive figure to his assembled admirers. Adorned in a military-green long-sleeved flannel shirt and black jeans, and sporting his trademark shock of white porcupine-needle hair upon his huge, brain-stuffed dome and his intense, and impressively chiselled, Hungarian facial featurs, he also fits the mould of the youthful ’Pegger artists who join him amongst the tony, blue-rinse set of Winnipeg’s ‘Old Money’.
‘Music,’ says Jarmusch after the performance, ‘is the most beautiful form of artistic expression and I sincerely believe film is the most closely related artistic form to music. It’s why I make movies, but it’s also why I feel the need to make opera.’
To say that music is often the driving force behind Jarmusch’s cinematic visuals, if not their very heart and soul, might well be an understatement. Can anyone imagine Eszter Balint in Stranger Than Paradise dragging her luggage through the monochrome warzone of New York without Screamin’ Jay Hawkins intoning his crazed seductive yelps of ‘I Put A Spell on You’, or for that matter as the film’s Greek Chorus of ennui and passion?
‘Music’, Jarmusch elaborates, ‘is my guide into the greater world through the medium of film. There were many places I’d never visited and wanted to get to know because of the music that came from them. The music of New Orleans and Memphis, for example, are what led me to eventually make films like Down by Law and Mystery Train. As for Tesla in New York, I know New York intimately, but I’m hoping the opera will allow me, through fact, fancy and imagination, to get to know Tesla’s New York.’
Music and made-in-Winnipeg-cinema have always nestled cosily under the fluffy blankets of glorious warmth and forgetfulness. To wit: earlier in the evening, while grabbing a smoke outside the Centennial Concert Hall in the -40 climes, I spied Guy Maddin, surely one of cinema’s great working film artists. He was scuttling maniacally up the granite front steps, strewn with sand to prevent icy tumbles, hurtling himself into the balmy ticket vestibule.
I sucked back the remainder of my bâton de cancer filled ever so generously with tax-free all-Natural Native Tobacco I secured earlier that day on a nearby reservation populated by my entrepreneurial Aboriginal Brothers. I then made my way to greet the esteemed Mr Maddin who was waiting patiently in line at the ‘Will Call’ wicket.
Adorned unrecognisably in my heavy-duty Ukrainian-immigrant-to-Canada Winnipeg chic, I jammed myself rudely in front of him in the line-up with nary a glance, nor word. I could feel Guy’s fury over this rude display of line jumping. I took further delight in imagining his steely Icelandic eyes boring deep holes of mounting anger in the back of my bushy rabbit-fur Dr Zhivago hat (purchased years ago from a street vendor on the Maidan of Kyiv, long before it was stained by the blood of Ukrainian freedom fighters).
I chose, however, not to let the magma well up too much in my old pal’s head and soon turned to offer my familiar visage, which was immediately met with a most incredulous jocularity from within his very being that filled that delectably bearded face of aquiline Nordic fortitude.
Where else could Jim Jarmusch launch a new opera?
Guy was torn about attending the post-concert reception. He’d never met Jarmusch and really wanted to, but he also expressed that this was ‘Jim’s night’ and he didn’t wish to cast any ‘pestilence’ over the affair with his presence. Guy did not elaborate beyond this. For some, he seldom needs to. I did, however, know immediately I’d not see him on the Piano Nobile later and that it would indeed be for very good reason.
To paraphrase James Cagney in Raoul Walsh’s Strawberry Blonde, ‘It’s just the kind of hairpin he is.’
And sure enough, Mr Jarmusch later expressed some disappointment that he’d yet to make Mr Maddin’s acquaintance. He furthermore noted: ‘Guy Maddin is an incredible musician. His films are incredibly and purely musical.’ Jarmusch is especially taken with Guy’s latest project, Spiritismes, an epic feature undertaking to remake lost films from the dawn of cinema that never existed but should have. ‘Guy wants to recreate things that don’t exist,’ Jarmusch intones respectfully. ‘Who else laments films and music that are lost and gone for all time? I want to hug Guy and yet, I don’t even know him.’
I suspect Maddin and Jarmusch know each other all too well, if only through the shared language of cinema and, of course, imagination.
‘Imagination is the strongest thing we have,’ says Jarmusch. ‘It’s always the beginning of any artistic or scientific endeavour.’
How appropriate, then, that we will soon have a chance to witness the blending of art and science. Below is a revised version of my Film Corner review of Tesla in New York.
A night sky, an ocean, wisps of white and a blue, so radiantly, yet alternately nocturnal and aquatic, cast a glow upon a stage empty of human figures on a landscape of instruments, music stands, speakers and amps – all standing forlorn in silhouette, waiting to be held, caressed and lovingly brought to life by the warmth of a human touch as the vaguely industrial aural pulsations of an unsettling drone wash over all in its path. It’s like Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music on lithium – so uneasy, so disorienting, yet so lulling – a magnet drawing us closer to either death or rebirth. Or both.
A night sky, an ocean, wisps of white and a blue, so radiantly, yet alternately nocturnal and aquatic, cast a glow upon a stage empty of human figures on a landscape of instruments, music stands, speakers and amps – all standing forlorn in silhouette, waiting to be held, caressed and lovingly brought to life by the warmth of a human touch as the vaguely industrial aural pulsations of an unsettling drone wash over all in its path. It’s like Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music on lithium – so uneasy, so disorienting, yet so lulling – a magnet drawing us closer to either death or rebirth. Or both. This is the appetiser to the main course of several new musical pieces performed by a myriad of brilliant, talented performers.
The performance is unveiled in the acoustically rich Centennial Concert Hall and though, in typical Winnipeg fashion, a Winnipeg Jets hockey game proves to be enough of a rival that the 2,000+ seats appear mostly empty – save for about one half the capacity of the majestic hall’s Orchestra level – those Winter City denizens who are not eyeball-glued to the town’s newly-restored-to-NHL-glory Jets are treated to an event of such artistic magnitude that they will carry the memories of it to their progeny and subsequent generations, long before they flutter away to their eventual respective deaths with the sounds and images of a work that seems destined for greatness dancing across their cerebella and into the warm, white light that awaits us all.
This was, to coin a phrase from one of my mentors, the late, great Meyer Nackimson, the legendary octogenarian film distributor who refused to retire and ran the MGM/UA distribution branch office on Hargrave Street in Winnipeg until he was forced to leave the movie business when the office was completely shut down in the late 80s:
‘Kid, Estelle and I saw the picture the other night and it was ONE HELLUVA GOOD SHOW!’
Though it was not a motion picture in the traditional sense (and the late Meyer and wife Estelle could have only viewed the proceedings from the Heavens), what we witnessed was indeed one helluva good show, , and most definitely a profoundly moving experience. Like so much great art presented within the picture-perfect magic of the proscenium, Tesla in New York was a visual and aural treat that made expert use of the stage in terms of the placement of singers, musicians and conductor/artistic director Alexander Mickelthwate (adorned ever so stylishly in a perfectly fitting suit of Winnipeg Grey as he wielded his mighty baton).
The simple, but beautifully focused and operated lighting cast its sweet glow over the renderings of exquisite music whilst, most notably, the aqua-blue screen morphed into an astounding montage of early Edison motion picture footage, edited by acclaimed experimental Winnipeg filmmaker and one-time Maddin collaborator Deco Dawson (who, according to Jarmusch, has ‘liquid hands’) and Matthew Patton (the New Music Festival’s fancifully chimeric co-curator) and under the guidance of Mr Jarmusch himself (who described his own words of direction in this matter as an ‘oblique strategy’).
Oblique or otherwise, it all pays off.
With Mickelthwate and company, plus the audience itself, being enveloped in the historic Edison footage (stolen for this production on, it seems, Tesla’s behalf in a perverse retaliatory act for all that Edison stole from Tesla – and, in fact, what Edison pilfered from pretty much everybody), I simply cannot imagine any subsequent production of this work without motion picture footage.
Though I was somewhat embarrassed to have used the clichéd word ‘electric’ to describe the production to Messrs Mickelthwate and Patton in their sumptuous Green Room after the show (well stocked with a fridge full of lovely spring water from the majestic Loni Beach in Gimli, Manitoba), I think, in retrospect, that it’s a perfectly fine word to have used.
Tesla, the Serbian inventor from Croatia who eventually found fame in the New World, was nothing if not the father of all things electric (in spite of Edison’s thefts) and it felt to me like the music and the performance were definitely infused with the very quality of electricity – aurally, emotionally, thematically and yes, at times, even visually.
Take, for example, the stunning, partially improvised Overture, wherein Mickelthwate guided singers and musicians alike to provide both melody and a fluffy, comfy bed for the onstage extension of the Lou-Reed-like Metal Machine Music drones in the pre-show. Kline and Jarmusch took to opposite ends of the stage and created some of the most haunting electric guitar feedback I’ve yet to experience, signalling precisely what this show seems to be all about: the force and power of electricity and all the ramifications and permutations of its magic as born from the mad genius of Tesla’s mind, and to put a perfectly appropriate fine point to it, Tesla’s boundless imagination.
Once the several pieces beyond this staggering overture began, one could, at points, gently close one’s eyes and launch into a very private place in one’ imagination to recreate Teslas’s heart and soul, allowing Kline’s often heart-breaking and alternately, elatedly soaring score to take us to those hidden, magical places of what Nikola Tesla wrought for us all, but what, he in fact, wrought for himself. The evening’s musicians and singers were all in superb and inspired form, but it would be remiss of me to not make special mention of the stunning work of mezzo-soprano Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek, whose voice took us to places of both darkness and romance.
I must also single out countertenor David James (of the astonishing a cappella Hilliard Ensemble who so gorgeously opened the evening’s program). James fit this score like a glove. When I think of Tesla, I am always infused with thoughts of madness, genius, passion and an overwhelming sense of the unrequited (in terms of both love and career). James took me to places I both wanted to be and didn’t want to be and I can think of no better approach to a figure as important and complex as Nikola Tesla.
In all, the importance of this event to the cultural fabric of our new century seems clear. This was history in the making and from this point forward, one can but marvel and dream as to what magic will ultimately be produced when Kline and Jarmusch move forward with this work that explores one of the great human beings to have ushered us all into the 20th century.
Now, however, as we face in this 21st century both the power and danger of manmade resources and accomplishments, Tesla seems even more vital a figure for us to consider. To do so with art, with imagination, with music, with a myriad of multi-media and live performance seems very much a no-brainer. After the evening’s performance, Jarmusch cited the following inventions as the greatest manmade accomplishments: ‘Mapping the human genome, the Hubble telescope, the electric guitar and the bikini.’ One would like to think Tesla might approve.
Good Goddamn! My appetite has been whetted.
The buffet will follow and it will be sumptuous.
Tesla in New York, a collaboration between Phil Kline and Jim Jarmusch is currently a work-in-progress for an opera that will eventually take the world by storm. Thanks to the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra’s New Music Festival, the first gold bricks have been laid down to take all of us to the Castle of Operatic Oz – a place of beauty, of imagination and wonder. Nikola Tesla himself would have it no other way.
From the Dominion of Canada, I bid you a hearty, ‘Bon Cinema!’
Cast: Jason Patric, Isabella Rossellini, Udo Kier, Kevin McDonald
Keyhole is Guy Maddin’s latest and by far most ambitious film to date. Trying, as usual, to make sense of the memories and feelings from the past that haunt him day and night, Maddin this time has crafted a heady amalgam of sinister black and white 40s noir-gangster flick, Homer’s Odyssey (loosely adapted), Hollywood melodrama and haunted ghost story. Like all of Maddin’s work, it’s a perfectly twisted, dark, dreamlike cinematic encounter that stays in the back of your mind long after you have re-entered reality.
Pamela Jahn met with Guy Maddin at the 62nd Berlin International Film Festival in February to talk about dreams, light switches and wolf heads, the importance of giving movies a second chance and the horror of watching your own films with an audience.
PJ: Let’s start with the obvious: do you actually believe in ghosts?
GM: It’s funny, I don’t believe in ghosts at all and I am not scared of the dark or things like that until I hold a movie camera in my hand. Then I believe in ghosts. Maybe there is some sort of natural selection at work but it’s just so convenient to believe in ghosts when you are a filmmaker, either as a metaphor or a way to get your sense of a story airborne, or even just to make yourself suspend disbelief. It’s all sorts of things, but the truth is, when movies are working well people start believing in things they wouldn’t normally believe in. So I am quite comfortable with that little camera-generated adhocracy. It’s just like when you’re a little kid and your grandmother is telling you a bedtime story. There are all sorts of things at play, and at least for the time being you believe in what she’s telling you. And it feels pretty good. But on the other hand, I feel very haunted all the time. Maybe I am far more than average a backward peering guy.
What are you haunted by?
Well, we all live in the past and the present simultaneously, but for some reason the past seems to have a stronger demand on my emotions than on most people’s. Sometimes I’m haunted just by the way things once were and by a longing that they could be that way again. But it’s also quite simple in the way that I’m haunted by a love that is gone. Don’t get me wrong, I like these hauntings. I have a dream life that is cramped with sadness for some reason. I don’t get nightmares, instead I get these kind of emotional injections. But I like them in the same way people like, say, listening to Billy Holiday.
What happens in your dreams?
I see people and places. Places are very important to me, especially homes that I once lived in and which really mattered to me. Or people that have already gone reappear with a vibrancy of recollection that I can’t master while I am awake. But I like these experiences. It is my way of keeping these old relationships alive. I even got to know my father better in my dreams. He is a much nicer man now and we agree a lot more on things. I remember I had a girlfriend once who had a very ‘New Agey’ attitude towards it and one day she told me: ‘You really shouldn’t be dwelling on this stuff. Next time someone reappears from the past in one of your dreams, just tell them you love them but that it’s time for them to go. So you can say goodbye to them and then they won’t reappear in your dreams anymore.’ Basically, after that, we just broke up.
What is the strongest memory you have had that found its way into the film?
That’s an interesting question because I haven’t had the courage to assess what insistent memory made it all the way to the final cut… I’m not sure. There are a couple of little mentions of things. For example, when Jason Patric, who plays the father in the film, enters a room – even though he is not sure who he is or whether or not he is alive – it’s just the fact that his hand knows exactly where the light switch is. I had a few very uncanny dreams about that in the past. I normally have no control over my dreams otherwise I would just stay in bed all the time, dreaming. But I had one or two dream experiences in my life where I could literally stay in a dream on purpose. I found myself in my childhood home, which for some reason I miss very badly. About four or five years ago I think, I stopped dreaming less and less about people and more about architecture, precisely, the architecture of an empty home. Sometimes there seem to be people present in the next room or so, but it is mostly architecture.
I had one dream where I was just in my old bedroom and I opened up my drawer, and that’s a scene that made it into the film, where I could actually see everything exactly the way it was in 1968. And it wasn’t me bullshitting myself, it really wasn’t uncanny. I remember looking into the drawer and seeing a razor and a pencil sharpener and a little ink pot that I hadn’t thought of for some 40- odd years. Things that I had forgotten all about were in that drawer. Then I decided to look up from the drawer because I couldn’t exactly remember what was on my shelves. When I looked up, I saw exactly what was there, and I started walking around in the room and I could remember where the light switches were and what the plastic plates around the light switches looked like. I do remember that, as a kid, I knew exactly were all the light switches where. At certain doors there were on your left and at other doors they were on your right when you entered the room. Sometimes you had to switch the switch upwards or you had to remember to switch it downwards. It took me many years to figure that out, lots of trial and error, but in my dream it was all clear. Then it became an issue not worth remembering at all because the house was sold. But in this dream it all came back.
I have heard that you don’t really forget anything and that your brain is full of all the memories you’ve ever had. It’s just a matter of accessing them. I had a similar dream that was not as good but where I could access everything as well and it felt like maybe I was dead. It felt like I was literally haunting. At first I was thinking: ‘Jesus, I’m haunted by this house.’ But then I realised it felt more like I was the one haunting the house, because there was no one in it except for me wandering around, trying light switches and looking in drawers. And while I don’t believe in ghosts it gave me gooseflesh to think that maybe in those moments I am just a ghost myself. Since we all live in the past and the present simultaneously, maybe I was living in the future as well, I don’t know.
Do you wake up and make notes immediately after you’ve had a dream like this?
I do find that if you write a dream down afterwards you will remember it forever, but if you don’t, you sort of forget it. But that one was so vibrant that I couldn’t forget it anyway. It hasn’t all stayed with me though. But then I arranged for a visit inside my old childhood home, and a lot of the light switches were still there. Also, I had my own bathroom as a boy, and there was a little chip in the plaster above the heating that you could only see when sitting on the toilet. You could see this little dent, someone had put some scotch tape over it and then painted it but, to me, it looked like a wolf’s head. That was the first thing I checked when this guy gave me permission to look through the house. I went straight to my old bathroom to see if the wolf’s head was still there, because I also had a couple of dreams about it and I was very worried that someone had chipped it off or fixed it but, luckily, it was still there. After that visit, I often wondered whether the guy who bought the house maybe also sees a wolf’s head in the tape, or if he sees something else because his childhood was so different to mine. He is exactly the same age, a My Lai survivor. So, when I was 12 years old and looking at Playboy magazines in my bathroom, he was in My Lai going through horrible things. Now he sleeps in my bedroom and I often wonder what he’s haunted by. It must be the most unhealthy way of planning one’s future, but if I ever get enough money, I would just buy the house back from him, or live with him. It’s a big house. And I love my childhood, so it would be a way to sort of slide back with perfect symmetry into my second childhood.
Keyhole is more than just a childhood memory though. There are many different elements coming together, and critics have talked about your films before as being impossible to grasp and to classify. Do you like that idea, or do you sometimes feel disappointed that audiences and critics don’t get what you are trying to do or say?
I always thought that it was great when people told me that my films are impossible to put in a drawer. So I’d say: ‘Oh, thank you’, and they’d respond: ‘No, that’s terrible. You would be doing yourself a big favour if you worked in a genre.’ And then they’d tell me I should work in science fiction, a genre I don’t find much of a connection with for some reason, even though it has so much potential. To some extent, science fiction and horror seem so close together as an element of fantasy. But I still like my horror films scary yet slightly allegorical to a degree where I’m not sure whether I can figure out the allegory. If I can’t figure it out, that’s even better. But it has to be rooted in something that we all feel, whether we believe in saucers or vampires or not. We all feel those things but they are dressed up in the horror genre garb. I like that.
Lately I’ve been trying to work in genres a little bit as well. I accidentally worked in genre, or more a hybrid genre, in 2002, when I accepted a commission to make a ballet version of Dracula. I was shocked, because it was originally just made for Canadian television broadcast and then it ended up getting a theatrical release. Then I realised that this genre advice was actually pretty good advice, because I think what enabled people to go and see this movie was the fact that they knew exactly what they would be getting. It’s Dracula and ballet, it’s two genres but at least it’s only two and you could see how they fused together. I think it gave people a point of reference from which to approach it. And it just made it easier on the picture and on myself that the public could figure out what it was.
With Keyhole, I thought again I would make a kind of hybrid genre film where gangsters meet ghosts. A bit like cowboys meet aliens, something you understand right away! But I’m actually not very comfortable with the gangster genre, because gangsters have guns and I didn’t want the script to get bogged down with all the technicalities involved with this, things like who is carrying a gun and who is not, and fill it all up with a lot of gun shots. I just wanted a story about gangsters. the protagonist’s father should be a gangster, some sort of alpha male hero that a boy could admire in the same way that Homer’s Ulysses is a soldier and a hero. I am not even sure why I picked a gangster, I just wanted something that looked right in black and white for my one last fling, or love affair, with black and white before I move on and try to challenge myself to colour.
Given the positive audience reactions it seems to have worked fine. In fact, Keyhole has been described as your most accessible film to date.
I think that when I set out to make Keyhole I wanted it to turn out a little more accessible. I was enjoying the fact that for various reasons my last two pictures have been increasingly accessible. I am used to really low ratio shows, like down to zero. But still, I do want to reach people with my movies, though maybe just more like an author wants to reach an audience rather than a member of the film industry who needs to reach people to be able to make another movie. But I do want to reach them, because I love the feeling of understanding how an audience feels when they are watching a movie. I was forced to watch My Winnipeg and Brand upon the Brain many times because I was narrating the films behind the stage, and I really began to feel more like a showman than a filmmaker, which was nice, so I’ve tried to keep that attitude going while making movies. That said, in a way, I never felt closer to a conventional filmmaker than when I was making Keyhole.
What inspired you to base the film on Homer’s Odyssey?
To be honest, that story was just an excuse for a structure and I am glad I found one that really fit in well with what I was trying to say. I was looking for any sort of narrative, because I’m not quite formal and crazy enough to make a movie about an empty house without any characters in it. So, I knew I wanted it to have a plot and certain characters and things that matter, even though my dreams are mostly about little objects. But those little tokens and objects and wolf’s heads, they all matter because they have soaked up a lot of people before they became precious to me.
At one point, I was tempted to use a plot structure suggested by Heinrich von Kleist’s Penthesilea. It’s also an unrealised film by Leni Riefenstahl: just a couple of gangs holed up in a house fighting and then a gang of Amazonians come in and start hysterically tearing both fighting parties to shreds. But then I realised that what initially seemed a good excuse to explore every piece and corner of the house with all that war and fighting going on would probably just get derailed into gender politics in the end, so themes that I am nowhere near qualified to explore – at least not yet. I think I’ll wait until I’m a veteran of another war before touching on that.
Instead, I tried to concentrate on what really matters to me about the home, and maybe I also tried to sum up what I hope is the first half of my filmmaking career, and I realised that The Odyssey had a lot to do with my dream life. For instance, my very first movie was a short film about my father who had died, but actually in my dreams he hadn’t died. In my dreams, he just went off to live with a better family. He would come home almost every night just to get his razor or pick up some glass eye that he had forgotten, and every time I had about one minute to convince him that our family loved him and really missed him and that he should stay. But he never did stay. Nevertheless, they were still wonderful dreams because I got to hear his voice, a voice I couldn’t remember properly. And those dreams generally left me with a slowly dissipating pleasurable feeling until lunchtime and then a dream might return later that night or in a week or so. The years went by and, one day, I read Homer’s Odyssey and realised that it was just that dead father dream. It’s the ultimate ‘dead-beat-dad’ story, and I came to the conclusion that this is the story I should use for my storyboard structure. I like using a very durable structure and then abusing it as much as possible by overburdening it with my own concerns and seeing how much of it can survive.
Is it easier for you to develop your own story if you base it on a work of literature or a play?
Yes, if I just use it as a framework. For example, Cowards Bend the Knee is very loosely based on Electra, but totally debased from Euripides. I even changed a brother of Electra into a boyfriend. What I mean is that I am willing to change things so that it is all already psychologically a different thing all together but, on the other hand, it’s good to know that it is a pretty sturdy structure of a centuries-old story and still reads like something that has happened to me yesterday. So, yes, I am happy to make adaptations, I just happen to make them of ancient texts and in such a surreal way that no one can complain that I have messed with the original shape of the text.
Do you sometimes feel that, as a filmmaker, you’d have been better off living in the early days of cinema?
Naturally I went through a real biologically driven love affair with the 1920s when I was in my twenties and thirties and felt I needed to sexually possess the decade. But now I just think it looks nice. I have mellowed out about it, and I am happy not to be considered an impersonator, that I am not doing complete adaptations, that my editing style is different and that I am using digital tools. I am happy to eventually having graduated from being a false pioneer to a real pioneer.
What is also very unique about your films is that you seem to use music and film as interrelated languages. Is that something you do deliberately, or is this a natural process for you while making the film?
No, it is actually a goal of mine to shoot a film where I write the script and have the score written at the same time. That would be ideal. I had the chance to do this once on a short film called Glorious that I used as a rough sketch for Keyhole, because it is also a gangster story. The Netherlands-based British composer Richard Ayers and I worked on this by writing the script and writing the music back and forth in a series of emails and that was really amazing. Generally, most composers are given a somewhat flawed movie and then it is up to them to kind of fluff up scenes that are somewhat sagging, or they are supposed to really underscore something that needs building up. Famously, even with Vertigo, although that’s not flawed of course, Hitchcock apparently said to Bernhard Hermann: ‘Reel four especially needs your help’, or something like that.
But actually I think music and imagery are working together in a more occult way. It’s something that mystifies me and no amount of thinking about it can get me closer to an answer. I often have a piece of music in mind for a scene, but almost never does that piece of music fit in the end. I remember when I was making Archangel, I had special music picked out for certain scenes and when I got to edit the film it didn’t work at all. So, I tried switching scenes around, because I had it on magnetic tape and didn’t feel like recording new music altogether. But when I switched the scenes, the music I had picked before worked in exactly the different scenes that I had originally intended it for. I even thought that they worked very nicely, so I kept it like that. That’s when I realised that it really is witchcraft how these things work. But again, it is and it isn’t, because composers know how to create such visual sounds.
Thank you for mentioning music. It had been a long-term goal of mine to get people to trust their feelings about film as much as they do about music. When you listen to music you either like it or you don’t but, mostly, you don’t even know why, you are just letting yourself go. But when people are watching movies they get nervous if they don’t quite understand something. Even if they are enjoying it, they don’t know why, so a lot of them are shutting down saying: ‘I don’t get it, I don’t get it’, because they can’t just let go. But with music it seems so natural and I just wish we could all watch movies the same way we listen to music. So I try to fuse the two together as much as possible in my films, just in a desperate hope that somewhere along the line they take up and weld themselves in some sort of occult union and really work in ways that no one can explain.
It also seems more difficult to give films a second chance in the same way that you would listen to a song again until you get used to it and, eventually, you start liking it.
Yeah, absolutely. I have given some films a second chance. For example, the first time I saw L’Atalante, which is now one of my favourite films, I think I expected it to be a bit more like a Buñuel picture. I wanted it to be more surrealist and so I was disappointed in it the first time round. And then it just stayed with me, submerged in my memory for about five years until I found myself thinking more and more about it. And when I watched it again I fell totally in love with it. I think that’s the way we know it works with music, for example, when your favourite artist puts out a new album and you resist it first, but next thing you know, you realise that you have to put that thing back on and listen to it again. For some reason, it is just easier to do so with music than it is with movies.
Do you go back to your own films a lot?
No, not much, not if I can avoid it. I remember reading in Buñuel’s biography that he only watched his films once and then he knew what they were like and he never watched them again. At first, I didn’t believe him, partly because he was such a fantastic liar, but now I can understand him better, because I really don’t need the agony of watching my films with an audience more than once.
Why is it so horrible?
Because when you watch your films with an audience, you can poke your ear drums out and still sense the audience reaction. It’s just the fact that you know the audience is there and you can no longer kid yourself and tell yourself that it will all be OK. Instead, total objectivity is brought to you by the presence of an audience and, trust me, one experience like that per movie is enough. You give yourself a report card and it’s written in indelible ink, so you don’t have to go back again and again.
Do you dream about your films before, while or after making them?
Sometimes I do. A couple of times I have had dreams while making a movie in that I see myself watching it and it is obviously way better than in reality. But luckily, on some occasions, I had these dreams in time that I have actually been able to add things to the movie and improve it slightly. But that’s happened less than 10 times in my whole life, and if I dream about my movies then it’s almost always that they look better in my dream. So, when I wake up I mostly regret that I didn’t think to make those scenes.
You said elsewhere that you felt Careful was the only film that turned out exactly the way you wanted it to be. Is Keyhole coming close now though?
I think I have also come close with shorter film, for example, my short Heart of the World turned out to be exactly the way I planned. But, of course, with longer films that is less likely to happen. I think with Keyhole I did get the feelings right and also the levels of confusion which I was willing to have anywhere between perfect clarity and complete abstraction. But I also do care about Keyhole a lot for another reason, not even so much because of the dreams but because of the conversations I had with my mother about some of the years I drew my inspiration from for this movie. I have to say, my mother has got a kind of really sweet grade of dementia right now. She has become this lovely, sweet and agreeable old lady but she just told me the most brutally frank anecdotes about my family and my childhood, stories I had never ever heard of before. She has filled me with enough stuff that would have fit into the Keyhole universe to make another movie all together. I won’t do that though, I am leaving that subject behind now. But, God, it’s killing me that I didn’t get my mum to open up just half a year earlier. The movie could have been so much better. I mean, I don’t think anyone else would have noticed it, or people would have liked it more, but it just would have meant more to me. I think I would have managed to get my whole family in one piece in that house.
Do you feel that now that you have made Keyhole and that it turned out the way you wanted it to be you can eventually put your childhood memories to rest and move on?
Oh no! Thank God no! I don’t want my memories to rest, because I like them way too much. I won’t let that happen. Never!
The 62nd edition of the Berlinale was marked by a feeling of relief. Not only did the line-up for this year’s film festival look more promising than in previous years, the programme ultimately featured fewer bad surprises as well as some truly excellent films.
Two of the three German titles in the competition stood out for their defiant narrative structure, both in their own way offering an exquisite blend of intensity and emotional restraint. Following up Jerichow with his fifth collaboration with actress Nina Hoss, Christian Petzold probably enjoyed the festival’s greatest triumph with Barbara even if the prize for best film went to the Italian prison drama Caesar Must Die (Cesare deve morire) by directorial duo Vittorio and Paolo Taviani, awarded by a jury headed by Mike Leigh (need I say more!). Set in 1980 in a small East German town, Barbara (Nina Hoss) is a doctor who was denied an exit permit by the country’s authorities and, for disciplinary reasons, was transferred from her prestigious post in Berlin to a hospital in the country. Secretly planning her escape via the Baltic Sea with Jörg, her lover in the West, Barbara has no intention to connect with her new colleagues or local residents, who in return counter her coolness with suspicion and defiance – except for Andre (Ronald Zehrfeld), Barbara’s new boss, who seems to have a crush on her. Barbara knows not to trust anyone around her and has no illusions about Andre’s role as observer reporting to the Stasi, who regularly search both the shoddy apartment she has been allocated and her own body, forcibly entering the most private parts of her existence. However, as Barbara realises that she and Andre share the same approach and dedication to work, her defensive wall slowly starts to crumble, which eventually forces her to make a decision about her future. In contrast to most of his previous work, Petzold gives the story a profound warmth and emotional charge, subtly balancing his usual laconic style and distinctive narrative approach, while Nina Hoss unfolds her character stunningly in yet another razor-sharp, painfully acute performance that justly won her the Best Actress prize for the second time, surpassing her breath-taking appearance in Petzold’s Yella in 2007.
The other remarkable German competition entry was Matthias Glasner’s Mercy. Glasner, who some years ago impressed us with The Free Will, about a rapist trying to readjust to society after years in a clinic, has crafted his most accomplished film to date with this strangely intimate moral melodrama. An inadvertent car accident shakes up the troubled marriage between engineer Niels (JÃ¼rgen Vogel) and his nurse wife Maria (Birgit Minichmayr), not long after their relocation to a small town on the very edge of the Arctic Ocean, where the couple and their tight-lipped pre-teen son where hoping to make a new start between black night and permanent twilight. One day on her way home from work, Maria appears to run over someone or something. Unable to face up to the situation, she panics and rushes back home. Niels checks the road, but although he can’t find anything, both realise well before the truth comes to light that the accident has forced them into a cruel dilemma – a dilemma that seems to revolve less around mercy than guilt, and ultimately reactivates their relationship. Glasner’s charting of their dark journey is acutely alert to the moral complexity of the situation and chillingly tender while free of sentimentality.
Anything but mercy could be found in Timo Vuorensola’s eagerly awaited Iron Sky, which immensely boosted the fun factor in this year’s Panorama section. Partly financed through fan crowd-funding, which offered supporters a chance to help not only producing the film but developing the plot, Iron Sky is an overwrought and unashamedly daft symbiosis of tongue-in-cheek sci-fi lunacy and old-school guerrilla filmmaking. It’s a film about a bunch of Nazi punks in outer space who, just before the end of the Second World War, managed to build a space station on the dark side of the moon. The action starts in 2018 when an African-American astronaut discovers the swastika bastion led by a FÃ¼hrer called Kortzfleisch (Udo Kier – who else?). Kortzfleisch leads an attack on Earth with an army of steel-armoured zeppelins, which ultimately causes a new war between world leaders. The film requires a reasonable amount of good will to get past the daft jokes, but the few sparks of true brilliance make Iron Sky a joyful B-movie space odyssey.
Far more serious illusions and delusions were at the core of two other Panorama entries: Sally El Hosaini’s My Brother the Devil and Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s Headshot (Fon tok kuen fah), two thrilling, dark tales from a transnational, political present in which everybody is an alien one way or another. My Brother the Devil follows 19-year-old Rashid and his teenage brother Mo through the streets of Hackney, where Rashid has learned to make a living as a shrewd drug-dealing gang member. Being too good at heart, he takes the chance to enter a completely new world as it opens up to him, while Mo soon has to face his own prejudices if he wants to save his brother’s life. A moving, well-acted coming-of-age melodrama about repressed feelings and damaged community spirit, the film is told with care and sensitivity and is a welcome departure from the usual grim British social realism.
Aesthetically distinctive in its modern film noir-ish look and feel, Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s follow-up to his inaccessibly cryptic Nymph is a remarkably accomplished portrait of an altruistic cop turned assassin whose vision is inverted when a bullet hits his brain. Despite the brutal action that increases as Tul gets fatally caught up in the slippery concept of justice, Headshot is a marvel of fierce visual beauty, slow, yet effective storytelling and stylish precision: every frame and movement, every colour and texture seems completely controlled. While the story is by no means original, Ratanaruang knows what he is doing and safely steers his badass neo-noir thriller to a devastating finale in which Tul finds a new place for himself in the world of the lost.
A final word about a small, brooding masterpiece. Screened out of competition, Keyhole is Guy Maddin’s latest and by far most ambitious film to date. Trying, as usual, to make sense of the memories and feelings from the past that haunt him day and night, Maddin this time has crafted a heady amalgam of sinister black and white 40s noir-gangster flick, Homer’s Odyssey (loosely adapted), Sirk-like melodrama and haunted ghost story. Like all of Maddin’s work, it’s a perfectly twisted, dark, dreamlike cinematic encounter that stays in the back of your mind long after you have re-entered reality. It won’t convince everybody, but it put a spell on me.
Colonial Report from the Dominion of Canada (above the 49th Parallel)
Toronto International Film Festival: It’s All about the Stars, but There Are Good Movies Too
Although a major city in Our Fair Dominion, Toronto bears the distinction of being the biggest, most pathetic provincial backwater to blight the massive landmass that is Canada – a country in which the majority of the population resides along a 100-kilometre strip just above the Canada-U.S. border, from, to borrow a line from ‘America the Beautiful’, ‘sea to shining sea’. That said, together with Montreal, Toronto is home to some of the more culturally significant events and organizations in the country.
This is the eternal dichotomy and a truly salient example of the two solitudes that have been an endless trademark of life here in the colonies. In La Belle Province, the divide between French and English is more obvious, but Ontario is quite another thing, as the real base of power remains rooted in the most repressive, pole-up-the-ass Presbyterianism – the reigning capital of which was and still is the city of Toronto.
This, of course, is what makes Toronto such an unlikely centre of culture in the Dominion. One of Canada’s true literary giants, Scott Symons, devoted his life and writings to exposing this dichotomy – railing against the country’s old-money establishment residing in Toronto’s leafy, affluent and decidedly ramrod-up-the-rectum enclave known as Rosedale.
Symons referred to these power brokers as the ‘Bland Men’ of Toronto. I, however, prefer Symons’s more colourful description of what rules Toronto. In his great novel Civic Square, Symons coined the indelible phrase The Smugly Fucklings. (Symons always regretted adhering to his publisher’s advice and NOT sticking to The Smugly Fucklings for the novel’s title.)
Symons, without a doubt, hit the nail on the head. Toronto, and by extension much of English Canada, is in the hands of the Bland Men, the Smugly Fucklings. What distinguishes them from the usual dyed-in-the-wool new conservatives of Canada (our own version of America’s woeful Tea Party) is that they are educated, erudite, purportedly liberal and imbued with a desperate need to be cooler than cool. Parading through the city with haughty, smile-bereft faces, their buttocks clenched within an inch of their lives and adorned in the fashion ‘styles’ of Hugo Boss – these are the gatekeepers of all culture for the Great Unwashed of Our Fair Dominion.
Is it any wonder then that the question I am asked most by ‘normal people’ about my experience at the Toronto International Film Festival is not, ‘Have you seen any good movies?’ but rather, ‘What movie stars did you see?’
Toronto is a city so desperate for acknowledgment that it is the centre of the universe that it will do anything to ensure this status. The residual effect is that culture of the highest order is on display in this city ruled by the Bland Men. It exists because of those who merely purport to be on the cutting edge. In fact, I suspect they desperately want to be the thing they’re most afraid of and it is precisely this lip service to alternative culture that inadvertently offers world-class events. The Smuglies have no idea how truly un-hip they are, but it is their desire to be seen as NOT what they are that gives so many of us a reason to hate Toronto, but at the same time, to not completely abandon it because we’d otherwise be bereft of culture.
And so it was, and so it remains, that the Toronto International Film Festival is one of the premier cultural events in the world. On one hand, it is a glorified junket for the American studios, while on the other, it offers hundreds of movies you might never see anywhere else. It is at once a film festival where the Great Unwashed of Toronto pathetically crowd around the police-patrolled barricades protecting the various red carpets – hoping that they might possibly snatch a glimpse of Brad Pitt or Madonna – and where the rest of us, thanks to the wide variety of motion pictures assembled by The Men Who Would Be Kings of Cool, are kept hidden for days on end in the dark, our eyes glued to the screens and dining at the trough of great cinema.
* * *
TIFF 2011 proved to be a pretty banner year for me. Between North American and world premieres of a wide variety of pictures, I was one happy fella.
Of course, there were many dubious inclusions that seemed to be on display for their star-appearance quotient, but thankfully, the accent was on the pictures themselves.
Here then, are a few highlights and lowlights of the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival.
* * *
A Dangerous Method (2011) *
When David Cronenberg is good, he is very, very good. When he is bad, he’s cerebral. A Dangerous Method is dour, dull and decidedly humourless, though the first few minutes do suggest we’re in for a hootenanny of the highest order. The score, oozing with portent over a twitching, howling, clearly bonkers Keira Knightley, thrashing about in a horse-drawn carriage as it hurtles towards Carl Jung’s Swiss nuthouse, initially suggested a belly flop into the maw first pried open by such Cold War wacko-fests like The Snake Pit or Shock Corridor. Alas, Cronenberg seems to have abandoned his pulp sensibilities and instead appears to be making an Atom Egoyan movie. Sorry David, Atom Egoyan makes the best Atom Egoyan movies. Cronenberg’s unwelcome return to the cold and clinical approach from his pre-Eastern Promises and A History of Violence oeuvres quashes all hope for a rollicking good wallow in lunacy. Come on, David, we’re dealing with psychoanalysis and sex here. A little oomph might have been in order.
Lord knows Cronenberg’s dealt deliciously with both before – most notably in The Brood. It starred a visibly inebriated Oliver Reed, crazily cooing about ‘the Shape of Rage’ amid spurts of horrific violence laced with a riveting creepy tone. Most notably the movie provided us with the indelible image of a semi-nude, utterly barmy Samantha Eggar adorned with monstrous pus sacks dangling from her flesh, licking globs of gooey, chunky afterbirth from a glistening mutant baby expunged from one of the aforementioned pus sacks.
No similar shenanigans are on view in A Dangerous Method. It’s pretty much a Masterpiece Theatre-styled period chamber drama with Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) jousting with his mentor-rival Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and Jung spanking Keira Knightley, a daft want-to-be-psychiatrist with Daddy issues. Sadly, no proper views of open palms connecting with buttocks or slap imprints on said buttocks are afforded to us.
We do, however, get an abundance of yammering.
* * *
The Deep Blue Sea (2011) ****
Keira Knightley is used much better here than in Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method. Oops, wait a second, I mean Rachel Weisz. OK, well, if Keira Knightley HAD been in this movie, I suspect she WOULD have been put to rather better use here, but she’s not, so she isn’t. I am indeed referring to the Knightley doppelgä;nger, or rather, the doppelgä;nger of Rachel Weisz, or rather, I mean…
OK, fuck it! In the parlance of Monty Python: ‘Start Again!!!’
Terence Davies coaxes an astonishing performance from Rachel Weisz in The Deep Blue Sea, a heartbreaking, sumptuous and tremendously moving adaptation of Terrence Rattigan’s great play of the same name. Rattigan’s theatrical explorations of class and sex have made for rich film adaptations, most notably The Browning Version, Separate Tables, The Winslow Boy and The Prince and the Showgirl. Rattigan, given the discriminatory criminalisation of homosexuality in England (his frequent collaborator, the closeted director Anthony Asquith, was the progeny of the man who signed Oscar Wilde’s arrest warrant) chose to primarily reflect on gay issues and culture by utilizing a critical dramatic look at the often troubled lives of straight couples.
Nowhere is this more powerfully rendered than in The Deep Blue Sea, which Davies has adapted with considerable homage to the play’s tone and themes while using the source as a springboard for his own unique approach to affairs of the heart. (While Davies oddly reduces the role and importance of the play’s one clearly gay character, one suspects he did this to focus more prominently on the trinity of its central characters.)
Davies might well be one of the most important living British filmmakers. Working in a classical style with indelible compositions, creating a rhythm through little, no or very slow camera moves and infusing his work with a humanity seldom rivalled, Davies recognizes the importance of cinema as poetry – or rather, using the poetry of cinema to create narrative that is truly experiential. (I doubt any audience member will forget the haunting underground tracking shot during the Blitz – as evocative to the eye, ear and mind as anything I’ve seen.) I’d go so far as saying that Davies might well be the heir apparent to film artists like Alexander Dovzhenko and Sergei Paradjanov – exploiting the poetic properties of cinema in all the best ways.
Here we feel and experience the tragic tale of Hester (Weisz), who leaves her much older, though loving husband, the respected judge Sir William (Simon Russell) when she meets the handsome, charming Freddie (Tom Hiddlestone), a former RAF pilot who allows her the joys of sex for the first time in her life. Alas, Freddie’s a bit of a rake and soon tires of domesticity, and Hester is driven to seriously contemplating suicide. Sir William wishes desperately to have her back. The eternal dilemma is that Freddie doesn’t love Hester as much as she’d like, nor does Hester feel as much love for Sir William as he does for her.
The triangle is played out with Davies’s trademark style and a welcome return to pubs thick with smoke and filled with songs sung by its inebriated denizens. Harking back to Distant Voices, Still Lives, the songs here are not so much a counterpoint to the drudgery of the characters’ lives as something indicative of an overwhelming malaise born out of repression and class.
Davies dazzles and moves us with his humanity and artistry. It doesn’t take much to give over to his stately pace, and when we do, we’re drawn into a world that can only exist on a big screen, while at the same time providing a window on the concerns of days gone by that are more prevalent in our contemporary world than most of us would care to admit.
* * *
Keyhole (2011) ****
Full disclosure: I produced Guy Maddin’s first three feature films, lived with him as a roommate (I was Oscar Madison to his Felix Unger – Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple sprang miraculously to life on the top two floors of a ramshackle old house near Winnipeg’s Little Italy district), continue to love him as one of my dearest friends and consider his brilliant screenwriting partner George E. Toles to be nothing less than my surrogate big brother.
Most importantly, I am one of Maddin’s biggest fans and refuse to believe I am not able to objectively review his work. Objectively, then, allow me to declare that I loved Keyhole. What’s not to love? Blending Warner Brothers gangster styling of the 30s, film noir of the 40s and 50s, Greek tragedy, Sirk-like melodrama and odd dapplings of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame and Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit, it is, like all Maddin’s work, best designed to experience as a dream on film. Like Terence Davies, Maddin is one of the few living filmmakers who understands the poetic properties of cinema, and this, frankly, is to be cherished as much as any perfectly wrought narrative.
This is not to say narrative does NOT exist in Maddin’s work. If you really must, dig deep and you will find it. That, however, wouldn’t be very much fun. One has a better time with Maddin’s pictures just letting them HAPPEN to you.
The elements concocted in Keyhole to allow for full experiential mind-fucking involve the insanely named gangster Ulysses Pick (Jason Patric as you’ve never seen him before – playing straight, yet feeling like he belongs to another cinematic era), who drags his kids (one dead, but miraculously sprung to life, the other seemingly alive, but not remembered by his Dad) into a haunted house surrounded by guns-a-blazing.
Populated with a variety of tough guys and babe-o-licious molls, Ulysses is faced with ghosts of both the living and the dead, including his wife Hyacinth (Isabella Rossellini – gorgeous as always and imbued with all the necessary qualities to render melodrama with joy and humanity), her frequently nude father (the brilliant Louis Negin – perhaps one of the world’s greatest living character actors, who frankly should be cast in every movie ever made), chained to his bed, uttering the richly ripe George Toles dialogue and Udo Kier (the greatest fucking actor in the world), whose appearance in this movie is so inspired I’ll let you discover for yourself the greatness of both the role and Udo himself.
Keyhole is, without a doubt, one of the most perversely funny movies I’ve seen in ages and includes Maddin’s trademark visual tapestry of the most alternately gorgeous and insanely inspired kind. For movie geeks, literary freaks and Greek tragedy-o-philes, the movie is blessed with added treats to gobble down voraciously.
Like all of Maddin’s work, it’s not all fun and games. Beneath the surface of its mad inspiration lurks a melancholy and thematic richness. For me, what’s so important and moving about the film is its literal and thematic exploration of a space. Strongly evoking that sense of how our lives are inextricably linked to so many places (or a place) and how they in turn are populated with things – inanimate objects that become more animate once we project our memories upon them – or how said places inspire reminiscence of said objects which, in turn, inspire further memories, Keyhole is as profound and sad as it’s a crazed laugh riot.
Of all the pieces about the movie that I bothered to read, I was shocked that NOBODY – NOT ONE FUCKING CRITIC – picked up on the overwhelming theme of PLACE and the SPIRIT of all those THINGS that live and breathe in our minds. It was the first thing to weigh heavily upon me when I first saw the movie. It has seldom been approached in the movies – and, for my money – NO MORE POIGNANTLY AND BRILLIANTLY than rendered by Maddin, Toles and their visionary young producer Jody Shapiro.
All the ghosts of the living and the dead (to paraphrase Joyce), the animate and inanimate, the real and the imagined, these are the things that haunt us to our graves, and perhaps beyond. And they all populate the strange, magical and haunting world of Keyhole – a world most of us, whether we want to acknowledge it or not, live in. We are all ghosts and are, in turn, haunted by them.
* * *
i am a good person/i am a bad person (2011) ***1/2
A dervish derives inspiration from God and does so with complete and total devotion, honouring the Creator with continuous, strenuous forms of physical manipulations, such as exercise or dance that involve literal whirling at breakneck speeds. Influenced by both John Cassavetes and Mike Leigh, Canadian filmmaker Ingrid Veninger is also developing an approach to her humanist form of dramatic cinema that is clearly all hers.
In fact, Veninger might well be cinema’s only living equivalent to a whirling dervish. Like a dervish, she honours her Creator (cinema), her prophets (Cassavetes, Leigh and others), then whips her creative concoction into a frenzy – literally living and breathing cinema – producing film from within herself, her devotion and life itself.
With her previous work and second feature as a director (she’s written, produced and acted in so many more), Modra, a personal dramatic exploration of her Slovakian roots, Veninger was on the cusp of embarking upon the film festival circuit. This got the dervish whirling. She wrote a script about a filmmaker taking a trip to Europe to present her film on the film festival circuit. She cast herself as the filmmaker Ruby, and her own real-life daughter, talented young actress Hallie Switzer (female lead of Modra) as Ruby’s daughter Sara. With ace cinematographer Ben Lichty and sound recordist/boom operator Braden Sauder, Veninger and Switzer blasted across the pond from Canada to Europe and made a movie. The screenplay, already workshopped and in final draft, accompanied the group who knew that as long as the structure of the story was adhered to, there would potentially be room for rewriting depending upon the exigencies of production.
The movie, i am a good person/i am a bad person, is funny and heartbreakingly moving, and while full of ‘realistic’ touches, it never descends into Canadian Cinema Dreariness 101 and is, in fact, imbued with a sense of scope to allow its tenderness and intimacy to shine in all the ways they should in movies.
The world is, of course, replete with father-son pictures, but mother-daughter relationships – in terms of numbers and quality – pale in comparison. This is a film that contributes admirably to this relatively rare tradition.
Ruby is a loveable scatterbrain. Her film, a crazed, seemingly political avant-garde celebration of – ahem – the penis, is set to premiere overseas at the – ahem – Bradford International Film Festival in dear Old Blighty. Eighteen-year-old Sara is dragged along on the trip to be her mother’s assistant, though one gets the feeling that deep down, Mom craves some one-on-one quality time with her burgeoning daughter.
Sara is decidedly serious – in general, but especially on this trip – and Mom’s carefree spirit is driving her up the wall. Mom, not totally oblivious to this, is still intent on having a good time. Things in Bradford reach a bit of a head and it’s decided that Sara will go to Paris on her own to visit with relatives and Ruby will forge on to a screening at the Arsenal Cinema in Berlin. As mother and daughter each face personal challenges, it also becomes glaringly apparent how much they need and love each other.
I suspect it might not be too much of a spoiler to suggest that hard decisions are wrought and events inspire more than a few tears from even the most hardened viewers. Those who stick with the seemingly freewheeling spirit of the picture are rewarded a thousandfold during the extremely moving finale.
Filmmakers of all stripes will, I think, get a kick out of the sequences shot in Bradford and Berlin. How many times have filmmakers heard the rather embarrassed words from festival directors – as Ruby does in the film – ‘It’s a much smaller house than expected, but they’ll no doubt be a spirited bunch.’
It’s also worth mentioning that i am a good person/i am a bad person is full of humour – gentle bits of human comedy and full-on Bridesmaids-style blowjob and scatological humour. Strangely, this doesn’t temper any of the sentiment, but in fact, enhances it. And unlike Bridesmaids, i am a good person/i am a bad person NEVER overstays its welcome. The picture is taut, trim, hypnotic and passionate.
Kind of like a whirling dervish.
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Drive (2011) *1/2
This is exactly the kind of movie I hate seeing at major international film festivals – especially at TIFF. It clearly feels like a glorified press junket screening with its star trotted out every which way and the picture opening theatrically on thousands of screens one week after its festival screening, while the festival is still on at that. That said, I don’t usually mind if the movie is any good, but Drive most certainly isn’t.
Fast cars and existential male angst make for great bedfellows – or rather, they MADE for great bedfellows. The 1970s were full of them, the tent posts being Monte Hellman’s Two Lane Blacktop, Walter Hill’s The Driver and Richard Sarafian’s Vanishing Point. Drive comes closest to Hill’s nutty car chase thriller, but lacks that picture’s drive (as it were) and pulp sensibilities blended with art-house-style chic. Nicholas Winding Refn, who delivered up a compelling one-man-show with Bronson, falls too in love with his good taste. Besides, how could Refn even hope to compete with The Driver when it features cop Bruce Dern referring to the title character played by Ryan O’Neal and uttering in full-on noir-speak: ‘I’m gonna catch me the cowboy that’s never been caught. Cowboy desperado!’
Aside from choice scumbaggery from Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman as the gangster villains in Drive, we get too many eyefuls of Ryan Gosling staring soulfully at pretty much everything and everyone – adorned, no less, in a ridiculous Scorpion jacket.
Gosling plays a movie stunt driver who doubles as a heist getaway driver and who falls in love with his dewy-eyed, perpetually open-mouthed and equally soulful neighbour. He agrees to help out her recently released jailbird husband to pull a heist that goes horribly wrong and predictably leads to the aforementioned bad guys, who coincidentally are backing a stock car Gosling will be racing. It’s fine when a genre picture keeps it simple and stupid, but the plot of Drive is, well, just plain stupid.
The car chases are proficiently handled, but have none of the urgency of the true greats; some of the violence is satisfactorily shocking, but the movie – loaded with pretension and fake portent – seems even more disingenuous than, say, a Michael Bay movie.
At least, we all know Bay is a knothead. Refn clearly has more going on upstairs, but he’d have been far better off playing things with the same kind of relentless pulpiness he brought to Bronson instead of a preciousness that just drags the movie down to Dullsville.
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Here are a few capsule rewrites of some of the films I covered daily during TIFF 2011 on The Daily Film Dose website.
50/50 (2011) ****
50/50 is a comedy about cancer. The incongruity of this might seem off-putting, but the fact remains that rendering cancer dramatically with humour seems to be the best medicine (artistically speaking and otherwise). 50/50 does so with utter perfection. It’s the laughs, the human comedy, the on-screen knee-slappers that are the very elements which render the drama with so much poignancy and yes, pain. Adam (Joseph Gordon-Leavitt) is a public radio reporter with talent, commitment and a bright future. When he is diagnosed with cancer his life quickly unravels and everything he holds dear begins to dissipate – including his chances of survival. Before you get the impression this is a total downer, allow me to say two words: SETH ROGEN!!!!! One of the best young actors in the business, he plays Adam’s mega-pot-ingesting (‘natch) best buddy and offers friendship, company, support, endless laughs (for Adam, but by extension, the audience) and dope (a most convenient painkiller for cancer victims). Director Jonathan (All the Boys Love Mandy Lane) Levine’s exquisite direction covers the excellent screenplay by Will Reiser with the assured hand of an old pro. That said, Levine’s only in his 30s and this is his third feature film. One can only wonder what the ‘kid’ is going to generate when he actually IS ‘old’.
You’re Next (2011) **1/2
You’re Next is an energetic home invasion horror thriller crisply directed by filmmaker Adam Wingard, who delivers up the scares and gore with considerable panache. The picture is chock-full of babes including a mega-kick-ass heroine – an Aussie chick whose character, it is revealed, was raised in a survivalist compound Down Under. (I kid you not! An Aussie Survivalist Babe!!!) The killers wear ultra-creepy animal masks (like those really cute lifelike ones you can buy for your kids at Zoo gift shops) and dispatch their victims with considerable aplomb.
The first two-thirds of the movie proceed like a rabid bat out of hell. An affluent couple (the female half played by the still delectable Re-Animator babe Barbara Crampton) are celebrating their 35th wedding anniversary in a country mansion and have invited their kids and assorted significant others to join them. The characters share bloodlines straight out of some lower-drawer Albee or O’Neill play and the conversation round the dinner table plays out with plenty of funny, nasty sniping. Great stuff! Then the killing starts! Even greater! And then, a boneheaded plot twist one sees coming from miles away. Uh, this is not great! Not good! Not even passable! Thankfully, the carnage continues, but for this genre geek, the movie never quite recovers from a twist that was probably meant to be clever, but instead feels like a red herring that isn’t one at all, but the real thing that we’re supposed to be knocked on our butts by – NOT! Never fear, though, there’s still that Aussie survivalist babe. Now THAT is original!
Carré blanc (2011) ****
Harking back to great 70s science-fiction film classics like The Terminal Man, Colossus: The Forbin Project, A Boy and His Dog, Silent Running and THX 1138 – when the genre was thankfully bereft of light sabres, Wookies and Jabba the Hut, when it was actually ABOUT something – Jean-Baptiste Léonetti’s debut feature film Carré blanc is easily one of the finest dystopian visions of the future to be etched upon celluloid since that time. The tale rendered is, on its surface and as in many great movies, a simple one. Philippe (Sami Bouajila) and Marie (Julie Gayet) grew up together in a state orphanage and are now married. They live in a stark, often silent corporate world bereft of any vibrant colour and emotion. Muzak constantly lulls the masses and is only punctuated by announcements occasionally calling for limited procreation and, most curiously, promoting the game of croquet – the one and only state-sanctioned sport. Philippe is a most valued lackey of the state – he is an interrogator-cum-indoctrinator – and he’s very good at his job. In fact, with each passing day, he is getting better and better at it. Marie, on the other hand, is withdrawing deeper and deeper into a cocoon as the love she once felt for Philippe is transforming into indifference.
In this world, though, hatred is as much a luxury as love. Tangible feelings and simple foibles are punished with torture and death. Indifference, it would seem, is the goal. It ensures complete subservience to the dominant forces. Love, however, is ultimately the force the New World Order is helpless to fight and it is at the core of this story. If Philippe and Marie can somehow rediscover that bond, there might yet be hope – for them, and the world. It is this aspect of the story that always keeps the movie floating above a mere exercise in style (which it is in large part). Love becomes the ultimate goal of Léonetti’s narrative and thanks to that, he delivers an instant classic of science fiction. The best works in this genre ARE about individuality and the fight to maintain the incommutability of the human spirit, which might, after all, be the only thing we have left – not just in future times, but now.
God Bless America (2011) ***1/2
Frank is a very kind person. He kills people. But they deserve it. Played with pathos and deadpan humour by Joel Murray, Frank is a hard-working American. He’s been diagnosed with a fatal disease. His wife has left him. His daughter is a shrill brat who won’t visit him on custody days because he ‘forces’ her to do arts and crafts, visit the zoo and play in the park (instead of being glued to video games). After work he stays home. Alone.
Home is a man’s castle, but not this man, not this home. His neighbours are poster children for strangulation at birth. Night after night, Frank cranks the volume on his TV to drown out their Neanderthal conversation, a cacophony of verbal and physical abuse, wham-bam sexual activities and constant caterwauling from their genetically stupid infant. What he endures on TV is precisely what indoctrinates the feeble minds of America. Channel-hopping to reality TV, a white trash ‘hose’ digs a blood-soaked tampon from her vagina and flings it at another. An endless parade of wags dump on the disenfranchised and insist: ‘God hates fags’ while images of Barack Obama as Adolph Hitler and news reports of homeless people burned alive buttress ‘Bowling on Steroids’ or the reality TV star Chloe, a nasty teenage girl who treats everyone like dirt. On his drive to work, the car radio is an aural assault from Tea Party types.
At the office he has to listen to his simpleton colleagues moronically regurgitating everything he endured on TV the night before. A tiny bright spot turns dark when the receptionist openly flirts and files a sexual harassment complaint. He loses his job, returns home and turns on his TV to drown out his Jello-brained neighbours.
There is, however, a solution. Frank, you see, is a Liberal – a Liberal with a handgun. He does what all Liberals must do when civilization is on the brink, This is a mere 15 minutes into God Bless America and at this point I laughed so hard I ruptured myself. From here, the movie doesn’t let up for a second – especially once Frank begins a spree of violence against intolerance with a gorgeous, sexy teenage girl. They’re a veritable Bonnie and Clyde – fighting for the rights of Liberals who are tired of the mess America is in.
Director Bobcat Goldthwait makes movies with a sledgehammer, but it’s a mighty trusty sledgehammer. He has developed a distinctive voice that began with the magnificently vile Shakes the Clown, and with this new film he hits his stride with crazed assuredness. Some might take issue with the way he lets his central characters rant hilariously – well, beyond the acceptability of dramatic necessity – but I have to admit it’s what makes his work as a filmmaker so unique. He creates a world that exists within his own frame of reference, which, at the same time, reflects aspects, and perspectives that hang from contemporary society like exposed, jangled nerves. God Bless America fights fire with fire. It’s the American Way! Even for Liberals.
The Eye of the Storm (2011) **
I have no doubt that Nobel Prize-winner Patrick White’s novel – which this dreary movie is based on – is not without merit, but if your idea of a good time is watching a harridan spewing vitriol, then by all means feel free to partake of Fred (The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith) Schepisi’s rendering of The Eye of the Storm. For close to two hours we get to watch Charlotte Rampling chastise her spoiled adult children (the ubiquitous Geoffrey Rush and the wonderful, but wasted Judy Davis). With Mom close to horking out her final globs of life, the kids have made the trek to Australia from Blighty and Gay Paree respectively to ensure their inheritance will rightfully fall into their laps. We watch as this trio trudge through the turgid drama and seldom feel anything but contempt for all of them and wonder why it is we’re being dragged through this sludge at all.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m a sucker for screen harridans. Mind you, I usually prefer them when they’re slugging it out with each other in melodramas like Robert Aldrich’s Whatever Happened to Baby Jane – not dour British-Australian co-ventures we’re supposed to take seriously. One of the more sickening subplots in The Eye of the Storm involves Geoffrey Rush having his knob plunged and polished by one of Rampling’s caregivers – a comely young thing that (for God knows whatever reason) is genuinely charmed by him. We are also afforded endless flashbacks via Rampling’s dementia. In one of them, she seduces the buff young stud sniffing around Judy Davis. I know how this must sound ever so – ahem – appetizing, but I can assure you it is more than enough to induce major chunk-blowing.
Every year, it seems we get more and more movies like this – dull chamber dramas full of rich, old people with Commonwealth accents who crap on each other (and by extension, us) for two fucking hours, and we’re supposed to actually feel something for these miserable, privileged twits. I suppose they keep getting made because there’s always money available for such pictures. They’re relatively cheap to make, attract major actors, carry a veneer of respectability, are often based on acclaimed literary properties and can be directed for a song by filmmakers well past their prime. And, of course, they get programmed into major international film festivals.
Killer Elite (2011) *
What this lame duck action thriller is doing in a major international film festival like TIFF is beyond me. It’s the sort of movie that suggests festivals are little more than a junket opportunity for bad movies that need all the help they can get and/or an excuse to parade a bunch of stars into town. Though inspired by a not-so-manly-titled book called The Feather Men, it has chosen to rip off its title (sans the word ‘The’) from a solid Peckinpah action picture from the 70s starring James Caan and Robert Duvall. The Killer Elite is far from Sam’s best work, but I’d argue one frame of it beats this noisy, jack-hammering and ultimately leaden, meandering macho-man movie.
What will keep Bloody Sam from rolling in his grave is that this is, at least, not a remake of his movie. Basically we’ve got two old buddies – Jason Statham and Robert De Niro – who work as soldier-for-hire assassins. After a dull, contrived opening action set-piece, Statham’s character decides it’s time to retire. De Niro doesn’t. He’s kidnapped and used as ransom for Statham to take another job. The target is Clive Owen (sporting a stupid-looking moustache) as a rogue British operative. Cat and mouse ensues. The idea of an action movie starring these three thrills me to bits. Unfortunately, they’re wasted in an action movie directed by someone who clearly has no idea how to direct action – another contemporary genre picture with lots of bluster, far too many close-ups and/or boneheaded herky-jerky camera moves and attention-span-challenged editing.
W.E. (2011) ***
The King’s Speech gave me pathological haemorrhoids. Thankfully my piles receded after seeing Madonna’s W.E. This vaguely feminist fairy tale crossed with fashion porn is a wildly stylish, dazzlingly entertaining and sumptuously melodramatic flipside to the aforementioned horrendous Oscar-baiting nonsense. Instead of Colin Firth spluttering with nobility as King George VI in television director Tom Hooper’s painfully earnest snooze-fest we get an exuberantly acted reverie into the life of Wallis Simpson (Andrea Riseborough), the snappily dressed American divorcee who wooed King Edward VIII (James D’Arcy) into her boudoir, forcing him to abdicate for the woman he loved and thus allowing his stuttering, half-wit brother to mincingly don the Crown of Jolly Old England, hoist Blighty’s sceptre and eventually provide inspiration for the aforementioned haemorrhoid-inducer of a movie.
The love story in W.E. is told rather goofily through the eyes of Wally (Abbie Cornish) – named thus by her Wallis Simpson-obsessed mother. Wally is married to a philandering, alcoholic, abusive psychiatrist (Richard Coyle) and spends her days wandering through Sotheby’s public viewing of Wallis and Edward’s soon-to-be-auctioned worldly goods. There she meets the dreamy Evgeni (Oscar Isaac), a brilliant Russian musician moonlighting as a security guard. He’s an olive-skinned, high-cheekboned Fabio with a Slavic accent and a great Jason Statham dome. He tinkles the ivories with passion and reads Rainer Maria Rilke. He’s a catch! Instead of immediately plunging herself onto Evgeni’s schwancen, she mopes about wondering why her hubby dinks around on her while sticking herself with hypodermics full of progesterone – hoping that she’ll get herself a bun in the oven. And then there’s Sotheby’s. There, she ogles Wallis and Edward’s finery and slips into dollops of their passionate love story – even occasionally getting visits from the ghost of Wallis, who dispenses Miss Lonelyheart’s advice.
OK, I bet you’re thinking this all sounds kind of stupid. Well, it probably would be, but Madonna’s insane, passionate direction yields a movie experience that is pure romance. Via cinematographer Hagen Bogdanski, Madame Ciccone allows the camera to glide and whirl its way through the dress and décor of the filthy rich with such abandon that she creates a magical world that we’re very happy to be a part of. Many critics are pouncing on Madonna for this movie. In this day and age, when it’s harder and harder to finance a movie and next to impossible to get a movie directed by a woman off the ground, an easy target is someone who is as rich, famous and powerful as she is. There’s a reason she’s rich, famous and powerful. She has exceptional style, savvy and talent. Most of all, making a movie about Wallis and Edward and focusing on Wallis is – dare I say – something we’d ONLY see from a female director. So it’s Madonna. Why the fuck not? W.E. is one of the most entertaining movies I’ve seen all year. I feel like a virgin all over again.
Killer Joe (2011) ****
At one point during William Friedkin’s Killer Joe, an unexpected roundhouse to the face turns its recipient’s visage into a pulpy, swollen, glistening, blood-caked skillet of corned beef hash. Said recipient is then forced at gunpoint to fellate a grease-drenched KFC drumstick and moan in ecstasy while family members have little choice but to witness this horrendous act of violence and humiliation. William Friedkin, it seems, has his mojo back. We’re in Jim Thompson territory here as we delight in a tale of a white trash family living in a trailer park, who hire the services of a hitman to knock off a relative for insurance money. It’s nasty, sleazy and insanely, darkly hilarious. This celluloid bucket of glorious untreated sewage is directed with Friedkin’s indelible command of the medium and shot with a terrible beauty by ace cinematographer Caleb Deschanel. Friedkin, the legendary director of The French Connection, The Exorcist and Cruising, dives face first into the slop with the exuberance of a starving hog at the trough, and his cast delivers the goods with all the relish needed to guarantee a heapin’ helpin’ of Southern inbred Gothic. This, my friends, is the kind of movie they don’t make anymore. Trust William Friedkin to bring us back so profoundly and entertainingly to those halcyon days. Oh, and if you’ve ever desired to see a drumstick adorned with Colonel Sanders’s batter, fellated with Linda Lovelace gusto, allow me to reiterate that you’ll see it here. It is, I believe, a first.
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My capsule reviews above were all published in longer-form at Daily Film Dose along with several pieces by my colleague Alan Bacchus.
All in all, this proved to be a most satisfying edition of the Toronto International Film Festival. In addition to all of the above I managed to squeeze in over 20 movies in 10 days. Other titles I saw included Jonathan Demme’s final trilogy of Neil Young concert movies (Neil Young Life), a satisfying picture with All Neil All the Time and a stunning set-piece in honour of the victims of the Kent State Massacre; a moving and entertaining documentary on one of our great songwriters (Paul Williams Still Alive); Lars von Trier’s staggering Melancholia; Steve McQueen’s well-directed, but overrated Shame, a dramatic exploration of sex addiction that’s high on style, but lacks humour; a great Willem Defoe performance as a man tracking the Tasmanian tiger in the not-so-great The Hunter and a wretched low-budget post-apocalyptic thriller taking one slice out of the lives of non-cannibalistic survivors called The Day.
The city of Toronto and its major international film festival may well be too smug for their own good, but all is well in the colonies when so many great movies are on view.
From the Dominion of Canada, I bid you: Bon Cinema!
Cast: Kyle McCulloch, Gosia Dobrowolska, Sarah Neville, Paul Cox, Brent Neale
‘Careful, Arthur’, intones the narrator at the beginning of the prologue to Guy Maddin’s third film. His warning to a child seen lifting the lid off a steaming pan of water is one of many that follow. Each is accompanied by a scene illustrating the hazards of living in Tolzbad, a mountain community threatened by the imminent risk of avalanche. Any unprovoked noise could unleash catastrophe on the town. Such is the fear that its inhabitants talk in hushed tones, all the town’s animals have had their vocal chords severed and children are made to play in silence. The narrator ends the prologue, however, by pointing out the existence of certain ‘nodes’ in the mountains, spaces where sounds are cancelled out and where the folk of Tolzbad can pursue their more noisome activities without the danger of catastrophic snowfall. Nodes notwithstanding however, the town lives in constant fear of flocks of geese flying overhead on their yearly migration…
The Electric Sheep Film Club will screen The Saddest Music in the World at the Prince Charles Cinema on Wednesday 10 March. More details on our events page.
From the start, the steaming pan of water alerts us to physical processes, in particular what happens to water when it’s agitated. Steam has its complement in the avalanche, which is what happens to frozen water when it’s disturbed. And humans too are subject to such processes. Little Arthur’s ‘lifting the lid’ on the pan is what Maddin proceeds to do with the townsfolk of Tolzbad, showing us a weird world of raging but repressed desires, and the rest of the film gleefully and preposterously plays out one Freudian tableau after another. Johann, a young man betrothed to his beloved Klara, has disturbing dreams about sleeping with his mother. After drugging her and kissing her breasts, he kills himself. The mother, the widow of a blind swan feeder, reveals she has always loved Tolzbad’s local aristocrat, the wonderfully named Count Knotgers, whom Johann’s brother Grigorss fights in a duel when he discovers her perfidious desire. In a nod to the eccentric Swiss author Robert Walser (who died, by the way, walking out one day into a snowstorm), Grigorss has also for a while been training to become the Count’s butler. Since Johann’s death Grigorss has moved in on Klara, only to find out she has already been deflowered by her own father. There’s also a mute brother hidden away in the attic. This is all presented as melodramatically as can be, though with a fairy tale or folk gentleness it’s hard not to like, due in great part to the fantastically intricate and kitschy sets and to what looks like the use of hand-coloured film processing throughout. It’s all distinctly otherworldly.
Indeed, there’s a contrast between the apparently cosy world of the town nestled in the valley and the high mountains beyond, where the extreme action of the film occurs. Here Johann commits suicide by throwing himself off a precipice, Grigorss and the Count duel (silently with knives, of course) to the death and Grigorss deliberately fires a pistol in the air to precipitate the dreaded avalanche in the end. At these moments of high drama, Maddin reverts to shooting in blue monochrome, an effect taken from Arnold Fanck’s silent film The Holy Mountain. Careful, as it’s often pointed out, is indebted to the Bergfilme, or silent German mountain films of the 1920s, and in particular to Fanck’s 1926 feature in which a young Leni Riefensthal plays a dancer pursued with tragic consequences by two mountain men, a downhill skier and a climber. At the end of the film, the two men spend a fateful night on a bare mountain, which Fanck shoots in blue to dramatise the freezing conditions and the intensity of their exploits.
Effects aside, it’s instructive to consider how Maddin transforms many of Fanck’s themes. In The Holy Mountain, the mountains are the sublime domain of men. Whenever Fanck shows mountains they are looming pillars of solid rock. Snow clings to their sides and it’s the solidity of rock and snow that enables men to ski down them, man and nature in perfect harmony. By contrast, Riefensthal is a woman of the lowland shore. She lives by the sea, and her dancing mimics the movement of the waves. As such, she is clearly very attractive to men of the uplands, but of course also a threat. When the inevitable avalanche happens towards the end of the film, the swirling snow is meant to mimic the unpredictability and deadly allure of Riefensthal’s dancing.
Maddin’s view of the mountains is far less black and white. For one, it’s not an exclusively masculine domain – Klara has a mountain hideaway – and there’s none of Fanck’s overriding phallic symbolism and certainly no recourse to the sublime. Maddin’s mountains are obviously made of papier mÃ¢ché (he himself lives on the Canadian prairies), and although he employs the melodrama of silent film it’s undercut by an absurdist wit; for example when Grigorss and the Count fight their duel, each must first unbutton the other’s coat to get at their knives. Nor is there with Maddin such an overt division between male and female spheres of action. His sexual politics are much more fluid, and with hindsight he can read gender ambiguities into the expressive gesturing of silent film.
Of course, Maddin’s fondness for the anachronistic vocabulary of silent cinema (including the use of intertitles) also flies in the face of Hollywood’s doctrine of technological progress. Paradoxically, his own films might be placed in one of the silent mountain nodes to which the narrator alludes in the prologue as an example of ‘calm’ amidst the overwhelming ‘noise’ of mainstream cinema. He constantly plays with effects that conventional filmmakers would consider ‘mistakes’ such as blurred and flared shots, and by turning up the static when the dialogue lapses. It’s also interesting that Maddin returns to the Bergfilm genre in which the ideology of progress is writ large, especially in terms of the development of cinematography. Fanck, for instance, was famed for his insistence on filming on location in adverse conditions and thus setting a cinematic precedent for outside shooting (Maddin, by contrast, is famous for his meticulously constructed indoor sets). And one can’t forget the course that Riefensthal’s career would take in the name of progress over the next decade.
In the end, Careful is something delicate and strange and it made me think back to the snowy paperweight in Citizen Kane. It’s as if Maddin managed to find his way inside the glass orb stopping time to shoot an entire film in the seconds before it broke open, the name ‘Tolzbad’ ringing in our ears as weirdly as that other name that has become part of the mythology of mystery in cinema. Maddin shows no real interest in mythmaking – he’s Canadian, from Winnipeg for goodness’ sake – but Careful is presently as radical a redefinition of the possibilities of cinema as I can think of.
This Reel Sounds column takes the form of a dialogue as it is an edited extract of an episode of Resonance FM’s visual culture show I’m Ready for my Close-Up broadcast in September 2008, in which Alex Fitch and Virginie Sélavy discussed modern silent movies, including the work of Guy Maddin.
Alex Fitch: Before we discuss Guy Maddin, I want to bring up the episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer called ‘Hush’, which – suitably as it celebrates a form of filmmaking that most people think is anachronistic – was the last episode to be broadcast on TV in the 20th century. It won many awards and is based on German nightmarish tales like Struwwelpeter; by removing the dialogue from the soundtrack Buffy’s creators have brought something very primal and nightmarish to the storytelling.
Virginie Sélavy: Yes, it is a bit like one of those nightmares that everybody has at some point: you’re running away in slow motion from something scary that is chasing you! It’s the same idea in ‘Hush’: the characters scream as they are attacked but no one can hear them. The other interesting thing is that it shows how powerful the human voice is when Buffy finally gets her voice back and screams, breaking the silence and killing the evil guys.
AF: Maybe it’s because we grew up on a diet of MTV, or rather TV influenced by MTV, where the combination of music and visuals became a new language for film. That said, people from the ‘MTV generation’ are increasingly reliant on bad dialogue rather than visual storytelling to drive the plot of their movies, which is bizarre.
VS: It’s not surprising that someone like Guy Maddin is attracted to primarily visual storytelling. I think that it’s much easier to create surrealist types of narratives or fantasy worlds with silent film because dialogue can make certain scenarios seem a bit trite or too literal. I think Maddin avoids the excesses of melodrama by not having dialogue. Through silent film you’re able to create a more poetic world, because it is not purely representational. It’s a bit like animation: it can’t be realistic, it doesn’t attempt to recreate the real world, which makes it a lot easier to create a convincing fantasy world.
AF: I thought Maddin’s first film, Tales from the Gimli Hospital, which does have dialogue, wasn’t particularly good. It could just be because he was learning as a filmmaker, but I think he found his voice – ironically – when he started making silent movies. He started using dialogue again a few years ago in The Saddest Music in the World, but that works really well because it feels informed by his silent work. It is as if his development reflected the history of cinema itself: he had to learn how to make sound movies by doing silent films first. He doesn’t need dialogue to tell a story, but The Saddest Music in the World is as much about music as it is about pictures, and I guess that also came from his work on the ballet Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary the year before.
VS: These modern silent films are different from the films from the silent era because old silent films didn’t have a synched soundtrack – it was generally played live in each cinema, and improvised by the pianist. In a film like Cowards Bend the Knee, the soundtrack is very important and so suggestive and well used that you don’t feel the need for dialogue at all.
AF: It makes me think of animation, from Fantasia to episodes of Tom and Jerry and Looney Tunes – the ones that won awards were quite often the ones without dialogue, I’m surprised people haven’t noticed this correlation over the years! Film is such a visual medium; particularly when you’re making something like a cartoon, when you’re drawing a character 24 times every second, to have to then think about how the mouth might move and dub over it seems a needlessly convoluted way of telling a story.
VS: Definitely. Hitchcock once said something like ‘silent film is the purest form of cinema’, and I can really understand that, it’s often a much more poetic form than sound film. It is unfortunate that modern silent films, like Guy Maddin’s movies, or Esteban Sapir’s La Antena, are categorised as ‘arty’ movies, and therefore only get the attention of a minority audience, because if more people got to see them they would realise that not only are they stunningly beautiful, but they’re also really entertaining…
Listen to the podcast of the discussion of modern silent movies.
Cast: Wei-Qiang Zhang, Tara Birtwhistle, David Moroni, Cindy Marie Small, Johnny Wright
Guy Maddin’s film of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s production of Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a work aimed at both fans of the Canadian director and cinephiles familiar with the subject matter: although the film starts with text introducing each character, it may be somewhat confusing for anyone who does not know the story well. The film skips the novel’s prologue, which describes how Jonathan Harker travels to Transylvania to sell the Count a house in Britain (the film presents this in flashback later), and starts with the arrival of Dracula by boat to England, juxtaposed with Lucy Westenra deliberating over her suitors and an incarcerated lunatic’s orgasmic fervour over his dark master’s proximity. Maddin belabours the sexual desires of everyone involved – Lucy’s suitors for their potential bride to be, her own lustful longings, Renfield’s pining for his master – by repeating the subtitle: ‘Master I hear you coming. Coming! Coming!’ in increasingly large type. Renfield’s blatant desires are paralleled by Lucy’s polygamist yearnings: ‘Why can’t they let a woman marry three men?’ Lucy may possibly be a virgin bride, but it’s clear she’s a swinger in waiting.
Maddin’s usual skewed sense of characters’ sexuality is contrasted with an intriguing set design almost veering towards steampunk: Lucy’s mother, who in a sense is also undead, is kept alive by a machine – a hyperbaric chamber into which maids must constantly pump air. Maddin’s film refers to the future in waiting, echoing Francis Ford Coppola’s version of the story, which focuses on the dawn of a futuristic century heralded by new technology, while also adding references to fears of the mass movement of immigrants. Mrs Westenra’s chamber also reminds us of the glass coffin from a dream sequence in Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr; Maddin is aware of the history of the vampire, both on film and in literature. Dracula as a metaphor for demonic invasion from abroad was portrayed most explicitly in Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu, and here it mainly serves to elicit laughter from the audience in the hyperbolic prologue that opens the film.
Just like Ford Coppola’s adaptation, Maddin’s version makes the themes of the novel completely explicit – for example Lucy’s death before her return as a vampire is accompanied by demons dancing around her deathbed, indicating that her soul is taken to hell. Each adaptation of Dracula adds something new to the story, from the misogyny of Van Helsing that Coppola and Maddin’s versions bring to the surface to the themes of plague and malign German politics in Herzog’s. In addition, Maddin depicts the Count as some kind of financial predator – when the men raid Dracula’s lair, one coffin is full of ‘Money stolen from England’, while the cutting of his flesh causes gold coins to fall out. Whether this, coupled with the motif of invaders from the East introduced at the start of the film, has something to do with late 20th-century fears of new Asian super-powers or late 19th-century fears of what was referred to as the ‘Yellow Peril’ is not entirely clear.
Innocence and corruption are paramount themes and are revisited in the second half of the film when Harker’s fiancée and part-time nun Mina reads of his exploits with the succubae in Transylvania in his diary, but all is forgiven later as the young lovers are filled with the joys of spring. The original novel is told entirely from diary entries, newspaper clippings and other pieces of reportage, but Jonathan’s diary is the only one read from here, so it is possible to infer that he is the virgin referred to in the film’s title – which would suggest that while erotic, his encounter with Dracula’s vampire brides was chaste. The ambiguity of the title and the possible audience assumption that it refers to a woman while in fact it’s a man, fit with the concern with (male) sexuality that runs throughout Maddin’s filmography. Far from offending or angering Mina, Harker’s exploits serve to inflame her desire, so that we might wonder if she was sent to a nunnery, as Ophelia was told to do, for having more sexual urges than her fiancé could handle! Since the theme of the story is the (Victorian) fear of female desire, it’s no wonder Dracula himself almost seems to cameo in his own film until the final act, as he is simply the catalyst for the transformation of the two female characters into femme fatales.
Colour and composition are particularly meaningful in the film. Maddin makes interesting choices regarding screen-tinting throughout the movie: the screen goes slightly green after Lucy first meets the Count, prefiguring the start of his malign influence; later the arrival of Van Helsing is announced by the screen turning purple (in colour theory the contrasting hue). Just as Dracula is often present off-screen, in this early scene Van Helsing is initially obscured from vision, first by the hat he is holding over his face, and then by Lucy, positioned between him and the camera. This is a film all about presences and absences, literally in terms of who is on screen and whose presence is felt even when they are not seen, and also in the idea of life and death as presence and absence.
The monochromatic cinematography is contrasted with the orange font of the intertitles and blood from a thorn prick on Lucy’s finger. The most horrific moment of the film is the look of smug satisfaction on Van Helsing’s face when he severs Lucy’s head with a spade. The high-contrast cinematography of this scene, which juxtaposes stark black and white with just a slash of claret on Lucy’s dress following her penetration by her suitors’ wooden stakes, reminded me of Frank Miller’s film Sin City, which featured an equally heady brew of sex and violence on screen. Spot colour is continually used to great effect from green gas seeping in through the vents to the lush scarlet lining of Dracula’s cape and Lucy’s lips when discovered undead in her coffin.
The manner in which Maddin films ballet, an art form all about elegant movement traditionally framed in long shot – i.e. from the point of view of a seated audience – varies from complementing the action to acting almost in opposition to it. His hyperkinetic editing style often seems at odds with the languor of ballet, but I assume this is part of the reason for hiring him to film the production – rather than the fact that Maddin’s silent movie style is contemporaneous with the setting of Dracula (Ford Coppola had Mina and Dracula visiting an early cinema in his version). Some of the director’s signature affectations, such as removing frames here and there to make it look like a time-worn silent film, interrupts the fluidity of certain movements and does the staging no favours, but elsewhere the cuts complement the action, as when the discovery of Lucy’s bite marks is intercut with reaction shots and changes in tinting to convey the characters’ shock. Ballet being an art form (generally) without dialogue, Maddin’s silent movie style suits the project perfectly. As well as being terrific dancers, many of the cast are also great actors – Lucy’s partial transformation into a vampire in the middle of a scene is achieved purely through acting; in contrast, her short-lived respite thanks to a blood transfusion is represented through special effects, a blush appearing superimposed on her otherwise monochromatic cheek.
There is one scene in which another theme of the novel, the rituals of Christianity, is beautifully captured through choreography as Van Helsing, Lucy’s suitors and the maids glide around her deathbed with crosses held aloft. Maddin’s sweeping camera moves make the cinematographer another one of the dancers by necessity – one can only imagine the hours of rehearsal needed to keep the camera moving delicately around the set while the actors wheel around it and each other. In such moments, Maddin’s predictably unusual entry in the Dracula cannon proves to be a peculiarly happy marriage between the wordless world of dance and the rich, dark magic of the director’s art.