Sep 152014
 

In Justin Anderson’s “Jumper,” a mid-century modern styled family is taunted and tempted by a naked stranger who troubles everything that lies beneath their well-mannered dinner. The film pays homage both to Pier Paolo Passolini’s Teruma and David Hockney’s swimming pool paintings while it more specifically pays tribute to British fashion designer Jonathan Saunders on the 10th anniversary of his label. This melange of fashion, painting, and film is characteristic of most of Anderson’s work, but in this short in particular his play between texts works perfectly with the film’s themes of repression and beautiful surfaces.

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The film starts with a pool sequence that pays homage to almost every painting about a pool David Hockney ever made. Hockney’s pool paintings reveal his excitement and celebration of what he found in 70’s Hollywood when he moved there from England: an expressive, carnal, sun-bronzed eden. This creative time and the life of Hockney and his friends was captured in the documentary A Bigger Splash (1973). The  Hockneyesque pool is both something that inspires the man to strip naked and, when he climbs out on the other side, is the place where he is transformed from naked man into a profound messenger for the woman waiting.

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The house wife the naked man finds on the other side of the pool stands with a pained, pleased expression, her mouth parted, as water trickles down his chest. She responds to this rupture in her life, to the excitement he provokes in her by turning away, walking back into the house, and carrying a plate of pasta to the dinner table. She walks away from her desire and in a sense all the desires and corruptions that follow stem from her walking away from this naked man. Perhaps if she had given over to her appetite, he would not have loomed over their meal, their lives, tempting them one by one. Perhaps she could have consumed him, but now he will consume them.

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Anderson’s work leans into the absurd, focuses on awkward details that seem conscious of themselves as symbols while they contradictorily resist their symbolization. Water is a key example here: it is the pool he swims through; it drips off his torso, distorts how we see the dinner through the water jug, overflows on the table; the daughter sucks it from the soaked napkin and the father penetrates the jug of it with his hand and wedding finger. Water means so many things that it becomes either numinous or an empty symbol, impossible to be fixed, just like the naked man’s influence over the family.

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The troubling stranger in films is both a perverse and sometimes queer trope. In the aforementioned Teorema, a man sleeps with all the members of a family and the maid, in the Argentinian Apartment Zero, a mysterious James Dean sort of figure has all the denizens of an apartment complex fall in love with him, particularly his roommate (Colin Firth), and in Holy Motorsthe enigmatic and mercurial figure who traverses a cornucopia of little worlds full of confusion and excess. There’s a masters’ thesis here.

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In “Jumper,” though, the film seems less about stirring up trouble than it does the sort of tenderness and beauty that can come from connecting with this stranger, connections that seem impossible in the context of the family, even between husband and wife. Certainly Anderson employs a fetishistic camera that troubles the eye, confuses and overwhelms, but the effect I think is not horrific, but alienating, so that the moments of tenderness when they surface look like life preservers.

Anderson’s other works also marry art and fashion and he’s more recently been hired by the likes of Italian Vogue. His short “Fleurs du Mal” flirts or cruises the line between the beauty and violence of lingerie. Though his work is definitely more sexualized, there are some interesting similarities between the fashion / horror elements in some of Anderson’s films and the fashion short films made by Argentinian director Lucrecia Martel, her works (“Muta,” “Fish“) previously featured and written about here on Numero Cinq by Sophie Lavoie. Fashion and film seem to share a similar love for where the beauteous and the disturbing meet.

–R.W. Gray

 

Aug 152014
 

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In David Cho’s “Where We Are,” the film’s assertive title is betrayed by a montage of images under the dialogue of two lovers who wonder where they might be now, both geographically and emotionally. The title might suggest a destination, a place where we and they will find one another, but the tension between what the characters say and what we see in the film instead reveals that either one or both of the characters would rather not arrive, would rather carry on desiring across the distance between them.

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The film’s dialogue is composed of what might be an intimate phone call, non-diegetic sound for an otherwise silent film, separate from the pictures we see. In an interview over at directorsnotes.com, Cho indicates that he saw these voiceless and soundless images to be flashbacks. He connects these to his “themes of separation, distance, and memory” and adds that he’s interested in “blending what characters see in their minds’ eye with reality and the present. It’s something that our minds do so seamlessly and we can fall into daydream without even realizing it.”

Film language, in its most realist forms, cannot show or represent the reality of this stream of consciousness and memory which is so indelible human, so it falls to more formalist, styled film choices to show us what that visually might look like.

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The peculiar thing about “Where We Are” is that Cho chooses to shoot the visuals in a more realist, hand held, improvised fashion. On the one hand this captures the randomness of moments in desire, but because these moments are small here and not momentous or overwrought in terms of symbolism or narrative significance, they do not necessarily read like memory.

The visuals have the kind of Terrence Malick style that Nick Schager laments in his Vulture article, and, indeed, the content is visually pleasing but the content is not necessarily distinct, unique, or revealing of character or plot. Yet that is probably the point. These are small happy moments, the kind most easily lost to memory.

Traditional film syntax would Vaseline or blur the lens, but Cho resists this for the most part; the images are warm and sometimes there’s soft focus, but nothing overt. The absence of diegetic sound (relating directly to the action) does to some extent dislocate the images, contain them in a way which makes them more memory like, but there is something insistently present tense about the visuals.

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“Do you wonder where I am?” “Do you miss me?” The woman on the call persists with her questions. When the man suggests the woman should come to him, however, she replies, “I’m happy here.” On the most overt level, this is the woman defining her contradictory desires, where she seeks the answer to “Do you miss me?” before she will assert “I am happy here.” Come here / go away. This is Anne Carson’s “sweetbitter,” cultivated by the woman who wants longing more than having. On another level, the dislocated dialogue appears over these memories and the “here” where she is happy could be memory, specifically these memories.

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When the man replies with his checkmate question, “Are you? Are you happy with him?” he unfolds a second possible reading of the film, one where he is not the man in the footage. Supporting this, there is no diegetic sound moment where we hear the voice of the man on the call connected to the body of the man in the film. Granted, I am a little oversensitive to these dislocations since I just shot a film on super 8 film that has no sound and then after the fact had to find some way to identify voice overs with bodies in some symbolic fashion. I found, as I find here, that voices divorced from bodies can sometimes be symbolically useful. Here, it adds an indeterminacy: we cannot know if the man who speaks is the man in the film and we cannot know if what we see is the love he once had with her or the love she left him for. The more realist, improvised footage also more readily supports this later interpretation, looking less like memory and more like caught moments.

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If it is not memory, then whose perspective? Is it the man’s fearful imagining of how happy she is now with this other man, or is it real, present footage of her current happiness with the man she has chosen over him?

If it’s her perspective, what we see and hear is a woman happy with one man while she longs for another. She lures a declaration of longing from the man in the dialogue while we see her being happy with another man, one who is perhaps oblivious to her duplicitous heart. Then, her last line — when the man asks if she is happy with the man she’s chosen instead of him, when she replies “I love this place” –reads even more like betrayal. She has chosen “this place” over the one who longs for her, and chosen the man she’s with for his place.

Or maybe these are just memories, the title playing off the more Hollywood narrative The Way We Were. Regardless, “Where We Are” ultimately won’t let us know where we are, just leaves us in a space of indeterminacy. All of these interpretations are possible and true. All of these desires, these words, these images, lovely memories or not, suitably point to just how impossible and contradictory desire can be.

— R W Gray

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Jul 162014
 

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The Full Monty (script by Simon Beaufoy — he won an Oscar for Slumdog Millionaire in 2009; director Peter Cattaneo) tells the story of a group of unemployed Sheffield (UK) factory workers who hit upon the idea of stripping for money. There are all kinds of political and gender implications, but  you could say that one message has something to do with the emasculation of working class men in a late capitalist environment. In this case, the men go through a strange self-induced re-education process during which they begin to see how they have objectified women (as they themselves become objectified). That’s one element of the mix. On another level, the plot is extremely traditional (read mythic): the band of unlikely heroes wins the Golden Fleece against all odds (as in just about every sports movie ever made). The movie is also traditional in that, though it begins with a political statement (about the late capitalist economics of impoverishment), it doesn’t posit a political solution. The solution is somewhat magical, which is part of the reason we like such movies. (And there’s no need to criticize a movie for being no more than it is.)

The basic compositional problem of all narrative is how to create dramatic interest through the use of structure. Story alone can only take you so far. If you drew a Venn diagram of the narrative arts as used in film and fiction, a huge number would appear in the common area, especially techniques related to structural elements (plot and subplot, for example). But you also find an amazing number of rhetorical devices that cross over between the arts. What follows is my movie notes in an outline form, an outline of The Full Monty with an emphasis on structural expedients, techniques, repetitions, nested scenes, scene crunches, images, etc., that went to create a lively piece of film.

For however long it is available, you can watch the movie online here.

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The film: Mildly satirical comedy with a political edge; romantic elements; team-and-training plot; ensemble structure with multiple subplots.

Basic composition principles: 1) Repetition is the heart of art. Watch for repetition of all kinds: large structural repetitions, subplots, musical motifs, thematic passages, bookends, motifs, anaphora, epanalepsis, anadiplosis, tie-backs, simple word repetitions. Distinguish also between repetitions that work to organize the whole work and those that are used to organize smaller segments only. Note also how repetitions are varied to keep them fresh. 2) Strict time control but also a temporal consciousness based on desire, backfill and tie-backs. 3) Plots are organized into clear, simple steps. 4) Each step, event, or event sequence has a simple informing desire and some dramatic interference. The interference can take many forms as well: not-answering dialogue, scene crunches or interfering scenes, suspensions, nested scenes (a version of parenthesis, or what I call in a different jargon nested globs), intercut scenes. Often the desire/interference structure can be expressed grammatically as a but-construction. 5) Gradation of characters in plot and subplots. 6) Progression d’effet (scenes and event sequences get shorter as we get closer to the climax of the movie).

1. Overture: Ironic 1950s documentary of swinging industrial Sheffield sets up the disjunct between then and now, a foreshortened history of the decline of the British steel industry, the destruction of the post-WW 2 working class, the displacement of predominately male laboring class. Closes with a literal time switch to move us to the present that hyphenates the two juxtaposed pictures of a working steel mill and Gary, Dave and the boy in the abandoned steel mill. Ends with literal time switch “25 Years Later.”

2. Announcing the problem and solution: (Broken up into segments: stealing girder, Chippendales, dropping Nathan at school next morning, job club, confrontation over custody and support payments. Segments vary from one scene to a set of connected scenes.)

a.    Stealing girder

        i.    Stealing girder 1; intention: to steal and sell girder

(1)   Nathan “stealing”/Gary “liberating” (sets of Nathan as voice of reason and morality, Gary as wilder, willing to bend the rules, even the rules of language)
(2)   10 years we worked here (backfill)
(3)   Don’t tell your mother
(4)   Scene crunch interruption by mill band
(5)   Security guard locks door (Lumper)

ii.    Stealing girder 2

(1)    Can’t we do normal things?
(2)    Nathan drops girder
(3)    That were your bloody maintenance
(4)    Nathan leaves
(5)    Gary & Dave trapped
(6)    Joke w/ pedestrian

 b.     Chippendales

i.    Walking from canal to bar

(1)    Complaining about being wet (tie-back to previous scene)
(2)    “take your kit off” is a tie-forward line
(3)    Commenting on passing woman
(4)    working men’s club taken over by women
(5)    Jean is inside (“it’s her money”) SUBPLOT
(6)    where’s your pride man
(7)    Gary says Dave has to get her out of there

        ii.    Gary in the men’s room (nested scene); aim: to get Jean out

(1)    Dave too fat to get in
(2)    Gary sends Nathan in to get jean
(3)    BUT Nathan goes to drink beer

(a)    Jean and girlfriends come to men’s room
(b)  Jean: Dave’s given up on work, me, everything (SUBPLOT)
(c)    girlfriend pees in men’s urinal standing up

(4)    Gary goes after Nathan in the bar
(5)    Gary lies to Dave about Jean in the bathroom
(6)    “Hot Stuff”

c.    Dropping Nathan at school next day; intention: to make plan to spend time with Nathan next weekend

(1)    Nathan hung over (time switch device that tells us this is the morning after the scene in the bar)
(2)    Nathan complaining about Gary’s flat
(3)    Gary suggest going to Sunday league soccer match
(4)    Nathan wants to go to Premier League match
(5)    but Gary can’t afford it, suggest a hole in the fence
(6)    Nathan disgusted

d.    Job Club; uses Gerald as the device of the third thing to enhance what is essentially a talking/thinking scene

(1)    women peeing like men comment is tie-back to men’s room scene but anchors the conversation
(2)    men…extinct-o, only in zoos, a joke
(a)    Gerald, a foreman (class consciousness of movie), interrupts
(3)    get his “kit off” (repetition from above)
(4)    IDEA dawns
(5)    10,000 quid “worth a thought”
(a)    Gerald mocks them
(b)    fight between Gerald and Gary

e.    Intensification of PROBLEM; intention: Gary wants to get his ex to drop her request for sole custody

(1)    confrontation about sole/joint custody
(2)    700 pounds in arrears
(3)    Gary on the dole
(4)    Nathan doesn’t like staying at Gary’s place
(5)    Barry, the sneering boyfriend

3. Forming the team: (Jogging with Dave and meeting Lumper, first rehearsal at mill, getting Gerald to join, tryouts at the mill during which Horse and Guy join up, scene in bedroom w/ Dave and Jean.)

a.    Comic scene crunch, Lumper joining the team

i.    Gary and Dave jogging

ii.    Gary trying to convince Dave to join

iii.    But Dave only wants to help

(1)    Dave stops to help Lumper in his stalled car
Things that repeat: garden gnomes, dance, your kit off, sun bed, walking up the wall, shoplifting and running out of the store, exercycle

(2)    dawns on us that Lumper is committing suicide SUBPLOT
(3)    Dave has beautiful not-answering conversation

Things that repeat

iv.    Dave runs up hill to have cigarette w/ Gary

(1)    Dave realizes what’s going on and runs back
(2)    saves Lumper
(3)    Lumper calls him a bastard
(4)    Dave puts Lumper back in the car

v.    Lumper, Dave and Gary discuss how to commit suicide

vi.    Gary and Dave have become Lumper’s mates (smile)

(1)    cut away to Lumper’s house and invalid mother

b.    First rehearsal

i.    Gary dancing

(1)    Cut to that night at the mill
(2)    Reasons for taking Lumper into the group: he’s got a car, a place to rehearse, he’s a musician and it’s good therapy for him! (sort of a temporal/motivational filling in line)
(3)    Hot Chocolate “You Sexy Thing”; I believe in miracles
(4)    Nathan embarrassed at Gary’s dancing, runs away

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ii.    Scene between Gary and Nathan

(1)    Find Nathan in Lumper’s car
(2)    Beautiful not-answering dialogue
(3)    Establishing and reiterating motivation: I’m trying to get some brass together so as you and me can keep seeing each other
(4)    I love you, you bugger (a sort of thematic moment)

c.    Getting Gerald to join scene sequence

i.    Dancing class; first speeches tell us that they’ve decided they need to learn to dance and Nathan suggested coming to the studio

(1)    Peering through window (repeated in Gerald’s interview scene)
(2)    Gerald confronts them
(3)    he lies to his wife about them being pals from work
(4)    Gary lets on he knows he’s lying

ii.    Next morning

(1)    Nested scene begins with the boys arriving outside Gerald’s house and playing with the gnomes

(a)    Then we move inside, Gerald leaving for work
(b)    wife asks about ski vacation
(c)    Gerald almost tells her the truth (nice depiction of inner conflict)

(2)    Gerald and the boys meet outside
(3)    crucial loading line when Gerald says dancing requires “skill, timing, fitness and grace”
(4)    Gerald says he has an interview, he refuses to help

iii.    Gerald’s interview

(1)    Gerald seated before a row of men at a long table
(2)    Gary and the others interrupt his conversation with the gnomes at the window (repetition of their faces at the window, repetition of gnomes)
(3)    Gerald at the door, yelling at them

iv.    Job Club

(1)    Gerald tries to fight Gary
(2)    tells the story of his desperation and lies
(3)    Gerald’s bourgeois class consciousness comes out

v.    The boys make peace

(1)    Repetition of eyeing women, 1-10 classification
(2)    Gnomes business to make reparation
(3)    you can’t dance

d.    Tryouts at the mill; repetition of the interview structure we just saw

i.    Depressed guy who can’t get his clothes off

(1)    crucial line: this is no place for kids

ii.    Horse; old but can dance

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iii.    Guy; can’t dance but is well endowed

(1)    nice little dramatic bracket when Gerald realizes he knows Guy and tries to conceal his identity
(2)    walking up the wall, Gene Kelly reference and joke

e.    Dave and Jean going to bed

Method used

i.    Black man dialogue is a tie-back to the previous scenes
ii.    Jean’s refrain: “I’m married to you, remember?”
iii.    Dave too tired to make love; “amazing how tiring it is doing nought.”

4. Training: (Flashdance video sequence in which Dave joins finally, offside trap rehearsal, Gerald’s house to practice taking clothes off, another rehearsal, the hundred pounds to book the bar problem, training in the field.)

a.    Stealing the Flashdance video scene

i.    Dave, Nathan and Gary watching Jean flirt in store (apparently she works in the store); Jean is the tie-back device here
ii.    Not enough money for video
iii.    Dave runs out the door (watch repetition of this)

b.     At the mill watching Flashdance

i.    Dave commenting on her skill as a welder
ii.    Gerald talks about her dancing
iii.    Gerald’s challenge “I can teach anyone to dance in a week, even you, mate. Well, two weeks.”

c.    Dave and Gary walking

i.    Jean wants Dave to take security guard job
ii.    Tie-back reference to guy she’s flirting with
iii.    Gary mentions “two weeks”

iv.    Dave says “it’s a thought” and thus joins the group

d.    Gerald’s house; intention: to practice taking clothes off

i.    Little motifs started up in dialogue: sunbed, plastic cling film
ii.    Scene interrupted by repossession team

e.    Rehearsal

Rule of threes

i.    Gary fixing velcro to pants
ii.    Nathan mentions that he’s been to prison

f.    New problem: Gary needs 100 pounds just to book the club (breaks down into a series of scenes)

i.    Scene with club manager who says he won’t book the club except for a 100 pounds down
ii.    Nathan and Gary go to wife who refuses and offers him a job
iii.    Nathan takes out his savings for Gary

(1)    Crucial motivating and loading scene because it’s clear Nathan is taking his father at his word and his father isn’t that sure himself. Nathan is making his father a better man. “You said so. I believe you.” “You do?”

g.    High point of training sequence; scene outdoors on hill top park, impromptu soccer game; a sense of camaraderie and joy that has been missing in their lives

5. Things go badly: (Gary ups the ante with the full monty boast, unemployment line scene, Gerald’s place for sunbed scene, Horse in phone booth, Dave and Jean-Gary dancing-Dave in shed, Gerald tells Dave his problem, dress rehearsal intercut w/ Dave working as security guard, police station intercut w/ Lumper and Guy sneaking away, Gerald goes home to find repossession in progress, Gary and Gerald meet Nathan after school, Lumper’s mother’s funeral.)

a.    Putting up posters

i.    Meet a couple of women
ii.    Gary ups the ante, says they’re going to take off all their clothes
iii.    Woman: “Hellfire, that would be worth a look.”

b.    Unemployment line

i.    Charming scene in which the men unselfconsciously begin to dance to music heard over someone’s radio, Gary smiles

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c.    Gerald’s house; intention: to use the sunbed on a rainy day

i.    Gary not in scene
ii.    Really a lovely little loading and thematic scene, mostly dialogue, beginning with the girlie magazine and the word tits
iii.    Becomes a discussion of how men look at women and how women might look at these men; “They’re going to be looking at us like that.” The men here begin to reconstruct themselves as more sensitive beings.
iv.    Guy pulls out the leather thongs
v.    Time check: It’s Monday. Performance is on Friday. Dress rehearsal “tomorrow” meaning Tuesday.

d.    Series of quick parallel scenes on various plot lines dealing with self-doubt and anxiety

i.    Horse in phone booth

subplots

ii.    Little nested scenes beginning with

(1)    Dave and Jean
(2)    Gary and Nathan

(1)    sets up “you’re ahead” joke later
(2)    Gary asks if Nathan thinks he’s making an ass of himself; no answer

(3)    Dave in the shed

(a)    beautiful depiction of a man torn within himself; wrapping himself in plastic and eating a chocolate bar

iii.    Gerald telling Dave about his erection problem

e.    Dress rehearsal (Tuesday); series of intercut scenes

i.    At the mill, the boys waiting for Horse’s relatives to arrive
ii.    Dave a security guard, Gary trying to get him to come to rehearsal
iii.    Rehearsal

(1)    second wall dancing joke

iv.    Dave and Gary, second shoplifting scene

(1)    Dave “just can’t” join the group

v.    Gerald’s problem discussed

(1)    nature programs joke starts up

vi.    Rehearsal intercut with Dave at the store and cop approaching

(1)    Gerald ever so slightly flirting with Beryl
(2)    cop comes in
(3)    Guy and Lumper escape

f.    Police Station; series of intercut scenes

i.    Gary says they were robbing pipes (tie-back to opening scene)
ii.    Security tapes brought in, question about security guard

(1)    CUT TO Lumper and Guy running

iii.    “You’re ahead” joke (tie-back) to scene with Nathan (lovely moment when Gerald forgets himself and grabs the remote from the policeman, everyone is more concerned with the dancing than the impending charges (the idea here is, as in the unemployment line, that dancing is taking over their depressed souls).

(1)    intercut with scenes of Lumper and Guy sneaking into Lumper’s house, then beginning to kiss

iv. Nathan’s mother comes for him and we have a scene with a sequence of very negative language: “pornography” and “indecent exposure” (Bakhtinian battle of discourses much like in the first scene). “Look at yourself, Gary.” (Motif of “look at yourself” lines.)
v.  Against this is Gary’s discourse “We were trying to get you your money.” And Nathan’s discourse: “He is trying.”
g.  Gerald goes home to find his house being repossessed

i.    His wife can’t forgive his lying
ii.    She breaks a gnome, says she never liked them
iii.    Sunbed repetition
iv.    Ski vacation tie-back
v.    Six month repetition
vi.    Not-answering dialogue
vii.    Image repetition of exercycle

h. Gerald shows up at Gary’s apartment

i.    He’s got the job
ii.    Sunbed repetition
iii.    Summary of wife leaving him (tie-back to previous scene)

i.  Gerald and Gary go to meet Nathan after school (Wednesday?)

i.    Confronted by Nathan’s mother and the ineffable Barry
ii.    Gerald puts his arm around him
iii.    Wife looks a bit regretful

j.  Gary approaches Dave at the store

i.    “We’re all finished.”
ii.    Asks to borrow a suit for the funeral (Lumper’s mother died (two days ago, so when is this?)
iii.    They run out of the store together, third shoplifting scene

k. Funeral (SUBPLOT)

i.    Guy and Lumper lovers

6.    The turn: (Series of parallel scenes: Guy running the hill, Horse at unemployment office, Dave at breakfast, Gerald buying papers, Lumper’s orchestra, Gary and the barkeep; job club; Dave and Jean.)

a.    Parallel scenes

i.    Guy running

ii.    Horse at unemployment office

iii.    Dave seeing newspaper

iv.    Gerald buying newspapers

b.    Gary runs into manage who says they sold 200 tickets

c.    Gary arrives at job club to say “we’re on”

i.    They convince Gerald to try once time
ii.    Dave remains outside and depressed

d.    Dave and Jean

i.    “Who wants to see this dance?” “I do.”

7.    The performance: (Gary demurs because men in the audience but Nathan convinces him, all threads of movie converge in a kind of erotic ritual rejuvenation.)

a.    Dressing room

i.    Problem: Men have been allowed in club, this embarrasses Gary who suddenly can’t go on

ii.    Dave shows up with Nathan

iii.    Nathan says his mother’s outside and Barry wasn’t allowed to come

iv.    Nature shows joke repeated

v.    Men go on stage

vi.    Nathan orders Gary out “You did that.”

b.    Finale: the Full Monty

i.    Threads brought together

(1)    Beryl and Gerald flirting
(2)    Jean and Dave
(3)    Lumper’s band playing
(4)    cops show up
(5)    Gary’s ex catches his belt

ii.    Soundtrack “You give me reason to live.”

Some definitions:

Anadiplosis: “Repetition of the last word of one sentence, or line of poetry, as a means of (sometimes emphatic) liaison.” Dupriez
Epanalepsis: “Repetition at the end of a clause or sentence of the word or phrase with which it began.” Lanham
Parenthesis: “The insertion of a segment, complete in meaning, and relevant or irrelevant to the subject under discussion, into another segment whose flow it interrupts.” Dupriez
Suspension: A narrative moment when some crucial information is promised but held back till later in the action.
Tie-Back: Textual reference back to earlier material in order to remind the reader, create rhythm, and add textual density.
Anaphora: Multiple repetitions of the same grammatical construction at the beginning of successive textual elements.
But-construction: Grammatical construction using the word “but” or some cognate to create dramatic interruption, interference, or contrast at the level of a sentence.

Douglas Glover

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Jun 182014
 

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In Ryan Cockrell’s quirky, macabre short documentary “Fishhooks,” he interviews taxidermist / artist Becca Barnet about her relationship to her work. What unfolds in Barnet’s reflections and the visual narrative is dense with reflections on art, life, death, and memory.

In the documentary, we first meet Barnet reflecting on life drawing and essentially the relationship between art and taxidermy. She notes that she most likes doing pieces for museums, where they remain unsigned and are there just to enhance the day of those who experience the pieces. In contrast, she notes that she finds the art gallery scene frustrating because people are always trying to interpret meaning in the piece. Here in the documentary enjoyment and interpretation are juxtaposed, and Barnet asserts that she loves taxidermy because it “is what it is.” For her, the allure of her taxidermy art is that it is close to life.

Barnet describes how she steers clear of her own discomfort around death and corpses by regarding the work as a “project,” something that requires her attention despite the discomfort. This perspective shift is both troubled and made profound by the fact that her current project is Fishhooks, the pet whose name makes the title of the film.

Fishhooks is Barnet’s pet rat who died a year before. We don’t find out how Fishhooks has stayed so fresh for the task. Perhaps this is a trade secret. It’s a small throwaway detail, this year since the rat’s death, but for the purposes of a narrative that reflects on loss and memory, it’s significant: Fishhooks could not be a project until time had passed, perhaps until grief had itself determined a little distance in perspective.

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Core to this film then is what we imagine must be Barnet’s own grief and love for Fishhooks and the part of her that is compelled to make a project of that grief. This is something that Barnet is concerned with in her work in general, as she notes on her website that her artwork “explores why humans have the tendency to try to hold on to the fleeting corporeal.” Barnet is realistic about the limits of such a project, tells us and the camera “it’s really hard to capture the lifelikeness of a pet.” So it makes it perhaps even more profound that she has undertaken the work of preserving Fishhook’s physical form. What will be preserved will be a fetish object of the original pet, but she still undertakes and desires it as a project.

Cockrell’s visual treatment of his subject is playful and emphasizes the absurd, as though the folly of memory and nostalgia must be loved and represented that way. The dog rubbing his butt on the floor, the old photographs and museum staging of bones, skeletons, and taxidermied animals, all emphasize through humour and with affection the line between the living and the things we do to remember them when they are gone. If there is an archetypal moment here it is when Fishhooks, as a project in process with pins holding her posture, is juxtaposed with her sister Foxhunt, who nestles up to her, the dead and the living in close quarters. It is an uncanny and lovely moment.

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Equally, Cockrell uses plenty of footage of Bruce, Barnet’s bull terrier, demonstrating his playfulness and essential aliveness and showing Cockrell’s love for her pet. As adorable as Bruce is, Cockrell’s intention is not to let the dog upstage the rat. Cockrell uses this footage of Bruce to stand in for footage of Fishhhooks. If this is how Cockrell loves Bruce, she must have loved Fishhooks similarly.

Cockrell is a South Carolina filmmaker and one part of the creative house Lunch and Recess. Below is a short interview with him talking about the making of the film and his approach to filmmaking.

– R. W. Gray


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Numéro Cinq’s R. W. Gray Interviews Ryan Cockrell

NC: How did you this documentary idea occur to you?

RC: I’ve always been inspired/interested in Becca Barnet’s work at her fabrication shop which is now called Sisal & Tow.  I’m no hunter but I like taxidermy when its done to things you don’t expect.  Becca has a lot of interesting things in her shop.  It’s pretty eclectic, as are her talents and interests.  Making a mini doc about Becca had been on my mind for a year or so.  At my production company, Lunch and Recess, we were looking to graduate from the DSLR world, and we needed to test a few cameras.  The ikonoskop is a weird camera that we wanted to try.  So we thought, why not test the camera by making this film about Becca?  It worked out great and Becca was a real sport, because we told her that we hadn’t used this camera before and we were not sure if we would have anything cool to show from it in the end.  Luckily, the test turned out pretty great.  Even so, we decided not to buy that camera because it shoots such giant files, the memory requirements are ridonkulous which creates problems in transferring and editing.

NC: What does “Fishhooks” tell us about you?

RC: I hope “Fishhooks” shows people that I’m a listener.  I hope it shows my willingness to hear another perspective on life, art, etc, and consider others’ opinion.  I hope it shows that when I make a documentary, I don’t go in with an agenda and try to get someone to say what I want. Instead, I’m there to learn and observe.

NC: What other projects are you working on?

RC: We are working on a short which is about a kid who started making plush toys to give away to other kids in need.  She’s pretty cool, and she calls her thing Plaze toys.  I’m producing that piece, Brittany Paul is directing (she edited and produced Fishhooks).  Ironically, the Plaze toys piece also shows animals being stuffed.  We have a couple other projects in the works including a feature doc about bicycling and other things.  I’m really excited about this one and we plan to spend about 2 years on it.  It will be an ongoing process.

NC: Who inspires you as a filmmaker / storyteller?

RC: I wish I could tell stories as well as my uncles and grandparents.  Sitting at the dinner table with them is humbling.  Listening to the way they spin a yarn and craft their story is a treat.  I’m also inspired by anyone doing something with a singular focus that they believe in no matter what anyone else says or thinks.

NC: The world is ending, you’re boarding the escape pod, and you can take one film with you, which one do you take?

RC: I’m going to defer to my go-to answer on “what’s your favorite movie?” This is the hardest question in the book, because I love so many movies.  I always want to choose something obscure or classic that makes me look smart.   But I decided long ago to always have one answer to this question and the answer is: Groundhog Day.  Funny, but I can watch it over and over again.

NC: If you could taxidermy any person / creature, who / what would it be?

RC: Another one where I have a lot of answers but in lieu of a list, I’ll give two answers.  I would love to have a T-rex, but I have for some time now been wanting an Ocean Sunfish aka Mola mola.  I would never kill one for the purpose of art or taxidermy though.

—Ryan Cockrell & R. W. Gray

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May 172014
 

 
 

In the achingly beautiful short documentary “Mother’s Song,” filmmaker Matthew Brown investigates “the opera woman” of Seattle and carries us intimately close to a life we might just pass by on the street. Brown notes,

There is a woman who walks through the streets randomly singing opera. Wherever she goes she is singing, sometimes under her breath, sometimes loud enough for whole blocks to hear. Some people think she is deranged, some think she is inspiring. I was compelled to sit down with her and have a short conversation about Why. I only had an hour and a half with her, but she struck a cord enough that made me buy a ticket to go see my mom, heh. I decided that I would put this online and hope to inspire people to go embrace their mothers and children. She’s also a very prime example of why not to judge people by their eccentricities.

Though this is ostensibly a documentary about the opera woman, how Brown documents this glimpse into the woman’s life matters tremendously. Brown chooses to begin and end his documentary short with just a voice, her voice singing opera over a black, empty screen: this is the opera woman, Janna Wachter.

Brown does not just simply place his subject in front of his camera and leave the audience to judge or appreciate. He lures us first with her voice, her singing, then, in close-up shots, presents Wachter bare faced and vulnerable as she tells the story of her son, her grief, and her philosophy on joy and singing. We have a strong visual and narrative connection to Wachter before we see her on the street singing opera.

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Another documentarian might have begun on the street, started with Wachter singing there without context, perhaps sought to evoke discomfort, anxiety, or judgment in the audience and then subverted it by revealing this woman’s story. This narrative strategy runs the danger of playing out like a trick, one used to embarrass audiences and show them their prejudices.

Brown’s narrative strategy, however, helps first build a compassionate relationship between the audience and Wachter, through the intimacy of her singing and then the profound vulnerability in the story she tells of her son. He gives us first the voice without the sidewalk, the bare face before the lipstick, the world indifferent and busy before she sings bursts into song on the corner for us.

Brown goes further though, departs from the realist conventions of documentary when he takes artistic liberty to emphasize the passion behind her opera: he knocks books to the ground and shakes the camera, crescendos the music so we, in an aesthetic way, might understand the emotional urgency and impulse to sing, the desire to break through the day-to-day into the sublime moment.

In all these ways, Brown’s film is not just endeavouring to build tolerance and compassion, or reflect on our superficial understanding of others, he’s building awe for a woman who lets candour and earth-trembling joy rule her life instead of decorum or polite pedestrian street etiquette.

– R. W. Gray

 

Apr 192014
 

 

In Michael Venus’s music video for “The Hunt,” a woman (Katja Danowski) blanched and polyestered by life is haunted by the band Parasite Single, two outfit-coordinated hipster angels, who call to her and torment her with their pop song and provoke her to the possibility of something other than her sweat-pant suit life.

From the first shot in the furniture store we are in an uncomfortable space: the angles askew, florescent lights running to the left of the frame into the distance, their static hum scratching our ear drums, the woman’s prone body running from the centre off to the right. She’s wearing a yellow sweatsuit, but this is yellow drained of any allusion to lemons, sunshine, or fluffy baby chickens. This is yellow defined by the absence of yellow.

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Sidebar: I don’t think mattress merchants as professionals are prepared for the intimacy and vulnerability of people going prone. They should have to have some training or certification to prepare for this burden.

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In the second awkward shot, a foot’s eye view, we look up the length of the woman, up her nose, and along her arm outstretched, spanning the empty side of the bed to the right of the frame. Either she sleeps like a horizontal crucified Christ each night, board straight and perpendicular, or perhaps her arm and that space of empty bed signify something.

Then, in an insert shot, we see her fingers fumbling with the mattress’s plastic cover, trying to get past the plastic or pondering the empty space that is the other side of the bed to her. Her eyes close slowly in pained longing as the plastic cover crinkles in deaf response and we see that the back corner of this cold furniture store is reserved for longing.

Venus composes each of the first shots with awkward angles, plays with empty space and underscores the sequence with a minimalist sound design, just crinkling plastic and the buzz of the lights, all to emphasize this woman’s loneliness and isolation before the hipster angels’ music begins.

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The musical duo proceed to plague and torment polyester woman in various locales: the furniture store, her work at a car garage, the grocery store and a laundromat. In what follows there are three small moments that define her journey: the sack of unshelled peanuts, the discarding of the shopping cart, and when she mimics the band.

The first moment is just after her second sighting of the band, in her office at work: she escapes outside where she sits on a potted palm, shelling and eating peanuts from a sack slight desperation.

Sidebar: unshelled peanuts must be the unofficial snack for depressed polyester wearers. It explains why country and western bars are littered with their remains.

Sidebar to the sidebar: unshelled pistachios, on the other hand, are too coy, salty smooth, and hard shelled to every get caught in a country and western bar, though they have, undoubtedly, seen it all before.

The second moment is when she sees the band in the grocery store and, not so coincidentally the word “love” on a cake decorating box. Here she breaks, shoving the grocery cart away from herself.

Then, around the 1:47 mark when the hipster angels take a break for coffee in the laundromat, polyester woman has had enough and she picks up their instruments and mockingly pretends to play with the same hipster joy they do. It’s a tiny moment and if you blink you’ll miss it, but it foreshadows the angry catharsis to come.

These three small moments define this character, her resistance to the gaudy coloured pop angels that are pressuring her to break out of her drab life.

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So when catharsis comes for her, after the hair salon and dressing up, in a bar full of gambling machines, angry, glorious dancing is the answer.  In a nice turn, the strobed shots draw her in to the same frame as the hipster angels, showing us they were part of her all along; they are connected. Moreover, Venus places her in the centre of the frame, positions her as their lead singer, their missing piece.

She is, however, not done. In the last shot, ragged and sweaty from her angry dancing, she stands in profile, then turns her head and looks at the camera, a mix of defiance and Teflon:  if at any point we, as audience, lacked compassion or took amusement from her journey, here she wins, and its her victory not ours.

Over at the site Director’s Notes,  there’s an interview with Venus where you can read more about his work with Curtisfilm  and about how they shot the film. If your German is better than mine you can consider supporting the band and their future creative endeavours through their crowdsourcing campaign.

– R. W. Gray

Mar 202014
 
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Patrice Leconte’s La fille sur le pont  (Girl on a Bridge) tells the story of Gabor (Daniel Auteuil), a knife thrower, who returns to a certain bridge in Paris looking for suicidal women to be his assistants, for they, usefully, have nothing left to lose. When he meets Adele (Vanessa Paradis), he finds more than an assistant, he finds a woman who might as well be throwing the knives back.

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Though I encourage you to see the whole film, there is one three-minute scene that stands on its own as a well-wrought short film. In this scene, Gabor throws knives at (or, more accurately, near) Adele. The scene derives its power primarily from the intense anxiousness of Gabor and the ecstasy of Adele.

We begin in the audience and then we pinball between the knife thrower, the target, and the faces of those who watch enraptured, fearful, and envious. Much of the pleasure in this scene is derived from the expressions of others in a way similar to  Woodkid’s “I Love You.” The chorus of faces in this film that layer and shape how the story is told: the face of a woman in the audience as she leans to see better and, backstage, the various circus performers, the small woman with the massive floral headdress and the stricken clown with the oblivious dog. The circus performers, more than the others, instruct us to be fearful, because they do this for a living every day but they seem worried.

We are all of them and yet we are not simply them. The camera lets us behind the sheet and in a medium shot we get to see what Gabor cannot: Adele’s ecstatic experience. We also see what Adele cannot, in close-up: Gabor’s concern, his worry, his focus. Later in the film, Adele and Gabor are able to communicate with one another over great distances, letter writing to one another without the writing, and this seems possible because of their intense connection. This moment reads us back to the theatre and the knife throwing where we, the audience, were caught between them and the sheet lightening connection to the enraptured onlookers. We see we inhabit the air between them all and were, perhaps, amorousness itself.

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Of all the spectators in the montage, it is particularly Irene, the woman backstage dressed somewhat like a showgirl, who stands in counterpoint. Irene gives us every indication that she is vicariously deriving a great deal of pleasure from the spectacle. She is identifying with Adele. Does this envy encourage us to also identify with Adele’s pleasure or does it just make Adele’s pleasure more real? Regardless, what plays across her face is a pleasure both envious and nostalgic, as though she too once knew a pleasure like this.

The worried faces, we find out at the end of the scene, were right to worry: one of the knives has nicked Adele and drawn blood. It is for Gabor an admission that he can’t see the way he used to. It also foreshadows that he cannot see Adele clearly enough and this might not bode well for them.

For Adele, the cut is more complicated. What would be different if every knife had lodged perfectly around her and there had been no cut? This is in some ways the knife thrower’s version of Michael Ondaatje’s “The Cinnamon Peeler.”

what good is it
to be the lime burner’s daughter
left with no trace
as if not spoken to in the act of love
as if wounded without the pleasure of a scar

The ecstatic joy on Adele’s face seems connected to this, wounded, the experience now written on her body. Indeed, if all the love songs tell the truth, then the amorous experience threatens the lover the way the knives do here. There is always the threat of loss of the self but the pleasure of being made specific.

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That the film is presented in black and white makes this a nostalgic cinema with a hankering for the way romances used to appear on the silver screen. This coupled with Marianne Faithful’s broken glass and whisky vibrato creates a peculiar tension between the nostalgic and the primal. As Roger Ebert notes in his review of the film, its take on romance stands in resistance to the current take Hollywood has on the genre:

Occupations like knife-throwing were not uncommon in silent comedy, but modern movies have become depressingly mired in ordinary lifestyles. In many new romantic comedies, the occupations of the characters don’t even matter, because they are only labels; there’s a setup scene in an office, and everything else is after hours. Here, knife-throwing explains not only the man’s desperation to meet the woman, but also the kind of woman he meets, and the way they eventually feel about each other.

What Ebert is essentially saying is that Leconte here presents a romance that is specific. This is echoed in Gabor’s act of knife throwing. He cannot throw the knives the same way twice. We see him study the contours and outlines of Adele’s body before he pulls the white sheet over her to begin. She has become specific. Even the gesture of pressing his index finger to her forehead pins her in that specificity.  Amorous discourse is this battle between the specific and the generic. When “I love you” is the most cliché thing one can say, the rest must conspire to free the sublime experience from the generic.

– R W Gray

 

Feb 182014
 

 

Whether you are staggering through the chocolate wrapper detritus of Valentine’s Day or reeking like a yack-stained shut-in thanks to the polar vortex, this short film will bring some relief with its simple declarations and hopes. Alexander Carson’s “We Refuse to be Cold” tells the story of one man who navigates winter and his relationship looking for something he can promise that will get them through.

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The film is a narrative collage of documentary pieces collected under a voice-over narrative that explores what, given a Montreal winter and the impermanence of the world, two people might promise to one another to weather it all. He and his girlfriend come up with the simple yet complicated promise that they will refuse to be cold and will attempt to keep one another warm. “So love was warmth that winter. And following the line of so many Montrealers before us, we started scheming on ways to get it, to keep it, to make it.”

The film opens with two men in a heated argument, the one giving advice to the other which might be about sports or love. “I don’t want to talk about this, I thought we were talking about baseball” retorts the one man. The dialogue between the two men, like the advice from the narrator’s father when he returns home for Christmas is heavy with cliché and empty of meaning: “Sticky wicket.” “Adjust your rudder.”

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Carson’s narrator follows various ship phrases for navigating relationships (apologies for extending the metaphor) with a picture of an actual ship. The metaphor swallows the language, effectively sinking. This ship-y metaphor and the truisms it tries to transport serve to emphasize the empty impotence of language when it comes to understanding romance.

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In contrast to this failure of advice and metaphor, Amanda and Alex share with us and each other a love story of confusing snow suits, do-it-yourself haircuts, and found objects. With them, the amorous is specific and the specific is something you can hang your heart on. This becomes an allegory for making real instead of fairy tale promises to survive winter and the vagaries of relationships. And in the end, failing all else, there is the consolation from one of the actors in that the play within the film that although they might not have entirely succeeded at keeping warm, theirs is “a very acceptable failure.”

This is a visual tale that requires the bare honesty and intimacy of the first person voice-over narrator,  similar to spoken word video pieces like the collaboration between Andrea Dorfman and Tanya Davis “How To Be Alone” (two other Canadians familiar with winter) which made an extended tour of the internet and resurfaced for Valentine’s Day.

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Both narratives work because they find that fine combination of soft underbelly, alluring particulars, and acute observation.

Alexander Carson is a Toronto filmmaker and a founding member of the North Country Cinema Media Arts Collective, a director-driven organization based in Calgary, Alberta. He has directed six short films.

— R. W. Gray

 

Jan 182014
 

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In the bizarrely beautiful short film “Next Floor, a lavish dinner quickly morphs into a grotesque and almost ritualistic feast as director Denis Villeneuve takes us on a disturbing journey that forces us to reflect on our uncontrollable desire to consume.

Several distinguished guests surround a large table and eat with an unquenchable hunger like starving children who have been waiting all day for Christmas dinner, stuffing their faces with the never-ending monstrous entrees served to them.  Classical music plays and the wine flows as an ominous man watches the dinner take place with a sinister and blink-free stare, hinting at the horrors to come. The menu features piles of raw liver, boar, lion, “brain,” oysters, armadillo, and a dead creature resembling a cross between a squirrel and the baby from Eraserhead, along with a myriad of other unidentifiable chunks of meat swimming in their own juices.  The feast is familiar and yet exotic in a way that tests the limit of appetite.

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Only one solitary woman at the table subtly refuses the onslaught of food, but she is served anyway.  She sits as a figure of hope and possibility. She might survive this meal, might be more than her appetite.

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When the floor suddenly gives out and the table with all its guests plummets to the floor below, the ominous watcher / maître d doesn’t seem shocked at all, effectively breaking the fourth wall. He stares straight into the eyes of the audience perhaps accusing or warning us of the dangers of excess, but he also seems to plead for social transformation urging us to break free from the status quo.

The guests themselves, older and conservatively well dressed, are no doubt symbolic of superpowers like the federal reserve cartel, energy companies, the military, politicians, media networks, and religious institutions struggling to maintain the obsolete establishments they are all woven into and what this film seems to represent is a changing zeitgeist, an “out with the old and in with the new” ideology.  It embodies a consumerist world with the wealthy upper class living overindulgent lives of excess atop a societal structure unable to bear the weight and support them in their lifestyle, in the end what we get is a total collapse as the structure essentially self destructs their parasitic ways beyond reform.

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The opening and closing shots of the ominous man hints towards a conspiracy hidden within this complex story to bring down the “one percent”, making room for a new power or at least an invitation of sorts to watch as the privileged literally eat themselves into nothingness.  They consume themselves and he’s willing to serve them to death.

The woman refusing food and shedding a tear suggests that within this wealthy circle of mindless consumption there is an ounce of uncertainty, yet the pressure to conform is so great, and ideology so compelling, that even she stays with the doomed herd perhaps because the truth is simply too unappetizing and inconvenient.  Even though she has a moment of resistance, in her last moments she chooses blissful ignorant and another mouthful.

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Another great success of this film is its meticulously executed composition and dark color palette.  Its use of pale overtones and close ups during the entire twelve minutes voids all possibilities for the bountiful meal to be at all appetizing or desirable, creating a strong revulsion while maintaining some level of elegance with the help of the beautiful and atmospheric music.

From the same mind that brought us both Maelstrom and Incendies, “Next Floor fits comfortably into Villeneuve’s style of taking on powerful, deeply layered themes with a poignant complexity that makes the seemingly grotesque beautiful.  Villeneuve’s short film invites us to either feast at the most decadent unrelenting meal ever or re-think our harmful ways and take perverse pleasure in imagining just how far these consumers will fall.

—Jared Carney

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Jared Carney is a writer, director, and producer from Fredericton, New Brunswick and is also a Film Production student at the University of New Brunswick.  Horror has always been of particular interest to him and many of his influences come from both the classic and the more extreme horror films.

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Dec 172013
 
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In Canadian director David Cronenberg’s short film “Camera,” an elderly, retired actor speaks of his fear and malevolence towards an old film camera that a group of children bring into his home. The children assemble into a film crew, each with their own specific roles, and carefully prep the camera as the actor rages on about his career, death, disease, and memory, knowing that the children are inevitability preparing his next close up.

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The actor fears the camera because he identifies the device with death. He sees the lens as like his eyes, capturing experiences he will relive at the end of his life. Yet unlike memory, the camera fixes a moment in time and in a sense causes the death of the moment and experience. This makes the camera, recording the death of moments, a device that solidifies his mortality. He anticipates he will look back on his life replaying experiences and memories caught on camera and will enter a voyeuristic state, disconnecting from his own perception and becoming a mere observer of himself, of his own life.

This identification with the old camera speaks to a central struggle for identity that Cronenberg circles in his work. He spoke of this, among other topics, in a recent interview celebrating his 70th birthday (which can be seen here and is well worth the 90 minute watch):

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In the interview he was asked about identity in his 2002 film Spider:

We are all the creators of our own identities. Even if we feel that is something given, we are actively involved in creating our own selves. You wake up in the morning and it takes you awhile to become who you are. It’s not just that you have to have that coffee. You have to remember who you are, where you are, where you’ve been, were your dreams real, who you were in your dreams. You have to reconstruct yourself every day. And if for some reason you could not do that, because of something that happened in your brain or nervous system, I can understand that, I can feel that, I feel very close to that.

In “Camera,” the actor speaks of recorded moments and their longevity. He alludes to how, when he is dead or eventually loses his memory, these fragments of time will represent how he is remembered. The camera will become the constructor of his identity, his memory. Rather than being an accumulation of his thoughts, feelings, and what he has or has not done, he will be only what has been recorded or documented.

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When the actor appears on the children’s camera in the final shot, we see him in a new, rejuvenated way. Though aesthetically beautiful, with its warmer colors, light music, and smooth inward zoom, this is quite a false image compared to what the more documentary camera eye has captured before the children’s film camera. If moments like this become all that is left of the actor, the camera will not only construct his identity, it will do so through a sepia lens, blurring the pores and flaws that might be the truth of who he is. If similar false images are all he leaves behind for others, and create their perceptions of him, then what becomes of his true self?

As the children’s camera slowly penetrates the actor’s privacy, his initial disdain for it disappears: what he initially sees as fearfully other, slowly becomes a part of him. Cronenberg’s work is fascinated with how what is other becomes part of the self. In Videodrome, we witness the protagonist, Max, become the type of violence he strives to air on his independent cable station. As he descends, his stomach morphs into a VCR-like wound, allowing others to control his actions by injecting him with videotapes. In The Fly, a scientist rushes his experiment and, using himself as a test subject, accidentally crosses his DNA with a fly, mutating his body in increasingly horrific ways. Crash involves characters who have fused their desire for violent car crashes with sexual pleasure, rending them unable to achieve one without the other. All these Cronenberg protagonists eventually come to embrace the other working against them. The violence and technology become a part of who they are, leading them into a spiral of self-destruction.

In “Camera,” the synthesis is more ambiguous, not entirely horrific. The camera invades the actor’s home and his resistance to the device gradually fades away. The camera and the actor synthesize their abilities to create something, an image, which without one another could not be whole. By the end of the short, the actor comes to associate, sympathize, and identify himself with the camera, comparing the two to an old couple aging alone together.

This old couple analogy draws attention to the children’s celluloid film camera as a technology, and as a technology with a mortality, too. There are two cameras in the film, the documentary digital camera and the children’s celluloid camera, the one he fears and is growing old like him. The camera that the actor directly addresses throughout most of the film captures a more digital or documentary style image, scrutinizing every inch and pore of his face in an unflattering and yet perhaps more suitable aesthetic for his cynical personality and perspective. In contrast, in the final shot the celluloid camera the children use has a more gentle and vibrant tone, creating a more nostalgic depiction of the old man as he reminisces about memories from long ago. This is the same man seen two ways and on this other level the film displays a debate between the old and the new technology.

Film is always on the brink of creating, discovering, and infusing new technologies but not without conflict at each stage of change. Rudolf Arnheim argued that the invention of sound recording would be the death of film. Filmmaker Peter Greenaway thought that home video, with the dreaded pause button, would destroy the experience of a film. Others believed that color would tarnish the significance of the story and actors. Recently though, there has been much debate over the proliferating use of digital film and the decline of celluloid, and “Camera” seems to reflect this.

Is this Cronenberg’s argument for the use of celluloid over digital film? To the disdain of many, in recent interviews,

Cronenberg has sided with digital film, arguing “it’s about time film died its natural death.” This stance may be a surprise to some, but Cronenberg has a track record of creating stories that expose some of the more honest and brutal truths about humanity and our obsession with technology. Perhaps he feels that digital film is more apt to capture this harsh and coarse nature. Or perhaps he enjoys viewing the cautionary themes within his work become a reality as the world swiftly embraces the newest technologies, without fully realizing their limits or implications, and leaving older forms behind in obsolescence. Film historians argue that we have lost nearly 80 – 90% of all silent films, most due to the deterioration of celluloid. In losing parts of our history we lose pieces of ourselves, and perhaps this is what Cronenberg is alluding to as the actor speaks of the camera causing irreparable damage to us all. Regardless, “Camera” contains an argument for both celluloid and digital, depicting the unique qualities of both and how the aesthetic of each can affect the tone of a story.

TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival) is currently hosting an art exhibition on David Cronenberg titled Evolution.

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The exhibit is an accumulation of the filmmaker’s career, an eccentric collection of things Cronenberg that offer a close-up on the filmmaker much the same way the children’s camera in “Camera” offers a close-up. The exhibit continues until January 19th at the TIFF Bell Lightbox HSBC Gallery in Toronto.

–Jon Dewar

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Jon Dewar

Jon Dewar is a grad student at University of New Brunswick, Fredericton and is working towards a degree in education. He is an avid film fan, interested in both film analysis and filmmaking. Some of his inspirations include directors such as Paul Thomas Anderson, Steve McQueen, and Martin Scorsese. Jon has written numerous screenplays and is working towards eventually producing some of these projects.

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Nov 192013
 

 

In Ryan McGinley’s short film “Varud,” a young woman dressed for backyard summer play with a t-shirt as a dress and a gold lame wig skips through New York, altering the city as she goes. The film’s simple repetition and its dream-like collision between youthful exuberance and the mundane design of the city is perfectly captured in the slow skipping of the young woman down yellow meridian lines, among the gentle yellow taxis of New York traffic. It is both sublime and common, unspeakable beauty with a cheap wig, t-shirt dress, and bare feet.

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The simplicity of the film makes the experience a more poetic than narrative experience. McGinley in his own words describes his intent:

“this piece is my poem to new york city. i wanted to bring a childhood innocence to the streets, through a character whose own light and wonder effects (sic) the world around her.  i’m always interested in an atmosphere where dreams and reality mingle on equal terms.”

As the film unfolds, small details gather around the wonder: the orangey gold wig, as cheap as it might be, sheds bits of sunlight; pedestrians turn and watch her go by; she traverses even more extreme concrete and empty spaces like the highway off-ramp.

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If McGinley had stopped there, with just the intervention of the young woman skipping through the city, that might have been what this film was about: a simple, sepia-with-joy filter to see the city through anew. But this city, McGinley’s city, is altered, ruptured. As the film progresses the city starts to seize up mid breath as though the young woman’s skipping, her strange combination of joy, youthfulness and alarming play, stop time. These pauses, these cessations, we can read as moments of reflection where the city’s denizens pause to glimpse some wonder among the asphalt, the crowds, the day-to-day.

Yet these are not simple pauses. They do not end. The only pause that ends is the final one where the girl fades into the sepia long light of the end of the day, and, ever so slowly, the frozen pedestrians find their stride once more.

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Until this final moment of the film, the people she has passed have all remained frozen, caught, as though she has put the kingdom to sleep. And though there is a beauty in that, in this reflection, there is also something ominous and a little apocalyptic in it. As each street falls to silent pause, after pause, the film’s images recall the horror of other film cities left in stillness, like at the start of 28 Days Later and in the psychological twists of Vanilla Sky.

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She leaves the city, as these other films do, not resembling itself, lacking its bustle, fury, and perpetual motion. It is the end of things, heralded by an innocent in a sparkly wig. Could there be a more grace-ful way to go?

What does it mean that the skipping girl not only stops time but does so repeatedly? There is something here of Sigmund Freud’s repetition compulsion: “an instinct is an urge inherent in organic life to restore an earlier state of things.’ Each repetition, each frozen moment she creates has her skipping past what might have been momentary encounters with wonder and towards an absence of time, and the philosophers will tell us that without time there is no being. Block after block she freezes the city. But this is what we expect from wonder. Beauty that potentially annihilates the self.

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The music, with its indecipherable lyrics and at times choir-like arrangement, encourages a heightened emotional engagement. The film is # 6 in Sigur Ros’s The Valtari Mystery Film Experiment, one of the sixteen films that were made with the support of the Icelandic band. The sixteen were chosen from almost 800 entries.  The press information for the project notes that

“valtari was sigur ros’s last album as a four-piece. An elegiac work; they didn’t feel much like talking about it, and so, instead asked a bunch [of] talented directors to make whatever they felt like making to go with music. These 16 films are the result. Sad, funny, beautiful, and, occasionally, plain bewildering, they represent just some of the available emotional responses to this most contemplative of sigur ros (sic) album.”

Sigur Ros’s atmospheric music inspires each of the directors to move to more poetic and less narrative pieces (though the Valtari film already analyzed by Nicholas Humphries for Numero Cinq at the Movies, Dash Shaw’s “Seraph,”  is significantly more narrative). This poetic atmosphere of the music and the overall project makes it possible for “Varud’s” repetitions and slow, unfolding, and makes it possible for us to submit to its unspeakable and breathless wonder.

– R.W. Gray

Oct 182013
 

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If only it were as simple as Julie Andrews would have it and we could just “start at the very beginning” because, of course, “it’s a very good place to start.” But in terms of narrative, there is always for me the pressing question of where to begin. I carry a few principles with me I have learned from various teachers and from trial and much error.

1. Walk in late.

2. The end is in the beginning.

3. Show the audience how to experience (love) the story.

The trick, then, is to keep these things in mind but, as Andrew Horton reminds us in Writing the Character-Centered Screenplay, “Remember you wish to draw the viewer into your world, but you don’t want to drown him or her in the first ten minutes” (159).  Easy peasy.

The odd thing about beginnings is how often they are forgotten. When I’m teaching and asking students about the first frames of films, they often reference later plot points more than the actual first shots. Roland Barthes, in his A Lover’s Discourse, points out that there is no love at first sight.

I never fall in love unless I have wanted to; the emptiness I produce in myself . . . is nothing but that interval, longer or shorter, when I glance around me, without seeming to, looking for who to love . . . Yet the myth of “love at first sight” is so powerful  . . . that we are astonished if we hear of someone deciding to fall in love. (190)

So how we do suggest, provoke, encourage the audience to want to fall in love, firstly. And how do we not falsely advertise, lure the viewer or reader in with the promise of a torrid and lurid affair only to promptly pull out the TV dinners and our sad house coats, narratively speaking?

The question of how to begin has been more recently preoccupying me with a film I shot last may, “zack & luc,” where I planned a beginning but lost it. I shot the film all on super 8 film which in this day and age is an exercise in desperate waiting for a hopeful outcome: you shoot the film, you send it off to the lab in another city, you then wait for the lab to develop it, send it to another place where it is scanned and digitized, and then months later your film footage and its electronic version arrive back and you see what you have (or don’t have). In our case, of the thirty-eight rolls of film, we were rather lucky that only one had some exposure to light and only one didn’t turn out at all. The problem that presented itself was that the footage on the missing roll was intended to be used for the first and last shots in the film. Because I believe the end was in the beginning, I lost both.

In the beginning,

The rain clattering against the windshield of the parked truck, the wipers forgetting then remembering to clear away the water. The lights of the cars driving by become clear then blurry, then clear, then blurry again.

And in the end,

Zack turns and opens the door and then he is gone, the cab filled again with the sound of rain on the glass. Through the windshield the world is dark and impressionistic, sparkled with the red and white lights of passing cars.

Perhaps I would not be so concerned with this lost beginning and ending if I wasn’t acutely aware that the stories I am interested in telling are a little high maintenance and thus a little hard to instantly fall in love with. In my short film scripts I am drawn to stories that are narratively challenging.  “alice & huck,’ directed by the wonderful Kaleena Kiff, tells the story of two characters who collide but mostly miss in various scenarios or universes, exploring the question of how timing plays into our possible romances.

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“zack & luc” is two versions of the entire story of a relationship, told for the one character on the right chronologically and for the other on the left frame in reverse chronology, so the first and last moment the two lovers are together are juxtaposed.

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Among other things, this non-linear story I think gets to explore that beginnings principle (“the end is in the beginning”) and how it pertains to relationships. Once you’ve loved and lost a few times, you look at beginnings a little differently. In writing both stories, I was aware that I had to find some way to coach the audience to watch the films differently than they would a realist or classical (typical Hollywood) piece.

A film that taught me a lot about beginnings was the Belgian film Une Liaison Pornographique (a fantastic title which was then rather confusedly and perfectly translated into the title for the American release as An Affair of Love, which betrays an American confusion around endings or love or both).

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It’s a peculiar film: it tells the story of a man and a woman, both unnamed, who are being interviewed by an unidentified interviewer about a sexual act that the two met for but insist they will not disclose to the interviewer. There are a barrel of monkey questions that could easily undo the “love at first sight” state we might want to experience for this story: who is the interviewer? Why is he making this documentary? Since the two versions of the affair contradict, who is telling the truth? And what the hell were they doing in that hotel room anyway? Here the filmmakers had to create a difficultly achieved balance between building the audience’s desire and not creating so many questions that the viewer might be more attached to the questions than the momentum of the story. How to coach an audience to not over focus on the details? How to get them to go along with an improbable though compelling story?

In the case of Une Liaison, the filmmakers bracket the film with the same crowd footage you see linked above. We begin and end with this out of focus, impressionistically shot, crowd of strangers on the street. If you watch intently I promise you that you can almost see the woman and the man in that crowd; or do you? This is flirting; this is the possibility of love. Regardless, the opening, in the style of an impressionistic painting, coaches us to see what follows in a similar fashion: to see associatively or impressionistically. One could look at a Monet painting and just look at the brush strokes but then one would be kind of missing the point.

Other films embrace the same principle with different methods. Tom Tykwer‘s Run Lola Run has an ominous clock followed by a similar crowd scene that emphasizes and introduces its themes around time and the interconnectedness of people.

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Jean-Pierre Jeunet‘s Amelie does a beautiful job of establishing its themes of connection and synchronicity and its tone of absurdity.

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When it came to writing “alice & huck” I knew I needed a similar sign post declaring“Watch this way.” It presented itself in the swing and the clouds

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That did not seem enough to signify the leaps between the various versions of how the two characters might collide, so I then wrote in a recurring impressionistic montage of body parts saturated in sunlight:

A world out of focus, what look like limbs, a mouth, a throat, 1 all blurry and impressionistic. breath and sighs. these
are the moments that bridge time and place, like puzzle pieces each time, but pieces to a puzzle all about the sky — no 
one can put this together.

This is what it translates into in the film:

With “zack & luc” I needed a similar sign post so the viewer would be prepared to watch loosely, associatively, patiently. The impressionistic beginning I wanted was that visual through the windshield in the rain. It had partly come to me from Lucrecia Martel’s “Pescados” (presented and written about by Sophie Lavoie right here on Numero Cinq at the Movies).

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There when the fish explain their dream where they go driving in the rain, we see footage of the highway through a windshield in the rain. This image stuck with me and seemed a perfect way to bracket the complicated story of “zack & luc.”

So when it no longer existed, when the roll was damaged, I had to decide how important it was. Then when I woke up two weeks later declaring to the ceiling that I needed the shot, I had to go about it. It took until the end of the summer for me to order in the film, book the camera and grab a handful of people to get the shot. I think it was a Tuesday night, in a friend’s driveway with a very long garden hose, but we got it.

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It will be months still before an audience sees this beginning / ending and before I can really get a sense of whether these shots create a space for love. But I am hopeful and this is a good ending to the story where I lost my beginning.

– R. W. Gray

Sep 182013
 
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Daryl Wein’s short film “Unlocked” is itself an experience of trauma as it follows a teenage girl who is already negotiating a difficult tension between the bored surface of her teen life, listening to music and sitting around, and the inexpressible experience she is having with a mother who has cancer. Though her friend tries to reach her, even tries to go to the hospital with her, Wein’s protagonist is having none of it. She wants the surface and the depth to keep a discrete distance. She appears to long for normalcy more than anything — louder music and dancing to avoid the incoming messages on her phone — and is willing to separate from reality to keep at least the appearance of that.

The man with the clipboard she meets on the street who suggests she give to charity is a gate keeper who offers her a chance, for better or worse, to bring surface and depth together. Truly, we can’t be certain he is not charitable, but the van and the brusqueness, the rather scripted tone to his own story about a mother with cancer all point to her being duped for his peculiar pleasure.

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She is drawn along and through the violence by the possibility of doing something, doing her part, helping children or others in need or even the hope that she might herself make sense of the senselessness of her mother’s cancer. We are forced to sit idly by with dread and a sense that she is searching for something other than sacrifice, something more like mercy.

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It’s the final scene which sticks with me, as she walks down the street transformed. She weeps, bare to the world. Not that this excuses the actions of the man in the van, but this outer transformation seems to at last signify, at last create meaning for her around the pain and suffering she has been experiencing but denying.

It is a transformation that recalls for me the transformation at the end of Nadine Labaki’s gorgeous film Caramel where one of the minor characters who has been struggling with a very different type of repression throughout also gets a radical shearing and walks down the street also not recognizing herself. I considered posting that clip, but out of context that would be its own violence. See the film and you’ll see.

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Though I am new to Wein’s work, there’s a certain impulsiveness to his characters that compels me:  they are creatures of action and tragic victims to their own heroic gestures.

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Lola, the protagonist in his film Lola Versus, overwhelmed by a party scene with two of her ex-boyfriends and her best friend who is dating one of them, has an emotional explosion and storms out, but leaves behind anything generic when she grabs a large block of cheese off the food table on her way, holding it in the air as a triumph.  Cheese as an exit strategy. These are the kinds of characters that invite emulation and leave me wanting for a good party with a generous cheese plate.

– R. W. Gray

Aug 192013
 

This month we have a new NC at the Movies contribution from Vancouver (Canada) horror and comedy filmmaker Nicholas Humphries. You might recognize his name from two previous posts on his films “The One That Got Away” and “Little Mermaid.” He’s prolific and is drawn to wild, exciting worlds, as you can see by checking out his demo reel. While in Vancouver last month I was interviewing him for a documentary short I am working on when he demanded I stay after and watch this great short film / music video, Dash Shaw’s “Seraph.” It was obvious he was the person who should write about this on Numéro Cinq.

–RWG

Dash Shaw’s “Seraph” follows a young man through his brief, tragic existence as he struggles to understand his identity and feelings.  The young protagonist is repressed by his father and religion and is taught to feel ashamed of his body and desires. He ultimately grows up unable to accept himself and believes that the greatest sin he could ever commit would be to acknowledge love from the objects of his desire and metaphorically “look at God.”

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Through two haunting pieces from the Sigur Ros Voltari album (“Rembihnútur” and “Ekki Múkk”), this nearly wordless short exposes the damage misguided biblical rhetoric can do during our maturation via a condensed journey we take with the protagonist from adolescence to death.

The film is an installment of the Sigur Ros Valteri Mystery Film Experiment. The films were selected from 800 submissions internationally. Sigur Ros funded a handful of the films and “Seraph” is one of the results. Say Sigur Ros about the project, “We never meant our music to come with a pre-programmed emotional response. We don’t want to tell anyone how to feel and what to take from it.”

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The title of Shaw’s contribution to the project,  “Seraph,” is a reference to a type of celestial or heavenly being in the Abrahamic religions. Rather than tackle the customary queer struggles with homophobia and disease, Shaw, along with long time collaborator John Cameron Mitchell (Rabbit Hole, Shortbus, Hedwig and the Angry Inch), chose to focus on a more emotional, internal aspect of the gay experience. Shaw illustrates the pain of the boy’s self-hatred through his compulsive self-mutilation. The eyes that the boy crudely carves into his own flesh allow him to channel the pain of not being able to see love, both from others and for himself. He grows into a man with a violent disposition, compensating for his homosexual feelings by resorting to acts of physical hostility against those that look too deep. The pain caused by the eyes he carves in his flesh also serves as a base attempt to touch the divine and look at God.

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As the director of a number of short films, I often struggle with the size of story to tackle using the format. If the story is too simple than what’s the point if nothing happens? If it’s too big, you run the risk of weaving an overly ambitious yarn about characters the audience doesn’t care about. What resonated for me with “Seraph” was the way Shaw used music and animation to create a dreamlike state where multiple images from a lifetime were used to illicit a central feeling of loneliness: a big story, simply told. Few feature films manage to conjure up the level of intensity that this animated short manages to execute in its seven minutes.

Imagery plays a large part in how the story plays out, both through the moments Shaw selects from the boy’s life but also through the symbolism of the eye. Historically, charms and decorations featuring varying eye symbols have been used to protect against The Evil Eye, a look that is believed by many cultures to cause injury for the person at whom it is directed.  The use of eye symbols for protection is most common in the Middle East and dates back to the Old Testament.

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So in some sense the symbol of the eye could be a way the boy in “Seraph” protects himself, but ultimately the symbolism is ambiguous. In the only scene with dialogue, the boy’s father explains to him that angels can never look at God because it is impossible to look at a love you can never understand.  In the final scene, the boy is covered from head to toe in eye carvings and is finally able to see God. The eyes then, seem to allow him to see what God loves which (we hope) will allow him to finally love himself. This is tragic since the boy is only able to cope and find this love through self-mutilation.

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Self-inflicted punishment is not uncommon in queer texts. In Jean Genet’s Querelle de Brest, the titular character allows himself to be sexually penetrated by the owner of a brothel as a way of punishing himself for the murder of one of his comrades. While Shaw’s character is punishing himself for his sexual feelings and Genet’s character is using sex to punish himself for his immoral actions, they both reflect the ways repression misdirects that which we wish to keep hidden.  Both texts deal with themes of sadomasochism, or the giving and/or receiving of sexual pleasure through acts involving the infliction of pain or humiliation. In the queer cannon, overly repressed characters often express their desires through sadomasochistic scenes or fantasies (T .E. Lawrence’s The Mint, Timothy Findley’s The Wars, the works of Dennis Cooper, etc). “Seraph” does not posit sadomasochism as a solution so much as use this self harm as a testament and condemnation of the repressive social and cultural forces that seek to diminish each person’s access to the divine.

“Seraph” was screened and nominated for the Short Film Grand Jury Prize at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival this year.

–Nicholas Humphries


Nicholas Humphries HeadshotNicholas Humphries is an award-winning director from Vancouver, Canada. His accolades include Best Short at the Screamfest Horror Film Festival, Audience Choice at the NSI Film Exchange, a Tabloid Witch, an Aloha Accolade and a Golden Sheaf. His films have been nominated for multiple Leo Awards, have screened at Grauman’s Chinese and Egyptian Theatres, on CBC, Fearnet, SPACE Channel and in festivals around the world. Additionally, Nicholas has directed for Written by a Kid on the hit premium YouTube Channel Geek & Sundry. He is also a director on the acclaimed Syfy digital series, Riese: Kingdom Falling, which was nominated for four Streamy Awards, three IAWTV Awards and a Leo Award. Riese was also an Official Honoree at the 2011 Webby Awards. His feature film, Death Do Us Part, is scheduled for release in 2013. Nicholas teaches film at both Vancouver Film School and the University of British Columbia. He has a BA in Film Studies and an MFA in Film Production.

Jul 172013
 

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In probably the most horrific and pornographic scene in Bruce LaBruce’s Otto; Or, Up with Dead People, one man sexually penetrates the gaping wound in another man’s abdomen. It is a shocking scene, and it marks the moment when we realize perhaps zombies have more erogenous zones and erotic options than we do. Though theorists like Georges Bataille, have pointed to how death is a structuring aspect of the erotic, the gory abject as it appears in Otto and LaBruce’s subsequent film L. A. Zombie puts a perhaps bolder more graphic face on the relationship between mortality, the body and eroticism.

Navigating these uncomfortable hinterlands between horror and pornography is a confused and confusing young man named Otto who thinks he’s a zombie and can’t remember his life from before. The perverse collision between horror and pornography for Otto opens the possibility of a narrative turn to melodrama and a possible connection with another, however untenable this might be in his zombie world.

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Near the beginning of Otto, Up With Dead People, Otto rises up out of a grave with his name on it; the gravestone simultaneously names him and troubles naming as it is only his first name that appears there and there are no dates indicating his birth and death: the stone’s ability to name and identify him is limited. A voice-over reveals that, “Once upon a time in the not so distant future there unlived a zombie named Otto.” This underscores the fantasy and fictional aspects of his zombie identity.

This fictional status is further underscored through the film’s multiple narratives and texts: his first first-person narrative is intercut with the first-person essay-like narrative of a filmmaker Otto meets, Medea Yarns, and these are also intercut with several of Medea’s films, primarily a longer narrative telling the story of a gay zombie who rises up in a revenge plot against straight men who bash gays. These many narrative texts that make up the larger film Otto problematize classical Hollywood story structure that might offer Otto the protagonist a more privileged, unproblematized position. Whether or not Otto really is a zombie is more ambiguous as a result.

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Medea’s film within the film further problematizes Otto’s zombie identity: the narrative repeats the scene where Otto rises from the grave and this time discloses that it was staged by Medea for her film, “Up With Dead People.” Medea’s attraction to Otto as a zombie figure for her film and her desire to tell a fictional story of a zombie world where the gay undead seek revenge creates narrative ambiguity as it becomes unclear how much of a zombie Otto really is, what aspects of his identity and narrative are constructed by Medea, and which parts are his own invention or experience.

This collision of genres and narratives is characteristic of LaBruce’s work. Eugenie Brinkema in her essay “A Title Does Not Ask, but Demands That You Make a Choice,” observes that “[LaBruce’s] works bear witness to the aesthetic and historical crisis of this borderland, speaking the wild language of the indeterminable”(97). Like LaBruce, Medea, the filmmaker within the film, is overtly ideological.  Yet, oddly, she is making a fictional film about zombies and is attracted to Otto because “there was something different about [him]. Something more authentic.” In the confusion of texts and in the face of the indeterminable, Otto stands as perhaps more determinable than the others, and as the possibility of something authentic in among the ambiguous texts, at least for Medea.

Both Medea and Otto script scenes with zombies and sex (Medea’s more graphic, the penetration scene already mentioned and the film’s climactic zombie orgy) so that zombies are sexualized and fetishized in the film in a pretty common way. While naked zombies have appeared in films before, (in the opening to Day of the Dead and the self explanatory Zombie Strippers) and, faced with impending death, live people in zombie films have been known to fornicate, as a generalization most film zombies are interested in one thing: eating live humans. There’s a beauty to that simplicity and however it might serve as a metaphor for other drives, it removes all the complicated issues of desire. There is the drive to eat. That is all.

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Otto as an ambiguous character signifies in both the genres of horror and pornography. Medea points out that Otto works perfectly: “In a way he fits the typical porn profile: the lost boy, the damaged boy, numb, phlegmatic, insensate boy willing to go to any extreme to feel something, to feel anything.” This, too, could describe the horror figure of the zombie: Otto’s detachment, his extreme repression make him something to fear or be repulsed by.  As Fritz, the star of Medea’s zombie film, describes him when Medea tries to hook them up, “he’s homeless, delusional, and possibly schizophrenic. Plus he seems to have some kind of eating disorder . . . if you think I am going to sleep with him you’re crazy.” Indeed, even in scenes where he encounters other zombies he seems more detached than them, too zombie even for the zombies.

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For Otto, however, zombie identity seems to be a coping mechanism, as though he has opted to feel nothing even in the presence of sex. Near the beginning of the film, on his journey to Berlin, he sits in an abandoned carnival where he finds other zombie gays cruising one another, two of whom proceed to have sex in front of him, almost on top of him as he sits paralyzed. Later he is picked up by a man in zombie make-up out front of a bar aptly called Flesh (the man warns, “it’s dead in there”). The man takes him home to his apartment where he has what we must assume was sex. We have to make this assumption as we are visually given a before and an after but the narrative (and by extension Otto) seem to black out for everything in between. In the aftermath, the man lies disemboweled, his walls and sheets sprayed red with blood and his furniture overturned and destroyed. But he still asks Otto “Can I see you again?”

What the one-night stand in particular points to, something underscored by the films within the film, is that gay sex in the film Otto carries something of death and infection with it. This carries all kinds of significances mirrored in LaBruce’s follow up film L.A. Zombie and its profound reversal where the zombie creature there is able to bring dead bodies back to life through his sex and fluids. What is of primary interest for me in Otto is simply that Otto sees sex with men as potentially harmful and the destruction in this one night stand also reads back over Otto’s own attempts to only satiate on non human flesh (road kill, stray cats, butcher market chickens) as a way of repressing what he sees as his own destructive impulses with other more lively men.

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Otto confesses, “I wanted to consume the living, to devour human flesh but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. At first I thought it might have something to do with the time before. When I was alive. It occurred to me I might have been a vegetarian. Or worse, a vegan. But that wasn’t exactly it.” Otto’s zombie hungers are something he tries to repress, but both the hunger (via the zombie identity) and the desire to repress it refer to a back story that is inaccessible to him.

What undermines these scenes is that they are told unreliably from Otto’s perspective. As the film unfolds, it becomes more and more apparent that carnage and disembowelment, cannibalism and death are metaphors for Otto, not reality based: he sees the world through zombie-coloured glasses. This is partly revealed via the fragmented structure of the film as it moves from Otto’s first-person narrative to the filmmaker, Medea’s first person narrative and her “real” engagements with Otto. It’s in one of these “real time” moments, when Medea asks Fritz to let Otto stay with him for a few days and Fritz describes Otto as “homeless, delusional, and possibly schizophrenic.” This response is both comedic and tragic as the ambiguity drops out from under Otto’s first-person narrative. Medea’s fictional gay zombie dystopia and Otto’s performed zombie identity are compatible, but Fritz’s reality-based response undermines both, grounding everything in a rather disappointing realism.

What we must gather then is that Otto’s perspective and experience of the men cruising in the abandoned carnival and the his one-night stand with the man from the bar called Flesh are unreliable, a fantasy of zombie bodies. We are then left to ask, why does he see these experiences as laced with death, objectification, and the abject? What is the lure of a corpse-like abject identity? In Powers of Horror, Julia Kristeva theorizes that the corpse has a significant place in terms of the abject: “the corpse, the most sickening of wastes, is a border that has encroached upon everything. It is no longer I who expel, “I” is expelled” (3-4). Further, she theorizes that “The corpse, seen without God and outside of science, is the utmost of abjection. It is death infecting life. Abject. It is something rejected from which one does not part, from which one does not protect oneself as from an object” (4). The zombie is both corpse and pseudo subject, animated and hungry.

For Otto, then, the zombie identity is in some way the obliteration of the ‘I.’ The key here, though, is as Kristeva asserts, “abjection is above all ambiguity.” Otto is neither corpse nor live body, neither self nor other, but maintains an insistent ambiguity. And this is not just a specific response to sexual situations, but a generalized response to his identity in the world at large.

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Pornography and horror contribute to a terrorized subject position for Otto. As Brinkema notes about Catherine Breillat’s theorizing of sexual acts in her films, “Breillat’s insistence that it is the sexual acts that themselves act on the spectator, that lead to physical or intellectual satisfaction, affirms that sexual representation is still conceived of in terms of affect, that sexual representation moves the spectator, displaces him or her from an otherwise stable spectatorial position” (102). The unsimulated sex scenes in Otto trouble the spectator’s position in much the same way that Otto’s voyeuristic eye is troubled. There is no safe, cold, zombie distance from which to watch these experiences for him or for us.

Otto’s one night stand with the man who is wearing zombie make-up reveals to us and him why he seeks that distance. When he fully embraces his zombie identity with that man, the resulting carnage, imagined or not, illustrates what Otto fears in his own hunger. In Otto’s world, sexuality is often a little horrific. In an interview with Interview magazine, LaBruce discussed how for him pornography and horror have corresponding real life collisions in some gay experiences: “If you’ve ever cruised a public toilet or a bathhouse, it’s like Night of the Living Dead. You’ve got people in this zombie-like trance, in dark shadows with disembodied body parts. And I don’t mean that negatively; it’s kind of exciting. But there is that aspect to gay culture and sometimes it can be kind of sad” (Speyer). For LaBruce, sex that is objectifying this way is both exciting and sometimes sad, and one could read Otto’s experience as similar. The room the one night stand lives in is full of sexual paraphernalia that intrigues Otto and the wall above the man’s bed is collaged like a teenager’s wall of magazine clippings, though here the images are of penises and various other body parts. This objectifying sexual experience is both exciting and overwhelming and Otto can no longer repress his zombie hunger. As a zombie having sex he can have the safety of numbness and the freedom to consume, but the carnage emphasizes his conflicted relationship with that release.

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Otto’s work with Medea the filmmaker at first promises to make his life easier, but then further troubles the boundaries between his zombie world and the real world. Initially, he notes, “With a camera following me around, no one would suspect I was a real zombie. I would just be playing one in the movie.” But through working with Medea in her fictional film, Otto’s sense of his zombie self wavers, and begins to fail. Where prior to this he would practice imagining live passengers on the train were zombies, shoring up his detachment from (and peculiarly also his affinity with) them, through Medea he builds relationships where he is in a sense normalized and not objectified. This dangerously opens him up to being a subject. When she pays him and tells him to put the money in his wallet to keep it safe, he realizes he has a wallet and subsequently that that wallet holds evidence of his former identity and self: a library card with his former boyfriend’s phone number. Details of Otto’s former life flood in and he’s left defenseless, able to only verbally parrot what the exboyfriend says: that Otto himself has mental issues, that the boyfriend left him because of this, that Otto’s father is a butcher and that Otto was a vegetarian in that life before, before he took to eating the flesh of roadkill, grocery store meat cases, stray cats, and the occasional gay man.

The exboyfriend’s disclosures point to both romantic loss and mental breakdown. Indeed the two become inseparable in Otto’s zombie identity. So the zombie identity, though an extension of his schizophrenia and mental illness, is also here a coping mechanism to block the memories of his former happiness and his loss. To be dead is to escape memory. The zombie identity protects him from the past and any other possible present vulnerability. As a dead man, the living should not be able to hurt him. This logic is challenged by the various interactions with the living throughout the film though that are the product of him being un-dead.

The last sex scene of the film occurs when Fritz, the lead actor in the film within the film, finds Otto outside the film studio beaten and bloody. He takes him home and checks his wounds and then a tender love scene occurs.

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This scene stands in contrast to the prior sex scenes in the film as the emphasis is less on the objectification of the two men’s body parts and more on the kindness and tenderness between the two. Also absent is any zombiness, blood, or gore. Their bodies are left unbitten, uneaten, untorn, and, at least on screen, unpenetrated. Otto does not black out and no one dies. In the Interview magazine interview, LaBruce revealed that for him, “The idea was to lure in these horror geeks on the promise of a zombie movie and torture them with a tender love story” (Speyer). From this we could conjecture that Otto himself is lured in by the zombie genre, lulled into thinking it might protect him from the pornographic and melodramatic aspects of his life.

But the co-presence of both horror and pornography tropes do not provide explicitly safe havens for Otto. Linda Williams, in her essay “Film Bodies: Genre, Gender, and Excess,” argues that horror, pornography and melodrama are bodily genres, intent on bodily affect. What all three have in common is how they affect the body. This, in Otto’s case, is paradoxical then. He chooses an undead identity, partly to preserve himself, but that body performs the intersection between a horrifying sexual hunger and a terrible emotional vulnerability. The play of these three genres, all three aspects of his own experience, promises a numb and safe identity, but concurrently terrorizes him, provokes him bodily and emotionally. Around Otto, through the imagined films within the film and through his interactions with the men he meets, it turns out sex and death are not as safe a split as he might have hoped and yet might secretly wish. This abject place, caught between genre and fluid and decaying bodies, both promises and protects an ambiguous place between self and not-self.

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Despite Otto’s desire to separate himself from the living and his own past, becoming a walking corpse in essence takes him to the ontological threshold of what it means to live. When after their more tender and less cannibalistic night, Fritz awakes to find a sign that Otto has left him that says simply “Otto. RIP.” It is an ambiguous ending for in a sense Otto kills himself, but the phrase is “rest in peace,” so his note also implies he has found some peace. Not enough that he will forgo the allure of his zombie identity, though, so he goes on lurching into the distance, still searching.

Otto, or Up With Dead People is available for viewing on Netflix.

 –R.W. Gray

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Bibliography

Bataille, Georges. Erotism: Death and Sensuality. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1986.

Brinkema, Eugenie. “A Title Does Not Ask, but Demands That You Make a Choice: On the Otherwise Films of Bruce LaBruce.” Criticism: A Quarterly for Literature and the Arts (48:1) pp. 95-126, 2006 (Winter).

Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982.

LaBruce, Bruce. Otto; Or, Up with Dead People. 2008.

Speyer, Ariana. “Up with Bruce LaBruce: an interview.” Interview Magazine February 13, 2009.

Waugh, Thomas. Romance of Transgression in Canada. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2006.

Jun 172013
 

Watching movies is a sentimental education. They work through images and change the way we feel, especially if they come at an impressionable moment. Strange how, for reasons of history and empire, a boy in southwestern Ontario grew up humming an Australian bush song and learned his politics watching the Australian actor Chips Rafferty in Eureka Stockade (1949), fighting for justice  in the Ballarat Goldfields on the family’s first black and white TV in the late 1950s. I don’t suppose anyone else remembers Chips Rafferty, and looking at him now he is hardly leading man material. But there you are. Much later the great Australian films Gallipoli and Breaker Morant served to upend my view of self and history, my historical self,  with their mutinous revision of Australia’s glorious Imperial past (which, it seemed, applied equally to Canada’s Imperial past). I give you here first Eureka Stockade, the entire movie, made at the famous Ealing Studios in England. I was a boy when I saw this, as I say, completely enthralled with Chips Rafferty, my hero-idol for years (though I only saw the movie once). Then the famous Australian singer-songwriter Eric Bogle performing his song “The Band Played Waltzing Mathilda” which turns the famous bush ballad upside down, into a lament for the gallant spirit of a country that bought the British imperial blarney about loyalty to the Mother country and saw its boys wasted in an unforgivable debacle. Then I give you the last scene from Gallipoli where the Australians have been ordered to attack across open ground against Turkish machine guns (this is at Suvla Bay, the operational area referred to in Eric Bogle’s song). It’s a gorgeous sequence. Mel Gibson is racing with a message to call off the attack; his race against Death mirrors the boyhood race at the beginning of the movie — he loses both races. (Watches and time-keeping imagery throughout as well.) Then I give you last scene of Breaker Morant, the two Australians being executed as an example during the Boer War to save Imperial face after a so-called atrocity. Beautiful irony in the dialogue about “pagan.” The pagan trooper cites the precise Bible verse to cover his case; the chaplain has to look it up. As I say, these films educated me, not intellectually at first so much as sentimentally, changed the templates, transformed my view of Canadian history, the official version never to be trusted again, authority(ies) never to be trusted again. Just as I am sure these imaginary geographies will always be more real to me than the ones you find on maps (which are truly Imaginary). For Canadians, I suggest getting a copy of Tony Wilden’s The Imaginary Canadian, a Lacanian analysis of Canadian history now out of print.

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May 182013
 
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Wes Anderson’s short film “Hotel Chevalier” is a lean, bruised and naked tale in a Paris hotel room. Anderson shot the short with his own funds (and the actors, Natalie Portman and Jason Schwartzman, donated their time) two years prior to his feature The Darjeeling Limited but it was often screened at the same time and is referred to by many as a prologue to that feature film that followed it (as mentioned in this previous NC at the Movies entry). The two are aesthetically consistent, but that’s not surprising as most of Anderson’s films belong to the same visual palate and characters seem descended from the same family tree.

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Though they were conceived separately, Anderson brought the short and feature together through their common character of Jack Whitmore.  Whitmore is precious, careful and, in his manicured construction of his hotel room a bit compulsive. In contrast, his beloved shows up with her fierce toothpick-in-mouth machismo, her velociraptor-attack dialogue (“What the fuck is going on?”), and her sudden bruised nakedness.

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It is an uncomfortable film on several levels: visually there are the awkward, stagey wide shots of the room, the contrasting dolly shots and camera pans, the manicured way Jack has designed the room for his beloved’s arrival (complete with soundtrack queue on the ipod and a freshly painted painting): has he created the perfect setting for their reunion or a well designed bunker to defend himself against her impending assault? And does it matter since either would be in vain?

Then there is greater discomfort as Portman’s character arrives, asks almost mockingly “What’s this music?” and then touches all the carefully laid details of the room with further ridicule, even touching the wet painting, all as if to throw aside any attempts he had to set decorate or defend himself.

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Does he love her or hate her? At this late stage they’re post woodchipper and it seems futile to sort through the bits of each. We’re given next to no back story except that she says to him “I never hurt you on purpose” and that he escaped her and seems clear when he says to her, “I will never be your friend. Ever.”

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We don’t need to know more. This is the story of a man who fled, waits, then with gentle bath robe in hand shows her his view of Paris and offers her back her toothpick.  She’s only there for the night after all. It’s a perfect condensation of past and present with no future.

– R. W. Gray

Apr 162013
 

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Woodkid’s self-directed music video “I Love You” begins with a rather enigmatic and violent image of an unconscious boy, a Viking helmet and shoe apparently knocked from his person and lying nearby. The video that follows seems to have little to do with this image, but, in the context of Woodkid’s larger project, the image and the tale both circle the same enigmatic loss.

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Woodkid is the pseudonym of music video director Yoann Lemoine, famous for the videos he’s made for such music stars as Katy Perry, Lana Del Rey, and Taylor Swift. He moved into music as an extension of what he was creating with his music videos, but there is a strong narrative impulse in the work. His debut album The Golden Age was released in a special edition that, instead of a jewel case, is contained within a book he co-wrote with Katarzyna Jerzak (his cousin). The book looks one part religious text and one part fairy tale with illustrations (by artist Jillian Tamaki).

The videos for the album, too, seem part of a larger literary project, each forming a chapter of a more complex narrative. “I Love You,” the third single to be released from the album The Golden Age, continues the story he built in the other two videos “Iron” and “Run Boy Run”: characters and symbols recur; the black and white simple aesthetic dominates all three. Narratively, the films overlap: “Iron” ends with a white churchly structure.

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“Run Boy Run” begins with the boy that starts “I Love You” fleeing from that same structure, collecting an army of Where The Wild Things Are type beasts and standing ready to attack a metropolis of structures that look like the church he fled.

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“I Love You,” then, begins with perhaps the result of this attack: the boy lying on the ground, his Viking helmet and one shoe knocked from him, apparently defeated by the white towering edifices he and his beasts sought to conquer.

“I Love You,” then is in some sense about defeat. The central narrative follows a priest-like figure who first appears in the video for “Iron” reading fervently from a religious text. In “I Love You” he arrives at a church to play the organ, announcing to the austere congregation, “Today I’ll tell you a story about a man who drowned in the ocean, after he lost someone he loved. This is a story about a man who died twice” (translated from the Russian).

Once this man begins to play the organ, the visual story follows the same man climbing and struggling across bleak, vast, rocky landscapes.

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The juxtaposition of his smallness, his fragility against this landscape speaks to the intensity of the struggle he faces as he stumbles, presses his face weeping to stones, and eventually walks out into the ocean and sinks.

In an interview with Complex Magazine, Woodkid points to a thematically similar moment in the written text:

There’s this moment in the book where the kid says to his mum, “It’s very windy outside, there’s this massive storm,” and these are actually fragments of lyrics you find in The Golden Age. He says, “Look at the trees, they’re bending and almost touching the ground.” Because the wind is so strong, he says to his mother, “Look, they’re going to break.” And the mother says, “No they’re not going to break because they’re super tender.” But if they get old, dry, and more hard, then in the case of heavy wind, they’re going to break.

This man will succumb, will turn to stone (this, too, foreshadowed in the earlier video for “Iron” where he appears wearing a suit that looks like it is made from marble).

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Two things complicate this defeat for me: the congregation and the whales. Woodkid’s narrative briefly flashes from the journey of the man who will turn to stone to show a few faces of those who are affected by this music and tale: an old man lowers his head to look at the religious symbols he holds, a woman lowers her head in despair, another woman kisses the crown of a baby’s head like this consoles her, and a boy looks heavenward, weeping. They each witness his tale and present us with ways to experience it: we can lean away from it, find consolation in faith or objects or in children, or we can give in to despair.

Here I am most intrigued by the woman with the lowered head. When the central character enters the church at the beginning, you can first see her to the right; she stands waiting in the front row, overjoyed to see the protagonist. And she appears later, head lowered, trembling, weeping at the song, the tale he’s sharing. She doesn’t look at him, can’t as he has his back to the congregation. And she seems, for lack of a better word, ashamed. Head bowed, trembling. From her initial joy and excitement to this despair, her story is secret from us.

But her reaction and, truly, none of the congregation’s are what the tale prescribes. They deny the whales.

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The tale, simply put, is the journey of a man who turns to stone. This could have happened anywhere on the landscape of stone he traversed, but instead this transformation happens as he sinks down into the abyss circled and surrounded by a maelstrom of humpback whales. It’s a complicated image: the massive leviathans with their vaguely stony exteriors, but their graceful swimming together through the beams of light that pierce through the dark deep. Certainly water is what he washes his face and hands with before he begins to play music in the church and it is echoed here in some sense as cleansing. It is also, however, heavy and crushing as he sinks around the graceful hulking forms that rise where he falls.

Defeat, yes. But there’s also, inescapably, beauty in this struggle, this loss, and this transformation. The congregation, with their various reactions and griefs, seem to miss this experience of the tale. But we don’t. We can’t. There’s too much grace.

– R. W. Gray

Mar 142013
 

Tungijuq(please click on the image to link to the film)

In the collaborative short “Tungijuq: What We Eat” (2010) we see a genesis of the eternal relationship between Inuit and hunting. This, in the words of the filmmakers (lead actor and Inuit jazz throat singer Tanya Tagaq, executive producer and Isuma co-founder Zacharias Kunuk, and directorial and screenwriting team Félix Lajeunesse and Paul Raphaël), is a way to “talk back to Brigitte Bardot and [the] anti-sealhunting lobby” (1)

The film itself in remarkably unlike previous output from Igloolik Isuma Productions – Kunuk’s Igloolik-based filmmaking collective that has gained international notoriety for its feature-length melodramas, including the Cannes Camera d’Or-winning Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner (2001). Atanarjuat was the first Inuktituk-language feature-length film and recounts a four thousand-year old Inuit legend, and its power lies in its ability to narrate from an Inuit perspective a story of emotion and conflict that transcends – and that also elucidates – the continuum of Indigenous lifestyles past and present.

While “Tungijuq” also takes on this same line of thinking, in contrast, this short film relies heavily on animation techniques and non-linear story-telling to portray the trajectory of life and death cycles through the lens of traditional Inuit hunting and eating. Tagaq, who plays the main character of the film, begins her metamorphoses as a shaman figure who takes the form of a wolf. Tagaq-as-wolf chases and hunts a caribou, which in turn transforms into Tagaq as a human-caribou hybrid form, who then dies from a wolf bite. Yet this one death does not end Tagaq’s transformation, as she transforms again, and yet again before the film closes with a shot of Kunuk and Tagaq eating a meal of seal’s meat after the hunt. Tagaq gently runs her fingers over the inside of her former seal self before taking a bite as she looks at the viewer with a smile. That the film begins and ends with a front angle close-up as Tagaq looking into camera adds to the many references to cycles, as each vignette transitions to the next and the next, reinforcing the idea that the story is ongoing.

Inuit survival has long depended on hunting animals, and this remains true in the contemporary circumpolar North as hunting participates in modern processes and channels of global trade. The European Union’s 2009 ban on seal products has had a major impact on the Northern sealskin trade as well as seal oil supplement and meat industries, despite the ban’s exception for Indigenous-made products, as it has effectively eliminated the market for pelts and other products globally.

The Canadian federal government (joined by the Norwegian government) has launched a World Trade Organization legal challenge against the ban, arguing that this commercial industry is humane and sustainable. As Anthony Speca for Northern Public Affairs Magazine puts it, “Having adopted its ban explicitly to cripple the commercial sealing industry and destroy the value of seal pelts, the EU appears to condone the Inuit seal hunt merely as a cultural holdover from a mythical Arctic innocent of the profit motive”(2).  Rather, Tungijuq’s political message is tied to its cultural message: in the North, hunting and living are eternally connected, even in historically changing contexts.

Isuma’s co-founder Norman Cohn once described Kunuk as “a hunter who happens to make movies” (3). In the case of Tungijuq, hunting and filmmaking merge in a shared story of survival that is about much more than sustenance, while at the same time the film features food and eating in a way that makes them just as crucial to the story as hunting. Of course, Inuit communities traditionally use the parts of the animals they do not eat, whether these are skins for clothing, shelter, or trade, or in the case of seals, oil to light a qulliq (seal oil lamp) or to export as supplements containing higher contents of omega-3 fatty acids than salmon. Hunting for food is particularly important to offset the high cost of importing food goods to Northern communities.

The story nourishes the relationship between Inuit and the animals they have historically relied upon for food, and rests quietly in the face of narrow perceptions about sealhunting’s cruelty that are typically raised from a non-Inuit perspective. The anti-seal hunting lobby is a position based on a moral claim, disembodied from political, economic, and cultural experience. In a particularly pointed and knowingly unimpassioned statement, president of the land claims group Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. Paul Kaludjak says, “We don’t really care about how the outside world thinks about how we eat our country food,” illustrating the gap in understandings about what the sealhunt represents (4).

Calls to end the sealhunt in the circumpolar north, however, are often brimming with emotion, including Bardot’s, who, at a 2006 press conference in Ottawa insisted that “she couldn’t watch” video footage of a hunt that was provided for the event’s audience (5). Tungijuq encourages us not only to watch the hunt as one moment in the transformative life between human and non-human animal but also to try and understand the importance of this relationship beyond the singular act.

— Erin Morton & Taryn Sirove

 

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Erin Morton teaches in the Department of History at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton, Canada. Her research broadly examines categories and experiences of art and culture as being determined by and determining liberal capitalist modernity. She has published widely on historical and contemporary visual and material culture in Canada and the United States in such collections as Global Indigenous Media (Duke University Press, 2008) and journals as Utopian Studies and the Journal of Canadian Art History. She is currently working on two books with McGill-Queen’s University Press, the single-authored monograph Historical Presenting: Placing Folk Art in Late Twentieth-Century Nova Scotia, and the co-edited volume, Negotiations in a Vacant Lot: Studying the Visual in Canada.

Sirove_PhotoTaryn Sirove is a postdoctoral fellow at Carleton University in the Department of Law and Legal Studies, where she combines her interests in media arts histories and cultural studies of law. Sirove received her PhD from Queen’s University in Visual and Material Culture, and has completed curatorial projects for A Space Gallery and Vtape Distribution Centre. She has published collaboratively with Dr. Erin Morton in the film journal Post Script, and in the collection Global Indigenous Media (Duke University Press, 2008). Sirove will contribute a book chapter on media arts censorship to LIFT and Toronto’s Images Festival’s forthcoming collection entitled Explosion in the Movie Machine: Histories of Toronto Moving Image Culture.

 

Mar 012013
 

Laura K Warrell

In this powerful and important essay, Laura K. Warrell refuses to bow to Quentin Tarantino as a pop icon and instead calls him out as a puerile manipulator of stereotypes. She puts his brutal and salacious Mandingo fight scene in Django Unchained (winner of the completely undeserved Oscar for Original Screenplay) up against Ralph Ellison’s horrific fight scene in Invisible Man (published separately as a short story called “Battle Royal”) and a recent theatrical production of the novel at the Huntington Theater in Boston. All three portray forced fight scenes between black men as an expression of white racism in the American South; they give Warrell an amazing opportunity to contrast approaches, values, techniques and motives and to deliver a stinging indictment of lingering racism and black stereotyping in Hollywood and PC America. In the end, Ellison is the voice that speaks the black experience with grace, intelligence and dignity.

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Perhaps it was a strange twist of literary fate that a dramatic production of Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man opened at the Huntington Theater in Boston ten days after Quentin Tarantino’s slave revenge fantasy Django Unchained debuted in cinemas across the nation. Two days after seeing the play, I read Ellison’s short story “Battle Royal,” and the weekend after that I went to see Tarantino’s film. Each work portrays, as a center-piece, a fight scene between black men with white men as an audience; such a convergence was too intriguing not to explore.

Ellison’s Invisible Man, published in 1952, is considered one of the finest novels of American literature and a groundbreaking interpretation of the black American experience.  The novel is about a young black man’s struggle to define himself against the backdrop of early twentieth century American racism.  The story “Battle Royal,” which Ellison published separately in 1948, is the first chapter of the novel.  In the story the young narrator is invited to read a speech he has written on social progress to an audience of white men who force him to participate in a boxing match with his peers before he can deliver his speech.  The play, adapted by producer Oren Jacoby and directed by Christopher McElroen, was first staged at the Court Theatre in Chicago in 2012 and ran at the Huntington Theatre Company in Boston from January 4 to February 3, 2013.

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The first thing I noticed about the staging of the fight in the theater production was how horrifying and heartbreaking it was.  The bare-chested black actors seemed incapacitated by fright; their fear made them appear child-like as they swung their arms and stumbled, blindfolded, around the stage.  At the time, I found it simply heartbreaking, but in retrospect wondered if it was somewhat manipulative on the part of the director to make these men appear so completely debilitated by their victimization.  It reminded me of the way I sometimes feel watching certain movies by Steven Spielberg, as if the director simply wants to tug at our heartstrings without asking us to think much about what is happening.  Any integrity, grit or sophistication these men might have had before entering the boxing ring seemed to have been wiped out in in order to present them as defenseless and scared.  It seems insulting and just plain inaccurate to suggest that grown men are not still grown men even when they are scared senseless.  Additionally, to infantilize them in a sense robs them of the same dignity the play’s white characters take from them.  However, these personality traits – utter purity and childlike innocence – are personality traits “good” black characters commonly possess in popular culture.  It is as if in America, we can only handle discussions about oppression and violence when the victims are angels and the aggressors are complete assholes.  Consider how some people’s sympathies change when a rape victim turns out to have a sordid sexual past or how the Trayvon Martin case “took a turn,” at least in public perception, when the boy’s alleged Facebook page was discovered showing him wearing sagging pants and flipping off the camera.

In Ellison’s story, a white woman is brought out before the fight to dance provocatively for the enjoyment of the white male spectators.  In the stage play, this woman’s sole emotion seemed to be fear as well.  The actress playing her danced around pitifully, looking as if she were about to start weeping.  All the while, the white characters, played by two white actors and a handful of black cast members wearing emotionless, quite frightening white masks, acted like our worst nightmares of what sexist racists can be.  So maybe this was the problem with the stage version of the battle royal; the actors were asked to play one note.

Admittedly, I did not come to this conclusion until I returned to Ellison’s text days after the performance (before then, I pitied the black men and white woman, and was disgusted by the white men, as, without doubt, was the entire audience).  But in Ellison’s text so much more is happening.  For one, the author injected a significant amount of sexual tension into the scene.  One of the other black fighters even has an erection.  Ellison also showed us the range of reactions the main character experiences internally; even while he gets pummeled he is thinking about his speech and his dignity, telling us how he feels about the other men, plotting ways to achieve his ultimate goal and negotiating with the other fighters.  Most importantly, his future self is interpreting events.  Then there is the tangle of responses the main character has to the white woman’s dancing – desire, revulsion, empathy.  He wants to protect her, to kill her and have sex with her.

In fact, even the white woman seemed more complex in Ellison’s text than she did on stage.  At first, I sensed apathy in her as I read the story, as if she were mechanically going through the motions of seduction.  It was only after the white men started aggressing her that I sensed her fear.  And what about the other black man in the fight the narrator tries to negotiate with – suggesting they fake a knockout to end the spectacle – but who will not take the deal?  His presence in the story added a whole other layer to events, which his absence on stage negated.

So what was missing on stage, for this scene at least, was the nuance and complexity the short story gives us through narration.  The same nuance and complexity that is required of any in depth, smart examination of race and culture, and which is often lacking even in the most elite intellectual circles.  Sure, we could say, ‘well, this was a stage production, there’s no way to convey the same depth.’  However, most of the play was presented with extensive monologues and asides; the lead actor would take center stage and explain his character’s thoughts and reactions to the events of the play by reciting lengthy passages from the novel verbatim (which Ellison’s estate apparently required of the playwright when asked to turn the book into a play).  So, in some ways, the fight scene was one of the only scenes where there was really no narration.  What was happening internally for the character was never presented to the audience; we simply witnessed the fight scene, and thus, only understood one dimension of its significance.

The notion that oppressed characters are sometimes turned into flawless, defenseless figures to gain empathy, is related to the fear many Americans experience of being labeled culturally insensitive, politically incorrect, or worse, racist. It is easier to depict an oppressive incident and its perpetrators as thoroughly bad and awful, and shave off any edges and contradictions in the victims’ characters, so as not to leave any room to interpret events otherwise.  But it is this flatness, the inability to hold two or more potentially contradictory ideas in our minds at the same time, the notion that things are either categorically good or bad, that is what I find frustrating in many conversations about race, culture and gender in American society.

Does such a controlled rendition of the fight scene in the play protect both the play’s producers and its audience from being un-PC?  Would showing any of the narrator’s unattractive traits or impulses confuse our allegiances?  Do such controlled interpretations also protect us from having to look too deeply at the very things we fear most, for instance, that black men might desire white women (a fact that has a tendency to set off explosions in both communities)?  Then there are other realities we do not really want to face, like that decent, upstanding citizens might also be racist, that violence might sometimes be arousing, that even victims of oppression can have unappealing compulsions.  When we fail to embrace the complexity of these issues, we risk not coming to a true or lingering understanding of them.

 In staging the fight this way, the director also contributes to, rather than underscores, the dehumanization and objectification of the black male and white female characters by turning them into mere symbols of oppression instead of full-fledged human beings with complex identities living in a complex world.  Even worse, such flatness goes against Ellison’s original intentions for the piece.  He included the narration in “Battle Royal” and all of Invisible Man for a reason.  Consider the following, which is from Ellison’s introduction to the novel.  As Ellison was putting the work together, he wondered, “why most protagonists of Afro-American fiction (not to mention the black characters in fiction written by whites) were without intellectual depth.  Too often they were figures caught up in the most intense forms of social struggle, subject to the most extreme forms of the human predicament but yet seldom able to articulate the issues which tortured them.”  Even if these kinds of characters did not exist, Ellison felt it was “necessary, both in the interest of fictional expressiveness and as examples of human possibility, to invent them.”  His goal, in part, was to “create a narrator who could think as well as act” and to “reveal the human complexity which stereotypes are intended to conceal.”  It is the characters’ intelligence, depth and complexity, as well as the complexity of the fight itself, which are revealed in the narration.  By eliminating this part of the narration, the stage production reduces the characters to empty, even stereotyped figures used to demonstrate a social struggle.  The characters in the onstage battle royal were presented as subjects of history rather than real people able to contemplate their individual fates.

via MTV

Let us turn to Django Unchained and the so-called Mandingo fight scene, in which a slave owner played by Leonardo DiCaprio lustfully watches two black slaves beat each other.  It should be noted that after the film was released, a legion of historians came forward to prove that many of the films most horrific scenes would never have occurred historically, including these fights.  Still, the point, if there was one, of staging such a scene must have been to show how shitty slave owners were, stripping black men of their dignity by turning them into beasts fighting for their own perverse pleasure.

As opposed to the stage production of Invisible Man, where we have the context of the rest of the play to attach some sense of humanity and personhood to the boxing men, the fighters in Django have no personhood at all.  They are simply growling, bloody animals.  Tarantino seems to have a fascination with white men sexually violating black men, considering the anal rape of Marsellus Wallace by a white man in Pulp Fiction, the homoerotic master-and-slave relationship between the DiCaprio and Samuel Jackson characters in Django, not to mention the marble statue of two naked wrestlers entwined that stood prominently behind the DiCaprio character’s seat during dinner.  Perhaps such references are just Tarantino’s way of attacking men he finds loathsome by calling them gay, which would not be too far-fetched considering how juvenile he can be.

It is worth considering where Tarantino “places” his audience as compared to the two other productions.  In the stage production, the audience is sitting in a theater so does not have a camera directing them to watch one thing or another.  They are more like spectators of the fight itself.  Still, they are clearly watching the events of the play, and the fight, through the eyes of the main character who has been their guide since the play’s beginning.  Ellison’s story is told in a close, first person narrative so, as in the play, the audience sees the fight through the narrator’s eyes.  But in Django, the audience sees the black fighters mostly through the white slave owner’s point-of-view, thus, they watch the fight through his objectifying gaze.

Through this gaze, Tarantino turned the two fighting men into sex objects; the violence, as in much of his work, adding to what seems to be his own sense of eroticism as these half-naked men slithered all over each other on the floor, covered in blood instead of sweat.  We hear bones cracking, skin splitting and blood splattering, along with some agonized screams.  But these men say and think nothing and no one says or thinks anything about them, except for DiCaprio’s horny moaning and encouragement to keep fighting.  Of course, we also get to see the Django character and his white friend seethe every so often as they watch the fight as if to remind us that this is in fact terrible.  But by not allowing these men to have voices, let alone identities, Tarantino has done to them what he apparently loathes the slave owners for doing; turning them into objects for an audience’s enjoyment, the audience being those of us sitting in the theater.  In some ways it feels we as audience members are complicit in Tarantino’s efforts to dehumanize these men, inadvertent as these efforts might be.

 In the movie, I would wager to guess that these men were portrayed as over-sexualized, disempowered victims devoid of complexity or humanity not because of any desire to provoke sympathy or be politically correct, but because they were created and directed by Quentin Tarantino, who, for all his talents, seems to have lost the intellectual ability to see nuance and complexity at all, let alone the nuances and complexities of race in America.  Pulp Fiction and some of his earlier films handled such material better.  No doubt, part of the movie’s appeal, like so much in the culture, is its ability to arouse our basest, most animalistic instincts; the erotic charge American audiences seem to get from naked (literally) aggression, blood and violence.

While the play takes an intellectually remote stance to its fight, Tarantino’s movie takes an emotionally and intellectually desensitized stance, which fits our tragically desensitized culture.  Both offer simplistic representations of the racial struggles their fights present, though I would never place the play, which in other ways was revelatory, in the same category as Tarantino’s movie.  Only the fight in Ellison’s story is complex and layered, which is fascinating, considering how long ago, and at what point in the nation’s history, it was published.  This must speak either to the gradual decline of both high and low culture in this country, especially when it comes to conversations about thorny issues, or the innate structure of fiction which allows for greater nuance.  Of course, it could also be both.

The artistic consequences of such simplistic portrayals are as important as the cultural consequences.  Without the nuance, audiences do not get to enjoy the layers, complexities and surprises multi-dimensional characters and fictional situations offer.  Such portrayals stifle fruitful discussion and progress.  They also make for intellectually offensive, half-assed or just plain boring entertainment.

—Laura K. Warrell

References

Django Unchained. Dir. Quentin Tarantino. Perf. Jamie Foxx, Leonardo DiCaprio, Christoph Waltz. The Weinstein Company, 2012. Film.

Invisible Man.  By Ralph Ellison.  Dir. Christopher McElroen.  The Huntington Theatre Company, Boston.  2 February 2013.  Performance.

Ellison, Ralph.  Invisible Man.  New York: Vintage Books, 1990.  15-33.  Print.

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Laura K. Warrell lives in Boston where she works as a writing teacher and tutor at the University of Massachusetts Boston and Northeastern University.