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
 

 

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.”

AIR CANADA - 2012 Air Canada enRoute Film Festival finalists

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.

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
 

 

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):

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.

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

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

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.

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
 

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

——————

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 [actually, the entire movie has disappeared from Youtube; I can only give you a clip for now, and not the final battle scene at that], 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
 

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
 

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.

“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.

“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.

via WBUR, Boston

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.

 

 

 

Feb 022013
 
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2g5EbHwKhHs

In Alice Winocour’s short film “Kitchen,” a woman struggles over the span of one day to bring to the table what “le mari” desires for dinner.  She idly asks him during their morning ablutions what he would like for dinner and he says, “whatever you want . . . not meat in any case.”

In an attempt to please him, “la femme” brings home to this rather drab apartment and this rather drab life two shiny oil-black lobsters with pink underbellies. They are terrifying. They are alien, set out in stark contrast to the bland colour palate of the apartment and measured by the woman’s horrified and frustrated expressions framed in uncomfortable medium to close portrait shots. Their primal, thick insect-like bodies seem made to writhe and spasm, a disturbing life-filled force compared to the stagnant marriage they have scuttled into.

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Dinner in this film is of course not simply dinner. It is the culmination of a relationship that has reached its tipping point. When the husband insists “not meat in any case,” he implies that perhaps married life has become a routine meat course. It forces the woman’s hand. She must struggle to find a new recipe.

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As the end credits note, no lobsters were harmed in the making of this film. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t some convincing violence against lobsters as the woman struggles to deal with these purchased but unwanted visitors and their valiant attempts to survive even if these are their last moments before dinner.

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Winocour mirrors shots in the film to make connections between the lobsters and the couple: the opening shot of the wife in the bathtub mirrors the shot where she at the end of the film seemingly sets the lobster free, before she seals his fate.

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It’s a solid film and it could reasonably end when the husband gets home. But it’s the final shot that tips this film over into the sublime. We see the woman as she struts towards the low angle, sidewalk camera and as she approaches the shot retreats, moves with her – we yield to her. She is not going to the market for meat instead of seafood. She is not getting take out pizza. She is leaving and we are going with her. Winocour makes a perfect song choice here scoring it with Madeleine Peyroux’s melancholy cover of Elliott Smith’s rock bottom “love” song “Between the Bars.”

This walk, as thrumming with intent as the lobsters’ thrusting tails, stands as both a beginning and an end and yet neither. It is an act unto itself and calls to mind other walks and runs in cinema. The title character in Zho Yu’s Train who runs after a train she cannot catch.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KsWudw-vTnA

Lola’s running in Run Lola Run.

Even the character Carrie’s walk away from a relationship in Sex and the City.

The woman’s walk in “Kitchen,” like the walks and runs above,  is an affirmation, an attempt, and a declaration. It is her only way out of the drowning drab of the apartment and the dilemma between a suffocating meat course and an impossible and traumatizing lobster feast.

Winocour has made three short films including “Kitchen,” and her first feature film, Augustine, was released last year. “Set in Belle Époque France, director Alice Winocour’s sensual, fiercely intelligent tale of female sexual awakening follows nineteen-year-old “hysteria” patient Augustine, the star of Professor Charcot’s experiments in hypnosis, as she transitions from object of study to object of desire” – TIFF

–R. W. Gray

Jan 132013
 

Nicholas Humphries and Meagan Hotz’s “Little Mermaid” takes Hans Christian Andersen’s already dark fairy tale and reimagines the “romance” as a swamp circus freak show about worn out and faded love. Since Andersen published the tale in 1836 there have been versions in almost every possible artistic form, his first incarnation written for ballet even. Something about this little inter-species romance compels storytellers to return to it again and again.

In their retelling, Humphries and Hotz take a turn to horror. Some of the film’s shock value is intertextual: the title probably has most people referencing the Disney animated film from 1989 more than the original Andersen tale.

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Humphies and Hotz can play off of the Disneyfied, technicolour-happy-ending expectations of the audience and so then shock and cause them to shudder more when the tale takes surprisingly dark turns.

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In the opening shots of the film, lights swing from trees, half fruit, half pendulums keeping time’s waltz in among the mists. There is a peculiar sepia tint to the colour scheme, a surprising nostalgic and warm hue to the stagnancy and decay of the swamp setting. Throughout this opening, too, there is the flutter of birds flying off, in a way underscoring how caught and imprisoned the mermaid is when we meet her inside the worn tent. The lighting, the boardwalks across the swamp, the signage, and the tent itself seem strangely permanent for something as itinerant as a circus and this metaphorically sets the stage for the inertia, the claustrophobia of the lost love between the circus master and his imprisoned mermaid.

Though Humphries and Hotz’s dark take on the fairy tale might seem a departure, these choices are in many ways a return to the darkness of Andersen’s original tale in which the sea witch’s pact with the little mermaid carries with it terrible costs. As the sea witch explains,

“I will prepare a draught for you, with which you must swim to land tomorrow before sunrise, and sit down on the shore and drink it. Your tail will then disappear, and shrink up into what mankind calls legs, and you will feel great pain, as if a sword were passing through you. But all who see you will say that you are the prettiest little human being they ever saw. You will still have the same floating gracefulness of movement, and no dancer will ever tread so lightly; but at every step you take it will feel as if you were treading upon sharp knives, and that the blood must flow. If you will bear all this, I will help you.”

“Yes, I will,” said the little princess in a trembling voice, as she thought of the prince and the immortal soul.

Though I suppose we can forgive Disney for leaving out these terrible wounds and the awful price the mermaid is willing to pay, Andersen’s original, like Humphries and Hotz’s version, sees the pain and suffering as the point of the story.

For Andersen, this pain and suffering, the sacrifice was on a certain level a declaration of love and a tribute to the beloved. Brooke Allen in The New York Times argues that “In ‘’The Little Mermaid,’’ Hans Christian Andersen suggests that immortality can serve as a substitute, however unsatisfactory, for human love. The story is clearly an allegory for his own life, for the unloved Andersen.” What Allen is pointing to is what is present in the original tale and is missing in this most recent version: the love triangle aspect of the original fairy tale. In the Hans Christian Andersen version, despite all the little mermaid’s sacrifices, the prince marries a princess from a neighboring kingdom, an action which will doom the little mermaid to wake at dawn the next day and turn into sea foam.

This love triangle resembles another: the tale is considered by many to be a love letter, originally written from Andersen to Edvard Collin who would not return his affections and in the end married a woman. The themes around sacrifice then in that context become about unrequited love and the tale about trying to make sense and meaning out of the sometimes self-destructive sacrifices we make for it.

In the Disney version of the tale, too, there is sacrifice. But Ariel’s lack of pain and regret and its happily-ever-after ending morph the theme into one where sacrifice gets the man. Ariel still gives up her life under the sea but she gets the man in the end, so it was, Disney would have us believe, worth it.

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Humphries and Hotz pick up the theme of sacrifice but in their tale it seems to be about how the lovers’ sacrifices have killed their love. Their mermaid never sacrificed her tail or her voice but she has been taken from the sea to live in a metal tub and be displayed by her lover and objectified by the curious who are willing to pay.

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We can only imagine the series of bad choices (maybe his, maybe hers) that led them to this tent in the swamp. We know they are both weary. We know it’s not an equal relationship. We glimpse only shards of love’s remnants. The mermaid here begs for mercy, but the circus master can’t or won’t give it to her because he would lose this tragic-as-it-is circus. This little mermaid has to take her fairy tale’s ending into her own hands. In a nice rewrite, it is her voice’s siren call that brings him to her and makes him see her as human just before she, with a vengeful kiss, takes his tongue and voice.

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This is the definition of a Pyrrhic victory: a mermaid in a tub in the swamp isn’t going to get far. Her choice is similar to Andersen’s mermaid’s, though, whose sisters appear to her and tell her that if she sheds the prince’s blood on her legs she will get her mermaid’s tail back. Kill the prince to get her old life back or uphold his happy marriage to the princess ensuring she, the mermaid, will turn to sea foam in the morning as prophesied. Though it is technically not the same choice in the Humphries and Hotz version, the mermaid does opt against her own further sacrifice and chooses to shed the circus master’s blood. She puts an end to the pathetic death of their romance and ultimately privileges mercy over sacrifice.

Humphries and Hotz’s “Little Mermaid” was produced as part of the Vancouver Film School’s Compendium series out of their Entertainment Business Management Program. It’s garnered numerous nominations and several prestigious awards including Best Short at Screamfest LA. Humphries dark sensibility gave Numero Cinq at the Movies its Valentine’s Day installment last year with “The One That Got Away.”

–R.W.Gray

Dec 102012
 

Dear Numéro Cinq at the Movies watchers,

My Irish Italian upbringing means I have been raised to understand Christmas as a dark, chaotic, cacophony of strife and love: my grandmother’s idea of Christmas nostalgia was to one year read a letter she had written on Christmas thirty years before, incidentally the year the neighbour had shot himself in his basement. Dark. So my choices for Numéro Cinq at the Movies Christmas editions have been dark.

But it would be insensitive not to recognize that this Christmas / holiday season seems to be in danger of being preempted by sadness, pain, and tragedy. This December is already too dark for many. So I am offering two installments of Numéro Cinq at the Movies: a dark or a light, and you can choose just as you choose your turkey meat.

What follows here is the light. But I encourage you to see the dark as well.

Happy Holidays from the Numéro Cinq at the Movies folks.

–R. W. Gray


In Ekaterina Vorobyeva’s “Entire World is Mine” a small boy wanders through a snow-filled, winter day, filling time before his mother gets home. There are no subtitles but they are unnecessary, the story’s matter is perfectly visual and relatable.

There’s melancholy to this boy’s solitary day, certainly. But there’s also pleasure generated by a string of sensations and subtle cues: his bare fingers on ice, then run under water to warm them, hot needles piercing the coldness away. The taste of juice. The lamp pushing away the growing dark. It’s a child’s world, both simple and large, everything important in the universe caught in a series of small sensory moments.

This style of focusing on small moments of sensation is a great way of representing the simple concentration and focus of children in visual storytelling. In Alicia Duffy’s “The Most Beautiful Man in the World,” it is the sounds of the TV, the dog breathing, the crickets in the grass.

And in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amelie, the protagonist who is essentially an adult child full of wonder, it is her simple sensory pleasures that are represented the same way: she likes dipping her hand in bins of grains, cracking creme brûlée with a spoon, and, skipping rocks at St Martin’s canal.

There’s something Proustian in this largeness contained in small things, something akin to petites madeleines or mother kisses at bedtime. It’s about remembrance and bodily memory. In “Entire World is Mine,” when the boy puts his hand under the water he could just be washing. Only my own memory of wet frozen fingers under hot water makes me remember and imagine the boy’s fingers must feel needled as they warm up suddenly.

Film stories about children told this way offer the opportunity for us to be more present, more aware of the sensations of the moment. We can guess that this boy is waiting for his mother to come home and this is confirmed by how he calls out to her when she comes through the door. But this isn’t a story about a reunion or absence even. The boy’s ability to fill his moments with living encourage us to do the same. And in the chaos of this coldest, darkest month of the year maybe this is the perfect reminder.

–R.W. Gray

Dec 102012
 

Dear Numéro Cinq at the Movies watchers,

My Irish Italian upbringing means I have been raised to understand Christmas as a dark, chaotic, cacophony of strife and love: my grandmother’s idea of Christmas nostalgia was to one year read a letter she had written on Christmas thirty years before, incidentally the year the neighbour had shot himself in his basement. Dark. So my choices for Numéro Cinq at the Movies Christmas editions have been dark.

But it would be insensitive not to recognize that this Christmas / holiday season seems to be in danger of being preempted by sadness, pain, and tragedy. This December is already too dark for many. So I am offering two installments of Numéro Cinq at the Movies: a dark or a light, and you can choose just as you choose your turkey meat.

What follows here is the dark. But I encourage you to see the light as well.

Happy Holidays from the Numéro Cinq at the Movies folks.

–R. W. Gray


In Andreas Pasvantis’s “December,” we are taken on a terrifying journey of kidnapping and trauma, with a festive finale. All the aesthetics are decidedly horror-ific: the low camera angles, the washed out lighting, the dirty focus, the constant Dutch tilt shots (so the POV seems horizontal or lying down) all build our anxiety. The point of view shots limit what we can see and alter focus so we are inescapably in the action but do not know who we are.

The action is sudden and unexpected: we are attacked with an axe, dragged, covered up, sold into what will certainly be more horror, complete with a chainsaw attack. And what builds our feeling of helplessness is not just that the action comes at us, it’s that we are seen by the people in the film. We are attacked and looked at directly, and this coupling of violence and seeing establishes that we are in a world without compassion.

All along this chain of violence lies the question “how badly will this end?” We are decidedly in the horror genre so we are aware from the start that the ending will be bloody. The last shot is absurdly festive, though, full of beaming faces smiling at us. This scene is perhaps even more violent than the ones before it because all the violences that preceded it build to this insensitive holiday moment. A series of acts of violence and pain that culminate in a festival of insensitivity and smiles.

Holiday movies routinely play off this central tension; the anxiety of the holidays serves both comedy (National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation) and horror (Black Christmas). I think, though, there’s a more thematic interest here, too. The holiday occurs not long after the darkest day of the year, the lights and gay apparel used to cloak what otherwise might be the most lifeless days of the calendar year. That which is repressed will rise up. This, I suppose, is why we also eat our way through the holidays, to cover up the eventual return of the repressed and stave off the cold and dark waiting outside.

In “December,” we are guided to see the glee and yuletide smiles with a sort of irony; we have seen all the horrors that this holiday scene represses. And because of the use of point of view shots it is our trauma that is covered up with decorations and awful sweaters. But there’s something reassuring about this irony, like finding surprise rum in your eggnog. And this recognition of darkness underlying the holiday lets a little of it out and makes room for the light.

–R. W. Gray

Nov 052012
 

In “Un Rendez Vous,” director Guy Ritchie (Snatch, Sherlock Holmes) creates a commercial/short film hybrid that is as potent with sexual tension as the aroma of the product on display. Jude Law (Road to Perdition, The Holiday) and Slovakian fashion model Michaela Kocianova are entangled in a mysterious, noir-like affair that becomes more playful and erotic as the story’s secrets slowly unravel. While this short is no doubt about a particular product, Dior Homme fragrance, it is ruled by the peculiar way the film’s hypnotic style wrestles to dress up the primal instincts of the protagonist and the woman he seeks.

First and foremost, “Un Rendez Vous” demands repeat viewings. Ritchie gives the protagonist ambiguous dialogue and this initially gives misleading genre signs. When Law says into his phone “I know who you are” and “you’re going to wish you’ve never been caught” the film starts to seem like it might be about a heist gone wrong or that it is building up to a James Bond action sequence. Then we hear that it’s a woman’s voice on the phone and this instead suggests Law is hiding a secret love from the woman he’s with and we are potentially watching an erotic thriller or a torrid romance about a love triangle. Mixed signals to say the least.

These layers of ambiguity do however eventually fall away, revealing the truth about the man and woman’s relationship: Kocianova’s appearance in the hotel room is really a part of Law’s imagination, his desire. He fantasizes that she helps him get ready, seductively buttoning his shirt, fastening his cufflinks, and this suggests that his preparation is designed with only her in mind. The scene acts as foreplay to their impending physical encounter. The ambiguity then, in hindsight, is not just about genre, but is the very structure of their desire: uncertainty quickens the game being played out between the two of them. When the montage hits, the fantasy falls away and we see the characters as they prepare for their imminent and real world rendezvous.

Accentuating and overplaying the smallest of sounds, Richie brings the viewer closer to the characters and the stillness of film’s intimate atmosphere. The sound design exaggerates the sounds of Law’s feet shuffling as he gazes into the mirror, the grip of his hand on the phone, and the sliding of the cufflinks as Kocianova removes and fastens them. This fetishistic attention to sounds places us in the same rooms as the characters, between them, and highlights the desire between the two. The montage sequence, featuring a track called “Exogenesis: Symphony Part 1 (Overture)” by the English rock band Muse, creates a mysterious and sensual feel to the already loaded short. The song brings a mesmerizing element to the final sequence as the grungy guitar riffs howl over the soft violins, a similar tension of opposites symbolizing the conflict between style and primal instincts throughout the film.

At the rendezvous itself, Ritchie causes desire and the primal body to collide. The man and the woman must rely on their senses, specifically their sense of smell, to find and recognize one another. The preceding events suggest that the other senses fail the characters in some fashion. In the hotel room, Law can fantasize that Kocianova is physically with him but is unable to touch this illusion. He cruises through the city with a piercing stare yet cannot see her. The sound of her voice on the phone connects them but only tenuously, on an unsatisfying level. And the kiss he plucks on her shoulder is a false taste. When Kocianova asks how she will recognize him, Law reassures her, “you’ll know when I’m there.” As his tie dances in the wind and her coat elegantly bursts open, it is their scents that assure them they have found one another. Ritchie structures the film to move from its ambiguous start to this certainty found through the characters’ sense of smell. There is only one way Kocianova can know he is there. Dior Homme.

Numero Cinq has featured several of these commercial/film hybrids including Roman Polanski’s Prada commercial, Ang Lee’s BMW short, and Lucrecia Martel’s fashion advertisement for MiuMiu.

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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.

Oct 072012
 

From talented directors Adrián Cardona, Rafa Dengrá, and David Muñoz comes a hilarious and fun-filled bloodbath of a film.  International audiences might expect Spanish horror films to generally follow themes of the supernatural, or might anticipate an art house pedigree of films like The Orphanage or Pan’s Labyrinth. But “Brutal Relax” defies such expectations. With massively gory results.

The film follows socially awkward Mr. Olivares who, upon being released from an institution, is told by his anxious doctor to take a vacation and avoid getting agitated at all costs. So Olivares slaps on his Hawaiian tourist outfit and heads to a beach inhabited by classic beach bums, but their happy existence is short lived because, in the age-old tradition of “beach horror,” whenever there are young, attractive, and scantily-clad people enjoying themselves, they must suffer.

Arriving at the beach, Olivares bathes in mud and cranks up his Walkman (yes a Walkman).  Soon after, an army of aquatic slime zombies rise from the sea and, unbeknownst to Olivares in his tuned out state, the dismemberment begins.  What follows is a superbly directed fast-moving sequence of flesh ripping carnage that includes a skull penetrating Frisbee, all to music courtesy of Olivares’s Walkman.

When his batteries die, the mud covered Olivares finally pays attention to the chaos surrounding him and we see why his doctor was so nervous.  A man can perhaps be an artist in anything; Olivares’s art, it turns out, is destruction, and in the carnage that follows he creates his masterpiece.

“Brutal Relax” relies heavily on slapstick visuals, the kinds of exaggerated violence and physical movement perfected by silent comedies.  There is almost no dialogue except for the opening scene with the doctor and this provides a unique dynamic between the audience and its protagonist: it deters us from identifying with Olivares too strongly, not letting us get beyond that infectious smile of his and this distance puts us in a delightful place from which we can watch the amusing massacre.

Olivares then rises to challenge the army of aquatic slime zombies. One of the things that seems to make him a viable adversary is that with the mud caked all over him he looks inhuman and very much like the zombies themselves.  This peculiar, slimy look helps dissociate him from the other beach goers and brings him to the same level of the monsters so he can destroy them.  Once the massacre is over Olivares is literally washed clean and returns to his pre-beach form, all smiles.  His rampage against the aquatic slime zombies is, essentially, cleansing. His doctor was wrong. Agitation is for Olivares very therapeutic.

On top of the more bodily style of comedy the film is a celebration of disgust.  Before the violence even starts we get little hints of the repulsion that’s in store:  we see several close-ups including one of a pimply woman slapping lotion on herself, and the mud puddle Olivares uses to apply his all-over mud mask appears to be the product of runoff from a garbage can.

The quirky aesthetics add to the overall comedic tone of the entire piece. If it gets recognized for nothing else, it should be praised for the job well done by the effects team in doing their best to disgust and amuse us by creating the perfect storm of gross comedy, including everything from an impaling cooler to a decapitating head kick. The film is a visceral carnival of disgust with its steady flow of internal organs and body fluids flying about

“Brutal Relax” is an amazing fifteen minutes of horror fused with comedy and is a refreshing story within the sometimes boring zombie category.  The hilarity doesn’t end with the credits so keep on watching.

— Jared Carney


Jared Carney is a student in Film Production at University of New Brunswick, Fredericton.  He is an emerging writer and director working towards making a feature film one day.  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.

Sep 152012
 

In Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami’s “Where is my Romeo?” a cinema crowd of women, weeping, watch the tragic ending to Franco Zeffirelli’s film adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Romeo & Juliet” (click here to see it too). This is Kiarostami’s contribution to the Cannes organized anthology film Chacon son Cinema, where thirty six directors from around the world were invited to make short films of less than three minutes reflecting on their feelings about cinema.

Kiarostami’s work is often misleadingly simple, employing documentary techniques so that audiences might mistake the fictive for real. In “Where is my Romeo?” most of the women we watch tearfully watching the film are actresses. Does this undermine their reaction to the film, make the expression any less real? For Kiarostami, this short is thematically related to his next feature, Shirin, in which, too, women in an audience watch a film and weep. For that film Kiarostami, David Bordwell reports, “filmed his female actors . . . reacting to dots on a board above the camera! Indeed, Kiarostami claims he decided on the Shirin story [the performance only heard in the soundtrack of the film, never seen] after filming the faces.”

Similarly, Kiarostami has explained in interviews how in the films where he has a driver and a passenger talking in a car (Taste of Cherry, 10) he shot each part of the dialogue separately, half a conversation at a time, with him sitting opposite with a camera. Yet the dialogue in both films feels real, zinging with life and emotion far from any script or intervention on a director’s part. Why do we need the truth of the film to be based in reality and is it simply that we are left cheated voyeurs (they knew we were watching all along)?

Laura Mulvey, in her essay “Kiarostami’s Uncertainty Principle,” explores how, in his film Taste of Cherry, the director challenges the audience with ambiguity:

Kiarostami . . . draws attention to the way curiosity grows necessarily out of uncertainty and is indeed its counterpoint: here the spectator’s desire to know and understand is heightened by a conscious sense of uncertainty about even the truth or reality of what seems to be happening. And Kiarostami builds these spectator sensations into the aesthetics of his cinema, so the process of understanding (or not) is central rather than incidental.

This uncertainty is perhaps not as foregrounded in “Where is my Romeo?” coming second place to just the beauty of the actresses’ emotional reactions. Only when we wonder how the director could possibly have caught so many reactions to one screening of the film — wonder if he had needed over a dozen cameras — do doubt and uncertainty enter into it for Western audiences. Iranian audiences perhaps would recognize some of the actresses from the start, but, even then, could they be certain that these are not sincere reactions to the tragic death of Juliet (since, fairly, actresses have real emotions too).

Some reviewers cannot get past the emotions themselves. Nicholas de Villiers in his article in Senses of Cinema describes how Kiarostami’s short “lingers over the teary-eyed expressions of women watching the classic tragic romance (this feminine ‘weepy’ cliché is another common thread among several shorts [in To Each His Own Cinema], a rather hackneyed illustration of film’s power to move an audience).”

De Villiers misses the point though. Much of Kiarostami’s work plays with the boundary of public and private. When he focuses on women characters, he chooses to focus on women in public and finds, instead, private moments there. He composes his film 10 as ten short vignettes, conversations a woman driving in her car has with her son, her friend, a prostitute, a stranger. All very private conversations but while driving around Tehran. The actress who plays the protagonist in 10, Mania Akbari, was so inspired by this idea she directed and starred in 20 fingers, a film that is structured by various conversations a man and a woman have in public, mostly in moving vehicles too (a tram, a train, a motorcycle, a boat). De Villiers reads the emotions in “Where is my Romeo?” as a “ ‘weepy’ cliché,” and does not register this clash between the ostensible private moment of emotion in the public sphere of the cinema.

Richard Brody in The New Yorker sees even greater subtext in the choice of Zeffirelli’s Romeo & Juliet:

I watched it in my office and forgot to plug in headphones; a female colleague, hearing Juliet’s death throes (at forty seconds in), thought I was watching an erotic film. The mistake is accurate: Kiarostami’s conjunction of a woman’s pleasure and death is an implicit accusation of the repressive measures applied, particularly against women, in Iranian society. But the Prince’s roar, at 1:51, of the line “All are punished”—departing from Shakespeare’s text by repeating the phrase—speaks clearly for Kiarostami: the injustices done to women are done to all. The female spectators’ rapt terror at the spectacle reflects their personal implication in its subject, love rendered illicit.

These are not simple, documented displays of emotion and cannot be dismissed by de Villiers’s “weepy” misreading. To watch “Where is my Romeo?” is to witness a communion of the private emotional lives of an audience, “moving” for us as an audience in that sense of ending up somewhere different than from where we started. And yet the film continues to move us if we let it, into fraught, curious, and uncertain spaces between art and life, illusion and reality.

–R. W. Gray

Sep 072012
 

Argentinian director Lucrecia Martel’s “Pescados” (“Fish”) absurdly wonders what fish’s dreams are made of through a pool of carp who dream of driving in a car in the rain, but – and this seems the essential point – without dogs.

The frame of the film is crowded with bobbing carp of various sizes and colours that strain to reach for food at the top of an aquarium or a zen koi pond. Through their various tones of voice we detect differences in character between the fish as they blather in their invented language. Even without the sound, the anthropomorphized carp have personalities detectable in the way they treat other fish, nudging them out of the way, and swimming on top of them.

The strange and haunting sounds are a hallmark of Lucrecia Martel’s film style. The fish are granted the gift of semi-individuality through the sounds that they are associated with, depending on whether that sound is shriller or deeper. They speak in individual voices but with overlapping sounds. This is not the story of one fish, but a community. Schools of fish usually perform in perfect synchronicity but Martel’s carp react fitfully. As in her previous films (both feature-length and shorts), she is highlighting the individual’s comportment within a greater group.

The sounds, synchronized perfectly to the gaping fish mouths, are by Argentinean multidisciplinary artist Juana Molina. The noises are not from an easily recognizable instrument, but those who know Martel’s body of work will hear similarities to the device prominently featured in her second feature film, The Holy Girl. There is a sound like the theremin, an electronic instrument that is played without a touch. Molina is electro-folk musician who is also an actress and she cites Bjork as one of her influences. The connections between the two artists’ styles are unmistakable.

Martel is the well-known director of serious character studies like The Headless Woman and The Swamp, so her focus here on chatty sing-song fish might seem peculiar. Animal adventures are usually the stuff of Disney’s children’s films, rarely of prize-winning independent filmmakers and they feature elaborately drawn characters, not real live fish. In Finding Nemo (2003), the clown fish Nemo and his various friends tell us their story in their own words;Martel’s fish do so as well.  Nemo’s tale is more canonical, a simple father and son tale, while Martel’s story resists making the same kind of sense. The anthropormorphic turn seems to flirt with a more complex ontological project. Her last short, Muda, also featured on Numero Cinq at the Movies, featured humans acting like insects. Both these films suggest Martel is exploring the boundaries of the human experience, possibly intending to denaturalize desire and identity through these animalistic turns.

Simplicity has been a crucial characteristic of Martel’s films since the beginning of her successful filmmaking career. In this short, in the dominant fish pond scenes, her camera zooms in and out on the fish in one continuous dance. The frame is always densely filled and this allows for shots of a single humanized fish or a more complete view of the pond, with multiple fish. The carp mesmerize with their ceaseless irregular movements. Splashing water, wavelets, and silver coins at the bottom of the pond catch the light, saturating the captured image again and again.

Martel bookends these vibrant pond scenes with POV shots of a passenger or driver in a car driving on a highway in the rain. In the first, the title shot, we see a greenish rainy dusk with a lot of sky. Martel builds dramatic tension in this section of the short, despite the absence of other characters, through the eerie colour and the car we see in the distance. This first sky scene is intermittently interrupted by what we assume to be the windshield wipers; they are at the same time nuisance and godsend, since they temporarily block our view but ultimately allow us to see through the windshield.

The water from the fishpond is contrasted with the rain on the windshield (reassuring for the fish, one would suppose). Water is a prominent feature in all of Martel’s feature films, but usually it is the characters that use the medium in some way. In this case, it is unconceivable that she would film fish without the liquid. In The Swamp, it was an oppressive element present in the air (heavy humidity) and in the family’s pool (where ultimately, the dramatic twist happens). In The Holy Girl, it was an element that allowed various morally ambiguous characters to wash away their possible sins.

From the dark threat of the highway in the rain, she moves us suddenly to the cacophony of the fish in the pond. Martel’s contrast of the effervescence of the fishpond and the dark starkness of the highway scene is unexpected, a difficult clash of images to process. At 1:39, she offers us another two-second flash of the road, as a convoy of transport trucks pass to the left of the screen in rapid succession. Now that we know the fish, know of their dream, we are left to wonder if this is the car the fish dream about and what will happen to this car full of fish driving down the highway? The short ends with a return to the highway footage, the bottom darkness of the koi pond transitioning into the view through the windshield as the fish fade and swim away to the exterior shot and the round shiny coins become the street lamps flashing by. Still, our questions remain unanswered. We’ll never know where the carp wanted to go on their road trip, what is so terrible about dogs, or why they would ever want to leave the gloriously manic pond.

This short film is rife with planes of observation, one of Martel’s favourite tropes. We view the film, the car driver looks out the windshield, the camera watches the fish, and all the fish look out of the bowl. Martel requires of her viewers that they gaze, stare, and look again and again.  She perhaps does this best in her last feature film, The Headless Woman. In one continuous scene, we must watch the facial expressions of the main character as she goes through multiple emotions realizing, then discarding, the possibility that she may have hit a person with her car on the road. Watching a Martel film, we must discover and question the smallest of details or facial expressions.

In an perfect twist, given Martel’s preferred tropes, the filmmaker can be (barely) distinguished in a reflection in the koi pond, especially in the tight shots when there are few carp movements. We guess that she is there, a square black likeness, holding the camera, controlling what we see. But she and the film’s meaning remain elusive, a reflection, yet promissory.

This short was presented at the Jameson Notodofilmfest, an annual online festival born in 2001 from an idea by Javier Fesser, an Oscar-nominated filmmaker (2007). This festival allows young innovative filmmakers to present their work through the magical world of the interweb. The prestigious jury members contribute to widening the selection of shorts; Lucrecia Martel was a judge for the 8th edition of the festival.

— Sophie M. Lavoie

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Sophie M. Lavoie conducts research in the areas of women’s writing and social change in Central America and the Caribbean. Her studies focus on women in contemporary Nicaragua during the first Sandinista era (1970-1990), but she is also interested in other revolutionary movements in the area, such as Cuba and El Salvador and in women’s writing in Latin America. Her current research project focuses on the link between women’s writing, empowerment, and revolutionary action during the Sandinista era in Nicaragua. She has published articles in Canadian Women’s Studies/les cahiers de la femme, Pandora, Centroamericana, Cahiers d’Etudes Romanes and Descant. She is Associate Professor at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton, NB where she teaches Spanish and Latin American Cinema.

Aug 272012
 

Contributing Editor Pat Keane has penned here a fascinating account of the various endings of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (one ending) and John Ford’s movie of the novel (two endings) and the political implications of  all three. Using the novel & movie as a filter, he draws a portrait of an era, delivers a lesson on American history and forges trenchant parallels with our current recession/election cycle. This is an important essay not just for its incisive analysis of the way art, politics and personal calculation converge to construct a momentous work but also for its portrayal of the men involved (including  producer Darryl F. Zanuck who actually shot the film’s final ending himself) and its insight into late capitalism and the American psyche. The essay is packed with nuggets of little known information and written with Pat’s usual brio, intellectual energy and passion for research.

I have linked to the text of Nunnally Johnson’s original screenplay in case you want to look at that. The author photo above was taken by me at Mrs. London’s Bakery and Cafe on Broadway in Saratoga Springs earlier this summer.

dg

 

 

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Though John Steinbeck published twenty-seven books (sixteen of them novels), the last in 1962, the year he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, his three major works, collectively dubbed “The Dustbowl Trilogy,” were crowded into just three years. Written in the middle thirties of his own life and of the century’s, they are In Dubious Battle (1936), the novella Of Mice and Men (1937), and The Grapes of Wrath (1939). Though, since his death in 1968, Steinbeck’s critical reputation has declined, the last two works retain their popularity. That both endure is attributable in no small part to their frequent assignment in high school classes and to their film versions, well-made movies that have buttressed the books’ appeal to general or “middlebrow” readers.  Nevertheless, despite the mixture of fatalism and sentimentality that mar both, Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath deserve their endurance, certainly on humane grounds and, whatever our critical reservations, on reasonably substantial aesthetic grounds as well. This is especially true of Steinbeck’s major achievement, The Grapes of Wrath, now approaching the 75th anniversary of its publication. It is certainly a novel worth contemplating in 2012, in the midst of a new major drought and deep recession, if not Depression, and with a troubled and polarized nation on the verge of a crucial presidential election.

As my title suggests, I want on this occasion to focus, from both an aesthetic and sociopolitical perspective, on what might be called three “endings” of The Grapes of Wrath. I also intend to conclude by emphasizing the Romantic-Transcendentalist elements of the climactic scene of the novel: the ending as written by Steinbeck. The other two “endings” are those of the film, which opened in 1940, within a year of the novel’s publication. Not only does the movie alter Steinbeck’s conclusion; the film itself had alternate endings. The original final scene, shot by the director, John Ford, was replaced by a new ending, insisted upon and shot by the film’s producer, Darryl F. Zanuck. In its initial theatrical release, as in television showings and in the DVD, the film ends as Zanuck intended it to. Since I want to follow Steinbeck, coming to my own ending by focusing on the novel’s final scene, I’ll begin with the film version.

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Lavishly praised when it appeared in 1940, often criticized in the 1960s, Ford’s adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath now seems—though, as in the case of the novel itself, not without reservations—to have been admitted into the canon of classic American films. It gained a wide new audience with the release of the DVD in 2004, midway through the presidency of George W. Bush. As a prep-school student, a youthful Bush had made two pronouncements germane to the film and prophetic of certain aspects of his administration, especially what many would see as his attempt to undo, in the name of Franklin Roosevelt, much of the Roosevelt legacy: “The Grapes of Wrath is a Commie movie,” young George opined when he saw the film in the early ‘60s, gratuitously adding that “the unemployed are lazy.” Such retrograde attitudes, expressed at the very time when others were condemning the film’s dilution of the novel’s radicalism, serve to remind us of the political obstacles the film faced back in 1939-40. I’ll be emphasizing the artistry of the film; but to fully appreciate that artistry requires a brief sketch of the political context in which the novel was published and, a year later, the film made.

The Grapes of Wrath, though a runaway best-seller in 1939, was, we have to remind ourselves, an immensely controversial book—banned and sometimes burned in California, Oklahoma, and even denied space in the libraries of Buffalo, N.Y. Steinbeck, it was claimed, had perpetrated an un-American lie against capitalism. His novel was a grossly exaggerated fiction camouflaging Communist propaganda (in addition, it contained coarse language). So controversial was the novel that, in an attempt to shield the film version from political opposition, it was cloaked with a dummy shooting title, Highway 66. Given the political atmosphere in the country, and in Hollywood, at that time, one may wonder how the film came to be made at all. After all, in 1940 the Dies Committee (forerunner of the House Un-American Activities Committee of the 1950s), already had its nose to the ground, sniffing out Hollywood Popular-Fronters and Communists. The picture seems an even more remarkably brave and liberal undertaking when we consider that the studio, Twentieth-Century-Fox, was owned by the mighty Chase Bank, and that the producer, Zanuck, was not only a Hollywood mogul but an anti-union Republican. Fortunately, the wife of the bank president happened to love Steinbeck’s novel, and didn’t want it distorted. As for Zanuck: the detective he hired to investigate the migrant workers’ camps in California’s Central Valley reported that conditions were even worse than Steinbeck had depicted. The same conclusion had been independently reached by Eleanor Roosevelt, who reported the workers’ misery in her influential newspaper column. Of course, back then she too was often dismissed as a “pinko.”

Though hardly aligned with the politics of either of the Roosevelts, Zanuck pushed ahead with the project. He deserves credit for that—and for his astute choice of talent. The stellar cast included Henry Fonda, selected to play Tom Joad—the role of his career, and one for which he probably should have won the Oscar awarded to Jimmy Stewart for The Philadelphia Story. In what was also the finest performance of his career, John Carradine was no less perfectly cast: as the Preacher, Jim Casy. Jane Darwell played Ma, a performance that earned her an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. Zanuck made three other superb decisions: choosing Nunnally Johnson as screenwriter, the great Gregg Toland as cameraman, and, of course, John Ford as director.

Ford’s work on the film earned him an Academy Award. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a director better suited to translate The Grapes of Wrath to the screen. Though he later voted for Richard Nixon and strongly supported the Vietnam War, Ford was, in 1940, not only a great director but a liberal: a Hollywood union leader and a New Dealer. He was also the son of Irish immigrants (both from Co. Galway).  As several of his films reveal, John Ford was an artist haunted by dispossession from the land and the Great Hunger, the Irish Famine. He was therefore acutely sensitive to Steinbeck’s saga of the drought-stricken Okies, driven from the Dust Bowl, and migrating to a supposed promised land, California, only to be greeted with prejudice, hardship, economic exploitation, and the ever-present threat of starvation.

Discussing the artistic impact of Ford’s ancestry, and comparing the situation in The Grapes of Wrath with the Great Famine, Irish novelist and critic Thomas Flanagan has rightly insisted that the Leave-taking scenes in many of Ford’s films tap into the director’s emotional response to the Irish Famine and Diaspora. Two of the most poignant and indelible scenes in The Grapes of Wrath, both in the novel and the film (both of them risking and yet transcending mere sentimentality) are indeed Leave-taking scenes. The first is that of Ma leaving the Joads’ sharecropper’s shack in Oklahoma and tenderly fingering, before she burns them, the mementoes of a lifetime: photographs, clippings, and souvenirs. In the second and most important Leave-taking, we see Tom saying farewell to Ma at night and walking off over the horizon. Visually and thematically, this scene is the film’s most crucial. Fonda and Jane Darwell were as fully aware as Ford that this was their central moment in the film, yet the director refused to let them rehearse. The scene was shot in one take, and the result demonstrates the rightness of Ford’s decision. Along with the power of the acting, the scene is visually memorable for its chiaroscuro effects, the play of light and darkness. (The achievement is essentially Toland’s, but Ford, collaborating with his brilliant cinematographer, had Fonda conceal a small lamp in the palm of his hand to capture the dramatic under-lighting).

Given the attention he paid it, it’s no surprise that this is the scene with which Ford intended his film to end. In doing so, of course, he and his screenwriter were consciously altering not only Steinbeck’s sequence but his political emphasis.

To begin with, Johnson’s screenplay shifts the setting. In the novel, Tom, having killed the union-buster who murdered his friend Casy, is hiding in a cave; it’s there that the final scene with Ma occurs. In the film, it takes place at the edge of the outdoor dance floor at the government-run camp. This is significant, highlighting the point of Johnson’s decision to change Steinbeck’s sequence by placing the government camp scenes toward the end. Ford, a New Dealer himself, concurred. Indeed, he enhanced Steinbeck’s depiction of this camp, the one spot of light in the Joad’s journey, by having the camp director played by an actor who not only resembled Franklin Roosevelt, but imitated his mannerisms. The point being made by Johnson and Ford could hardly be clearer: just as the New Deal saved capitalism by taking the wind out of the sails of socialism, so the film’s government-run camp directed by the FDR-lookalike offers us enlightened capitalism as a counterweight to the potentially revolutionary force embodied in the transformed preacher, Jim Casy, and in his eventual disciple, Tom Joad.

To some extent, then, both screenplay and film dilute Steinbeck’s political radicalism. At the same time, it’s this scene that brings together the Transcendentalist motifs Steinbeck had put in the mouth of Jim Casy: the novel’s version of Jesus Christ (JC). Casy is a messianic prophet quarried out of three visionaries admired by Steinbeck: William Blake, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Walt Whitman. A fallen preacher and dispossessed wanderer, Casy comes to believe that “all men got one big soul ever-body’s a part of” (33), discovering in the wilderness that “he didn’ have no soul that was his’n,…foun’ he just got a little piece of a great big soul” (570). This is Steinbeck’s colloquial literalization (and inevitable simplification) of the Emersonian vision of “self-reliance” merged with the Transcendental “Over-Soul.” In his essay of that title, which Steinbeck had read, Emerson describes that “Unity…within which every man’s particular being is contained and made one with all other; that common heart.” Though we “live in succession, in division, in parts and particles,” it remains true that “within man is the soul of the whole…to which every part and particle is equally related; the eternal ONE” (Essays and Lectures, 385-86). As Tom tells Ma, “maybe like Casy says, a fella ain’t got a soul of his own, but on’y a piece of a big one—an’ then…” “Then what, Tom?” asks Ma. And here—with the film following the novel precisely—we have Tom’s famous visionary speech. In assuming the mantle of fallen Casy, Tom, in both novel and film, perpetuates and politicizes the fusion, Romantic and Transcendentalist, of the one and the many in the Emersonian Over-Soul.

Then it don’ matter. Then I’ll be all aroun’ in the dark. I’ll be ever’where—wherever you look. Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I‘ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. If Casy knowed, why, I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an’—I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready. An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build—why I’ll be there. See? God, I’m talkin’ like Casy. (572)

In the novel, as Ma leaves the cave, “out of the dim sky the rain began to fall, big drops and few, splashing on the dry leaves heavily” (573). Like the earlier hint of an impending rainstorm (567), this second rain-image framing Tom’s Leave-taking prefigures the flood, the consciously Biblical deluge with which Steinbeck—recalling the terrible floods that hit Visalia, California, in early 1938—will end his novel. The book’s climax comes in a desolate and rain-soaked barn to which the remnant of the Joad family has been driven by the rising waters.

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I’ll return to, and conclude with, that scene, the finale of the novel. There remains the scene with which the film ends. It could hardly be, in 1940 America, the scene written by Steinbeck; indeed, as earlier mentioned, it is not even the farewell between Tom and Ma, the final scene shot by Ford. His film completed, the director was off on his yacht when he received a shore-to-ship cable from the producer. Zanuck wanted to add a coda, almost certainly because he thought Ford’s final image, that of a fugitive Tom striding off to become a union activist, too politically provocative. Either because he was in his cups or because he trusted Zanuck not to spoil his film, Ford went along, even suggesting that the producer shoot the final scene himself.

He did, utilizing several pages from earlier chapters (20 and 28) in the novel. As it happens, in his original screenplay, Nunnally Johnson had fused these two pages (383 and 577 of the novel), though he subsequently relegated the whole reconfigured passage to an appendix attached to the screenplay. Zanuck retrieved it for the film-ending he wanted, the one we’re all familiar with: Ma and Pa Joad in the truck, with Ma announcing that women see differently than men, that “it’s all one flow” for women, who see life as a “stream.” Like a stream, people too keep “goin’ on.” “We ain’t gonna die out.” “We’re the people that live. They ain’t gonna wipe us out. Why, we’re the people—we go on.”

Commercially, and in terms of audience-appeal, Zanuck’s decision was astute. Echoing the opening line of the U. S. Constitution, endorsing American endurance, and satisfying the upbeat demands of a “Hollywood ending,” how could Ma’s peroration fail with audiences? It didn’t, though there have been critical repercussions. The accusations began as early as 1942, when James Agee’s was the sole dissenting voice in a chorus of praise, and peaked in the 1960s. Writing at that time, the most formidable film critic of her era, Pauline Kael, said she now found the film “embarrassingly sentimental.” While Agee had lamented the movie’s failure, despite the talent expended on it, to portray “real people,” Kael, who seldom if ever pulled her punches, went so far as to pronounce the movie “phony.” (Kael, I Lost It at the Movies, 289; Agee, Agee on Film, 1:23, 31). In the politically-activist atmosphere of the ‘sixties, many (decidedly not including young George Bush) deemed the film not only inauthentic but uncourageously quietist. Taken together, the omission of Steinbeck’s final scene and the upbeat ending added by Zanuck—extolling the basic goodness, resilience, and survival of working people—were seen as a betrayal of Steinbeck’s political passion and, artistically, as a censoring and distortion of the more overtly bleak, though quietly transformative, climax of his novel.

There is no question that Zanuck’s coda de-radicalized the novel’s politics, even softened the political implications of Ford’s ending. But for many of its viewers, the film transcends both this final scene, as well as the responsibility-evading opening scroll in which we are informed that “no one was to blame” for the tragedies of the 1930s. Despite that disclaimer and the final uplift, what we actually have on the screen is not only a paean to the common man and woman, but a savage indictment of capitalist greed. However de-politicized it has seemed to some, the film evokes in most of its viewers a profound empathy along with resentment of the social injustices and abject misery which a cruel Nature, and a no less cruel economic system, inflicted on many thousands of dispossessed Americans. In terms of Steinbeck’s vision, the film, despite its alterations of the novel, remained faithful in its fashion.

For the most part, in the film version of The Grapes of Wrath, art triumphed over both ideology and sometime even over conscious intention. Ford’s artistic honesty and his passion for social justice were perfectly complemented by the splendid camerawork of Toland, whose stark images combine an expressionist artistry of terrible beauty with the documentary grittiness of newsreels. Add to that the sometimes overly broad but nevertheless powerful performances of the main players and, especially, the performance and the face of Henry Fonda (born to play the role of Tom Joad), and you have a situation in which the film as a whole, not Ma’s final speech, has the “last word.” The film rearranges the trajectory of the novel’s plot and, because of Zanuck’s intervention, Ford’s final image of Tom striding off purposefully to defend the rights of workers was chronologically superseded by Ma’s essentially a-political affirmation of the people. Yet as a whole, the film, whatever its overly optimistic and sentimental aspects, remains hard-edged, and angry.

Its iconography has in effect developed its own radical rejection of quietism through several  powerful images. I’m not thinking only of the most violent scenes—that in which Casy is brutally murdered and Tom responds by crushing the skull of the murderer, or the scene in which an anonymous woman is accidentally but indifferently shot by a sheriff. I have in mind, instead, certain indelible images: the elongated shadows of helpless Muley and his family as the huge tractor, the Machine which is the instrument of the invisible Bank, destroys all he owns; or the scene in which the starving children in one migrant camp form a circle as Ma tries to find enough scraps to go around. These and other memorable moments reflect the work of such famous photographers as Dorothea Lange and Margaret Bourke-White, who unsentimentally documented the resilience, dignity, and humanity of dispossessed and exploited tenant farmers during the terrible years of the Depression. And, almost certainly, such scenes were intended by John Ford to remind at least some viewers of the Irish Famine that haunted his own soul.

It was this quality of hard, astringent truth that impressed Steinbeck, who always professed himself immensely pleased with the film. He consistently praised it, both after his first viewing and when it was re-released in the late 1950s. Steinbeck, who trusted Ford and came to trust Johnson, was suspicious enough of Zanuck to put his author’s fee in escrow, thus retaining his option to sue the producer if he felt the final cut of the film watered down Johnson’s screenplay. He did not sue. In fact, after viewing the film in mid-December 1939, he wrote his agent, Elizabeth Otis:

Zanuck has more than kept his word. He has a hard, straight picture in which the actors are submerged so completely that it looks and feels like a documentary film and certainly it has a hard, truthful ring. No punches were pulled—in fact with descriptive matter removed, it is a harsher thing than the book, by far. (A Life in Letters, 195)

Inevitably some punches were pulled, and some of the descriptive matter that was omitted contained radical politics. But Steinbeck’s comment is at once generous and perceptive. He knew that there was much that could not be translated to film, and that his final scene, which he fought to retain in the novel, could never make it into a Hollywood film. He was happy with the screenplay, and apparently felt that Zanuck’s coda had not violated Ford’s and Johnson’s more “political” ending. Steinbeck may well have been ambivalent about his own ending, fearing that his attempt to fuse the intimately personal and the communal had itself involved a withdrawal from Leftist collectivist commitment in favor of an emphasis on an individual act of human intimacy. Steinbeck’s final tableau, though it can be seen as an easy way out of the novel’s political complexities, is not as “escapist” as Zanuck’s ending. But even Zanuck’s coda is caught up in the larger trajectory of the film as a whole, a film that artfully telescopes the personal and the political. I think that’s precisely the fusion that occurs in the novel, most dramatically in the controversial final scene, to which I now turn.

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Having begun with drought, the novel ends in flood, with the Joads at the end of their tether in a rain-soaked barn. There they encounter, crouching in the darkness, a starving man and his son, a boy to whom the father had given their last scrap of food. The dying man needs soup or milk to survive. The eldest Joad daughter, Rose of Sharon, abandoned by her husband, has lost her baby, a stillborn child fleetingly glimpsed as a little “blue mummy.” Now the remnant of the Joad family gazes at the starving man and his son. Following a meaningful exchange of glances between Ma and Rose of Sharon, in which “the two women looked deep into each other,” the girl says “Yes” (Steinbeck’s perhaps conscious echo of Molly Bloom’s final word in Joyce’s Ulysses). Having effected what Nancy Chodorow calls “the reproduction of mothering,” Ma smiles, “I knowed you would. I knowed.” Once the men and children have been ushered out of the barn, Rose hoists her tired body up and, drawing a blanket about her, moves slowly to the corner. She stands

looking down at the wasted face, into the wide, frightened eyes. Then slowly she lay down beside him. He shook his head slowly from side to side. Rose of Sharon loosened one side of the blanket and bared her breast. “You got to,” she said. She squirmed closer and pulled his head close. “There!” she said. “There.” Her hand moved behind his head and supported it. Her fingers moved gently in his hair. She looked up and across the barn, and her lips came together and smiled mysteriously. (619)

Many readers have been deeply moved by this ending, others have been confused, even repulsed. Though the novel had been enthusiastically received by Viking Press, there were deep reservations about the ending. Even Steinbeck’s editor, Pat Covici, who thought the final “symbolic note” of “love and sympathy” profoundly moving, wanted the scene changed, at the very least altered so that the gaunt old man would not be a total stranger, but someone the family had earlier encountered. Steinbeck was adamant; the whole point was that the starving man “must be a stranger.” He would not, he could not—Steinbeck insisted—“change that ending….The giving of the breast has no more sentiment than the giving of a piece of bread. I’m sorry if that doesn’t get over. It will maybe. I’ve been on this design and balance for a long time and I think I know how I want it. And if I’m wrong, I’m alone in my wrongness.”

When Covici persisted, claiming that the ending was not only too graphic and “all too abrupt,” but enigmatic, Steinbeck again insisted on its retention. Anticipating what would later become familiar to students of literary theory as Affective or Reader-Response Criticism., Steinbeck said that he had “tried to make the reader participate in the actuality, what he [the reader] takes from it will be scaled entirely on his own depth or hollowness.” There are, he added, “five layers in this book, a reader will find as many as he can and he won’t find more than he has in himself.” (A Life in Letters, 177-79; italics added)

Steinbeck wanted his readers “to participate in the actuality.” The final scene induces more than participation. The selfless act of the hitherto self-centered Rose of Sharon, a kind of agape at once disturbing and Transcendentally communal, can have the effect of silently accusing the novel’s readers—especially squeamish or repelled readers—of selfishness and complacency in the face of abject misery. But there have been other responses to the final scene, many of them summarized by Jules Chametzky in 1965. These have been wide-ranging and ambivalent. Different critics—Archetypal, Historical, Religious, Feminist—have noted in the scene both Romanticism and a cultural cross-referencing embracing the Renaissance and the Bible. It’s hard to miss the final fusion of a Leonardo-like Mona Lisa smile and the Pieta of Michelangelo, with the whole tableau set in the context of a flood and barn evoking the Deluge of the Old Testament and the Stable of the New. And these visual and religious allusions, in turn, support Steinbeck’s assertion of an indestructible and mysterious vitalism associated with communion, the familial bond, and—bringing to culmination this theme in the novel as a whole—the sheer endurance of Steinbeck’s women, especially of that nameless Magna Mater, Ma. This female and maternal motif must have reminded John Ford of Sean O’Casey’s Dublin plays (he had made a film three years earlier of The Plough and the Stars) as well as of O’Casey’s Autobiographies. The real heroes of those plays and fictionalized memoirs are invariably women.

Among the dissenters regarding this final scene are readers either turned off by an act they see as too grotesque and “unnatural” to be aesthetically effective, or disturbed by a sudden ending which, reducing the novel to an undemanding “easy entertainment,” lets readers off at the end “with a symbolic gesture that is an escape from reality.” Appropriately enough, the critic I’ve just quoted, Linda Ray Pratt, pronounces Steinbeck’s novel inferior in this regard to Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, by James Agee, who, as earlier noted, found the film version of Grapes of Wrath inadequate in its depiction of “real” people.

Though conscious of rhetorical flaws, I respond positively to Steinbeck’s final tableau, and have always wished that it could have been retained in the film. That response is both personal and affected by my literary interests, though they, too, are highly personal. As a student of the British Romantics and of their principal American disciple, Emerson (and his progeny, Thoreau and Whitman), I am as attracted as Steinbeck was to the Emersonian conception of the Over-Soul, of a Self transcending the individual ego—referred to by Emerson’s mentor Coleridge (in The Friend) as the reciprocity between “Each” and “All,” that “one life within us and abroad” celebrated in Coleridge’s “The Eolian Harp.” That reciprocity plays out in Steinbeck’s dialectic between “I and “We” (opposites fused by Wordsworth at the end of the Intimations of Immortality Ode): a dialectic central to the thought both of Emerson (whose favorite poem happens to have been Wordsworth’s great Ode), and of Emerson’s own disciple, Walt Whitman, whose democratic vistas—reflected in the speeches and actions of Jim Casy and Tom Joad—anticipate Steinbeck’s own spiritual and political vision. That vision, as Frederick I. Carpenter noted at the time, combined mysticism and pragmatism, the Emersonian Over-Soul and “Whitman’s religion of the love of all man and his mass democracy.” It is what Emerson, remembering Coleridge and Wordsworth, saw as the unification of “each and all,” in that “one life” and “common heart” in which “every particular being is contained and made one with all other.” Whatever its caricature as mere rugged individualism, Emersonian self-reliance is a universal, not a merely personal, concept. As Lawrence Buell has observed in his magisterial study of Emerson, “The more inward you go, the less individuated you get. Beneath and within the ‘private’ is a ‘public’ power on which anyone can potentially draw” (Emerson, 65).

That enlarged vision—more High Romantic than Marxist—is expansive and, finally, both humane and spiritual. Most obviously expressed by Casy and represented, eventually, by Tom, it is most graphically embodied in the novel’s final scene. Steinbeck’s allusions to the biblical Deluge, with the possibility of a covenant to come, and his relocation of the Stable at Bethlehem to a rain-drenched barn in California imply a continuing eucharistic ritual and an emotional education. The pain and suffering that lead to that final communal act in a marooned barn emerge as a version of what Seamus Heaney has called (in the “Postscript” to his selected poems, Opened Ground) “buffetings” that “Catch the heart off guard and blow it open” (411). It is just such an opening and widening of concerns that culminates in Rose of Sharon’s act.

That act of sharing shatters the boundary which even Ma can nostalgically recall as a good thing—“they was a boundary to us then” (536). But boundaries limit and separate us, marking off what each of us possesses—whether it’s the Joads’ forty acres back in Oklahoma or the thousand-times-larger holdings of the great California landowners—those “greedy bastards” Steinbeck indicts. This material ownership—large or small—is for Steinbeck the great enemy of humanity. As we are told by the narrative voice in Chapter 14, sharing is “the beginning” of the shift “from ‘I’ to ‘we’.” But this is a hard truth for Haves to grasp, even when their own survival may ultimately be at stake. “For the quality of owning freezes you forever into ‘I,’ and cuts you off forever from the ‘we’” (206). Ma, who earlier associated “we” with the family and its “boundary” (536), can say halfway through the final chapter: “Use to be the fambly was fust. It ain’t so now. It’s anybody,” especially the “worse off we get” (606). Ma’s words have never seemed more alien than at the present political moment, when the public-private partnership distinctive of the American political genius at its best has been put asunder by a supposedly libertarian “Tea-Party” ideology.  As we careen into the final stages of our sordid 2012 presidential election, the Republican Party of Romney and Ryan seems committed instead to the near-solipsism of Ayn Rand, the high priestess of selfishness in the guise of Emersonian self-reliance, champion of unregulated capitalism in a supposed Armageddon between individual freedom and socialist collectivism. (Needless to say, Ryan, a self-professed acolyte of Rand, briskly unties himself from the apron-strings of his Muse when it comes to Rand’s defense of women’s reproductive rights and her adamant atheism.)

But to return to that Steinbeckian antithesis to the vision of Ayn Rand: the tableau in the barn. The Joads couldn’t be (in Ma’s words) “worse off” than at that moment when, prompted by Ma, Rose of Sharon offers her breast to a starving stranger, to an “anybody” in need. The movement is outward toward larger and more inclusive structures, from the Ego to Others, from I to We, Each to All, from Ayn Randian selfishness to the Emersonian Over-Soul. Americanizing all revolutions, the narrative voice in Chapter 14 of The Grapes of Wrath telescopes “Paine, Marx, Jefferson, Lenin” (206). But readers comfortable with the Marx of the 1844 papers, perhaps even with much of the Communist Manifesto, will stop short of the later Marx, and certainly of Lenin. Fortunately, Steinbeck is really closer to Paine and Jefferson, and to the British Romantics’ transatlantic heirs in America: in particular, Emerson and Whitman.

Steinbeck can be awkward, didactic, maudlin. He obviously suffers in comparison with such contemporaries as Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner. Still less is he of the visionary company of his Romantic precursors—Blake, Emerson, and Whitman. Yet that paladin of Romanticism and of the American Sublime, Harold Bloom, though critical of Steinbeck’s flaws as both inventor and stylist, and acutely aware of his inferiority to Emerson and Whitman, concedes that Steinbeck had “many of the legitimate impulses of the Sublime,” and insists that, whatever our final aesthetic evaluation of the novel, “there are no canonical standards worthy of human respect that could exclude The Grapes of Wrath from a serious reader’s esteem. Compassionate narrative that addresses itself so directly to the great social questions of its era is simply too substantial a human achievement to be dismissed.” Such a verdict carries particular weight coming from an eminent critic hardly known for subordinating aesthetic evaluation to extrinsic, especially sociopolitical, criteria. Bloom has no comment on the novel’s climactic scene, so I will return to it in order to make a “Bloomian” point. If, on one level, Rose’s final gesture can be read as a weak “romantic” escape from a hard socioeconomic reality; on another level, it is, as always in Romanticism at its best, an escape into a deeper and wider reality—humane and inclusive rather than “merely” political—without necessarily being a-political.

Finally, the novel, while it hardly ends cheerily, does end on the lyrical note my old mentor M. L. Rosenthal used to call “depressive transcendence,” an equilibrium of affirmation and grief perfectly captured in the final line of Wordsworth’s “Elegiac Stanzas”: “Not without hope we suffer and we mourn.” That is true of Steinbeck’s novel. And true of the film as well, even with Zanuck’s addition. For Ma’s affirmative speech is visually and quietly balanced by the very last shot: a procession of trucks moving slowly forward under a somber, brooding sky. Thus the ending of the film, however different in content from the ending of Steinbeck’s novel, achieves a similar equilibrium—endurance and hope sustained in the midst of despair. It seems an appropriate image of consolation in distress as we move somberly toward November 2012.

 — Patrick J. Keane

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WORKS CITED

Agee, James. Agee on Film.  2 vols. New York: Grosset and Dunlop, 1969.

Bloom, Harold. Novels and Novelists: A Collection of Critical Essays.  New York: Checkmark Books, 2005.

Buell, Lawrence. Emerson. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2003.

Carpenter, Frederick I. “The Philosophical Joads.” College English 2 (1941): 124-25.

Chametzky, Jules. “The Ambivalent Endings of The Grapes of Wrath.” Modern Fiction Studies 11 (1965): 34-44.

Chodorow, Nancy. The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender. Berkeley: University of       California Press, 1978.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “The Over-Soul,” in Essays and Lectures, ed Joel Porte. New York: The Library of America,  1983: 385-400.

Gossage, Leslie. “The Artful Propaganda of Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath,” in New Essays on The Grapes of Wrath, ed. David Wyatt. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990: 101-25.

Kael, Pauline. I Lost It at the Movies. Boston: Little Brown and Co., 1965.

Parini, Jay. John Steinbeck: A Biography. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1995.

Pratt, Linda Ray. “Imagining Existence: Form and History in Steinbeck and Agee.” Southern Review (1975): 85-97.

Steinbeck, Elaine A. and Robert Wallsten, eds. Steinbeck: A Life in Letters. New York: Viking, 1975.

Steinbeck, John. The Grapes of Wrath. New York: Viking, 1939.

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Patrick J. Keane is Professor Emeritus of Le Moyne College and a Contributing Editor at Numéro Cinq. Though he has written on a wide range of topics, his areas of special interest have been 19th and 20th-century poetry in the Romantic tradition; Irish literature and history; the interactions of literature with philosophic, religious, and political thinking; the impact of Nietzsche on certain 20th century writers; and, most recently, Transatlantic studies, exploring the influence of German Idealist philosophy and British Romanticism on American writers. His books include William Butler Yeats: Contemporary Studies in Literature (1973), A Wild Civility: Interactions in the Poetry and Thought of Robert Graves (1980), Yeats’s Interactions with Tradition (1987), Terrible Beauty: Yeats, Joyce, Ireland and the Myth of the Devouring Female (1988), Coleridge’s Submerged Politics (1994), Emerson, Romanticism, and Intuitive Reason: The Transatlantic “Light of All Our Day” (2003), and Emily Dickinson’s Approving God: Divine Design and the Problem of Suffering (2007).

 

Aug 162012
 

In Jamie Travis‘s “The Saddest Boy in the World,” a nine-year-old boy, smothered by a beautiful but oppressive and overwhelmingly disappointing life, decides to hang himself on his ninth birthday at the suggestion of several inanimate animals who talk to him as a side effect of the medication he is on.

Maybe it’s not for everyone. Fine.

Travis nicely acknowledges this in his note accompanying the film: “If you find this funny, good. If you’re offended, it’s okay—our paths were never meant to cross.” But, to borrow Maggie Smith‘s line (possibly borrowed from Abraham Lincoln) from the film The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, “For those that like that sort of thing, that is the sort of thing they like.”

Travis’s first feature film For A Good Time Call . . . is coming out this year and he’s decided to release all his previous short films: “I have long been reticent about putting my films online but I recently got over it. Maybe it’s because my 30s have lightened me up or because I have finally accepted the internet is here to stay. Or maybe it’s that my first feature film is coming out and now seems like a good time to get exposure for an underexposed art form—the short film.”

See all his short films on his vimeo site. For more nuanced introductions to his aesthetic and his short works so far, look to the Numero Cinq at the Movies introductions to “The Armoire” and “On Greed.”

And look for his first feature For A Good Time Call . . . in theatres soon.

— R. W. Gray

Aug 032012
 

Maybe it’s the waning days of August, the threat of September and back-to-school ads already playing on the television, the clash of the air conditioning in the Starbucks with the swelter collapse of patrons strewn over the burning café tables outside, or The Mamas & The Papas festival playing over the speakers, but this August day is made for the melancholy and thrilling sweet / bitter play of Wong Kar Wai’s Chungking Express.

It’s a perfect / imperfect film, something Wong Kar Wai created to escape the drawn out madness of editing his swordmaster epic Ashes of Time. Intriguing, how one artistic expression might be the antidote to another. Made over three months from beginning to end, an impossibly small amount of time in the world of feature filmmaking, it drips with the adrenaline and relief of this condensed creative period, yet, contradictorily almost drowns in its twin stories of already unrequited cop lover boys who accidentally fall for new women (who will, of course, leave them too).

Chungking Express defies standard film narrative, telling two stories, one after the other, about Hong Kong cops in love and neither tale seems satisfied with its cop protagonist, lurching in perspective to also explore the two women they eventually pursue and their California dreams of survival (the incredible Brigitte Lin) and departure (impish Faye Wong).

The first tale is a cop thriller, the second a screwball comedy, but the stories ignore these easy categories: the thriller is focused on a quirky romantic male lead (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and the screwball comedy’s male lead (Tony Leung) is saturated in a sea of unrequited desires, perfectly expressed in the almost relentless repetition of The Mamas & The Papas “California Dreaming.” All these departures from form and genre expectations might make some viewers long for standard structure, but longing is really the point.

Specificity is what grounds this film, these two stories, and prevents the film from being buried in the genres and pop songs that crash and clash together here. The first cop believes if he runs and sweats enough he will cry less. A toy plane stands in for the unobtainable aspect of cop number two’s stewardess girlfriend who is departing, arriving, and never really there. The details defy the generic throughout.

This small clip illustrates how “California Dreaming” works in the second half of the film and, too, shows how the unrequited structure of a love triangle can come down to something as specific and mundane as a Chef Salad.

For more on Wong Kar Wai, see this essay on longing in his works and this introduction to a commercial short film he made.

— RWGray

Jul 212012
 

In Bryn Chainey’s film for Alcoholic Faith Mission’s song “Legacy,” a young girl deals with the loss of her mouse through a thorough and committed exploration of corpse rites she titles “Death: Anthropological Studies.” Through this study she explores and interprets an eccentric range of funeral rituals, some cultural, some historic, and some made up, like when she explores the pyrotechnic possibility of a “Space Burial.” These rituals are at moments touching, at others funny, and, sometimes harrowing, as in the moment when the “Egyptian Burial” title card appears and brings with it the possibility of a young girl exploring the rather disgusting realities of mummification on her pet mouse. But harrowing and then sweet as she builds a suitable edifice for a mouse’s afterlife, assuming he’s not lactose intolerant.

Though it’s not confirmed, throughout is the sense that this is not her first experience with death. She has after all completed a book on the study. There’s even the possibility that she has lost as many mice as she has explored kinds of funerals rites. But none of that undermines this grief, for this mouse, as she reviews the rites in her book trying to find a satisfactory way to deal with this this loss.

Chainey’s short calls to mind Lynne Stopkewich’s film Kissed (1996) adapted from Barbara Gowdy’s short story “We So Seldom Look On Love,” the story of a young woman erotically obsessed with cadavers.

There the protagonist is fixated not on grief, but on the moment of transformation, from life to something opposite and sublime: “Some say there’s no soul, no afterlife, that life and death is the straightest line on the compass, and nothing more. I say believe what you want, because no matter what you do, cut everything up, burn it all down, you’re in the path of something beyond your control.” For the young girl in “Legacy,” the rites become a way of making meaning from this thing beyond her control.

There’s a Wes Anderson-ish aesthetic at play here with the encyclopedia entry title shots, the hyper organized yet densely populated and layered mise-en-scene, and the variety of askew (Dutch angle) and god’s-eye-view shots of her preparing the deceased mouse for its various rites and rituals. All these choices together persistently remind us that this is fiction, artifice, and that style, to some extent, is the thing here. These stylistic choices embody the girl’s contradictory desires: to express grief, but to do so from a (perhaps more comforting) stylistic distance.

The Wes Anderson-ish aesthetic is perfect for such an exploration, observing and stylized enough to remind us that we are watching art, not something documentary or too real. I tend to prefer this style when Anderson uses it with subject matter that ruptures the distance, like in The Darjeeling Limited, the tale of three brothers in search of their mother as a way of dealing with their loss of their father. When the distance and style rules, in films like his The Royal Tenenbaums, I find that prevents me from experiencing the story on a dramatic level, and instead leaves the audience skipping across the surface of the beauty and style of the piece.

In “Legacy,” this conflict between intellectual distance and emotional experience is key for the young woman seeking to understand her grief for the deceased mouse. In the end she exhausts and then abandons all these possible rituals in favour of exactly what she needs to do to express this grief. As gentle and poignant as her answer is, I find myself still yearning a little for the cheese.

— R. W. Gray

Jul 062012
 

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It’s difficult to hang out with Carol (Margo Martindale), the awkward protagonist of Alexander Payne’s short film “14e Arrondissement.” An American postal carrier on vacation in Paris, she narrates what happened on her trip in a broken and poorly pronounced French delivered to an unseen French class in Denver, Colorado. Her desire to fully explore Paris, to really experince what she imagines is a French experience is troubled by her insistence on doing so with a fanny pack . . . we are, at least at first, meant to see this as a satire of American tourists abroad.

But what I like about Payne’s satire is how his characters are clowns (themselves the somestimes desperate object of ridicule) and also buffoons (who ridicule the audience). Of course, this double aspect may be only apparent in any discomfort we feel listening to Carol’s poorly pronounced travelogue, watching her awkward interactions with the locals, and seeing her trying to pop her ears in an elevator like a deep sea bass coming up from the depths (while she, in voice over, talks about death and dying). We don’t want to identify with Carol, particularly if we own fanny packs.

But Carol’s frank and clear narrative counterposes the poor French and her so-very-un-Parisian travels as she confesses a litany of loss, failed dreams, and a little bare-bone loneliness. She perhaps shares too much with this well of pathos, and yet there is a brutal honesty to the confession, partly a product of the directness of the form, a dramatic monologue that is her French class report, but also part of the clarity with which she sees her losses and reports them. There is no sense that she seeks sympathy. In case we’re confused, she explains that she is a happy person. Her story isn’t a plea for sympathy. It’s about her trip to Paris. And in the conclusion of the report and the short film, a conclusion we may feel teeter on the edge of all that disappointment and loss she has experienced, her real journey breaks through.

Carol has an absolute outsider’s view of the city and with her awkward perspective, her struggle to find her way through her expectations and hopes, she at first seems to be the quintessential tourist. In the opening shots of her in the hotel she reports that “the food wasn’t as good as [she] expected” over a shot of a half-eaten burger and a bottle of diet coke she has obviously ordered through room service in her hotel. But Carol is complex and confesses she did not sign up for a tour because she “wanted to live an adventure in a foreign place.” Paul Bowles in The Sheltering Sky argues that an “important difference between tourist and traveler is that the former accepts his own civilization without question; not so the traveler, who compares it with the others, and rejects those elements he finds not to his liking.” Carol refuses to be exclusively a tourist because she resists becoming a victim to her expectations, her homesickness for her dogs, or her jet lag. She does intrepidly seek what Paris has to offer, despite her desire for familiar narratives like when she imagines what it would be like to deliver mail there.

It was with great fear that I watched the last scenes of this short though, as it reminded in a terrible way of Katherine Mansfield’s short story “Mrs Brill,” a story I read in my youth and that, thereafter, filled me with foreboding whenever I imagined I was part of some great musical theatre moment of belonging on trains or in public parks. Who hasn’t wanted to feel what Mrs Brill feels when she imagines all the people in the park with their chorus of “We understand.” Carol is thankfully not Mrs Brill, though.  For Carol does  not desire to be accepted or to be drawn into the beloved arms of a throng of strangers. Carol’s ending is about her own experience, her own insistence on happiness and her own ability to appreciate the moment, on the bench, with the sandwich, in Paris.

“14e Arrondissement” is the last of the eighteen short films by well-known filmmakers that make up the anthology film Paris Je’ Taime. Richard Brody in his New Yorker review argues that “this mixed bag [Paris Je T’Aime]. . . is mandatory viewing for its one absolute masterpiece, by Alexander Payne.” Numero Cinq at the Movies has featured one of the other Paris Je T’Aime shorts, Tom Tykwer’s “Faubourg Saint-Denis.”

Payne apparently first resisted this story when he was challenged to make a short film set in the 14e Arrondisement. In an interview with David Stratton, he admits, “the last thing in the world I wanted to do was make a film about an American tourist, and I thought this would be an excuse to hire some really beautiful European actress, you know, and like, you know, have some fun that way.” But the place inspired him to move away from his own Francophile desire and this idea occurred to him. “After I spent time walking around that Ahondes mall and brainstorming as to what the idea could be, I just thought the idea I came up with was one that would give me an excuse, basically, to make a documentary about that. 
I wanted to show as much of it as possible, and the idea of a woman having a lamo tourist day walking around that strange Ahondes mall . . . somehow the idea of an American tourist and hiring Margo Martindale came to me.”
 And yet Carol allows Payne to represent the sublime she finds in the lamo.

Alexander Payne is an American writer and director known for such compelling and fascinating films as Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt, and Sideways, all four co-written with his frequent writing partner Jim Taylor They were nominated for an Oscar for their adaptation of Tom Peyrotta’s novel Election, won both the Golden Globe and Oscar for their adaptation of Sideways, and, Payne and two other writers recently won an Oscar for their adaptation of The Descendants. He is in pre-production to direct a film called Nebraska.

— R. W. Gray

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