Jun 082012

Roman Polanski’s short film “A Therapy” offers up tantalizing Freudian readings for an unusual love triangle: a therapist, his patient, and her purple Prada coat.

A traditional Freudian reading would regard the coat as a fetish object, its furriness begging for such a reading, though the purple might excite Freud more as it could possibly prevent the Prada coat from lapsing into cliché or becoming too damn literal (always a danger with Freud).

The fetish object becomes the conduit, a non-genital place where the beholder can connect with the desired genitals without connecting directly. This all sounds a little sordid and perhaps calls up underwear chasers, but, put more simply perhaps by Anne Carson in Eros the Bittersweet, “A space must be maintained or desire ends.”

The patient (Helena Bonham Carter) is perfectly cold and distant, does not even greet her therapist (Ben Kingsley) and certainly skips niceties. Her dream echoes this coldness. Her cold distance could in a Freudian reading imbue the coat, the fetish object, with more allure: a way to reach the unreachable woman.

But most of this film rests on the therapist, his mad love, and the coat. In the mirror shot, it is just him, his reflection, and the gorgeous purple fur; this signals us that it is a love affair between him and the coat and the patient doesn’t really play into it.  His ecstatic face tells us that too.  But in case we miss that, the mise-en-scene tells us: the second he is drawn to the coat, the patient is no longer offered in the frame as a subject; she appears askew in shots or disappears from others. Except for one shot where we see her sideways and upside down, she exists as a disembodied, repetitive voice and a pair of legs on a therapy couch in the back of the shot.

To be sure, the therapist’s love is a ridiculous love. Bittersweet, too: the sleeves are too short, but when he pulls the collar up and veils his mouth in the last shot we see how it highlights his beautiful eyes. And it probably can’t end well. Though he might go and buy his own. His ridiculousness is similar to the footballers intense love dance in Johan Renck’s “Pass This On.” But I don’t think I am alone in envying the therapist, feeling a little longing to be as ridiculous as him.

The ending clinches the deal: if this film was about a fetish object, about connection to the patient’s sex, then the therapist’s desire for the coat would be discovered by her. He would be caught like every little boy who ever went to his mother’s underwear drawer (in a Freudian universe). But this film has a happy ending, leaves us with just the therapist and the beloved coat. And Prada makes sure we know this is a happy ending with the superimposed slogan: “Prada Suits Everyone.”

“A Therapy” is the latest in a trend of art and commercials coming together in short film commercials. Several of these have been featured on Numero Cinq at the Movies: Ang Lee’s “The Chosen,” for BMW, Wong Kar Wai’s “There’s Only One Sun” for Philips LCD TV, and Lucrecia Martel’s “Muta” for MiuMiu.

— R W Gray

May 252012

Johan Renck’s music video for The Knife’s “Pass This On” throws us into one of the most uncomfortable football award banquets ever, complete with three of my favourite things: drag queens, The Knife’s infectious song, and awkward straight boy dancing.

Renck works to build an aesthetics of discomfort here. The film finds the painful, rumpus room décor, the apathetic-to-the-point-of-aggressive blank faces of the audience, the drag queen’s Xanadu-esque outfit, and the lyrics she sings about preying on another girl’s brother (“I’m in love with your brother / What’s his name? / I thought I’d come by to see him again”). Terribly awkward. All of it. Made more awkward, not less, with the plethora of awkward dances the drag queen’s performance inspires. Most striking visually is the young blond man’s earnest courtship dance: to desire in Renck’s uncomfortable world is to be beauteous and a fool at the same time.

This aesthetics of discomfort recurs in Renck’s other works and is particularly similar in his video for Madonna’s “Hung Up.”

The lighting has all the florescent ambiance of a coroner’s autopsy theatre and the room’s pale blue floor and fake wood paneling scream sad basement from the ‘70s where sad things will happen. Madonna’s outfit and hair might have been designed and styled by the same perversely retro stylists who worked on the drag queen in “Pass This On.”

The difference between the two videos is that Renck permits Madonna to escape to beauty in the segments where she dances with beautiful young dancers in a night club (though Renck throws her back on the floor in the basement in the very last shot). For “Pass This On,” however, Renck doesn’t let the footballers or the drag queen find the exits in their rumpus room hell.

Through the first half of “Pass This On,” much of the discomfort comes from the juxtaposition of a drag queen performer with an unsympathetic audience. This fancy fish out of water tale then courts our expectations that, washed up here, the fish is in danger. Who booked her for this event and how badly is this going to end?

I am all for dance as the panacea to most social conflicts, but the film nicely resists that. Certainly, the men get up and dance instead of resorting to violence or panic at the sight of the drag queen, but the aesthetic of discomfort does not ease, helped in part by that glorious bad straight boy dancing, but ultimately secured by the film’s resistance to Broadway show tune resolutions: the last shot is of a young woman watching all the dancing footballers, the old men, and the drag queen with the same apathy the chorus of faces showed at the beginning. She is immune to this panacea. She won’t let this song and dance go full flash mob. Renck won’t let the film escape the aesthetics of discomfort.

Renck’s penchant for discomfort is perhaps at its most extreme in his “Mobile Movies: Self Portrait,” where he chronicles a solitary evening in a sparse apartment.

Sure, he pees on the toilet seat, but he does clean it up. This painful visual honesty is most realized in the low shot which starts with his naked butt and then holds on him as he awkwardly puts on his underwear and socks. Throughout this he angles himself towards the left of the screen and this suggests the presence of a mirror off screen. The self-consciousness, the awkwardness of him dressing, are vulnerable and disarming. We see him seeing himself, and we wonder what he sees. Again with the aesthetics of discomfort, the ambivalent desiring gaze.

Terribly talented Canadian director Xavier Dolan chose The Knife’s song for a sort of dervish subtext in his gorgeous second film Les Amours Imaginaires (a title terribly translated by –I am assuming – the film distribution company as Heartbeats).

The clip is in French, but the translation of their dialogue appears below the video frame. The awkwardness from Renck’s video is mirrored here as son and mother sexy dance at his birthday party while his two would-be suitors watch on.  There’s a similar thread of discomfort running through the rest of Dolan’s film, too, in the awkward documentary footage where random eccentric characters discuss their most obsessive loves and in the mise en scene that frames lovers talking in bed like awkward portraits. Desire, for Dolan’s film, is awkward and uncomfortable, built on unresolvable distances.

Reading this sense of desire and awkwardness back to Renck’s music videos, we can perhaps see that desire, too, plays a part in the music video worlds orbiting the drag queen and Madonna. The aesthetic of discomfort is not just about wanting to get away from anxiety provoking interiors and awkward social situations. There is something desirable about these worlds, too. And even something desirable about the discomfort itself. This, it seems, is at the core of Renck’s films. This discomforting desire that the drag queen passes on to the young man, that the young man passes on to the other men, that is held in the gaze of the young woman at the end of the video. Pass it on.

— R W Gray

May 102012

Eddie White and Ari Gibson’s “The Cat Piano” delightfullycombines the innocence of animation with the bleak mysteries of film noir, creating a hybrid genre as our expectations of animation’s typical child-like subject matter are interwoven with noir’s darkness and moral ambiguity. What starts off as playful, fun animation with ferociously witty anthropomorphic cats, quickly turns into a tale of despair, corruption, and vengeance.

The story opens with a lonely cat poet recounting his dreary past. He takes us through the crowded urban landscape, filled with bars and nightclubs as musical cats lounge about. We are also introduced to the angelic obsession of this poet’s alienated mind, the soprano siren in white fur.

Things seem splendid as these cats relish in breezy jazz and musical beats, but there is an underlying evil that creeps in and, before they know it, the voices that bring them such joy begin to vanish one by one. The poet quickly transforms into detective mode and makes a terrifying discovery, the blueprints for perhaps the most detestable creation ever conceived: the cat piano. Before he can warn the soprano in white of these dangers, she disappears. Searching for her, the poet descends into madness on his quest for vengeance.

“The Cat Piano” is narrated by the multi-talented Nick Cave, mostly known for his work as front man of the band Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds and for his musical scores of the films The Assassination of Jesse James and The Road. His narration plays off the double meaning of words in a fascinating and playful way, giving this short a significant amount of replay value. His voice adds a flush and sophisticated warmth to the noir underbelly and switches to a treacherous rasp during the short’s darker, almost black moments.

As with most film noir, the short is notable for its harsh contrasts in lighting, made even more substantial by the beautiful animation. The low-key lighting and shadow patterns are exceptional, directing our eyes specifically towards the terror, fear, and heartache the protagonist experiences. Most of the colors are overwhelmingly black and blue, adding atmosphere, mood, and foreshadowing the darkness that looms over this underground world. Green is used to represent the sickness of loneliness brought on by the soprano in white’s disappearance. And a red tint is added in the scenes where the poet reveals his violent and aggressive side in his quest for revenge.

There are several similarities between this short and David Lynch’s feature film Blue Velvet. After being love stricken by a female with a beautiful voice, both protagonists begin to discover hidden secrets in their respective, seemingly happy settings (a white picket fence suburbia in Blue Velvet and a fresh underground music scene in “The Cat Piano”). As they dig deeper into increasingly haunting mysteries, they both horrifically discover the corruption and darkness that exists all around them and within others.

The endings of both films are relatively happy, but with a more monotone revelation as it’s uncertain if either of the protagonists will be able to return to the naivety of their former selves. Their innocence has been forever corrupted and lost.

“The Cat Piano” is a great film noir crime thriller with captivating characters, bold visuals, and spine tingling mysteries. It pushes our comfort zones by blending the innocence typically associated with animation and film noir’s characteristic darkness and gloomy tone. On a larger level this mixing of genres mirrors the protagonist’s loss of innocence, his turn to his darker self. Like him, once you know the cat piano, you cannot walk away unscathed.

–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.

May 032012

Isabella Rossellini’s “Noah’s Ark” begins with her asking “How did Noah do it? How did he manage to organize all animals into couples?” The Bible then appears like a children’s pop up book, heralding a campy scientific quest to understand this conflict between the multifaceted forms of copulation in nature and the limiting way Noah – and we perhaps by human extension – might see it through our blinding goggles.

“Seduce Me” continues the work Rossellini did with “Green Porno,” her three season web series produced with The Sundance Channel. Each of the original under-two-minute shorts explores the sexual or mating habits of various creatures. Rossellini spends development time researching the scientific basis of the work and in the later Green Porno films even collaborated with Argentinian scientist Claudio Campagna.

“Noah’s Ark” takes this exploration of creature sexuality a step further by focusing on the tension between the biblical narrative of Noah’s attempt to collect animals two by two and the biological reality of several animals in the world that do not submit to the one-male-one-female logic of Noah’s collection.

This conflict first illustrates how our ideas of sexuality anthropomorphize other creatures, assuming they must pair male and female for procreation the way humans do, a narcissistic turn where we look to the world of animals expecting to find our more heteronormative selves or to differentiate ourselves from animals. Here we dream up what we think is “natural” or what is “civilized.” Even those of us who might find in nature the reassuring example of black swans are playing the same narcissistic game. What does it mean that we seek ourselves in nature? What does it mean when we don’t find ourselves?

In the case of Rossellini’s work, what we have is a rupture, a representation of all we might choose not to see because it doesn’t reflect us back. How can we fathom sexual identity, as it is with the snails, as something decided by where you are in the pile of creatures reproducing? Or maybe our imagination is just limited for lack of effort or experimentation?

In an interview with Vanity Fair, Rossellini is candid about her reasons for telling these stories this way: “I think that if you know how incredibly mysterious and varied and eccentric and strange and fascinating nature is, you hopefully will take care of it. I mean, I hope. I don’t know how to dictate that. But I try to convey my emotion when I see animals, which is that somehow animals strike me as funny. And then also infinitely mysterious and scandalous at times.”

All of the “Green Porno” and “Seduce Me” films use a cartoony, campy paper aesthetic for the creatures, the costumes and the sets. This aesthetic and Rossellini’s willingness to cross dress as various creatures in copulation playfully moves us past our limited perspective on sexuality and into what is hidden or unknown about the animal kingdom’s sexual habits. She de-naturalizes human sexuality. In the face of the many varied ways creatures copulate, the heteronormative missionary position looks boring, a tad unimaginative, and maybe even unnatural. Through Rossellini’s imagination we are invited to laugh at these limitations. A laughter, perhaps, tinged with regret that we don’t have the dating options of the hermaphroditic earthworm, especially one as fetching as Isabella Rossellini.

— R. W. Gray

Apr 262012

What begins as a saccharine, over-caffeinated children’s animation whips itself into an orgiastic frenzy of creative impulses gone wrong in This Is It Collective’s “Don’t’ Hug Me I’m Scared.” Directed by Becky Sloan and Joseph Pelling, “Don’t Hug Me” subverts the children’s genre expectations and in its transgressions plays with the perhaps imaginary line between creation and destruction.

The pairing of creation and destruction is commonplace. It has mythic faces in figures like the Hindu goddess Kali who Alice Landry points out “characterizes destruction or letting go of the past to make room for a more purposeful present and future. She stands for the concept of Mother Nature as not only a potent, destructive force but also a force that cleanses away the old to allow room for new, fertile ground.” Separate from art or material objects we might covet or seek to possess, in nature we see no line. We , most of us, don’t look at the sandy beach as the ravaged remains of rocks, the rocks as crushed mountains. What is, just is.

But in the realm of art, we invest in the line between creation and destruction. Something of this seems connected to the nature of creativity. I once saw a documentary about a sculptress – I believe it was Louise Bourgeois – who had an assistant whose major job was to follow the sculptress around and remove the sculptures once she was finished with them. If he did not, she would come back to the piece and nudge it off the table, watch it fall and shatter on the concrete floor, experience pleasure at seeing what she created now destroyed.

But when does the creation of the art end and its destruction begin? How did her assistant know when to remove the art?

This is the question the father in the play “Six Degrees of Separation” also ponders: “I remembered asking my kids’ second-grade teacher: ‘Why are all your students geniuses? Look at the first grade – blotches of green and black. The third grade – camouflage. But your grade, the second grade, Matisses, every one. You’ve made my child a Matisse. Let me study with you. Let me into the second grade. What is your secret?’ ‘I don’t have any secret. I just know when to take their drawings away from them.’”

Louise Bourgeois was aware of her place between these two forces, something she sought to understand through many years of therapy. Christopher Turner in The Guardian connects this creative / destructive complementary to Freud: “But, ultimately, Bourgeois felt that analysis had little to offer the artist. ‘The truth is that Freud did nothing for artists, or for the artist’s problem, the artist’s torment,’ Bourgeois wrote in ‘Freud’s Toys,’ as if in frustration with the process to which she submitted for so many years, ‘to be an artist involves some suffering. That’s why artists repeat themselves – because they have no access to a cure.’ Lowenfeld [her therapist] had died four years earlier, ending her analysis but evidently not her pain, which continued to fuel her work. In his essay ‘Dostoevesky and Parricide’ (1926), Freud himself admitted: ‘Before the problem of the creative artist, psychoanalysis must lay down its arms.’ Bourgeois and Freud both see these impulses as irreconcilably something part of the artistic process.

In “Don’t Hug Me,” in the wake of the destruction and mayhem, the narrative voice suggests “Now let’s all agree to never be creative again.” This is surely ironic. Though there can be no greater truth than the film’s assertion that “green is not a creative colour.”

This Is It Collective is a group 13 filmmakers who, in their own words, come “from a background of design and animation . . . and continue to build upon their collective voice that they have developed.” Their shorts have appeared on England’s Channel 4 and received more than 2.5 million views on line for their self-funded projects.

— R. W. Gray

Apr 202012

“Why don’t we slice it in half? That’s like the nature of a bagel.”

“I want the whole bagel.”

So goes the romance when singing neighbors become lovers, drawn together by the promise of a buttered bagel in Jamie Travis’s short film “Greed,” one of the Seven Sins films anthology of films produced for Bravo!FACT.

The deliciousness of this short film is in the blend of genres: romantic farce meets musical meets tragic romance, with a little food network love thrown into the mix, which emphasizes how close “greed” is to “gluttony” perhaps.  NC at the Movies featured Travis’s short “The Armoire” a few weeks ago. Though Travis’s familiar aesthetic is here in the set design and the perfect stiff awkwardness of the shots, the tone is light, and the film seems to bounce emotionally: from desire, to hunger, to confusion, to surprise, to loss . . . all lightly, just as the camera lightly waltzes back and forth between their two windows.

In the center of the film, first she then he are featured in close-up shots, addressing the camera directly: we are caught between the lovers, caught between the disagreement over the bagel, caught at the precipice. In terms of montage, this is awkward, this is a harsh collision. This gap we stand in could at another moment be the obstacle to a kiss, but here it is certainty: that she will take all the bagel, and that he will explore other options. But the ending seems more sweet than sad or unrequited. They both seem clearer about what they crave.

The Seven Sins anthology of films were produced and broadcast for Bravo!FACT video on the Bravo network, each of the seven films directed by a different director, a list that also includes Alethea Arnaquq-Baril, Joe Cobden, Anita Doron, Ann Marie Fleming, Bruce McDonald, and Larry Weinstein.

— R. W. Gray

Apr 132012

The chief pleasure of the filmmaking team Everynone‘s “Words” is the experience of assembling the pieces of the film, the montage, together like some massive jigsaw puzzle your mom got at a yard sale, sans box with overall picture to guide you and with, continually, the possibility of a missing piece or two. So watch it first, then proceed to this “introduction” as “aftroduction.” Afterword sounds so final, and I think you’ll want to watch this is again.

Watched it? Experienced it? Then read on.

Watching “Words” is slippery, a luge of sequitur with a side of slip and slide of the tongue. The film moves from scene to scene through association, one replacing the other in a chain. The links are sometimes through homonyms (various visual meanings for the word “play”) and homographs (words with the same pronunciation, but different spelling, like “brake and “break”), sometimes through complex scenes (the image of a trumpet player which first signifies “play,” but then continues until he inhales and shifts the chain to the word “blow.” These links form a pattern that may not be immediately discernible but reveals itself as the montage slips by.

The chain is one level simple: “play / blow / break / brake / break-up / split / run / runway / fly etc.” And yet it rises above gimmick, elevates itself above the simple chain of words. I laughed at things that are “not going to fly.” I got a little misty at the “split.” These emotions, too, were linked.

This process of the mind slipping along with the images seems amenable to how our minds work, a familiar game of charades capitalizing on how familiar our brains are with this kind of associative work. Sigmund Freud, in his Psychopathology of Everyday Life, argued that slips of the tongue are related to the work of ‘condensation’ as he identified it in Interpretation of Dreams. He added in Psychopathology that “a similarity of any sort between two elements of the unconscious material – a similarity between the things themselves or between their verbal presentations – is taken as an opportunity for creating a third, which is a composite or compromise idea” (100).  We are not just seeing the individual scenes here, they, at several points combine with our own (unconscious) experience to create another level of experience.

Dynamically this sounds very similar to Sergei Eisenstein’s theories around intellectual montage, where he argued for a combining of visual images to create conflict. In “Beyond the Shot,” Eisenstein, in looking at how images can be brought together, noted that “the simplest juxtaposition of two or three details of a material series produces a perfectly finished representation of another order, the psychological . . . the concept blossoms forth immeasurably in emotional terms” (16). What links these scenes then is not just the connection of the chain of words. It is also a chain of emotional links. We experience these mostly unspoken “Words” emotionally, personally and experientially.

“Words” is just one of several shorts made by the filmmaking team Everynone. As filmmakermagazine.com explains, the team has “been creating witty and allusive short films to accompany the popular WNYC radio program Radiolab, heard on more than 300 public radio stations around the country. Radiolab explores science and philosophy in the guise of radio theater, mixing music and sound effects into presentations that thrillingly veer from the pedagogical to the personal.”

Everynone is a filmmaking team, according to their website “located in the redwood forest.” The team is made up of Daniel Mercadante, Will Hoffman, and Julius Metoyer III. According to their mission statement, “Everynone works primarily with non-actors to capture life as it is, carefully framed and distilled. Their mission is to uncover the beauty in the mundane and everyday; to band the emotion and aesthetic around one simple core idea. They play with the lines between documentary, fiction and experimental cinema to craft films that focus on concepts and feelings above all else.”

–R W Gray

Apr 062012

Catman in Boxer’s Blow is a 1993 Z list action film by Hong Kong based director Godfrey Ho. Throughout his career, Ho created over a hundred films, the bulk of which were released between 1980 and 1990. His films, including the Catman series, have gained cult status by being viewed as some of the most unintentionally funny films ever made.

Also known also as U.S. Catman 2, the description of the film states that it is the story of Sam, a top “U.S. Agent,” who is scratched by a radioactive cat and gains superhuman abilities. His powers, including laser vision and chain-splitting strength, allow him to fight the evil Reverend Cheever, a priest driven mad, who plots to destroy the world using nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, none of context or back story is mentioned in the movie.

The plot of the actual film instead focuses on Bobby, a man chosen to go undercover in the Holy Cheever gang to make money for a group of arms dealers? Somehow? Catman doesn’t try to bore you with details, and there’s no point asking why a man is suddenly handed a gun and a task, or who most of the characters are, or why they are fighting each other. Catman only wants you to enjoy the fighting.

And there is plenty of fighting.

From the moment Bobby joins the Cheever gang, men are brutally beating each other, shooting at each other, and falling into things, like garbage cans that appear out of nowhere. Being a member of a ruthless, arms dealing, kung fu gang takes its toll on its members. In this scene, one member consumes a whole handful of worms for some reason. Due to intimidation? Some truth or dare game happening off screen?

Poor Bobby vomits as he is forced to watch this, while he is repeatedly beaten on the head. And this becomes perhaps the most relatable scene in the film as we know how Bobby feels. Know all too well.

The character Catman does make a brief appearance in the film. In fact, if we were to cut the film down to only the Catman scenes, the running time might be about eleven minutes long. Though his screen time is meager, Catman makes colourful use of it. Catman and his friend Gus (whose favorite things in life are spaghetti, meatballs, and open-hand slapping women in the face) spend a lot of time leaning on things, swearing, and not dying after being shot thirty times. Otherwise they are but supporting characters in a movie about bar brawls.

Catman feels like two stories clumsily patched together, as though the producer felt the film would be only be marketable to their desired audience if at least some of the characters were American. In the English dub version of the film, the Americans all speak English, but are dubbed over anyway. The person in charge of the dubbing did not bother to line up the lip movement with the dialogue, nor did they bother using the same script most of the time. Perhaps a postmodern reflection on translation and transnational cinema? Maybe. Comical? Certainly.

Catman is a wholly confusing, disturbing, and wonderful film. From its endlessly quotable one-liners (“no great shakes, I’ll take care of him”), to its terrible lighting, from the painful dubbing to the impossibly complicated plot, Catman is an hour and a half of pure, tragic fun.

–M. MacKay

Megan MacKay is a journalist, writer, and stand up comedian living in New Brunswick. She is not a strong swimmer.

Mar 292012

Horror and fashion are interwoven in Lucrecia Martel’s “Muta,” a commercial and short film hybrid with a subtle and disturbing story that blurs the line between repulsion and beauty.

The clothing company MiuMiu commissioned the piece for a unique short film project called The Women’s Tales. It is difficult to find information on the origins of The Women’s Tales project, but it seems that the founder of MiuMiu, Miuccia Prada (yes, that Prada family), selected Lucrecia Martel for this project after a conversation. Two other younger women directors Zoe Cassavetes (USA, born in 1970) and Giada Colagrande (Italy, born in 1975) have also been selected. The films have been projected during fashion events held by MiuMiu and are being featured on the company’s website.

In her films, Lucrecia Martel likes to make her audience uneasy, thematically, visually and acoustically. In The Holy Girl, for example, her chosen story-line seeks to create discomfort, agitation, and questioning by focusing on a pedophilic predator and his relationship with an adolescent victim-turned-stalker.  Martel’s visual language choices add to this uneasiness through her signature cryptic yet profound qualities. Her keen gaze focuses on details, she directs the camera with precision, and allows us the time, as viewers, to find those telling expressions, minute shapes and textures that she wants to feature in her work. Furthermore, the sounds she uses tell another conflicted and unsettling story as they often originate off-camera or don’t match the image being seen – we can’t help but be disturbed by the collision of the two contrasting senses.  Wear headsets and turn up the sound to truly appreciate the subtle layers of her storytelling.

Martel’s choice of title is interesting. Perhaps in her research, Martel found out that Miuccia Prada had been a mime for the years following her PhD in political science. “Muta” means mute or voiceless in Italian: the characters in this short film do not speak in a manner that is intelligible; they don’t use a comprehensible language and the sounds they produce are not subtitled. What was that mumbling? Did I hear a word? A series of unintelligible and incoherent sounds create constant speculation for the audience. Martel uses all her artistry to create a soundscape that intrigues, often recalling sounds we rarely hear but associating them with something more familiar: the fluttering of a butterfly’s wings as we see a close-up of a long fluttering fake eyelash.

Ultimately, words would be superfluous to an understanding the story. Unlike in this year’s Best Film at the Oscars (The Artist), even facial expressions are not necessary for us to feel something and react to the film.

“Muta” borders on the genres of science fiction and horror, but both in subtle ways. The setting of Martel’s film is a strange yet familiar world where something perhaps apocalyptic has happened, recalling the mutations in the original 1958 The Fly by Kurt Neumann (remade by David Cronenburg in 1986). Has the human race in the future been hybridized through genetic mutations? Is the world inhabited by anonymous leggy creatures recalling stick insects? Regardless, the first and last shots that frame Martel’s film are of buzzing insects above water, at dawn and dusk.  This busyness in the opening scenes contrasts with the stark shots that will follow but will echo the presence of the insects – something inhuman haunts the entire film.

The film is a sort of self-contained drama (used in theatre, the French term “huis clos” captures this much better) that starts with the first scene, as we discover that the setting will be an opulent ship gliding on a river (filmed on a river in Paraguay). This scene is beautifully shot, presenting an idyllic sunrise that in no way warns us of what is to happen. In Spanish and Italian, “muta” comes from the verbs to moult or to mutate, but was also used in the past as a noun to describe a pack of dogs. Indeed the characters in the story act and react like a pack.

Like cockroaches (or praying mantises, given their extra long model legs), they hatch on the boat, unfolding awkwardly, emerging from the concealed wall storage units. Martel speeds up and slows down their actions to make their emergence seem all the more uncomfortable for the models, and uncanny for the spectator.

The beings are dressed in MiuMiu’s beautiful 2011 collection, including the accessories, which are prominently displayed. This was the designer’s only constraint on Martel’s creativity –the use of her clothing collection. Their bodies, as they do strange things like eating paper, seem alien and insect-like. The mysterious hierarchy that governs them dictates that they should fumigate (or sterilize?) certain members of the pack while wearing bulky gas masks. But they also get to enjoy a party where they drink green slimy chemical cocktails. We see them react to situations with base emotions but never really understand why. With the absence of words and facial expression, we must rely on body language to understand the characters.

Martel’s work is also profound in that it captures and parodies the very essence of the fashion industry it is supposed to represent. Faceless models play the characters who only serve as functioning mannequins in a drama that eventually eliminates them from the equation:  the bodies, reduced to hangers for the company’s clothes, disappear at the end of the film, leaving behind the sheaths and adornments that had served them. MiuMiu’s 2011 collection is shown off, central to the story, but eventually discarded. How fickle the fashion world!

Argentinean filmmaker Lucrecia Martel (born in 1966) is already a household name for fans of Latin American cinema. She has become the protégée of Spain’s Pedro Almodóvar and has released a dozen shorts and a trilogy of successful feature films: The Swamp (2001), The Holy Girl (2004) and The Headless Woman (2008). Martel has received awards at many festivals around the world and the last two films were nominated for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. The short film Muta (2011) might make her a household name in another circle, that of fashion.

— Sophie Lavoie

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.

Mar 222012

Two boys get caught in their after school games and one goes missing in Jamie Travis’s dark comedy, thriller, fairy tale short film “The Armoire.”

Style is everything here: comforting and creepy, lurid and glorious, torn out of the pages of a design magazine coveted by the average Stepford Wife. Each room is a peculiar study in a new colour. The clothes in the boy’s armoire are perfectly spaced. The house is a paradigm of cleanliness and tidiness, like an exhibit of a home rather than an actual home. As a result, the world seems made up of surfaces competing to camouflage or cover something. This meticulous set design is coupled with a mise-en-scene that Ion Magazine described as “handled with the meticulousness of a serial killer.” No matter how innocent the protagonist Aaron might seem, his home sweet home is disturbing.

This subtle anxiety means we’re somewhat prepared when 11-year-old Aaron’s friend Tony goes missing during a game of hide-and-seek and only a hypnosis session can jog Aaron’s memory of the twisted events that unraveled after school that day and the real game the two boys played.

The gorgeousness of the film aside, the film might rest a little too (un)easily on the queer friendship between the two boys. Similar to Hitchcock’s Rope and other Hollywood thrillers, “The Armoire” brings together queerness and death and this might be too easy a source for sexual difference and fear. At the same time, there’s an almost earnest truthfulness to this corrupt innocence in the boys, how they play games to slowly unlatch the armoire, the symbolic repository of all that is repressed between them.

Travis describes “The Armoire” (2009) as the finale of his Saddest Children in the World trilogy that includes his two earlier films “Why the Anderson Children Didn’t Come Home to Dinner” (2003) and “The Saddest Boy in the World” (2006). “Anderson Children” is the first short film in the trilogy and Travis’s website describes it as “The ‘gloriously surreal’ story of three seven year-olds forced to endure their mother’s culinary abuses.” About it, Film Threat writes that “This is the kind of film Tim Burton wishes he could make. Kind of touching, kind of morbid and totally original.”

“Saddest Boy” followed and the Toronto Sun responded by describing Travis as “one of the most original voices in Canadian cinema.” US audiences can see the other two films in the trilogy on Fandor.

In addition to the Saddest Children in the World trilogy, Travis has completed another trio of shorts called The Patterns Trilogy, has directed music videos and commercials and his first feature film For a Good Time, Call . . . comes out this year.

— R. W. Gray

Mar 152012

No matter how cliché it sounds, the phrase “don’t judge a book by its cover” has complete relevance here. In this instance, though, don’t judge a film by its title. The zombie genre itself has, unfortunately, become a little stale and I understand the eye-rolling that may fall upon one when reading this title. That being said, I urge you to abandon any preconceptions you may have as Chris Russell’s “Zombie in a Penguin Suit” is a wonderfully directed visual tale. The end of humanity has never looked so beautiful.

It becomes clear early on in the film how the protagonist ended up being a zombie in a penguin suit. What’s more interesting though is how it makes us feel to see a lovable penguin mascot, cartoony and intended to entertain children, spewing blood and tearing the faces off humans with its teeth is jarring. Caught between a sort of Disney playful tale and the nightmare of a horror film, we are left with a peculiar combination of both – somewhere indefinable. Sigmund Freud describes something that is familiar and yet unfamiliar at the same time as the uncanny. The penguin mascot, for us, is something familiar but his murderous rampage, at least I hope, is not.

Along with this, perhaps the penguin figure reminds us of a childhood stuffed animal, representing something innocent and familiar, but then we see it bloodied and decaying from the inside and this puts us again in a hybrid, indefinable, and uncomfortable state.

While most modern zombie films pride themselves on quick pacing and action sequences, Russell takes the opposite, slow burning route and the results are stunning. The music is gorgeous; the soft piano keys with the haunting violin serve as the apocalypse’s backdrop. This, combined with the slower pace, solemnizes and sentimentalizes the event, making the terror and destruction of the world feel nearly elegant.

But the film doesn’t rest on aesthetics and encourages sympathy for the shuffling penguin as he roams aimlessly through a chaotic and then sometimes empty world. The crucifixion sequence really hammers in this idea as we see exactly what humans are capable of when faced with an unknown phenomenon and their own fear. At the end of the film, when the zombie stumbles into a still populated suburbia, it’s as if the humans have become the invaders of the zombie world and are now the enemy. Through forcing us to identify with an outsider and reflect on the destructive nature of humanity, the film refreshes the zombie genre.

Be sure to stick around for the credits. There is a quick clip of who the penguin mascot was before he became a zombie mascot and this further adds a haunting yet humanizing element to the overall story. But the film doesn’t quite end there and moves from humanizing him during the credits to absurdly penguinizing him in the last shot after the credits so watch to the last frame.

— 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.

Mar 082012

In honour of International Woman’s Day, Numéro Cinq presents Erika Janunger’s Weightless, a short film about women in rooms they make their own. The film features two women, one in a bedroom, another in a living room, each defying gravity. The technical trick is basic, the camera tilted and the room set decorated so as to create the optical illusion that the women are climbing the walls, “weightless” with perhaps longing, or distraction, or with emotion that exceeds the rooms they rise up in.

Films with such visual tricks can rely too heavily on the device, or lack substance to do anything evocative with the trick. But here the juxtaposition of the two women, linked by their weightlessness, connected through gestures and, towards the end of the film, by the play with lighting, alludes to a narrative possibility, that they are rising in rooms for one another, or that they are connected in their struggle for and against weightlessness.

And each of the rooms seems to play further with a Virginia Woolfian exploration of room and identity, the one woman and her library of books lifting off and flinging to the wall, the other pressed against a watery, mirroring surface. On the one hand, reading, on the other identity, and together, through the juxtaposition of the two women and their two rooms, the link created between them. Reading and seeing the self are linked.

Narratively, Janunger explores weightlessness through the two women and their rooms first subtly and then more dramatically with the crescendo of the piece. From the moment the women first show signs of lifting off, the film creates a desire for them to ascend, to rise up, to gain flight. That they don’t, that they remain surprisingly earthbound, flavours the piece bittersweet, more about lost potential than catharsis. And the crescendo, then, as a complement of tensions, rising, but doomed to gravity.

And the bouquet of lights that frames the film, a fistful pressed against a wall, resists interpretation. These clusters are cut together with images of a singular light then lights yearning right but restrained left, swinging between floor and ceiling.

These two images of light, pressed up against the wall, unbearably close, and then unable to reach, tantalus held in mid air, underscore the two women’s struggles with and against gravity throughout the film. From beginning to end They cannot leave their separate rooms, or escape this unresolvable tension of collision and the unreachable.

— R.W Gray

Mar 012012

Directors Rodrigo Gudiño and Vincent Marcone’s “The Facts in the Case of Mr Hollow” is a creepy animated film that zooms and pans in a visual waltz of details and in certain moments even lurches impossibly into the photograph looking to collect together the clues of the crimes it depicts and obscures.

In the first frames the camera holds on a letter that notes that “enclosed is the original photograph . . . look closely . . .” Our instructions are clear.

A perspective that can, against the laws of physics, explore the photograph is what entices me here. The animation plays with image and depth in the same way the protagonist Deckard (Harrison Ford) did in Bladerunner with his Esper photo Analysis. In both cases it becomes possible to enter the photograph, see around corners, overcome the limits of the photographic perspective.

Part of the allure of this is narrative for me: the odd pleasure during family holidays when I tell an old family story from my perspective and my little brother chimes in with some detail I’ve forgotten, something my memory left out or maybe could not see from where I was standing. To be able to break past the limits of the photograph’s perspective offers a similar extended and layered pleasure.

Another part of the allure here is simply voyeuristic: what if the limited field of vision of the camera or even our own line of sight could be overcome. The perverse pleasure of seeing becomes unstoppable.

Ultimately, the narrative in this photograph disappoints a little, particularly the final reveal. But it’s an animation experiment, a visual play, that should be celebrated. I defend this in the same way I defend Mike Figgis’s Timecode (2000), a film told in four frames, each comprised of a single feature-length shot, all four shot simultaneously in a ballet of cameras (each trying to avoid recording the others as they and their characters come across one another.

The subject matter disappoints but what it accomplishes in terms of showing us new ways of seeing, on the technical and aesthetic levels, warrants tribute. If only someone would make a horror film using the same technique now.

“The Facts in the Case of Mr Hollow” was nominated for a 2008 Genie Award in Canada, screened at festivals across the world, and won “Best Animated Short” at the Fantasia Film Festival.

— R.W. Gray

Feb 232012

A late entry for Valentine’s Day, Nicholas Humphries’s “The One That Got Away” tackles unrequited love and nostalgia in some fresh and unexpected ways.  Much of the reason this film works is due to Shane Kolmansberger’s portrayal of the puppy dog romantic protagonist who is searching for someone who will last more than a night. Without this simple, relatable, romantic desire, we might not otherwise stay with what becomes a challenging protagonist.

Humphries’s films are intent on feeling, but not in subtle ways. Linda Williams in her essay “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, Excess” calls these bodily or “gross” genres as they are concerned with excess physical experiences. What becomes particularly fascinating in “The One That Got Away” and Humphries’s other works is how he brings about collisions, jamming together genres and physical experiences.

To avoid spoiling your experience of the film, watch it first and then read the interview with Humphries below.

RWG: What inspired the idea for the short?

NH: My own relationships (or at least the search for them).

RWG: For you, what is the work about?

NH: For me it’s about how lonely being different can feel but how that makes it so special when you finally find someone that gets you.

RWG: How did the film do? How did audiences respond?

NH: When it screened at a film festival in Hollywood there was a woman shouting at the girls on screen. Things like, “Don’t go with him! Don’t do it!” To the audience it was distracting but her enthusiasm was the greatest gift. It also won a Tabloid Witch. They called it “Woody Allen with a touch of Norman Bates.” For my first short as a writer / director, it was a huge honor.

RWG: Several of your shorts are dark romances? Do you see a through line in your work?

NH: Horror and romance I think are just the two things that make me feel the most when I’m watching a movie so I guess they pop up in my work a lot. They also both create exciting emotions we don’t get to feel every day.

RWG: Do you think the horror and romance genres have things in common?

NH: I think they both evoke addictive emotions. Also, desire is kind of a horrible thing to feel. The very nature of desire requires there be an obstacle in the way of getting what you need. It’s painful to have to sustain long term.

RWG: What are you working on now?

NH: I’m currently in post-production on my first feature. It’s about a couple that head to a cabin in the woods with their pals for a party before they get married. Only one in the group survives. Horror and romance again, I guess. You can find out more at deathdouspartmovie.com

RWG: How do you feel about the film now?

NH: I’ve gone on to direct some larger things but as this was my first (and such a personal story) I think it will always hold a weird and special place in my heart.

— R. W. Gray

Feb 162012

Wong Kar Wai’s 2046 is the story of Chow, a writer and Casanova in 1960s Hong Kong who writes a science fiction serial titled “2046” that he publishes in a newspaper. Several of the women Chow has known, loved, resisted, and spurned appear as androids in the vast, glittering, futuristic yet nostalgic science fiction serial he writes. Chow connects these two narratives and so writing and desire, space and time, imbricate and refer back to him.

When the protagonist of Chow’s serial, Tak, proclaims his love to one of these androids and asks her to leave with him, she does not respond until many hours later when she is alone. Critics like Mitsuda and Martin read this delay as the absence of emotion, as a cold, embittered detachment. Against this, the delay the androids experience does not negate the emotional response. They are not impervious to emotion, just slow to express. This delay is a precondition for the preservation of desire, and, ultimately, this delay refers back to Chow’s originary unrequited desire and the secret he will never know.

2046 opens with Tak, the protagonist of Chow’s serial, a man on a train traveling through a futuristic cityscape. He wonders how long it will take him to leave 2046, a place, he explains, where people go to “recapture lost memories . . . [ where] nothing ever changes . . . Nobody knows if that’s true . . . because nobody’s ever come back . . . except me.” Tak, then, is a man who is trying to escape memory and, it seems, is choosing or desires forgetfulness. He confesses that he has chosen this path because 2046 didn’t give him what he wanted:

“I once fell in love with someone. After a while, she wasn’t there. I went to 2046. I thought she might be waiting for me there. But I couldn’t find her. I can’t stop wondering if she loved me or not. But I never found out. Maybe her answer was like a secret . . . that no one else would ever know.”

Tak the traveler is seeking to leave 2046 and choose forgetfulness, but he cannot give up on the lost beloved’s answer, one he describes as a secret “no one else would ever know.” It is unknowable, but he fantasizes that it might mean she answered him back.

“unshareable secrets”

When Tak, in order to keep warm on the train, embraces one of the android attendants and finds he desires her, he seeks escape, forgetfulness and answers. All this distills down to one luminous desire: to tell a secret. He explains this to the android: “Before . . . when people had secrets they didn’t want to share, they’d climb a mountain, find a tree and carve a hole in it, and whisper the secret into the hole, then cover it over with mud. That way, nobody else would ever discover it.” His android responds by making a circle with thumb and forefinger, holding it out to him.

She offers, “I’ll be your tree. Tell me, and nobody else will ever know.” But as Tak tries to tell the secret to her outstretched hand, the android keeps moving the tree, the witness, teasing. Until the site of listening becomes her mouth. A kiss.

“secrets as questions”

For Tak, the secret he seeks to tell and the android he seeks to tell it to are related: “I once fell in love with someone. I couldn’t stop wondering whether she loved me or not. I found an android that looked just like her. I thought the android might give me the answer.” For Tak, the secret is a two part question: first, does the android know the secret of this other woman’s desire, this woman she resembles; second, does the android desire him back. The android promises the return of the secret, the possibility that the unknowable will become known, the unrequited might become requited.

But when he asks the android to leave with him, he discovers that the android does not respond. The conductor of the train explains that, “When [androids have] served on so many long journeys, fatigue begins to set in. For example, they might want to laugh, but the smile would be slow to come. They might want to cry, but the tear wouldn’t well up until the next day. This one is failing fast. I think you’d better give up.” The declaration given in the moment of the kiss, the secret given to the tree, receives no immediate response, but still holds the promise of a delay.

“literary intentions”

To understand the meaning behind this delay, we need to look at how Tak is a protagonist in a work of fiction called “2046” created by the true protagonist of the film, Mr. Chow. Chow writes this fiction at first for Miss Wang, the daughter of his landlord who he finds next door in the room numbered “2046.”

When he meets her she is heartbroken, longing for her Japanese lover. Chow says he writes the fiction to explain for her the perspective of the Japanese man she loves:

She was always asking if there was anything at all that never changed. I could see what was on her mind. I promised to write a story for her based on my observation. Something to show her what her boyfriend was thinking. . . . So I began imagining myself as a Japanese man . . . on a train for 2046 . . . falling for an android with delayed reaction.

Tak, then, is both a version of Miss Wang’s Japanese lover (which Wong indexes by having the two roles played by the same actor), but he’s also a literary avatar for Chow, enabling him to get closer to her, to pose as her beloved.

“the delay of letters”

The delay that occurs between the android and Tak mirrors two obstacles between Miss Wang and her Japanese lover in 1960s Hong Kong. It is, perhaps most obviously, the delayed communication between the two lovers who have to communicate via letters because Miss Wang’s father has forbidden their love. The act of letter writing involves a delay we are barely familiar with in an era in which we can text message the beloved and he or she receives our words in mere seconds. The Japanese lover expresses sentiment on the page one day and Miss Wang receives and experiences an emotional response weeks later. Letters can bridge the lovers and overcome distance but only by creating a delay where the beloved waits to respond.

This delay then is a question of waiting and waiting is about desire. Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse meditates on this waiting and connects it to desire: “Am I in love? – Yes, since I’m waiting.”

“delay and waiting”

Barthes adds a small tale about the lover and waiting:

A mandarin fell in love with a courtesan. “I shall be yours,” she told him, “when you have spent a hundred nights waiting for me, sitting on a stool, in my garden, beneath my window.” But on the ninety-ninth night, the mandarin stood up, put his stool under his arm, and went away (40).

Similarly, Anne Carson in Eros: the Bittersweet points out that “A space must be maintained or desire ends” (26). Miss Wang’s letters from her Japanese beloved, and by extension the android’s delay in responding to Tak’s declaration of love, on one level signify separation, distance in time and space, but on another create and perpetuate desire. Waiting is the point.

In addition to the space between Miss Wang and her Japanese lover and the time it takes for their words to reach one another, other obstacles of time and space interrupt, contribute to the train of desire. Because even their correspondence has been forbidden by her father, Miss Wang asks Chow to intercede, to help by sending her letters and by letting the Japanese lover write to her via Chow’s address so her father won’t know. Miss Wang and her lover’s words and letters must traverse Chow as agent, as constituent, as conduit. The amorous epistle is further delayed.

“delay and translation”

This delay is exacerbated by the space between languages and the difficulties of translation. When the Japanese lover asked Miss Wang to go with him, her response was delayed much the same way the android’s response to Tak is delayed. When Chow first meets Miss Wang she is in the room next door, the room suitably numbered ‘2046,’ pacing and rehearsing the response she never gave:

“Let’s go . . . I’ll go with you . . .I understand” she repeats over and over in Japanese. The specter of language difference emphasizes the possibility of miscommunication and mistranslation between lover and beloved.

“the lover’s discourse”

So even if the letters could arrive directly, immediately, without delay, there would be the problem of language for the lover. As Barthes asserts in the opening to A Lover’s Discourse, “the lover’s discourse is of an extreme solitude . . . it is completely forsaken by the surrounding languages: ignored, disparaged, or derided by them, severed not only from authority but also from the mechanisms of authority” (1). Miss Wang’s delay, her inability to respond to the Japanese lover might too have been an effect of this obstacle for the lover seeking to declare love. All declarations of love in 2046 then are part of a system of delays and inescapable obstacles. The lover has to wait, for this is what makes him or her a lover.

For Chow, though, this delay that he imagines and writes into the serial fiction called “2046” is partly a representation of his own growing interest in Miss Wang and her apparent indifference. When in the serial fiction Tak rhetorically asks the conductor on the train, “Who’d ever fall for an android?” the conductor replies, “Who can say? Events can creep up on you without you ever noticing. It can happen to anyone.” This is precisely what Chow himself confesses in the voice over that frames Tak on the futuristic train when he realizes he is falling for Miss Wang: “Feelings can creep up on you unawares. I knew that, but did she?”

“promise of reciprocity”

Chow writes a complementary secret into the narrative where the Miss Wang android not only weeps in her cabin on the train, but also goes to a space on the train reserved for secrets.

This circular shaped object with a space in the centre recalls the tree Tak told the android about. So the android not only has a delayed emotional response, she also has her own unknowable secret. This stands as the promise of reciprocity, but, as unknowable, remains forever uncertain.

These two secrets – Tak’s told to the android’s hand, and the android’s told to the futuristic tree on the train – both intertextually reference one originary secret in Wong Kar Wai’s previous film In the Mood for Love.

“the originary secret”

In that film, another character named Chow, also played by Tony Leung, also recalls the mythology of unshareable secrets and at the end of that film he whispers his secret to a hole in some ruins and covers it up.

This secret recalls the first narration of 2046, when Chow’s voice explains why Tak went to 2046: “I can’t stop wondering if she loved me or not. But I never found out. Maybe her answer was like a secret . . . that no one else would ever know.” For Chow, then, traveling to and away from 2046 is not just about his growing desire for Miss Wang. It is also about this other unrequited desire, for Mrs Chan, the unobtainable married woman he loved in In the Mood for Love. In an odd and perfect turn, Mrs Chan from also appears in 2046 as an android.

His secret declaration, whispered into the ruins, desires reciprocation, an answer, the possibility that Mrs Chan’s desire was also declared in a secret. Thus, she might still respond, the unrequited might still be requited.

“love letters”

What the delayed response draws attention to, then, is not the android’s delay, something we might analyze in her circuitry, but instead the nature of these secrets. Tak’s declaration, the secret he presses to her as a kiss, and the android’s own secrets whispered into the futuristic tree on the train are in essence love letters.

Barthes points out that “Like desire, the love letter waits for an answer; it implicitly enjoins the other to reply, for without a reply the other’s image changes, becomes other” (158). Here, what is essential, is that the reply not other the beloved for that would in effect end the amorous discourse.

Chow writes “2046” to preserve the possibility of the answer and the beloved’s return. What is at stake here, though, is not reciprocation or the possibility of a requited love so much as it is survival. As Barthes argues about the lover, “language is born of absence: the child has made himself a doll out of a spool, throws it away and picks it up again, miming the mother’s departure and return: a paradigm is created” (16).

“there / gone”

Barthes borrows this metaphor of the child and the spool from Sigmund Freud’s analysis of his grandchild’s “fort / da game” (fort / da translated means “gone” and “there”) where he overheard the child calling out “Fort” and “da” – and interpreted this as negotiating the mother’s absence.

To master “there” and “gone,” the beloved’s absent presence, is core to Chow’s writing act with “2046”. This game, this evocation of the beloved as present though absent, Barthes argues, “postpones the other’s death . . .To manipulate absence is to extend this interval, to delay as long as possible the moment when the other might topple sharply from absence into death” (16).

Chow writes “2046” to keep desire alive, to postpone the perhaps inevitable end of desire and loss of both Mrs Chan and Miss Wang.

“Happy Endings”

This game of absent presence, this preservation of desire becomes most apparent when Miss Wang goes to Japan to be with her Japanese lover. She sends a message back to Chow through her father, asking for him to write a happy ending to “2046.” In the scene that follows, Chow remains frozen, his pen hovering above the page.

The titles tell us he sits there for one, ten, a hundred hours. Chow cannot write a happy ending, not even for Miss Wang. Further, how can he write an ending to a serialized fiction – the very form is about waiting, for the next installment and for the eternally delayed catharsis of an ending. This is what blocks his writing, leaves him paralyzed, the pen hovering over the page. For in essence to write that happy ending would be to foreclose on all his unrequited desires, would sever the myriad connections to his original loss, his original unrequited desire in In the Mood for Love.

In Wong Kar Wai’s 2046, the android Miss Wang’s delay does not indicate an absence of emotion. She must delay and hold the promise of return. To read her lack of a response without the delayed emotion is to miss the point, to not see how the android is in essence programmed to sustain the unrequited love and protect the lover from the possible loss of the beloved. If Miss Wang will ever reciprocate, if Mrs Chan will ever return and love him back, if desire is to continue on its unrequited path always away from oblivion and ending, the eternal delay must go on.

— R. W. Gray


Feb 092012

Tristan is a guy who wishes to be more like the movie characters he idolizes. However, rather than trying to mimic the styles of contemporary mainstream superstars such as Will Smith, Johnny Depp, or Natalie Portman, Tristan chooses to embrace the behaviour and groove of Jean Paul Belmondo from Jean-Luc Godard’s classic film Breathless. The difference between most fans and Tristan though is that he fully submerses himself in this character. He’s got the style, the slang, and the pretension; the only piece he’s missing is the girl.

Fans and those familiar with Godard’s Breathless will no doubt notice the several references to the classic film. Beyond the similarities in the protagonist’s persona is also the use of jump cuts, the bold romantic visuals, the up-beat music, and of course, the girl, Zazie, who directly resembles Jean Seberg (who plays Patricia in Breathless). In essence, the short puts us into the French New Wave through the eyes of one of its biggest admirers.

The short does a great job of combining both homage to and parody of Godard’s Breathless and the result is something that has a lot of fun with its characters, dialogue, and style. There is much parody and humor in the fact that Tristan, a British guy, who idolizes the American actor John Wayne, but is imitating a French character who in turn emulates an American Hollywood star, Humphrey Bogart. There is also much parody in how the first half of the short plays off the pretentiousness of Tristan and, in a sense, that the pretentiousness of Godard’s classic. Before this becomes slander though, the short takes a turn to fully and sincerely embrace a romantic relationship similar to the one in Breathless. The parody becomes homage not only to what Godard achieved stylistically, but also to the unique and conflicted relationship he was able to create between Michel (Belmondo) and Patricia (Seberg).

Not only is Tristan searching to complete the character he has devoted himself to, but, as we see from the opening frames, he’s also looking for his dream girl. The other struggles Tristan faces come from the constant reminders of, and ties to, his former self. When he’s looking in the mirror, getting into character, his mother phones and interrupts him with a reminder that he has to take his little sister to the cinemas (a scene which has tempted me to create my own John Wayne voice mail message). Tristan is then forced to find a balance between the character he has created for himself and reality. As luck would have it though, it is this trip to the theatre where he not only finds his dream girl, but also finds a girl who shares his taste in film (an important ingredient for all healthy relationships). In keeping with the style of his idol, he attempts to impress her with overly dramatic knock-out punches and foosball.

As we see however, their relationship becomes much more than that. Zazie completes the character Tristan aspires to be, but more importantly she fulfills the key role the real Tristan has been looking for (as he puts it, with her he’s no longer a “fool”). These characters find the best in themselves in recreating a relationship that they perceive is beautiful. They fall in love with one another through film references and, as a result, act more cinematic and playful. By mimicking movie characters, they are more prone to act on their desires and impulses. They don’t let a moment pass by and seize every opportunity that comes their way. In distancing themselves from who they are externally, they readily act on what they feel internally and discover who their true selves are. Tristan and Zazie learn how to become lovers through homage.

This is the first film by director Toby MacDonald. The short has been screened at several film festivals, including the BAFTA’s, and has received numerous awards.

— 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.

Feb 022012

It’s a simple story. One made stronger for the particulars: cowboy boots, a Band-aid, or the ice on a boat’s bumper. Though these details are evocative, Ang Lee’s “The Chosen” gets most of its charm from the odd couple at the centre: Clive Owen’s James Bond / Transporter type driver who helps people and the small Dalai Lama-esque boy he has to transport to safety.

In many ways, the sweet simpleness of the dramatic connection between these two characters and the action genre that surrounds them sum up the polarities in Lee’s film career. His early films were melodramas like Pushing Hands and The Wedding Banquet. Though Taiwanese born and educated, he has made some of the most provocative films about America (The Ice Storm, Brokeback Mountain, Taking Woodstock) but more recently traversed into the action genre with his remake of Hulk (which he makes reference to in “The Chosen” with the boy’s choice of Band-aid). He is currently working on an adaptation of Yann Martel’s Life of Pi which should, too, bring together Lee’s various and sometimes contradictory interests.

The contradictory interests mean that Lee makes genre choices his own. Car chases in movies, like sword fights, are for me bathroom breaks or chances to get popcorn. On the odd occasion they’re done well (The Bourne Supremacy) they are almost too stressful to manage. In Lee’s film, the car chase becomes a courtly dance, where cars don’t collide, but almost politely duck in and around one another (while this politeness is, nicely, undermined by the intermittent machine gun fire).

Driving is a the centre of Lee’s film because “The Chosen” is part of the BMW films project “The Hire,” a fascinating collision between the short film genre and the commercial market.

Initially under the purview of David Fincher’s production company, BMW funded a total of 8 short films, each featuring a different well-known director and well-known actors. The directors chosen were John Frankenheimer, Ang Lee, Wong Kar-wai, Guy Ritchie, Alejandro González Iñárritu, John Woo, Joe Carnahan, and Tony Scott. Each of the films feature Clive Owen as a driver who attempts to help people.

The project came about in 2000 when “BMW had a window of opportunity when it could do something purely for the sake of branding—sans release of a new vehicle—to deliver a unique message in an increasingly crowded luxury/performance car market.” BMW’s market research showed that “Roughly 85% of BMW purchasers used the Internet before purchasing a BMW.” A marketing department without a new product and an interested internet audience then fueled the creation of “The Hire.”

The project was an immense success: “By 2002 BMW sales were up 17 percent, while some of its competitors, such as Volkswagen and General Motors, floundered. By June 2003 more than 45 million people had viewed the films, overshooting the original goal of reaching 2 million viewers. ‘‘The Hire’’ garnered numerous ad industry awards. The campaign’s final spot, ‘‘Beat the Devil,’’ aired November 21, 2002.” — Marketing Campaign Case Studies

Among the other seven films are some great films too. Guy Ritchie’s foray (“Star”) has he and his then wife Madonna making fun of her diva reputation. Wong Kar Wai departs from his  typically melancholic or bittersweet films (see the NC intro to “There’s Only One Sun”) with”The Follow” which has a dark playfulness to it. Most of the films are still available on the web.

–R. W. Gray

Jan 262012


The title first drew me to Alicia Duffy’s “The Most Beautiful Man in the World.” It reminded me of the title to one of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s short stories, “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World.” Obviously I have a predilection for superlatives, but that’s where the similarities in the stories end.

What draws me back to this short film time and again is its simplicity. Duffy’s short film is breath-catchingly unnerving. The film follows a young girl through one of those disturbingly familiar, oppressively boring, days of summer. The TV’s desperate pleas for attention, the mother’s phone chatter in the background, even the dog’s endless panting, all draw attention to this young girl’s isolation and loneliness. But she remains unattended and ignored.

It’s a simple film, almost entirely visually told, with only one overt line of dialogue: “That’s my dog.” Nothing significant happens. No confrontations, no abuse. But it ripples and thrums with threat. And, as wrong as it is, it contains the possibility that the tedium and boredom of this day might end, that someone might pay attention to her.

It’s a small plot, the film turning full circle back to the living room floor, the dog, the blare of the inattentive television. It might seem like nothing has changed, except for one thing: it’s a tiny shot, the flash back to the field with the man standing shirtless in the tall grass, but it’s all we need to know that however inappropriate, the attention she received in the field has cut through the boredom, the malaise of the endless summer day.

Duffy went on to make a feature film in 2010, All Good Children:

“After the death of their mother, Irish youngsters Dara and Eoin are moved to France to stay with their aunt. There, the boys befriend a local English family and the impressionable Dara falls under the spell of their young daughter Bella. But when she begins to pull away, Dara’s feelings for her start to get out of hand.” —imdb

— R. W. Gray


Jan 192012


Tom Tykwer’s “Faubourg Saint-Denis” tells the story of a moment of confusion between two lovers, Francine and Thomas (played by Natalie Portman and Melchior Beslon) where, briefly, the man thinks things are over and the relationship flashes before his eyes. The voice-over addresses the beloved in the second person, a love letter the audience intercepts, and the breathless montage recounts the varied history of these two lovers. It’s a love story of all the small moments, the screams, the tears, the laughs, the repetition of days.

It’s an excessive discourse that recalls other excessive expressions of passion: Elizabeth Smart’s By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept. Marguerite Duras’s The Lover. And yet, in its passion and direct address, its lovely claustrophobia, maybe more accurately Pablo Neruda’s Captain’s Verses.

The film is intimate, excessive, and yet made up of an abundance of small moments that on their own might be insignificant. It’s the repetition of these small moments that makes up the pattern of the couple’s days, the accumulation of memories that shapes the intimacy here. As their history flashes by, the repetitions layer like a palimpsest, the images becoming part of a larger passionate body. “I see you,” says Thomas at the end of the film, as though this were only possible through the crisis and remembering he has just experienced.

Such passionate expression requires a talented hand. It’s difficult to distill so much dramatic history down into a short film without lapsing into melodrama or without drama turning into comedy. Tykwer seems to meta-comment on this here with the film within the film, the cheesy pimp and prostitute story that Francine stars in. When she calls Thomas back to figure out why he hung up, Francine asks him, “How are you supposed to say [it]  . . . without sounding completely melodramatic?”

Their story avoids melodrama through montage and the pure adrenalin of the piece. This is in a sense the polar opposite of the Wong Kar Wai offering a few weeks ago: where Wong lingers and hangs all granite gravity on an image in slow motion, Tykwer races past images like a water slide of vodka.

“Faubourg Saint-Denis” is one of the eighteen short films featured in Paris, je t’aime, an anthology of short films by several significant directors, each set in a different arrondissement of Paris. Other directors in the project include Gus Van Sant, Richard LaGravenese, The Cohen Brothers, Alfonso Cuaron, and Alexander Payne.

Tykwer has masterly told passionate tales before, matching star-struck and tortured romances with a sort of fairy tale sensibility: the questions of fate, free will and running in Run Lola Run; the innocence and violence of The Princess and the Warrior; the dark, damaged passion of Perfume: The Story of a Murderer.

Tykwer, with The Matrix’s Wachowskis,  is adapting and directing David Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas for the big screen (it’s listed as currently in post production).

—R. W. Gray


Dec 312011

Author photo by David Penhale.

Here’s a very smart, fresh, angular essay about Martin Scorsese, a recapitulation of his films, his trajectory in the art, but crucially focused on the idea and markers of success (material and otherwise) and tainted success, the kind of success that betrays authenticity. What makes this essay especially fascinating is that the author writes from the perspective of a Catholic intellectual, a stance not necessarily popular in this arid post-liberal climate we inhabit but nonetheless full of hermeneutic vigor. Scorsese is a lapsed Catholic, but a world view founded on ideas of sin, the fall, and redemption suffuses his gritty films—at least, when the case is made, it makes sense.

Philip Marchand is an old, old friend. See his complete and charmingly self-written biography below the essay. Suffice it to say here that he wrote the best biography of Marshall McLuhan ever, a book that I revisit and treasure and not just for what it says about McLuhan—it actually helped me understand how subplots work in novels. And he also wrote a gorgeous book called Ghost Empire about the great French explorer La Salle (but also about the author himself, the history of North America, and the decline of the west, which yet managed to be amiable and friendly and charming). Here’s the opening of a review I wrote at the time:

In Ghost Empire, Philip Marchand’s new book about the voyages of the great and peculiar 17th century French explorer Robert de La Salle, the author doesn’t tell us much that is novel about La Salle. But in recounting the daring explorer’s epic wanderings Marchand manages to compose an amazingly fresh, surprising take on North American history, French-Canada, Catholicism, and the author himself, a faintly quixotic character, bookish, erudite, and appealingly self-ironic.



Martin Scorsese ends King of Comedy in the same way he ends many of his films — with a man alone, overshadowed by a huge moral question mark. In this case, the question mark is also a narrative one. The final scenes of the movie show a cascade of newsmagazines featuring on their front covers the face of this man alone — the movie’s protagonist, the wannabe stand-up comic Rupert Pupkin. Pupkin, these magazine covers tell us, has finally become a somebody, a celebrity. But are those magazine covers “real,” or are they part of Pupkin’s fantasy?

There is an answer to that question, and we shall come to it, but more interesting for the moment is how starkly this movie’s ending dramatizes a dominant theme in Scorsese’s work. Pupkin is a character who, despite huge odds, obtains what he has long sought, a moment in the spotlight. Unfortunately he has accomplished this by kidnapping a genuine celebrity and refusing to release him until given a spot on the network so he can perform his comedy routine. Pupkin knows he is committing a crime but defiantly assures himself that it is better to be a “king for a night than schmuck for life.” He is expressing in milder form the same imperative that drives the gangsters in Goodfellas, who would rather be “whacked” or imprisoned than remain “content to be a jerk” (Tommy DeVito) or a “sucker” (Henry Hill).

On his own terms, then, Pupkin succeeds. It is a success, however, like the temporary successes of Scorsese’s gangsters, obtained by criminality and loss of conscience. This phenomenon of tainted success — a phenomenon rich in social implication — lies at the heart of Scorsese’s work.

In his breakthrough movie, Mean Streets, Scorsese dramatizes the opposition between virtue and tainted success in the soul of Charlie, the protagonist. Charlie’s moral struggle begins when he is offered a restaurant by his mafioso uncle. It is an item he dearly wants. On other hand he also wants to be a good man. In his voice-over narration at the beginning of the movie — a conversation with himself — Charlie lays out his basic religious beliefs, the beliefs of a Do-It-Yourself Catholic.  “You don’t make up for your sins in the Church, you do it in the streets, you do it at home,” he says. “The rest is bullshit and you know it.” There is never any doubt in the movie about the sincerity of Charlie’s spiritual ambitions, despite his involvement in poolroom brawls, despite his uneasy relations with his epileptic lover Theresa, despite episodes in which he rips off a couple of teenagers looking to buy fireworks and tries to beguile an exotic dancer with a job offer in his new restaurant. At one point, Charlie tells Theresa, “Saint Francis of Assisi had it all down. He knew.”

Can he “make up” for the sin of coveting this restaurant, which he is given only because the previous owner — who commits suicide — has failed to generate enough business to pay off his (presumably usurious) loans to Charlie’s uncle? The offer of the restaurant, which functions in this movie as a symbol of tainted success, or at least the possibility of such success, comes with a heavy price. Charlie’s uncle demands that Charlie stop seeing his friends, the wildly irresponsible Johnny Boy and Theresa.  “Honorable men go with honorable men,” he says, which clearly rules out Johnny Boy, and also Theresa, who is “sick in the head.” Charlie attempts to compromise. “I’ve got to stay away from you and Johnny,” he tells Theresa. “I don’t want to stop seeing you…Just let me get the restaurant first. Then things are going to be easier.”

Such deviousness is hardly the role of a St. Francis, and it’s no wonder that Johnny Boy, fully aware of Charlie’s desire not to jeopardize his chances of getting the restaurant, calls him a “fucking politician.” In the end, however, Charlie refuses to quit entirely on St. Francis. The fate of the characters is unclear after the movie’s violent ending, but it does seem, in the light of that ending, that Charlie has decisively turned his back on the restaurant. What matters about this movie, however, is not its ending but the way in which it has set the terms of the drama in which all of Scorsese’s characters, who do manage to get their hands on the restaurant, so to speak, will become embroiled.

These characters, for one thing, will not be victims. They will not be spiritual depressives, like the characters of Bergman, or neurotics (Woody Allen) or helpless witnesses to existential futility (Antonioni.)  Marie Connelly states the case well in her book, The Films of Martin Scorsese.  “Scorsese’s characters are out hustling, making it in a world that still holds out the possibility of fulfillment of hopes and dreams. Unlike other characters, his do not live lives of ‘quiet desperation.’ His characters are shown from the point of view of the swirling vortex of camera movement punctuated by the beat of contemporary rock music drawing us into their lives.”

In almost all of Scorsese’s movies there is a scene visually confirming worldly success, or at least affirming its promise, usually in the form of certain objects that are almost transcendent in their materialism, objects that seem to validate his characters’ hustle. The materialistic side of Charlie, for example, is established in a scene showing him lovingly tying his tie, with a brand new shirt,  in front of a mirror. The hero of Scorsese’s early feature, Who’s That Knocking on My Door, played by the same actor, Harvey Keitel, also meticulously adjusts his topcoat in a gesture of sartorial satisfaction. A nice car — “That’s the only toy I need,” says its owner — is another symbol of material success in that same movie. Eddie Felsen, the hero of Scorsese’s The Color of Money, his sequel to Robert Rossen’s The Hustler, combines fetishism of cars and fetishism of clothes in a scene where, dressed in an expensive topcoat, he gives his protégé, Vincent, a ride in his Cadillac. “It’s been very good to me,” Felsen says of the liquor business. “I mean, you’re sitting in it and I’m wearing it.” (Viewers of The Hustler will recall that Felsen’s nemesis in that picture, the gambler Bert Gordon, bought himself a fancy new car every year to validate his success.)

“Nice car,” says Vicki, upon being introduced to her future husband Jake La Motta in Raging Bull — what girl doesn’t appreciate a suitor with a hot set of wheels?  Scorsese certainly understands this, but between cars and clothes he seems more fascinated by clothing as a status indicator. The progress of Jimmy Doyle, hero of New York, New York, can be charted by the clothes he wears. At the beginning of the movie, Doyle stands amid the cheering throngs in New York celebrating V-J Day (the entire country enjoying its own tainted success as victor in World War II) dressed in two-toned brown and white shoes, white trousers and a Hawaiian shirt — an outfit he won in a card game. “Do I look like a gentleman in this shirt and these pants to you?” he asks the girl he is inelegantly trying to pick up. (The answer is no.) By contrast, at the end of the picture, Doyle is dressed in a natty dark gray suit (complemented by a pair of black shoes) with white shirt and silver tie. Add a topcoat and an umbrella, and the now successful Doyle is positively dapper.

In general, Scorsese’s gangsters are sharply dressed, if not always in the best of taste. One of the scenes establishing Henry Hill’s tainted success in Goodfellas is the shot of his endless bedroom closet full of suits. In Casino, protagonist Arnold Rothstein, manager of a casino for the mob, is perpetually turned out in matching suit, shirt and tie — red on red, white on white, blue on blue, green on green, cream on cream, lilac on lilac, tangerine on tangerine. “Look at you,” a fellow gangster says at one point. “You’re fucking walking around like John Barrymore. A fucking pink robe and a fucking cigarette holder.”

But there are many other material symbols of tainted success in Scorsese. One of the most notable is the championship belt — “a very rare item,” a pawnbroker tells its owner — won by Jake La Motta in Raging Bull. “I got a nice house, I got three great kids, I got a wonderful, beautiful wife — what more can I ask for?” La Motta tells a reporter in his retirement, sitting by his driveway where two convertibles are parked — but it is this championship belt which radiates talismanic power, the power suited to a winner, and when La Motta literally attacks that belt with a hammer, extracting jewels from it, his fall from grace is graphically demonstrated. (The wife and kids, by contrast, simply drop out of the picture.)

In Casino, the magical object signifying worldly success is the house Rothstein shows his new bride, complete with swimming pool and baby grand piano. This house, plus a chinchilla coat and a drawer full of jewelry, marks his marital covenant with her, in lieu of romantic attachments. (His bride frankly admits that she does not love him, but allows that his house is “great.”) Real estate in another form plays a similar role in The Departed, when the corrupt police officer Colin is shown an apartment in Boston with “a great view of the State House,” by a real estate agent. It’s such a desirable apartment, the agent says, “You move in, you’re upper class by Tuesday.” Colin takes it. He is, after all, a success as a member of an “elite unit” of the Massachusetts State Police, acquiring more and more influence within that unit as the movie progresses. The last scene of the movie shows the view of the State House and the parquet floor across which the blood from Colin’s head oozes. It’s Scorsese’s most succinct and vivid demonstration of the price of tainted success.

The signifiers of tainted success in Scorsese are not always, broadly speaking, material. In Taxi Driver, the hero Travis is hustling for a peculiar kind of success. “Listen you fuckers, you screwheads,” Travis proclaims in his empty apartment. “Here’s the man who would not take it anymore…Here’s the man who would not take it anymore. The man who stood up against the scum, cunts, the dogs, the filth, the shit. Here is someone who stood up.” When Travis fulfills this ambition to “stand up” by fatally shooting a pimp — “the worst sucking scum I’ve ever seen,” Travis says — his success is validated not by material objects but by press clippings.  TAXI DRIVER BATTLES GANGSTERS reads one admiring headline. TAXI HERO TO RECOVER proclaims another. The same form of validation occurs at the end of New York, New York when Francine’s success is shown by a montage of magazines — bearing such names as Screen Idol, Glitter, Stargazer, Fan Club, Photoplay — featuring her face on the cover. It’s the same technique used at the end of King of Comedy, which is why, I think, the latter display of magazine covers is not simply dreamed up by Pupkin.

This affirmation of tainted success via journalism — and news photography in particular — has no direct connection to filthy lucre, but is just as disgusting in Scorsese’s eyes. In The Aviator, photographers are constantly in Howard Hughes’s face — when he unveils a new airplane, when he crash lands and nearly kills himself, when an outraged girlfriend rams his car. These photographers validate celebrity-hood, and in that sense they validate success, but as Kate Hepburn tells Hughes, they are relentless. “When my brother killed himself, there were photographers at the funeral,” she says. “There’s no decency to it.” At best, photographers and journalists miss the point, as in the case of Travis’s press clippings.

All the more interesting, then, when Scorsese himself becomes a photojournalist of sorts in The Last Waltz, his cinematic tribute to The Band. In this documentary Scorsese displays the same sensibility and the same obsessions — including his interest in tainted success — that he brings to many of his films. The success-establishing scene in this movie, for example, is the shot, early in the film, of the long line-ups of fans waiting to buy tickets to the concert. This shot functions in the same way as shots of Henry Hill’s bedroom closet or press clippings do in other movies. After this introduction, the discovery of a hint of corruption in The Band’s success is not long in coming.

That discovery begins when Scorsese, in his interviews with the members of The Band, elicits a sense of innocence lost. One of the band members, Garth Hudson, evokes an idyllic period, in the early days of The Band’s existence, before their fame, when they all lived in Woodstock, N.Y. “We got to like it, just being able to chop wood or hit your thumb with a hammer,” Hudson recalls. “We would be concerned with fixing the tape recorder and fixing the screen door, you know. Stuff like that. Getting the songs together.”

Then came the years on the road, with ever-growing fame, and a different set of rewards. Scorsese delicately raises the subject of groupies and Band member Richard Manuel displays a roguish, slightly goofy grin. “I love ’em.That’s probably why we’ve been on the road,” he says. He pauses. “Not that I don’t like the music.”

This is reassuring news. We wouldn’t want the music to be forgotten. At the same time we are aware that things have changed since Woodstock days, when music was everything. Hudson still clings to some notion of virtue and the performance of music by recalling old jazz musicians in New York who were “the greatest priests” and healers, but the last word is Scorsese’s, and he chooses to end the movie with a curious tableau of The Band playing the melody to the English Renaissance tune “Greensleeves,” about a prostitute.

Some equivalent of Woodstock days, some authenticity, is the flip side of tainted success in Scorsese. It’s not necessary for a character to have explicit religious concerns, like Charlie in Mean Streets — indeed, explicit spirituality drops off the horizon after Mean Streets. (With the striking exception, of course, of Scorsese’s films about Jesus and the Dalai Lama.) But characters still need to remain in contact with something real, something that is not “bullshit,” in Charlie’s words.

A striking instance is The Color of Money, a movie that would seem to be totally devoted to “bullshit,” in the form of successful hustling, and to the naked materialism of its rewards. “It ain’t about pool,” Felsen tells his protégé. “It ain’t about sex, it ain’t about love, it’s about money.” When Vince takes pity on a sucker, Felsen reads him the riot act. “You never ease off on someone like that,” he says. “Not when there’s money involved.” In pursuit of money, Felsen himself not only sets up hustles but also manipulates Vincent and neglects his own lover. “Do you understand me?” Felsen says to Vince and his girlfriend. “We’re business people.”

It’s a funny business, to be sure. “Money won is twice as sweet as money earned,” is its credo. Under the circumstances it is hard to say which is the purer example of tainted success — the success of the sucker who wins a pool game in the process of being strung along by the loser of that game (the hustler), or the triumph of the hustler who walks away with all the money he can extract from the sucker. Yet this is not the last word, either. Even Felsen, at the end of the day, wants to define himself as a great pool player rather than a great hustler or a great businessman. After he beats Vince at the pool table, in what seems to be a genuine contest between the two men, Felsen is dismayed when Vince subsequently reveals that he “dumped” — that he let Felsen win. Felsen pleads with Vince’s girlfriend near the end of the movie, “I want his best game.” There is no doubt about the sincerity of his plea. It is about pool, after all.

This clinging to a measure of authenticity in a corrupt world can seem senseless, as in Jake La Motta’s taunt to Sugar Ray Robinson after the latter has beaten him to a pulp in the ring — “You never got me down,” proclaims the pulverized La Motta, while an unsettled Sugar Ray stares at him in disbelief — or Arnold Rothstein’s insistence on placing his fate in the hands of his prostitute wife, because, as he says, “When you love someone you’ve got to trust them. There is no other way. You’ve got to give them the key to everything that is yours. Otherwise, what’s the point?” These points of honor do seem senseless — but La Motta must be able to see himself, despite everything, as a man who does not give up or surrender, and Rothstein must be able to see himself as a man who knows the value of trust and lives by it. If they lose this ability, then, as Rothstein says, what is the point?

A man must define himself as something. Scorsese’s Howard Hughes, in the course of unsavory relationships with young girls and involvement in the corruption of military contracts, never loses sight of his self-definition as aviator. That is what he is, and no one can take this away from him. A vague sense of the male imperative of self-definition lies behind the comment made by the hero of Who’s That Knocking On My Door to his girlfriend. “Everyone should like westerns,” he says. This curious statement clearly has something to do with the protagonist’s notion of the western hero. What can that notion be? Robert Warshow articulated it most clearly in a 1949 essay on the western. The western hero, wrote Warshow, in an essay republished in his 1962 collection, The Immediate Experience, “fights not for advantage and not for the right, but to state what he is, and he must live in a world that permits that statement.”  Scorsese’s Hughes is a businessman, but he is not really interested in corporate empire building. He is interested in stating what he is, and that thing is not a businessman but an aviator. Scorsese’s Felsen may insist that he is a businessman, but when the pressure builds within him to state what he is, that something is a pool player.

The western hero is also a figure for whom love is notoriously an irrelevance, a reality Scorsese confronts in a number of his movies. “This is the most important thing to me besides you, you understand?” says Jimmy Doyle to his wife Francie, referring to his saxophone. “If I can’t do this, then I’m no good for you and I’m no good for anybody.” (The symbol of his authenticity seems to be the scene in which he uninhibitedly plays this saxophone in a Harlem nightclub.) The equally talented Francie, a singer, seems to have a more relaxed attitude towards her art — it does not define her quite so urgently. Yet New York, New York is one of Scorsese’s most interesting pictures precisely because it does portray a marital union of equals, in which love and self-definition should presumably co-exist. Certainly Francie is never in danger of becoming an irrelevance. When she starts making compromises with her art it undermines her husband’s self-definition. “You got everything, man,” he tells her. “You got it easy and I got nothing.”

In the end both settle for tainted successes. Echoing Charlie’s desire for a restaurant in Mean Streets, and answering his own complaint that he has “nothing,” Doyle becomes owner of a restaurant/night club — a classy joint, but Doyle is no longer the sax player who “blows a barrel full of tenor.” Francie goes Hollywood and stars in a sentimentalized version of her own career and marriage in a movie entitled Happy Endings, which Doyle aptly calls Sappy Endings.

The sluggish and rather forced quality of the movie — whatever spark it possesses comes not from music or sexual tension but from Doyle’s obnoxious qualities, which De Niro, in his fashion, plays all too well — is an indication of how uneasy Scorsese is with romance. Behind romance lies domesticity, and his men are too restless for domesticity, no matter how enticing home and hearth might sometimes appear. Jesus’s yearning for a happy family life with Mary Magdalen is literally The Last Temptation of Christ. He rejects it, of course.

 In portraying this search for authenticity via some skill, art, talent or hustle, it is very difficult to escape the male point of view. In Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Scorsese gives us a female point of view, which is very instructive. His heroine, Alice Hyatt, goes on the road in pursuit of a career as a chanteuse. It’s not a promising pursuit. There is no reason to suppose she is any more talented than Rupert Pupkin, and unlike Pupkin, she is unwilling to enact some desperate gambit in order to succeed. Eventually she gives up and accepts happiness in the arms of David, a solid character. In some remarks on this film, Scorsese has indicated he views the ending as an unfortunate reversion to domesticity on Alice’s part, but few viewers will feel that Alice has made a huge mistake in embracing Kris Kristofferson. It’s not as if she has a promising career up her sleeve. There is no success, tainted or otherwise, for Alice, but not a sappy ending either. It’s just not the kind of ending Scorsese can imagine for his male protagonists.

Why is it so difficult in this world for a man to attain a success untainted by sacrifice of his integrity? For a Catholic like Scorsese, the answer is no mystery — we are fallen beings, in a fallen world. Scorsese’s work dramatizes, more than the work of any other American director, the anguished complaint of St. Paul: “For the good that I would, I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do.” It may be the case, given lapsed Catholic Scorsese’s own comments about his reprobate status, that he views his own body of work as a tainted success, purchased at the price of his immortal soul.

Certainly Scorsese seems to have lost interest in his earlier theme of redemption, exemplified by movies such as Mean Streets and Raging Bull. Whether the redemption of Jake La Motta is convincing or not, the ending of the movie certainly nudges the reader to drop the Pharisee attitude and look at La Motta’s life through supernatural lens — to see La Motta as the unlikely recipient of grace. Latterly, there seems to be no such attempt on Scorsese’s part. The overtly religious movies he has made — The Last Temptation of Christ and Kundin — may have actually hastened his retreat from the realms of theology because of the failure of either his Christ or his Dalai Lama to emerge as vibrant characters or because of his own failure to overcome the extremely difficult narrative challenges presented by these movies. They call for a degree of sincerity that Scorsese can’t provide — they aren’t his stories and he has only so much leeway to make them his own. How much more excited Scorsese is in dealing with the character of Howard Hughes. There’s a man — an artist demanding perfection at whatever cost, a maverick, a daredevil — close to his own heart. The screen bristles with life and tension every time Hughes appears. But Scorsese can’t redeem him. Hughes demolishes his enemies at a Congressional hearing and proves he is an aviator one last time with the successful flight of the Spruce Goose, but neither of these triumphs wards off the madness waiting to overwhelm him.

 His recent concert film Shine A Light, has a dismal effect on the viewer. Scorsese clearly admires the Rolling Stones as a supreme example of hustle, which is why their music is so often heard on the sound track of his movies. But the spark has long since gone out of this particular hustle. Asked recently by an interviewer, “Are you amazed, surprised, delighted that the Stones have lasted this long?” their first manager Andrew Loog Oldham replied, “I wasn’t aware they had lasted this long.” Watching this movie, Oldham would have no grounds for changing his mind. Certainly in this concert movie there is none of the emotional resonance of The Last Waltz, which evokes a complete narrative arc from Woodstock days to the death of the Band. The Rolling Stones never had a Woodstock period of chopping wood and fixing screen doors and writing songs, and it appears they will never bid farewell to public performances while they are physically capable of walking on stage. In the rock solid wall of this dogged careerism and unrelenting appetite for adulation, there is no place for redemption to catch hold. In one of the cleverer moments of the film, Mick Jagger bursts out of a side door to sing “Sympathy for the Devil” with his off-key “woo woos.” Scorsese lights that space behind the door a lurid red, as if Jagger is just emerging from some kind of cheesy inferno. It’s a playful touch, but not entirely a joke to the director whose character Charlie, in Mean Streets, muses on the eternal flames of hell.

An interesting question is whether Scorsese has dropped this theme of redemption because of an intellectual or emotional change in his own makeup, or whether he has dropped it because he has perceived, with his highly sensitive antennae, something increasingly dark in the American landscape.

—Philip Marchand


Philip Marchand was born and raised in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and attended the University of Toronto, where he obtained a B.A. and an M.A. in English literature. Afterwards he spent several years as a free lance magazine writer in Canada. A collection of his 1970s journalism was published in 1976 under the title of Just Looking, Thank You: An Amused Observer’s Views of Canadian Lifestyles, by Macmillan of Canada.  An unsympathetic critic termed the book the poor man’s Tom Wolfe and he may have been right. The author is not sure he wants you to look it up if you are so inclined.

A more credible book was his 1989 biography entitled Marshall McLuhan: The Medium and the Messenger. A slightly revised edition, with a foreword by the late Neal Postman, was published by MIT Press in 1998. It is still in print for all I know. In a recent article in the New York Review of Books, Pico Iyer called it “delightfully readable.”

Marchand has also written a crime novel, the 1994 Deadly Spirits. Again, the author is not sure he wants you to look it up. It’s okay, but not great.

Finally McClelland & Stewart published Marchand’s  Ghost Empire: How the French Almost Conquered North America in 2005. (An American edition was published by Praeger in 2007.) This is a great book and you really should read it. It’s a mixture of travel, memoir and history.

From 1989 to 2008 Marchand was books columnist for the Toronto Star. He currently writes a weekly book review column for the National Post.

He is married and lives in Toronto.


—Philip Marchand (himself)

Dec 292011

This is a classic music video (in the ironic sense). A brilliant avant garde something or other written by John Cage. You might want to think of the famous blank chapter in Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy as you watch/listen to this magnificent work.

I myself am making preliminary notes toward a complete blank novel, epic in scope, called, poignantly enough, Emptiness.


Dec 222011

The tried and true revenge plot takes on a decidedly yuletide flavour as “Treevenge” explores the trauma and abuse Christmas trees face, and then offers a cathartic glimpse into their ultimate, bloody revenge.

The film was created by local (to me) Halifax filmmakers Rob Cotteril and Jason Eisener who first got notice for their fake film trailer for “Hobo with a Shotgun” which won Robert Rodriguez’s SXSW Grindhouse Trailer Competition and was featured as part of the double feature theatre release of Rodriguez’s and Quentin Tarantino’s Grindhouse. They have since developed the fake trailer into a real film featuring Rutger Hauer.

Happy Holidays to everyone. Especially the trees.


Dec 152011

“Why don’t clouds float along the ground?” one of the young girls in Jane Campion’s short film “The Water Diary” asks. The film itself meditates on things as unreachable as these: the clouds, a child’s comprehension of all these adult mistakes, and any solution to the environmental disaster these people are enduring.

Campion’s contribution to the United Nations’ 8 film project tackles the seventh goal of the United Nations’ eight Millennium Goals: “ensure environmental sustainability.” Numero Cinq already presented the fifth film, Jan Kounen’s “”The Story of Panshin Beka” (you can see it and the intro here). The film shares a quirkiness with the Jane Campion’s “Passionless Moments” short films which Numero Cinq also presented (you can see them here).

The film places the central issue in the hands and imaginations of children. The child whose diary narrates the film has a perspective limited by her innocence but unlimited by her imagination. She cannot see where the horses have gone at first, her friend calls the central issue “global warning,” and she imagines impossible worlds where there are clouds on the ground and dancing mattresses. So where the adult response to the catastrophe in the film is to have dreams of rain and commit awful sacrifices, the children are able to each take their own small steps and imagine a possible solution.

What fuels the children and this story is the way the children seem to understand sacrifice and pain better than the adults. The horses provide the most visceral and material metaphor for the price these children are paying for their parents’ poor environmental choices. The narrative sees no solution in this sacrifice though, just further adult missteps. As one child warns, “If they think we’re going to look after them when they’re older, they can just forget about it.”

Campion uses extreme long shots to emphasize the landscape and its relationship to the small children in it. The children often appear in the lower corners of the frame or to the side, as in the last shot of the girl playing the viola. Though the children are perhaps diminished, what Campion emphasizes through these shots is how connected these children are to their environment and that small gestures, even single tears in a glass of water, can cause change.

Campion leaves the ending ambiguous. On the one hand what we imagine comes next depends on our own cynicism or imagination. On the other, the point of this story is not the rain, but the spirit, drive and sacrifice to cause change in the world – to fix what has been broken.


Dec 082011

Is it possible to film a dance piece with a corpse as a dancer?

Bravo!Fact describes Pedro Pires’s “Danse Macabre” as “The intimate journey of a body after its death.” Pire elaborates: “For a period of time, while we believe it to be perfectly still, lifeless flesh responds, stirs and contorts in a final macabre ballet. Are these spasms merely erratic motions or do they echo the chaotic twists and turns of a past life?”

The camera moves more than any body does in this film. And, indeed, for the first major shots, there is an absence of bodies, life instead represented by the flutter and dart of birds caught inside cathedral ceilings and hallways. We don’t see the body in question until it lurches from a chair and is suddenly hanging from the ceiling. It is the largest movement this body will make and the most violent as it marks the end of a life, though not the last time the body will fall.

The only body we get then is an abject body which soon turns fluid in ways that disgust and horrify: the dance of bubbling embalming fluid, the blossoming of blood in water draining from the autopsy table, and the body’s rigor mortis contortions. The film finds beauty in all this. In one section, an underwater ballet, the dancer’s dress and gestures resemble blood staining water, then the shape of her turns almost uncannily in utero, glancing back to birth.

And then the shot fades to a heart in a glass jar. The body is all these things on its way to becoming none.

In another section, as the body is lowered to the autopsy table, there is grace, edged with something unspeakably almost like longing in its repose, where the body touches the earth with one torqued foot, then one slack hand dragging the table, each a last tenuous connection to this earthly plane.

There’s a long tradition of representing “Danse Macabre” in painting where it is usually represented with a group of people, usually from different walks of life, to emphasize that death has dominion over everyone – no one escapes.

In another film representation of the “danse,” the final shots of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, death drags the characters along the hillside, they fight his pull, a chain of suffering, and still a dance.

If these images of “Danse Macabre” signify that no one escapes death, they also, perhaps, suggest that because no one escapes we are connected to others in this experience.

But not for Pires’s dead dancer. For her, death is reached alone. No other body, no one else ever enters the frame. The coroner, the undertaker, loved ones of the deceased, anyone that might have come into contact with the body . . . they are all absent. The body is always alone except in the flash montage of photographic images we see once the body has been lowered to the autopsy table. There are images of the body alive, dancing, and an image of a child. We see fragments of a life which just further emphasize how alone this body is now in death.

The film is built from an idea by the Canadian artist extraordinaire Robert Lepage who Pire worked with on Lepage’s Possible Worlds.

Pedro Pire’s second short film, Hope, also produced with the Phi Films collective, just premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in September. Promotional material describes it as “Inspired by the play JIMMY, CRÉATURE DE RÊVE by critically acclaimed playwright Marie Brassard. . . [it] explores the fragmented violence of war seen through the eyes of a General on his deathbed. Accustomed to a life on the battlefield, he surrenders to a stream of consciousness, mixing death, brutality, and finally, one last gesture of hope.”

— R W Gray

Nov 242011

John Bolton’s “Breakdown” is both a study in economy – doing much with little — and in the joy of having fun. It features a who’s who of working actors in Vancouver. They all came out to have fun, and for many of them, I’d suggest, make fun of the high stakes melodrama many Vancouver shot TV shows and movies specialize in.

The tagline for the film is “A disaster film disaster.” Perfect. The tropes of the disaster film have basically become self-parodic in films like 2012 and The Day After Tomorrow: where the world conspires to bring a broken family back together. It’s a tired formula, unwatchable. Bolton and his crew show us how tired the conventions are as they manage to shoot the major plot points and character development all in under fourteen minutes in a casting room.

It’s a beautiful disaster and strangely cathartic if you’ve been harboring low-level anger towards Hollywood disaster films the way I have.

Part of Vancouver, BC’s 2006 Crazy 8 Competition, Bolton and his team along with seven other teams were given eight hundred dollars to produce their short film. This year Crazy 8s enters its thirteenth year of supporting and challenging Vancouver filmmakers to make great short films.

The film stars Christopher Shyer, Amanda Tapping, Carly McKillip, Winston Rekert, Sonya Salomaa, Gary Chalk, William S. Taylor and Michael Coleman as themselves (in a way).

—R. W. Gray

Nov 102011


Julie Trimingham’s film triptych “beauty crowds me”

Introduced by R. W. Gray


In Julie Trimingham‘s triptych of poetic short films, words become breath and thought, visuals flare into being, fall away, then return and hang and haunt. The films take Emily Dickinson’s poems as their source for inspiration, but the words are given to us as an intimate voice over, repetitively and meditatively delivered.

I have to confess a sort of skepticism about the clash / collaboration between art forms; such collisions seem to colossally fail more than find beauty. In particular, the danger of bringing film to poetry is that the moving image can easily literalize the words, or, conversely, the words can dominate the visual medium. Trimingham’s collisions work for me because they aren’t too grounded in one form or another.

The action is poetic, and by that I mean improbable, unrealistic, yet familiar. In “I heard a fly buzz,” the second film, the claustrophobic dance of the couple who can never leave their apartment, their bed, the tub, and their movements choreographed, both uncanny (in moments he seems like a fly on the window sill or on the tub) and sublime.

Continue reading »

Nov 032011

I Love Sarah Jane from Qoob TV on Vimeo.


Spencer Susser’s I Love Sarah Jane

Introduced by R. W. Gray


In this special post-Halloween edition of Numéro Cinq at the movies, we’re featuring “I Love Sarah Jane” by Spencer Susser. Viewer warning: there’s some gore here, but the originality of the story makes it worth it.

I’m not a zombie fan by trade, but have come to appreciate the genre because of its apocalyptic questioning of who we really are under our (sometimes few) civilized masks and what really matters to us when the those masks fall away.

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Oct 272011

Mamá (2008 Spanish short film) from Pablo Sierra on Vimeo.


.In this Halloween edition of Numéro Cinq at the Movies, we have Andres Muschietti’s Mama (2008). Turn the lights out, turn the sound up, put some headsets on, and enjoy.

The plot is simple and yet leaves gobs of story unexplored, haunting the plot we do get: two children are tormented by a terrifying mother; we never find out the origins of this terror and we don’t find out what becomes of the children. This tip of the iceberg approach to storytelling gives the piece a depth that makes it even more terrifying for all the unimaginable horrors we are left to imagine.

What’s scary here is firstly archetypal and secondly uncanny. Mama is the archetypal bad mother that lurks behind the good mother archetype, waiting to consume, torment, and dismember instead of nurture. Like the one daughter, we are drawn to the figure of Mama, because she promises to fulfill the maternal role, but soon we understand their trepidation. This mother is not up for baking cookies.

She’s also uncanny here thanks to a couple of very successful horror techniques. Mama, though human in form and thus familiar, is unfamiliar because of her movements. The head tilted to the side, the contorting, jerking motions of her limbs and the speed of her movements are all unfamiliar. Similar effects were used in the horror film the The Ring when the monstrous young girl climbs out of the television. To achieve this effect they shot the actress in reverse with exaggerated movements so that when they played the footage forward her gestures seemed insect like and inhuman. This is Freud’s Uncanny: both familiar and unfamiliar and disturbing all around.

When this short film came out three years ago it created so much of a buzz that Mexican director Guillermo Del Toro – known for his popular Hellboy type fare and his more art house type horror films like Pan’s Labyrinth – decided to take Muschietti under his producing / mentoring wing and turn the film into a feature-length terror. Del Toro similarly mentored / produced the The Orphanage (2007).

Continue reading »

Oct 132011


Warning: this video contains suggestive animations of fruit, human sacrifice, and some coarse language. “The Island” is a short film by Trevor Anderson, a filmmaker from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Anderson is a self-taught independent filmmaker who is currently in post-production on his tenth short film. His work has screened at countless film festivals around the world, including Sundance, Berlin and Toronto.

I saw “The Island” accidentally the first time, then realized I knew the filmmaker. Once upon a time, we both lived in the basements of lesbian professors in Edmonton. We were an exclusive subculture immortalized in a line from a non-fiction piece by Janice Williamson: “gay boys who live in the basements of dyke professors and wonder about the status quo.”

“The Island” for me is carnivalesque in that Rabelaisian sense of being both outrageous and intolerant of hypocrisy which means here being intolerant of intolerance. The film begins plainly enough in the hinterlands, one man walking against a blank canvas of snow, the starkness of the landscape emphasizing the stark hatred in the “fan mail” the narrator receives. What follows is simply beauty made from ugliness, a massive flight of fancy that describes a utopia of tolerance and celebration and freedom.

The last line troubles things with one of those perfect tugs on the tablecloth. Like Anderson believes too much in an interdependent and connected humanity, one that even includes the ignorant and intolerant, to move permanently to this Rabelaisian island.

At the Hot Docs International Documentary Festival, Anderson won the inaugural Lindalee Tracey Award, presented to “an emerging Canadian filmmaker working with passion, humour, a strong sense of social justice and a personal point of view.”

If you like Anderson’s style of autobiodoc filmmaking (a term I’m trying to put into common usage so please pass it on), then please check out the trailer for his last film, “The High Level Bridge” (and if you’re enticed pay the $1.99 to download the full film and support this indie filmmaker). “The High Level Bridge” is a short meditation on the untold history of suicides off of Edmonton’s High Level bridge and concludes with Anderson dropping his camera off the bridge into the icy water below.


Purchase the film at Trevor Anderson: Dirty City Films.

“The High Level Bridge” was  selected for the Sundance Institute’s Art House Project. From Anderson’s website: “In 2005, the Art House Project was created to celebrate the 25th Anniversary of Sundance Institute and pay tribute to art house theatres across the USA. Twelve art house theatres from around the country were designated and united as Sundance Institute Art House Project theatres. In 2006, a Sundance Institute 25th Anniversary retrospective series was made available for each of the theatres to show in their local communities. The Sundance Institute Art House Project has since grown to a total of 17 participating theatres nationwide and continues its commitment to expanding the reach of independent cinema across America.”