Apr 162013

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

— R. W. Gray

Jan 132013

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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

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


Dec 102012

Dear Numéro Cinq at the Movies watchers,

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

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

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

Happy Holidays from the Numéro Cinq at the Movies folks.

–R. W. Gray

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

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

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

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

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

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

–R.W. Gray

Dec 102012

Dear Numéro Cinq at the Movies watchers,

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

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

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

Happy Holidays from the Numéro Cinq at the Movies folks.

–R. W. Gray

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

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

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

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

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

–R. W. Gray

Sep 152012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–R. W. Gray

Aug 162012

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

Maybe it’s not for everyone. Fine.

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

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

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

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

— R. W. Gray

Aug 032012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— RWGray

Jul 212012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— R. W. Gray

Jul 062012


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— R. W. Gray


Jun 222012

Occasionally, in the structure of a larger film there will appear a scene or sequence that can stand on its own, discretely, as its own short film. Here I would include the opening scene to Neil LaBute’s Your Friends & Neighbors, the seduction / meeting scene in Julio Medem’s Sex and Lucia, the “Hotel Chevalier” short shot alongside Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited (a separate film but theatres often screened it with the feature and it contains events referred to throughout the film), and this short set of scenes spanning the story of a goldfish on a freeway in the middle of Miranda July’s first feature film Me and You and Everyone We Know.

Structurally each of these shorts can be viewed discretely from their feature films and some, as in the case of July’s goldfish story, may even seem like an aside, though I think it still adds something tangentially to the larger film it belongs in. Some like “Hotel Chevalier” are subplots. Others like the opening to Your Friends & Neighbors and Medem’s seduction scene are building blocks of the main plot but could still exist as separate entities. Despite these differences, what they do have in common is that they provide enough narrative cohesion and catharsis to exist on their own if they had to. Or if you wanted to see them that way.

The goldfish sequence is tonally and stylistically similar to the rest of the film it appears in but is also similar to “Are You the Favourite Person of Anybody?” which was previously featured in Numero Cinq at the Movies. In July’s worlds we find absurdist realities where what happens is probable, realistic, but told in an overdrawn way, here particularly evident in the dialogue between Christine (Miranda July) and Michael (Hector Elias).

There are also strong similarities between this oversaturated reality and the style of Jane Campion’s short films (which were also featured in Numero Cinq at the Movies) which is no surprise as July commonly cites Campion as one of her inspirations and influences.

Though the goldfish short fits within the feature it is a part of, viewed on its own it offers a different experience. It is then a short film about loss, about condensed meaningful moments, and connection between strangers witnessing those moments. This isn’t at odds with the feature film it belongs to, but is in hues and tenor more melancholy than the rest of the film.

There are two things which tonally shift this shared sad experience, though, and keep it from plummeting into melodrama: 1) the couple in the vehicle that is the goldfish’s penultimate landing place are oblivious to the goldfish’s last moments, even though, as Michael notes, “at least we are all together in this.”

2) It’s about the death of a goldfish, possible the world’s most disposable pet. Truly, for the goldfish, these last moments hurtling down the freeway in his little bag of water might be a much more euphoric way to die than the neglect and probable toilet bowl funeral ending that would have awaited him at the little girl’s home. Regardless, the accidental death that connects these strangers is light on tragedy as a result.

All told this mixes into something sublime: a little accident, a little collision between strangers, a little loss, all finding something meaningful and significant that is more than a little beyond words.

None of this is intended to disparage the larger work, July’s absurd and lovely first feature Me and You and Everyone We Know. It’s just there’s a pleasure within the pleasure. And this might be worth tasting on its own.

–R. W. Gray

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 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

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 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 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 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

Dec 062011

CBC Canada Writes producer Sarah Gilbert asked dg to name a “writer to watch” when she commissioned his short story “Snow Days” for the Winter Tales series. He picked NC Contributing Editor R. W. Gray (who writes NC at the Movies for the magazine). DG discovered Rob Gray when he was reading books for the annual Danuta Gleed Literary Award. See Rob’s story “Crisp” published earlier on these pages and his lovely screenplay for the movie Alice & Huck.

And then read his essay on the Canada Writes website (link below.)



Growing a Tail

by R. W. Gray


I come from a family of mythological creatures and tall-tale tellers: people who live in the most reckless and absurd way possible, and the people who love them and show that love by seeing those foibles and face plants as fodder. My grandfather was mythic. He danced with loons, he was so small they stuck him between the double hulls of the naval ships to weld, and he was a furious smoker which led to him setting fire to himself as we sped down the highway on our way to Barkerville to pan for gold once. Mythic.
When he died he only grew bigger in the tales, but he left the rest of us with no new material. Whether due to genetics or poor example, we, too, now each have our mythic moments. We take turns. And we take turns telling the tall tales. We pass them back and forth like some giant ball of rubber bands, adding another, then another, until they can build a small town and rest stop near what started simply as the Christmas the neighbour shot himself in the basement.