Sunday, August 31, 2008

Savage Grace: the rare occasion where we could use a little less of Moore and a whole lot more of something to truly care about

This long-awaited second feature from director Tom Kalin, who made such an impression way back in 1992 with the Leopold and Loeb retelling
Swoon, comfortably nestles up against its predecessor with regards to categorization: it’s a true crime movie, involving sex, horrific murder and characters with deeply pretentious ambitions, and it’s as queer as any movie can hope to be, with its personage mixing in all sorts of combinations untraditional, kinky, or downright deviant.

Besides apparently being exactingly tailored to the thematic interests of prolific producer Christine Vachon (an instrumental force behind Swoon, Boys Don’t Cry, I Shot Andy Warhol, Party Monster, The Notorious Bettie Page and Infamous), it’s the sort of material that also seems to draw in some of our finest actresses of a certain age, especially those who continually crave adventure and edge. Given that Joan Crawford is long gone, I can’t think of a better choice for the star role of Savage Grace than Julianne Moore—yet at the same time I think it might just be the worst, or at least the least enjoyable performance I’ve ever seen Moore give. But then, are we even supposed to enjoy this movie? Even the somber enjoyment of more closely understanding some bleak, troubling aspect of human nature?

Narrated by the real Tony Baekeland, Savage Grace dramatizes the story of his life leading up to his notorious arrest in 1972 at the age of 25. It says a lot about Baekeland’s life that the real star of his story is actually his mom, Barbara (Moore), heiress to the Bakelite fortune, an uncultured, desperately unhappy society woman who, after being abandoned by her understandably demoralized husband (Stephen Dillane) for her son’s girlfriend, focuses all of her overbearing energies on her only child, who she constantly needles, travels all over Europe with, lives with and, as it turns out, has sex with. Tony himself (played by the suitably stunned-looking Eddie Redmayne, once more, as in The Good Shepherd, the psychologically under-developed son) is rather a wisp of a boy next to her, nervous, uncertain, largely unloved and internalizing more rage than most of us will ever know.

For those of us who aren’t survivors of incest but always suspected it made for a pretty miserable home life, Savage Grace, the antithesis of Murmur of the Heart in more ways than one, certainly confirms that and some. But I suppose what’s truly terrifying in this utterly tawdry tale is not the aberrant sex itself but the suffocating mothering from which the sex is but one manifestation, and hardly the most toxic. Savage Grace is really a sort of horror movie about the stifling effects of family and affluence, one beautifully photographed in exquisite locales and filled with beautiful people, where the monster just keeps coming back to embarrass herself and everybody else with her incredibly awkward attempts to seem sophisticated before throwing yet another shrill hissy fit.

I didn’t actually know Baekeland’s story before seeing Savage Grace, which is just as well—at least there were some surprises. But these surprises, like Kalin’s craftsmanship, itself a bit overdone and noodlely, didn’t make Baekeland’s story any more enlightening, just grotesque, sad, jarring, intermittently fascinating and ultimately kind of pointless.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

American history X: Ronald Wright and Paul Auster review the story in progress

A nation is a living thing, and as a living thing—not to mention a thing of tremendous potential for both prosperity and peril—it requires ongoing examination. Definitions of nations are useful, yet they are not fixed, and as the US rapidly builds toward a new opportunity to re-define itself following a tumultuous period simultaneously characterized by unprecedented power and influence and unprecedented international disdain, it’s as good a time as ever to take the long view.

What is America?: A Short History of the New World Order (Knopf, $29.95), essayist Ronald Wright, author of Time Among the Maya, Stolen Continents and A Short History of Progress, does just that, surveying the trends in defining American life from the arrival of the first Europeans and the gradual crushing of the old Americans by the new. The national character as described in this new book’s pages—one that is forever “losing its innocence” thanks to an unusually strong penchant for historical amnesia—is not very much flattered to say the least, but Wright’s aim is not to pat anyone on the back but rather to flush out the essential, long-circulating venom that plagues the heart of what, like it or not, is our world’s best hope. (Okay, them and, maybe, the European Union, but that would surely call for another book.)

What is America? is, as Wright admits, an eccentric book. As concise in volume as it is expansive in chronology, it spends precious little ink reiterating certain historical events, however enormous in implication, that have been exhaustively dealt with elsewhere. Thus slavery and the Civil War, to name two sweeping examples, are duly accounted for in the book’s thesis but left largely undiscussed in favour of more iconoclastic takes on other, still more unruly histories, such as that of the centuries-in-the-making extermination of Native Americans. Wright emphasizes the fact that it was not simply that white settlers usurped their territory and decimated their rank but that this territory was already being occupied by organized, sophisticated, agrarian peoples—not ranging savages standing in the path of civilization. He does this to make clear just how much the New World was founded upon not just the raw terrain but the time-tested developments of the Old: “The Pilgrims thanked their God for saving them in a ‘wilderness,’ but the feast speaks for itself: turkey, corn, beans, pumpkin, cranberries, potatoes and the rest came from thousands of New World civilization. It was the heathen, not the Lord, who saved them.”

Wright aligns the spin doctoring and self-deceit that facilitated the extermination of the Indians with like contemporary practices, aligning the rhetoric of Andrew Jackson with Ronald Reagan, or that of William McKinley, who needed to consult directly with God in order to allow him to justify invading the Philippines, with George W. Bush. Wright also gives a gracious nod to the work that fellow contemporary writers for laying the groundwork for some of his thesis, such as Jon Krakauer, who’s Under the Banner of Heaven, a history of violence in Mormonism, is cited in Wright’s exploration of the continuous role of fundamentalist religious thinking, not to mention paranoia, in the development of America’s march toward self-realization.

Yet while its list of dishonorable patriots is impressive, part of What is America? is also given over to paying tribute to the countless voices of intelligent dissent that are equally intrinsic to American identity. Besides Krakauer, Wright also draws upon the barbed lamentations of such luminaries as Herman Melville, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Benjamin Franklin, Gore Vidal, Davy Crockett, Henry David Thoreau and Alexis de Tocqueville. And were he to take a gander at some of the other titles sharing the new releases section with What is America?, perhaps Wright would go on to include Paul Auster in his list, since Man in the Dark (Henry Holt, $26), Auster’s latest novel, is also in a sense a work of American historical revisionism and Auster’s most clearly politically charged work since 1992’s Leviathan.

“I am alone in the dark, turning the world around in my head as I struggle through another bout of insomnia, another white night in the great American wilderness.” These are the first words of Man in the Dark, which reads as the testimony of a 72-year-old retired book critic named August Brill. The wilderness he writes about is figurative, a vast landscape of relentless shadows, while the literal space he inhabits for the whole of the novel is but the single darkened room where he lies, his leg shattered by an accident, his mind roiling with persistent ghosts, those of his wife, deceased, his son-in-law, separated from his daughter, and his grandson-in-law, killed horrifically on foreign soil. Brill makes up stories to ward off misery, and the one he’s working on as Man in the Dark begins concerns an America embroiled in a new Civil War, one ignited by the corrupt presidential election of 2000.

Stories within stories are the gleaming mulch of Auster’s garden of ideas that deliberately slip away when sifted for singular meanings, but one of the things that I think ennobles Man in the Dark in particular is how boldly it exudes a faith in the redemptive power of storytelling, and how it locates the storytelling capacity in not just writers but in every one of us. The novel lights upon a dizzying catalogue of hot-button issues, from the war in Iraq to the erosion of civil liberties, yet it is the confluence of Brill’s imaginings with the stories he’ll later share with his grieving granddaughter about their family’s past that provides Auster with the meatier political statement, one founded in this crazy notion that a democracy really is meant to empower the individual, and that the access to individual dreams, to the inner lives of others, is the gift that novels give to readers to sustain them through troubled times.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Missed opportunities: The Edge of Heaven skates along the edge of excess

At the start of two of it’s three chapters, Fatih Akin’s
The Edge of Heaven (Auf der anderen Seite) does a couple of very curious things, each highly emblematic of the movie’s underlying spirit. Firstly, with, happily, no ‘spoiler alert’ warning anywhere in sight, the chapters in question are titled so as to unambiguously announce the climactic death of a central character. Secondly, they depict the arrival by plane of a coffin from another land. In one coffin lies the remains of a Turk killed in Germany, in the other a German killed in Turkey. As the stories of the coffin’s contents are revealed, this morbid foreign exchange program proves to be riddled with potent themes of dislocation and misunderstanding, intolerance and intergenerational breakdown.

There is certainly no mistaking the ambitions toward profundity and timeliness invested here. Neither can one say that intense emotions have not been shaken to life to make it all happen. Yet as I watched The Edge of Heaven I could never quite shake off the sense that no single pursuit was being served so arduously as that of what is finally kind of a cheap and, these days, over-extended device: dramatic irony, that indispensable tool for many an ostensibly important, dramaturgically overcooked movie of our new century. From Crash (2004) to Babel (06) our most literal-minded liberal filmmakers have been trying to show us how, in the age of globalization, everything is connected, and they convey this by, well, literally connecting everybody in their movies, as though the audience is entirely incapable of making such connections on their own. Akin’s latest isn’t quite as overbearing in its approach as the above high-profile examples, as he endowing certain scenes with a genuinely affecting level of intimacy. But it’s this very intimacy that instills our viewing experience with that much deeper a sense of betrayal once the writer/director’s heavy hand enters the frame.

In one strand of The Edge of Heaven we see Ali (Tuncel Kurtiz), a retired widower, fall in serious like with Yeter (Nursel Köse), a spunky 40ish prostitute. Both are Turks living in Germany, their common national heritage filling in a few of the gaps in their very different backgrounds and sensibilities. Ali convinces Yeter to quit the racket and come live with him as a kept woman he can screw whenever the wind’s in his sails. She’s got a daughter back home to support. She surely doesn’t get off on hooking and probably wouldn’t mind escaping the muttered threats of the neighbourhood fundamentalist Muslims who broodingly disapprove of the work. So she agrees. But things, as they will, get more complicated.

In another strand Yeter’s daughter Ayten (Nurgül Yesilçay), a young, aggressive political activist, flees Turkey, hoping to find her mom in Germany. She finds instead Lotte (Patrycia Ziolkowska), a student who becomes smitten by this rough-edged foundling and takes her in—even if Lotte’s mom Susanne (Fassbinder veteran Hanna Schygulla) isn’t all that cool with the interracial panty party going on under her roof. Yet Susanne’s wishes for Ayten’s expulsion come alarmingly true once Ayten’s sent back to Turkey and imprisoned, followed by lovestruck and hell-bent-on-justice Lotte.

The third chapter wrangles both threads together, thanks in part to the very handy link of Nejat (Baki Davrat), Ali’s son, who over the course of the film gives up his academic career in Germany to rediscover his ethnic roots, taking over a German bookstore in Istanbul. The Edge of Heaven slips in these shots here and there to provide a few big a-ha! moments of missed opportunity, before finally building up to the climax where solace is to be found in the knowledge that in the end, tragedies at least have some meaning once their trajectories are unearthed.

But in the search for solace, here too Akin, for my taste at least, tries a little too hard than is strictly necessary to generate catharsis, with scenes of prolonged, agonized weeping one might characterize as the pornography of the middlebrow moviegoer. There’s a point where emoting transcends empathy and becomes simply alienating, and Akin crosses it and some. I know of course that some people really go for that stuff, which may go some way to explain the film’s avalanche of awards. But such accolades may also partly result from a collective desire to see a dream come to life, one where even the most oppositional hostile forces might unite into a patchwork brotherhood, a united Europe founded, as is often the case, in bloodshed.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Table manners: a good pool movie is hard to find, but Turn the River's not bad

There’s this moment in
Turn the River (2007) where this guy who sells phony passports waits for a client in a pool hall, one of these gloomily slick looking joints where the proprietor actually brushes the tables, where everyone seems to be on the make, and amateurs don’t feel too welcome. Passport guy’s been waiting for a while, killing time shooting stick on his own, and once his client finally arrives he can’t keep himself from venting his sheer annoyance at the game, its tedium and unforgiving geometries. His client, who happens to be a lithe lady pool shark, someone so attuned to the game she actually sleeps on a pool table, tells him the reason he doesn’t like pool is simple: he sucks.

This moment struck me because, well, I suck. Okay, I can probably beat my grandma best two out of three, but basically I stink. Yet I love pool. Which means that I steer clear of halls like the one in Turn the River, sticking to musty dives where the sticks are warped and the tables shabby, booze-stained and uneven, where the jukebox is always in the way when you need to make that decisive shot and everyone’s too drunk to bother noticing how we bend all the rules just to stretch our buck as long as possible—that much more time to sip beer and listen to the happy snap-drawl of those chalk-smeared spheres rolling along the spot-lit green expanse. How, you might ask, can I enjoy something so much when I’m so bad at it? I don’t know, blame it on the movies maybe.

I probably saw The Color of Money (1986) on pay-TV a dozen times as a kid. I remember my astonishment, even then, at how much I actually kinda loved Tom Cruise, how perfect he seemed as the young hot shot, how elegant and infinitely more alluring Paul Newman’s Fast Eddie Felson was, the aging version of some other young hot shot from some movie of 25 years ago I’d never seen, and how Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, the woman with tenuous allegiances to both men, was the most intriguing of the three. But mostly I loved the atmosphere, that is, of the game as it played cinematically. And it’s a good thing I dug The Color of Money as much as I did back then, since, if you'll forgive the mixed metaphor, the field of pool movies would prove either barren or badly tilled in the subsequent 20 years.

I knew zilch about Turn the River, but it had Rip Torn, a friendly quote from critic David Edelstein on the case, and a rather fetching cover image of Famke Janssen confidently handling a cue stick. It’s the writing/directing debut of Chris Eigerman, a seasoned actor, which perhaps explains why he wanted to make what is essentially a character study in the New Hollywood vein, a movie about a loner who lives out of a truck, apparently owns maybe two outfits, has what we call “a past,” and does one thing really well: beat the pants off of cocky pricks, taking them for all they’ve got in merciless rounds of one pocket. Every character study is of course also a study of milieu, and Turn the River promises viewers a 92-minute plunge into those long-neglected pool halls.

Kaily (Janssen) is wearying of the hustling life. We know this because whenever some old acquaintance sees her again—like Torn’s crusty sage—they always tell her how she looks like shit. (I just kept thinking, “Dude, that’s Famke Janssen. She looks
good.”) She’s got a plan to snatch her estranged preteen son (Jaymie Dornan, a great find, with a goofy, Tobey Maguire smile that catches you off guard) from his dad and head for Canada, exactly the sort of lame-brained plan that these loner antiheroes always seem to make, but hey, people do stupid stuff in real life, too. All she needs to do is build up some serious funds for those passports…

The movie’s not bad. It does indeed generate a pleasingly distinctive air, lurking along the peripheries of the tables, echoing those theatrical overhead lights in other interestingly stylized scenes, and even offering a colorful array of eccentric supporting characters to back up Janssen’s genuinely compelling, textured lead, like Kaily’s ex, a sad dad nakedly jealous of his own son, and Kaily's ex's mom, an overbearing Jesus freak. But the movie’s awkward, too, and doesn’t quite earn its tone, faux-urgency, or ending. That this is Eigerman’s first feature is fairly obvious to anyone with even a passing habit of nitpicking—did those same two extras just pass by three times in the last 30 seconds, walking in the same direction?—but what matters is that Eigerman seems to have decided on what kind of movie he wanted to make before he actually made it, failing to capitalize on what he actually had in the can. To narrow it down, I’d argue that the biggest single problem here is actually the music, which comes courtesy of Clogs and is perfectly interesting in itself, but steals all the potential humour—sorry, but sleeping on a pool table should be funny, guys—and the actual sense of studying this character, rather than just dunking her in a bath of generic indie moodiness. …Still, she looks just right craning her long body over those tables.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Didactic, sure, but not completely dumb: Traitor engages with the enemy

The brief prelude is set in Sudan, 1978, and conveys an essential bit of exposition: a child witnesses his father get blown to bits in a car bombing. As the camera holds on the child’s shocked face we transit to present-day Yemen, where the story proper begins and that child is now a man named Samir Horn (co-producer Don Cheadle) who, in a bold bit of dramatic irony, is now selling explosives to Islamic terrorists. What’s interesting in this is that Samir’s childhood trauma is actually mentioned in later scenes, which calls into question whether or not we needed to actually see the event, arguably one more spectacular and emotionally fraught moment in a movie stuffed with them. But like a lot of thrillers, Traitor is very much about seeming, the sort of film in which what we see and what we’re told demand to be distinguished, both for the sake of tension and to deepen our understanding of it’s message, because, make no mistake, Traitor is also very much a message-laden film.

The term “didactic” is almost always used as a pejorative, and needn’t always be the case. Like Hotel Rwanda, another film that found Cheadle portraying an African-born protagonist in a desperate, topical situation, Traitor, helmed by Jeffrey Nachmanoff, is decidedly mainstream, its approach to storytelling and directorial style being well-crafted boilerplate. But it’s also the sort of film, like Hotel Rwanda, that wouldn’t mean much if it didn’t have the capacity to reach the largest possible audience. Based on a story by Steve Martin—yep, that Steve Martin—it’s told largely from the perspective of Samir, a devout Muslim with extensive military experience and expertise in explosives, who gradually joins up with Islamic terrorists. He’s not the first terrorist to be ostensibly empathized in movies, but he is the most identifiable, embodied in a beloved, charismatic Hollywood actor.

Samir has a parallel character in G-man Roy Clayton (Guy Pearce), a noble Southerner whose daddy was a minister, who majored in Islamic studies and who can quote the Koran at the drop of a hat. More capable than his fellow feds because of his understanding of the enemy, he’s at once Samir’s nemesis and ally. He’s also crucial to ramming home Traitor’s appeals for greater tolerance in times of crisis, with dialogue about how ineffective racial profiling is or overwrought lines like “Seems every religion has more than one face.” Clayton’s role as explicator for fundamentalist Islam’s seeming psychopathology is compromised by the fact that Samir, through no fault of the superb Cheadle, of whom we can only blame for being so likable, never fully convinces as a man who truly believes that the slaughter of innocent people—okay, “infidels”—is a admirable way to advance the cause of his people. But Traitor, as sly in certain respects as it is unsubtle, finds its ways of dealing with this problem, and by the time we become distracted by such contradictions Nachmanoff has shifting into high gear genre dynamics, stacking up reversals and building suspense sufficiently to keep us engaged. In any case it held my interest long enough for me to appreciate its particular ideological stance, even while it’s getting shoved down my throat.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Lust, Caution: Wei Tang goes undercover, Ang Lee makes worthy entry into the realm of sexually-charged cinema

One of the enduring deficiencies in movies centers around their use of sex. Signifiers of sex are of course everywhere in movies, yet nothing could be more rare than the genuine evocation of sexual experience, its breath and heat and smell and fumbling, or than genuine sexiness, whether conveyed subtly or audaciously. But above all, movies frequently fail to utilize sex as a way to help tell a story, to flesh-out a character, to add texture or specificity to the atmosphere—all the things that any significant aspect of any movie should be doing, which is to say actually adding to a movie’s richness instead of just filling it with empty activity.

Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution (Se, jie), based on a short story by Eileen Chang, has endeavoured to remedy this chronic deficiency. A Mata Hari tale set in Hong Kong and Shanghai between 1938 and 1942, Lee’s Golden Lion-winner, its title reading as some sort of warning road sign, is a broodingly paced and at moments heartsick evocation of youthful ideology up against virtually absolute power, with poorly organized thespians-turned-resistance fighters convincing a smart and rather fetching young actress (Wei Tang) to seduce and liquidate a high ranking government official (Wong Kar-Wai regular Tony Leung) guilty of collaborating with the occupying Japanese. One of the primary themes of Lust, Caution is that sex is never just a means to an end, and this goes not only for the movie’s protagonists but the filmmakers as well.

Usually when we declare a movie’s highlight to be its sex scenes we mean it as a slight, yet in the case of
Lust, Caution the sex is so arresting, so powerfully rendered, and so deeply revealing of the duplicitous nature of the complex central characters that its something of a triumph for cinematic subtlety and animalistic spectacle both. A common complaint lobbed at Lee’s Brokeback Mountain is that its sex was somehow too subdued, too framed by a fussy, prettified mise en scène that’s managed to detach itself from the sexual immediacy. I’ve seen it only once, but it seemed to me that the sex in Brokeback simply stayed true to the nature of the basically old-fashioned nature vs. society tragic love story it wanted to tell, and I’d argue exactly the same thing in this new movie’s favour: the sex here is raw, cruel, intense, emotionally blurry and always uneasy, as it should be.

Leung, playing the most chillingly nefarious character I’ve ever seen him embody, is brilliantly menacing and totally compelling, at one moment possessing the charisma of an angst-ridden Bogart, at another, possessed by a brute urgency to crush his helpless desire for his immaculately seductive mistress. In the end however the story –and the movie as a whole– belongs to Tang, who proves to be every bit up to this exceedingly difficult role and generates much of the erotic charge purely through her relationship to Lee’s consistently carefully placed camera. She somehow manages to begin shaping her character from a place of absolute moral conviction and end in a place of dizzying compromise and moral ambiguity, her sense of self and purpose cracking apart.

Sure, Lee’s lighting can be excessively tasteful at times, and his pacing perhaps takes our willingness to let tension build of its own volition for granted –but I don’t think there are many other directors of his stature who could have brought such a combination of elegance and rapture to this story. He takes a lot of flack from some very good critics, but mainstream movies would do good to let a few more filmmakers of his flexibility, ambition and craft onto the studio lot.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Schadenfreude and its limits: the not exactly funny, weirdly fascinating, simultaneously iconoclastic and conservative Hamlet 2

“I feel like I’ve been raped… in the face!” This is but one of many highly characteristic, uncomfortably revealing little one-liners that fire up like hot phlegm from the psychological bowels of hopelessly self-involved and dramatically disturbed high school drama teacher Dana Marschz (Steve Coogan). With a desperately unhappy, venomously unloving wife (Catherine Keener, who so rarely loves anybody), a full class of largely disinterested students aspiring to little more than lives of crime, and his entire department about to be wiped off the school curriculum, Marschz is a man reaching a major crisis point. Sorely in need of some solid therapy, he improvises his own flamboyant act of auto-analysis through writing, directing and eventually even starring in a sequel to Shakespeare’s brooding masterpiece that involves time travel, Jesus, greasers, musical numbers and some serious-as-cancer father issues.

Directed by Andrew Fleming (Dick, The In-Laws) and written by Fleming and South Park writer/producer Pam Brady, Hamlet 2 is a racy, ribald, risqué comedy out to bust any number of sentimental stereotypes and empty gestures of political correctness. The residual damage of childhood sexual abuse is here rendered as grounds for hilarity! Racial phobias in the classroom aren’t so much put to rest as capitalized as a launch pad for shamelessly exoticized teenage lust! Yet, curiously, Hamlet 2 is also one of the most deeply conventional movies you’ll see this summer. No less than mainstream feel-good movies like Pride, The Great Debaters or Mr. Holland’s Opus, one of several movies it makes fun of, Hamlet 2 is a textbook go-for-it movie, as well as a let’s-put-on-show movie, religiously observant of every last trope these subgenres imply, from the kids who learn to believe in themselves to the wildly implausible love interest to the even more implausible über-triumphant denouement. It’s entirely possible that Fleming and Brady intentionally adhered to the conventional model as a way of emphasizing the film’s seemingly incompatible let’s-offend-everybody comic sensibility, but that doesn’t make it any less tiresome to watch all the pegs fall all too neatly into place.

It’s hard to know how to approach Hamlet 2, hard to know how to sum up the rollercoaster of responses it invites, the constant swerving from tedium to gut-busting astonishment to strange fascination with just how far the film is willing to plumb Marschz’s not so winning dementia. From the opening montage of his embarrassing non-career in bad TV and infomercials, to highlights of his two-hander stage version of Erin Brokovich, to his endless humiliation at the hands of a spouse who clearly regards his bunk sperm as a sign of his general impotence, to his virtual invisibility as an entity at his place of employment—when the kids playing in the gym where he’s forced to hold his drama classes hit him in the head with a volleyball, it seems less out of spite as utter disregard—Marschz is a parade of fathomless schadenfreude, though only roughly half of the film ever really provokes laughter.

I have to assume Coogan however is laughing all the way to the bank. A distinctive talent with an unusually, palpably sharp comic edge, Coogan is clearly cruising for a big break here, hoping to reach the sort of audience that would never bother with something like 24-Hour Party People, which features Coogan’s outstanding leading performance as Manchester music impresario Tony Wilson, or Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, the two films Coogan’s made with English director Michael Winterbottom. I certainly can’t knock the guy for trying to branch out, but his hamming in Hamlet 2 is taken to such a grotesque extreme that it’s hard to imagine this film making him the bankable star he arguably deserves to be. Dude rollerblades to work in a kaftan.

More bizarre and self-effacing a turn however comes from, get this, Elizabeth Shue, who makes an unexpected appearance as… Elizabeth Shue. She’s apparently given up acting to be a nurse in Tucson, Arizona, where she’s practically mauled by a salivating Marschz eager to brush up against anything vaguely resembling fame. It wouldn’t be so shocking to see Shue turn up in a thankless role if she weren’t playing herself, reciting dumbed-down versions of the sort of smart comments about the heartlessness of the industry she made in her interview with director Mike Figgis for the Hollywood issue of Projections from a few years back. She later has to sit through Marchz’s bombastic—albeit very entertaining—production and make stupid “Wow!” faces the entire time. Like the rest of us, I guess she just doesn’t know what else to say.

What becomes of the brokenhearted... when they emigrate? Wong Kar-Wai goes in search of America

Strewn throughout
My Blueberry Nights are certain carefully chosen mementoes, fetishized objects charged with maintaining the simmering fevers of the brokenhearted, who pretty much constitute the entire populace of this swooning New York to Memphis to Nevada and back road movie, a sort of love letter to American folly and wanderlust that marks the English language debut of beloved Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-Wai. The objects include unclaimed keys, unpaid tabs, poker chips, videotapes and postcards. Each signifies what is very much an idea of longing. I could describe one to you, that is, the idea of one, entirely apart from the context of the movie itself, and you’d likely feel charmed.

Yet the affection bestowed upon these tokens of lost love is indicative of a larger tendency to embrace the flatly tokenistic in My Blueberry Nights, a movie whose characters all seem to be the lovingly contrived product of one or two charming ideas: the cop with the absconded wife he first met when he stopped her for drinking and driving, who now gets drunk every night in celebration of his last night of drinking before driving precariously home; the transplanted Brit who came to the US to run marathons but now just runs an all-night diner; the spunky young gambler who’ll stake everything at the tables but can’t trust her mentor/father enough to believe him when he calls to say he’s dying. This is great raw material for stirring little four-minute soul songs or country songs or Tom Waits songs, but not quite the stuff of richer, more involving movies, of conflicted emotions and accumulated experience transformed into some sort of story that resonates as an impression of life.

My Blueberry Nights debuted at Cannes 2007 to, at best, lukewarm reception. The disappointment was no doubt enhanced by the tremendous praise usually showered upon Wong, whose intoxicatingly melancholy, formally sumptuous In the Mood for Love so dazzled even the most jaded filmlovers—the evidence includes its cracking of the top 20 in filmmaker/critic Paul Schrader’s recent and much-discussed film canon, the only movie from the last 30 years to do so. (And you can read Schrader's remarkable piece on canons here.) As one of his legion of admirers, long before I was able to see it I started to kind of dread My Blueberry Nights, as the notion of a masterful stylist from foreign lands coming to the US to make a mythical American road movie where everything feels like empty kitsch Americana sounded way too much like the formula that’s made legendary German director Wim Wenders’ later work (ie: The End of Violence, The Million Dollar Hotel) so hard to take. (Like Wenders, Wong even uses Ry Cooder as his composer.) I guess I wasn’t alone in this dread, since despite the star power of Jude Law to boost its profile, My Blueberry Nights took a full year after its debut to play theatrically in North America, and died a quick death once it did. It’s now available on DVD, and while some of that dread was merited, while the movie is indeed far from Wong’s best work, it’s hardly as bad as it sounds.

Shot by Darius Khondji, with editing and production design from Wong’s steady William Chang, the movie is above all a wildly beguiling construction of imagery. Wong’s predilection to shoot through mirrors and windows is in full effect, with the heavily etched windows of the Soho diner helmed by Jeremy (Law) functioning as a palimpsest, its abundant neon providing a palate of gorgeously blurred garish colours to play with, colours echoed in the flash cuts to close-ups of melting ice cream streaming rivulets of vanilla through a landscape of gooey purple pie. There are countless couples in My Blueberry Nights, but the only one with any sort of future is the pairing of Jeremy and Elizabeth (singer Norah Jones). The actors don’t exude much chemistry, but Wong conveys their potential romance almost entirely through tableau and montage. It doesn’t completely work, but it is, well, extremely beautiful.

Elizabeth meets Jeremy just as she’s getting ditched by another guy, so whatever desire Jeremy ignites in her is put aside while she takes buses all over America in search of herself… and a car. She works in old man bars, greasy spoons and musty casinos in various locales trying to save up enough bread for some wheels, but the people she meets along the way provide the real mileage, like the aforementioned boozer cop (David Strathairn) and his luscious, reckless ex (Rachel Weisz, a older, sexier, more interesting kind of double for Jones) and the card shark/little girl lost (Natalie Portman). Straitharn and Weisz, superb actors both, are kind of stuck with a storyline that sinks into maudlin theatrics pretty fast, while Portman, blonde, full of sass and vaguely reminiscent of a young Jessica Lange, is actually quite fun in the first part of her episode. It’s too bad that the performance linking them all together is Jones’, whose face just seems too girlish and pouty and whose (over)active listening can get annoying. If Wong’s purpose was to get a unique, textured performance from a young American singer, he might have switched Jones with Chan Marshall, a.k.a. Cat Power, who besides acting as music supervisor for the movie also enjoys a brief appearance as Jeremy’s ex. I have no idea whether or not Marshall can develop a complex character, but she’s got far more screen presence. 

Co-scripted with crime novelist Lawrence Block, My Blueberry Nights emanates all of the basic elements that make a Wong movie so special, not just with regards to the visual aspects but also his irreverent approach to text (i.e.: tossing it out the window at a moment’s notice) that allows for a more organic-feeling narrative, one encouraged to breathe. The problem arises when these stray elements don’t really add up to something entirely cohesive or emotionally convincing. It would be hugely unadvisable for newcomers to introduce themselves to Wong through this movie, but those already predisposed to his aesthetic should give it a whirl, since for all its flaws it is very much of a piece with his ongoing body of work—which is in itself more cohesive than any single movie enveloped by it.

Monday, August 18, 2008

The woozy sublime of Paranoid Park: better late, and on DVD, than never

There’s a wonderful little moment—or, come to think of it, a few moments—in Gus Van Sant’s
Paranoid Park (2007) where one teenage skater turns to another and, offering a tough, big bro-type scrap of consolation, explains to his nervous companion that “No one’s ever really ready for Paranoid Park!” I’ve seen the movie twice now, heard this line at least four, or was it maybe six times, and each time it struck me like a little flit of verbal white light, like a bemused lighting cue whispered over a headset, and it made me laugh. The speaker of the line is referring to a legendary local skate park peopled by “the hardcore freaks” of Portland, Oregon. But, gauging its distribution history, he might as well have been talking about the movie itself.

Van Sant’s previous three films, the post-Hollywood "death" trilogy of Gerry (02), Elephant (03) and Last Days (05), all enjoyed some sort of substantial run on numerous screens across the country. Sadly, Paranoid Park, a movie that employs a similar structural circularity and a number of the same chronology-lapping techniques, that possesses the same sensitivity to the corporal experience of moviegoing, and, like its predecessors, revolves around the trauma flowing from some central act of violence, never made it to many venues outside the major centres. It’s a shame, even non-sensical, because it’s perhaps the most all-round successful, the most singularly Van Sant, and certainly the most accessible of the bunch, featuring an identifiable protagonist, startlingly naturalistic performances from its young cast, superb doses of Van Sant’s trademark humour, and a hazy, fluttering, dream-like parade of gorgeous images captured under the heavy, overcast, low-lying heavens of the Pacific Northwest.

Now available on a no-frills DVD, Paranoid Park is narrated by Alex (Gabe Nevins), a slim, unassuming kid with a hell of an endearing deadpan. Condensing and rearranging the events from the young-adult source novel by Blake Nelson, Van Sant structures his film via the dictates of Alex’s troubled stream of consciousness. We see Alex settle down to try and sort out his feelings in writing, his words appearing on paper drawing us into the timbre of his subjective experience. He was involved in an accidental death, afraid to go to anyone about it, knowing he could be blamed. As he tries to find his version of events, his mind is drawn back and forth, sliding across fragmentary memories of his interactions with girls, with his separating parents and with his little brother, and his infatuation with the undulating half-pipes, fat sneakered derring-do and tumble of bodies at Paranoid Park. Van Sant, requiring only our relaxed alertness to catch the basics, glides through the turmoil puzzle of Alex’s conscience in a shuffling dance of image, movement, music, exposition and reverie, of faces, repetition, backward sounds, blended film stocks, inexplicable background noises, failed interrogations, blood and sex, and crouched kids cascading slow motion over unseen crests. I don’t know, maybe it sounds like broccoli, but I’d be surprised if most of you weren’t at least a little beguiled.

Sumptuously photographed by Christopher Doyle (In the Mood for Love, Last Life in the Universe) and Rain Kathy Li, the montage and modulation of visual information is essential to the nature of Paranoid Park, yet its refreshing way of conveying the frontiers of inner and outer life is finally most dependent on Van Sant’s knack with kids. Much can be made of the innate homoeroticism of Van Sant’s directorial gaze, which so often in his films is directed at sensitive, awkwardly handsome young men—indeed, it’s the subtle and distinctive nature of this gaze that has made Van Sant’s work so inviting to male audiences who normally have a hard time finding an in-road into gay-themed movies. But not enough credit is given to Van Sant’s compassion toward his subjects, the exuding of his genuine, unobtrusive engagement and belief in young people. From the direct-to-camera confessions of the young hustlers in My Own Private Idaho (1991) to the easy rapture of teens playing basketball in Finding Forrester (2000), when I watch Van Sant’s young men I feel a connection to the confusion and ephemera of youth that few filmmakers bother to nurture, if they ever even think about it.

In Paranoid Park Van Sant’s knack is felt most readily in the space afforded to his actors. Nevins’ flat cadence, his hesitations and understated delivery of emotionally sticky content aren’t examples of lazy screen acting but its opposite: his seemingly artless handling of text speaks with great tenderness toward the character’s uncertainty and anxiety about what’s happened and what it means to his still unformed identity, giving off a buzzy adolescent hum that’s tough to manufacture. I think the film’s most outstanding performance however comes from Lauren McKinney, whose admiring Macy slyly gains Alex’s confidence with a playful attentiveness, exactly half-child-like and half-womanly, that’s touching, funny, and grounded in a way that Nevins’ Alex necessarily isn’t. If there’s a moment in Paranoid Park where we might wish we could linger longer, it’s probably the one where Macy guides Alex along the street, him hanging on to her bike seat as he rides his skateboard. But such moments are all too fleeting, and that’s part of what makes this sort of little story feel so alive and true to the experience of its cast.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Driving that souped-up Buick to the end of love can tear a poor singer in two: revisiting Leonard Cohen's Death of a Lady's Man 30 years on

I’ve long dreamed of writing an essay that would focus solely on a subject of some personal obsession: the great divorce albums made in the broadly defined rock idiom. The list would be necessarily short, as my criteria are severe. Obviously, Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks sets the mould. Nick Cave’s The Boatman’s Call makes every cut, as does Lee Hazelwood’s Requiem for an Almost Lady and Marvin Gaye’s Here, My Dear. But whenever I get to thinking about Leonard Cohen, the question isn’t whether he’s got a record that qualifies but which one to choose. Romantic relationships have about as much chance of surviving a Cohen record as a hot turkey sandwich at a teamster’s meeting. Further reflection illuminated the dilemma: Cohen’s one great work of relentless lament for broken love isn’t a record at all, but a book.

Not to be confused with his much maligned but actually quite inventive, weirdly moving and brazenly snappy Death of a Ladies’ Man, the 1977 record produced by Phil Spector, who, more or less insane, apparently homicidal, usually drunk and frequently wielding various weaponry, almost resulted in Cohen’s actual death, Death of a Lady’s Man—a very similar title with a very different meaning—is the volume of poetry Cohen released the following year—yet another entry into this summer’s ongoing theme of under-loved books by famous writers from 1978.

Like all Cohen’s work, it dares to go “to the end of love” and crawl toward some modest redemption. It’s full of humour and eloquence, raw sex and verbal play. Like some of Cohen’s work, it arrives at these elements through endearing feats of irony, bouts of deadpan hysteria and an ongoing sliding between grandiose pomposity and self-flagellation. I would argue it’s some kind of masterpiece, inspired, audacious and gutting, a meta-volume of multiple reflections and sly digressions that arrive at truth through covert means, like bank robbers tunneling in from the basement of the lingerie store down the block.

‘I Knelt Beside a Stream’ opens the collection with mock-heroic language and disquieting allusions to the author’s passive participation in his doomed plunge into love—which, with Cohen, always spells a deadly threat to meditation, mental health and artistic creation. The speaker kneels beside a stream manifesting on a wooden floor in Upper Manhattan, where a feathered shield is placed on his arm, a feathered helmet on his head. “This made me feel so good,” he explains, “I climbed up on Alexandra’s double bed and wept in a general way for the fate of men.” Somewhere in here he finds himself submitting to Alexandra’s suggestion to worship her, which he does for ten years. “Thus began the obscene silence of my career as a lady’s man.”

What immediately follows this poem is of equal importance as the poem itself. Shit, maybe more. Like the vast majority of poems here, ‘Stream’ is supplemented with a commentary written so that it seems the author’s either a separate person from the poet, at least as separate as the incompatible selves at work in Cohen’s double life as artist/ascetic and lady’s man. These commentaries function as a notebook archeology, exposing excerpts from other unpublished writings—especially something called Final Revision of My Life in Art—that deepen or at least perversely twist our reading. Just as often they decry what’s false, preposterous or embarrassing about the poems.

The commentary for ‘The Café,’ where the poet’s taken “a drug that makes me want to talk,” expands on the six-lines of verse with an explanation as to what happened to the titular locale: “Upon inquiry, I discovered that it had been demolished and the marble tabletops thrown into the harbour.” The evidence of Cohen’s actions cagily described in the poem has been lost to time. Implied is some willful amnesia, a way of escaping feelings too complicated to sort out in the reasonable, detached approach of the commentator, the poet’s adversary, the aggressive apologist for this book which had already been sent to Cohen’s publisher and pulled from publication several times before.

With its vague resemblance to Nabokov’s Pale Fire, the doubling structure offers resolution found only through cold self-analysis and a balm for the reader upset by the author’s surges of violent resentment and reeling marital anxiety, ie: “You fucking whore, I thought you were really interested in music.” Gradually, however, we realize the commentator is as susceptible to emotional torrents as the poet. He too becomes illucid, digressive, overwhelmed by his project. The disparate personae of these two Cohens slowly collapses, the commentator finally tossing out fragmentary statements as enigmatic as the book’s briefest poems: “They should cast your cunt in chrome for the radiator cap of a Buick.” (Why a Buick? I’ve always wondered this. Perhaps you’d have to be a motorist in 1978 to get that.)

There is a narrative poem about carrying luggage and waiting for a boat with one’s wife that never fails to sweep me up. There’s a poem where the flow of Montreal traffic is narrated as an unsuccessful attempt at forgetting a woman. There’s one that gives the finest advice on performing poetry since Hamlet, and one ostensibly authored by Cohen’s spiritual mentor that is the best piece of verse ever written about a cricket’s girlfriend. And there is a lovely pair of poems quite near the end that steps back from emotional clamour to take note of a nine-year-old girl’s face that appears in the window and stares. Though typically spare, the shape of Death of a Lady’s Man is unruly, suitably so, fraught with alienating effects, yet few chronicles of disastrous love pierce the heart so brutishly. Cohen’s time as a lady’s man didn’t actually kill him, or his art. But something always dies in such melees, just as something of the other always burrows within us afterwards. I’m grateful that he took this fatalist metaphor to such sumptuous extremes. He really took off the kid gloves with this one.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Haunted by memories of sea, snow, asbestos and orphans: Criterion reminds Canada that its cinema is worth celebrating

I’ve always been more than happy to reside in a country whose citizenry is, by any standard, not especially nationalistic. Yet a frustrating byproduct of our collective patriotic shrug, our amiable reluctance to self-congratulate, is a chronic habit of failing to recognize homegrown talent until celebrated elsewhere—and even then! This is certainly the case with regards to our endlessly maligned—or more to the point, shat on—national cinema: how else to explain the US-based Criterion Collection’s new gorgeously packaged, smartly supplemented prestige releases of, first, arguably one of the finest, if not the finest Canadian film of all time, one that was previously difficult to get hold of on DVD, and that most moviegoers, at least in English Canada, have never seen, and second, one of the very best recent works from a guy who we might at least describe as Canada’s most deliriously distinctive, decidedly demented auteur, one whose work is lauded to a far greater degree in the US and Europe than in his own country?

The first, which a few of you smartypanty Canadian film students may have guessed, is Claude Jutra’s Mon Oncle Antoine (1971), a hauntingly lyrical child’s eye view of eros, community dynamics, corruption and death in 1940s rural Quebec, a work that bears comparison to the best of Louis Malle. Drawn from the childhood memories of co-scripter Clément Perron—relayed to Jutra during an extended drinking session meant to assuage Perron’s hurt feelings over Jutra’s rejection of another screenplay—the film sparkles with details that spill forth from the firmament of deep memory: rosary beards being tangled free from a dead man’s unforgiving fingers; shelves lined with packaged products from some alien, more sophisticated world; an exotic notary’s wife entering a crowded store as an explosion erupts from the mine some distance behind her. This film’s greatness so clearly goes against the oft-farted about notion that Canadian films must generalize their settings to be accessible to a global public: the enduring splendour of Jutra’s lost world lies firmly in its specificity and faithfulness.

Set in a village where the Anglo-owned asbestos mine has coated the landscape and lungs of its citizenry with poison, the story revolves around a pair of deaths, the first of which effects little more than morbid thrills in young Benoit (the brilliantly artless Jacques Gagnon), while the second ushers him toward a more intimate understanding of human frailty, confusion, and, during his uncle’s drunken confession of despair over a coffin accidentally dropped in the snowy woods, a very Quebecois tendency toward despair coated in workingman’s strident joviality. Yet Mon Oncle Antoine could never be mistaken for a somber, unhappy film. It’s rife with the wonder of trespassing into adult realms of lust, and Jean Cousineau’s beautiful, stately score for violin and accordion envelops the richly hued imagery, courtesy of legendary cinematographer Michel Brault—like Jutra, sufficiently well versed in documentary to know how to capture the hidden magic of the everyday—with a delicate, wistful ache.

Criterion’s two-disc set is designed as much as a primer on Jutra as anything else, its highlight being Claude Jutra: An Unfinished Story, a 2002 documentary by Jutra’s friend and colleague Paule Baillargeon, featuring intimate interviews with Brault, Bernardo Bertolucci, Geneviève Bujold and Saul Rubinek. Though Baillargeon’s approach is at times precious—especially her whispery voice-over—her weaving together of Jutra’s own work with testimonies from collaborators and critics culminates in something absolutely heartbreaking. While still in his 50s, this poet of memory, obsessed throughout his life with the mysteries of water, was afflicted with Alzheimer’s. He disappeared one day, and was eventually found washed up on the banks of the St. Lawrence. A piece of paper tucked into his clothing read: “I am Claude Jutra.”

I’ll say less about the second film, if only because it's more recent and has gotten plenty of commentary from the likes of me already. Concerning a young man’s return to the lighthouse orphanage where he grew up under an oppressive, all-seeing matriarch and zombified inventor dad, Guy Maddin’s Brand Upon the Brain! (2006), a hysterical hybrid of silent movie aesthetics, grand guignol, teen detective novels and lovingly embellished autobiography, dazzled audiences the world over in theatrically accented screenings featuring live orchestra, foley, and narration from a dizzying variety of celebrity voices. In Criterion’s gorgeous transfer, it’s still pretty damn good even on your TV, where you can choose to have either Maddin, Isabella Rossellini, Laurie Anderson, John Ashbery, Crispin Glover, Louis Negin or Eli Wallach be your aural guide.

The extras are also great, especially Dennis Lim’s essay and ‘Footsteps,’ Maddin’s short doc that captures the foley artists at work in their studio, rifling through plastic baskets of chains, antlers, shoes and phones. These adventuresome audioaholics, clad in white lab coats, turn big wheels, splash water, ride sawhorses and kiss a horse’s ass to simulate a woman kissing a man’s ass. This job looks like too much fun! Even better however is 97 Percent True, a new doc that’s half about the making of Brand and half just about Maddin’s development as an artist, featuring expansive, top shelf quottage from the always witty Maddin and his co-scripter George Toles. It easily betters the previously released Maddin profile Waiting for Twilight (1997).

Monday, August 4, 2008

Winnipeg, Winnipeg, Winnipeg... Guy Maddin discusses his first docu-phantasia, psychic traps, cold facts, the true nature of truth, and Ann Savagery

Narrated by its author, laden with lyrical repetition so as to send viewers into a wintry trance,
My Winnipeg, Guy Maddin’s new “docu-phantasia,” proposes a prairie citizenry of somnambulists afflicted with acute nostalgia, geographically isolated, perpetually snowed-in, surrounded by vestiges of history, lulled by muffled train whistles, cursed with a labyrinthine conspiracy that keeps them from ever leaving, architecturally enveloped by a geometry of symbols alluding to occult municipal histories, grotesque sporting atrocities and aboriginal mysticism.

My Winnipeg delves headlong into Maddin’s private obsessions, actually going as far as re-enacting seemingly banal moments from Maddin’s childhood with a cast of professional actors—one of whom just happens to be Ann Savage, the long-retired star of the masterful, dream-like poverty row film noir Detour (1945). Comically inspired, a frenetic flurry of far-fetched facts, imminently id-soaked, and mostly shot in beautiful, grainy-as-all-hell black and white, the modus operandi of My Winnipeg pleasingly remains very close to that of Maddin’s blatantly autobiographical—and shamelessly fantastical—Cowards Bend the Knee (2003) and Brand Upon the Brain! (06). Like those films, it deserves to be seen as among the most finest works in his 20-year career.

Maddin spoke to us by phone from his family’s cottage in Manitoba, where children could be heard uttering bloodcurdling screams in the distance. This interview was hosted by Vue Weekly.

My Winnipeg opens with a close-up of Ann Savage—the actress, we later learn, who will be portraying your mother—taking some rather stern line-readings from you, while you remain off-screen. This choice of starting point has really stuck with me, because in a sense it seems to tell us right off the bat that what we’re witnessing is a sort of incantation on the part of the author, a history willed, even dictated into being.

Guy Maddin: That’s a nice way of putting it. It wasn’t in the script, but it seemed the simplest way of portraying what kind of thoughtless, self-centered lengths I as the documentarian was willing to go to. Even if you had to figure it out backwards, it was my way of saying, Hey, I’m just bullying my way into your field of vision to show you a mythology I’ll do anything to make. The idea of starting out by forcing a woman against her will to say a line a certain way struck me as potentially confusing, but apt.

JB: How concerned were you with getting things right with regards to the Winnipeg history, the Winnipeg culture, the Winnipeg persona?

GM: I just felt that, having been commissioned to make a highly personal portrait of my hometown, if I was honest with myself I wouldn’t have to research anything other than my feelings. Canadians are such lousy self-mythologizers: the preferred medium for mythologizing for the last century has been motion pictures, yet Winnipeg has never really attempted to exploit that, so I had a lot of catching up to do. I had to get the greatest hits all into one movie. I’m always asked how much of
My Winnipeg is true. People expect me to say none of it, but the truth to closer to all of it. I did make some factual errors, unintentionally. For example, Winnipeg isn’t actually the coldest city in the world—Ulan Bator, Mongolia is colder. I remember reading that Winnipeg was the coldest when I was a kid. Maybe they have more accurate stats now. Maybe global warming has shifting the standings. Anyway the factual part of My Winnipeg is mostly oral history stuff. I like to break the film down as one-third fact, one-third legend—which is usually truer than fact—and than just one-third wishful thinking, laments and complaints.

JB: To use Werner Herzog’s very useful terminology, I think
My Winnipeg trades in “ecstatic truth” rather than “the accountant’s truth.”

GM: When I first heard Herzog use that term, I was thrilled. But I think what I’m after is maybe almost more of the hysterical truth.

JB: For me at least,
My Winnipeg feels part of a trilogy with Cowards Bend the Knee and Brand Upon the Brain! They circle around the same carrion. They all share this particularly urgent delirium. And building on the strengths of its predecessors, My Winnipeg turns out to be one of your most fluid films. It sort of just clips by.

GM: Well
Brand Upon the Brain! had a live element, the live narration and live foley and so on. And I think I became more of a showman than a filmmaker then. Filmmakers tend to make things only for themselves, but once we added that live element, I wanted to make sure that people in the theatre were engaged. I really learned the rewards of making that connection, so I always had the audience in mind while making My Winnipeg, from start to finish.

JB: How have Winnipeggers responded to the film? Were you at all apprehensive?

GM: I really didn’t know what to expect. I thought they might just go berserk with anger, because whenever I showed the movie in other cities—Berlin, Sydney, didn’t matter where—there was always some irascible Winnipegger who’d stand up and complain that I left out the Winnipeg Blue Bombers football club, or the Taste of Manitoba food fair, something like that. All the Winnipeggers I ran into were really unwelcome sights, so I thought, Holy smokes, 1600 Winnipeggers crammed into our old vaudeville palace could really turn into a dangerous mob. But they ended up being a really generous, warm crowd. They seemed delighted by these jokes that seemed wedged in there just for them. They even gave my mom a standing ovation.

JB: How much do you consider your development as a filmmaker to be inextricably linked to your essential confinement to Winnipeg?

GM: I don’t think I would have made the same work elsewhere. I remember when I first started out I was determined not to have any association with Winnipeg and went out of my way not mention it. But I eventually found that the more I addressed directly the place where I dwelled I’d feel more connected with the work.

JB: I realize of course that you do escape Winnipeg on a regular basis, but at this point, would you say that it’ll likely remain your permanent residence for the rest of your life?

GM: [Sighs] Yeah, probably. [Sighs again] Might as well just buy the burial plot now. It’s true that whenever I’m in another city I’m happy there for a month, but then I start missing home. And then as soon as I go home it’s… disappointing somehow. I don’t know…

JB: I’m not trying to depress you here.

GM: [Laughs] It’s okay… Really.

JB: But, cementing its connection to
Detour, I got this sense in My Winnipeg that you’re like Tom Neal, and Winnipeg itself is your femme fatale, that you’re doomed to return again and again to her, like she’s this maternal siren.

GM: That’s very true. I’ve never thought of it that way, but maybe you’ve put your finger on it. She’s my Barbara Stanwyck and I’m her Walter Neff. We have kind of a mad love relationship, where if Winnipeg looks at me the wrong way I’ll slap it across the face, and then lose myself in its curves… Gee, I really like that.