Monday, April 30, 2012

Cultivation theory

The titular damsels of writer/director Whit Stillman’s new movie, his first in 14 years, are in each pretty, preppy, poised and alert to the world in their highly selective way. Each are named after flowers, each are odour-sensitive, each strives to use their ostensibly superior ethical, intellectual and interactive skills to fortify the quality of student life at Seven Oaks College. Their tactics include suicide prevention through tap-dancing (the handmade poster on wall of the suicide prevention center reads COME ON, IT’S NOT THAT BAD!) and going out with boys who are neither handsome, nor charming, nor smart. (One of them is so dumb he doesn’t even know his colours.) By rewarding the male doofi (that’s plural for doofus) of Seven Oaks with their companionship, these damsels feel they can usher these doofi from the life of aimless idiocy to which they seem surely destined to a more enlightened and socially meaningful place. Of course, dating doofi also prevents the damsels from experiencing such annoying unpleasantries as heartbreak.

Herein lays the very special comic tone that Stillman aspires to and frequently apprehends in Damsels in Distress: whether or not his characters are actually from privilege they each work arduously to cultivate both the airs and the sense of altruistic vocation they associate with privilege, and such airs and ambitions constitute both the damsels’ folly and their persistent charisma. Most are well-intentioned emotional cowards, but Stillman knows that there’s more to be gained from sympathizing with them and their quixotic pretentions than looking down his nose at them. You might have hated these damsels from a distance when you went to school with them, but viewed through Stillman’s generous, stylized, idiosyncratic gaze, they become people you want to spend more time with.

Perhaps idiosyncratic is putting things too mildly. The movie’s chief damsel, Violet, is always, even in casual conversation, speaking lines like, “Must we tether ourselves from comment because we ourselves are human too?” She sounds out each word carefully, ensures that each sentence is complete, and doing so bears little resemblance to the sorts of characters found in virtually any contemporary American youth comedy. Fortunately she’s played by Greta Gerwig, the actress (and occasional writer and director) probably most closely associated with such (if you’ll excuse my use of this very stupid genre title) “mumblecore” movies as Hannah Takes the Stairs, Baghead and House of the Devil. Gerwig’s definitely not mumbling here. In fact, I’d go so far as to suggest that in Gerwig Stillman’s found his ideal actor, one who intuits the cadences of his anachronistic comic style and embodies the delicate imbalance of his quirky, sometimes fabulous character conceits.

Which isn’t to say that everything in Damsels flies. The meandering quality of the narrative eventually catches up with itself, and a closing musical sequence is neither awkward enough nor elegant enough to keep from falling flat. But it does have the funniest suicide attempt I think I’ve seen in a movie, its use of motel-issue soap as an agent of soul-healing is hilariously absurd, and, more importantly, its central characters are never given anything less than a slew of contradictions, conflicting desires and other compelling complications. They are, to be sure, comic constructs, but they also resonate with lived experience, which is what good comedy is all about. 

Monday, April 23, 2012

"'s a story for victims. It's a film for them": Lee Hirsch on his vital, yet deeply problematic, Bully

“This was a really hard film to make. A fundamentally hard film to make. It never stopped following me around. The emotional navigation of this is something you’re never prepared for.”

That’s filmmaker Lee Hirsch, describing the process of making Bully, the new documentary that profiles a number of children and families in various, mostly rural US communities who have suffered from unchecked abuse both verbal and physical at their respective schools. Bully was for some weeks overshadowed by the controversy surrounding the Motion Picture Association of America’s initial insistence on giving the film an “R” rating for coarse language, thus making it inaccessible to precisely those viewers who might need its consoling message most; it’s since been edited slightly and given a “PG-13”. Which hopefully means that we can now move onto troubling questions regarding the film itself. I urge you to see Bully. I also urge you to consider it carefully.

filmmaker Lee Hirsch

Hirsch’s access, his obvious facility with earning trust, has rendered Bully a truly extraordinary, frequently alarming work, with scenes alternating between high emotion (from grieving parents, for starters) and shocking callousness (from a certain high school vice principal most especially). (It's also very well photographed, by Hirsch himself.) Seated at the head of the table, surrounded by writers assembled for a group interview, Hirsch seemed so gentle in demeanor I was almost worried we might wind up bullying him. When asked about how he achieved such easy rapport with his subjects, Hirsch claimed it was easy. “All I had to do was tell these kids that I was bullied and I want to tell your story and I care. I’m a warm guy. I was very candid about what the film was, about why I wanted to tell their story, and asked for their partnership.”

That sense of camaraderie, of a shared vision, is exuded by, for example, Kelby, an Oklahoma teen who either received threats or was viciously attacked by local kids and adults both after she was brave enough to make her homosexuality public. Her determination to hold her ground, to not let the bullies win, is tremendously moving, if worrisome in its possible consequences. Hers is one of four vignettes woven around Bully’s central narrative, that of Alex, an Iowa teen whose brutal daily harassment Hirsch captures repeatedly on camera, thanks to the generous cooperation of Alex’s school, even though the end result does much to condemn the school’s apparent neglect if not total indifference toward its students’ complaints.

Yet as you’re watching Bully, which builds towards activism, and thus must be regarded as polemic, you might find yourself wondering what’s missing from its equation—the titular character’s been left out of the movie. This despite the fact that Alex himself at one point says he wishes he could be a bully, while another child who was friends with someone who was a victim of bullying says that he used to be a bully. More dramatically, the film also profiles Ja’Meya, a bullied Mississippi teen who wound up pulling a gun on a busload of kids. Clearly, the relationship between the bullies and the bullied is far from being as cut and dried as the film implies.

“I tried to talk to the bullies, but couldn’t,” Hirsch replied to my questions about this conspicuous absence. “When you talk to the kids who bullied Alex they look like little angels. It’s the weirdest thing. And if you start talking to bullies then you’re getting into trying to explain the pathos of a bully, and there’s all kinds of conflicting views of who is a bully and what drives that. So it’s a story of victims. It’s a film for them. It’s not a perfect piece of journalism. When I threw away the notion of doing a rigorous, expert-driven documentary I found the heart and soul of the film, which was being with these families. Bully steps into the world of people dealing with this and tells their stories.” But even if we share Hirsch’s reductive view of the oppressor/victim relationship, can we really say that Bully honestly tells the victims’ stories?

In a recent piece for Slate, of which I can only make the briefest summation here, Emily Bazelton writes of her investigation into the suicide of Georgia teen Tyler Long, whose parents’ testimonies occupy a sizable portion of Bully. Every piece of information provided in Bully leads us to believe that Long’s suicide was the result of bullying, yet, as a brief from the school district—written in response to a lawsuit filed by Long’s parents—asserts, Long had been diagnosed with ADHD, bipolar disorder and Asperger’s, while his suicide note makes no mention of bullying whatsoever. Which isn’t to say that bullying didn’t contribute to Long’s suicide, but given the relationship between suicide and mental illness, the glaring elision of such facts in Bully is at least misleading, if not deeply irresponsible. My heart goes out to everyone connected with this devastating loss, but I can’t sympathize with the decision to oversimplify Long’s story for the sake of fortifying a one-sided argument.

Hirsch with Kelby (left) and Alex (right)

So, arguably, Bully risks doing harm while it so clearly aspires to do good. But I’ll leave you with some of the good. We asked Hirsch about what’s happened with his subjects since Bully wrapped filming.

“Alex is doing so amazing right now,” says Hirsch. “He says he feels like he’s a teacher. He wants to teach everybody to get along better. He’s found his voice. His lip doesn’t shake anymore. He’s gregarious. You guys would all be laughing if he were sitting here with us. His transformation is probably the thing I’m most proud of.”

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Images '12: Weather time solitude collective

Jacqueline Goss’ The Observers chronicles a year in the life of a weather station located at the summit of Mount Washington, New Hampshire, beginning in deep winter, everything frosted with snow, rendering the architecture a desolate wedding cake. Teeth are brushed, sit-ups are performed, tricky knots are tied, a recorder is played (badly). There are weather charts that look an awful lot like bowling scorecards. A metal box is found on the mountain during an especially punishing blizzard. It has a combination lock that refuses to be opened, infusing routine and solitude with the subtlest promise of mystery. In one scene the station’s sole climatologist is found doing some leisurely sketching outdoors in mega-mittens and goggles that cover half her face, which may be an example of Goss’ deadest of deadpan comic sensibility, which meshes nicely with The Observers rigorously, well, observational MO.

The Observers screened as part of Images 2012 last Saturday night, just two nights after John Akomfrah’s The Nine Muses, which also features a lot of parka and snow and unpeopled vastness. But Goss’ film is as mercilessly spare as Akomfrah’s is dizzyingly baroque. It seems driven by the director’s fascination with the impulse to accumulate data, perhaps for its own sake, the trust that data will always be inherently important. It made me think of my 92-year-old grandmother, who some years back started writing down the exact times of the sunrises and sunsets every single day, without ever explaining to anyone why. She shows me her figures when I come to visit, that scrawled handwriting that somehow touches me. She never expects a big reaction, but she seems to want me to know.  

More minimalist still is James Benning’s Two Cabins, which screened on Tuesday night, and which might just as accurately be called Two Windows for all we’re able to see of Benning’s reconstructions of dwellings inhabited by Henry David Thoreau and Ted Kaczynski, aka The Unabomber, respectively. Thoreau’s window is vertical, extended beyond the upper and lower borders of Benning’s fixed frame, the view of a knoll and jumble of grass, leaves and tree, broken up by horizontal lines, the whole composition recalling certain Rothkos. As far as sound goes, the general buzz of forest pervades. Somewhere a dog barks, but only once. A large vehicle lumbers past—we’re close to a highway? Really? The scene goes on and on and on and so we watch and watch and watch and soon become aware of the peculiar coexistence of these feelings: you’re looking out the eye-level window of a cabin in a sunny wood, alone, at peace, perhaps after a long trip; you’re in the middle of a city, looking at a raised glowing screen in a big dark room with people in it. This is a way of being alone with one’s self while sitting amid a crowd of silent strangers.

Kaczynski’s window is, by contrast, claustrophobic, a square contained easily by the parallel framing, the woods beyond resembling a miniature impressionist painting. I kept thinking of this window as a sphincter—was it because of the darkened knots in the wooden walls? Thoreau’s cabin feels like freedom and perspective; Kaczynski’s like entrapment and paranoia. It’s a brilliant juxtaposition, a space for dreaming of civil disobedience and a space for planning attacks on civilization, and its duration, 30 minutes in total, feel just about right to absorb what it has to offer, to slip off into reverie and then slip right back in, drawn to details, and to that weird effect of stasis slowly becoming something alive and nearly mobile. A deeply inspired, immersive work. 

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Levon Helm, 1940 - 2012

Born and bred in Arkansas, he was the sole American amidst a bunch of guys from Southern Ontario, all of them deeply enamoured of American musical traditions, and the second eldest in a group so utterly seduced by the romance of the deep past. Yet no matter how old-timey the Band's image and musical roots their songs could just as easily conjure horny young man's escapades as the consolation of front porches or scenes from the Civil War. I don't know quite why I've always imagined Levon Helm as the protagonist in so many of the Band's songs, even ones he didn't sing. Helm going to the race track, mounting the scaffolds, chopping wood. It sends an extra ache through me to think of him gone, makes the songs recede just a little into sepia... Well over a decade with throat cancer and then suddenly, at least suddenly for most of us, dead at 71, still shy of the age of the narrator of 'Rocking Chair.' He was active for so much of that time that I can't help but feel a little shocked... Forget what I said about sepia; the music sounds so alive to me still. 

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

"I like believing that people create their own obstacles": a conversation with Guy Maddin

A dark and stormy night. “Man’s weather,” we’re told. Gangsters and their respective molls hole up in an old house that resembles a skid row antique shop and envelops an inner courtyard bog that doubles as a cemetery. This place was once the home of the gang’s boss, Ulysses (Jason Patric), who’s come back to, as he puts it, return what was lost. Somewhere there’s a room where his estranged wife (Isabella Rossellini) converses with her chain-draggin’ naked narrator phantom dad (Louis Negin). There are electrified ghosts, a homemade electric chair, a radio kept tuned between stations, and a stuffed wolverine named Crispy. Organized crime meets the occult in Keyhole, a film that somehow looks like it was made in both 2012 and 1933, in both a Hollywood studio and a decrepit Winnipeg manor slated for demolition. It becomes difficult to discern the living from the dead. “I’m getting fed up with being kept in the dark,” complains one of the characters, as though he’s a medium inadvertently speaking on the audience’s behalf. Except we’re not fed up. (Right?)

Guy Maddin’s latest feature-length quasi-autobiographical philmic phantasy, his first to be shot digitally, would put you in a trance if it weren’t so crowded with riddles, antsy lyricism and pervert-hilarity. It’s based on Homer’s The Odyssey, though the characters never leave the house. Keyhole is a journey inward, and perhaps back in time, made of digressions, discoveries and double-crosses, building toward a strangely consoling finale. I met with Maddin to discuss the film on the eve of its theatrical release. He was much hairier than the last time I saw him. He looked like a Viking in a suit. 

A hairy Guy

This is a pretty long one, so I divided into parts. French parts.


JB: I like your beard.

GM: Thanks. It gives me a new attitude. I can enter a room beard-first now.

JB: You look, I don’t know, Nordic.

GM: Thank you for not comparing me to Santa Claus.

JB: What prompted this beard?

GM: I just didn’t give a shit anymore. I quit shaving. I had to trim it a few times because it got quite ZZ Topish.

JB: I saw a recent photo of you where it looked bigger than your face.

GM: I know. Hair grows! And quickly. Turns out I’ve got some testosterone somewhere. But seriously, I just didn’t want to turn into an old woman. Nothing against women, or old women, but I just didn’t want to be one. So I grew a beard. It was getting ambiguous for a while there.

JB: I think you look like a man.

GM: Thank you!

JB: There’s often a relationship between facial hair and relationships. I know men who had facial hair and then got married and felt obliged to lose the facial hair, but in your case it seems the reverse has transpired.

GM: Most women don’t like the beards. My wife likes beards fine. Maybe she likes how it conceals my face. My beard has changed the way I talk to audiences. I used to feel more boyish, more mischievous. I could get away with saying something coy, or even lecherous.

JB: A lecherous Viking.

GM: I no longer discuss the herpes I was once so fond of. I only talk about film now.


JB: Speaking of concealing, Keyhole begins with this nearly naked old man drawing a curtain shut. Is that right? I don’t trust my memory. Does he open it or close it?

GM: No, he opens it… No. Wait a minute. Maybe you’re right. [Laughs]

JB: I feel better now that you can’t remember either. 

GM: Man, I’m going to have to watch it again. [Laughs] I do know that it’s Louis Negin dressed in a pair of underwear instead of the nudity he dons for the rest of the movie.

JB: Underwear is a form of concealment.

GM: I would have barely recognized Louis wearing underwear. I got so comfortable with his nudity. At one point I was shooting Isabella Rossellini with Louis in the foreground. My hands were kind of trembling, so I rested my elbows on either side of his knee. I subsequently realized that the camera was still shaking so I sandbagged it on his scrotum. But then there was something blurry in the foreground so I kept re-focusing until I realized it was his genitals. So there’s this real interesting shot in the film where you have this curtain at the top and in the middle is Isabella and at the bottom is Louis’ bag.

JB: Huh. I find your shift into digital cinematography interesting because in moving away from celluloid you’re moving away from film grain, which is also a veil, a kind of barrier between the viewer and the action. But with Keyhole, which is your fist digital feature, you keep filling the frame with gauzy drapery and fog and chains, always keeping us at a distance from the action.

GM: I think when you’re dealing with memory and things that have transpired in a home, things you take for granted until it becomes another layer of yourself, you’ve got to work with visual obstacles in order to heighten pleasure, to make memories more precious, or just to get at the memories. They also just make the shots more beautiful. I’m not the strong formalist that Jacques Tati was, shooting in 70mm with modernist furniture and architecture and supersaturated colours. I’m working with a low budget and I’ve got to create something that looks like a plausible film world, something capable of evoking memory. Obstacles really help. I like to close the frame down with genitals or bottles or knickknacks. At first my affection for obstacles was just mimicry. I love Josef von Sternberg, how he broke up a frame, with Marlene Dietrich at its centre, tucking her in beneath the shadows of veils, and then making her dialogue a kind of veil too. In the hands of other directors she’s nowhere near as interesting, just another face with an Elmer Fudd accent, really. With von Sternberg she was about as mysterious and gorgeous and powerful as a woman can get. I remember an observation I made years ago watching Buñuel movies. I don’t know that anyone ever actually raises a fork full of food to their mouth and gets it inside and chews it and swallows it, or ever successfully has sex. There’s always something that intervenes, usually of the character’s own design. I guess Buñuel’s abiding belief was that people create their own obstacles in order to heighten pleasure or make things more desirable. It seems to me like a good rule of thumb. I only have a few rules as a filmmaker. I like Hitchcock’s rule that in order to create suspense you keep the audience in the know and the characters in the dark, rather than the shock-cut horror movies that keep the characters in the know and the audience in the dark. It’s hard for me to follow that rule because I’m not the greatest storyteller in the world, but I like it. I like believing that people create their own obstacles. I think I’ve made my own career obstacles by making these things that we’re talking about right now. [Laughs]



JB: You mention storytelling and it reminds me that I’ve never really asked about the nature of your collaboration with George Toles, your co-scenarist.

GM: It’s different each time and has evolved over the years. When I first started with Tales From Gimli Hospital, I read George the story and he suggested some changes and wrote a few lines. I think Archangel, my second feature, might have been the best balance between the two of us in terms of contributing story elements. He wrote some really musical, stylized dialogue. He’d only viewed himself as a film analyst and academic writer and instructor, so he shocked himself most pleasantly to discover he had a knack for creating things. Then he started going away and writing things and just giving them to me to make. That wasn’t a happy balance for me because I like being there from the start. I like to understand the script from the inside. Perhaps the nadir of our relationship was when he gave me Twilight of the Ice Nymphs and I don’t think I understood it but shot it anyway. That’s bad, to understand it ten years later and realize how much you’d mishandled it.

JB: I haven’t read The Odyssey in a long time…

GM: I read the Wikipedia entry.

JB: But I know George’s writing has deep roots in literature. Was that part of his role with Keyhole, to smuggle in the literary contraband?

GM: It was my idea to use The Odyssey. It’s the ultimate deadbeat-dad story, about the father who goes away and figures he’ll come back after 19 years. It reminded me of the dreams I used to have in which my dead father would return home almost every night for a decade or more to convey his displeasure at having had to live with us, that he’d found a new home that was better, that he was just coming back to pick up his aftershave or something. I’d have one minute to convince him that our family was worth living with and I could never do it. The dreams would always leave me feeling abandoned, but they also left me with this nice feeling, because I could hear my father’s voice and remember his gestures exactly. I seemed to have better access to my memories of my father when I was dreaming. So I decided that I wanted to make one last autobiographical purge, revisit my dead father dreams and combine them with some other family legends, the death of my brother, the reactions of those who remained to the absence of those who’d left, things like that. In other words, ghosts. I wanted to use The Odyssey as a basic structure for this, so the movie starts off like a preparation for a journey. About a third of the way in the various ghosts are already starting to argue amongst themselves. They push the director off the set. [Laughs] By the end it’s just ghosts talking to each other and the director might as well have left. I was just there to make sure the frames looked as good as possible, to direct the actors and make sure the light was textured. By that point the script feels like something written by a Ouija board, rather than George or me. Besides, George’s first and only attempt at a draft was three hours long. I amputated a huge voodoo subplot. I didn’t have any voodoo practitioners in my family, and I wanted to keep this as personal as possible. Though I think some might find it impenetrable.

JB: The incorporation of genre, or in this case, genres, can function as a kind of veil.

GM: Genre gives people an anchor, but I sort of cheat the genres. The ghosts are more like memories than anything especially threatening. They’re not scary. They’re just sort of sad. Meanwhile the gangsters have thrown all the guns down into the furnace. I didn’t want to have to keep track of who’s got a gun and who doesn’t. I just wanted the guns there at the beginning so we have people trying to shoot their way into a house. That was George’s great idea.


GM: I’m usually too lazy or disorganized to keep my own diaries, so for each movie shoot I hire a diarist. Way back when Careful was shot I hired Steve Snyder, who’s a colleague of George’s at the University of Manitoba. But he rapidly became too lazy to be on set and instead just sat in the greenroom, where he’d hear secondhand complaints about what an asshole I was. So he just wrote all that down, and probably got that half-assed wrong too. When I read his diary I knew that he failed to record the facts, but there was an emotional truth to it, it seemed to capture the feelings of that shoot. He’d mythologized the events, just by being grumpy. That really emboldened me to make Cowards Bend the Knee and then Keyhole, to take things that really happened and then flip them around. It’s an old trick gleaned from my left-brain days as a math major, this thing called absolute value, where everything with a negative or a positive sign just becomes a positive entity. I like the idea of doing these absolute value treatments of things that were negative.


JB: Let’s talk about your relationship with actors. I felt there was a breakthrough in Keyhole with how much ownership the actors take with their roles. Jason Patric seems perfectly comfortable adopting a performance style from another moment in film history, a little Sterling Hayden, a little Tom Neal. On the other hand he seems to be giving what is very recognizably modern, Jason Patricy performance. Do you talk to your actors about performance style, or about psychology? Do you just hand them a wolverine?

GM: Yeah, just take this wolverine and go! [Laughs] I tend not to talk to actors. As a rule I’ve cast them just because I saw them in a play and just say, “Perform this like you did in that play.” Or “Perform it like a sleepwalker.” Or, “You know, you’re delirious!” But in the case of Jason, George and I intentionally wrote him a part where he’d have to do 80% of the work. Jason said he wanted a role where he could harness the whole picture onto himself if necessary. Doesn’t exactly make him sound like a team player, but he was up for a big challenge. He also said he didn’t want to do an old, stylized “Why I oughta…” He didn’t want to do gangsters from an Abbot and Costello movie. He wanted to stick with naturalism, but the dialogue that George writes has this mannered musicality. I like the tension between Jason’s naturalism and George’s mannerism. It creates that weird hybrid that you just described. Jason’s all about interiority… You know, it’s kinda fun to talk about performance after so many years of no one ever asking a single question about performances in my movies. Thanks!

JB: You’re welcome.

GM: Anyway, everyone in this movie was a little different. Udo Kier gave a very fine performance in a small role.

JB: It’s a very tempered Udo Kier performance.

GM: Yeah, you don’t see that very often. He was out to prove he could do that.

JB: Of all the contexts in which to prove that, it’s kind of hilarious that he’d choose one of your films.

GM: It is. [Laughs] I love his work. He was originally meant to play Big Ed, the gangster, but ACTRA had forbidden the casting of three foreigners at first and I had to take the part from Udo, which broke my heart. By the time ACTRA had changed their mind I didn’t have the heart to take Big Ed away from Daniel Enright, who does a great job with it, so Udo wound up with a smaller part, but I think it’s a better part for him. I’m still working with Udo. I just finished three weeks of shooting with him in Paris.


JB: I like very much the end of Keyhole, this idea of restoration, of putting things back where they belong, trying to suspend the past. It serves the story well, but it also feels like a metaphor for the whole Guy Maddin Project.

GM: Yeah, the hopelessness of it all. [Laughs] Having the father and son get together to start putting things back was the reason I made the movie. Of course, I was so lazy that when it came time to put things back we didn’t even have anything to put back. You’d think I would have had a lot of artifacts from my own childhood or something, but nope! I like the idea of having people remember things properly, just getting things right. When I go for a long walk I cast my mind back into the past. And into the future. I just contemplate my place in time. The sidewalk flowing beneath me is time’s great flow itself. Most of Keyhole was dreamt up during dog walks, as was My Winnipeg. Walking the dog and daydreaming melancholically about very funny things.

JB: Ulysses’ peeping into the keyhole is like looking deep into a vagina, looking straight into the womb, and thus back in time.

GM: In France they wouldn’t even call the movie Keyhole because it’s too common a euphemism for vaginas. They called it instead Ulysse, souviens-toi! Or Remember, Ulysses!

JB: That’s good too. It sounds nice in French.

GM: There was originally a slightly different ending, which I shot, in which Anders, the son, later on, married and living in a little bungalow, returns to his childhood home, holding the key to the front door that he gave to his drowned girlfriend. But we cut it and chose to imply that the same damned thing happen every night, a dream, perhaps dreamt by a dead person. It seemed more universal. By that point everyone’s so goddamned lost in the film it doesn’t matter anyway. So be it.