Monday, August 22, 2016

A Must-Have: The Demolition Blu-Ray

‘I related to Davis Mitchell and to this journey.’ – Jean-Marc Vallée

‘On était jeunes. On était fous. La bohème, la bohème. Ça ne veut plus rien dire du tout.’ – Charles Aznavour

The release of a Jean-Marc Vallée DVD is always a special occasion and with this new Blu-ray of Demolition you can now take the film home in its pristine image and sound quality. It’s the story of Davis Mitchell, a successful Wall Street banker, and after his wife's sudden death his life is shook up and through grieving he is able to find himself, learn to feel again and start a new friendship with a single mother Karen and her son. 

Every scene and detail in the mise en scène provides a unique rhythm and information that has a larger meaning in Demolition’s complex structure and Jake Gyllenhaal is perfect in the role with his subtle expressiveness and range. This expression of intimate human feelings is the emotional réel of the film that is given substance as it engages with the geographical réel. The scene that best illustrates this is when Jake Gyllenhaal dances through New York City, engaging with its landmarks and enjoys himself. This is the Valléeien gesture: that of in cynical times to bring music and joy to people and the city. These non-narrative scenes, that contribute and build on an emotion, are Vallée's specialty. Similar to Howard Hawks, starting with The Big Sleep and To Have and Have Not, Vallée likes to stall the storytelling to focus on scenes for the sake of creating good ones: where Hawks aimed for entertaining character development and witty dialogue, for Vallée it is that of a musical lyricism. This musical point is made explicit with the film’s soundtrack (only available as a digital soundtrack from ABKCO Music and Records, with a press release that reads almost as if it was written by Vallée) that ranges from classical, folk, indie pop, rock and electronica; and where each song gets to the heart and personality of each character without ever being too recognizable (Depeche Mode is another unidentified reference). 

Vallée is able to create this musical lyricism with Yves Bélanger’s refined yet simple imagery that brings a palatable energy and emotion to each scene. While Vallé's regular cameo, that of a mourner at Julia's funeral, explicitly continues his humanist outreach project (which goes back to his role as the priest in C.R.A.Z.Y.) but is now turned towards the upper class, which is a similar gesture to that of Denis Côté with his Boris sans Béatrice. This fantasy and support for others leads to Mitchell’s phantasm at the end of Demolition where he’s reunited with the ghost of Julia (similar to apparitions like Raymond in C.R.A.Z.Y., Rayon in Dallas, and Bobbi in Wild) on the carousel that was reconstructed in honor of her legacy.  

Then there's the Paul Valéry quote in Demolition and, as with Café de flore, Vallée seems to enchanted by the culture of the Paris of the belle époque and the melancholy and beauty of the popular poetry of its time. ‘The future is not what it used to be,’ which for Valéry when he wrote this in the thirties, meant that the atrocities of the Great War would taint the comforting assumption that the future will no longer resemble the past, but which Phil applies to the world of digital trading and unregulated capitalism. But another Valéry quote that would have been equally appropriate, for either the title or for Mitchell, is from the most recent Hayao Miyazaki film: “The wind is rising! . . . We must try to live!The idea of poetry as a privileged escape from the oppression of reality has currency for Vallée as language, style and new technologies are all equally important for him to express his poetic vision through his mise en scène. As Demolition takes language and ontology as its starting point: Mitchell tries to make sense of his existence by discussing his life, the mood and atmosphere, the meaning of words and the limits of his own psyche and his physical body. Underneath the surface of beings and objects lies an essence and this is what he's searching for. So Phil tells him, “If you want to fix something you have to take everything apart and figure out what's important,” while for Mitchell, “Everything has become a metaphor…” This is why Mitchell tears apart as much from his life as he can with his hands, tools and even a bulldozer everything from his appliances to even the infrastructure of his own house.  

There are a few details from Demolition that stand out after repeated viewing: The reoccurring gecko (similar to the fox in Wild) is actually from the Dan Deacon and Liam Lynch video Drinking Out of Cups where Deacon, in a thick Long Island accent, rehearses some cynical statements. The use of this viral comedy video from 2006 that Mitchell and Julia bonded over earlier on in their relationship (probably a Bryan Sipe reference) is just like Demolition as just like Mitchell and Julia had a negotiated response to this video (turning its cynical Seahorse reference into a romantic one) Vallée takes what could have been a cynical drama and fills it with warmth, care and love. 

Vallée is clearly a réalisateur d'oeuvre as with each new film he builds upon the previous one and all of them contribute to the world-building of his filmography: A Matthew McConaughey-like cowboy appears in a parking-lot in Wild, the business man that tries to pick up Cheryl Strayed at the end of the memoir spins off with Mitchell in Demolition, and the mother-and-son Karen and Chris will anticipate Jane and Ziggy in Big Little Lies. [In the credits there are also references to used footage from Wild from Twentieth Century Fox (though I can’t exactly pinpoint it; maybe the earlier hospital scenes?) as well there is the Snow Monkeys clips which Mitchell watches before going to sleep (from WNET/Thirteen Productions) which anticipates the snowstorm ending of Du bon usage des étoiles.] 

Though the Blu-ray is skimpy of features, there’s at least one great one on it: the Behind the Scenes location footage of the production (mostly short scenes) which is mostly silent with some natural noises. There is Vallée carrying the camera, similar to Soderbergh, and he talks to the actors in his energetic English. There is the small crew, and all of the production specifics, as they’re out filming on naturally beautiful outdoor locations. This form of poetic and personal cinema, along with Vallée’s resourceful means and major actors eager to work with him, makes him closer to a filmmaker like Terrence Malick than to most other Hollywood independents. The other few making-ofs are short and not that impressive (e.g. rehashed footage from the film, with espoused clichés from the crew). So there could have been more… But, either way, it’s incredible to have the chance to re-watch Demolition and the Blu-ray looks and sounds great. It can keep any Valléeien occupied until the release of Big Little Lies on HBO next year. Mysteries are abound.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

The Demolition Soundtrack

A new soundtrack from Jean-Marc Vallée for Demolition which includes a mix of rock, classical, folk, indie pop and electronica. The songs appear in subtle ways during key scenes in the film to express the emotions and personality of the characters. The musicians include Frédéric Chopin, Gil Scott-Heron, Sufjan Stevens, Loui Doillon, My Morning Jacket, Free, M. Ward, Alexandra Streliski, Half Moon Run, Heart, Cave, The Animals, J.S. Bach, Dusted, Jeremy Zuckerman, Charles Aznavour and Bob Dylan. And the songs are Nocturnes, Op. 9: No. 2 in E-Flat Major; B-Movie; Redford (for Yia-Yia and Pappou); Where to Start; Touch Me, I’m Going to Scream (Pt. 2); Mr. Big; To Be Alone with You; Watch the Show; Le départ; Warmest Regards; Crazy on You; Sweaty Fingers; When I Was Young; Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 (I.–II. Adagio); Bruises; Property Lines; Under a Blanket of Snow; La Bohème; and It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue. Enjoy! - D.D.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Found File : Jean-Marc Vallée on Liste noire

An obscure Jean-Marc Vallée interview from the Liste noire period that was re-posted on the Films du Québec website: this early interview provides a thorough and rich portrait of the filmmaker before he would become more internationally known. Many of the core ideas of his filmmaking are already there but he’s also more vocal and keen, which is a trait that would diminish with the years.

Published in the press dossier for the film, Liste noire – Entretien avec Jean-Marc Vallée (1995) is a rare early interview. The interviewer Charles-Henri Ramond contextualizes Liste noire as one of the commercially successful Québécois films of the late 90s, with Caboose by Richard Roy and Erreur sur la personne by Gilles Noël, that helped refresh their genre films as they were inspired by their American counter-part. Ramond writes, “The modern era of crime stories, thrillers, suspense and other type of fantastic film reinvested the Québécois corpus.”  

In it Vallée still sees the medium for its entertaining qualities but where then he highly values that of audience manipulation in his post-C.R.A.Z.Y. films he was able to refine his aesthetic by focusing first on its emotions.

In the interview he cites Hitchcock (obviously he thoroughly read Hitchcock/Truffaut) but also Paul Schrader and Philip Kaufman. He’s already saying (about the film's sex scenes) on understatement in acting, "Less is more," but he adds, "But as Philip Kaufman also says: ‘Sometimes, more is more.'" He mentions an appreciation for 37°2 le matin by Jean-Jacques Beineix, which he contrasts with Liste noire.

Of note is how Vallée mentions Hitchcock and Truffaut as the center of his cinephilia… Vallée brings the ideas of the original Cahiers project to Montreal and through it is able to re-invent Québécois cinema and film in general. Around the same time that Vallée was making these comments about Hitchcock and Psycho, in Switzerland Jean-Luc Godard was doing the same thing in his Histoire(s).

It’s an honor to translate him. – D.D.
The interview begins with a Hitchcock quotation that Vallée then explains,
“You know that the public is always searching to anticipate where the film is going as they love to say: Ah! I already knew what was going to happen. So because of this, one must take this into account, but also completely guide the thoughts of the spectator.” – Alfred Hitchcock

“To begin this interview with this citation from the master of suspence, it’s to say the importance that I grant him and his influence that he has on how I approach cinema, that is to say, like a game. A game with the public. A game that utilizes the cinematographic art to deceive, play, scare, make laugh, to create emotions on a mass scale. With this in mind, Psycho is the perfect example of what cinema can do, and for Hitchcock, it’s his experience that is the most passionate game with the public. “With Psycho, I was doing the directing of the spectator,” he affirmed in his famous interview with François Truffaut. To direct the spectator. It’s based on this idea, and through constantly reminding myself of it, that I took on the task of realizing Liste noire.”

On what brought him to the project,
“The task of directing of Liste noire interested me for several reasons. First off, I was really interested by the challenge of making a thriller that I found to be well written. Suspense, as a genre, permits a grand exploration of the cinematographic language. Secondly, the talkative side of its script really pleased me. And finally, I really liked the characters, and especially the bad guy! Liste noire is certainly story driven, where the story takes away from the stars, but it’s also, for me at least, a film about its characters.”

How to work with actors,
“I must really know the character so that I can know what to tell the actor and explain to them their motivation, debate and identify with their emotions; to really know the scene and how they normally work to best be able to direct them with a continuity; to have the judgment to nuance their performance; and finally, the choice and values to be able to choose a shot. So even if I’m really interested in its technical side (I like to frame, get good shots, have nice movements, light, and create pretty images) I reserve a capital importance to the work of the actors. It’s they who make the film. The cinema that I want to make is one of emotions.”

Why he edits his own films?
“Well because I like it. We learn so many things about understanding the language of cinema in an editing room while were manipulating the footage oneself. This is such the case that we eventually start to hesitate giving the job to others…  The montage ideas come mostly to me in pre-production or while the decoupage where I choose, for 75 percent of the time, the looks of the characters to determine where I cut. At the end of the day, I remain pretty loyal to my own découpage.”

And on its score,
“I told my composer that I wanted something that was equally simple, classic and modern. I set the bar quite high because, as on my working cut, I’ve already included several already existing tracks from Bernard Hermann, Jerry Goldsmith, Trevor Jones, Maurice Jarre, Ennio Moricone, Pino Donagio and then I told them: ‘Inspire yourself from these… but remain original.’ They fulfilled by request and exceeded them.”

Finally on Vallée’s American film references,
“My favorite cinéastes are American and my influences are primarily American. So it is sure that there is something American about my films. But it’s not forced, it’s, it’s just my nature! To make a film, for me, this means, wanting to create a good show. I’m interested in cinema in all of its forms (cinephile one day, always a cinephile). To honestly say it, I prefer the films of Clint Eastwood to those of Marguerite Duras. The cinema that I make, and that I want to create, will always be relatively simple. Even in its narrative form the most simple, as I find the cinematographic language is already really complex. To tell a story through images, by the succession of shots, and not by the interior of the shots, can seem banal and easy to attain. But it is not at all evident! Hitchcock had passed his life experimenting one film genre. It’s probably one of the most beautiful lessons to take from the History of cinema. I re-read the book Hitchcock-Truffaut before the filming of each of my films. This reminds me each time that the ‘direction of the spectator’ is just as important as the direction of the actors.”

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The Three DVDs of C.R.A.Z.Y.

So there are at least three different editions of Jean-Marc Vallée’s film C.R.A.Z.Y. on DVD: there’s the standard edition, a collector’s edition and a Blu-ray. Why this is important is that to fully appreciate its array of special features you would need all three of them.

The standard edition is the only DVD that comes with the audio commentaries, which includes ones by Vallée, the sound designer Martin Pinsonnault and production designer Patrice Bricault-Vermette, and two other featurettes C.R.A.Z.Y. sur le plateau and C.R.A.Z.Y. à Venise. The Collector’s Edition and the Blu-ray share many of the same special features: Making of featurettes on the director Jean-Marc Vallée, the producer Pierre Even, and with the actors; along with separate featurettes Émile’s audition, Visual effects, Filming in Morocco and deleted scenes. With the difference between the two is that the collector’s edition comes with a special booklet and the Blu-ray has the best image quality out of all of them. I’ll elaborate more fully on these special features later.

But that’s not all. To best appreciate the Jean-Marc Vallée’s film there are some great books that elaborate on its meaning. First off there’s the C.R.A.Z.Y scénario (Éditions Somme Toute) with the script, one of Vallée’s rare essays (a manifesto on his filmmaking) and rare photographs from the production. Secondly Robert Schwartzwald’s new study on C.R.A.Z.Y. as part of the Queer Film Classic series. And finally Vallée’s early film professor Yves Lever’s book L’analyse filmique (a valuable resource for a young Vallée when he was becoming a filmmaker). This last book might be the most important of them all because it attempts to get to the essentials of Jean-Marc Vallée’s art: the mise en scène.

Isn't this not what Vallée, Pinsonnault and Bricault-Vermette are actually trying to articulate throughout their audio commentaries? And what makes their behind the scenes stories so fascinating is how it either shows or describes the creation of filmmaking into the mise en scène.

If Jean-Marc Vallée is a private filmmaker – reluctant to take away from the experience of watching his films by talking about them; and annoyed by the repetitive nature of promotion (usually with uncaring film critics) – then these commentaries and featurettes show him at his most open: generous, filled with energy and emotion, and willing to do anything to protect his vision.

But then why is it necessary to divide these features throughout different DVDs? I first heard of the collector’s edition through the standard edition audio commentary where Vallée mentions the deleted scenes (which aren't included). But if you only owned the collector’s edition then you wouldn’t have access to his audio commentary. Something about this situation just doesn’t make sense.

I would propose a couple of reasons for these complications: among the nine full-length features in his oeuvre (and among these only six that he acknowledges as his films) there is only two of them with audio commentaries: C.R.A.Z.Y. and Wild. Apparently Vallée recorded an audio commentary for Café de flore, which was never included on the DVD release. His newest feature Demolition doesn’t even include an audio commentary. 

So those who are  sympathetic would acknowledge that he’s busy with an average of one feature every year and now two upcoming television series for HBO (Big Little Lies, Sharp Objects) or say that Vallée, just like Stanley Kubrick and Woody Allen, is reluctant to discuss his own films as he prefers them to speak for themselves, which I feel must be partly true as he describes himself more as a filmmaker by nature instead of necessarily a public speaker. But then why the mix-up of the special features on the C.R.A.Z.Y. DVD, not include the Café de flore audio commentary, or not have one for Demolition (which I’ll review in a future post)?

Is it a mismanagement or a lack of interest by the DVD vendors? Unfortunately, this would be my guess… A simple enough job and effort could have gave these recent masterpieces a commentary by Vallée, which would be of value and interest for years to come. A missed opportunity…

On the C.R.A.Z.Y. special features:
- The idea of stars in the sky have an important place in Vallée’s cinema. The four-point star of his production company, Crazy Film, is described as being influenced by his ‘lucky star’. This four-point star would appear as a tattoo on Raymond in C.R.A.Z.Y. and as a reoccurring symbol in Café de flore (which ends with a character looking up and saying ‘It’s written in the stars’). And Dominique Fortier, whose Du bon usage des étoiles Vallée is planning to adapt, is already thanked in the credits of C.R.A.Z.Y.
- Vallée has already described C.R.A.Z.Y. as a film-prières, so then it's not surprising to hear him cite Pasolini at the beginning of his own making-of. Just like how his earlier film professor Yves Lever was cast as the priest in Liste noire in these special features he discusses his reasons for playing the priest as a "lesson in humility." His dialogue as the character is especially important for the story such as after Raymond's passing, “Even in the face of death, we’re willing to stake that the affirmation to live is stronger, as it comes from God.” An essentially religious and spiritual filmmaker. Michel Côtée talks about how 150 candidates auditioned for the role but how Vallée finally chose himself (‘He’s got connections!’).
- The somewhat forgotten French filmmaker Bertrand Blier is an important reference for Vallée (Merci la vie being a staple of Lever’s syllabus). Early on in interviews Blier is regularly cited and described as great; and supposedly Les valseuses was the film that got Vallée into cinema. Perhaps his film that’s most in a Blier tradition is Loser Love for its frank portrayal of sex, aggression and transgression (an omitted film in most of his filmographies, its New York setting anticipates that of Demolition by 15 years; and it themes of domestic violence and a lengthy sociopath confession at its end connects it to his upcoming Big Little Lies and Sharp Objects).
- On the editing process (which quite a few of these are included in the deleted scenes) Vallée says, “One must not be scared to get rid of the start and ending of scenes that are too long in one’s movies.”
- Music references are in abundance in C.R.A.Z.Y. and Vallée’s films in general: The John Lennon death Time magazine cover to transition to the eighties, the Janis Joplin t-shirt Zach wears; Johnny Rotten, Sid Vicious, Jim Morrison and Ian Curtis are character influences; Pink Floyd, David Bowie and the Rolling Stones on the soundtrack. Zach (though it’s never shown) is a DJ in the film…
- Not that it’s much discussed or referenced directly in the film but Paulo Coelho’s book The Alchemist seems like a big influence on the story’s structure: Zach has to travel abroad to Jerusalem (actually Morocco, near where Welles shot Othello) where Jesus walked to be able to find peace at home… This self-discovery journey can be seen in all of Vallée’s subsequent films. (On the subject of imagined Vallée adaptations, after this summer’s The BFG, Roald Dahl’s Danny, the Champion of the World seems like it would be a great fit for him).
- So many important details of the mise en scène are nearly invisible: a character walking with his back-turned, posters that you can’t really see, personal belongings that provide historical context etc. Their unconscious value make the films a lot richer and full of meaning. Vallée’s audio-commentaries are extremely helpful to make sense of all of these details.
- François Boulay wrote a part of his life for Vallée around the time of Liste noire which forms the bases of C.R.A.Z.Y. But apparently it’s one of Boulay’s friends that was ashamed and experienced queer guilt which really inspired the inner struggles of Zach and the structure of the film. Vallée would also add many of his own family memories to the film.
- The behind the scenes of the filmmaking is incredible as it provides the reverse-shot of the many stories of Vallée’s unique filming approach. The footage of Émile Vallée and his brother Alex and even their mother Chantal Cadieux show up in them which give it a home movie quality. Vallée’s extremely animated on set and his outfits change to reflect the type of scene he's filming.
- Vallée had a bad first week on the set of C.R.A.Z.Y. He was sick, impatient and horrorfied after having been forced to do some budgetary scene cuts the previous week. After a week or so of filming, and with the footage really working out, the crew eased up.

I could go on – I mean it, I really could! – but I’ll leave the rest of the discoveries to anyone willing to check out these amazing special features. More of Jean-Marc Vallée’s films on DVD should be as rich in supplementary material!

Bon cinéma,
David Davidson

C.R.A.Z.Y. in Special Features




Thursday, August 11, 2016

New Release: How Heavy This Hammer

The reflection of a dusty computer monitor showing a middle age man playing a command and conquer style video game. The colors are muted and what draws the eye is the reflection of the digital world in his glasses. This image sums up Kazik Radwanski’s second feature How Heavy This Hammer quite well as it’s about the grey times in life where people just keep moving forward, somewhat miserably. Erwin is married with two boys but the only thing that seems to be able to hold his attention is drinking and his computer games. How Heavy This Hammer is a pissed off and angry examination of the placid and mundane quality of living that is in overabundance in Toronto. There has to be more from life? 

Where Radwanski’s first feature Tower extended the anxious close-ups of his earlier shorts into a feature, with this new feature these techniques are refined as there are more main characters and situations which create more complex confrontations and settings that lead to new affects. So if Radwanski’s cinema is the hybrid of Allan King (A Married Couple) and John Cassavetes (Husbands) – that of a réel with stylized natural performances – then its through its capturing in extended scenes of silence and an inarticulateness and through personal gestures (both of humans and animals) that it gets to the heart of its characters and its story. With the online launch of the earlier short film Princess Margaret Blvd. (one of the catalyst of the Toronto DIY Filmmaker movement) there is a new motivation to dig into Radwanski’s work: muted characters, walking through a haze, trying to figure out what’s going on, and not sure what’s going to happen next. Not necessarily an optimistic lesson but perceptive for its story and influential for leading to what is still to come.

How Heavy This Hammer begins its theatrical run this Friday at 7PM at the TIFF Bell Lightbox where it’ll be playing for a week.