Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Toronto Premieres : Edging, Rainfall, Never Eat Alone

An embarrassment of riches? Just this week the Canadian Film Fest is premiering Efehan Elbi and Aleksey Matviyenko’s Rainfall (Tuesday, 7PM) and Natty Zavitz’s Edging (Wednesday, 7PM), both at the Scotiabank; and Sofia Bohdanowicz’s Never Eat Alone, along with some shorts, are being shown as part of an exclusive screening at TIFF on Saturday, 8:30PM (while her new documentary Maison du Bonheur was just announced for Hot Docs). But, aside from these immediate events, there’s still a lot more good Canadian work playing: Big Little Lies is still playing on HBO, Nirvanna The Band The Show will have its Season 1 finale on Thursday (Viceland), Ashley McKenzie’s Werewolf is opening in France, and Sophie Goyette’s Mes nuits feront écho is playing at The Royal as part of MDFF Presents (April 5, 8PM). There’s Hot Docs and Images coming up. And (!) The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is now available and is a blast! I should really be studying… - D.D. 

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Le Deuil, Hollywood et l'Affaire Nectoux à Cahiers du Cinéma

Le Deuil à Cahiers
The issue of Cahiers that comes to mind is ‘Alain Resnais à jamais’ (N.699). With a cover by the illustrator Blutch, who designed the poster for his last films, there’s Resnais in his twilight years sitting in his office. He’s smiling, dressed in a dark suit and his shirt, seat pillows and floor are a bright red. His iconic white set of hair stands out and so do his glasses that are sitting on a desk. There are papers and documents everywhere and a door that opens to another room full of documents. It brings to mind the deuil of his last couple of films Vous n'avez encore rien vu and Aimer, boire et chanter: that of a charming director already in his afterlife looking out to the world with joy and compassion sincerely wishing them the best.
The social context in France has only gotten darker since the Resnais issue from the attacks at Charlie Hebdo to the current rise of right-wing politicians. There’s also been an uncomfortable rise of deaths of cultural icons these last few years as the important figures that modernized filmmaking have been dying and leaving in their wake a community of cultural orphans that need to recreate new cinematographic values and contemporary directors to identify with.
After the année noire 2015, in 2016 alone at Cahiers seven out of the eleven issues featured prominent Hommage features. In these two years alone, with more already appearing in the 2017 issues, some major figures that passed away and received these tributes include Manoel de Oliveira (N.711), Chantal Akerman (N.716), Jacques Rivette (N.720) and Abbas Kiarostami (N.725) along with Pierre Cottrelll (N.714), Wes Craven (N.714), Setsuko Hara (N.718), David Bowie (N.719), Andrzej Żuławski (N.721), Charles Bitsch (N.724), Pierre Étaix (N.728), Raoul Coutard (N.729) and Michèle Morgan (N.730). These eulogistic pieces pay tribute to these important figures of film history while the mise en page at Cahiers highlights the value of their importance, which range from being placed right at the front to closer to the back and from around one to five to at most thirty-some pages depending on the importance of the figure.
These features offer a different perspective to the regular Cahiers output as they are not as invested in the discourse of new releases. They testify to the importance of these figures to the history of cinema and to Cahiers. As Xavier Beauvois said about Serge Daney when he passed away, this form of memorial texts offer points de suspension, ellipsis towards the respective figure. Hopefully to maybe return in a Cinéma retrouvé dossier, which in the last couple of years included ones on Truffaut (N.704), Marguerite Duras (N.706), Paul Vecchiali (N.708), Orson Welles (N.712), John Cassavetes (N.720) and Akira Kurosawa (N.726).
Alongside these Hommage features and memorial essays there’s also been many eulogy essays and obituaries, which mostly appear in the Le Journal. These include guest contributions by Bruno Dumont on David Dewaele (N.688), Thierry Jousse on Yoichi Umemoto (N.688), Nicole Brenez on René Vautier (708), Valérie Donzelli on Jean Gruault (N.713), Jean-Claude Carrière on Étaix and Vecchiali on Morgan. These pieces show the respective filmmakers in moments of transition. For example, Dumont piece that concludes, “Le cinema est bien ‘Au-delà: David y est pour toujours vivant,” would come to anticipate a shift away from the more austere films he made with Dewaele towards the burlesque of P’tit Quinquin and Ma Loute. While many other figures would just be placed in their regular obituary section Disparitions: Věra Chytilová, Michael Henry Wilson, Robin Williams, Antoine Duhamel, Leonard Nimoy, Richard Corliss, Christopher Lee, Raymond Chirat, Danièle Delorme, Maureen O’Hara, Melissa Mathison, David Douche, Vilmos Zsigmond, Haskell Wexler, Alan Rickman, Ettore Scola, Francois Dupeyron, Ken Adam, Ronit Elkabetz, Tony Conrad, Michael Cimino, Gene Wilder, Andzej Wajda, Herschell Gordon Lewis, Curtis Hanson and Michel Delahaye.

Le Retour d’Hollywood
You can see this emphasis on a deuil and mourning, a remapping of the cinematographic landscape and aligning themselves with new directors through the films they chose to highlight. These new films from the last couple of years put up on screens images, actions and sentiments that synthesized feelings of melancholy, bereavement, tenderness, anger and optimism towards death and the problems of the world. Some of these titles include the Arabian Nights trilogy, Mad Max: Fury Road, Jauja, Horse Money, Love is Strange, The Smell of Us, Mia Madre, Je suis Femen, Cemetary of Splendor, Journey to the Shore, Toni Erdmann, Aquarius, Elle, No Home Movie and Kaili Blues. Cahiers films, in short.
But with the rise of deaths and a larger cultural cynicism there has been an unlikely turn at Cahiers: a return to Hollywood. In face of growing social divides and an atmosphere of fear, Cahiers has returned to a cinema of mass popular culture. The two most striking examples of this is its chief editors critiques of La La Land and Jackie (and maybe even the one for Arrival), which are all praised. These two films represent an embrace of a new popular cinema then what Cahiers is traditionally used to. American films regularly get positive critiques at Cahiers but they tend to be the films of its regularly championed auteurs instead of more mainstream Oscars titles. But with these two critiques two new directors are entering its pages – Damien Chazelle, while Pablo Larraín is returning after a trashed The Club – and with them a new way to think about Hollywood. It’s that of a positive, optimistic Hollywood against a cinema of cynicism.
            Stéphane Delorme in his critique of La La Land, Hollywoodland (N.729), has this to say about the film,
            “Even though we see its flaws, we can still be charmed by the film as a whole. Why? Because Hollywood has been disappointing us recently and this film with its ambition, which isn’t modest but for the better, is to renew the potential of dreams. If this film has been getting so much attention and Oscars buzz since Venice, is that it believes in the Hollywood dream. Damien Chazelle knows that Hollywood at its origins was called Hollywoodland and it’s this world that he wants to film, and not the love story, which interests him a lot less. It would be a shame to dismiss the film for its vintage style as this problematic is already behind us. The idea now is to how renew films: How to make it so that its history isn’t broken? How to believe in it still? This is Jeff Nichols’ project with Midnight Special and Loving. These cinéastes feel the need to look back to the past to better construct the cinema of tomorrow. And they’re right. Because what they give back is a certain type of emotion that we should never loose. Here the inaugural ballet returns the ‘La’ to the musical comedy that has been lost on our screens: a sentiment of enthusiasm. It’s not a restoration, but a reappropriation of a common ground that has been abandoned, a territory of dreams that Hollywood itself was the one who was able to bring it into existence.
            “In watching the film we are also stunned by how Hollywood has become Los Angeles, at what point the crystallization and the glamour of the Hollywood dream has transferred to the city itself. Damien Chazelle presents a pretty touristic trip of the city through its great films (A Star is Born, Rebel Without a Cause) and its principal theme song is entitled City of Lights. It’s Mulholland Dr. that operated this transfer from a love of Hollywood to a love for L.A. (should we be calling the film L.A. L.A. Land?), while in the past the musical comedy (of the studios) never really explored the city to play with it. La La Land echoes well with another post-Lynchian angelos film: The Neon Demon. Nicolas Winding Refn, older, European, and exterior to Hollywood doesn’t seek to renew a connection: he projects himself into the cinema of tomorrow by imposing fashion on cinema. It’s an electroshock – and a failure too. While for Chazelle in a manner that’s more nostalgic is a winner, imposes jazz onto the cinema, and his character of a purist who wants to open his own club certainly pertains to this cinéaste who wants to install himself there, as a young Tarantino… This exciting film opens the door and shows that Hollywood is there for its young filmmakers (Chazelle is 30) and can renew itself again in a decade that’s one of the weakest of its history.”
While Jean-Philippe Tessé in his critique of Jackie, Vertige et vanité (N.730), praises the film for its creation of a Hollywood myth.
“The composition of the film, and Jackie’s oeuvre, resolves itself in a really accomplished scene, where she’s wandering through the White House listening to the song Camelot… The film can then finish on the memory of a ball one night at the White House where Jackie waltzed in Jack’s arms. It comes down to this, Jackie, a dance in the gown of a princess, a waltz that we’d never want to end, the Hollywood dream.”
Un Manque du Réel
Regardless of your thoughts on these two films, Delorme makes La La Land sound a lot more interesting and Tessé makes Jackie sound just as good as one of Michel Curtiz’s prestige biopics (a director someone even like Daney returned to in favor in his later years). But these changes come at what cost? Perhaps one of the biggest behind-the-scenes event and news from the Cahiers headquarters is L’affaire Nectoux. A newer critic that joined Cahiers in April 2013, Gaspard Nectoux offered some of the most compelling texts in the magazine over the last few years (see: more). One of his unique forces was his discussion of the réel, documentaries and hybrids of the two. He could have somewhat been seen as continuing the work of earlier Cahiers critics that focused on documentaries such as Serge Le Péron and Frédéric Sabouraud.
Some of Nectoux's merits included: Having written some of the best pieces on Lav Diaz, Alain Bergala and Jean-Luc Godard and on films like I Used to Be Darker, A la folie, Summer, Frank and Le Chant d’une ile. Offering unique Cahiers arguments against consensus film festival favorites that were highly esteemed. Major take-downs of really obnoxious films were always fun to read. Even though websites like Rue 89 thinks he's the worst or Adrian Martin not caring for his review of Knight of Cups, Nectoux easily created many important polemics that Cahiers is actually famous for and they were always provoking and convincing. For example, when Nectoux critiques The Look of Silence for how “It’s hard to delve into such a subject, when all that matters is the spectacle, spectacle, spectacle.” One agrees due to his passion - sure! it is! - and one also wonders who he is arguing with?
In a Yap interview Nectoux is contextualized by Delorme amongst a new generation of 25 to 30 year old critics at Cahiers that includes Laura Tuillier, Florence Maillard, Louis Séguin and Hugues Perrot. And it was through Nectoux, and some of these younger critics, that I saw my own tastes and arguments reflected in Cahiers, more so than some of the older critics like Joachim Lepastier and Stéphane du Mesnildot.
The rumors behind l’affaire Nectoux is that he was fired due to a conflict with Delorme – I don’t know anything more about it than that. Could it have to do with the high passions and tempers of the atmosphere at Cahiers? Any prejudice against writing that goes against the grain? Do young critics have a harder time being initiated into the tight fortress that is Cahiers?
There are other good young writers that have joined and left Cahiers before really imposing themselves that suggest l’affaire Nectoux is just the tip of the iceberg of potential interior conflict. These critics have included Mathieu Macheret (who I really liked!), Sophia Collet, Matthieu Bareyre and Vincent Poli. From the recent December to February issues the only new young critics that have been able to contribute to the critique sections are Laura Tuillier and Louis Séguin. Of the other young new Cahiers critics that I've been suggested to look at (which many of them I'm not at all familiar with) - a list that includes Hugues Pierrot, Quentin Papapietro, Camille Bui, Paola Raiman, Chloé Huvet, Mirjana de Bie, Mathis Badin and Louis Dréano - they're not regularly contributing to the more important critiques section and are usually tucked away near the back of the magazine in smaller, less important pieces. As well I don't believe they regularly publish.
Nectoux brought a focus on the réel that brought Cahiers back down to earth. It suited the magazine really well as they were arguments that were at the forefront of a young cinephile culture. L’affaire Nectoux is one of the first signs that the offices of Cahiers are not as utopic as one imagined. I support the Cahiers combat against a culture of cynicism and instead to favor enchantment, winning and dreams. But it’s not the only form of cinema and Nectoux’s writing, choices and taste offered a vital perspective within a context that I guess wasn’t receptive to it. It seems like a sense of reality is being loss in this transition. Here’s hoping Nectoux bounces back and finds places to write and that Delorme at Cahiers becomes more accepting of new voices and that they can find a place for themselves at the magazine so that Cahiers can keep on growing and evolving with the times to remain the best. Rereading the same old arguments by an older generation, who are set in their ways and the filmmakers that they choose to write about, won’t do for much longer. 

Monday, March 6, 2017

Canadian Cinema – Winter 2017

“Mais laissons les grands de côté, car 2016 a été unne année beaucoup plus intéressante à observer du côté des petits.” – Bruno Dequen

Well I agree! There’s been something exciting going on in Canadian cinema recently: new and exciting directors are emerging in the cinematographic landscape just like how grass and flowers will soon rise from below the dirt and snow to bring out some lightness and color.

The new issue of 24 Images takes stock of some of these developments in the Québécois context through its new dossier Regards pluriels. In it there’s an essay by Bruno Dequen on the future prospects of these smaller films in face of the shrinking attendance of public screenings. There’s a round-table with new voices in Québécois cinema (to accompany their short films on the 24 Images produced DVD) that includes Jean-Guillaume Bastien, Loïc Darses, Alexandre Dostie, Philippe David Gagné, Émilie Mannering and Rafaël Ouellet (not the one who made Gurov and Anna). A conversation between the critics Gérard Grugeau and Philippe Gajan on Mathieu Denis and Simon Lavoie’s Ceux qui font les révolutions à moitié n'ont fait que se creuser un tombeau. Essays and reviews on Olivier Godin’s films, Sylvain L’Espérance’s Combat du bout de la nuit, Anne Émond’s Nelly, Sophie Goyette’s Mes nuits feront écho, Zaynê Akyol’s Gulîstan, terre de roses and Olivier Asselin’s Le Cyclotron (many of which are playing at the Les Rendez-vous du cinéma québécois).

Loïc Darses perhaps best describes the context of this new generation of Québécois directors and their hopefulness in the round-table. Darses writes,
I remember having these discussion when we aspired to be directors while we were still in film school. Even though we admire the films of Denis Côté, Anne Émond and Maxime Giroux we need to distance ourselves from them to exist. It’s a generation that went through certain disenchantment of globalization and that makes films about, among other things, mostly solitude. The problems haven’t disappeared but instead our generation rather transmits hope.
One of the nice surprises in this issue of 24 Images is to see Sophie Goyette’s first full-length feature Mes nuits feront écho, after two great shorts La ronde and Le futur proche, get the appreciation that it deserves. Though small in terms of its production budget, its multiple narratives follows three different characters in three different countries as they search for themselves and try to reconcile with the spirits of their deceased loved ones. There’s a beauty, modesty, hopefulness and ambition to Mes nuits feront écho that’s rare among first features.

Well regarded since its premiere, Ceux qui font les révolutions… needs to be seen in a theater to be properly experienced. It’s fervor and scope in portraying a group of young Québécois activist in the aftermath of the 2012 student protests is both inspiring and chilling. The 24 Images piece on it elaborates on its achievements and flaws, critiquing it for not giving the population of Montréal enough credit (the province throughout its history has shown more revolutionary fervor than any other in the country), not offering any firm political solutions and for being defeatist. Though I liked it more than them for its critical politics and its tactile media form (e.g. graffiting a billboard, throwing a Molotov cocktail into a restaurant) that seems new in this form to Québécois cinema. The insert shots in Ceux qui font les révolutions… of a Montréal of leisure (as discussed by Marcel Jean in 24 Images in the inaugural Montréal et Cinéma feature on La semaine dernière pas loin du pont), which presents the quotidian of the urban social life, are especially damning in the context of the film towards a more general cultural apathy and resistance towards direct action. Denis and Lavoie discuss being inspired by Gilles Groulx.

Émond’s Nelly is both devastating and fantastic. Similar to Jean-Marc Vallée’s Café de flore, it’s devastating in its portrayal of youth, drug problems and what’s it like to be torn apart by love. It’s fantastic for its direction of Mylène Mackay, who plays Nelly Arcan, and the complexity of the character and her ability to be transformed into a star. There’s a scene in the film where Nelly is describing her literary fiction, about her previous life as a call girl, to her book publisher and says about it, ‘What’s wrong with some imagination?’ After the bleakness of Les êtres chers, Émond with Nelly aims towards new life experiences and aesthetic extremes. The result is outstanding.

It’s this turn to hope, extreme positions and grand affects that makes these new Québécois films so stimulating.

It’s emblematic for these young filmmakers to actively persist to raise funds to complete their projects and to pursue their vision. Though their multiple funding agencies including  SODEC, Telefilm, NFB among other independent producers provide for them more economic resources than any other province. 

A new book Le cinéma québécois par ceux qui le font full of interviews with Érik Canuel, Catherine Martin, Charles-Olivier Michaud, Noël Mitrani, Kim Nguyen and Rafaël Ouellet shows how an older generation can be a bit too complacent in the system while they complain about not being appreciated enough. (Though a new title in the same L'instant même series Le Cinéma Québécois au féminin sounds a lot more interesting). A more positive example of an older generation director is someone like Jean-Marc Vallée, and to a lesser extent Denis Villeneuve, who made the right decision for their career so that they could best expand their canvas by continuing to make the movies that they envision by going to Hollywood. Big Little Lies is just the newest and most glorious illustration of someone like Vallée’s skill.

All of this discourse, production and screening opportunities, with 24 Images at the center of it all continues to make Québécois cinema one of the best in the country. We’d be so lucky to have an equivalent of 24 Images, that's so invested in the art of cinema of its own city, here in Toronto. Though it’s surprising how there isn’t necessarily a crossover of it to the other provinces (see: poll). Other Canadian cities competing with Montréal for the best city for young Canadian filmmakers include Toronto (probably its biggest competitor), Vancouver and Cape Breton. But I’d also be curious to discover more from other Canadian cities.

Though there’s been recent films set near the Atlantic Coast (Closet Monster, Weirdos), it’s perhaps due to Ashley McKenzie’s Werewolf that there’s a revitalized interest in the filmmaking of the Maritimes. Werewolf, similar to Andrew Cividino’s Sleeping Giant, revitalizes a somewhat bland community by focusing on its youthful delinquency: the story of a young Methadone-addicted couple that eventually separates. It’s hard to properly get at what makes Werewolf so interesting. Some comparisons: Goin' Down the Road meets conceptual art? The Nova Scotian equivalent of East Hastings Pharmacy and Tower? Buffalo '66 meets the Dardenne brothers? But perhaps most productively is to see Werewolf as a personal film for McKenzie about witnessing the problems of her community first hand and of having friends ripped away due to circumstances. It’s also worth noting another Halifax filmmaker Heather Young whose two short films Fish and Howard and Jean also testify to the social problems and loneliness afflicting their surroundings. Young’s Fish is especially striking for following a single mother over a few years after she gives birth to twins and it continues in Youngs tender manner to express the loneliness that most people experience.

From Vancouver the two most anticipated new films are Neil Bahadur’s directorial debut From Nine to Nine and Kurt Walker’s follow up to Hit 2 Pass, S01E03. I’d be curious to see how they look when they’re all done.

But perhaps the biggest news from Vancouver is the success of Kevan Funk’s first feature, after the two earlier short films Yellowhead and Destroyer, Hello Destroyer, which is now only getting its theatrical release starting on March 10th. In a singular gritty style of medium shots and close-ups, full of shadows and set in modest urban environments and harsh nature settings, Hello Destroyer closely follows an up-and-coming hockey player (Jared Abrahamson) as his dream slowly gets crushed. It’s especially critical of institutional practices that foster excessive masculinity and that hypocritically turns away from its victims when they are needed.

If there’s a pessimism to Funk’s filmmaking as characters are slowly crushed by their surroundings, an optimism can be found in one new Toronto work: the Zapruder Films produced nirvanna the band the show (currently now on Viceland). It’s Matt Johnson’s ability to dream and to imagine actually winning that makes his work so uplifting.

But there’s also a lot more exciting events and new projects in the works going on in Toronto. This March: Kazik Radwanski’s How Heavy This Hammer is now on iTunes, Funk's film on the 10th, the Canadian Screen Awards (where Johnson, Funk and Johnny Ma are nominated) on March 12th, Efehan Elbi and Aleksey Matviyenko’s Rainfall is having its Toronto premiere at the Canadian Film Fest on March 21st, and Sofia Bohdanowicz’s Never Eat Alone is getting a theatrical and some of her short films are playing on the March 25th. Here’s hoping that Lev Lewis’s The Intestine, Daniel Warth and Miles Barstead’s Dim the Fluorescents, Joyce Wong's Wexford Plaza, Rebeccah Love’s Acres and Claudia Hébert's Le Déni soon have their Toronto premiere. There are also some new projects in either development or near-completion including those by filmmakers such as Fantavious Fritz, Mitch Greenberg, Antoine Bourges and Isiah Medina. Here’s to better times!

Thursday, March 2, 2017

River of human flaws: Ryūsuke Hamaguchi's Happy Hour

A guest-contribution by the film scholar Oriane Sidre, whose two French film blogs includes Lysao and Mirabelle-Cerisier. Ryūsuke Hamaguchi's Happy Hour (2015) is both a subtle and epic (in length!) Japanese drama that has won prizes at both Locarno and the Kinotayo film festival. Here's hoping it plays one day in Toronto! - D.D.
The ship is sailing away, cutting the sea in half, like an open book. Jun stands alone at the back of this large ship, breathing the sea air. She stands like the one that has nothing to lose anymore, and everything to discover again.
Cut to the sea water and a light tear, which brushes against Sakurako’s cheeks, who is Jun’s best friend. By an aquatic manner, that either it fills the shots or is a detail on a face, is the secret affective link that is born. This link connects the two women, connects a free being to another in suffer.
The tear dries and the eyes open, they look quite lost, but they are looking straight at the audience. The look to camera, which is not breaking the fourth wall, is more natural, confident and generous, and it suddenly freezes, while the cinema room slowly lights up. From this moment, four hours has passed by, and one hour and twenty minutes remain to finish the movie. The spectators shivers a little, as they did not expect this cut, because the were completely lost in Happy Hour’s paths, in this “film-fleuve” with secret confessions.
The first break, which happens after the two first hours, was more brutal yet waited. People easily spoke after the lighting of the room, bodies quickly raised from the seat in order to go to the bathroom or to enjoy the tea offered by the festival team. Four hours after the suspension of this tear, minds are moved, and turned towards this other time, the cinematographic one, that totally makes us forget the present time.
During this second break, we can sense that everyone in the room has lost the notion of time, while we are lost in the interlacing made by dialogues and portraits. We do not know about the weather outside, about what’s going on in the real world - what minor news, which traffic problems are going on in the Parisian subway... A lot of us are remaining in their seat, wondering if they want to stand, waiting quietly for the following.
The length is experienced, but not in a tiresome way. On the contrary, Happy. Happy Hour’s 5 hours and 20 minutes suffuses a meditative and reflexive manner of approaching stories. Its director, Ryusuke Hamaguchi, is going all the way and creates a kind of suspense around the feminine character, Fumi, Akari, Sakurako et Jun - played by Maiko Mihara, Sachie Tanaka, Hazuki Kikuchi and Rira Kawamura. Where the discussion between the four is going to lead? Which story a meeting in a bus is going to tell? How a reading aloud will end? The movie is like an experience which rethinks the articulation between characters and their stories, and also our own relationship to them.
The aquatic comparison suits best to the Hamaguchi’s movie. With this feature-length film, which is as long as a river, is composed by ramifications similar to small brooks and dialogues just as slippery as fishes. A strange movie with the peacefulness from a hot water source and sometimes the violence of a cascade. Happy Hour has a vast ocean of meanings and multiple horizons.
We are not thrown into this bath, because the immersion remains progressive. To all appearances, Happy Hour seems to build itself on familiar steps - introducing the four main characters, succession of scenes that depict their daily-lives and relationships - but also subtly evades from these. For instance, the group of friends’ break up, which is also the one of the movie, that does not usually happen in most usual scripts: it comes during a long conversation, inside formal and peaceful speeches. Jun suddenly reveals her big secret that sows discord. The announcement arrives after a long cascade of reactions and confessions. Jun becomes, from that moment, a being at counter-current: she decides to disappear and escape from her obligations as a married woman, but also as a faithful friend. She escapes from her image, breaking the quartet’s harmony and revealing the flaws of each one.
Atelier / Course, class
The first innovative turn in Happy Hour occurs after the first 20 minutes of the movie. After few discussions and familial scenes, three of the women go to the “course”, or “working group” organized by the fourth one. Before, this class was just quoted as an insignificant fact. The art of managing the field without underlining it is part of the movie’s fluidness. Events that will perturb the protagonists are not pointed by finger, they are just installed with lightness.
In that logic, three scenes - the meditative class, the trip to hot water sources and the reading aloud - establish moments that first seem unimportant, then become essential for the quartet’s progression. The duration of these three scenes - the second one being the most nice, because edited to the rhythm of a ballade - redefines each time the dramatic issues, but also the spectatorial links. By the length of time and the attention given to details and reactions, the movie orchestrates a vast characters’ painting.
Thus, this work class builds the first rupture with usual cinematographic spatial and time codes: its excessive length is surprising, because the full presentation of the class, the exercises and reactions that follows are given almost in real-time. Cuts in the editing are more here to approach a continuity feeling than to break the temporality. Furthermore, improvisation can be seen - to the contrary of a movie that is highly written in advance - and supports a natural spontaneity, that reveals way much more than a daily-life’s depiction. During the exercises, the artist (played by Shuhei Shibata) demands intimate contact and self-listening: through this, in turn injuries softly appear, accompanied by an attentive camera. Sensuality, also body language, burst from the four characters, and changes our interest towards them. With a great generosity, Hamaguchi includes us in this unexpected rediscover of their bodies, and bodies of others. The closeness of the shots, but also softened backlighting, convey the particular touch-sensitive, this feeling of touch. It reaches to the cinema room, where spectators’ bodies are relaxing while, on screen, characters are getting closer with as much embarrassment than emotion. The feeling is quite new, unexpected, almost extraordinary.
The work class is in itself not so remarkable. Meditation exercises are common to the one we can find in a yoga class, or some initiation to contemporary dance. Moreover, the artist, Ukai, does not have the appeal of a therapist, nor is like a miraculous healer. He then reveals to be quite lazy and unreliable. But, what is truly admirable, is that the sensitive directing of the scene shows us the extraordinary in the reactions, and begins to highlight in turn transformations. New issues are appearing, through this way of touching people and changing body contact: Sakurako seems apart from the others, overwhelmed by the liveness of Jun and Akari; Fumi, who is taking photographs, carries a worry that is not perceptible before; Akari, without wanting it, develops a certain new complicity with Jun.
Human Flaws
This scene also starts a base for one of the major characteristics of the movie. Ukai is an artist that works on objects that he achieves to maintain on an equilibrium - which conveys to the rock balancing, an impressive art discipline. Ukai explains his work as a way of finding the object’s gravitational point. This links to the four main characters who are also beings on a fragile equilibrium.
After the first break in the duration, disequilibrium won’t cease to be present in the movie. First, the general body of the quartet, which was almost a “corps de ballet”, bursts and mostly dispatches in the following. Camera shows shiftings in the positions, and the disappearance of an equality between the four woman. At the beginning of the movie, the friends were sitting on a bus or at a picnic table, at the same level. After the meditative class, this harmony in the shots is exploded, and each one of them is taking a new place on the screen, each one frees from this “corps de ballet” that was protective. There is an exception: the trip to the hot water sources, the last moment of equality, where the girls are walking at the same rhythm, or posing at the same level for a photograph. The trip is in fact the last union moment before the total bursting, the last harmonious feeling before movements, actions of freedom and independence.
Then, personal bodies are influenced by the work course, as they are under a mutation in progress. Characters have difficulties to react as usual, some fall asleep on their table, others suddenly faint or, a proving fact for Akari, breaks their leg. Corporal beings seem invaded by flaws, and, from time to time, are struck by immobility or abruptness.
Idea of flaws is even present in the directing and stylistic choices. In general, Happy Hour’s aesthetic is quite peaceful, nice and close to the rhythm of a serial construction. Yet, it can also live some moments of pure and highly- advanced stylish behaviors. Thereto, the movie recalls Shokuzai, with this combination of television format and personal actions in the mise-en- scene. Hamaguchi’s and Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s movies are different in their discourse yet similar at some points. Their feminine quartet are both structuring the movies as a fractured mirror. In Happy Hour, emancipation and micro-breakups from the general cinematographic atmosphere appear with violent zooming, rhythmic editing, swirling camera movement, symmetrical shots. But it is also interesting to consider the moments where this stylish freedom occurs. These moments seem at first to fill “empty” scenes in the narrative texture, spaces of meaning where one character is lonely, or doing nothing. Yet, they, in a more metaphoric way, always indicates an invisible change that is particular in its movement.
In the quartet, Jun reveals herself as the only one who confesses her flaws, by the scene at the tribunal. This exposure contrasts an introspection of the feelings, for instance in Sakurako’s family. The scene where Sakurako goes with her stepmother to settle an embarrassing case that involved her son, which is quite remarkable in its finesse. It shows a tension built by awkwardness, lack of understanding and sadness of the events. What could be shocking, intense or hysterical in this scene does not exist: scandal transforms itself into a heavy silence, or in a quiet walk with the stepmother. When Sakurako meets her son after, camera lengthily accompanies both walking and talking casually. Tranquility of Sakurako’s steps, as the son’s bike’s slows down, permits to avoid the fight, yet they are filled with unconfessed regret and sorrow.
These human flaws are more present during the last part of the movie. The four hours are really fluid in the writing and the rhythm, while the last hour seems long. Character’s fragility is more visible, words are becoming sharper, actions more decided. Before, it was like the lightful daily-life could save from all this pain. Now, it is overrun by the necessity to confront the difficulties. A long and painful discussion scene in a restaurant symbolizes this. The more confessions and critiques comes one after another, the more distance is set between the characters, through mise-en-scene and succession of fixed shots. At the beginning of the movie, the four women, relaxed, were eating at a picnic table. In this last scene of group discussion, also a meal, nobody is eating, nor drinking, nor even moving on its seat. Almost like the slightest movement could lead to a loss, as if everyone was scared to fall.
Vision... and perception
Everything is connected. In the last part, a young writer’s reads aloud, speaking of love and illusions brought by an attraction, completes, more than it disturbs, the four characters’ maturation, as well as the movie structure. This short story (which is apparently specifically written for the movie) is very beautiful. Full of imagery, it develops its own universe, by describing a fragile attraction, in a brightful style. One of the main qualities of Happy Hour is to depict the four women’s change without submitting the other aspects of the movie to this first script’s intention. Therefore, the reading aloud is both a distinctive level of the movie as well as a connection to the women’s personal stories.
Jun has taken advance in this transformation, or we could say she permitted the one of her friends. By her sudden disappearance and independency, Jun paradoxically opened a door to a questioning. Her egoism evolves to some kind of generosity towards her friends. After all the events, and finally the reading aloud, feelings are bursting in different ways for Sakurako, Fumi and Akari. Facts and gestures were previously attenuating the violence. Now, they overflow in the last part: unexpected desire for one, necessary distress for the other, moving anger for the last. We can observe the achievement of feelings that could not root before. In fact, the work class of the beginning is finally linked to the ending short novel. Exercises in finding the balance, in finding the body, arise a necessary research of love, but also an affirmation of human flaws. Those flaws which can destroy a couple or a family...
The writer’s text makes the connection between the vision, what is observed, and perception, what is truly felt. Reflexions from the text respond to some appearances deconstructed in the movie: appearance of a conniving and peaceful quartet of friends, of a perfect Japanese family, of a strong single woman that fears nothing, of a married woman who should be satisfied with her couple... Between the four girls, realities, both objective and subjective ones, are slowly unveiled, and images are dismantled. For instance, characters’ body languages can sometimes be refuted by their thoughts. Sakurako, who seems so fragile during the group class, has the most lucid view on what is happening. Fumi, who looks shy and discreet, will make affirmed decisions.
Then, understanding the movie does mean we only approach the four women. There is quite a discreet enlargement in the structure, where each characters develops its own problematics and deepness, and each presence is appreciated on screen. As well as this young writer with her own personal issues. But, also, there is this funny woman on the bus, who talks about her complicated family. A lot of tenderness can be seen in the way camera is shooting her character, and her strange, yet animated, face. In the same way, during the meditative class, a similar tenderness can be found around Fumi’s colleague. This latter must demonstrate very tactile exercises with Ukai. Embarrassment can be seen on his face. The discomfort of a close proximity experienced with a man, and in front of other people watching, shows also emotion in the protagonists’ reactions. Therefore, lots of details and reactions are coexisting during big scenes from Happy Hour. Events do not only transform the main quartet, but also the characters around. This quality, which could only exist in a 5-hours movie, is, once again, remarkable. It is rare to see so much attention for each actor, each presence, small or big, on the screen.
Finally, Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s movie, and it is its brightest strength, has a marvelous discourse on culture and dialogue. Participative and cultural events are precisely changing the characters, by giving to them (and to us!) a space for meditation, a space that disturbs a little our daily routines and habits. It is really wonderful to accompany every protagonists’ reactions during an exercise that lead them to listen to the other’s belly, or facing poetic words timidly retold by a young writer. It is moving to discover everyone’s fragilities under the appearances, or the little losses of balance. Happy Hour shares these fine details, unveils flaws and suffers without necessarily finding a resolvement. Better, the movie indicates the importance of an awareness, of a reflexion around these human flaws. During this long long cinematographic river is hidden the necessity of learning from this awareness, and to appreciate the intimacy of both one’s own and other’s fragilities. 

Oriane Sidre

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Isidore Isou and Lettrist Cinema

A maudite figure in the French cultural sphere of the fifties, Isidore Isou and the collective around him that formed the Lettrist cinema movement desired to tear up the interior logic of the cinematographic medium to highlight the inessentials of its operations and to bring to it a new force for it to achieve a modernity. The aesthetic doctrine of Lettrism would, according to Hannah Feldman, seize the “ostensible semiotic purity of the individual letter as a vehicle of unmediated articulation.” To use Isou’s terms this would imply in terms of aesthetic practices both that of amplique, the absorption of eternal influences, and ciselé, that of purifying the form.

The films that are associated with the main group are Isou’s masterpiece Traité de bave et d'éternité (1951), Maurice Lemaître’s Le Film est déjà commencé? (1951), Gil J. Wolman’s L’anticoncept (1951), Marc’O’s Closed Vision (1952), François Dufrêne’s Tambours du jugement premier (1952), Guy Debord’s Hurlements en faveur de Sade (1952) and some later works including O’s Les Idoles (1970) and Yolande du Luart’s Angela Davis: Portrait of a Revolutionary (1970).

Four new books and essays offer compelling and varying perspective on this short lived movement: Nicole Brenez’s ‘We Support Everything Since the Dawn of Time That Has Struggled and Still Struggles’: Introduction to Lettrist Cinema (Sternberg Press, 2014), Feldman’s From A Nation Torn: Decolonizing Art and Representation in France, 1945-1962 (Duke, 2014), Kaira M. Cabañas’s Off-Screen Cinema: Isidore Isou and the Lettrist Avant-Garde (Chicago, 2014) and Andrew V. Uroskie’s Beyond the Black Box: The Lettrist Cinema of Disjunction (2011).

The Lettrist movement reached a fruition with the premiere of the first (imageless) version of Isou’s Traité de bave et d'éternité premiering unofficially, and to much scandal, at Cannes in 1951 where Jean Cocteau’s would award it the Prix de L’Avant-Garde. It would stand out, in its final version, for its radical structure, discrepant editing and framing devices (Montage discrépant), non-synchronous sound to image, and film stock manipulations and scratches (image ciselante). It’s divided into different parts that go from Isou discussing at a ciné-club the tenets of Lettrism to a romantic encounter back to the living practice of the aesthetic project. There is a critique of the status quo and capitalism in favor for an aesthetics that subverts it and proposes a new form of existence. Traité works on a dissociative strategy that creates a fissure between its voice-over narration – the story of Daniel, who is played by Isou – and its main footage that varies from scenes on the streets of Paris and its social institutions to archive footage of the French countryside and of its global expansion. The images are distorted and broken up with the end of film reels, scratches and drawings while also being inverted and played backwards. Brenez argues that the Lettrist perspective is meant to be liberating, “it represents the fusion and emancipation of art and life by means of creativity. With regards to film, it implies the reorganization of every parameter of the apparatus, which would later be called expanded cinema and which the Lettrists called ‘syncinema’.”

Cabañas in Off-Screen Cinema focuses on the five main figures of Lettrism – Isou, Lemaître, Wolman, Dufrêne and Debord – at its height between 1951 to 1952 through an analysis and reception study of Traité, Le Film est déjà commencé?, L’anticoncept and Debord’s Hurlements en faveur de Sade, which is situated as emerging from the Lettrist context. Lettrist cinema was disjunctive as it built off its poetry, giving primacy to sounds and words over that of the image. Isou’s project, as he claims, built off the work of the Surrealist and Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty is cited as an influence. There is footage of how this would look in their theater in the St. Germain des Prés episode of Around the World with Orson Welles (1955). One of Cabañas main arguments is that these expanded screenings of Lettrist films, which demanded spectator participation, was a form of protest against the rigidity of the traditional silent viewing experiences that was reinforced by state control during the French Occupation and afterwards. These Lettrist films regularly got in trouble with state film censorship and the Romanian-born Jewish Isou would be victim of anti-Semitic slurs.

Feldman offers a critical thesis on the group’s use of language. For Feldman, 
“Lettrism was unable to exceed the limitations of a colonially circumscribed France as a container for the aurally-defined community it imagined, and ultimately failed to make good on the more utopian aspects of Isou’s proposals. This failure was explicitly enmeshed in the movement’s simultaneous investment in communicating the particularities of a specific subaltern experience and in the hope that such a recuperative identitarian politics could successfully reintegrate excluded bodies into national ideals.” 
The critique is that even through their dissident voices and creation of new forms of poetry that the Lettrist project still reinforced the aesthetic dogmas of a colonial universalism. Feldman furthers the point,
“The abstractions, ideals, and disjuncture in which Isou took refuge in order to avoid such misappropriations did not prevent him or those with whom he worked from ultimately recapitulating this error in the quest for a new means of cultural belong that would accommodate the model of their and others’ cultural-linguistic difference.”
Lettrism, through Debord, would lead the way to the Situationist International, which would have come to overshadow it. The rupture between the groups is well documented – Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces, which argues for symmetries between Johnny Rotten and Debord, offers quite an exhaustive summary – as some members wanted to pull more radical stunts and create a deeper rift between themselves and the mainstream society. For Debord there could be a new beauty, that of the situation, as a lived counter-culture experience that privileged permanently novel experiences through dérives, a drifting through urban spaces for attractions or repulsion, and détournements, the appropriation of culture and their diversion into new contexts.
There has not been enough North American attention to the Lettrist group, which new scholarship since its major reappraisal in 2005 has been helping to remedy. Cabañas lays out the chronology of their American screenings and points out that the experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage was at one of the early screenings of Traité, which he greatly admired and would lead to a correspondence with Isou (that are included in the appendix of her book). 

Throughout these books there is a focus on the aesthetic influence of the Lettrist project: Isou’s work, through his deep knowledge of film and having contributed one of his finest essays Esthétique du cinéma to the only issue of the Lettrist journal Ion edited by Marc’O in 1952, anticipates the turn to filmmaking of the nouvelle vague critisc-turned-filmmakers (Traité, for example, is dedicated to Griffith, Chaplin and Cocteau among others). Its aesthetic practices and tactics also offer a precursor to those of experimental film and conceptual, performance, installation and institutional critical art.

This rediscovery of an overlooked part of film history, Isou’s cinema and the Lettrist project, through its creation of new aesthetic forms, in a period of high social and political stakes, offers a new way to see the medium and to experience the world. Here is hoping there will be more chances to see these works publicly in Toronto!

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Crossroad: Jean-Marc Vallée at Big Little Lies

 “I’ve been doing one after the other for the last five years, since Dallas Buyers Club and I’m exhausted. After Sharp Objects and another American film (perhaps with Witherspoon) to follow, I’m taking a break where Hollywood won’t see me. No one will see me except for my close ones in Montreal.” – Jean-Marc Vallée (Montreal Gazette)

There’s a reservation and anger to Jean-Marc Vallée. Even though he’s at the peak of his career, now with the seven one-hour episodes of Big Little Lies currently airing on HBO which is perhaps his most ambitious, heartfelt and stylistic work so far; there’s still a resentment to his private observations (‘No one will see me…’). You would think he would be in a better mood: Variety gave Big Little Lies a cover and it has been getting rave reviews from the likes of IndieWire, The Week and Le Blog du Cinéma. In the Variety feature there’s even an anecdote from the Big Little Lies wrap party where Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Laura Dern and Shailene Woodley serenaded him to Fleetwood Mac's Dreams (a reference to episode 3). You would have to wonder what he has to be upset about?
            Similar to Steven Soderbergh, and unlike Denis Villeneuve, Vallée seems to have an ambivalent relationship to the film industry. The economics, logistics and bureaucracy are all hindrances towards his need to create and make movies. And after the commercial failure of his more personal project Demolition – audiences are no longer interested in character studies, so he says, even such an action-oriented and luminous one such as this – there’s a sense that what he wants to create and what others want from him are no longer the same. The Janis Joplin project fell through and now after another television series (Sharp Objects) his friend Witherspoon wants him for another feature. But these aren’t the projects of his choosing. If Vallée wants to remain a personal filmmaker (with the personal films being the ones where he appears in a cameo) then he needs to free himself from the industry so that he can make what he wants: whether this is the John Franklin film, an extension of his earlier Les Fleurs and Mots magiques films or any other project that he desires.
             It’s this Vallée, the private filmmaker, that generally gets overlooked in broad summaries of him. Take the Vice Guide to Film episode on Vallée for example. With interviews with his actors, actresses and producer Matthew McConaughey, Marc-André Grondin, Evelyne Brochu, Vanessa Paradis and Bruna Papandrea (whose now no longer at Pacific Standard) along with rare photographs, clips and voice over analysis, the episode does a good job at identifying how Vallée’s like on set and reoccurring themes and motifs. But Vallée doesn’t appear in it, which illustrates both his thoughts on these sorts of vanity projects and his busy schedule. Though they mention his earlier Los Locos and Loser Love it’s unclear if the works were even seen or if their merits picked up upon. About the sequel to Posse, Los Locos: Posse Rides Again Vallée talks about first working with children with Down syndrome whose positive spirits would charm him and his production crew so much that he would cast children with it in his films from Café de flore onward. The New York setting of Loser Love would anticipate Demolition and its domestic abuse subject the fights between Celeste and her husband in Big Little Lies. Probably the biggest inaccuracy of the episode is its blind acceptance of The Young Victoria into his cannon, which he has regularly disowned due to studio interference both on set and in the final cut. And there’s nothing either on the two television shows that he’s worked on Strangers and The Secret Adventures of Junes Verne, which also anticipates his move now back to the small screen.
             This brings us to Big Little Lies. It needs to be said, in these cynical times, Big Little Lies is more urgent then ever with its message of kindness, nostalgia and its association to music, and its emphasis on sentiment which all contribute in making it a piercing spark of light and hope that can shine its surrounding darkness. Though it acknowledges divided households and communities, it’s message is one of strength, endurance and reconciliation in tough times. The David E. Kelley adaptation of Liane Moriarty’s book is a pretty loyal adaptation and though there are some differences it makes it better suited to express the feelings of the scenes and the social world of the characters. In the Variety feature Witherspoon speaks about giving Renata (Dern) more depth and for spicing up Madeline through how she hooks up with the theater director. Some other changes includes nobody saying the catchphrases ‘Oh, calamity!’ which was famous from the book. It hints that Madeline had a cancer scare. Anger and the gesture towards violence is more presently bubbling underneath the social surface. For example Ed, who is no longer a journalist but a website designer, nearly fights with Nathan. And the big shift is that it’s no longer set in rural Australia but in Monterey, California.
            There are also scenes that anticipates Vallée’s adaptation of Dominique Fortier’s Du bon usage des étoiles. Madeline looks out to the ocean and mentions its beauty and mystery. There are scenes about putting on a play that are similar to ones in the Fortier book. Big Little Lies gets at what’s it like to feel pain and to fight for oneself while also allowing for some more frivolous scenes. The melancholic beauty and nostalgic musicality comes through the song selection. Michael Kiwanuka’s Cold Little Heart sets the tone and each character, most notably Madeline’s Chloe, play songs that provide a musical and emotional counterpart to what they’re going through. Vallée’s elliptical style, mixing flashbacks and fantasy into reality, is subtle as he adapts to the more straight-forward storytelling approach of television. But it’s all there from book and Kelley’s adaptation does a better job at balancing moods and giving life to the characters than Nick Hornby did awkwardly with Wild. I won’t say more about the murder mystery that’s at the center, the story is set around flash-forwards to an apparent death at one of the school’s fundraiser, but as the opening credits show, all of the main women characters are there and they are all finally dancing in unison. 
             If one worried that a new generation of Québécois directors, of such great films as Les démons, Nelly, Ceux qui font les révolutions à moitié n'ont fait que se creuser un tombeau and Mes nuits feront echo, would supersede Vallée as he succumbs to the industrial Hollywood machine then you should be relieved. He’s lost none of his charm and the beauty of the project shines brighter than a shooting star. But Big Little Lies is still a transition work for Vallée as this move to television has left him frustrated and his next project Sharp Objects, or at least the book, is extremely cynical. The damaged journalist Camille Preaker (Amy Adams), discovering the corruption and vileness of her hometown, becomes nearly catatonic in front of the misery of the world. The youthful cynicism recalls CW’s Riverdale and the young women protagonist to Casey and the cutting in Shyamalan’s Split. It would be a shame if Sharp Objects becomes one of Vallée's more popular projects because his previous work is just filled with so much heart and generosity.
            So what does Vallée need to do to become Vallée again? To start deciding on what he wants to do again. Maybe find a way to make the Joplin film? Definitively the Franklin film one. And return to Montreal to work on his own projects and to engage more with his community. It’s not the cynical and angry Vallée that we love but the one of a youthful exuberance, perseverance and dreams.
            In the meanwhile, Big Little Lies is right at the start of its run and it promises to be one of his grandest projects yet. There's hope.

Toronto 1971-1989 and Midi Onodera

Just a heads up that the AGO currently has an exhibition 'Toronto: Tributes + Tributaries, 1971-1989' that looks interesting. Would be curious for any thoughts on it if you've seen it? I'd probably go check it out in the next couple of weeks. As well the CFMDC will be presenting a series of screenings 'Personal Perspectives 1971–1979' to accompany it from March 9th to 12th. I'm particularly interested in the works in 'Geographies of Self and City' on Sunday March 12th at 2PM, which includes a film by Mike Hoolboom, who also just published a book on the Funnel film cooperative and was awarded the Governor General award, and Midi Onodera, whose vital The Displaced View (1988) just played at EMS and whose updated website offers a thorough sample of her filmography.