Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Québécois Photographer : Sébastien Raymond

“Hollywood, it’s another world, far from filming in Québec where we work in an almost familial ambience.”  - Sébastien Raymond

The Montreal publishing house Éditions Somme Toute is on a roll this year. After Marcel Jean’s essential Dictionnaire des films québécois comes another impressive title, Sébastien Raymond’s Un temps d’acteur. It’s part biography, on-set reportage and the photography of the Québécois film shoots that Raymond has been on. Just like how Jean was able to trace a unique history into Québécois film history through his encyclopaedic knowledge on the subject, Raymond also presents a unique entryway into Québécois cinema as he traces his own experience of being the behind-the-scenes still photographer on some of its most impressive films of the last fifteen years. Of note are his photographs on the films of Jean-Marc Vallée (C.R.A.Z.Y., Café de flore), which some were already on display in the published screenplay of the C.R.A.Z.Y. (again Éditions Somme Toute).

Sébastien Raymond grew up in France, where his mother introduced him to movies (who the book is dedicated to), and he started his career in photojournalism. But his agency slowly pushed him to take photographs on film shoots and this would be the turning point for his career. He would move to Montreal in 1999, which led to where he is now. The many famous personalities that he photographed, and which are in this book, include: Ryan O’Neal, Pierre Richard, Gérard Depardieu, Pierre Lebeau, Vanessa Paradis, Laurence Leboeuf, Guillaume Lemay-Thivierge and André Forcier. Other important Canadian figures that Raymond took portraits of include Pierre Trudeau and Maurice Richard.

On the cover of the Un temps d’acteur is a photograph of Sébastien Ricard from Avant que mon cœur bascule (2012). His penetrating gaze offers a capsule of what the book accomplishes in trying to capture the rawness of the actor, which blends his own self with the character he’s portraying. Some of Raymond’s still photographer influences include Henri Cartier-Bresson, Raymond Depardon and Raymond Cauchetier. This artistic influence emerges in Raymond in his sensitivity to the actors and his ability to capture the essences of the films into one unique photograph. For Raymond, the main ingredients of on set photography is: “The love of cinema, a good story, magnificent scenes to photograph, tension, risks and the sentiment of being useful.”

The film set is described as, “Every one there, without any exceptions, works with an enthusiasm, devoted to the director.” The film crew is described as a famille du cinema, “one has to be close with everyone.” Raymond learned how to act on set early on in his career and Raymond Depardon, one of his idols, who when he worked with him, described Raymond as being even more discreet than he was. The film crew is compared to an army. And Raymond has particularly funny anecdotes on the use of slang on these Québécois film shoots, the unbearableness of working in the wilderness in the cold of winter, and working with condescending Hollywood types.

The best photographs, for Raymond, come from working closely to the camera. Even though making films can be infernal and monstrous, “At the heart of all of this, we can always be touched, especially through the intimate dialogues between the director and the actors… It is these precious moments that allow the actors to become closer to their characters, and to share with the director their vision of the scene… While the director continuously searches, interrogates and questions. He takes his time to set the actors on the right path, to be their characters and to fit in the story.”

Raymond worked on Boys IV, Nouvelle-France, 5150 Rue des Ormes, Un été sans point ni coup sûr, Meetings with a Young Poet, Mémoires affectives, The List, A Strange Course of Events, Les Maîtres du suspense and Journey to the Center of the Earth (though curiously his work on Gerontophilia is not included, but which sounds interesting).

But to get to the good stuff: Jean-Marc Vallée.

On C.R.A.Z.Y., “Everyone that worked on it knew that it was not just a film like any other.” And on Vallée's conception of cinema, “Vallée privately shared with me, ‘cinema, before anything else is the art of compromise.’” On Michel Côté, “He has a voice that really marks cinema. We can’t mistake it, it’s a unique voice, clear and sharp. He’s one of the actors that really makes you love cinema.”

On the early Christmas scene in C.R.A.Z.Y., “A dozen actors, even more extras, a bunch of technicians, tracks for a travelling shot, stress, tension, all of this in a small living room. In short, everything for a scene of great filmmaking or a terrible catastrophe… And once everything is set into place, the music starts… Jean-Marc Vallée usually films with music playing through the PA system, which is not typically done. Sergio Leone used to also do it with the music of Ennio Morricone. It is rare to feel as much emotion on a set like in these moments. It’s organic, as if we were a part of the film stock. When Michel Côté started to dance as he was singing Aznavour, it was hard for me not to hold back from crying.”

Even though Raymond describes Vallée as “definitively having the gift to create atmospheres on films that are really particular,” there’s still something mischievous about how he does it sometimes. When Zac (Marc-André Grondin) walks home in the snow it was actually shot in the middle of the summer: “All night, the poor Marc-André had to deal with the assault of this ‘snow storm’ which was hitting him right in the face. The result was perfect, and it is really hard to notice on the screen that the scene was actually filmed on a nice night in May.” Another fun anecdote is scene when Marc-André Grondin accidently tosses a glass of wine into Raymond’s face.

On the opening airport scene in Café de flore, “In front of Kevin Parent there’s a bunch of young children with Down syndrome that cross his path. All of these children were accompanied by their parents who were behind the camera to signal them not to look at the camera. The children took their role really seriously, and we felt that they were really proud to participate on the film. It was really emotional to see them so focused and happy… It was an exceptional scene where everyone participated. It was really magical. The instant was charged with such emotion, and the parents especially had tears in their eyes, just like us.”

An interesting anecdote is how Hélène Florent in Café de flore, when she goes to see the tarot card reader, they couldn’t get ‘cinematic’ goosebumps so the assistant camera operator Marc Lemieux had to replace her arm in that scene.

On Vanessa Paradis, Raymond writes, “On the set, she was never judging, but remained really attentive. Nothing escaped her. Her character emerged with a quiet precision, with a volition to push her to the furthest. She knew to keep her distance, she’s a star, but also she could pose her hand on the shoulder of a technician to thank them, sincerely.”

On the scenes in the Paris streets, “Jean-Marc wanted to film with a really small team, so that they could be more mobile, so that we could 'steal' certain shots. We were only a dozen of us walking the Paris streets, just like tourist. We were filming in the style of the nouvelle vague, with the camera on our shoulders, in a very natural way.

Raymond discusses his relationship with Vallée, 
“At the end of the filming of Café de flore, Vallée looked at my photographs and confided to me that he would have liked to have filmed some of its scenes the way I framed my photographs. I explained to him, that if he did do that, the scenes wouldn’t have had the same emotional impact, and what I did was try to express through photography what he did through cinema… What I retain the most from my discussions with Jean-Marc is that I didn’t betray him, and that through my photographs I did my job at making a person want to go see the film. This reminded me of the story of Steven Spielberg’s relationship with his still photographer, David James. After each day of filming, Spielberg asked to see the photographs that were taken. Not to reassure himself, but because they communicated how a spectator would feel about what was going on.”

And to conclude on Jean-Marc Vallée,
“Jean-Marc, has the exigency of a genious. To film with him, one has to better be prepared, physically and psychologically. With him, the camera becomes instinctive, a prolongation of his spirit which never stops moving. One needs to be ready, because a scene can unexpectedly shift away from what was rehearsed. The camera can go in all directions. One must be ready for anything, as it’s meant to throw off the actors. It’s an inventive cinema. If he could sometimes be impatient on the set, he remains always faithful to his vision. No one is left behind, we feel compelled to be a part of the project. It’s this force to be able to unite everyone towards this common goal that makes Jean-Marc a noteworthy director. His vision is never obscure, and is usually surprising. His interior world is a secret, though he never hesitates to share it… One morning, on Café de flore, Jean-Marc came to see me to encourage me to not hesitate to offer him certain ideas on how to film a scene. I was perplexed and I answered him that I would never offer my opinion on how he should film – I would never do that. But his inquiry revealed his doubts, that of the artist who never comes to the set with an already precise idea in his head, who blends into the décor, gets absorbed into the atmosphere before he does anything. Then the actors come in, and then the mise en scène slowly forms.”

And Jean-Marc Vallée has been getting some more great exposure recently: The Los Cabos Film Festival presented a career tribute to him where they opened with Demolition. Its festival director Alonso Aguilar described Vallée’s work as a ‘cinema of possibilities’ and where Jared Leto spoke of how Vallée “reminds us that there is a unique beauty to behold that can change us forever.” Vallée is also planning to film, at least the opening pilot, of Big Little Lies for HBO, an adaptation of the Liane Moriarty 2014 novel, with Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon. Sarah Myles, writing for We Got This Covered, writes, “Director Jean-Marc Vallée, on the other hand, has repeatedly sculpted impressive, multi-layered, complex women in each of the projects he has delivered, so it will hopefully be his influence – combined with that of stars Kidman and Witherspoon – that shines through in the adaptation of Big Little Lies.” And finally the Montreal restaurant, Robin Des Bois, is doing a special event on Wednesday November 25th for the 10 year anniversary of C.R.A.Z.Y. with the entire cast and Vallée and his two sons Alex and Émile deejaying and helping to serve drinks and specialty ironed grilled cheeses. Things are looking up for Vallée, and hopefully he starts to get more public recognition which he truly deserves.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Film Review: Here’s to the Future! and Hit 2 Pass

Part of an open-call screening series (which also has an online component), Gina Telaroli’s Here’s to the Future! and Kurt Walker’s Hit 2 Pass recently played in Toronto in conjunction with MDFF. Both films, in their own way, offer a unique approach to the potential of a new cinephile-based online digital cinema (their recent Mubi correspondence, speaks to this in terms of distribution).
Here’s to the Future! documents the process of filming the recreation of a scene from the Bette Davis depression-era film, Michael Curtiz’s The Cabin in the Cotton. A few different actresses take up the Davis role and bring to it different acting styles. That it's New York base and uses a free-for-all mobile camera recalls Symbiopsychotaxiplasm, its low-budget quality and engagement with new type of recording devices (whether cellphones or laptops) recalls LOL, and its meditation on a desperate romantic interest recalls Love Sounds.
Telaroli, in her writing on her filmic practices, highlights the film’s experimental and imperfect form and the programming discrimination the film has faced, specifically noting that there should be a priority to support women filmmakers. Telaroli’s other films and future projects deserve more attention.
Gaspar Nectoux, writing about Fabrice Aragno’s cinematography on Adieu au langage, stresses the importance for more of this kind of experimental work. Surprisingly, two great examples popped up in Canada: In Winnipeg with Isiah Medina’s 88:88 and in Vancouver with Kurt Walker’s Hit 2 Pass. Medina captures uniquely how it’s like to be poor in his city, and through references to philosophy, an idea of natural beauty and companionship, Medina also redefines the cinematic syntax. In a way, similar to Say Anything, the film is also an ode to youth, its learning processes and troubles, to relationships and understanding others and oneself. As Medina describes his partner Anne in an interview in Cinema Scope with two people coming together there's the potential to discover “new Ideas of what a body is.”
Kurt Walker, and perhaps also Matt Taylor Blais and Trevor Mack (Clouds of Autumn), accomplishes a similar feat in creating an experimental film language in Vancouver. The premise of Hit 2 Pass is that one of its collaborators, Tyson Storozinski, goes with his father, family and friends to fix-up a car for a ‘Hit 2 Pass’ raceway event at the PGARA Speedway in Prince George, Vancouver. But the film constantly surprises as it shifts its registers and tone. Its junk-yard scenes are reminiscent of Carcasses, the racing scenes that of Talladega Nights, an eloquent first nation man seems like he would belong in a Alanis Obomsawin film, and new media video game footage recalls Level Five. There’s a strong sense of the joy of collaboration throughout Hit 2 Pass (Neil Bahadur is especially memorable), and since many of its participants are active on Twitter, it gives a further sense of what their personalities are like and what they’re up to. But probably the biggest compliment of the film came from Miguel Gomes who told Walker that he really liked it at Doclisboa in 2014. Gomes would go on to finish the Arabian Nights films later that year, and they both share the accomplishment of finding new ways to talk about the experiences of the working class. The ‘Hit 2 Pass’ scenes in particular recall the bird singing scenes in Arabian Nights: Volume 3, The Enchanted One.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

A Must Read: Adam Nayman on Ron Mann

"The films that Ron Mann buys tend to get good reviews. If they get bad ones, they're in big trouble. Long before he decided to start Films We Like, Mann was (and remains) a director of eclectic documentaries—most famously Comic-Book Confidential and Grass. Like his fellow Toronto New Wavers Atom Egoyan, Bruce McDonald, and Patricia Rozema, Mann's reputation in the early days was dependent on reviewers giving his work a thumbs up. This is still the case now that he's become a distributor. Without big stars or big budgets, the films that Mann acquires have to appeal to a more rarefied sensibility."

To read Adam Nayman's full article, 'Seen a Great, Weird-Ass Movie Lately? You Should Thank This Guy', follow the link : http://www.vice.com/en_ca/read/without-ron-mann-canadians-would-only-see-hollywood-blockbusters-and-terrible-cancon?utm_source=vicetwitterca

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Spielberg-O-Rama Vol. IV

For the publication of Spielberg-O-Rama Vol. IV on Bridge of Spies they'll be a launch on Thursday, November 5th at 7PM at Ronnie's in Kensington Market. I need to thank John Semley, Will Sloan, Alan Jones, Ethan Vestby, and Mitch Ariel again for contributing. Here's a sneak preview, the full articles are only available in print. Hopefully I'll see some of you there!


Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Book Review: The Canadian Horror Film: Terror of the Soul

The new book The Canadian Horror Film: Terror of the Soul, which is edited by Gina Freitag and André Loiselle, reimagines Canadian film history through the lens of terror. David Cronenberg might be at the epicenter of this gravitational pull, but he’s still surrounded by some considerable nightmares: From the first Canadian horror film Henry MacRae’s The Werewolf (1913), through the tax-shelter era with the likes of William Fruet’s Death Weekend (1976) and its sub-genre the forest slasher, to the adaptations of Patrick Senécal's Québécois horror novels and the Newfoundland eco-horror film Orca, all of the way through the avant-garde with R. Bruce Elder and Jack Chambers, and to Ottawa’s Lee Demarbre and his ode to Herschell Gordon Lewis in Smash Cut. There's a lot of frights to be had!

The book builds upon Northrop Frye’s premise on Canadian poetry, which is that it resonates “a tone of deep terror in regard to nature… a terror of the soul,” where “confronted with a huge, unthinking, menacing and formidable physical setting – such communities are bound to develop what we may provisionally call a garrison mentality.” The notion of Canadian identity and its ethos is reimagined through these roots in terrors, in the interval between external threat and internal dread.

Building upon Caelum Vatnsdal’s previous study on the subject They Came from Within and websites like Canuxploitation, The Canadian Horror Film legimitizes the subject by giving it an academic form. There are many serious studies on films like Cube, Ginger Snaps, Black Christmas, Pontypool, and Nelvana’s animation.

There are, of course, omissions that should be noted: How come there’s no mention of Denis Côté, who has always included horror film conventions in his work? Or how come Cronenberg’s most recent films, Cosmopolis and Maps to the Stars, or his recently published first novel Consumed, are hardly mentioned? And I'm sure that people could think up some others.

But, regardless, The Canadian Horror Film accomplishes the impressive feat of being able to re-write Canadian film history under the shadow of horror and, in doing so, exposes it in a new light. This is especially in opposition to how often these type of low-taste films tend to be vilified by Canadian film critics and funding agencies. 

Along with the recent screenings of Canadian classic films like John Paizs’ Crime Wave (1985) and Julian Roffman’s The Mask (1961); or the publishing of Marcel Jean’s Dictionnaire des films québécois, David L. Pike’s Canadian Cinema Since the 1980s, and Tom Ue’s World Film Locations: Toronto; or the emergence of an exciting new generation of Toronto directors (Radwanski, Drljaca, Cividino), and Jean-Marc Vallée going into his prime; The Canadian Horror Film provides another great example of the richness and malleability of Canadian cinema. 

And the next stop? With Matt Johnson's eagerly anticipated Operation Avalanche coming out next year, it reminds us that it's best to dream big and to aim for the moon!

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Roland Barthes and Positif

“And then there’s the Roland Barthes of the Fifties. The Barthes of Mythologies, who is writing a lot on the cinema, but from a very much ideological, and leftist position. Like when he’s writing on Mankiewicz’s Julius Caesar, Kazan’s On the Waterfront, and Visconti’s La Terra Trema. He really attacks Sacha Guitry. He is actually really opposed to the cinephile discourse of the period. He violently attacks Claude Chabrol’s Le beau Serge – the first official film of the French New Wave – in the name of a leftist position. He accepts a little its naturalism, but not at all its content and themes, of redemption etc. It’s a Barthes that is different from what we’ll see later. He isn’t at all synchronous with his times. Oh! But actually he’s closer to the early Positif, he would also contribute to Positif in a question form. He’s of a position that is more on the left for this period.” – Michel Ciment

Follow the link for a special episode of Projection privée on Roland Barthes, as well there was a 'Semaine spéciale Roland Barthes' on Hors-champs that’s well worth checking out.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Jean-Marc Vallée at the FNC: A Commented Projection of Ishii Katsuhito’s The Taste of Tea

Jean-Marc Vallée on Friday October 9th for the Festival du nouveau cinéma held a commented projection of Ishii Katsuhito’s The Taste of Tea. After a 30 minute delay in starting due technical reasons (the adjuster on both his microphone and the film weren’t working properly), a huge crowd walked into Cinema 1 at Cinéma du Parc for what turned out to be a very special night.

But Vallée’s special event was a little uncalled for. Why do a commentary on someone else’s film, and why at this year’s edition of Festival du nouveau cinéma? Why this bizarre Japanese film? Is it even a ‘DJ’ set or a Master class, as he described it? And, more to the point, was it even entirely successful?

The Taste of Tea… Tea… Dominique Fortier’s Québécois novel Du bon usage des étoiles about John Franklin’s 19th century voyage to North America, which Vallée is planning to adapt, has tea as a major subject – so could Vallée be preparing, and sharing, some of his inspiration for the film that he’ll be making in a few years? The answer is: no. The Katsuhito film has very little, if anything at all, to do with actual tea.

So why do a commented projection? Why right now? And why get a crowd to wait a lengthy period of time just for the minute details of the technical equipment to be set up properly and work to his requirements? The answer: For the beauty of the gesture. There was no real reason for Vallée to put on this event, except for his desire to experience the film in a social setting and to share it with his neighbors, friends and public. This was reason enough to put on the show.

Vallée’s commentary wasn’t too talkative (especially later on in the film), as he would let the scenes play out (the audience also had to focus on the French subtitles) before pointing out what he liked about it. But what he did say had a lot of meaning. For example, Vallée’s comments on Ishii Katsuhito were almost those of a self-portrait as many of the observations could also be used to describe himself. Vallée spoke of Ishii Katsuhito as a director of total liberty and experimentation, and with that, success and failure.

Vallée said one thing about The Taste of Tea that seems important: how he didn’t think it was perfect and how he thought some scenes, and the film as a whole, were too long. Vallée would add, in a humbling modesty, that he didn’t think his own films were perfect either. But the point was, how these flaws can contribute to the charm of a film. And through Vallée’s discussion of some of the film’s scenes and their duration (“I would have cut it here,” “this scene is 10 seconds too long” etc.), what comes across is a conviction in what’s visually essential to get to the heart of a scene, which can make a film come alive.

But why choose to do a commentary on The Taste of Tea? The obvious choices would have been Les bons débarras and The Ice Storm, two films that he’s publicly spoken highly about. Or with his upcoming Janis Joplin film to look at films around that similar topic and period like Almost Famous or Taking Woodstock. The answer: So not only is Vallée interested in the beauty of the gesture but also the gesture to surprise.

The Taste of Tea, which premiered at Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes in 2004, Vallée discovered at that year’s edition of the Fantasia film festival (around the time of the production of C.R.A.Z.Y.), and since then he has seen it over a dozen times. Vallée spoke of even meeting Ishii Katsuhito who told him about working on the animated fight scenes for Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (it goes without saying that the animation and drawing scenes in The Taste of Tea are great too).

The connections between The Taste of Tea and C.R.A.Z.Y. are worth exploring since there many striking similarities between the two. The obvious connection is the emphasis on the family and the children and how through their very specific stories there can be something universal that emerges. There is also the films’ blend of fantasy and reality which give both of them their surrealist tone. The two directors also both edit their films in striking and poetic ways. But perhaps the most Valléeien aspect of The Taste of Tea is the character of the older brother and grandfather. The older brother in the film is a music-recording technician (which parallels Vallée’s own sonic perfectionism) and the grandfather was always testing his tuning fork. There’s even a psychedelic music video for a song about mountains sung by the parents which recalls Gervais Beaulieu passionately singing Charles Aznavour songs in C.R.A.Z.Y.

And there’s something Japanese about Vallée’s films in terms of their spirituality through his emphasis on ghosts, which in Japanese folklore are called Yūrei. These are wandering ghosts that still need to accept their situation – this can be seen in Japanese films as diverse as Ugetsu, The Taste of Tea and Journey to the Shore. And in the films of Vallée through the reappearance after death of Raymond Beaulieu (C.R.A.Z.Y.), Rayon (Dallas Buyers Club), Cheryl Strayed’s mother Bobbi (Wild), and most recently Davis Mitchell’s deceased wife (Demolition).

So much that was said throughout the two-and-half hours contributed to a better understanding of Vallée’s cinema and to Ishii Katsuhito’s mysterious film. Through this innovative commentary Vallée continues to explore his contemplation of cinematic images and their potential. Even though he wasn’t saying much by the end, as it progressed his voice emoted more as he was being affected by the film. And by the end as he was left only whispering a few key words, he was able to do it again: to invisibly put himself into a film. It’s one of his best audio commentaries, up there with the ones on C.R.A.Z.Y. and Wild (here’s hoping the rumored Café de Flore commentary one will one day emerge). Every movie should have a Jean-Marc Vallée audio-commentary track!