Friday, February 10, 2012

Wow, A Real Humdinger! (Recent Canadian Short Films)

This is the last of three pieces on Canadian short films, with the two others being on The Fuse: Or How I Burned Simon Bolivar and La Ronde. Also check out the website Nous Sommes Les Filles, which recently did a feature on Sophie Goyette and her new film Le Futur Proche.
In the coming months at Toronto Film Review you can expect essays on the filmmakers Alfred Hitchcock, Joseph Mankiewicz, Brian De Palma, Sacha Guiltry, Stanley Kubrick, Judd Apatow, Clint Eastwood, John Boorman; reviews of books by Robin Wood, Raymond Durgnat, Jonathan Rosenbaum and Pierre Berthomieu; and comments about the French film journals Cahiers du Cinéma, Positif and Trafic. And anything else that pops up that I find to be interesting. – D.D.

There are certain cult films that stand out in Canadian English-language cinema: George McCowan’s Face-Off (1971), Daryl Duke’s The Silent Partner (1978), Leon Marr’s Dancing in the Dark (1986), David Christensen’s Six Figures (2005), Bruce McDonald’s Pontypool (2008), Lee Demarbre’s Smash Cut (2009), Jay Cheel’s Beauty Day (2011), Jason Eisener’s Hobo with a Shotgun (2011), and Michael Dowse’s Goon (2011). And I would have to add to this list a recent discovery, Simon Ennis’ You Might as Well Live (2009)*. The film is like the hybrid child of Buffalo ‘66 and Observe and Report. It is the story of loser Robert Mutt (Josh Peace) who gets out of an asylum and then struggles to integrate himself back home. He wants to - no, needs to! - prove to the world that he is a real somebody! With Michael Madsen (Reservoir Dogs, Iguana), Stephen McHattie and others. You Might as Well Live is a local favorite; it was recently aired on City TV.

Simon Ennis’ last project was a short film called Up in Cottage Country, an update of the Franz Kafka short story about judicial procedures, In the Penal Colony. Shot in crisp black-and-white, the film begins at an Ontario cottage, showing a married couple arguing on the dock. Co-writer Josh Peace plays the husband, George, and a sweet Liane Balaban plays the wife, Annie. George wants to yell at his unmannered brother, sister-in-law and nieces who are visiting. It’s funny to hear George complain because the misdeeds are so insignificant: “Three minute showers - max!” “Wet bathing suits on the couch!”

To relax he goes canoeing, with his pockets full of Voyager premium lager. On this trip he passes through a mysterious fog and a bilingual sign indicating he is no longer in Canadian waters. The absurdist humor begs to be compared with the films of Joel and Ethan Coen. I was reminded most strongly of A Serious Man with its memorable dream sequence where Larry sends his brother off in a boat to Canada.

When George gets off the boat and steps onto an island, he meets a Beckettian defunct military officer (a sinister Julian Richings). The officer is about to perform an execution using a carefully designed apparatus – with the different levels being the draftsman, harrow and bed – on an unsuspecting soldier. This rural military setting – perhaps a comment on the army training bases scattered throughout Canada - is similar to the setting of Denis Côté’s short film Les lignes enemies (2010). Even though there are some differences between the book and Up in Cottage Country - one imagines more a Lawrence of Arabia desert setting – the film is still able to translate and convey Kafka’s story and ideas about punishment, with the concluding moral being to, “Be just!” After George’s ordeal with the apparatus he returns to his wife, who asks, “Have you come to your senses?” Yes, he had come to his senses.
* Ennis’ other short films include: The Business of Suicide (03), The Waldo Cumberbund Story (05), and The Canadian Shield (07). He also edited Ron Mann’s Know Your Mushrooms (2008).
Next up is Rafal Sokolowski’s Three Mothers (2010)*, which he wrote and directed, featuring Kristin Booth, Camilia Scott, and Hannah Hogan. The cinematography by Cabot McNenly shifts from poetic to intense as it captures these women in moments of desperation and relief. Three Mothers is the story of, as the title suggest, three mothers: one who is giving birth to a newborn, a teenage mother who is debating abandoning her child, and another mother whose son is comatose, on life support. Like Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation it subtly deals with the psychological strains and difficulties of what it means to be a parent today. The subject broached by Three Mothers is how parents treat their children and why they do it. In the essay by film critic Brad Stevens on Phillipe Garrel, Childhood: Secret and Otherwise, Stevens refers to Pictures of a Childhood by Alice Miller who writes, “It actually is in the way the newborns have been treated that society makes the first of its many contributions toward equipping a person with destructive and self-destructive tendencies." In Three Mothers the medical institution and the violence it perpetrates towards the babies and mothers is only the start of the problem. As the real problem is the economic and social circumstances surrounding these people. In pointing to these conditions Three Mothers is a bold social critique.
* Sokolowski’s previous short film is Lightchasers (2007) and his production company is Blind Dog Films. There is also a great profile on him at YouNxt Blog.
In the Toronto world of experimental film*, only two newcomers come mind: Clint Enns and Blake Williams. Though I am sure there are others, these two are the ones that I am most familiar and enthusiastic about. I will be elaborating on the work of Williams**.

Wiliams is from Houston, Texas. He studied video and sculpture at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, then completed graduate studies at the University of Toronto. Those people who are interested in experimental films would be most familiar with Williams’ Coorow-Latham Road, which played at Wavelengths 2011. Andréa Picard included it as an additional highlight of the year in Fast and Furious: The Best of 2011 in Avant-Garde Film. It is a twenty-minute silent drive in rural Australia from Coorow to Latham. And what makes it unique is that it was entirely shot on Google Street View.

Coorow alters the painterly landscape tradition for the digital age leaving on pixels behind. There is the impression of catching something new for the first time through a hallucinatory journey where the richness comes from paying attention to the small changes that are going on in the frame. Through Williams’ emphasis on the digital he differentiates himself from the older generation of Canadian experimental filmmakers like Philip Hoffman, who makes essay-films, and Donigan Cumming, who makes experimental documentaries. Coorow embarks on a poetic, formal, and structural elaboration of new forms of technology. It is about duration, mapping and how we relate to space – real and digital. To describe Coorow’s process Michael Sicinski at MUBI wrote, “For his part, Williams is able to reduce the older tropes of structural realism – duration, physical presence, the flat correspondence of time with space – to a desktop procedure.” Coorow is structural film for the digital age and the floating ride, with it’s 180° pan, is like the zoom in Michael Snow’s Wavelength or the breaking up of the frame in Chris Kennedy’s Tamalpais.

But how did Williams get to Coorow? And how does it relate to his other work? Williams MFA period work, the only work that is is available, goes back to 2009 . They are mostly shorts, usually under the ten minutes mark. To list them off in chronological order there is Hotel Video, The Storm, Ladybug Video, No Signal, Space-Ship, A Cold Compress, Depart, and Coorow Latham Road. And there are the art installations Pupils and Two Rainbows.

I find Hotel Video and The Storm to be the strongest of the early works; they are meditations on landscapes with a strong emphasis on long-takes and dislocating editing. They are filmed in a style that recalls James Benning and Ben Rivers. The other work is almost performative with their simple camera set-up and they show Williams’ interests in technology and illumination. Though key transition work is Depart as it synthesizes his filmic work and integrates it with digital alteration malleability anticipating Coorow.
* The groups responsible for the programming of experimental films in Toronto are Early Monthly Segments, Pleasure Dome, The Free Screen, Images Festival, The 8 Fest, LIFT, Wavelenghts, and in nearby Windsor there is Media City.

** Williams is also a passionate film-blogger, and you can find him at most TIFF Cinematheque retrospectives. His own blog is R, and G, and B. He also writes for Ion Cinema and BlogTO.
In the late sixties, who knew that the guy who made those weird short-films, Transfer, From the Drain and Stereo; would turn out to be one of Canada’s most acclaimed directors? David Cronenberg’s early work anticipates a lot of what would follow like The Brood, Videodrome and A Dangerous Method. These lurid low-budget horror films already show his interest in psychiatry, the mind/body schism, and power relations between men. This just goes to show how important the short-film form is in the fostering of Canadian filmmakers.

The directors of short-films discussed are the ones that make me the most excited about the future of Canadian cinema. If these diverse filmmakers have proved that they can work in the short-film format, with the minimum of resources, I am confident that with more they will be able to create new narratives, forms and images. These filmmakers are investing themselves, their time and money into these projects. Hopefully their films get programmed at film festivals, distributed, seen, and discussed.

At the present moment: Ennis is currently filming a new project in Ft. Worth, Texas. Sokolowski’s new short film Seventh Day is completed, it is a comedy about two Eastern European immigrants who drive a taxicab in Toronto. Williams' next project is a 3D remake of a famous structural film.

Who else do I find to be interesting? There is Yonah Lewis and Calvin Thomas – the duo that made the great Amy George – and they are, apparently, starting up a new project, which they will start filming soon. The Vancouver-based duo Ryan Flowers and Lisa Pham made a very strong first film, No Words Came Down; hopefully they make something else. Joe Ciaravino’s A Clean, Well-Lighted Place should be seen by more people. There are the York university guys Igor Drljača, Luo Li (Rivers and My Father), Nicolás Pereda (Summer of Goliath). Ashley McKenzie is working on a new film When You Sleep about “a misfit young couple facing adult decisions while dealing with a rodent infestation in their slum apartment.” Antoine Bourges new mid-length feature East Hastings pharmacy is having its World Premiere at the Cinéma du Réel as part of the First Films Competition. It is, “The chronicle of a typical pharmacy of the Vancouver Downtown Eastside, where most clients are on a treatment that requires taking daily doses of methadone witnessed by the pharmacist.” While Kazik Radwanski’s latest film is in post-production.


Unknown said...

Hi David,

Great post as usual. As far as Canadian cult films you forgot

The Adventures of Bob & Doug McKenzie: Strange Brew (1983)

Just saying...
Michael D.

David D. said...

I really like the McKenzies. I saw this movie at the Mayfair a couple of years ago as part of a Hoser-a-rama Canada day screening.