Friday, September 9, 2016

The Era of Matt Johnson

“We’ve been making movies about neophyte filmmakers, and the form of which you engage the film is their own finished movie. And so not only does that give you license to do a lot of things that are cheap – like we can’t spend money on slider-dollies or even tripods, which you can’t set up in public spaces – it lets you shoot them as if they are almost like reality television shows, but even lower budget, reality television shows shot by kids. And so that aesthetic allowed us to make that feature because of course we had no money. Like literally we had no money from anybody. So it’s like that software concept of turning your bugs into features, which I think is really important for young filmmakers is to take the things that make you bad and turn them into the things that will make you stand out… I think that the mind set, which does comes from software design, is really powerful as an independent arts tool.” – Matt Johnson 
With the premiere of nirvana the band the show at TIFF and then shortly after the theatrical release of Operation Avalanche it’s worth reiterating the obvious fact about Matt Johnson: an inventor of forms, changing the medium and probably one of the most exciting things to happen to Canadian cinema in a long time. With Operation Avalanche, about two agents from the CIA a/v department attempting to fake the moon landing, Johnson showed that all images are manipulations, fiction, and lies as they’ve been corrupted in the process of becoming a means to an end. So what to do next? A remake of his earlier web-series nirvana the band the show: two hapless losers trying desperately to get a music gig at the The Rivoli. After the departure from Eden due to the loss of grace of the image all that that all can be done is recount the defeat ad infinitum, and with their brief 25 minute running time (always rebooting from scratch), nirvana the band the show tells the story of this defeat.

Nirvana the band the show, or how to capture the world? Some might talk about Johnson’s mise en scène as that of regular television à la Arrested Development but it’s actually a lot more sophisticated than that. Not only are there symbolic details that reappear throughout the season (explicitly addressed or just as background information) but the images themselves are conceptualized. Nirvana the band the show, which started as a web series, is the logical conclusion of new media as it brings together many of the aesthetics, formats and viewing patterns of the internet, video games, television and cinema and turns them into a new video form. Take the show’s living room, for example: A poster of the world, Jacques Cousteau exploring the oceans, NASA moon landing imagery and all sorts of Criterion Collection posters. Johnson overflows the image with too much information (in a style similar to too many tabs open in a browser) to suggest red herrings and to provide an interactive relationship with the viewer to then follow up on their meaning, in a way similar to David Foster Wallace and all of his footnotes.

This aesthetic development parallels another major one for video games from the year 2016: that of John Hanke at Niantic launching Pokémon GO. Just like how Johnson gives the spectator the tools to play with all of the associations in nirvana the band the show, Hanke with his new augmented reality cellphone app he got people to go outside, altered their perceptions of their surroundings and brought a newfound sense of joy and of play into the world.

This leap into the imaginary is also there in Nirvana the band the show. For Johnson the réel is imagination: How to take an overlooked recognizable Toronto site, distilling it of its blandness and making it pure fantasy. This use of imagination is perhaps Johnson’s greatest tool and its perhaps even more important as its lacking in abundance in Canadian cinema. As why are there so many Canadian films that are slaves to the mundaneness of reality and who by focusing on ‘social oppressions’ just recreates without ever offering any room to escape? So when Johnson and Jay McCarroll make a joke or speak nonsense it is an attempt to eclipse current social relations or an understanding of language to begin again from scratch, to find the zero degrees from which a new world can spring from. This is why their important.

As per nirvana the band the show being like the internet, it is in fact a repertoire of popular culture: from its opening credits that riff on popular TV shows, to the many subject of conversations and memorabilia, to the activities of the characters and the styles in which it is shot. There’s a fan fiction quality to the show (with Spielberg as the Lord presiding over it) and it takes a negotiated response to popular culture where smart ideas can be extrapolated from bad object movies (Johnson’s discussion of Ernest Goes to Jail is quite funny). But this idea of the musical riff, that of tonal variations offering new possibilities of experience, is perhaps best illustrated by Jay McCarrol’s piano routines. A professional musician with close connections to the Yuk Yuk’s comedians, McCarrol brings a warmth, liveliness and sense of morals to Johnson's conniving.

I could go on about how Johnson got to where he's at on his own terms (with a blunt approach to denouncing many of the mediocrities of the Canadian film industry), or how he’s like the Canadian Godard (experimenting in all sorts of formats, poaching from all sorts of media to tell the important tales of the 20th and 21st Century), or further discuss the importance of Spielberg and Abrams on him (Star Wars: The Force Awakens plays a big role in one of the episodes), or the importance of video games and the film Hackers to his work (the idea with playing with temporal association, how to take command of the networks for one’s end) and so on. But let me just conclude by reiterating my first point: After taking on all of film history (Operation Avalanche), now returning back to the city and to just burn it all to the ground (nirvana the band the show), his next projects include a John A MacDonald film where he’ll take on the entirety of Canada and its history and then he's planning a remake of Command and Conquer: Red Alert where he’ll take on one of the biggest crimes against humanity of all of History: The Holocaust.

The time has come where the networks are failing and the viruses are taking over. The era of Matt Johnson.

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