Sunday, August 11, 2019

Cinéma québécois, féminin singulier

After Nuit #1 in 2011, between 2015 and 2019 in the span of five years, the now 37 year old québécois director Anne Émond has released three new films: Our Loved Ones (2015), Nelly (2016) and her latest Jeune Juliette (2019), which has just been released in Québec. The productivity, perhaps excluding Denis Côté, is unheard of in this country. And what’s perhaps even more surprising is the artistic ambition and diversity of the films. There’s a constant between Émond’s four features: the emotional journey of young women protagonist. A characteristic that’s very much in vogue these days but where others deal with the subject in a very naturalistic manner, Émond constantly surprises by the style and imagination that she bring to her treatment. Style, imagination and emotions, these are Émond’s best traits. And she’s so productive too! If some of the best newer Canadian directors always struggle to make work: where the transition from shorts to features can take years (if ever) and the time span between can also linger, the lightness and gracefulness of Émond is a sign how the (québécois) system can work.

Jeune Juliette tells the story of a young high-schooler, whose life isn’t really that bad; she struggles with body issues and not having too many friends. But it’s her kindness, fun, sensitivity and contradictions that makes her so interesting. She surrounds herself with others who are just as offbeat as her, but what’s nice about her journey is how after some conflict and growing she finds herself at the center of the end of the year high school party. If the trailer of Jeune Juliette sells it as a feminine and québécois version of Superbad (which it is partly), it’s actually much more closer to Eighth Grade, Booksmart and Trinkets. It’s just that the feminine adolescent experience has more doubt and anxiety, which is a nice counter-balance and makes the moments of joy even richer.

If there’s always been suggestions that Émond’s films are somewhat autobiographical, the vintage high school portrait of her at the close of the film and its resemblance to the star of Jeune Juliette only heightens this impression.

It’s been a good year so far for québécois cinema: Répertoire des villes disparues, Genèse and now Jeune Juliette. (And films in general with Synonymes and The Souvenir). I would probably pick Émond’s film as my favorite. It feels good to see a director putting forward their best work and remaining positive. My hypothesis: the future of québécois cinema belongs to Anne Émond.

Friday, April 5, 2019

Fighting for Toronto

It’s a good time for young Toronto filmmakers. They’re making interesting work and it’s getting nicely distributed within the city. At Yonge and Dundas – of all places! – you can go out and see Jasmin Mozaffari’s Firecrackers and Natty Zavitz’s Acquainted, both of which I highly recommend. This feels new and exciting. The award-winning Firecrackers has such an intense energy: It’s the story of two young women (the incredible Michaela Kurimsky and Karena Evans) trying to leave their dead-end, small town lives to find something better in the big city. Think The Florida Project in rural Ontario. It’s an impressive debut feature for the energy of its actresses as they stop at nothing to get out of there, having to fight off some pretty god-awful men. There’s an adrenaline to Firecrackers as it’s always on the go, always scrappy. It feels like a really raw film (in the best sense of the term): as if it’s always on the brink of sweat, blood and tears.
If you’re looking for a film that’s explicitly set in Toronto (instead of pathetically substituting it for somewhere else) you need to see Acquainted. I think it deserves the highest of praise as I don’t think the city has ever looked so good: Think of a Toronto Now feature but with the most beautiful actors and actresses. Its story is of two relationships in crisis as three young adults need to figure out how to live and who to love. It’s a real step-up for Zavitz after his micro-budget first-feature EdgingHe’s a real actor’s director as, along with having such an impressive cast – Giacomo Gianniotti, Laysla De Oliveira and Rachel Skarsten –, the performances are all amazing. They express a surprising amount of depth just by their expressions, gestures and non-verbal scenes alone. But I think one of Acquainted’s real stars is its cinematographer Ian Macmillan who pulls off some astounding cinematography, which also resonates thematically with its story: The exhilaration of a first date is matched by a fifteen-minute tracking shot through Trinity Bellwoods, a melancholy confession is filmed entirely in shadows, and a reserved sexual encounter is filmed trough a doorway. Its pretty incredible.
            These two films are just the most recent examples of what’s exciting about Canadian cinema that is going on in the city, which I think is now starting to pay more attention to emerging directors and Canadian culture in film and television more broadly. It’s easy to be dismissive or jaded, but I actually think that these are positive signs. There needs to be people to believe in Canadian cinema for it to exist: Mozaffari and Zavits can be seen to be leading the way.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Le secret Rivette

Included in Jean-Luc Godard’s palimpsest Le livre d’image are photographs of Jacques Rivette and the title of one of his ultimate interviews “Le secret et la loi”. Though it’s an elusive allusion, it’s an important instance of Godard acknowledging the passing of his friend in 2016 in his own work (aside from a brief note to the Cinémathèque). It’s a tender gesture – one of sorrow and pride – as it’s a sign of lack due to regret and the missing of a friend and an act of solidarity to what they experienced together and their long history. 
Speaking to Alain Bergala, Godard remembered highly the esteem he held for Rivette:
“Rivette, lui, représentait une sorte de terrorisme cinématographique… J’aimais beaucoup un film et si Rivette disait ‘c’est de la connerie’ je disais comme lui. Il y avait un côté stalinien dans ces rapports-là. Avec Rivette, c’était comme s’il avait détenu la vérité cinématographique, différente de celle des autres, et pendant un temps j’ai accepté ça.”
This form of memorialization is part of a longer tradition for Godard of eulogizing his nouvelle vague peers who he had been friends with in the fifties: both in an enigmatic fashion, he would express his conflicting feelings towards François Truffaut in a special Cahiers issue “Le roman de François Truffaut” and he would make a short video-essay for Éric Rohmer. Now Rivette has been assumed.
The idea of the complot – conspiracy – is strongly present in Rivette’s film and his mysterious aura. There’s the Balzacian secret society in Out 1 (1971). There’s the elusiveness to Céline et Julie Vont en Bateau (1974) and Le Pont du Nord (1981), which don’t follow standard dramatic arches and conclusive resolutions. Rivette does something different and his private persona and his reticence for interviews and reluctance to re-publish his writing has only heightened his mystery. All of this recalls how Bulle Ogier, who had worked with Rivette on numerous films, speaks of him in the documentary Le veilleur,
“It’s hard to talk about Jacques Rivette because he’s so secret that if you say something about him or about his films or the way he works or lives, you feel terribly indiscreet, impolite… It would be in bad taste. A betrayal almost.”
Because he was so private, the publishing after his death of an anthology of his writing (and the same thing could be said about the opening up of the Chris Marker archives) seems somewhat indiscreet as it provides such an easy access point to his film criticism that he wished to remain obscure, even though there are some privileges of having them all in one place. 
The French publisher post-éditions, under the editorship of Miguel Armas and Luc Chessel, has recently published Jacques Rivette: Textes Critiques where you can find for the first time in one book ‘all’ of Rivette’s published film writing from his first essays in Bulletin du ciné-club du Quartier latin and Gazette du cinéma to the majority of it from Cahiers du Cinéma and Arts. There are long reviews to short capsules, top ten lists to unpublished writing; a long group essay “Montage” with Jean Narboni and Sylvie Pierre (1969) and “Le Secret et la Loi” by Hélène Frappat (1999). In terms of what it doesn’t have, you can’t find many of his interviews or the plethora of material that still makes his archive at the Cinémathèque française such a treasure trove (though even this, I suspect, is still lacking material).
What can be gleaned now from being able to go over the entirety of Rivette’s writing all in one place? First off: the pleasure of being around such a legendary cinephile, film critic and filmmaker. It needs to be said: Serge Daney was right about Rivette and Rivette was right about the films that he wrote about. For anyone who grew up with the Cahiers politique des auteurs and watched the films of Hitchcock and Hawks through their eyes there’s a real pleasure of re-reading and discovering some of Rivette’s original arguments and hyperbole.
On Howard Hawks: “L’évidence est la marque du génie de Hawks; Monkey Business est un film génial et s’impose à l’esprit par l’évidence” (“Génie de Howard Hawks”).
On Alfred Hitchcock: “Les films d’Hitchcock relèvent du secret professionnel… seul le metteur en scène, j’entends celui qui s’est posé les vrais poblèmes de son art, peut en pressentir la beauté” (“L’art de la fugue”).
On Roberto Rossellini: “S’il est un cinéma modern, le voilà” (“Lettre sur Rossellini”).
On Josef von Sternberg: “Anatahan, couronnement logique de l’oeuvre de Sternberg, est également le meilleur film japonais.”
            But beneath these claims Rivette is situating himself within a larger context of French film theory and criticism. There are reoccurring concepts that are interspersed throughout his writing such as realism, mise-en-scène, genius, liberty and modernity. There’s an evolution to his thought from participating in debates around cinégénie along the lines of Louis Delluc and Jean Epstein; to debates around realism along the lines of André Bazin and Maurice Schérer (Rohmer); and finally, to debates around structuralism along the lines of Roland Barthes and Claude Lévi-Strauss. All of the while implementing his own point of view. Rivette’s writing has the pointedness and authority of defining the films and filmmakers of his era. His film analyses are able to explain how these directors gives expression to an idea through their representation of the world. He would write on some of the most important filmmakers, dictating the Cahiers line as it was being conceived. I would highly suggest reading his pieces on Monsieur VerdouxUnder Capricorn and Les quatre cents coups.
Rivette’s first essay “Nous ne sommes plus innocents” (1950) is interesting for laying down many of his key theories that he would remain loyal to over time. In particular how through its focus on humans and their gestures there can be an existential position on the world that comes across. This is the réel and présence of a film, the focus on bodies and gestures, as opposed to conventional storytelling which is seen as superficial and formulaic. Rivettte described realism as:
“Inscrire simplement sur film les manifestations, le mode de vie et d’être, le comportement du petit cosmos individual… l’univers du créateur n’est que la manifestation, l’efflorescence concrète de son regard et de son mode d’apparaître.”
This idea, with some variation and adapting to specific refence points, reappears numerous times throughout his essays. For example, Rivette wrote on Jean Renoir’s use of improvisation,
“L’esprit d’improvisation anime en effet son oeuvre entière; mais se refuser à prévoir, filmer chaque plan suivant les seules nécessités de l’instant, ne sont pour lui qu’un moyen, pour appréhender le concret plus directement, sans intermédiaire, et dans toute sa spontanéité.”
            Though abstract, these excerpt from Rivette’s earliest texts read like a manifesto of what he would champion the most and bring to his own filmmaking practice: intimate behaviours of individuals, capturing the way of life of beings, an improvisational spirit, refusing preconceptions and the necessity of the instant in all of its spontaneity.
There’s an attempt in “Le Secret et la Loi” for Rivette to directly explain some of his ideas and what they mean for him. He presents his theory of film rather succinctly: narrative films circulate around laws and secrets. For Rivette la loi is,
“c’est-à-dire quelque chose qui est construit par la raison pour donner à l’homme ce qui va lui permettre de constituer, de prolonger, de faire survivre son humanité, c’est-à-dire, et là je continue à essayer de citer Legendre, ce qui va lui permettre de faire exister tant le sujet que la fiction, deux termes qu’il met sur le même plan.”
For Rivette le secret is,
“Mais secret au sens le plus fundamental: pour continuer à citer Paulhan qui dit qu’il ne faut jamais oublier que le propre du mystère est d’être mystérieux, ce secret-là est un secret de l’être, un secret que ne connaît pas le cinéaste, c’est un secret que le cinéaste porte sans le savoir, c’est le secret de choses très personnelles, très existentielles, très suggestives, et que le film se trouve porter: au-delà de ce que voulait consciemment le cinéaste, il dit des choses sur lui, et donc, à travers lui, sur l’humanité, choses qu’il n’avait pas la moindre intention de dire.”
            These points offer a way to re-read the anthology and Rivette’s body of work. He’s speaking about the symbolic and the super-ego to use Lacan’s terms. What social factors motivate behaviour in contrast to a subject’s most intimate and hidden desires. For the modern filmmakers that Rivette wrote about they were able to accomplish this. But what’s so great is that Rivette’s theory doesn’t leave you with anything tangible. This emphasis on the relation between both terms relies on the imposition of a point of view while simultaneously eluding mastery. It only leaves more questions unanswered, creates more thought and allows more mysteries to propagate. There are still new inquiries to be had. 

Monday, January 28, 2019

Toronto on Film ! (Winter 2019 Season)

The idea behind the “Toronto on Film!” series is to share important and undervalued films that have been made in this country. It’s meant to be a cinémathèque for older films that aren’t necessarily recognized as classics but that are important historically, aesthetically and socially as a way to explore the richness and diversity of Canadian cinema and more specifically Toronto films. Instead of attempting any form of totalizing gesture to explain what Canadian cinema is (as per the tradition in many ‘official’ world cinema anthologies), this series begins with the specific: not only is its goal to introduce, show and discuss a ‘Toronto film’ but its project is quasi-archeological as the films that will be emphasized will ideally be outside of the public-domain, forgotten about and unearthed from the archives. By being specific, through starting the conversation around particular films and their directors, the aim of this series is to go against preconceived notions of Canadian cinema and to show its heterogeneity. Canadian film scholarship should be more than just the re-writing of twice-told clichés but instead it should be about bringing something out of the past to illuminate the present. It should involve showing the work and sharing it with others. It has to mean something for more than just one person.
The cinémathèque quality of the “Toronto on Film!” series comes from how it will program older work. As interesting as some new short- and feature-length films can be, there is a sense, in Toronto specifically and I reckon nation-wide too, that knowledge of Canadian film history is lacking and, if you’ve even gotten around to take a Canadian film course, too predicated on certain ‘mainstream’ titles. The idea that Canadian film history should be restricted to feature-length narrative films is also limiting. So instead “Toronto on Film!” will open itself towards alternative media objects: the short film, NFB documentaries and television. 
This is in response to a general apathy I see towards the topic of Canadian film history. It’s always sad to hear that folks don’t watch any Canadian films. It’s always sad to hear emerging Canadian filmmakers looking up to someone like Denis Villeneuve for inspiration or looking up to Netflix as a place for where they can make ‘universal’ content. This is how regional specificity gets loss and it erases such a rich and exciting film history to draw inspiration from. 

For example, last season we showed Glenn Gould’s Toronto (1979) with its filmmaker John McGreevy in attendance. In his best-known City Series, he would get famous guides to provide tours of the world’s urban metropolises: Elie Wiesel in Jerusalem, John Huston in Dublin and, in the work that we showed, Glenn Gould in Toronto. What makes the later so special is that Gould, who is known for his genius piano skills and reclusive temperament, opens himself up, with the help of McGreevy, to the simple pleasures and quotidian life of the city that he has always called home, while also expressing doubt and reticence towards its urban expansion. More people should be discussing McGreevy. His extensive filmography is well worth taking the time to explore. The archive for McGreevy Productions is available at Media Commons at the Robarts Library on the University of Toronto campus.

            The 2019 Winter Season of “Toronto on Film!” should be equally exciting as we’ll be focusing on the pioneering filmmakers Martin Defalco, Jennifer Hodge de Silva and Peter Lynch. 
Indigenous filmmaking in Canada is now more important and vital than ever. So I want to look back at one of the ground-breaking indigenous feature-length films: Martin Defalco’s 1975 NFB-produced narrative film, Cold Journey. It’s a film about the negative effects of colonialism and the violence of cultural erasure that took place through the federal residential school initiatives, which forced the separation of indigenous children from their parents and then punished them for holding on to their values and not assimilating. Martin Defalco has a unique approach that is noteworthy: he casted non-professional indigenous actors in the lead roles and remained steadfast to the necessity of bleakness to end the story. These traits would be held against the film at its initial release, along with a lack of a theatrical infrastructure, that led to it not reaching an audience. That Cold Journey was made back when it did is incredible. Defalco needs to be recognized as one of the master indigenous filmmakers alongside Gil Cardinal, Alanis Obomsawin and Zacharias Kunuk; and Cold Journey needs to be recognized as one of the masterpieces of Canadian cinema up there with Nobody Waved Good-bye (1964), La vie heureuse de Léopold Z (1965), Crime Wave (1985) and Loyalties (1987). 
Defalco’s work in general deserves a critical reappraisal for how it treated indigenous cultures and interests within the constraints of National Film Board projects. There are the more explicit works like The Other Side of the Ledger: An Indian View of the Hudson's Bay Company (1972) that was co-directed with Willie Dunn, which deals explicitly with how social welfare and trading shops exploited indigenous communities; and Trawler Fisherman (1966) about the negative effects of industry expansion in the Northern Saskatchewan countryside that spoiled the water with high mercury levels and prevented and reoriented traditional fishing lifestyles. Defalco’s work presents indigenous communities with a great deal of care and dignity along with a rage and resourcefulness in regard to their maltreatment. You can also see how this permeates through environmental themes that keep resurfacing in his other work like Northen Fisherman (1966) and Class Project: The Garbage Movie (1980).
The availability of these works on the NFB’s website is part of a larger project to promote indigenous cinema, which has only been growing in the last few years. They currently have five of Defalco’s films online, even though there is still a lot more of it to make public. I also want to highlight Donald Brittain’s Starblanket (1973), on the young indigenous chief Noel Starblanket, which is part of this larger project. Starblanket is particularly relevant in regard to the film Cold Journey as he was the one who suggested to Defalco to make the film and he would have a small role in it. Defalco’s work shows such a great respect for the documentary and its form while also having a faith in its advocacy potential to create real social change. For these reasons alone, it makes Defalco one of the best filmmakers to have worked at the NFB. 

The “Toronto on Film!” screening at 2:30PM on Sunday, February 10th  should not be missed. It will spotlight the pioneer African-Canadian filmmaker Jennifer Hodge de Silva. Her most famous work is Home Feeling: Struggle for a Community (1983) that was co-directed with Roger McTair, which looks at the Jane and Finch community in Northern Toronto by focusing on the folks, most notably its Caribbean population, that are effected by structural injustices and police discrimination. Go watch this on the NFB’s website right now if you haven’t seen it yet. Cameron Bailey, who wrote the definitive essay on her writes, “Whether or not future histories of black filmmaking in Canada begin with Jennifer Hodge de Silva, they will have to acknowledge her importance.” It’s an injustice that not more of Hodge de Silva’s work is available. Luckily I found two works related to her at the Ryerson University Library: Toronto's Ethnic Police Squad (1979) and a documentary about her Jennifer Hodge: The Pain and The Glory (1992) by Roger McTair and Claire Prieto (both of whom are impressive filmmakers and authors in their own right). I’ll do my best to try to get a speaker to come. 

While for the March event we’ll look at two of Peter Lynch’s film: the Toronto-centric short-film Arrowhead (1994), which stars Don McKellar, and also his newest film, Birdland (2018). This screening is organized by fellow film studies graduate student Meghan McDonald. The director will there in attendance for this screening to give an introduction and participate in a post-screening discussion. It will be at 2:30PM on Sunday, March 3rd at the Theater in Media Commons at Robarts Library.

            If you haven’t heard of or seen any of these titles I wholeheartedly recommend you check out at least one of the screenings. It’s what a Canadian open fault should look like.