Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Redemption (2010), directed by Katie Wolfe, written by Tim Balme, Renae Maihi & Katie Wolfe, based on a short story by Phil Kawana

(I went to a program of shorts called “Moonshine” at the ImagineNative Film Festival with my friend Kerry Barber who was in town from the Yukon. We sat in the middle of the seats at the Jewish Community Centre. The program was a mix of funny and serious. This movie was on the serious side. Something the filmmaker said in the Q&A afterwards stuck with me for awhile.)

Two older Maoris teenagers sit on a couch. They are in a dark run-down room. Outside the windows, in bright light, we see a rural community that also looks run-down. We are guessing the “Redemption” in the title refers to a whole troubled community here, somewhere in New Zealand. The teenagers speak intimately with each other. They are kind and gentle with each other. They have already taken some drug that they are waiting to kick in and are now smoking joints. They don’t seem like the partying kind of drugs, more like the kind of drugs that are paradoxically used for survival. The lighting and camera movements are seductive as are the two actors. A man walks in while they are smoking a joint. He is wearing jogging clothes. He looks at them with disappointment. They look back at him with a bit of shame. They soon go outside to the very bright outdoors and then back into another dark structure. This is probably the girl’s bedroom.

The first thing they do is cover all of the windows with blankets. The girl does some more drugs. Then they get on the bed. On the bed, they take off each other’s clothes. It looks like something they have done many times before. Then they begin an elaborate ritual where they each take turns blowing gentle on each other’s wounds and scars. The girl has them all over her back and the boy, all over his legs. This also looks like something they have done many times before.

Other things happen and then morning comes. The boy wakes up and runs across to the kitchen in the blinding light of the outdoors. He makes tea. The kitchen is also very bright. At the last second, he thinks to put the teacup on a saucer and walks back out. Back in the bedroom, he sees that the girl hasn’t made it through the night. She has died, presumably from too many drugs. After some time, the boy cuts across the skin over his heart with a piece of the saucer that he had broken earlier and says goodbye by putting a touch of his blood on her lips. He goes back outside like this to tell the man in the jogging suit what has happened.

During the Q&A that followed the screening, the director, Katie Wolfe, mentioned that the man in the jogging suit was in the movie because the people funding the project thought that there needed to be more hope in the movie. She said that she had added this man who wasn’t doing drugs and who was jogging as a concession to this request.

Her answer seemed funny to me – and she seemed to find it a bit funny too. It seemed funny to me because hope was the primary element at the heart of the teenager’s story. The hope involved two people who think that they might be able to heal each other through this secret ritual of blowing on each other’s wounds. It isn’t the most practical act of healing, but it’s certainly the most elaborate act that a child could dream of. It involves two people who don’t know how to fix each other but who are trying very hard to do so. It almost seems like it could work – if they concentrate hard enough.

I like that Katie Wolfe was obliging and added the jogger. I think she used it to the movie’s advantage even if it doesn’t technically add what was perceived to be missing. I like the idea that if the heart of a project is truthful and strong, you don’t need to vigilantly protect it from new or foreign elements.

Here, the jogger mainly benefits the story by adding a bit of contrast and a small amount of comic relief. The jogger always looks a bit upset and irritated. His body is frustratingly less beautiful than the teenagers who are not exercising. His jogging outfits are somewhat defiant and… well… everything about him is less dramatic. He is also engaged in an activity of hope, just a more practical and grounded one - but no less difficult. His presence mainly reminds us that hope is the main activity all around.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Mansfield Park (1999) - written and directed by Patricia Rozema, based on Jane Austen's novel

(I was having a great leisurely day and I went to the video store wanting something familiar and expensive. I picked out Mansfield Park, a movie by Patricia Rozema based on the Jane Austen book of the same name. The characters in Jane Austen’s work spend most of their time having complicated thoughts about intellect, about how to judge others and about their own emotions (how to have them, how to control them). I didn’t read a Jane Austen novel till I was 21. Prior to that I had always figured that most people have virtues and flaws in equal measure, even if the specifics of those virtues and flaws are very different. I figured the good and the bad are just highlighted or more deeply shadowed in different contexts. So from that logic, it seemed reasonable for people to move around a bit, till they find the best place to stand. Somehow it really had never occurred to me how much value or worthlessness one can ascribe to another human being until Jane Austen came along. The books are always a bit foreign to me, but they are always a complicated pleasure.

There was something wrong with the DVD or my DVD player and near the end of the movie – the top of the image went askew. So for about 15 crucial minutes of the movie, people’s heads were pretty far away from their bodies. It was pretty distracting.)

Fanny Price is sent off at the age of ten on a horse-drawn carriage, away from poverty and towards a mansion. When she arrives at the mansion, she starts a new life as a half relative/ half servant to her mother’s extended family, the Bertrams. The only person who is kind to her is her cousin Edmund Bertram, a virtuous young man who will eventually become a clergyman.

Fanny Price, and her four Bertram cousins all grow up together at Mansfield Park. In the day-to-day Fanny is often overlooked and disrespected (because of her different class background and unremarkable looks). It is easy to feel for her and the injustice of her specific situation, and easy to see that, though overlooked, she is intelligent and is watching everything. The bulk of the action takes place in 1808 when Fanny and her cousins are young adults. The narrative primarily involves other people in and around the household taking action and making mistakes. Fanny Price, however, takes no action and makes no mistakes. Fanny Price’s greatest virtue, in the end, is that she is the last one standing, having made no grave mistakes at all. Like a pay-off from a Hollywood movie, all of Fanny Price’s judgments and suspicions regarding the failings of others’ characters are proven to be sound.

Needless to say, she is difficult to fall in love with. In this movie, she continues to be difficult to fall in love with. In the book, Fanny Price is a bit dull, morbidly shy, pious and reserved with her compliments. Here in the movie, Fanny Price is stronger, more modern, less dull and more confident. I can imagine Rozema wanting to make Fanny Price more of a contemporary feminist hero, but the new qualities placed in the same frame create some weird side effects.

Now that she is more confident (and so therefore, more like the other young adults around) Fanny Price’s judgments (regarding love-choices, the worthiness of the arts, the vanity of women, the faults of people’s pasts) seem more harsh and also more confusing. Here, when we see her reserved pleasure at the eventual misfortune of others (valueless characters who were once cruel to her) we think: fair enough. Though now that here we can see her smile, and the modern glint in her eye, it all looks a little bit more like revenge.

To complicate matters, this Fanny Price comes into contact with damning information regarding her uncle’s involvement in the slave trade (in the book, it is more of a cryptic and passing reference). Now, the small protest Fanny Price musters for this occasion seems so inadequate and out of proportion to the clever judgments she formed against an adulterer, a snob, a cynical woman and a lovesick idiot.

Her uncle switches his business to the tobacco industry, and life at Mansfield Park pretty much continues as normal. I'm not sure if it's the early 19th century time period or the jarring of two different time periods that make this forgiving and forgetting feel so morally confusing and foreign.

These criticisms made me think of Jane Austen in a new way. It made me think more about what resources are possible if one’s mobility is taken away by societal restraints or by one’s own fear of displacement. Suddenly it seemed as though trees would be the most judgmental but forgiving, and the ocean the most generous but fleeting. If you are not free to go, maybe the ability to judge is one of your rare weapons - and forgiveness, a necessity.

Fanny Price marries the soon-to-be clergyman Edmund Bertam, the only person she seems to like. In the last scene of the movie, they walk arm in arm across the garden and into a house – still contained within the boundaries of Mansfield Park. Edmund suggests to Fanny a title for the book she has been working on (in this movie, Fanny Price is a writer). After he suggests a title, Fanny Price laughs, “That’s a terrible title” she says as they get smaller on the screen and the credits start to rise. Good luck Edmund! I think to myself.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

My Own Private Idaho (1991) - written and directed by Gus Van Zant

(I saw “My Own Private Idaho” for the first time when I was 14. I had just moved to a new city and was invited to a popular girl’s birthday party. In the middle of the party, in a small room with a TV and a VCR, the adults put the video in, hit play and left the room. Pretty shortly after it started, the room cleared out and the party continued elsewhere. I moved to the side of the room where people couldn’t see me from the door and watched it, alone, to the end. I couldn’t believe what I was watching – how good it was, how big it seemed and how warm it felt. I wasn’t sure why people had left. The people I was watching in the movie, who would never see me, were the first in a long line of distant friends. I bet there were a lot of grateful 14 years old in 1992 - lone kids at the wrong birthday parties who were as grateful as I was that River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves gracefully delivered Gus van Zandt to the television nearest them.

I thought of the movie recently when I picked out a book I’ve had for a while but never read – a printing of the original screenplay for “My Own Private Idaho”. The book was so old or cheaply made that the pages fell out when I opened it. I tried to read it for a bit, but it only made me want to watch the movie again. Which I did.)

We start out on the road with Mike (River Phoenix). Mike looks down the road both directions and talks to himself. He is not sure what’s forward or what’s backward so he thinks about the road. Mike thinks maybe it’s a special road, not just any old road, but his road. Maybe even a road he’s been on before. Maybe he's trapped in a really old story – as old as roads are. But maybe, also, it’s a new story that might be as new as Mike is. We're not sure.

Then he passes out. He has narcolepsy and passes out in stressful situations and we go with him, missing the big moments of tension but also the boring moments of getting to places. Mike wakes up while receiving a blow job from a John, Mike wakes up in the suburbs, Mike wakes up in Rome, cradled in an unsentimental pieta by his best friend Scott (Keanu Reeves).

Scott is like Prince Hal from Shakespeare’s “Henry IV”. Prince Hal leaves the court and his father (the King Henry IV) in order to partake of unrefined pleasures in taverns with low companions. He takes up with Falstaff, a charismatic and corrupt fat man. Prince Hal’s idea from the very beginning of Shakespeare’s “Henry IV” is that his eventual but surprising return to respectability will win him more respect than even if his character had been consistently respectable. He is banking on the old biblical story of the return of the prodigal son and the gratitude of a relieved father.

Here in the 20th century, Scott takes up with Fat Bob, a charismatic and corrupt man who lords over the young hustlers like a father. Scott calls Bob his psychedelic father, a truer father than his real father – but he does tease and play around with Bob mercilessly. Here, Scott’s true and best friend is Mike.

Mike and Scott laugh, journey and kill time together. We see the pleasure they have in each other’s company, how it is most fun and free when they are together - how seductive their small world is. We see Mike’s adoration and deep love for Scott. We see Scott’s small but kind gestures of protection towards Mike – Mike being someone whose physical and emotional vulnerabilities call for a bit of protecting. These gestures often happen when Mike is passed out or about to pass out– Scott covers him in his coat, Scott holds him so he doesn’t have to lie on the concrete fountain, Scott discreetly ends a performance from an avant-garde dancing John when he sees that the stress of the performance is starting to send Mike into a narcoleptic fit.

Like in Henry IV, Scott’s plan to forsake this low companion life and return to respectability is not a secret. But somehow people don’t listen to him or believe him, or believe that he could really leave them behind. But he never promises otherwise.

And Scott does indeed return to respectability. He abandons completely his low companions – returning home with a haircut and a woman, stepping into his father’s footsteps as a political elite and doesn’t look back.

Abandoning Fat Bob is one thing, but here, in the 20th century, to leave Mike behind seems incomprehensible.

But instead of betrayal, it feels like something else. It only feels like the romance, love and light has been drained from the landscape of the world we have just been shown, from Mike’s road and from Mike. Instead of the pain of betrayal, we feel the pain of the same world with different feelings – a world without the clever and kind Scott. Now we remember that Scott had nothing but choices (wealth or poverty, men or women, a heart or no heart). We remember that Mike had no choice in those matters. What is left of the world without Scott is literally a life not chosen, whereas before it had felt occasionally like a lucky day.

So we are left, strangely, not judging the authenticity of this friendship, this love or these kind acts – but only appreciating it immensely, seeing suddenly how rare these things are and how they can make everything look and feel different, how they can make everything feel so much better.

Near the end, two funerals take place in the cemetery. The Fat Bob has died from a broken heart after Scott's final rejection of him. The low companions slump around the cheap casket, drinking. Mike is there, glaring off across the expanse to the funeral of Scott’s father who has also died - this death occurring just in time for Scott to take over the family business. Here in the cemetery, Scott sits quietly with the respectable people. They are all dressed in black and are observing the ceremony.

Back across the field at Fat Bob's funeral, which is becoming louder and rowdier - we see Mike and the low companions start to scream Bob's name in celebratory mourning as they jump around and jump on the cheap casket lying above ground. We are reminded that Mike and his low companions have something Scott has recently lost in his new life – total reckless freedom to properly mourn the passing of a friend.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Town Bloody Hall (1971 – 1979) - event produced by Shirley Broughton & Theatre for Ideas, filmed by DA Pennebaker & later edited by Chris Hegedus.

(My friends Sheila Heti and Lucas Rebick saw “Town Bloody Hall” over the weekend. Sheila called on Monday to see if I wanted to watch it, she said I would like it. My TV was broken, so I walked over in the rain and sat down on a couch that only had one leg. Sheila used to have a small tv, but now it is very big.)

It’s April 30, 1971 and we’re at New York City’s Town Hall. There are a few tables on stage with white tablecloths and several microphones. There is one podium off to the side. We watch the people on stage and in the audience settle into their seats. People seem excited.

I am not one to normally be nostalgic for the past, but man (!) does everyone look good. Everyone looks totally different from one another and there is an absence of polar fleece (not to be invented until 1979). Is that a fox around Germaine Greer’s glamorous shoulders? Jill Johnston looks like the fun member of the Ramones. Norman Mailer (who is the only man on stage) looks like Norman Mailer.

The other heavyweights, along with the three just mentioned, are Jacqueline Ceballos and Diana Trilling. Susan Sontag and other famous writers fill the seats in the audience closest to the stage and will soon ask some hilarious questions. Norman Mailer has just published The Prisoner of Sex, and Germain Greer, The Female Eunuch.

The event was put together by the Theatre for Ideas and here are the rules of the evening: Norman Mailer is the moderator, all five panelists are allowed 10 minutes to make a speech at the podium, Norman Mailer is to cut people off when they have gone over their time and also to then ask them a question (in response to their speech) that they are not allowed to answer till the end of the evening.

All five panelists are incredibly intelligent and have interesting, complicated opinions, especially Germain Greer who is like an inexplicably calm lightening rod. Each say totally different things from the others. Most of them can barely look at each other as they argue their position with force or respond to each other’s question - except for Jacqueline Ceballos who seems to be enjoying herself immensely as an on-stage spectator.

The audience seems ready to burst with their wavering reactions to what is being said – and occasionally does. One man from the audience starts screaming incoherently about “humans” as he wrestles to put on his jacket and storms out. Later, another woman bursts in angrily yelling about not getting in because there were no seats left. She is escorted back out.

This structure set up by Theatre for Ideas creates really great theatre. For instance, having Norman Mailer function literally as the authoritarian for the event both mimics life and also reveals its inherent absurdity. If the event had been set up as an ideal political structure for a panel discussion on women’s liberation (i.e. the man not in charge) the “art” wouldn’t be there to bring out the tension and humor or the playful and painful metaphors. This choice shows Theatre for Ideas’ interest and skill in art over an interest or skill in setting a political standard – or it shows, maybe, that they believe art will help get them there faster and in a more amusing manner.

The choice of Norman Mailer is great too. Though he is, by our 2010 standards, wildly sexist (presenting while on the panel, for instance, a strangely illogical semi-defense of wife-beating), he is not smarmy or condescending. There is no grin upon his face. He is exasperated and humourless, like a great clown. And, like a great clown, he keeps accusing the women libbers of being humorouless. Then, when the women make great jokes, Norman Mailer accuses them of being from Brooklyn.

The monologues are presented from the podium against the mass of the sometimes supportive, sometimes jeering, and sometimes dismissive audience. This is where I remember the value of a live event. It is easy to forget that a monologue isn’t just a conversation with oneself. It can also be the pushing of a thought into public space. And this movie shows that process. It is very clear that enduring the jeering while remaining firm about what one is saying, or persuading the audience through rhetoric to be cheered on, can be as important as what is being said. It is even clear here (maybe never more true than at New York’s Town Hall in 1971) that the visibility and unwavering stance of the speakers was as important as the details or arguments in the monologues.

The movie is thrilling and entertaining. Afterward, Sheila and I wondered about the filmmakers not doing anything with the footage till 1979. I thought that maybe (as has been our own occasional experience with live performance and cameras) the event was so intense that they filmmakers just couldn’t think about it for awhile. That maybe they put the footage away in a drawer for their own sanity.

My guess was corrected by a few meager facts on the internet. The filmmaker DA Pennebaker, had been told about the event from Norman Mailer. DA Pennebaker went down to Town Hall to shoot it. Afterwards, he put the footage aside thinking the footage “showed how silly women were, taking themselves so seriously.” A few years later, a new editor working with him, Chris Hegedus, ended up salvaging the project. As DA Pennebaker put it, Chris Hegedus “disabused me of that idea”.

There is always jeering, dismissal and prejudice – thankfully this movie is proof that brilliant monologues, brave stances and thoughtful art structures sometimes make it through the belly of the beast.