2 Film Reviews for the Victoria International Film and Video Festival
Big House Meets Big Screen
The William Head On Stage (WHoS) theatre group has been fashioning the “Big House” as a playhouse for 19 years now, inviting the public to enjoy theatre while offering a glimpse of prison life. Tony Snowsill’s film Criminal Acts embodies this notion of connecting the public with the “offending population” through art as it attempts to demystify the oppressive world of the Metchosin correctional institution. By intimately revealing the inmates–not only as WHoS actors but as people with their own fears and desires–Snowsill gives voice to one of the most marginalised groups in society and succeeds in breaking down stereotypes about prisoners and rehabilitation. The uncanny connections between art and reality; gruelling reviews with parole officers inter-cut with arresting on-stage monologues, and shots of barbed wire juxtaposed with the idyllic seaside create a powerful montage. Even more compelling is how the inmates develop on an emotional and personal level through the creative process of theatre. By identifying with the criminals they play on stage, the actors begin to come to terms with their collective past, giving them a vision of a future beyond the prison walls. Not the kind of experience normally afforded murderers and bank robbers, Snowsill’s film advocates the innovative theory at WHoS’ foundation: that through art, prisoners have the potential to rehabilitate themselves and reintegrate into society.
Though on the surface it seems poised as a purely comic take on what happens when an art-house film director is confronted with dildos and negligees, Bob Rafelson’s erotic short PORN.com finishes as a somewhat serious examination of how society polarises a Picasso and a pornographer. As the director is forced to compromise his moral and aesthetic values as a filmmaker through the genre of porn, the viewer reflects this challenge by attempting to reconcile widespread assumptions about high art and popular culture. While a Hitler with a hard-on and slapstick gestures reminiscent of John Cleese splices German history with the politics of ejaculation, the French cellist-cum-porn star, Inga, also bridges the gap between high and low culture: “I started playing cello. No one came. I had a baby, so one day I played nude. They asked me to do movies. Now no one wants to hear serious music.” Though the director tries to purify the sullied Inga in a desperate attempt to maintain distinctions between hardcore porn and more “tasteful” depictions of sexuality,, the film ultimately suggests that “Madonna and Dolly Parton” are on par with “Brahms and Schubert.” When the director’s transformative journey through the “30-minute hump scene” comes to and end and he coins the term “porn.com,” we question our own reluctance to merge the gulf between high-brow and below-the-belt.
(Published in Monday Magazine on February 6, 2003)
Stan Brakhage’s short film resist representation
Preparing to write a piece about the late Stan Brakhage is a bit like preparing to watch one of his films. As Brakhage expert Fred Camper writes, “To Watch a Brakhage film is to be profoundly alone: alone with oneself, alone in the process of discovering new things about oneself.” If you’re up for this existential cine-challenge, this week’s screening of Brakhage films–a highlight of the Art Gallery of Victoria’s ongoing exhibit Silver: dreams, screens and theories–is required viewing. Carefully culled from his nearly 400-film oeuvre by the Art Gallery’s contemporary art curator Lisa Baldissera, this program will take you through some 36 years of Brakhage’s work, from his 1961-64 epic Dog Star Man to Mothlight (made completely without a camera), the lovely, melancholic cadence of I … Dreaming, the hand-painted Dante Quartet and finally Comingled Containers, made just 6 years before his death in 2003.
To refer to Stan Brakhage as merely a filmmaker would be to hugely underestimate the massive depth and scope of his art. In his later work, Brakhage virtually eclipsed the medium of photography, treating celluloid as a plastic medium. Known for painting, scratching, drawing and writing onto his film strip, Brakhage engaged in the tactile qualities of film, becoming a sculptor of colour, sound, texture and light and positing himself in the realm of the poetry, painting and music that inspired him. By leaving this physical imprint of the self on his work–a kind of indelible fingerprint of the soul–Brakhage reinterpreted the definition of filmmaker and revealed the very core purpose of his work: to expose not “the world itself” but, as film historian Brian Frye once noted, the highly subjective “act of seeing the world.”
While criticised by some for being self-indulgent and solipsistic, other believe that his films invite–even demand–the viewer to become part of the process of the film’s creation. Unlike most narrative films (which often prescribe an overarching message through subject matter), Brakhage’s work conjures meaning through composition and form. While taking aim at both our visceral and intellectual receptors, his rapid editing, dense superimposition, jarring camera movements and anamorphic distortion work to create infinite possibilities within the viewer’s imagination, resisting representation and eluding fixed conclusions.
Stan Brakhage doesn’t tell but asks, drawing the viewer into a collective exploration of what he called the “adventure of perception,” reaching far beyond the physical and temporal boundaries of the screen and into the unknown. A timely homage to a filmmaker who burned, scratched, bleached and painted his way through to the inherent beauty of the medium, this evening of short films by Brakhage is a rare opportunity for Victorians to experience the work of this master of “visual music” and a reawakening of the notion of seeing with one’s own eyes.
-Dawn SavilleAn Evening of Short Films by Stan Brakhage 7:15 pm Tuesday, January 13 Cinecenta regular admission rates 721-8365
(Published in Monday Magazine on December 18, 2003)
The American underground musician and self-styled media cenobite known as Jandek is one of the biggest musical enigmas of the last quarter century. Despite releasing 34 albums, Jandek remains almost a complete unknown. It’s been said “one could fit all the world’s Jandek fans in one theatre and write what’s known about him on an index card.” Ironically, despite his small cult following and virtually non-existent biography, it’s his deliberate distance from his work that makes Jandek all the more compelling. Fans, critics and filmmaker Chad Freidrichs, director of the 2003 documentary Jandek on Corwood, seem to concede that it’s more the mystique of Jandek than his music that compels his elite fan base to dig deeper into the unknown.
When Freidrichs began shooting, a penetrating biopic was not what he was striving for. Says Freidrichs, “People’s views about Jandek are extremely impressionistic and subjective.” Freidrichs believes the Jandek legend has “grown organically” through the mythology his fans compulsively create in his absence. In Jandek on Corwood, speculations and theories about Jandek’s persona–ranging from surrealist genius to depressive sociopath–gave Freidrichs the bulk of material for his film, but more importantly, foreground our collective need for a personal, more tangible image in the face of mystery and abstraction. Though his lyrics are deeply emotional and highly evocative, Jandek still maintains a sphinx-like detachment, simply because he does not engage in the brand of formulated media identity we have come to expect. Or, as Gary Morris at brightlightsfilm.com notes, “Jandek, at least, can remain inviolate in a world where everything is commodified.”
Jandek on Corwood opens with a shot that literally comes out of the fog of a perpetual winter: a gray, desolate ocean and a lonely lighthouse; we’re on Rhode Island and we’re all alone. Then comes Jandek’s infamous un-tuned acoustic guitar, his whisper-cum-wail singing and Freidrichs has immdediately evoked the lyrical landscape of Jandek’s own unique world. Alternating between murky, pallid images of deserts and dead cities and high-contrast, gothic, black and white shots of concrete objects, Freidrichs embodies two disparate worlds: the more mundane (not to mention sparse) facts we actually know about Jandek, and the dark, visionary world his music inspires.
The colour shots of abandoned houses and natural landscapes, says Freidrichs, “are definitely meant to reflect people’s subjective impressions of Jandek that flow from emotive lyrics and and filter into the mythology,” while the black-and-white images of telephones, reel-to-reels, guitars and microphones–all shot in a neo-noir style–represent an “objective, very literal view of Jandek.” Images of Jandek’s phonebook listing, a Corwood Industries stamp and newspaper clippings about Jandek, starkly lit against shadow, lend a hard, investigatory feel to Jandek on Corwood.
Not surprisingly, Freidrichs eagerly refers to Errol Morris as a strong influence. One of the most striking leitmotifs is a lingering close-up shot of a rusty lock, which seems to question whether or not we should enter into Jandek’s complex world. But as music critic Gary Pig Gold brilliantly puts it, “If you’re willing to open the door without looking through the peephole first, then you can be a Jandek fan.”Jandek on Corwood as part of Antimatter – www.antimatter.ws 7 pm Friday, September 17 Open Space, 510 Fort St. Tickets $5/$4 385-3339
(Published in Monday Magazine on September 21, 2006)
*pseudonym was used to avoid a conflict-of-interest between my employer, The Antimatter Film Festival, and my position as freelance contributor at Monday Magazine
3 Film Reviews for the Victoria International Film and Video Festival
(Published under the pseudonym Elizabeth Stewart, E.S.)*
*pseudonym was used to avoid a conflict-of-interest between my employer, VIFVF, and my position as freelance contributor at Monday Magazine
He’s the winner of the Polaris Music Prize, but what’s inside the music of Final Fantasy’s Owen Pallett
There is no way to prepare to listen to Final Fantasy’s newest album, He Poos Clouds. Listening to the music made by this CBC Radio darling (and sometime string contributor to the likes of Arcade Fire and The Hidden Cameras) is like going into battle and coming out the other end feeling like you’ve just lived through a musical. At one moment, you’re basking in swelling strings; at another, you’re skipping across staccato piano. Once Fantasy man Owen Pallett has you snared by his orchestral pop, he’ll lurch to a sudden halt with a wail so painful and real that you’ll wonder if you’re in heaven or hell. The 10 songs which, according to an early Pallett manifesto, “attempt to modernise each of the Dungeons and Dragons schools of magic,” create a strange, mythical world. (It was a pleasant surprise to hear that, just as this story was going to press, He Poos Clouds won the inaugural $20,000 Polaris Music Prize.) Pallett takes us behind this world and talks about his songwriting
Monday: I’m not going to ask if your songs are confessional or pure fiction because it seems irrelevant, but knives and seppuku (ritual Japanese suicide) crop up in your lyrics. Does this come from watching samurai films or M Butterfly? Or just from reading the works of Yukio Mishima?
Owen Pallett: Knives are a phobia of mine … well, knives in other people’s hands. You’re the first person to have figured that out. As for the song “I’m Afraid of Japan,” the ending is meant to call out all suicidal artists. When the speaker (Mishima) says “Will no one read The Sound of Waves?,” he’s preconceiving how his work will be read following his death. When Elliot Smith and Spalding Gray killed themselves, the first thing that went through my mind was that they’ve totally ruined their bodies of work. You can’t listen to [Smith's] XO without reading it as a “cry for help.” You can’t laugh at Swimming to Cambodia because Gray’s self-depreciation seems so much less funny.
Monday: The opening of “Song Song Song” reminds me a bit of the drum-and-dance sequence in Takeshi Kitano’s film Zatoichi. I like to think of this as your feminist song. It seems to really center on the value of a woman’s voice.
OP: “Song Song Song” is my attempt to encourage women to rock out more. Music criticism is quick to praise complacent female artists. I don’t think male music critics can actually listen to a record made by women and not think that there’s something unfinished or inadequate about it. As a result, all the experimental and original female artists get called “crazy” or “inept.” “Song Song Song” is trying to encourage women to fuck all that and make gutsy records — like Josephine Foster, Picastro, Joanna Newsom, Juana Molina or Kimya Dawson. I’m such a huge fan of Buffy Sainte-Marie, Dagmar Krause, Nico, but nobody gives them any love. Instead, people go nuts over more complacent women like Cat Power.
Monday: “The Pooka Sings” is a great finale to He Poos Clouds. It almost seems to refute everything that has come before, vowing to burn the words and put down the violin forever. Is this self-mockery or just part of the character your speaker is playing?
OP: Sort of both. This is an album filled with fantasy references: dark elves, a clairvoyant, the pooka himself. These are things nobody believes in, right? But look at what the pooka is calling me out on: “Devils, winged men (angels), the healing power of love, enchantment, social injustice, dead child actors in white, white world above (heaven). In other words, the pooka is finding fault not in the fantasy references, but in the theistic references. It’s like somebody reading C.S. Lewis and then saying, “I liked it, except for the part about Jesus. That stuff was pretty far-fetched.” It’s not as obvious as I’d hope, but “The Pooka Sings” is meant to show that an album about D&D is as valuable as any album about any religion. It’s a quiet little antitheistic jab.Final Fantasy (with Bob Wiseman) 7 pm Friday, September 22 Metro Studio, 1411 Quadra St. Tickets $12 (all ages) at Lyle’s and Ditch – 386-5874
(Published in Monday Magazine on September 21, 2006)
When Kodak announced it was discontinuing S8 Kodachrome film stock in 2005, filmmakers reacted to the blow with shock and dismay and the death of film was again declared imminent. Two years on, Super 8 is enjoying a resurgence in popularity akin to that of its birth in 1965. In culmination of a decade of renewed regard for the humble gauge, Super 8 festivals, collectives, websites, blogs, pod-casts and magazines are developing at a dizzying pace, putting the medium at the forefront of film culture.
Following this movement, CineVic is launching infinEIGHT: A Super 8 Celebration, a retrospective of Super 8 film, tracing the vibrant history of the genre from its inception through virtual abandonment in the shadow of video to its current renaissance in the hands of a new generation of filmmakers. Evolving over several years of sold-out Super 8 workshops at CineVic and drawing inspiration from festivals like Calgary’s $100 Film Fest and Toronto’s Splice This!, infinEIGHT’s biggest influence was the desire to help build the audience for small-gauge film projected in its original format and give the artists who work in this medium a venue for exhibition. The festival will feature works by local filmmakers such as David Arseneau (Etude Pour Madana #2) and Peter Sandmark (Monkeytown), with all of the other works coming from Canada with a single exception: Australian director D. Monceaux’s “humanistic documentary” A Shift in Perception. Here’s what CineVic’s executive director Bryan Skinner has to say about the current state of Super 8.
Monday: How has Super 8 influenced the aesthetics of filmmaking?
Bryan Skinner: Whether it was the family vacation of the assassination of JFK, Super 8 was the first medium the common working person could use to record the world around them. This “amateur” work aesthetic had a profound impact on what audiences could accept from filmmakers and helped pave the way for the independent film explosions of the ’60s and ’70s. These days I would venture to say that most Super 8 is done by experimental filmmakers, music video directors and directors who want to add some Super 8 spice in a multi format production.
Monday: How has the web and New (mixed) Media helped forge the revival of Super 8?
BS: Many artists who create found footage pieces digitally are using resources like archive.org and discovering that those analogue sources are brilliant sources for digital production. The only way to get something to look like Super 8 is to use Super 8, so artists — and commercial productions like the Lonely Planet series — who like mixed medium are shooting on Super 8 rather than trying to use filters to make digital look like something it’s not.
Monday: How much do you think the resurgence of Super 8 is owing to advances in digital technology and film?
BS: I think there’s an enormous connection. The same goes for 16mm. Filmmakers want to use the organic aesthetic of film in production but also utilize the advantages that digital editing can offer. Digital’s biggest advantage is that of sound. Super 8 is now silent and 16mm optical track in mono. Now if we could only project in the production format with synced 5.1 surround sound we would be in utopia!
Monday: What of the political/aesthetic divide between film mediums like Super 8 and video?
BS: I think the younger media artists coming up now are less dogmatic about the medium than the previous generation and, along with new technology, are putting to rest the film-versus-video arguments of the past. They want to be free to use whatever works for whatever project they are working on. I think with more exploration of digital technology comes a deeper appreciation of the look provided by the chemical processes which are at the heart of film.InfinEIGHT: A Super 8 Celebration 7 pm Friday-Saturday, August 17-18 St. Ann’s Academy, 835 Humboldt Tickets $5 – 389.1590 – www.cinevic.ca
(Published in Monday Magazine on August 16, 2007)