My Winnipeg: an intriguing blend of memoir, documentary and surreal dark fantasy in a paean to a little city on the prairie

Guy Maddin, “My Winnipeg” (2007)

An unusual blend of memoir, documentary and dark fantasy, Guy Maddin’s “My Winnipeg” probably does more to promote his home city, out on the prairies in the middle of Canada and the entire North American continent, than a hundred thousand travel agency brochures could do. Instead of presenting an overgrown railway transportation hub town that freezes over five months a year (although the city is also surprisingly one of Canada’s sunniest places), Maddin gives us a Winnipeg as an unlikely chthonic deity with a darkly magnetic sexual energy and an occult, even sinister personality. At the same time, Winnipeg is a universal city, suffering from the same problems that large cities the world over are blighted with: underhand and corrupt city politics, the demolition of beloved landmarks like the ice hockey stadium or an old elm tree, and conflicts between the city’s political and economic elites and the factory workers they exploit. This presentation runs in parallel with Maddin’s exploration of his past, in particular his complicated relationship with his mother (played by Ann Savage) and his equally complicated sexuality, as a way of coming to terms with the environment that made him what he is.

The film’s plot structure is ingenious: it takes the form of Guy Maddin (played by Darcy Fehr, with Maddin providing voice-over narration) on a train leaving Winnipeg to where he possibly knows not, lying on a bed in his compartment and wrestling with the problem of what he needs to do to be able to escape Winnipeg, where he has lived all his life. He decides to film a fantasy documentary recounting events from his life in Winnipeg and from the city’s own history as a way of coming to terms with Winnipeg and his own family history so he can leave. Hence the reason for the film already scrolling before our very eyes. From here on in, the road-movie theme encompasses a series of episodes that leap from the personal and family experiences to the greater experiences of the city and back again. ot

To be honest I found Guy Maddin’s recollections of past incidents involving family members not all that interesting, not to mention suspect in their veracity in case readers are wondering; these “remembered” incidents only appear to underline the sexual links, real or imagined, between family members (especially Mom) and Winnipeg, and the hold they have over Maddin. The incidents in Winnipeg’s history, real or not, are far more intriguing, bizarre or eccentric: a fire at a racetrack panics horses in nearby stables and they rush out into the cold wintry night and plunge into a river, only to freeze to death, their frozen heads above the icy surface of the waters the only evidence of their deaths when they are found the following morning. (The incident is relayed with animation and still shots in such a way as to suggest there was something predetermined about this tragedy, that the horses – themselves often symbolic of sexuality and sexual control in dreams – were following a script laid out for them even before their births.) A determined attempt by elderly matriarchs to save an elm tree from being destroyed to make way for a city development ends when the tree is attacked by a gang of thugs during the night. In the 1930s a spiritualist craze spreads like fever to the highest echelons of Winnipeg city council. Such a quirky selection of events in the city’s history makes Winnipeg seem more alive and vibrant than a coach tour of its museums, art galleries, restaurants and cafes does.

For the most part the film is shot in black-and-white which helps give the blurry cinematography a mysteriously shadowy Gothic style. Historical film of actual events (whether relayed accurately or not), acted scenes of past family dramas and animated sections are united by Maddin’s voice-over narration which lends the movie a faux-documentary sheen. In lesser hands the film could have been laughably bombastic but Canadian self-deprecating humour ensures that Winnipeg, whether representative of all cities, an overgrown set of houses on the prairie or a network of layers of narratives of different cultures that combine to give this cow-town a richer tapestry than it could have hoped for, has a charm all its own. Even the fact that Winnipeg gets covered in snow for several months a year is treated in a way that induces a sense of wonder – and frequent still shots of black criss-crossed by white noise slash add to the mystery – rather than fright in potential tourists.

As to be expected with films by Guy Maddin, “My Winnipeg” defies convention and becomes a surreal dream-like paean to home, family, community and city, and the stories (real, depressing or fantastical) that they carry or threaten to carry.

The Sweet Hereafter: a fragmented film labouring under too many issues about loss and betrayal of children

Atom Egoyan, “The Sweet Hereafter” (1997)

It won quite a few Best Film and Director awards and was nominated for Best Director and Screenplay Oscars but I found Atom Egoyan’s “The Sweet Hereafter” overly long and laboured for what it is and what it seeks to do. An ambulance-chasing lawyer, Mitchell Stephens (Ian Holm), lobs into a small rural community grieving over the loss of several children in a school-bus accident; Stephens aims to round up enough willing applicants to launch a class action litigation suit alleging negligence against the bus company and the school insurance board. He manages to rope in a few people but the lawsuit threatens to open raw emotions and other wounds afresh among the townsfolk and set them against one another. Two significant eye-witnesses, Billy (Bruce Greenwood) and Nicole (Sarah Polley), are unwilling to testify; Nicole in particular, despite her singer-songwriter career having been derailed by the accident, suffers from survivor guilt, resents her parents’ interest in a huge cash payout to compensate for her no longer being a money-pot, and refuses to have anything to do with the suit. While rounding up potential litigants, Stephens must also deal with his personal problems, most of which revolve around his guilt over the upbringing of his young daughter Zoe who as an adult has become a drug addict and who fears she has contracted an HIV infection after she is rejected as a blood donor.

The lonely and melancholy beauty of the harsh mountain landscape in winter, where the action takes place, provides an ideal setting for the tragedy that unfolds leisurely through flashback scenes interspersed among Stephens’ visits to the locals and his own narrative of loss, tragedy, despair and guilt. At the heart of the film is the issue of responsibility and blame, how people cope with loss, and how it has the potential to rend a community apart or bring people closer. One underlying theme is how people as individuals and as a collective and through their institutions have failed their children and themselves time and again; there is also a related theme of child sexual abuse that raises its ugly head at the film’s climax. Human institutions such as an adversarial legal system or organised religion can be dangers in this respect. Stephens, running away from his own guilt over Zoe, pours his anger at himself into posing as a crusader for social justice on behalf of the town but is ultimately thwarted by the young girl Nicole when she is called to give a witness statement.

The acting is good and restrained but I wonder if Egoyan errs on featuring too many close-ups of people about to break down and cry, as if seeing one or two almost weepy people isn’t enough to turn on viewers’ own lachrymal spigots. The blues-rock music soundtrack can be too intrusive at times, trying to stress the intense emotional aspects of the plot and the issues it raises. At one point the film appears to aspire to soap opera status by featuring two people having an affair that goes nowhere. For an otherwise low-key film, there is too much emotion and not enough questing as to how people should cope when a tragic accident that could be no-one and everyone’s fault occurs and whether it is right to apportion blame and responsibility arbitrarily and to pursue justice in a way that exploits and manipulates people’s emotions with the potential to create conflicts, grievances and problems that need never exist.

In the figure of Stephens himself, Egoyan could have raised issues about how running away from guilt and not confronting it directly but channelling it into other people’s affairs may cause friction and serious on-going conflict that escalates further. The structure of the film in which various narratives are interwoven and end up open-ended is problematic in that it offers very feeble hope with most characters left to fumble through personal demons. At the very least, we could have had some closure in which Stephens resolves (perhaps yet again after so many other failures of courage) to meet his daughter and get help and counselling for her. The climax of the film in which the lawsuit collapses due to an underlying incest issue that two family members keep hushed up jars horribly with the film’s ending in which one of the two appears as an angel of forgiveness and redemption … in a period before the bus accident!

Disappointingly the mountain landscape is a passive bystander in the film: its stunning vistas and the soft light of sun that glints on ice and snow could be the very thing that inspires hope in the community to do better by its children.

Cosmopolis: profound road-movie meditation on corporate nihilism and its destruction of people

David Cronenberg, “Cosmopolis” (2012)

A profound and thoughtful film on the nature of the corporate fascist mind-set, “Cosmopolis”  is a quasi-cyberpunk road movie across New York City. Billionaire asset manager Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson) sets out in his stretch limousine early in the morning for a hair-cut appointment. His path is not straightforward for the President of the United States has come to NYC on a state visit and security barricades have been put up in those parts of the city where the limo would travel through, plus his favourite rap singer Brutha Fez (K’naan) has just died and his funeral cortège will also interfere with and slow down the limo. As the limo also serves as his office, Packer meets with his art dealer / mistress (Juliette Binoche), his finance officer (Emily Hampshire), a corporate guru / philosopher (Sandra Morton), a couple of analysts (Jay Baruchel, Philip Nozuka) and his doctor for various appointments. He catches sight of his estranged wife (Sarah Gadon) a few times and tries to convince her to return but she refuses as she needs her energy for work. Throughout the day, he receives news that his humongous fortune, dependent on his prediction of the Chinese yuan’s depreciation being correct, comes crashing down and that his life is in danger from a stalker.

Due to the aforementioned obstructions and an unexpected protest, Packer’s trip to the barber takes much longer than expected – it takes over 12 hours! – during which time Packer reveals himself as a highly complex and troubled man: cold and emotionless externally, yet vulnerable, hungering for real human contact, searching for meaning to his existence and ultimately self-loathing. The plot is flimsy and absurd, and characters speak in a highly stilted and staged way, indicating that the source material is either a novel or a play – as it happens, the film is based on a Don DeLillo novel of the same name. Packer’s conversations with his employees and other people range over topics such as the nature of information and information flows and their value in capitalist society, the distinction between the present and the future, finding meaning in life and the value of wealth and material goods to one’s self-esteem. By night Packer realises that he is a ruined man yet seems quite happy and even feels free; and when he comes face to face with his stalker (Paul Giamatti) who may or may not kill him at point-blank range, he does not plead for his life and even appears to welcome the release that death may bring him.

“Cosmopolis” is cool, calculated and stunningly beautiful in a clinical, Ballardesque way in which the thin line between intellectual, abstract rationality and rich-kid hedonistic psychopathy disappears. The rapacious dehumanising values of corporate capitalism unfold through Packer, his hermetic limo world and the contrast it makes with the rough-n-tumble cosmopolitan world of NYC. R-Patz is an ideal choice to play Packer: his blank and beautiful face conveys subtle emotion and intelligence, and his acting is efficient. One can truly believe that here was once a golden youth, highly intelligent and university-educated, restless and wanting to know and to control more, a thrill-seeker desirous of experience and love, but now perverted by material greed and sensuous hedonism. First indications that his perfectly aligned, designed world will crash around him come from his two analysts and doctor who informs him that his prostate is asymmetrical. It will be interesting to see how Pattinson’s career progresses from “Cosmopolis” onwards: he can act in the kind of challenging role that once upon a time the likes of James Spader, Christian Bale and Heath Ledger chased and if he and his agent can find the right character roles in future films, his star will surely eclipse those of the current generation of Hollywood actors.

The support actors are a little wasted as they are all talented but their roles have very limited screen time: the stand-out is Paul Giamatti as the vengeful and deranged ex-employee who believes killing Packer will restore meaning to his own life. Other memorable characters include the security chief (Kevin Durand) whose whole life revolves around protecting Packer to the extent that he literally is Packer’s shadow and is nothing without him; and chauffeur Ibrahim (Abdul Ayoola) who together with the barber (George Touliatos) provide the warm proletarian contrast to Packer’s world of virtual reality and ruthless control of information and resource flows where real-life people like the security chief can be dispensed with at the barrel of a gun.

There are strong themes of authenticity-versus-inauthenticity, the quest for self-knowledge and identity, and the danger to one’s sanity of being caught up in a world where abstraction and emotionless rationality reign supreme and the need to know and control everything down to the tiniest detail such as the shape of one’s prostate absorbs all one’s attention. Packer represents a profoundly nihilist individual who has become God in his world and it seems appropriate that to be truly Übermensch, he pays for his nihilism by destroying everything he has, including his own life.

Changing Your Mind (The Nature of Things): informative documentary on neural plasticity spoiled by breathless commercial presentation

Mike Sheerin, “Changing Your Mind (The Nature of Things)” (2010)

Hosted by David Suzuki, “Changing Your Mind” is an episode from the long-running science documentary “The Nature of Things” which is aired by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Seems funny in a way as the CBC is Canada’s equivalent of Australia’s ABC and the UK’s BBC so I sort of expected something less commercial in orientation and more impersonal. The emphasis in this program is on the recent discovery that the adult human brain is much more changeable or “plastic” as neuroscientists term it and the implications this has for our understanding of what the brain is capable of and what can affect it. One positive is that people, unlike old dogs, can continue learning new tricks and even compensate for limitations or damage once thought to be irreversible; the negative is that trauma and mental illnesses can affect the brain in ways that, once reinforced again and again, become major and chronic disorders that can severely limit quality of life and happiness.

First up, issues like obsessive compulsive disorder and repeated traumas such as childhood sexual abuse that cause post-traumatic stress disorder are dealt with through a narrative structure made up of several personal cases in which people explain their problems, how these arose and the treatment they sought to deal with the problems. The tone tends to be upbeat even in what seems to be hopeless and extremely traumatic and upsetting cases.

Knowledge of the brain’s chemical and neural plasticity has encouraged scientists to enquire into treating and even curing schizophrenia by changing the brain’s neural networks. Cognitive training using specially designed computer and video games that target problem-solving abilities and social cognition is shown to have promising results for treating and moderating some of the symptoms of schizophrenia.

While the episode is informative, it’s rather breathless in style and has the air of an infomercial which has the effect of making its topics and the people involved seem less serious than they really are. It’s just too upbeat for me: the treatments used to help and cure the conditions mentioned are presented as holy grails and anyone watching who has reservations about some of the treatments isn’t exactly encouraged to voice their criticisms. The section on schizophrenia which takes up half the film’s running time does show one patient saying she still takes her medicine. One constant irritant throughout the  doco is the overly dramatic music soundtrack which has the effect of drowning out some of the patients’ testimonies about their condition and its treatment.

The message that neural plasticity in the brain is not necessarily a good thing comes through clearly throughout the film and is reiterated in the film’s conclusion; understanding neural plasticity and using that to develop therapies to treat mental illness and disorders is our friend.

A Dangerous Method: lavish but perfunctory treatment of three psychoanalysts

David Cronenberg, “A Dangerous Method” (2011)

Adapted from Christopher Hampton’s stage play “The Talking Cure” which itself is based on John Kerr’s book “A Most Dangerous Method: The Story of Jung, Freud and Sabina Spielrein”, this historical drama revolves around the tense professional and personal relationships formed by famous psychoanalysts Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud and Jung’s patient Sabina Spielrein who herself became a physician and psychoanalyst. It begins with Spielrein’s admission to the Burgholzli hospital where Jung (Michael Fassbender) is a practising physician. Using the then revolutionary talking method of uncovering a patient’s unconscious desires and needs and bringing them to conscious knowledge, Jung discovers the cause of the hysteria that afflicts Spielrein (Keira Knightley) which confirms his readings of Viennese psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud’s theories. Jung then encourages Speilrein to study to be a doctor. His wife Emma (Sarah Gadon) persuades him to contact Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and the two men establish a professional relationship that lasts some six years, during which time their beliefs and theories on psychology, in particular on the human sexual drive, the nature of unconsciousness and the importance of religion, diverge and cause tensions and arguments. At the same time Jung and Spielrein embark on an affair that includes sadomasochism; Jung breaks it off but later resumes it when he agrees to mentor Spielrein for her dissertation. Eventually in 1912, while attending a meeting to discuss psychoanalytical journals, Freud faints hysterically and Jung rescues him. After this, the two men reduce their contacts to letter-writing and eventually stop collaborating. In the same year, Spielrein stops working with Jung and returns to her family; she marries a physician, Pavel Scheftel.

Primarily dialogue-driven, the film isn’t more than a series of huffy-puffy temper tantrums and professional disagreements. Every time the psychoanalysts’ conversations threaten to become interesting, even if in a cartoony way when they discuss their dreams, the narrative cuts out before any analysis begins and the film pulls back by a quick edit to another scene. The result is that “A Dangerous Method” is not at all dangerous and the sex scenes, particularly those where Knightley is required to flash a nipple, appear entirely gratuitous. Although the actors do their best and Knightley overacts her role in early scenes when Spielrein is hysterical, their scenes are directed and filmed in such a dispassionate way that any significant things they say are undercut and severely weakened: Jung’s attempts to push psychoanalytic theory into something pro-actively therapeutic and transformative receive some attention but the film “balances” his ambitions with Freud’s supposed caution and staying within what is known, and Spielrein’s support of Freud’s position in spite of her sympathy for Jung’s opinion. This perhaps should have been the film’s major theme and conflict: psychoanalysis as merely a mapping of human sexuality and unconsciousness (the stand taken by Freud and Spielrein) versus psychoanalysis as striving to understand human sexuality and unconsciousness fully in order to effect a transformation of human motivation, behaviour and perhaps society itself.

Speilrein’s assertion that the sex drive contains within itself elements of the drive to life and of the drive to death merits only two small scenes; this treatment is quite typical of the film’s generally shallow investigation of the discoveries that she, Jung and Freud make during the period covered. There is no question then as to whether the film is sympathetic towards women or not: it really isn’t, particularly in its treatment of Jung’s wife Emma who is nothing more than a baby-making machine / homebody whose wealthy family supplies Jung with the money for his work and research. Jung’s reliance on Emma’s wealth is both his support and weakness: without that money, he would never have been able to pursue psychoanalysis but at the same time, he can never leave his wife though he becomes indifferent towards her. After breaking off his affair with Spielrein, he promptly takes up with another Jewish female patient, Toni Wolff, who is mentioned briefly near the end.

The film briefly touches on the backgrounds of Jung, Freud and Spielrein: both Freud and Spielrein are Jewish and Freud’s position on religion is negative, no doubt due in part to his having suppressed Jewish religious influence in his professional life in an age where anti-Semitism and German nationalism, based on Romantic ideas about returning to nature and shunning industry and cities, could be very strong (although it’s possible that Germans and Austrians as people were actually much less anti-Semitic and nationalistic than English and French people were in the late 19th century) while Jung, the son of a pastor, was more positive about admitting religion, the mystical and the paranormal into his investigations of human psychology. If I may digress, Jung’s ideas were eventually to lead to the idea of the collective unconscious and the development of psychological archetypes which in the hands of Nazis led to institutional race discrimination against Jews, gypsies and others and thus to the extermination camps set up in remote parts of Poland; and which in the hands of others can still lead to bizarre New Age beliefs and belief systems, new forms of racial and social prejudice and barriers, and impositions of idealistic ideologies on people which can encourage new forms of repression and denials of freedom. Jung had to be aware of what the Nazis were doing with his ideas and theories as he joined the National Socialist party in the 1930s and edited a journal that endorsed Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf”; he later claimed that he joined the Nazis to save his career and theories but had he been genuine about saving his reputation and work, he would have done what Freud did and left Germany. As for Freud, he was content to limit himself to investigating the psychology and psychopathology of individual people, and the individuals’ immediate social environment, but he shied away from examining the larger socio-cultural context and its influence on individual and mass psychology; this limitation allowed his nephew, Edward Bernays, to hijack his theories and use them as tools in the service of American corporations and the US government to govern people and tell them what to think and feel.

Spielrein tragically did not have the opportunities that Freud and Jung had: returning to Russia in 1923, she raised a family with her husband (who was later purged by Joseph Stalin in the 1930s) and trained other doctors but when the Nazis arrived in her home town Rostov-on-Don, she and her two daughters were captured and shot dead by a German SS death squad along with 27,000 other Jews and Soviet civilians in Zmevskaya Balka in August 1942.

In short, “A Dangerous Method” attempts to cover serious topics in a shallow and clumsily comic way. The film’s narrative and visual format lavish more attention on recreating the late 19th century / early 20th century world in its bourgeois glory than on a rigorous, in-depth exploration of three psychologists and their complicated professional and personal relationships.

 

 

 

 

Guy Maddin quartet of short films: a unique style and vision at work

Guy Maddin, “Fancy, Fancy Being Rich” (2002), “My Dad is 100 Years Old” (2005), “Spanky: To the Pier and Back” (2008), “Send Her to the ‘Lectric Chair” (2009)

Canadian director Guy Maddin presents a very singular vision and style in his films. His short films are an excellent introduction to his work. From what I have seen so far, his short films at least are mostly silent and are presented in black-and-white; and they have the style of old films made in the late 1920s / early 1930s. Sometimes they may be set in near-recent historical or alternate historical periods. There is usually a definite narrative and the subject nearly always revolves around the subconscious and may be treated in a bizarre, surrealist way. His work has been likened to early Eraserhead-period David Lynch in its use of absurd imagery and juxtapositions, the implied sexual psychology and humour involved, but it could just as easily be compared to films made by Luis Buñuel and Jean Cocteau.

I’ve seen four film shorts so far and they’re at once similar yet different. “Fancy, Fancy Being Rich” is close to being a music video of sorts: a housemaid (Valdine Anderson), singing the eponymous song taken from Thomas Ade’s opera “Powder Her Face”, reminisces about all her drowned sailor lovers who are shown rising from the ocean waves as they roll onto a sandy beach, reuniting briefly with her and then returning to their ocean graves. Quick editing and a fast pace sweep viewers breathlessly along with the floridly sung song. The singing is not synchronised very well with the speedy images and the film doesn’t quite succeed on current music-video terms but as a self-contained story with its own themes about the power of the subconscious in enabling someone to cope with unfulfilled love and a mundane life otherwise lacking in hope, it’s very touching. There might be a deliberate metaphor in the images of the dead men rising from the waves as these roll up the beach in early scenes.

“Spanky: to the Pier and Back” is an affectionate piece that might be about Maddin’s home city of Winnipeg: a small pug dog takes a long, long walk around various landmarks and scenic spots in an unidentified city. The style of the film is fast and choppy and suggests a home-made video by its jerky quality. Most noteworthy is the music soundtrack by Matthew Patton which starts off slowly and builds up amid the sounds of breaking ocean waves.

“Send Her to the ‘Lectric Chair” features Isabella Rossellini as a Woman hypnotised from afar by a sinister elderly man and lured to his secret hide-out where ghost men materialise out of the air and strap her carefully into an electric chair full of dangly wires, leather straps and steampunk-styled gadgetry. One ghost guy proceeds to tap-dance on a sparkboard while a ghost lady tickles the ivories on an upright piano; other ghost gals in skimpy sequinned costumes start shimmying about the place. The Woman, obviously distressed, is forced to sweat out her torture while her boyfriend (Louis Negin) – we’ll call him the Man – races up the spiral staircase (how did he know where she was?) to rescue her. In the chaos that follows when the Man bursts into the room, the senile Svengali looks to have the last laugh on the unlucky couple. Again the action is fast and agitated with several overlapping images and lots of quick, choppy edits; and the music is stormy, brassy and screechy.

Rossellini pays tribute to her father Robert – or rather, his gravid belly from the looks of things – in “My Dad is 100 Years Old” by appearing as various famous producers and directors he knew (David Selznick, Federico Fellini, Alfred Hitchcock and an angelic Charlie Chaplin, complete with wings and sub-titles) and as her mother Ingrid Bergman, all engaging with the belly in a conversation about cinema as art and what the purpose of cinema is for. Should cinema reflect reality or should it just be about commercial entertainment? What should the film director’s role be in making films: is s/he merely a hack in service to commercial imperatives or can s/he, should s/he, must s/he encourage viewers to question the world as it is and broaden their horizons and awareness? “My Dad is 100 Years Old” looks at Roberto Rossellini as an eccentric who did most of his best work in bed (well, one of them is talking to him!) and who experimented with and stretched the boundaries, stylistically and technically, of what film-makers in his day could do.

The film itself is surreal and has at times a noir flavour, notable in the Hitchcock scenes where the portly one appears mostly as a silhouette in profile, standing in a distant balcony. Bergman appears on a screen larger than life in front of Isabella Rossellini, making the daughter appear very small. In contrast with the other films reviewed here, the pace is leisurely and most shots are maintained for more than a few seconds. Rossellini herself commands Maddin to bring the camera down low and close to her and her embrace of the giant belly in emulation of her father’s style and Maddin unhesitatingly obeys.

Rossellini’s tribute certainly is self-indulgent and in the hands of a lesser director would be laughably silly and kitsch; but in Guy Maddin’s sphere of control, the film is lovely to watch, comic and affectionate, and in itself is a homage to cinema history and its development. The surreal and the real blend easily, the ordinary becomes extraordinary and the extraordinary becomes ordinary.

These shorts may not be representative of Maddin’s corpus but viewers certainly get an idea of and a feel for his style and vision.

A Chairy Tale: fable about importance of communication, respect and equality

Norman McLaren and Claude Jutra, “A Chairy Tale” (1957)

A delightful little number that even young children will appreciate, this Canadian short is a fable about communication and the importance of respect and equality among people. The film is very simple and is set on an unadorned stage with a dark curtain in the background. Actor Claude Jutra wants to sit down on a wooden chair to read his book but the chair has a mind of its own and refuses to be sat upon. There follows an amusing sequence in which Jutra chases the chair around the stage Keystone-Kops style, fights with it, rejects it, tries to humour and placate it, dances a tango with it. and finally is made to understand that the chair just doesn’t want to be treated like, well, part of the furniture.

The method of animating the chair involved the use of strings attached to it as if the chair were a marionette puppet and then varying the speed of the camera throughout filming so that in the finished product, parts of the film whiz by fast and other parts are at normal speed. Pixilation, a form of stop motion animation used to bring together live and animated figures in the pre-CGI age, gives a slightly more stilted and less naturalistic quality to Jutra’s movements but otherwise he works very hard and moves freely and expressively.

Musical accompaniment by Ravi Shankar on sitar and Chatur Lal on tablas provides the only sounds viewers hear. The music provides an extra layer to the film’s story in that the sitar and tablas are continually conversing with each other in addition to fulfilling the usual counterpointing role of highlighting aspects of the film’s story. Perhaps the music could have been even more relevant to the film if the tabla player had been allowed to play solo in some parts of the film so that his drumming takes a lead rather than a support role. The sitar is lively, sinuous and resonant; the tablas are hard, dense and blunt and don’t’ resonate quite so well so perhaps the tablas need more “space” in the music and the sitars less for the instruments to sound equal.

The structure of the plot mirrors stages in a confrontation that leads to exhaustion, consideration of alternative strategies and finally negotiation and agreement. A lesson to be learnt here is that aggression and violence to get your own way will always fail and it’s better to listen to the other party’s grievances. Seeing an issue from the other person’s point of view is another lesson young viewers will take with them. When every strategy is exhausted and the film milks its conflict for all it’s worth, agreement and compromise are possible and the film ends. The film’s moral can be extended to other relationships including love and marriage, and to relationships between and among groups in society.

Crash (dir. David Cronenberg): dark comedy satire on Western obsession with technology and material culture

David Cronenberg, “Crash” (1996)

Based on the eponymous 1973 novel by J G Ballard, this film can be viewed as a companion to it rather than a close adaptation. The novel examines how technology and its products transform human psychology and culture, with one result being that people become obsessed by media products such as forms of celebrity worship; the film focusses more narrowly on the fusion of human psychology and technology as expressed in the characters’ sexual fetishisation of cars and car crashes to the extent that this philia becomes the motivator in their lives. Toronto-based TV producer James Ballard (James Spader) and his wife Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger) have an open marriage which is a cover for their unsatisfactory and cold relationship. One evening, driving home late, Ballard collides head on with Dr Helen Remington (Holly Hunter) in her car, the accident killing her husband. In hospital with his leg in a metal brace, Ballard meets a researcher Vaughan (Elias Koteas) who keenly examines his injuries and metal braces. Ballard and Remington start an affair, making out in cars; to understand why they have become a pair through the car crash and why they are sexually aroused only in cars, they turn to Vaughan who invites them to see a simulated performance-art re-enactment of 1950’s Hollywood star James Dean’s fatal car crash and then to his hidey-hole where they meet Vaughan’s friends who include Gabrielle (Rosanna Arquette) whose legs are permanently embraced in steel braces.

Ballard quickly becomes Vaughan’s faithful groupie, driving his guru around in Vaughan’s Lincoln convertible to pick up prostitutes and later Catherine for sex every evening. On one such trip they come upon a pile-up of cars and Vaughan discovers one dead person in the wreckage is a follower of his in the middle of a Jayne Mansfield death re-enactment. Ballard also dallies with Gabrielle, using an old scar on her leg as a vagina substitute. Eventually Vaughan turns his attention to Ballard and the two engage in homosexual intercourse which sets them up for a climax in which at least one of them must die in order to consummate their relationship and fulfill Vaughan’s desire to live his philosophy of the car crash as a whole-body experience incorporating sexual intercourse, orgasm, fulfillment and death.

The film adopts a low-key, matter-of-fact approach to its subject and the actors do well in portraying cold, emotionless characters in thrall to their psychological urges. Koteas in particular steals the show as a manipulative messiah who knows what Ballard needs and uses him for as long as he needs. The only flaw in Koteas’s portrayal of Vaughan is that the character is more creepy than charming and his recruitment technique is more likely to repel than attract. Spader may not be leading-man charmer material but his colourless approach and boyish looks suit his character who is essentially passive and desires to obey Vaughan. In this, Cronenberg is following the novel fairly closely: in most of J G Ballard’s novels and short fiction, the hero usually is a passive man, often manipulated, through which Ballard expresses his ideas and beliefs about the effects of technology or cultural innovation on ordinary human thinking and feeling. Viewers need to watch Spader closely in the carwash scene to realise how subtle his acting can be; his face is blank, he says nothing but his hand movements express his arousal and reaction to Vaughan shagging Catherine in the backseat of the car. The female actors get through their parts efficiently if not outstandingly: Unger seems to spend most of her time with the fairies, Hunter is merely determined and Arquette is  hilarious in a scene that sends up car advertising strategies.

In a film like “Crash” which deals with obsession, the overall look and attention to details are important: Toronto is sleek and glossy in parts, grimy and industrial in others, yet always hollow and lacking in depth and warmth in some way. Much loving attention in the form of numerous close-ups is paid to cars, their style and surfaces, grilles, bumper bars, driver controls and, most importantly, any dints they get. This suggests that the characters are the products of a society that’s spiritually dead and which substitutes technology for warmth, human bonding and communication. It’s no accident that Cronenberg makes his main character a TV producer whose role is to make shows that influence people’s thoughts and feelings, promote certain social values and attitudes, and encourage folks to pay continual homage to their lares and penates with their remote controls. The role of the media in encouraging people to be obsessed with famous actors and other celebrities is downplayed: Cronenberg seems uninterested in investigating how psychology and the products and systems of technology interact to reconstruct and determine cultural values and definitions about the nature of fame and how it affects worshippers and the objects of their worship alike. Media attention on famous stars not only can encourage fan obsession, it can lead to fans stalking (and sometimes killing) the objects of their desires. In the novel Vaughan is obsessed with the actress Elizabeth Taylor; in the film only famous dead stars such as James Dean and Jayne Mansfield have meaning for Vaughan and his followers for having died in car collisions, their lives before their crashes and whatever it was that propelled them to fame being of no concern. Perhaps the intention is to send an even more chilling message about the motivations of Vaughan’s group: they are completely self-obsessed to the point of drifting away from reality and relate only to others who share in their peculiar interests. But what is reality anyway? – it is other people who are just as equally obsessed with their particular gadgety toys or the products of technology.

There is a banal quality to the plot and characters due to their obsessive and repetitive behaviour: the thrill of car crashes and being close to death (because it makes them come alive) is short-lived so they must repeat the experience again and again. Only when they come close to losing each other – the film’s ending can be ambiguous – do Ballard and his wife finally find love but even here their obsession intrudes and it’s likely beyond the film that they’ll risk killing each other again just for that fleeting moment when they most feel alive. At this point viewers realise just how far gone the two are: their relationship has recovered its warmth but at what cost to their future together and individually? This part of “Crash” where a particular technology finally occupies central place in two characters’ lives and determines their future behaviour must be the film’s true horrific climax.

As might be expected of a film that marries cars, death and sex, there is plenty of sex and nudity but though tastefully done the sex scenes are cold and not at all erotic. One sex scene in which Ballard and Catherine are having sex and Catherine asks him about Vaughan’s body and sexual response is comic.

If there’s a lesson to learn from “Crash”, it’s more in the dynamics of human group behaviour, especially in the context of cult groups following a guru who uses his followers’ guilt or obsessions to control and mould their thoughts and behaviours. If ever people want to know the dangers of getting involved in little cliques that follow and worship their leaders uncritically, “Crash” is required watching. On the other hand it makes no moral comment on the fusion of technology with human psychology and physiology. The whole film can be viewed as a dark comedy and satire on Western society and its preoccupations with material culture at the expense of values centred on human relationships and spiritual life.

Splice: spliced-together movie unravelling at the joins

Vincenzo Natali, “Splice”, Dark Castle Entertainment (2010)
 
Fans of former Oscar Best Actor winner Adrien Brody must be wondering how their man came to be slumming it in this Canadian sci-fi horror flick about a Generation Y scientist couple Clive Nicoli and Elsa Kast (Brody and Sarah Polley) who work for a genetics corporation splicing DNA from various animals to create chimeras whose hormones and other products can be manufactured and patented by their employer by day; and at night work on their own experiment splicing animal and human DNA to create a Frankenstein who among other things will substitute for their inability – or rather, Elsa’s unwillingness – to have their own child. (And the corporation, feeling the cruel pinch of the Global Financial Crisis, will no longer countenance its star employees using company resources and equipment for pursuing personal projects.) At first the hybrid, named Dren, is very cute: she’s a mixture of human, bird, a bit of rodent here and a scorpion there, but she’s a fast grower as well as a fast learner and eventually the couple have to move her out of the company basement and storage areas and into a country farmhouse where Elsa spent her childhood. There Dren grows into a weirdly beautiful adult (Delphine Chaneac) in double-quick time and suffers the problems of adolescence in double-quick intensity: she’s not only intelligent and perceptive, she’s rebellious and wants freedom to move and explore, find her own identity and niche in life perhaps. Her complicated genetic inheritance kicks in, presenting all manner of weird and wacky parenting problems and Oedipal complexes for Clive and Elsa to cope with. The results are devastating if perhaps predictable – previous company-approved experiments with two slug chimaeras whimsically named Fred and Ginger prime the audience for what’s to come – with the tantalising possibility of a Z-grade sequel in the manner of the Species films where each succeeding chapter gets progressively sillier with a new batch of actors being punished by the mutating monster for sacrificing their artistic integrity for a few hundred extra measly bucks
 
In a way this isn’t a sci-fi film as the technology to splice DNA from different animal and plant species to create new kinds of genetic beings has existed for many years and corporations like Monsanto are already making billions out of this activity. The general idea though – know-it-all specialists wanting more secret knowledge in their specialty, conducting risky experiments to get that knowledge, reaping the early rewards but also suffering from the inevitable fall-out – qualifies “Splice” as a member of the Frankenstein category of science fiction / horror. “Splice” is also “splice” in the way it tosses in elements of romantic comedy – a scene where Clive and Elsa argue and the two stomp back and forth between a car and the barn illustrates this nicely – and of psychological thriller horror once the action moves into the farmhouse where Elsa grew up and was abused by her mother. A sly dig at companies that initially profess horror at unorthodox staff projects and punish the employees severely yet eagerly scramble for the money-stream such projects promise easily slots into the plot.
 
This is very much a character-driven film as the two scientists start out masters of their particular universe but end up being driven by it as one bad decision leads to another and the mess just gets bigger and bigger. Ethical issues about personal, parental and corporate responsibility are brought up without being hammered over and the lead actors do an excellent job portraying arrogant, fallible human beings whose weaknesses are exposed as they grapple with the consequences of their decisions and actions. It becomes obvious that Dren, for all her intelligence and perception, is an innocent victim of her particular cosmopolitan genetic make-up as it expresses itself and viewers will pity her pain, confusion and inevitable demise, and feel disgust and contempt for her fat-headed creators and their sponsors at the same time.
 
Unfortunately as the movie progresses, it starts to feel shaky as the action flips from glossy cutting-edge sci-fi to rustic isolationist farmhouse horror and the stitching of various genre elements becomes less than seamless. The action descends into a predictable rut as Fred and Ginger’s doom starts playing itself again, big-time this time with Dren, Elsa, Clive, his brother and their immediate work supervisor unwillingly drawn into its consequences. Maybe a little too much genre-splicing has gone on here and the movie threatens to turn into a monster itself. The original plot sketch must have fizzled out and the director, actors and film crew had to improvise the rest of the story as best they could, tie up all necessary loose ends and salvage a total schemozzle by tacking on what looks like a twist ending. Though the director probably had this ending in mind originally; the problem is how to get there. At once funny and disturbing, the conclusion recalls mediaeval horror stories about demons visiting male humans in their sleep, making a few quick adjustments and then visiting female humans in their sleep … I shan’t elaborate further but this was how the Anti-Christ was supposed to come about.
 
Perhaps it’s too early to say yet whether “Splice” might become a cult film: the underlying theme and the issues it raises scream cult-film potential and ongoing cultural relevance, and there is an edgy unpredictability early on that piques the interest. Some extra thought to fleshing out the plot-line more and some back-story to Elsa, her uneasy relationship with her mother and how that impinges on her actions toward Dren might have strengthened the whole movie.