There’s been an incredible amount of snow in Los Angeles this week. It’s coming in from Alaska, from Wisconsin, from Latvia; it’s all up on screen, with a considerable number of movies set in bleak white snowscapes. Maybe there’s nothing more exotic to Southern Californians than seeing people in heavy overcoats and riding snowmobiles. This sense of snow is most apparent in the trio of Québécois films, which all share distinct commonalities, screening at the festival. Besides being utterly blanketed in snow, these French Canadian films are all methodically paced and play with the passage of time. They dissect the functioning (or dysfunction) of the family unit, and are preoccupied with notions of personal isolation and mortality. While not necessarily bearing the markers of a distinct or organized film movement, these contemporary offerings from Quebec all spring from similar sensibilities.
Writer-director Stéphane Lafleur does nothing to disavow me of the notion that Canada is some kind of depressing anomic frozen wasteland with En Terrains Connus. But he does sketch a compelling tale of family dysfunction and the glacier-like encroaching of decay and stasis. It’s a slow burn of a film, with its structuring principle announced by its titles as a series of accidents. Quiet and reserved Maryse (Fanny Mallette) is shaken into a low-key obsession when a co-worker at the box factory loses his arm in an industrial mishap. Meanwhile, her slacker brother, Benoit (Francis La Haye), receives a warning of a future accident when the local car rental owner, who just happens to have traveled backward in time, brings a message that Maryse will die in a car crash.
The way which Lafleur handles this time travel conceit—droll, matter-of-fact, its plausibility neither proven nor questioned—is a microcosm of the rest of the film. We nimbly shift from scenes of deadpan domestic humor to chilling slow-motion fugues. Maryse and Benoit’s profound alienation is captured in wide shots that gaze at the isolating sea of white blanketing the icy wastes of Quebec. The characters, like the world they inhabit, behave as if under sedation. They’re only roused from the steady state of their lethargy by the accumulation of annoyances that build like a piece of music heading towards a crescendo. It’s something that the film captures on a sonic level with an ear for repetition: in the rattling of silverware, for example, or the hum of a snowmobile engine. We hear more than we can see; at times the breaking points seem to elude our gaze as they happen off screen or between scenes. We only witness the aftermath—as in the case of a jar of tomato sauce that Benoit desperately struggles to open.
The performances are solidly grounded in understatement; Maryse’s husband Alain (Sylvain Marcel), with his goofy hobbies and well-meaning inability to process his wife’s psychological dissolution, feels plucked right out of a Coen Brothers film. The family patriarch (Michel Daigle), cantankerous and hale, provides a jolt of energy to each scene he’s in. The sibling relationship at the core of the film is slowly sketched over the course of the film as Benoit wrestles with what to do with the warning he’s been given. Because these characters are so reserved, and because they are comfortable in their uncomfortable silence, they can feel somewhat distant. But Lafleur helps find a way in, and by the end that reserve feels more like an unspoken intimacy.
There are tiny moments that click into place after we realize what they mean: Benoit finds a toy car buried in the snow with a metal detector. Maryse measures an ice chest with the length of her arm. The film lets tension simmer rather than explode, and it trends toward the oblique without being confusing. We linger on the unspoken and the unseen, and it’s all tied together with an ethos of comic reflection and gentle self-deprecation. At the risk of painting an entire national and regional cinema with a single brush, these qualities make the film seem quintessentially Canadian.
The art of the sale is a delicate one, a push-pull struggle for power between buyer and seller, a battle that we begrudgingly undertake when there’s a purpose to it. But what happens when that purpose is stripped away, and the whole process turns into pointless predation? That question is at the core of Le Vendeur, written and directed by Sébastien Pilote. Marcel (Gilbert Sicotte) is the top salesman at a small-town car dealership, a kindly old man who buys rounds of sodas for the garage workers and spends quality time with his daughter and grandson. He’s a fixture in a tight-knit community where the local priest holds an annual blessing of the snowmobiles.
But Pilote reveals that community to be a fragile little thing, utterly dependent on the engine of the economy. The town’s paper mill is the largest employer, and when it shuts down, the repercussions ripple outward. We drop into the narrative 240 days after the shutdown, when economic pressure and desperation have built to a level that cannot be easily ignored. Yet everyone, including Marcel, tries to make a valiant attempt. Like En Terrains Connus, the film organizes itself in sections broken up by titles. They announce the days since shutdown, ratcheting up tension like the piling of snow that blankets the cars at the dealership and sets up the blank slate of existential crisis at the heart of the film.
Sales dry up in the harsh economic climate, and yet Marcel soldiers on, pushing cars and trying to clear the lot, because that is what defines his existence: he’s a salesman. And when one of his customers buckles under the weight of his financial obligations, Marcel can only watch helplessly. “The bank will take care of it,” his boss tells him.
There’s a Wall Street/Main Street connection to be made here, with the decisions of distant and unseen corporations warping and twisting the community. Pilote uses the snowy isolation of the town as a microcosmic bubble where cars and financial news reports come in and nothing seems to get out. Yet for all the embedded commentary on the chasm between people who make things for a living and those who sell them, the film is more interested in the personal and psychological consequences of losing one’s purpose in life.
Sicotte delivers a multilayered portrayal of Marcel, whose charming quirks and chummy glad-handing take on an obsessive, predatory gleam in a different light. We linger with him in simple, joyous moments that carry with them the foreboding sense of impending tragedy, whether through the slow grind of economic inevitability or something quicker and far more drastic. Early on, Marcel jokes, “I’m not dead yet.” But Pilote’s careful lens reveals that death is perhaps just a matter of degree.
Denis Côté’s Curling is also touched by issues of mortality; it’s the most oblique and challenging of the three Québécois offerings, starting with the fact that there’s a relative dearth of curling in the film. Bowling is instead the sport of choice, with the quiet and reserved—I sense a trend here—Jean-François Sauvageau (Emmanuel Bilodeau) working as a maintenance man at a bowling alley in a small Quebec town. He also works at a local motel; that is, until he walks into one of the rooms and sees it drenched in blood. Also, there are dead bodies in the woods.
These aren’t twists or inciting incidents kicking off a suspense plot, and Côté never leads us to believe that there is one. These glimpses of some past off-screen brutality are merely things that we observe without any illumination or exposition, minor detours in the life of Jean-François. That kind of obliqueness is mirrored in his relationship with his 12-year-old daughter, Julyvonne (played by Bilodeau’s real-life daughter, Philomène). She has grown up in relative isolation, living with her father in a country house and learning from random books he brings back. She also seems to have inherited her father’s reserve, though the way she animates to life when playing at the bowling alley—and after discovering those dead bodies—suggests a girl secretly chafing under her father’s restrictive wing.
Their relationship is an atypical one, with an odd energy about it; it’s never overtly exploitative or abusive, yet it’s more than mere paternal overprotectiveness. A scene where he watches her dance to Stacey Q’s “Two of Hearts” is not so much creepy as it is utterly bizarre, as if we’re observing the results of an experiment whose purpose is unknown to us. (Trace a line from this film to Hanna to Dogtooth; there’s a nascent fascination with stories about enigmatic fathers isolating and programming their daughters.)
For all its strangeness, the scene fits right in with Côté’s remote, elliptic style; the landscapes captured in the bleach-bypass palette of snowblindness seem outside of time, and the look of the film cements a sense of surfaces masking internal workings, of seeing without understanding. It always comes back to seeing, back to the eyes. Côté communicates so much not through words but through stares that seem blank—but just like the snow, that blank expanse covers hidden depths. “There’s nothing in her eyes,” someone says of Julyvonne, and yet when we look at her we can’t be entirely sure that’s true. As for Jean-François, a girl who works at the bowling alley tells him that he has sad eyes. They’re eyes that draw us in and push us away. There’s a lot in this film that appears obscure; the relevance of curling, for example. But in those eyes, the one thing that seems so clear and so specific is the quality of that sadness.
When you put together dozens of feature films in the concentrated time and space of a festival, a sense of juxtaposition and convergence develops. Common ground and shared ideas are more visible, and it’s easier to see when two different films are swept up in the same zeitgeist, approaching the same urgent thematic space from different angles. Take, for example, two films—one about Iraq, one about Afghanistan—that examine nations rebuilding in the aftermath of American military incursion, and how the introduction of new values and new sports have changed the lives of women.
Normally one would be well advised to be skeptical of films with puns in their titles, for that is the realm of such gems as Bee Movie and Your Highness. But behind the wordplay of Salaam Dunk, this documentary from American director David Fine tells a simple yet resonant story about women in Iraq. We follow the second-ever season of the women’s basketball team at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani (AUIS). Located in the country’s Kurdish region, the university hews to America’s professed ideals for the country, bringing together Iraqis of all ethnic and religious persuasions and using English as their working language.
Another one of those American ideals seems to be the redemptive power of sports, and Fine structures the piece as a classic sports story. Coach Ryan Bubalo does his best to turn a ragtag group of women, many of whom have never played any sport before, into a cohesive team, and they face fierce competition in the form of elite—and elitist—ball clubs. One game actually hinges on a fateful tie-breaking final-second free throw.
Documentaries have a power of metaphor that in some ways exceeds the reach of fiction because they seem to spring organically from the world, rather than forced from an authorial hand. Here, an Iraq narrative emerges from this narrative about Iraqis, with the progressive American instructors instilling the virtues of pluralism and gender equality in a generation of future leaders. Team manager Safa overcomes her racial prejudices as her role becomes that of team mother, while team captain Laylan finds herself going through emotional ups and down with her teammates. Yet this transient family provides a cathartic experience in dealing with her own history of loss.
The film presents the violence present in Iraq, the violence that claimed the lives of Laylan’s brother and father, as an inescapable fact of history. But unlike the host of other Iraq films, here it is banished to the edges: a brief shot of the university’s military guard, a fleeting misogynistic slap on the court, a tragic story told to a video diary. And yet the university is not Iraq, and we’re made aware that in many ways this story takes place in a protective bubble. While the girls display pride in their school on the basketball court, some of them admit that they’re a bit reluctant to admit back home in Baghdad that they go to the American University.
But while this story is fascinating because of the political context, when Fine plucks the strings of the archetypal sports story, it pushes all the politics aside and encourages us to root for the AUIS team. That’s certainly an easy task, as the coach and all the players come across as a charismatic, endearing bunch of hopefuls striving to build something from nothing. The genius of the sports narrative is its indefatigable capacity to inspire; considering I heard cheering from the theater audience during one of the games, Salaam Dunk might consider that mission accomplished.
A sunrise cutting through the haze overlooking a dusty cityscape, a gang of ragged street kids playing among crumbling buildings and burnt-out military vehicles: These are familiar establishing shots from any number of Afghanistan documentaries. (And Iraq films as well, which speaks to the visual interchangeability between the two spaces to foreign lenses.) Those shots are also in the opening to Skateistan: Four Wheels and a Board in Kabul, from German director Kai Sehr, but here they serve as an incongruous backdrop for the later images of kids on skateboards rolling down the streets of the Afghan capital.
Sehr traces the development and growth of the Skateistan organization, started by Australians Oliver Percovich and Sharna Nolan. It begins as nothing more than showing a few kids’ skateboard tricks in a dried-out fountain, but the group eventually grows into a full-fledged organization; the film captures their ambitions to build a permanent facility. For them, skateboarding is a community-building foundation from which they can provide health and educational services to the kids of Kabul.
At times the MTV-inflected expository opening evokes the feel of a promotional video for the group, but Sehr quickly finds his way into the material by lancing right into the contradictions that Percovich and his people run into as they develop Skateistan. They’re outsiders with open minds trying to build a community out of kids fractured along lines of ethnicity, gender, and social class. The last is personified in Mirwais, a charismatic and rebellious teen that the other street kids look up to. Mirwais impresses Percovich with his dedicated work ethic, but comes with his own set of problems, as when he convinces the other street kids not to take medications offered by Skateistan, or when he displays troubling moments of casual violence and inculcated misogyny.
Skateistan’s role in the lives of young Afghan girls is another avenue explored; we’re informed that skateboarding is the only public sport in the country allowed to girls, and one of the motivations behind the group’s drive to build a permanent indoor facility is so that girls “of marrying age” can participate. While both Salaam Dunk and this film feature interviews with men decrying the practice of girls in sports, here those pronouncements seem to carry a bit more weight as we witness women walking down the streets in full burqa. As Skateistan’s visibility increases, they’re joined by an international team of pro skaters to provide support; one of them, the Dutch-Algerian Louisa Menke, quickly becomes a role model for the girls of the group.
Sehr crafts a strong narrative by making the unfamiliar familiar, but he finds the heart of the story in Percovich, the driving force who keeps the entire enterprise going. Moments where Percovich provides stilted narration (as if reading from a prepared speech) actually come off as endearing; we’re presented with a man who seems uncomfortable with the spotlight but is so animated by passion that he’ll do anything to bolster his cause. It certainly pays off as we see him build a coalition of support from NGOs, government officials, and celebrities. Skateistan is a story of growth and transformation, a structural examination that lets us witness how a small group of people can make their mark on the life of a city.
The Los Angeles Film Festival runs from June 16 – 26. For more information, click here. Expanded coverage of the festival can be found at Oscar Moralde’s at The Hypermodern.
Watch: Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir, Starring Honor Swinton Byrne and Tilda Swinton, Gets First Trailer
Joanna Hogg has been flying under the radar for some time, but that’s poised to change in a big way.
British film director and screenwriter Joanna Hogg, whose impeccably crafted 2013 film Exhibition we praised on these pages for its “disarming mixture of the remarkable and the banal,” has been flying under the radar for the better part of her career. But that’s poised to change in a big way with the release of her latest film, The Souvenir, which won the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Prior to the film’s world premiere at the festival, A24 and Curzon Artificial Eye acquired its U.S. and U.K. distribution rights, respectively. Below is the official description of the film:
A shy but ambitious film student (Honor Swinton Byrne) begins to find her voice as an artist while navigating a turbulent courtship with a charismatic but untrustworthy man (Tom Burke). She defies her protective mother (Tilda Swinton) and concerned friends as she slips deeper and deeper into an intense, emotionally fraught relationship that comes dangerously close to destroying her dreams.
And below is the film’s first trailer:
A24 will release The Souvenir on May 17.
Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Sound Mixing
For appealing to voters’ nostalgia for drunken karaoke nights of yore, one film has the upper hand here.
Given what Eric wrote about the sound editing category yesterday, it now behooves me to not beat around the bush here. Also, it’s my birthday, and there are better things for me to do today than count all the ways that Eric and I talk ourselves out of correct guesses in the two sound categories, as well as step on each other’s toes throughout the entirety of our Oscar-prediction cycle. In short, it’s very noisy. Which is how Oscar likes it when it comes to sound, though maybe not as much the case with sound mixing, where the spoils quite often go to best picture nominees that also happen to be musicals (Les Misérables) or musical-adjacent (Whiplash). Only two films fit that bill this year, and since 2019 is already making a concerted effort to top 2018 as the worst year ever, there’s no reason to believe that the scarcely fat-bottomed mixing of Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody will take this in a walk, for appealing to voters’ nostalgia for drunken karaoke nights of yore.
Will Win: Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody
Could Win: A Star Is Born
Should Win: First Man
Review: That Was Something Lays Bare the Ephemeral Desires of a Lost Youth
By the end, the lesson we’ve learned is that the stories we tell ourselves about the past have always been revised from a previous draft.
Film and theater critic Dan Callahan’s witty debut novel, That Was Something, chronicles the young adulthood of Bobby Quinn, a gay Midwestern transplant who’s just moved from Chicago to Manhattan to attend New York University. Retrospectively, it examines his obsession with the two leading players in the story of his early days in the city in the late 1990s: the enigmatic Ben Morrissey, an irresistible fellow student destined for fame in the art world, and the mysterious Monika Lilac, a dramatic and performative slightly older cinephile whose devotion to silent films is emblematic of her entire character. “I was looking for the keys to the kingdom, and I found them or thought I did in Manhattan screening rooms, in the half-light and the welcoming dark,” Bobby declares to the reader in the novel’s opening, and so begins a provocative—and conspicuously wine-drenched—narrative that serves both as a paean to a bygone era and an emphatic testimony about how we never really leave behind the people, experiences, and places that shape us into who we are in the present.
For a fleeting period of time, the lives of these three characters become intertwined and united by their shared passion for the cinema—and for each other. While Ben and Monika enter into a tumultuous romance, Bobby watches from the sidelines as he privately explores his own sexuality, mostly in dalliances with anonymous older men who he meets at bars in Chelsea, having learned to offer himself up “as a kind of virgin sacrifice.” Throughout, Callahan’s frank descriptions of Bobby’s early sexual experiences are a welcome departure from metaphor, while still seeming almost mythical in the way that Bobby recalls them, just like how all of the liminal moments in our lives—the moments in which we cross a threshold and permanently abandon whoever we had been before—seem to mark our personal histories almost like the transitions between the disparate chapters of a novel.
Bobby has been deeply in love with Ben ever since the two met for the first time in a common area of their shared dormitory at NYU, and Ben keeps Bobby only barely at arm’s length—sexually and otherwise—throughout the dazzling weeks, months, and even years of their relationship as young men. He constantly reminds Bobby that they would probably be lovers if only Ben were gay, which is obviously music to Bobby’s ears, fueling many of his private fantasies. And Bobby is also the prized subject of Ben’s budding photography career, often photographed in the nude, and both the photographs themselves and the act of bringing them into the world blur lines of sexuality and masculinity as the friendship between the two young men deepens and becomes increasingly complex.
Callahan cocoons his characters in what feels like a time capsule, capturing them at their most beautiful and glamorous and then presenting them to us as if on a stage—or on a screen, which the characters in the novel would agree is even more intimate, even more akin to a grab at immortality. Other characters drift in and out of the central narrative in the same way that one-night stands and people we’ve met only at dimly lit parties can sometimes seem blurry and indistinct when we try to recollect them later, but the love story that Bobby is most interested in sharing with the reader is that of a queer young man’s obsession with his larger than life friends during a time when everything for him was larger than life.
Callahan’s previous book, The Art of American Screen Acting: 1912-1960, demonstrates the author’s talent for dissecting the subtlety and nuance of the many nonverbal ways in which the icons of the screen communicate with one another, and here too in That Was Something is close attention paid to the power of performance. The novel is also a story about falling in love with a city, even in retrospect—and even after the version of the city that you originally knew is gone forever. And in the familiar yet always poignant way in which the sights and sounds of a lost New York typically wriggle their way into a novel like this one, the city is at first a backdrop before it inevitably becomes a character.
Monika Lilac hosts a silent film-themed party at her house during which the guests have been cleverly instructed to pantomime their communication to one another rather than speak out loud, and to write out any absolutely necessary dialogue on handmade title cards. At the end of the party, the various revelers—wearing only their underwear, at Monika’s command—all together “streamed out into the night and ran like crazy” through New York City streets while being pummeled from above by heavy rain, not caring at all who was watching. And Bobby, from the vantage point of years in the future, recalls:
In any other place, we might have been harassed, arrested, or the object of wide-eyed stares. Not in Manhattan. And that has its flip side, too. Because Manhattan will let you do whatever you like, at any time of the day or night, but it won’t ever pay attention to you. You can be world famous, and Manhattan still basically doesn’t care, most of the time. And if you aren’t world famous, Manhattan regards you at several ice-slicked levels below indifference. And sometimes, on less wonderful days and nights, some attention might be welcome.
In a blurb on the novel’s back cover, Wayne Koestenbaum describes That Was Something as “The Great Gatsby on poppers,” and there’s definitely something of Nick Carraway in the voice of Bobby Quinn as he looks back at his disappearing New York and the people who populated it, the ghost of a city that disappeared forever the moment he looked away. Callahan’s novel enters the canon of the queer roman a clef—as well as the literary New York novel—by mixing vibrantly realized memories of a fleeting youth, ruminations on the origins of desire, and a deeply felt nostalgia for the way things once were into a cocktail that tastes exactly like growing up and growing older in the same city in which you were once young. And the hangover after a night spent knocking them back in the dim light of a Manhattan dive, as anyone who still occasionally haunts the haunts of his youth can tell you, is always brutal.
Bobby is now many years older as he narrates That Was Something, his desires tempered or at least contained by realistic expectations of how and in what ways they might be satisfied, and his relationships with Ben (now famous) and Monika (now vanished) are either nonexistent or else greatly demoted from the centrality that they had once firmly occupied in the narrative of his life. But there’s still urgency in what Bobby is telling the reader. In the novel’s brilliant final pages, we come to realize that the act of looking back at our younger selves is both masturbatory and transitory, mostly an exercise in framing. Bobby has been explaining how age has made him wistful about his moment in the sun, but then he’s suddenly remembering a fantasy that he once enacted alone one afternoon in his dorm room, back when he was still a virgin—and back when all of his fantasies were about Ben Morrissey:
I entered another place with my mind. It felt like what stepping into the past would feel like now, maybe. It was forbidden, and I was getting away with it. … Looked at from the outside and with unsympathetic eyes, it would be pitiful and grotesque, maybe even laughable. So why am I still so certain that something else occurred?
The lesson we’ve learned by the end of That Was Something is that the stories we tell ourselves about the past have always been revised from a previous draft. Just think of all that film that ends up on the cutting room floor during the editing process, to be forgotten and swept away with the garbage after the best take has been safely delivered. Only with the benefit of hindsight can we wipe away the shame and growing pains of early stabs at love and failed expressions of desire and instead render the past beautifully, artfully, just as the cinematic film frame limits our perspective so that all we can see is what the director has meticulously manufactured specifically for us. The equipment that made the image possible in the first place has been painstakingly concealed, so that all we notice—all we remember—is whatever ends up remaining beneath the carefully arranged spotlight.
Sometimes a great novel, like a great film, can at once transform and transport us, offering a glimpse into a lost world made all the more beautiful by the distance it asks us to travel into our hearts and minds. At the end of one of the last film screenings that Bobby attends in the company of Monika Lilac, she says wistfully to him, “You know, you’re downhearted, and you think, ‘What’s the use?’ and then you see a film like that and it speaks to you and suddenly you’re back in business again!” And the film they’ve been watching, she has just whispered to Bobby as the credits rolled in the emptying theater, was the story of her life.
Dan Callahan’s That Was Something is now available from Squares & Rebels.