Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Adam Hartzell on Curling

Two weeks ago I took a two-day jaunt away from Frisco Bay, down to Hollywood to watch six films at the AFI Fest. I got to see Pedro Almodóvar and Antonio Banderas introduce my favorite of their collaborations, Law Of Desire at the famous Grauman's Chinese (digitally- the only dint on my first trip inside this genuine movie palace), and see five films new enough not to have reached Frisco Bay yet, including the latest films by Chantal Akerman, Alexander Sokurov, Hong Sangsoo, and Béla Tarr. All four of these were excellent (Sokurov's Faust less decidedly so than the other three) and I hope and expect to get chances to re-watch them with local audiences some time next year, assuming local film programmers are wise enough to bring them to town.

I also saw the California premiere of
Silver Bullets, one of the half-dozen features the prolific young director Joe Swanberg has completed since his third one Hannah Takes The Stairs played here nearly four years ago. If Silver Bullets (my own first encounter with his directing work) is at all typical, I can understand why he polarizes audiences (and perhaps programmers as well); though there's evidence of conceptual brilliance, it's overshadowed by a half-heartedness of execution that asserts itself as a visual style. Or perhaps in place of one.

I believe I keep track of the Frisco Bay screening scene well enough to assert that Canadian DIY director Denis Côté's exhibition history here is on track to becoming the mirror image of Swanberg's. If the latter's work has been absent from local screens after seeing his first three films brought to town, Côté has had a steady increase in global acclaim for his first five films, none of which have shown locally. Finally, he broke through when his fascinating short
Les Lignes Ennemies screened earlier this year at Yerba Buena Center For The Arts (which has a terrific December-January lineup by the way). And this week (for only one and a half more days, "thanks" to the holiday Thursday) his latest feature Curling is playing New People Cinema. I saw it in Toronto last Fall, and can highly recommend it, but my friend Adam Hartzell is much more attuned to particulars of the cinema of Canada, so I'm proud to host his review here on my blog. Adam:

In my continuing project to companion books with films, I found reason to read André Loiselle's Cinema as History: Michel Brault and Modern Quebec before the San Francisco Film Society's week long run of Denis Côté's Curling at their new home in the New People theatre. The retrospective of director and director of photography Michel Brault's work at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley in March of 2006 made me a huge fan of Brault specifically and solidified my interest in French-Canadian cinema generally. Loiselle's book would have been required reading for that retrospective, but since it was published in 2007 by the Toronto International Film Festival Group, adding it to my personal syllabus was impossible without breaking laws of physics. So Loiselle’s excellent book on Quebec’s history and Quebec Cinema’s history as told through the work of Michel Brault became the reading rock I slid towards the house of the wider cinematic sheet that is Cote’s Curling.
Loiselle's argument is that Brault has "never ceased to reflect, and reflect on, Quebec society" (page 182) as consistently, prominently, and for as long as any other Quebec filmmakers. With a couple exceptions (which Loiselle notes being the topics of queer culture and the media panopticon that made themselves present in Quebec cinema of the 80's and 90's), Brault was involved in echoing and projecting every major aspect of Quebec history activating during his time behind the camera - from early commercial cinema (Little Aurore, the Martyr Child, on which Brault was assistant director to Jean-Yves Bigras) to the emerging direct cinema (Les Raquetteurs with Gilles Groulx and the classic Of Whales, the Moon and Men, with Pierre Perrault); onward to auteur cinema (Mon Oncle Antoine, directed by Claude Jutra); to the rise of feminist cinema (Scream from Silence, directed by Anne Claire Poirier); to delayed acknowledgment of non-Quebec, francophone populations in Canada 9Éloge du Chiac) and Quebecois minorities (Les Noces de papier, Paper Wedding); and finally to the shift from film to digital cinema (his 2002 film La Manic). Denis Côté's Curling reflects what appears to be a recent evolution of Quebec Cinema that Brault would possibly have touched on himself were he still making films - the sadness of the suburban, exurban enclaves of Quebec in the age of the post-peak oil slide, something that can resonate throughout similar establishments in North America.
Curling follows the claustrophobic and creepy disturbing life of Jean-François that he imposes on his 12-year-old daughter Julyvonne (played by the real-life father-daughter team of Emmanuel and Philomene Bilodeau). We are first exposed to the prison around both our characters when Julyvonne is told she has astigmatism and that she must have realized something was wrong by not seeing the chalkboard at school. It is here we learn she doesn’t attend school. And it is here that her father is brought into the frame and focus is retained on him while Julyvonne, in the center of the image, becomes slightly blurry, offering a wonderful moment of breaking the fourth wall so we can better identify with Julyvonne’s plight while metaphorically visualizing through an astigmatic image the askew view her father nests Julyvonne within. The rest of the film develops this dysfunctional world Jean-François has created for himself and his daughter while other individuals, such as his bosses and co-workers, try to pull him out of his paranoia and open up the world to him and his daughter. The title of the film relates to the brief moments in a curling club where Jean-François finally gets, as Côté puts it in an interview with Jason Anderson in the Fall 2010 issue of Cinemascope, “a spark in his eye”. Curling the movie extends the arguments in the book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community where Robert D. Putnam describes the decline in ‘social capital’ or the active civil engagement that makes for strong democracies, by having Jean-François working in a bowling alley and later discovering a brighter social world in the heavily lit dome of a curling club. “People ask me,” says Côté in that same interview, “’Why curling?’ Well, first of all, curling is a collective sport, so he could get closer to his community if he would curl.” Côté clutters this cinematic curling house with several stones obstructing Jean-François from making better choices for himself and his daughter, but it’s a different type of curling that finally further feeds the initial spark in Jean-François‘ eyes.
There is a striking similarity in the winter scenes of the abandoned economy of this Quebec town to the one we found in the excellent debut film The Salesman by Sébastien Pilote at this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival, where it deservedly won the FIPRESCI Prize. Both these films highlight the ennui and socially-distant communities we have created through our cheap-oil-fueled, car-dependent housing developments beyond our denser, socially-networking urban centers. Marcel Lévesque (played powerfully by Gilbert Sicotte), as a successful car salesman, represents the person who thinks he’s benefited from this community that cheap oil built in The Salesman, whereas Jean-François is, from the very beginning, the self-perpetuating victim of this development of isolated housing. (After the visit to the eye doctor, Jean-François is actually ‘pulled over’ by a cop for not driving, as if being without a car is suspect. Whereas part of the plot of The Salesman is Lévesque pushing greater car dependency and financial ruin on a soon to be laid-off factory worker.) This is one of the developments in Quebec cinema that can resonate with those of us outside of Quebec who are experiencing the social isolation our suburbs and exurbs cause, either for ourselves, or for our elders who have retired within these cul-de-sac-ing mazes that falsely pass for community. And this is one of the developments in Quebec cinema Brault may have touched on were he still behind the camera in some way in the same way he chronicled the history of Quebec in the era of cheap oil.

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