Thursday, February 4, 2010

Adam Hartzell on Three Canadian Indies

Film festival season has started again here in Frisco. Last week I spent the majority of my evenings at Noir City, taking in a personal-best fifteen of the twenty-four films programmed. I've been letting a wrap-up piece slowly broil, but in the meantime I highly recommend the coverage of the festival by Max Goldberg, Michael Guillén, and the indefatigable Odienator, who wrote stimulating reviews of nearly every film in the program for the newly-redesigned House Next Door blog, and is now posting daily Black History Mumf entries at Big Media Vandalism. Makes me feel like a slacker when it comes to writing...

Luckily I have a compatriot here at Hell On Frisco Bay who helps me pick up the slack. As my life gets busier in February, I'm not likely to be able to see (much less write about) the films programmed at the festivals currently underway: the Ocean Film Festival, the African Film Festival, or the Mostly British Film Festival and IndieFest, both of which begin tonight. Reliably, Adam Hartzell has stepped into the breach, previewing three Canadian films programmed at the latter event this week and next. Here's Adam:

This year's SF IndieFest provides the opportunity to watch three films from a country's cinema often kept from us in the States, Canada. And whether planned or not, they've spread the Canadiana out across three different provinces - Manitoba, Ontario, and Quebec.

Manitoba's contribution is Zooey & Adam (Dir. Sean Garrity). The film begins pleasantly enough, but quickly takes a horrifying turn, well-executed in its direction to disturb. In order to avoid giving this major plot point and its impact away, let me say that the scene takes place in the dark, reminding me of a comment made by Iranian director Jafir Panahi. He said he did not feel confident choreographing violence, choosing in The Circle to have the violence take place behind a closed door, making the scene all the more frightening because of its visible absence. Garrity does the same thing here by not showing us exactly what's happening as the characters scream in horror at a scene taking place in only our own minds. An interesting story follows about how a couple tries to stay together after the trauma.
The film's impact is limited by the jaunty Indie editing style of scenes spliced together from different cuts. I don't know if there is a term for this particular editing style, but here's an example of what I'm talking about. We have the characters in a heated argument and then we quickly jump to them in silence and notice that their posture and position within the same room is noticeably different from before the cut. At one point, the heated argument jumps to them quickly resolving their differences. This disjointed editing style can sometimes add to a film, but here the scenes occasionally feel as if Garrity is making do with what he has, something low-budget directors have to learn to handle expertly. In spite of this and some other poorly orchestrated scenes, the film still carries one through an anguishing, fairly compelling story.
Ontario's offering primarily takes place in a small town well outside of Toronto. (Toronto’s main signification in the film is a bird's eye shot of two of the characters near a Bay Street sign, Bay Street being Canada's Wall Street.) The music throughout Point Traverse (Dir. Albert Shin) and the gorgeous images of landscapes provide nice meditative breaks. As for the story, we follow three childhood friends as they establish ennui in young adulthood. One manages a fast food chicken joint. One sleepwalks from street life to a janitorial job to a relationship with a Russian immigrant escaping a life best left behind as well. And the a third, a character Shin decided not to develop as fully, is hinted to be the man-child of the bunch. When the story drags, the music and landscape images make up for what‘s otherwise not working. When the story works, it’s a nice meditation on young adulthood in a nowhere town, trying to find somewhere to go amidst the nowhere.
As usual when we talk about Canadian cinema, the best of the bunch comes from Quebec. West of Pluto is directed by Myriam Verreault and Henry Bernadet and although it includes the clichéd 'loss of virginity as bad experience' trope of the more serious teen films, the rest of this narrative is truly a breath of fresh, francophonic air. It begins with a montage of the teens we will spend the rest of the film with giving class speeches about their passions. (One of the characters gives his passion-speech about, of all things, peanut butter, which foreshadows that this kid lacks direction.) With such a wide cast of characters, the concise development is fairly well accomplished. The title comes from the fact that these kids live in a suburb where several streets are named after planets and the fact that one student’s passion is for Pluto. Interspersed throughout the narrative is footage of NASA preparing for the launch of a rocket to survey Pluto, launched only a few months before Pluto would lose its planet status. (With the dropping of Pluto, if you’re wondering what does My Very Educated Mother Just Serve Us Now, a quick Google search suggests it turns out she‘s no longer serving nine pizzas, but just 'Nachos'.) The story is simple and progresses to a teenage party gone wrong. But outside of the loss-of-virginity cliché mentioned earlier, the many ways in which this party goes wrong don‘t leave me feeling as if I've attended a party (or after-party) like this one before. Along with the French spoken, an animated debate on Quebec sovereignty and a late night munchies satiation at a poutine stand keep this film marked as clearly from Quebec. But the stories of youthful identity-searching, with authentic, mean-spirited actions tempering any overly romantic John Hughesian themes, allows for universals of youth to be taken from a clearly Canadian film.


  1. Makes me feel like a slacker when it comes to writing...

    In my best Schultz voice: "I know nothing. I hear nothing. I see nothing."

  2. It was really nice to run into you at two different screenings recently. I hope that is the sign of many run-ins to come during the year.