It is always in the process of being made. It is never finished; never closed. Perhaps we can imagine space as a simultaneity of stories-so far.
– Doreen Massey1
Can there be such a thing as a progressive “sense of place”, that increasingly ubiquitous euphemism for isolationism and nationalism? In Space, Place, and Gender human geographer and social scientist Doreen Massey contemplates her own neighbourhood, Kilburn High Road in north-west London, as an intersection of overlapping identities, identifying the postboxes tagged with the letters “IRA”, the recent lottery winners “Teressa Gleeson and Chouman Hassan”, a concert at Wembley Arena cordially inviting “all Hindus”, among other culturally disparate phenomenon not unique to the region.2 Massey’s theorisation of space as the dynamic byproduct of interweaving social relations, in other words a simultaneity of stories-so-far, is a useful framework to reconsider the theatre space, the production of space in cinema, and the space of production that constructs the cinematic image.
Now consider the single screening of Blake Williams’ 3D avant-garde film, PROTOTYPE (2017), at the 37th Vancouver International Film Festival. Vancouver has only two arthouses: The Vancouver International Film Centre and the Pacific Cinematheque, neither of which are equipped to exhibit in 3D. Ever since the Granville 7 closed down following the 2012 festival because of rising rents, Cineplex’s monopolisation of cinema exhibition, and Vancouver’s stagnating market for arthouse films, VIFF has made do with the mid-sized theatres in the International Village. The theatre is located a few paces south from Vancouver’s Chinatown and a block down the road from the soon-to-be-demolished Dunsmuir Viaduct, forever preserved in the opening brawl of that estimable Vancouver film: Deadpool.3 So here we are in a venue appropriately described by the longtime writer of this dispatch, Bérénice Reynaud, as “one of these modern atrocities, a multi-screen theatre buried in a shopping mall, with a substandard food court.”4
In 1900, a hurricane swept through Galveston, Texas, levelling the coastal town; the aftermath is preserved in staggering stereographs that open Williams’ film. From here, multiple free-flowing movements: a levitating, futuristic televisual device displays visual artefacts ranging from ‘30s science films to contemporary Lexus commercials; a spiralling wave swooshes off the screen in beams of obfuscating and disorienting light (shot at the Camera Obscura in San Francisco, California); and lastly, digital colour images, redolent of the low-grade video of late Godard, re-establish the image in a fixed time and in a known place. The film is perennially undetermined; invention gives way to corruption, utopian aspirations to apocalyptic destructions: an ever-morphing form that moves from representation to varying levels of abstraction, a film that breaks apart at the very moments it begins to cohere, and a 3D medium that has historically remained in its prototypical stage.
Like watching the Crisis of Representation in real time, PROTOTYPE follows the birth, death and reconstitution of the image, from initial verisimilitude – the 3D serving the documentational qualities of the image – to the final digital passage – highly aestheticised and removed from the initial point of trauma in Galveston. You can read this as a meditation on memory, or even an analysis on our changing relationship to moving images (from a “cinema of attractions” to one that demands narrative cogency); Williams, however, is more interested in playing a game with our critical faculties, demonstrating our broader, culturally-trained desire for narrative, like a title card that inexplicably says “Some weeks later” in a film where diegetic time is utterly meaningless, or the ‘50s Philco screens that are the anachronistic basis for the film’s futuristic sci-fi media-space. In the ongoing debate about the value of subtlety or the “objectivity” of a subjective affectual response to an artwork, PROTOTYPE lands smack in the middle, asking the viewer to make sense of it analytically through the clear progression of styles and formats while tranquilising her into a state of fugue-euphoria.
PROTOTYPE is one of eight feature films in Future//Present, a program curated by Adam Cook devoted to emerging, independent Canadian filmmakers. The series has become something of a cause since its inauguration in 2016: for a festival whose Canadian program contributed to the production-value-as-tradition-of-quality ethos in our national cinema, Cook’s selections are radical correctives. Unlike Sundance, Cannes or any other major stop in the year-long festival circuit, VIFF is primarily covered, supported and attended by locals, and as such, never becomes sections of the city but takes place within them. The majority of the program is constructed to the tastes of an older built-in audience, and of course, the local industry that indirectly and directly supports the festival, especially on the Canadian side. Over the years, an unofficial contract between VIFF-goers and the festival’s programmers has developed: that every year there will be a cornucopia of issue-driven info docs; multiple Canadian or BC films aping already mediocre Hollywood genre fare; and most of the award-winning titles from Sundance, Cannes and Berlin – a relatively recognisable formula for most second-tier Canadian film festivals. Future//Present, like all the other programs in the festival, is not contained to any single venue or time of day, and it remains unclear whether the general viewing public consciously distinguishes between the series and the rest of the Canadian program as separate but complementing entities. The extent to which a two-week local arts event can leave any noticeable imprint on these spaces is highly questionable, but just as it would be unproductive to evaluate any work of art by its social utility, so too is it a useless exercise with a film festival. It doesn’t, however, seem like a stretch that such an event is capable of altering how attendees approach the festival space and their attitude towards it.
The program’s greatest success in 2016 was discovering the cinema of Sofia Bohdanowicz, whose Emerging Director award-winning debut feature Never Eat Alone (2016) had its world premiere in Future//Present after it was rejected by the Toronto International Film Festival. In Bohdanowicz’s cinema, often heavily indebted to Chantal Akerman, household objects preserve private emotions; when one generation passes and another takes its place, these domestic spaces, culinary utensils and interior arrangements are the lasting image-histories of family matriarchs, bridging their presence to their impending absence. It’s a form that requires a level of submissiveness, a patient curiosity for the work’s naked emotion to casually reveal itself.
Sofia5 tells us in the opening minutes of her new film Maison du bonheur (2017) that the last time she was in France a trauma permanently imprinted itself on her consciousness. When she returns years later to make a film about Juliane – a Parisian astrologer unknown to Sofia upon arrival – it is an opportunity to “create new memories”, erasing whatever pain was there in the first place (we never do find out what it is). Maison du bonheur has two levels, though one is somewhat of a diversion: a glamorous slice of Gallic life with glistening 16mm images (shot on a Bolex), detailing an older woman’s simple pleasantries – her resilient joie de vivre, her ritualised routine, and her accumulation of exotic goods; and a deeper study of ahistorical memory – the stories not told, pains not probed. As documentarian and personal essayist, Sofia is respectful and reserved; she and Juliane evince only what they are comfortable with, and although we never sense a deep bond between the two, their relationship is not the asymmetrical one of “documentarian” and “subject”. By allowing Juliane to tell her story in her own words, Bohdanowicz foregrounds the process by which her existence is self-consciously ordered and arranged. In non-diegetic voiceover, Juliane tells us what the images – isolated shots of things like shoes, pastries and flowers – mean, ostensibly eliminating all pain and anxiety from the construction of her own identity. To call this technique “deconstruction” is too strong and harsh for what is actually done here: this is not an attack on Representation in an abstract sense, but a study of the ways in which people represent themselves to others, and more crucially, what they choose to not represent.
Two of Future//Present’s finer selections come from Cape Breton Island, a region on the eastern end of Nova Scotia currently facing rapid migration and a dire economic crisis. When the coal mines that originally fuelled the island’s labour market closed in the early 2000s due to withering demand and increasingly prevalent environmental protection laws, subsequent attempts to transition into a post-industrial economy left residents out of work, heading to the country’s urban metropoles, and taking crucial public infrastructural funding with them.6 This was the context for Ashley McKenzie’s formally rigorous Werewolf (2016), about two addicts on the province’s methadone recovery program who are doing everything they can to scrape a few bucks together and get the hell out of there. The protagonist in Winston DeGiobbi’s Mass for Shut-Ins (2017), KJ (Charles William McKenzie), has a hard enough time getting off his couch and across town, but when his computer breaks down and his grandfather Loppers is too broke to fix it, this is precisely what he does: leave his home for the first time in who knows how long to navigate the lightly populated expanse on foot. While cars, the only way to efficiently navigate the space, whizz by as volatile abstractions, KJ is stuck in purgatorial flux; bingo games play on infinite loop, banal encounters at the convenience store provide no escape, and locals appear to KJ as if they’re from another country entirely. Time overlaps, flashes forward, circles back on itself; characters are introduced before we know who they are and why they’re relevant, while KJ and those around him live in isolated simultaneity for potential eternities.
The second film from Cape Breton is an entirely different treatise of the region. Jacquelyn Mills’ In the Waves (2017), a mix of impressionism and formalist documentary, implicitly explores Cape Breton’s economic cycles through elliptical depiction of the island’s natural ephemera, exchanging the inky, grungy look of Mass for Shut-Ins for a more picturesque and sublime portrait of the landscape. While Joan, the director’s grandmother, contemplates her life and forthcoming death after the passing of her sister, the entire outside world undergoes natural change – summer to winter – and irrevocable cultural shifts – local folk music to LMFAO’s “Sexy and I Know It”. As Joan prepares for the afterlife, the island – culturally, economically, industrially – is suspended between worlds and generations: the very old, passing away in the time it takes Joan to thumb through the local newspaper; and the young, crawling toward a future portended by pyramid scheme ads emanating from Joan’s TV. Like the other films in the bourgeoning Nova Scotia New Wave, In the Waves is a part of its region’s “stories-so-far”, interceding in economic forces well beyond its capacity to change, whether this is considered a work of cultural activism, or not.
Just as Future//Present has made space for an emerging generation of Canadian filmmakers in Vancouver by fulfilling a lack in the regional film culture, the Dragons and Tigers program found a home here in part because of the support of the city’s significant Asian diasporic populations. In 2013, twenty years after its inaugural year, the sidebar competition for Young Asian Cinema that had introduced filmmakers like Jia Zhangke, Bong Joon-ho, Hong Sangsoo, Lee Chang-dong, Hirokazu Koreeda, and many, many others to the West was discontinued. In its place came a more general Best New Director Award, which was admonished shortly after its introduction without anyone really noticing. Then, this year, in the same press release as the D&T lineup, it was announced that the original architect of this series, East Asian programmer and British critic Tony Rayns, would be retiring from the post he’d held since 1989, ending an era for VIFF. D&T continues to be curated by Chinese film scholar Shelly Kraicer, as he has done since Rayns was eased of some of his duties since 2007, and a host of other international programmers including Pochu Auyeung and Mark Peranson. But now that the East Asian programming of many festivals like Locarno and TIFF have caught up with VIFF, many of these films have their international premiere elsewhere, then arrive in Vancouver – which is in itself a testament to the impact Rayns has had on the global infrastructure for East Asian cinema in the West.
Xu Xin’s oneiric A Yangtze Landscape (2017), which premiered at Cinema du Réel earlier this year, joins the program’s long lineage of challenging, emerging East Asian cinema. For 156 minutes of slow Slow Cinema floating the lengths of the eponymous river from Shanghai to the source in the Tibetan Plateau, Xu documents the impact of urbanisation on the regions forgotten behind. A Yangtze Landscape began as a behind-the-scenes featurette for Chang jian tu (Crosscurrent, Yang Chao, 2016), and by having that film’s fictional figures and incidents freely roam in and out of this one, a supposedly non-narrative and non-fictional landscape film, Xu is gesturing not only towards the subjectivity of his own practice, thereby undermining the dogmas of the Sixth Generation’s independent documentary and their quasi-manifesto, My Camera Doesn’t Lie, 7 but also going one step further, asking: how can one engage with histories that no longer participate in physical dimensions? Do fictions have to be invented to fill in these gaps? Like in the director’s debut feature documentary which was banned in Mainland China, Karamay (2010), about a fire that killed 288 children and no government authorities during a performance for educational delegates, A Yangtze Landscape contemplates history through its systematic erasure. In one of the film’s other reoccurring formal gestures, tragedies that transpired along the Yangtze coastline over the last few years are recounted in titles transposed onto the image and landscape, a synecdoche for the country itself. Xu recovers a part of what has been lost: associational memories tied to a landscape that otherwise appears vacant and vapid.
Nattawut Poonpiriya’s New York Asian Film Festival best feature winner Bad Genius, another Dragons and Tigers highlight – this one from Thailand – is a high-stakes caper about high-schoolers writing tests, done without a wink of irony. The friendship of Lynn, a poor but prodigious student, and Grace, a lousy student who happens to be rich, follows the simple logic of supply and demand – Lynn needs money, Grace needs good grades. When this spirals into a class-wide cheating ring, a cash cow for Lynn who wouldn’t otherwise be able to keep up with her private school’s questionable “maintenance fees”, she is outed and the school revokes her scholarship. Her only option left is to beat capitalism at its own game: to go global. As the international standardised test looms (something like an SAT), Grace and her equally rich and stupid boyfriend are once again in a bind. Lynn recruits her poor and equally smart pupil, Bank, in a heist scenario that has them taking the test in Australia and relaying the answers through a cell phone in the bathroom during the break. Poonpiriya has full faith in this story’s stakes, and he liberally deploys slow-motion shots and expository montages as if this were Ocean’s Eleven, essentially saying that for Lynn and Bank a false stroke on a scantron is as big as blowing a trans-national heist.
And finally, the coup of the festival came in the form of a risky and unique Special Presentation: The Green Fog (Guy Maddin, Evan Johnson, Galen Johnson, 2017). The film was initially commissioned by the San Francisco Film Festival to celebrate its 60th anniversary but re-exhibited in Vancouver with live musical accompaniment from the Kronos Quartet in a simulacrum of its world premiere. For this quasi-commemoration to the Bay area’s image-history, there is perhaps no better venue than Vancouver, a city that barely has one. Ultimately, one’s “sense of place” in the festival context is defined by that previously identified triptych – the theatre space, the production of space in cinema, and the space of production that constructs the cinematic image – bringing into focus the interweaving social relations between the audience and the films chosen for us. In this way, VIFF is the closest thing we have to Green Fog; it’s a chance to contemplate Vancouver’s stories-so-far through the movies we watch and an event that is influenced by the history and structures of the region it takes place in.
Here’s the idea: using de-contextualised clips from various films and television serials shot in San Francisco over the years, the Winnipeg trio stitch together a collage that roughly resembles Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958). Green Fog condenses the Bay area’s pop-culture history – and the history of the region as represented in pop-culture – into 63 minutes of suggestive looks and truncated reactions: images staring at images staring at images. The Vertigo frame makes this moderately readable at the level of “plot” for around 20 minutes or so. We have the opening rooftop scene (the shot of Jimmy Stewart’s hand gripping the ladder the only actual one from Vertigo included), Madeleine’s trip to the art gallery, and her “attempted suicide” madly patched together in an appropriated montage wholly the Winnipeg trio’s own. As with The Forbidden Room (2015), Maddin and Evan Johnson’s previous feature-length collaboration, Green Fog propels us into subterranean depths of films-within-films, eventually getting us so far below the ground level that we lose track of where we are and precisely how we got there. Ultimately, there is no way out: the plot we first latched onto short-circuits and the work gets lost in its own haze of digital overload. Maddin and the Johnsons aren’t so much altering Hitchcock’s thematic paradigm as they are shifting its point of emphasis: Scotty’s mad efforts to recreate a fictional woman become a perpetual struggle to maintain a beautified image of the city; one story explodes into a dizzying and incomprehensible simultaneity encompassing many others.
Vancouver International Film Festival
28 September – 13 October 2017
Festival website: https://www.viff.org/Online/
- Doreen Massey, For Space, SAGE Publications, London, 2005, p. 9. ↩
- Doreen Massey, Space, Place, and Gender, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1994, pp. 146-156. ↩
- There’s even a brief section on the viaduct’s Wikipedia page devoted to it! https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Georgia_Viaduct#Deadpool_filming. ↩
- Bérénice Reynaud, “Killer in the Rain: The Vancouver International Film Festival”, Senses of Cinema, Issue 69, 2013. ↩
- I’m using her first name to distinguish her persona in the film from her role as director. ↩
- The Donkin Mine reopened earlier this year after 15 years, stirring much debate but doing little to kick the economy back into gear. Michael MacDonald and Michael Tutton, “Cape Breton’s Underground Coal Mining Returns After 15 Years”, CTV, 2017. ↩
- To the best of my knowledge, this book hasn’t yet been translated into English. Yingjin Zhang provides a helpful description in Cinema, Space, and Polylocality in a Globalizing China, University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu, p. 109. ↩