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Saturday, April 14, 2018

Indian Horse

Dolby Sound is a vital force in this film. The narrative is framed — beginning and end — by unseen people around the theatre speaking as if before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. That was established to explore Canada’s historic abuse of its indigenous citizens — from the notorious Catholic schools to the current injustice in the treatment of natives, especially the women. 
When the film narrative unfurls it’s the hero’s own long and cripplingly suppressed story of his suffering. The surround sound voices put us in the committee, make us a witness and potentially a sharer of the speaker’s horrid experience. That stereo adds to the immediacy of Richard Wagamese’s source novel. 
The story is so riveting and the social predicament it exposes so compelling that one can suspend ordinary judgments upon such things as the acting, the narrative rhythm, the emotional manipulation. The cause justifies the means. 
All three actors who play Saul at various ages hold us, from the child’s innocence through the adolescent’s promising success to the adult’s defeat. The climactic revelation of the six-year-old’s exploitation provides an unexpected and summary shock. 
Wagamese celebrates Canada’s indigenous culture and spirituality in the face of its national oppression. The film does both his fine work and Canada’s shame justice.  

Friday, April 13, 2018

Ostalgie (reprint)


Ostalgie on film


Trying to keep a loved one shielded from a painful truth - a reality that is considered too immense to bear - is one of the oldest family games there is. In the world of cinema, such deceptions have been explored for touching comic effect in numerous guises - Life Is Beautiful, Truman, La Cage aux Folles, to name only a few. But beyond the comedy, of course, are the larger social issues, with the central question of why anything should be so unacceptable. Germany's Good Bye Lenin! explores the final collapse of a world into which untold millions had invested more than just their lives, and which - despite its own best efforts - was unable to crush entirely its people's bitter-sweet affection for it. 
THIS ECCENTRIC FAMILY DRAMA explores the mixed blessing of East Germany's post-Wall world. Wolfgang Becker's two-hour serio-comedy has been hailed as a symptom of the new Germany's Ostalgie, a sweeping nostalgia for the dismal products of the old German Democratic Republic. With the pull of old roots and dissatisfaction with the storied glories of the West, apparently many Germans yearn for the old system - or at least for part of the dingy charm they carved out within it. 
It is East Germany, 1989, and the devoutly communist Christiane Kerner (Katrin Sass) suffers a heart attack when her son Alex (Daniel Bruhl) is brutally arrested at a political demonstration on the fortieth anniversary of the GDR. When she awakens from a coma eight months later, of course, the unimaginable has come to pass. Alex finds himself protecting his mother and her weak heart from the potentially fatal disappointment of learning that her world is gone and unlamented. The Berlin Wall is down, her socialist dream is dead, and the Germanys are reunited. But Alex carries on as if East Germany is not just surviving but thriving. He is begrudgingly aided in this increasingly elaborate subterfuge by his sister Ariane (Maria Simon) and her new West German lover Rainer (Alexander Beyer). 
The film's exclamatory title is ironic, as if inviting the punch line Hello, Dolly! West German Becker even questions at times whether East Germany is the better for its absorption into the wide world of capitalism and rampant consumerism. In one scene at a bank, the Western bureaucracy of power proves as heartless as that of the old totalitarianism. The East's "working class heroes" begin to suffer unemployment in the social upheaval; Alex loses his job but in a draw wins a new one hustling satellite dishes. The fixer of old television sets now peddles the latest in high-tech, wide open communication - for better or worse. His first "cultural discovery" is a buxom stripper in onanistic lather (while ballet is no longer televised). The West is represented by surreal icons like a Big Bird strolling the supermarket aisles and a profusion of tantalizing car dealerships, billboards, and banners. Though "our drab corner store had turned into a gaudy shopper's paradise" in which "the customer is king," it somehow is unable to provide the Ossies' traditional needs. 
Christiane comes to personify the socialist ideal. And that ideal remains at least a theoretical alternative to capitalism's avarice, selfishness, and consumerism - what the GDR used to disdain as Konsumterror. For even now, the trouble with socialism is what G.K. Chesterton famously remarked is the trouble with Christianity: it has never been tried. 
To protect his mother's cherished sense of idealism, Alex wages a war between sign systems, between stories. He scrounges to obtain jars of the obsolete Spreewald pickles she craves, the inferior Mocca Fix coffee, and old GDR jam jars into which he pours the sundry jams of the West. Assured by the old familiar labels, she doesn't notice the improvement, especially in the coffee and the Dutch gherkins. The family's brand-new furniture is dumped, and their discarded old Eastern Bloc furnishings retrieved (when Christiane's old bed supplants Rainer's tanning machine, one false appearance replaces another). 
While Alex's satellites beam in the outside world, he labours to keep it from his mother. To sate her craving for current TV broadcasting, he replays tapes of old news programs. Whenever Christiane catches so much as a glimpse of the new reality, Alex and his colleague Denis (Florian Lukas) quickly counter with fake TV transmissions. To explain away a large banner advertising Coca-Cola, Denis reports that East Germany has proved that it, in fact, invented the soft drink. With its own injunction ("Trink"), the red Coke banner has replaced the scarlet communist banners that festooned the early scenes of the film. When Christiane glimpses the bustling crowds and new material wealth outside her apartment, a fake newscast explains that the GDR has granted asylum to hordes of refugees from the West who have realized that they prefer East German values. Reflecting on his tiny media empire, Alex notes that his version of events is more generous than that of the old regime: "The GDR I created for her increasingly became the one I might have wished for." 
In her delusion, Christiane seems frozen against a changing world and within a growing family. Alex begins an affair with Lara (Chulpan Khamatova), Christiane's Russian student nurse in the hospital. The grandchild Paula grows. And gradually, with their Russian and West German lovers, Christiane's children come to represent another dissolution of old borders. 
But Christiane has been harbouring her own family lie, and she will suffer a second heart attack when she unburdens herself. She has long claimed that her husband abandoned his family and nation for another woman. In reality, she had promised to follow him to the West, but did not because of her fear for her children and her dedication to communism. And for years she has been keeping from them his many letters. Revealing this sustaining lie sinks her. When she asks to see the love of her life one last time before she dies, Alex seeks out his father Robert (Burghart Klaussner) - now a successful Wessie with a new family - and brings him to Christiane's bedside. And Christiane realizes at last that she should have endured Robert's Western life to preserve her family. 
It is also worth noting that Alex finds his father in Wannsee, the Berlin suburb where Hitler's top officials formalized their Final Solution for the Jews. As a national emblem of guilt, this unassuming place symbolizes the nation's and the family's need to confront their past, especially their betrayals and lies. The allusion asserts the need to acknowledge history, to confront the mythopoeia by which nations - and families - sustain themselves. 
In the film's climactic irony, Lara - who has long argued that Alex's campaign of deception is "creepy" and profoundly dishonest - tells Christiane the truth just before Robert arrives, girded to maintain her delusion. 
When Alex enters, Christiane looks between him and Lara, as if trying to decide which one to believe. When Alex plays his last bogus newscast, proclaiming the East's triumphant absorption of the West, Christiane watches her son's face more than the tape. Realizing that Alex's Big Lie has been a manifestation of the deep love he feels for her - and even for the ideal of socialism that existed within her, if not within her beloved GDR - she performs her own act of love and deceit, rewarding all his efforts by pretending to believe the broadcast. Her exclamation "wow" is directed less at the news than at the scope of her son's labour to reassure and protect her. As Lara does not reveal what she said to Christiane, her son will always believe that his mother died comforted by his elaborate ruse. He wrongly declares, "My mother outlived her GDR by three days." But in fact she knew it was gone. He, in turn, is comforted by the fantasy that she passed away surrounded by a tiny part of the country in which she believed. Lara and Christiane serve Alex as he served Christiane. 
Part of this film's charm is found in the camera strategies that cleverly represent the power of subjectivity. Becker plays with time when he speeds up the frantic action of Alex and Denis restoring Christiane's room and when he turns East Berlin's new motor traffic into an dazzling abstraction of lights. Alex's detention scene opens with the prisoners appearing to be lying down, their arms comfy above their heads. A 45-degree rotation reveals the harsher reality: they are forced to stand that way. 
Becker's parable of domestic sacrifice and loss, of painful truth and salutary deception, encapsulates the new Germany's ambivalent progress. Old divisions persist. "You East Germans are never satisfied. Always whining and complaining," Rainer charges Alex. As Becker's fiction includes old newspaper headlines and TV and documentary footage, this family represents the reunited country in all its questionable advance. 
Clearly this film strikes different chords wherever it plays. Its ambivalence finds in Germany the same bittersweet that Russian Premier Putin has expressed of his transformed nation: "Anyone who doesn't regret the collapse of the Soviet Union has no heart, but anyone who wants it restored has no brain." When Lara saves Alex from choking on an apple we're reminded that we Westerners are not living in any Eden. The divided and the reunited Germanys are both flawed attempts at social organization, heavily dependent on myths to brighten the real conditions of living. And so for all of us. 
THE FRACTURES, generosity and love in this family reflect well beyond Europe, as does the film's sense of the myths that nations, families, even individuals, contrive to sustain themselves. We've had this lesson often before - from Big Daddy's unwitting crutch of "mendacity" to Jack Nicholson's "You can't handle the truth!" But rarely with such compassion.

Eastwood's "Unforgiven" (Reprint)

Negotiating the loner [Critique of Western movies] Queen's Quarterly; Kingston Vol. 105, Iss. 4,  (Winter 1998): 543-555


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Perhaps the basic paradox in American culture is the tension between its rhetoric of individualism and its practise of conformity. Certainly this lies behind Will Rogers' observation that "Liberty doesn't work as well in practice as it does in speeches." That note is far likelier to emerge from America than from, say, France, where the good citizens, leaders, and thinkers are better known to take liberty as -- and liberties with -- a basic convention of conduct. Compare, for example, the public acceptance of President Mitterrand's mistress with the brouhaha-ha when President Clinton made the presumably dyslexic discovery that you can get sex even from protected aides. 
The paradox is most clearly caught in how America treats its favourite myth -- the solitary hero. Across the American film landscape -- in the Western, the musical, the gangster film, the political thriller, the comedy -- the star is a loner trapped between conflicting necessities of individualism and community. In fact, that tension lies even at the core of Hollywood itself, given its historical basis on the star system. The American film industry -- and hence its rhetoric -- has paradoxically based this most collaborative of artforms upon the allure -- and inflected signification -- of an individual star. The "lone star" theme is so powerful and pervasive that it provides the cultural pulse at any point in time. You can read a period by the stars that emerge to emblematize it: resourceful tramps (Chaplin, Groucho) during the Depression; reticent, valorous soldiers (Van Johnson, John Wayne) during WWII; sombre or wisecracking gangsters (Robinson, Cagney) in the shadows of postwar reconstruction; affluent lovers (Cary Grant, Rock Hudson) in the somnolent '50s ... and so it goes. There's a lone star or two for every thesis. 
Although the loner theme may vary with its genre, there is one constant: the tension between liberty and restraint. The comic film, for example, affirms the validity and fertility of an idiosyncratic hero's deviation from conventional forms and values. We license our clowns -- like Lear's Fool -- to violate decorum and to run athwart conventions, but we expect them to be reined back into conformism at the end. Hence the mock-heroic persona in Woody Allen's films (i.e., the early ones -- you know, the funny ones), the anti-sentimentality from Where's Poppa? (1970) to There's Something About Mary (1998), the irreverent parodies of Mel Brooks and the Airplane! crew, and the sentimentalized mania of Jerry Lewis (and his spawn: Pee Wee Herman, John Candy, Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, Jim Carrey, etc.). Deviators if not deviants all. 
The comedy of unaccustomed candour provided two scathing political comedies this year: Dustin Hoffman's caricature of Washington/Hollywood hubris in the famously prophetic Wag the Dog and the exuberant but doomed liberation of Warren Beatty's politician by self-marginalization in his undervalued Bulworth. The comic genre flirts with chaos before re-establishing social order, classically in the form of a marriage but in these two films by the rather more drastic technique for subduing a disruptive energy: assassination. 
Even as the classic musical typically celebrates the energy and egotism of an erupting individual talent, lip service is paid to the overriding values of the collective. It's not enough for Fred Astaire to dance alone: he must have a Ginger Rogers to validate his genius within the classical conventions of romance. (Of course, as Ms Rogers rightly has pointed out, she had to do everything he did -- backwards and on high heels -- but Astaire remains the senior partner, the founding owner, and the logo of the firm.) The team-player and selfless performer is valued over the selfish star. Hence the showgirl-next-door's (Debbie Reynolds') triumph over the shrill shrike (Jean Hagen) in Singin' in the Rain (1952) and the innumerable elevations of the stand-in or chorus-line hoofer to stardom. In the cognate melodrama All About Eve (1950) the glamorous star's attendant (Anne Baxter) stands in for the stand-in who steps forward into the limelight. Because Eve betrays an unrespectable ambition, the selfish new star's triumph is villainous. In contrast, in Singin' in the Rain Gene Kelly and Donald O'Connor work together in their generous support of Debbie Reynolds and then reveal her selfless role as the voice behind the narcissistic shrike's success; their generosity excuses Reynolds' success. In the case of the current animated fable Antz, the whole film promotes individualism, in the nebbish-voiced hero's anti-conformity (the nebbish voice provided by Woody Allen), but at the end it reaffirms the community's well-being. Classically, individualism is allowed only insofar as it serves the interests of the community. 
Obviously, the genre that most clearly enunciates the loner theme is the Western. As that genre depicts America's transition from frontier to civilization, the lone hero stands in stark relief against the skeleton of the nascent modern society. The Western seems America's most telling myth and its most influential genre. Indeed, some historians contend that in the early years of this century, when America was isolationist in its external affairs, it was the popularity of the Western film that preserved the nation's potential for militarism. Of course, the cowboy fantasy of the Reagan presidency goes without saying. But the Western is not simply jingoistic. At the end of Stagecoach (1939) John Ford chooses to save his outcast-hero couple from "the blessings of civilization." In the Western myth, civilization is a mixed bag. The purity and integrity of an independent, self-sufficient champion give way to the hypocrisies and corruptions of the modern world, as embodied on the coach by the thieving banker, whose wife leads the pack that drives the good-hearted whore and the marinated medic out of town. 
Indeed, the culture's ambivalent attitude toward the "progress" that now afflicts us extends the Western motifs into two new arenas of gunmanship. In the crime film, the outlaw builds a personal urban empire instead of settling an arid wilderness. But it's still an individual striving against his class or mob for his bad eminence of fame, fortune, and a stylish suit. In the historical epic views of Francis Ford Coppola's Godfather trilogy (1971-90) and Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America (1983), the criminal world is a microcosm of America itself, as normalized and self-respecting as corporate law. The other offshoot is the space film, where the cowboys ride the collaborative future sciences into a new frontier, against mutant savages. George Lucas's Star Wars (1977) is an avowed grandson of Ford's The Searchers (1956) -- with Chewbacca as Gabby Hayes. Although the Western per se may by its numbers seem to have lost its hold on the imagination, its spirit rides new ranges in these later sagas. Sagebrush to the stars. 
F. Gary Gray's recent thriller, The Negotiator, explicitly draws upon the American tradition of the Western. When the Chicago police force's star hostage negotiator, Danny Roman (Samuel L. Jackson), finds himself framed for the murder of his partner and for stealing from the force's disability fund, he stumbles into taking his own hostages. Roman demands to deal with another star negotiator, Chris Sabien (Kevin Spacey). In their first discussion Sabien and Roman argue over the implications of the last scene in Shane (1953). The more naive Roman maintains that Shane is only wounded when he rides out of the frame; his hero can't die. The more pragmatic Sabien contends that in the last image Shane slumps over dead. (For the record, Shane does slump, but the image remains ambiguous. His death is suggested not so much by a deeper slump than by the fact that his horse takes him upward, past the top left corner of the screen, as if the saint were returning to heaven.) Sabien prefers sagas where the hero survives, like Rio Bravo (1959), the classic siege/hostage Western, and Red River (1948). It is apt that the more scholarly Sabien favours these two films by Howard Hawks, whose theme of men bonding through an ethic of professionalism propels The Negotiator. When Sabien later shoots Roman, in order to entrap the chief villain, he uncharacteristically professes fondness for Shane because the film kills off its hero. Both men are characterized by how they read the film -- and how they pattern their behaviour after it, such as Roman's bravado when he stands at the window ledge daring the helicopter police to shoot him. The Shane allusion also prompts us to read The Negotiator in the context of the Western. 
Shane is the most idealistic of the classic Westerns, presented with a tone as pastoral as its setting. Its hero, played by the blond, (very) short, soft-spoken Alan Ladd, is viewed through the worshipful perspective of the settler's young son, Joey (Brandon de Wilde, before he knocked up Carol Lynley in Blue Denim). Shane is the wandering gunman who craves domestic roots, but such roots are precluded by his bloody past. Call him Citizen Cain. He is doomed to this paradox: although the domestic folk depend upon a gunman to stabilize their social order -- in this case, to oppose the professional blackguard (Jack Palance) hired by the big rancher family to drive off the small home-steaders -- the community cannot accommodate the gunman. If he stayed he would disrupt the very order he has secured for them. In some exercises of this theme (e.g., The Gunfighter, The Shootist, I Shot Jesse James, Unforgiven) the gunman is disruptive because his presence attracts killers who wish to wrest away his glory. But Shane is too powerful in his own virtue to stay. Christ-like, he has to ride away. Whether he dies or not, his sacrifice for the settlers must include his departure. Little Joey expresses more truth than he realizes when he calls after Shane, "My mother wants you. I know she does." (The mountains shrewdly echo back the words "wants you" and "I know," as if speaking Shane's saintly and abstemious awareness.) Shane would pose as big a threat to the emotional balance in his hosts' marriage as to the peace of the town. 
The American Western valorizes the gunman but is compelled to banish him. This points to the essential clash in the culture between idealism and pragmatism. The culture espouses law, order, peace, individualism, but continually calls upon the outlaw, the chaos of war, and suppressive restraints, all for the communal good. In this respect the popular culture seems at one with the international politic. The nation pleads lofty values but has been known to stoop from them to conquer hostile nations, radically departing from these ideals in order to enforce them, whether at Hiroshima or in the theoretically smart bombs of the Gulf War. Glorious, high-speaking America has pocked the globe with Wounded Knees. Its films reveal the problematic nature of that American self-assertion. Either the culture is hypocritically glossing over its murdering ways or it is regretfully acknowledging the need for war to maintain peace. In any case, this tension pervades the culture. 
Perhaps the most brilliant dramatization of this point is John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). The earnest young lawyer, Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart), builds a national political career and a happy marriage upon the legend that he killed (in self-defence, of course) the vile libertine of the title (Lee Marvin). But the real hero is the lonely rancher, Tom Doniphon (John Wayne), who from the shadows gunned Liberty down when he was about to finish off the wounded lawyer. As Stoddard unwittingly stole the good gunman's glory, he also won his girl, his hopes, his fame, his future. The film is framed by the lawyer's return to honour the forgotten rancher at his funeral. Over Doniphon's coffin, Senator Stoddard reveals for the first time how all his success and renown are owed to his old protector. 
As the villain's name suggests, the film is about the ambivalence of liberty. The film is based on two opposing triumvirates. Evil is represented by the wild Valance and his two scrupulously delineated hench-people: Strother Martin as a percolating sadist and Lee van Cleef as a vulpine killer. The side of good consists of the man of words (Stewart), the man of deeds (Wayne), and the drunken journalist (Edmond O'Brien) whom Valance tortures because of the effective power of Iris words. As a gunman, Doniphon's selflessness and control contrast to Valance's unbridled lust. Stoddard's eclipse of Doniphon represents the passage of the Old West into modern civilization, with this specific corollary: the primacy of the new word of law over the old rule of the gun. But at the heart of this film persists the American paradox: behind the law must stand the gun. It is only a politically convenient illusion that the lawyer gunned down the outlaw. In reality, idealism is helpless without a militant pragmatist. The gun remains mightier than the word, even if it is doomed to the shadows. 
This Western theme continues into The Negotiator. As independents whose maverick methods and professionalism set them apart from -- and even alienate -- their colleagues, the two cop heroes are cowboy types. As they stand alone at the front, what distinguishes them is that they are primarily men of words. Roman chooses Sabien because he knows they both believe in holstering the gun until all possible words have been exhausted. Sabien famously negotiated for 55 hours once to ensure the safe release of hostages. Both have infuriated their superiors by over-extending the negotiation. Sabien's last words to the wounded Roman are the weighted "Nice talkin' to you, Lieutenant." This film values talking, words, to an extent unique among American cop films. We're talking negotiation here, not Magnum Force (to recall a less garrulous flick of 1973). So we're suspicious of the cops whose disrespect for talking makes them impatient to attack, especially the antagonistic Beck (David Morse). 
Even here, however, the words do not replace the gun. Instead, they prepare for its most efficient use. The value of negotiation and patient psychology is theoretically espoused, but in both the opening and final scenes it's the gun that gets things done. Thus Sabien's wife jocularly explains why his negotiations are less effective at home than on the mean streets outside: "That's because no one is standing behind you with a big gun." So, too, in the heroes' parallel bluffs. Where innocent Roman only pretends to shoot a policeman hostage, worldly Sabien actually does shoot Roman. He backs his strategic words with the film's most dramatic strategic gunshot, then shoots the arch-villain -- to prevent his killing himself! For all his gunplay, our Sabien keeps an eye out for symbolism. In short, The Negotiator perpetuates the American dependence upon the gun. In focusing on negotiation the film pretends to the more civilized value of talking; but its faith and primacy still reside in the gun. 
The black, violent world glossed over in Shane is exposed in what seems to be an explicit remake, Clint Eastwood's Pale Rider (1985). Standing as Songs of Innocence and Experience respectively, the plots parallel too closely to be either accident or homage. Eastwood recasts Shane for the grit of more modern realism. The Big Rancher versus Little Homesteaders battle becomes an even more uneven fight of independent pan-miners against a corporation that destroys the land with its hydraulic mining techniques. The hero helps his host break down a huge rock, in place of the large tree-stump the hero-host team uproots in the first film. In parallel scenes, the good gunman and the bought gunman appraise each other. There are the same tensions in and around the general store, though Eastwood's merchant is meaner spirited. That is the defining tonal difference. In the later film, the child's dog gets killed in the first scene and buried in the second. More important is sexualization of the innocent; Joey is replaced by a budding 15-year-old girl, Megan (Sydney Penny), who offers herself to our hero and is barely saved from a gang-rape. Like Joey, Megan briefly rejects her hero but ends up running after him, calling "We all love you, Preacher." 
That Preacher is Clint Eastwood's large, dark, violent, but still soft-spoken refashioning of Shane. When he's not wearing his guns, he wears his white collar, which more than anything he says or does leads to his being called Preacher. Otherwise Clint is still playing The Man with No Name. As he drinks, fights, kills, and beds his host's fiancee (Carrie Snodgrass), he's a shade less saintly than Shane. Burying her dog, Megan recites "The Lord's Prayer," but with marginal comments that express more doubt than faith. Eastwood's hero seems to materialize out of the mists of her prayer for a miracle, his pale bay horse emerging from the snow and birch. 
In sum, Eastwood's film is a grittier retake on the Shane myth. It exposes the violence and venality that are glossed over in the pastoralism of Shane. In fact, there's even a curious reflection upon the ambiguity around Shane's death. The good host miner (Michael Moriarty) has taken note of the five bullet wounds on Preacher's back. In the climactic shootout, Preacher kills his old nemesis with the same number and pattern of bullets. Unlike Shane, there's no question about whether Preacher lives or dies at the end. The implication is that he came back from the dead, then drifted into the campaign that would enable his revenge. The virtuous gunman doesn't die, then, but is recycled, recast for every new age, as an archetype to validate the use of the gun. Eastwood amplifies both the gunman hero's humanity and his mythopoetic abstraction. 
From our delicate little Ladd to our earnest Eastwood, then, the heroic loner dominates American cinema. Even when these figures are at the top of the Establishment, like President Harrison Ford in Air Force One and the anti-Clintonic bomber president of Independence Day, they are accorded the rugged individualism and martial prowess of the cowboy. Hollywood has backed away from Stanley Kubrick's comic take on the nuclear cowboy -- Slim Pickens yahooing into eternity astride the eponymous instrument in How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1963; a.k.a. Dr. Strangelove). But now it's fashionable for the president to be a cowboy again, a skilled, murdering individualist, who operates free of his guards and societal restraints. 
If The Negotiator looks to the Western, John Frankenheimer's Ronin (1998) looks to the East. The film is a heist thriller set in the contemporary landscape of a world that has lost its traditional values. Here are heroes without even a subordinate cause. The mixed band of criminal specialists is explicitly compared to the ex-samurai "ronin" who, when their liege was betrayed and murdered, wandered the world as hired swords, killers, and thieves until they could avenge their master. Then they showed their guts by killing themselves (seppuku). 
Again, the film exploits the glamour of the independent, self-sufficient loner, but two provisions negate that. First, the individualist is valued by how much he serves his team of individualists. That is, in an age without traditional values we have to serve our colleagues. As well, the film ultimately puts its faith in the institution, in this case the duelling acronyms, the IRA and the CIA, who -- once the evil is defeated -- make their way to peace. The arch-villain (Jonathan Pryce) turns out to be a self-serving killer who was disowned even by the outlaw IRA. That makes him the rogue's rogue. The arch-hero (Robert de Niro) pretends to be a rogue ex-CIA agent, but as he cryptically explains to the obligatory love-interest, "I never left." Again, the outlaw is revealed to be a company man after all. In context, the film's two centrepiece car chases -- much admired by the audience and maligned by the reviewers -- assume thematic point. In the first the modern cars speed through narrow streets and sidewalks, as if the old ethical battle is waged in an anachronistic setting. The second chase is a long, disastrous rush against the flow of heavy one-way traffic. This motif dramatizes the characters' dangerous thrust against the social currents of their time. Both chases suggest the massive destruction and the death of innocents that result when maverick armies clash by their dubious rights. 
Since Watergate the lone hero has assumed a new function: he blows the whistle on corruption in high places. From the savvy Washington journalists of All the President's Men (1976) to Nicolas Cage's seedy, on-the-take cop/hustler in Snake Eyes (1998), heroism awaits the outsider who exposes the plague in the system. These are the modern maverick cowboys. Maintaining the integrity, ingenuity, and strength of the outsider, their effect inheres not in settling the desert but in expunging the infestation in the garden. 
A more complex alternative is provided by novelist-director John Sayles Lone Star (1996). In contemporary Texas, this loner hero is a sheriff who -- like Oedipus -- explores his own past to uncover the source of the corruption that afflicts his town. In Sayles's next film, Men with Guns (1998), an uncompromising drama about political suppression in Latin America, one line explains both Cortez's conquest of an empire with but a handful of men and the current citizenry's submission to their oppressors: "The men had guns and we did not." Not surprisingly, then, his Western does not value the gun in the usual manner of the genre. In fact, Lone Star has only three scenes of gunfire: an off-camera shooting in a bar, and flashbacks to the two key murders. The bulk of the film is made up of words -- questions, good ol' boy evasions and warnings, political ire, and reminiscences. 
The hero who launches all these words is paradoxically named Sam Deeds (Chris Cooper), son of the legendary sheriff hero and friend to all, Buddy Deeds (Matthew McConaughey). Decades before, as a deputy, Buddy had the moral temerity to face down the murderous, corrupt sheriff Charley Wade (Kris Kristofferson) and apparently make him flee. Now, as the town prepares to unveil a monument to Buddy, Wade's skeleton is found in the desert. Sam sifts through the evidence and finally uncovers the truth behind Wade's murder, but as in Liberty Valance, it is decided that the greater public good will be served best by "printing the legend" instead. Sam decides not to correct the community's assumption that it was Buddy who killed the evil Wade. In fact, Buddy is a rarity, a sheriff whose primary courage was expressed in words. We don't see him shoot anyone. Sam saves the honourable killer's reputation by letting Buddy be thought of as the more conventional hero, who kills as well as talks. 
But there's much more to Lone Star. In one key scene, a repatriated Mexican draws a line in the dust with his Coke bottle. When Sam crosses that line he abandons any legal authority he might have had. The Mexican's point is that the various borders and boundaries man defines are absurdly trivial and arbitrary. Making that point with a Coke bottle neatly summarizes the political context: Americans' vicious paranoia about illegal Mexican immigrants (a paranoia shared even by erstwhile wetbacks), the varieties of class and economic snobbery, and the lingering remnants of segregation. As the redneck barkeep complains, "the lines of demarcation are getting fuzzy." In Lone Star Sayles uses the loner figure to dramatize the need to transcend societal borders. As his narrative seamlessly drifts between the present and the past Sayles provides a formalist equivalent to flying over borders. 
That's also the unifying theme of the various subplots. In one, a hard-case black army colonel, Delmore Payne (Joe Morton), breaks down his own borders when he softens his stance towards errant soldiers, his alienated father, and his own stifled son, providing less pain for all. In another, a successful Mexican bar owner overcomes her prejudice against the current generation of striving wetbacks, still trying to transcend the Mexican-American Coke-line in the sand. In the background there is an uneasy tension in the new and shifting racial mix in the schools, the bars, the civic elections, and the romantic couplings. 
The major crossing of a border is Sheriff Sam's resumption of an old love affair with a Mexican teacher, Pilar (Elizabeth Pena). Years before, Buddy literally ripped the couple apart when he caught the highschoolers necking at a drive-in. AS adults rekindling their romance, Pilar and Sam dance to the lyrics "My love is a deep blue sea," in effect denying the shallow sand-lines that have separated them. Their resumed love crosses the line of their parents' opposition. More dramatically, however, it crosses the incest taboo, for Sam discovers that Pilar is his half-sister. Where Oedipus's discovery of his incest maddens him to the extent that he blinds himself, Sam's discovery enables him to see beyond his community's borders/prejudices, and to agree with Pilar that they should continue their affair. As she cannot have children, there is no reason not to -- except for the societal convention. In arguing against borders, Sayles presents a case that challenges our most universal border, that of incest. For once the loner reasonably and responsibly refuses to be reined in. 
Sam Deeds finally lives up to his legendary father's courage but achieves a superior moral position by transcending the reflex values and assumptions that fragment his community. Ironically, in preserving both his personal secret and that of the sheriff-killer, Sam might be considered morally compromised and as self-serving as his father. But he is absolved by his moral and romantic motivation. As a weary army man observes, "It's always heart-warming to see a prejudice defeated by a deeper prejudice"; it's even more gratifying to see an ambivalent film genre heightened by an exemplar that is humane, humanistic, and courageous enough to challenge its culture's conventions and expectations. The star loner is the one who brings wider understanding and courage to the reflexes in which his community is locked. That's when the loner star lights the night. The film's last line of dialogue is Pilar's "Forget the Alamo." That is, the new Lone Star State has to define itself and its values realistically, by its present composition, situation, and needs. As the closing song promises, the example of this "cowboy's sweetheart" can bridge "the great divide." 
Sad to say, Lone Star hasn't had the box office, exposure, or influence accorded The Negotiator. Hollywood and its symptomatic Western continue their assuring compromises, double-think, and faith in the gun. That's another way in which the boundary between entertainment and politics has long since fuzzed over. Dwight Eisenhower wrote that to people in a democracy the outbreak of war always comes as a shocking surprise. If you read the subtexts of popular culture, you may despair, but perhaps you won't be so surprised.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Chappaquiddick

As Ted Kennedy (Jason Clarke) prepares to do his career-saving TV address, the slightly upward shot of his shadowed jowels and flattened hair make him look like Donald Trump. That clear echo provides this film’s main thrust. 
  Like any responsible history film, it’s about Now as much as about Then. The subject is the essential corruption of American federal politics on both sides of the house, then as now, Democrats as well as Republicans.
In anatomizing the end of the Kennedy glory years, director John Curran suggests the depressing spiral from the end of Kennedy idealism to the present corruption. We’re used to thinking of those Dems and our GOP as antithetical. This film equates them.
The TV shots of John Kennedy and the moon landing remind us of when America was truly great — hopeful, ambitious, a global leader and a beacon of democracy. But the film’s main thrust exposes that myth. 
The Kennedy machine that marshals around Ted here is as unscrupulous, lying and destructive as what depresses us in today’s news. We watch the disintegration of the Kennedy myth and character. 
Hence Teddy’s lack of any genuine moral compass — especially when he professes to have one. When he abandons his responsible plan to resign he confirms our sense of American politics as power-hungry, self-serving and fraudulent. 
This Kennedy and Trump have something else in common — their insatiable need to impress  an intractable father. Both weakling sons project a fake swagger. 
Womanizing is but one aspect of their ersatz manliness. Mainly they need to convince everyone — especially their fathers — that they are “great.”  This is how the Kennedy years and the Trump year form a continuum here not a contrast. Joe Kennedy’s failure of a son seems to lead directly down the rabbit hole to Trump. Ted’s dead-eyed Joan is an echo of Melania. 
  Both showmen also pretend to the common touch, highjacking the spirit of populism to grab power for their own use. Hence the team's manipulation of Mary Jo Kopechne's grieving parents. Ted’s “family” speech to his Boiler Room girls leads to the TV interviews in which his Massachusetts voters buy his TV “Act” and resolve to re-elect him.
        So too the power of celebrity for which sheriffs, judges, doctors, journalists, roll over to oblige. 
The film reminds us that Ted failed to win the presidential nomination but became the fourth longest-serving American senator. 
      What I missed was a closing statement summarizing the remarkable career and achievements The Lion of Congress  went on to make. But that would have been my movie not Curran’s. His present enterprise is not as optimistic as my conclusion would have been. Rather than rationalize Ted’s amorality he prefers to leave the film as an exposure of systemic fraudulence and corruption in federal politics. Trump is not the casue of the current abandonment of democracy in America but it's symptom. Sad.
         If The Post recalled a hopeful model of how to protect a democracy against a corrupt presidency, this rather ends on a resigned Plus ca change, plus la meme chose. Both parties need to take this message to heart -- and voters might learn not to be so eagerly gulled. 

Monday, April 9, 2018

A Quiet Place

John Krasinski’s directorial debut is a stunning horror film with a heart. 
His family of survivors must live in silence to avoid attracting the Alien-breed monster. The tension is so concentrated and relentless that the audience feels as edgy and threatened as the characters.
In this post-apocalypse world, mankind manages to sustain itself. If one son is killed for a noisy toy, another is born. His mother smothers her contractions under the monster’s ear.   
     Daughter Regan feels guilty for having given her young brother the fatal toy. She redeems herself, first by saving other brother Marcus from drowning in a granary, then by bringing down the monster. She discovers the beast is sensitive to the sound — the opposite to her deafness — so she ratchets up the sound waves to stun him. Mother Evelyn finishes him off.
The film speaks to our moment in a couple of respects. The father, Lee, is the usual Krasinski sensitive man. He’s careful to raise Marcus to self-sufficiency and dedicates himself to trying to make Regan an effective hearing aid. Still, he needs Marcus to remind him how desperate Regan is to hear her father still loves her, after her unwitting part in her brother’s death.
The film thwarts the genre expectation by granting the women the final victory. As he signs his love to Regan, Lee sacrifices himself to distract the monster from his children. For her part, Evelyn dumbly stares down the beast to deliver and preserve her baby and then guns it down.
Evelyn has one line which may directly address contemporary America. As she and Lee worry about their missing Regan and Marcus, she feels responsible for not having carried the son who was killed.  As she cites the parents’ responsibility to protect their children — Every generation’s responsibility to protect and provide for the next — she pitches the film at the GOP presidency all too eager to sacrifice the nation’s future for its present profit: “Who are we if we can't protect them? we have to protect them.”  
Tell that to Trump’s EPA and Education directors — and his NRA. Krasinski just did.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

The Leisure Seeker

This film’s drama operates on two levels: the psychological and the political. 
The more obvious, the psychological, depicts the mental and physical deterioration of the principle couple, John and Ella respectively. 
The emotional wallop comes from the pathos, realism and nuance especially in John’s dementia, as he slips in and out of memory and awareness. Ella subordinates her terminal illness to holding him together on their valedictory trip. As he excavates his own past his suspicion of Ella’s ostensible infidelity gives way to his unwitting exposure of his own. The couple shift through a series of fleeting harmonies and tensions before peacefully ending together.  As Ella told her daughter, “It's just something I really need to do with your father.”
The audience of their contemporaries can take some solace from noting that unlike their diminishing characters, Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland are still working and delivering marvellous performances. They don’t act their characters’ age. 
Through all of John’s and Ella’s miseries, perhaps the saddest figure is Lilian, their neighbour, with whom John had a fling during Ella’s pregnancy. In the God’s eye view of the couple’s funeral, Lilian walks away alone, the challenger to the couple’s bliss who failed to come between them.  
But the drama has a parallel dimension, that reflects beyond the characters to the current United States. The film is so pervasively American that it’s easy to miss the fact that it has an Italian director and European producers. This is a European vision of America.
Here the dementia afflicts not just John but America. Like John, America has forgotten the values and character that made it great — specifically in the 1960s. In Trump’s election and in his presidency America has forgotten itself. 
Hence the 60s soundtrack of political and head lyrics. The film opens on one Trump rally. At a later one John loses himself, forgets he’s a lifelong Democrat and dons a Trump/Pence pin. Of course Trump’s “great” America is that which the 60s revolution replaced, with its exercise of freedoms, its assault on racism and sexual bigotry and its rejection of traditional politics. 
Indeed the couple’s transport of delight is “The Leisure Seeker,” another echo of the spirit and freedom of the Woodstock days.
Hence the crucial casting of Donald Sutherland as the old intellectual hipster who is losing his grip on himself and on reality. The Canadian actor became an icon of the 60s American cultural revolution with films like Joanna, MASH, Start the Revolution Without Me, Alex in Wonderland, Steelyard Blues, Gas and Don’t Look Now. His work with Bertolucci and Felljni emblematized the European revolution as well. 
  Helen Mirren reverses that movement. She buries her British persona in her Georgia belle, equally parallelling Vivien Leigh’s ascent in Gone with the Wind and the Beatles’ and Carnaby Street’s cultural conquest of America
The other crucial casting is of Dick Gregory, the comedian/writer leader of the African American revolution of the day. He plays Ella’s crochety, invalid ex-boyfriend. He doesn’t remember her, their affair, his past life, but he remains properly enraged at America’s resurgent racism and the intrusion of his forgotten past. 
  The two young diner waitresses provide a related contrast. The white waitress is uneducated, has memorized her lines in service and politely tolerates John’s lecture on the poetry of Hemingway’s prose.  The Florida waitress is prettier, more poised, and she fills in John’s forgotten Hemingway quote, She did an honours paper on him. But she’s African American so despite her education, wit and poise, she’s still a waitress.

 

Monday, April 2, 2018

Norman McLaren -- reprint from Dalhousie Review, Summer, 1977, pp. 277‑86


Maurice Yacowar
Norman McLaren: The Narrative and Contemplative Modes
"I try not to be just an experimenter," Norman McLaren has often said. Yet, most assessments of McLaren's work deal principally with his technical innovations- synthetic music, electronic and optional sound tracks, cameraless film-making, pixillation. Precisely because of his brilliance as an experimental film-maker, McLaren's devices have been discussed to the exclusion of his ideas. Except for such obviously didac- tic works as Neighbors and A Chairy Tale. the themes of McLaren's work have been neglected; how he works seems to have generated more interest than what he is trying to express. This regrettable bias persists even in Maynard Collins' recent book on McLaren, published by the Canadian Film lnstitute.1
Of course, the brief, packed entertainments which McLaren has pro- duced over the years do have meaning. A varied thematic consistency underlies the variety of his experimental effects. Briefly, it seems to me that much of McLaren's work is creatively concerned with the distinc- tion between the narrative impulse and the contemplative. Two different frames of mind are expressed here. To the narrative impulse, the world is composed of tractable material which responds to the author's con- trol. The storyteller asserts himself over his material, shaping it to ex- press his vision. But in the contemplative stance, the author does not presume to shape the image of his world. Rather he takes delight in
recording (often with awe and humility) the material as he finds it. The critical tradition that has focused exclusively upon McLaren's machinery would limit his work to the contemplative type. But often McLaren works within the context of traditional narration, with all the aggressive shaping that the type implies.
This distinction might perhaps be best demonstrated by comparing the two ballet films that he made within a five-year period. Pas de Deux (1967) is a narrative that uses the form of ballet. In contrast, Ballet
Adagio (1972) is a contemplation of ballet, and its implications as a metaphor for human achievement and aspiration.
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Pas de Deux is considered McLaren's masterpiece both for its technical wizardry and for its aesthetic impact. Margaret Mercier and Vincent Warren of Les Grands Ballets Canadiens dance a pas de deux. to some haunting, melancholy Roumanian music on the Pan-pipes, adapted by Maurice Blackburn. McLaren exposes individual frames of the dancers up to eleven times for a stunning, sensual effect of multiple imagery.
But the film basically tells a story. In the beginning (i.e., pre-credits) is The Note. From the darkness emerges the rim-lit black-costumed figure of a woman, lying on her back. She rises, as if awakening to first consciousness. She sees her reflection as if in water and thus becomes aware of her own body. She tries it out, admiring her limbs and their substance. Then she strikes a pose. In the first of McLaren's superim- positions, the girl detaches herself from her body, steps out of her pose and examines it. Then she steps back from her position as self-examiner and examines that image. From her first awareness of her self as body, she has grown to an awareness of her self as an image.
The next stage in her increasing self-awareness occurs when she pro- jects an image of herself which she then proceeds to fill. Her first projec- tion appears on the right side of the screen, framed by her arms on the left as she crouches, as if she were reaching into the darkness for a self to realize. From self-consciousness she moves to self-conception, then to self-direction. These changes in the quality of her experience are attend- ed by a refinement in the music; the full orchestra is sharpened down to the Pan-pipes.
Then the lady dances with her own image. This sequence suggests that the first stage of her harmony is narcissistic (or even onanistic, if one recalls McLaren's playful 1944 drawing of a "Chair for One or Two (Sex if two, masturbation if one)").2 The image of identical selves danc- ing together is unsettling, especially when the illusion of symmetry is violated by the eventual crossing of limbs.
Now a man enters on the left foreground and watches her dance with herself. As he enters from the front, from the position of the film's au- dience, as it were, he is a reminder of community, of human otherness. With his appearance, the woman must choose between dancing with herself and dancing with the other. Thrice she retreats from the image of herself, and thrice from the man.
Ultimately, however, the man's attraction prevails. In a process of courtship he approaches her, follows her, and eventually kneels before her. At that point she splits into a series of selves which he spins around him. The self-image with which she had earlier danced was detached

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from her; here she has a multiplicity of selves that are connected. The man has discovered in her a fluid and lively unity. Through him, her previous choice between selves has become a composition of many shades of self in continuity. where formerly there had been division.
The multiple exposure of their dance sustains numerous interpreta- tions. For example. the flurry of their limbs may suggest wings. Or it may suggest the tingle of the lovers' skins to each other's touch, for their flesh is made to seem layered with feeling and responsiveness. McLaren's drawings, "Longing" and "Memory of the Kiss," are based on analogous imagery.J Or the technique may suggest the suspension of time by the lovers' emotion and sensation, for the overlay of image
enables the past experience to persist. Moments climax, as each position is shown to be the sum of the moments which led up to it. When the multiple limbs gather into one, there is a deep peace which suggests the emotional charge that even a moment of stasis can bear.
For a brief instant of separation the dancers/ lovers leave the screen black, to return in a climactic reunion. Where the girl earlier reached for herself, now the lovers reach across the dark screen to each other. They seem to pour into each other. When he spins her around again there is a vertical dimension as well as the circular. It is an image of - one is reluctant to say. for fear of violating the high feeling of the scene - a screw, as the woman makes a spiraling descent in the man's arms. Certainly the fluidity of the lovers' movements suggests the blending of their bodies. The fil.m ends on the image of the tender and dominant man, a head taller than his lady.
A note of fullest and simplest harmony concludes the film, both visually and musically. The dance between two images of the same self was a false appearance of harmony; the dance between the two separate characters is true concord. The point of the film is that the unity of separates is richer than the separation of unity. The one is complement, the other duplication. Or, the one is fulfilling, the other fragmenting.
The phrase pas de deux. of course, is a ballet term for "dance between two." But it can also mean, literally, "not of two." This is the paradox at the heart of the film. The dance of the two female figures early in the film is not of two but of one, a delusion of harmony and of self- fulfilment. The dance of the two lovers at the end is not of two but of one, for they are lovers.
In Pas de Deux. then, McLaren told a little story. It had a moral: love, like the dance, like film, like any art, like life, fulfills the self by bringing it into an enrichening harmony with another. Of course. the

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genius of this work is that its moral is done without having been taught; it need not be spoken or directly brought to the viewer's shallow awareness.
Ballet Adagio is the opposite kind of film. There is no story-line, just the dance of David and Anna Marie Holmes in an adaptation of Spring Water. Nor is there any of the striking technique that characterized Pas de Deux. Indeed it is as if McLaren were deliberately minimizing his own artistry in Ballet Adagio to concentrate our attention on the dance itself. What stylistic intervention he makes serves that function. The camera remains in a level. frontal perspective, occasionally moving for- ward or back to vary its distance from the dance but not to ruffle our perspective. McLaren shot the ten-minute film at one-quarter the nor- mal speed. As a result, the viewer notices the smallest element in each
movement by the dancers, rather than absorbing the effect of the move- ment as a whole. The hair and muscles and individual steps are striking- ly individuated. Instead of telling a story, the technique serves to anatomize the performance. Here the ballet is the subject, not the language, of McLaren's communication.
The results of this stark anatomy are striking. For one thing, much of the film is actually comical, given the grotesqueness of some of the mo- tions when so slowed down for our scrutiny. And yet there remains the over-riding sense of the beauty of the dance.
Two basic paradoxes emerge from this film. One is the beauty that can result from the ludicrous flesh of man, with his bulging muscles and immutable bulk. For to have the delicacy of the dancer one needs pro- nounced sinews and firmly visible muscles. The film demonstrates that one must cultivate the flesh in order to transcend it, to dance beyond it. The second paradox is the vision of art as an extremely rigorous
discipline, in contrast to the essential fluidity of human nature. So much of the dancer seems to be sprawling out of control - the strands of hair, the individual gestures. Yet the overall effect of the dance is to express the most concentrated degree of control, just as the effect of the ludicrous motions was beauty. The organ accompaniment seems to sanctify this transformation of man by his art and by his discipline. In the last image of the film, the woman seems to be flying off, but of course, she is carried by the quite earthbound male. The last image sus- tains the paradox of the artist's transcendence.
A survey of McLaren's other works will confirm the distinction drawn between the two ballet films: sometimes he tells a story, and sometimes he serves his subject with a more passive contemplation.

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A Chairy Tale (1957) is clearly a narrative. A man (Claude Jutra) enters reading a book and attempts to sit on a plain white kitchen chair. The chair repulses him. At first he treats it as if it were a child; he plays hop-scotch with it. That failing, he tries to impress it by striking a military pose, again to no avail. He eventually wins the chair by address- ing it! her as an equal, by embracing her in the ardour of a Latin- American dance. Even then, he may not sit on the chair until the chair has sat on him.
On one level, this film is a parable about courtship and seduction ("A Chary Tail," "A Cherry Tale," etc.). But the chair is always still a chair. McLaren's technique of pixillation accords equal and continuous life to man and to object, as if to say that there is spirit and vitality in all things, if we but attend to them. In this sense it is the man who is the virgin, experiencing his first insight into fuller life. Ravi Shankar's score from Scheherezade support the romantic allegory but also recalls the in- structive woman of its title.
On the other hand, Rhythmetic (1956), McLaren's previous film, is a meditation upon the finitude of human power and the infinity of man's surrounding. In his parade of numerals McLaren personalizes the digits. For example, 3 marches like a guardsman, 4 epitomizes stability and sobriety, and 1 -w ell, 1 is the start of it all. He has humble origins in the alphabet; he is an "i" with a flea. Alone of the numbers, 1 has the respectability of the alphabet behind him so he may be something of a
fallen angel. For language is a system of conventions that makes no claim to physical existence, until a Lyly or a concrete poet goes to work on it, that is! But numbers presume to embody a world beyond their own existence. The numbers' quantification assumes an authority beyond the signifying function of the alphabet. So Rhythmetic portrays man's futile attempt through numbers to impose a sense of order on his chaotic and massive world.
The numbers march out to pose with their equation marks as a truthful statement of being. Their first collective assertion has the unstable shape of a diamond. Not until the end do the numbers achieve a stable shape, and for that they must call upon the alphabet to spell out "The End." The life of the film records disorder; only the conclusion can provide order.
The villain of the piece is zero. Zero is the void which the numbers strive to avoid by asserting their existence, by declaring an equation. But zero refuses to go where ordered or to stay where he must for the others' statement to be true, for their fabricated world to remain stable. Zero invalidates the other numbers' pretense to order, to control, to a stable
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existence. To put zero back in his place, the "equals" sign is continually summoned, like two constables required to enforce equality. But the spirit of the void is not to be so easily controlled. The numbers march out their statement but zero continues to thwart them. Even when under arrest by the "equals," zero has the last laugh, for the o and the = form
, the cosine of calculus. Under arrest, zero refers to a higher order of mathematics (or existence) than that of the numbers who are trying to reduce him to conformity. Similarly, two zeroes join to form the sign of infinity, which further diminishes the universe of numbers 1 to 9. Final- ly, such is the power of zero that all the figures in his column contact his contagious wildness and incorrigibility; the other figures within the pat-
tern show no personality. In the context of infinity and void, all human attempts at order and control are trivial. At the same time, the plucky spirit of zero makes Rhythmetic one of McLaren's key statements about the indomitable quality of the human spirit in the face of conformist pressures.
Canon (1964) is a similar meditation, ostensibly about the structure of a musical form, but also about the tension between order and chaos, between regimentation and individuality. First, alphabet blocks per- form a pattern of movement, then humans do, then a cat and but- terflies. Again, "canon" is a musical term, but it also refers to the laws and regulations that restrict human conduct. In the world of canons, man, cat and butterfly are restricted to the motions of alphabet blocks, though man in his stubbornness and ingenuity may contrive to play
variations within the forms imposed upon him (e.g., doing the number backwards, or upside down). The film is one of the great, playful expres- sions of the ironic spirit, that which says "No" in a silent subversion, thunder being forbidden.
Like his ballet films, too, McLaren's two "Phantasies" are of opposite types. In A Little Phantasy o f a 19th Century Painting (1946) McLaren records a free-ranging process of association with a Gothic painting by Arnold Boecklin. It is as if a still picture were being brought to life. The basic image is the branch, variously embodied as plant life (growth), as a crack (disintegration), as fire (destroying or regenerating), as light- ning (firing but illuminating), or as the webbed wings of a bird (the free, animating fancy). In any case, the branch motif makes it clear that this film is an exercise of the imaginative response to the picture. For exam- ple, a pillar grows out of some ruins, glows, then cracks into branch-like veins. Or a coffin bursts into flames which become an eagle. Even the images of death and disintegration express the creative power of man's associational mind. This film is one of McLaren's contemplations; the
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But in Phantasy (1952) there is a definite narrative line in the metamorphoses that record the processes of creation, regeneration and free-ranging fancy. A cross changes into a brain which becomes an egg- shaped cluster of feathers and flowers, from which is hatched a skyscape. Where the earlier "Phantasy" was a response to a painting. and a meditation on the process by which it evokes responses, this "Phantasy" is a narrative, albeit with the same theme, the fertility of man's fantasy.
Distinguishing between McLarens' narrative and meditative modes is most difficult where his technique and theme involve metamorphosis. In the first Phantasy. for example. his decision to metamorphose his
shapes instead of using cuts or dissolves asserts a continuing life between the painting and the viewer's being. Similarly, Hen Hop (1942) might be considered a meditation on the continuity between egg and chicken, as the two shapes pass in and out of each other; in broader terms, we are invited to contemplate the individual's responsibilities to the fertility cy- cle.
As usual, McLaren's technique expresses the spiritual unity between dissimilar things. The chicken is the once and future egg. But Hen Hop is also a story about a hen who refuses to mate. The first stage is a dance between two words, "on" and "no'', which are a sexual proposition and its rejection. The 'o' changes into an egg, which two chicken-feet pass as they search for a body.
There follows a dance between two pink (female?) and two black (male?) legs. in which the pink reject the black. Eventually the egg turns into a V. which in turn changes into "Save." At this level, Hen Hop is a commercial for war-bonds. But as Eisenstein proved in The General
Line. there is nothing like a bawdy parable to fire up community spirit and patriotism. So in a tale about a spinster hen, McLaren conducts a debate between the white of virginity and the red of experience, between the spinster's "saving herself' and her communal responsibility to be generous in her use. A simple commercial explodes into witty paradox. Private saving is found inferior to generous communal savings. The square dance accompaniment makes no mention of partners, one must note, but it does spur the ladies on to relate to their "corners," their unattached neighbors, in the spirit of avoiding isolation ("Hurry up girls
or you'll never get around").
McLaren's musical visualizations frequently
take the form of bawdy
or romantic parables, as the artist luxuriates in the fertility of his crea- tion. For instance, in Loops (1940) the first red loop changes into a heart. then a triangle, then a square. An egg-shape courts the loop,
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dances with it, even enters it before it sprouts a child. The last frame has two small squares, a heart, and a column - as a kind of geometrical family living happily ever after. There are similar kinds of courtship in Boogie Doodle (1940) and Short and Suite (1959). In all these cases, McLaren seems to be contemplating the interplay between music and abstract shapes, but his cartoons are straining towards little erotic nar- ratives. The parable is most obvious in B/inkety Blank (1954), where two etched birds brawl, threaten cannibalism, and eventually metamor- phose into other states of being. A divided screen is eventually crossed by an egg-shape that brings the warring birds together in a kiss, then in two hearts which in turn become an egg and a flurry of feathers. Here McLaren establishes the generic antagonism in nature, but overrides it
with his spirit of harmony and fertility. Both by its technique and its spirit, the film declares the birdness of worms and the warmness of birds.
A corollary to his flowing images of metamorphosis can be found in the technique of pixillation in his Oscar-winning Neighbors (1952). Wholesale destruction ensues when two neighbors feud over possession of a flower growing between their properties. The pixillation gives the flower human attributes; it bows to the men when it arrives, it cowers under their blows. On the other hand, the men are further brutalized by McLaren's technique, by the roughness of their motions and by their horrifying conversion of face into mask. McLaren shrewdly resists in-
dividuating the men's characters, because his point is the essential brotherhood of man that wars violate.Thus radical differences between people are shown to conceal an even more basic kinship. One man reads a paper with the headline, "Peace Certain if No War"; the other, osten- sibly of a different party, reads one headlined "War Certain if No Peace."
At the end of the film, both men are dead and buried. The pickets around the graves part to admit new flowers to grow; boards form a cross on each of the graves. Thus in their burial the war-crated brutes are given Christian heroism and - in a touch of stinging irony - given the emblems (flowers) which they trampled to espouse. The irony recalls his 1943 drawing, "Liberty arms herself," where "I felt resentful at many of the things that were being done in the name of 'Liberty.· "4
Neighbors is McLaren's most obvious narrative film. But its tech- niques of metamorphosis and pixillation give it a contemplative quality. In the brutish, unflowing motions of the characters one finds McLaren contemplating the nature of man's martial instincts. The worst of man can be evoked by the finest of values (e.g., love of a delicate flower). For

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war perverts the best in man. In A Chairy Tale McLaren reversed the negative for the scene where the man poses as a soldier to impress the chair. To McLaren, war is a reversal and a perversion of normal human nature.
McLaren's most obvious contemplative works are the abstract visuals offered as responses to musical works. In Begone Dull Care (1949) Oscar Peterson's jazz score evokes a prodigal array of visual styles, which may serve as a history of art. from primitivism through to the minimal art of a beam playing across darkness. The topic of this film is its very synesthesia and the joy of its invention. In Dots (1940), Lines Vertical (1960), and Lines Horizontal (1962), McLaren provides medita- tions on movement, color, and optical illusions. But the Lines Vertical begin to seem like doors and the Lines Horizontal like horizons, both of
which beckon the viewer's imagination to exult in the creative powers of his senses.
Mosaic (1965) may seem like an op art combination of the Lines and Dots films, but this film is cast in an important narrative frame. It opens with a man whistling and casually juggling a white ball. As in A Chairy Tale, a thoughtless fellow is about to find his world teeming with unexpected and demanding liveliness. When he blows the ball into the air it assumes an independent career. It splits into expanding and con- tracting patterns of dots or balls. The body of the film is this fascinating scene of the changing balls. At the peak the balls seem to be an even grid, no longer individual balls, and they enjoy a variety of color that is in marked contrast to the dull black-and-white of the man's world. Eventually the ball settles down in its quiet unity and its neutral whiteness. The man returns, picks up the ball and starts off-screen with it, whistling and carefree again. But he explodes. He is replaced by "End." The suggestion is that his end came as punishment for not hav- ing recognized the power or the personality of the ball.
This fable that frames Mosaic makes the two basic points of McLaren's work. First, man can be destroyed by the powers that he un- wittingly unleashes. This interpretation would take the ball as an emblem of military force, obviously an atomic explosive. But the ball can also be read like the chair in A Chairy Tale or the painting in
Phantasy, as an item in our inanimate world that teems with imaginative and exploratory potential. In this reading the man's explosion would an- ticipate Tom's disappearance in the last shot of Antonioni's Blow Up: it is the end of the man because it marks the end of his sensory and moral commitment to life around him.
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286 DALHOUSIE REVIEW
The different modes that we defined in the ballet films and in the two Phantasies occur together in Mosaic. The body of the film is the kind of abstract contemplation of form and movement for which McLaren is best known. But the narrative of the frame shows a more aggressive McLaren, an artist conscious of shaping his materials into a narrative line that will make his point about life and sensitivity.
Norman McLaren's films alert us to the life in balls and chairs, the , 1 heaven in a grain of sand and the eternity in the three-minute traffic of his animation table. McLaren is entranced by life and rhythm. But for all its technical inventiveness and its aesthetic delight, McLaren's work is the expression of an articulate and committed humanist. Whether he
tells a story or he contemplates shifting shapes and hues, McLaren's ob- jective is to reawaken his viewer's eye and heart. His universal following is due to the emotional and sensory impact of his films, but they are also amenable to the processes of critical analysis. Indeed, they are rich enough to demand such investigation.
Finally, one might suggest that the tension here described between the narrative and the contemplative modes may be the most distinctly Cana- dian aspect of this transplanted Scot's work. For Canadian film has never been comfortable in the kind of assertive narrative myths that characterize American films. The Canadian tradition has emphasized documentaries instead of heroic fictions. And even in its best story films, the Canadian experience records awe at the vast setting, not the American's heady conquest of it. Joyce Weiland's The Far Shore disap- points its audience because it is so Canadian in its space and meditative tempo. And in Michael Snow's Wave Length. there is the deliberate
decision to ignore the murder-mystery story, which seems briefly to hap- pen in the foreground, in preference for the continuation of the con- templative thrust onward through the picture and to the still open space of the sea. But uniquely among Canadian artists, Norman McLaren is the exultant explorer and awed worshipper of inner space, where the mind's eye scans unfathomable riches.
I Notes
I.
  1. Norman McLaren, by Maynard Collins, Canadian Film Institute, Ottawa, 1976. The bibliography (possibly the most useful part of Collins's book) confirms the paucity of critical analysis of McLaren's work .
  2. The Drawings ofNorman McLaren. Tundra Books. Montreal, 1975, p.10.
  3. Ibid..pp.28,29.
  4. /bid.. p.17.