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Archive for November, 2009

It took me a while to catch up with Atom Egoyan’s Adoration. I frequently feel with Egoyan that I am seeing a different film than everyone else; typically his films are celebrated and deprecated for what seem to me the wrong reasons. The fact that he is so good at articulating his intentions doesn’t help, because much of what he has to say is in some sense benign misdirection, geared to flattering the critics who represent his constituency.

I admire greatly Egoyan’s sheer mastery as a director, his ability to compose image and sound into richly textured aesthetic experiences. And while I deeply respect his intention to challenge his audience to question and reflect on narrative, I am also frequently vexed by the artificiality of his constructs. In his more recent work, he has seemed limited by his own artistic persona. Ararat was brilliant in finding a way to approach an historical atrocity without trivializing it, but came crashing to earth when the filmmaker seemed to be imitating his own earlier work; Where the Truth Lies was cinematically ravishing, but somehow quite naïve in its awareness of the particular narrative demands of its genre.

Others have observed that Adoration represents a return to his earlier films, which I did not find encouraging at all. But once again that strikes me as entirely wrong. I was delighted to discover that it is in fact a real step forward. Yes, all the obsessive Egoyan concerns are here. But, delicately, somewhat tentatively, they are infused with a new depth of feeling. The film strikes me as his most deeply personal.

Adoration has a remarkable theme that is profound and vital. It’s about how people project their own personal traumas onto collective ones. How hatred is passed on through false ideas and how false ideas are made real through belief. Like all of Egoyan’s films, it’s also about the fact that the truth is hidden and requires a personal struggle to discover.

Egoyan is the filmmaker as skeptic. Since storytelling relies on belief more than anything, Egoyan pushes his stories right to the edge between the credible and the absurd, and fragments his plot so that we will be engaged by a desire to understand, and in the process reflect on our own activity in making meaning. He wants us to question, not believe.

His persistent foregrounding, in almost all his work, of image-making technology is both metaphor (for the recessive nature of truth) and reflection (of the fact that we are watching a movie and that watching a movie is a process that invokes illusions).

Egoyan his distilled these concerns almost obsessively with each film, and yes, in some ways Adoration brings us back to his first film Next of Kin, which was also an adolescent quest for identity defined by a struggle towards and away from family.

The protagonist here is Simon, an orphaned adolescent. The mystery at the core of the story has to do with his parents’ death, and in particular his father’s role in it. Egoyan’s films have frequently focused on adolescents (Next of Kin, Family Viewing, Exotica, The Sweet Hereafter) and without exception have dealt with individuals trapped by traumatic experiences, trapped by the past. Usually these are private, familial traumas, although in Ararat it was a mass collective trauma (the Armenian genocide). In Adoration we get both, although the collective trauma never actually happened, and the film suggests that, in a way, all trauma is individual.

This may, still, be Egoyan’s most optimistic film. In spite of being critically celebrated, the word on the street about Egoyan’s work has always been that it is “cold,” indeed he has done as much as anyone to form the perception that Canadian cinema is chilly and perverse. But in fact the emotional distance in Egoyan’s films has always reflected a passionate and ultimately compassionate concern for human suffering, and that has never been more clear than in Adoration. One of the factors in the film’s warmth is the wonderful central performance from Dylan Bostick, radiant with a combination of sensitivity and inner strength. He warms the film up in a way that someone like Sarah Polley, for all her tremendous nuance as a performer, doesn’t do. Egoyan is also the father of a boy around the age of this character, and, as myself the father of a boy that same age (and also one a few years older) I was deeply touched by the film’s awareness of the acute ethical and emotional sensitivity that teenaged boys are capable of.

The other rap on Egoyan is that his films reflect Canadian government/institutional imperatives (i.e. Telefilm’s agenda) rather than what audiences actually want to see. It is true that from the mid 80’s to the mid 90’s, “create a cinema that is culturally significant and successful with festivals and critics, and financial success will follow” was the governing dictum of feature film funding in Canada (as a film festival programmer I was part of this system). Egoyan both crystallized this agenda (government agencies badly needed any kind of perceived success – unlike the private sector for which success ultimately is an objective business matter) and benefited from it with a career. But I must say, in a time when the Telefilm agenda has become a largely laughable attempt to imitate Hollywood success without anything like the system that can make that success happen (nor the ability to recognize, nurture and advance talent), the sincere and mature artistry of Egoyan’s work is lookin’ pretty good.

Indeed, while in many corners Egoyan was perceived to have lost his way after The Sweet Hereafter, there is no question that his expressive mastery has grown from film to film and he is now one of the most artistically mature filmmakers now working.

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Watching The Getaway recently reaffirmed for me what a great artist Sam Peckinpah was. Somehow I had missed this film over the years, discouraged from watching it by its highly uneven reputation, and the fact that I find Ali McGraw to be a black hole who tends to pull a movie into oblivion. The film didn’t change my opinon of La McGraw, and in fact her vacuity pulls her co-star Steve McQueen badly into its orbit. In Peckinpah’s preceding film, Junior Bonner, McQueen was at his best and seems well in the groove of Peckinpah’s male characters, their brutality an expression of their sensitivity. Here he seems like the Steve McQueen of the unwatchably glib The Thomas Crown Affair.

But everything about the film besides its lead actors is beautiful. The fact that it works as a crime thriller in a relatively uncomplicated way is a bonus, because, though it is not among his great works, it is fully haunted by the ghosts that make Peckinpah’s work so revelatory. Peckinpah at his best treats subjects that are at the centre of American storytelling (the frontier, masculinity, violence) with a grace, depth and poetry that exceeds even Hawks and Ford (maybe that’s just a generational thing, though; too bad no one of my generation managed to surpass Peckinpah).

So excited was I by this, that I immediately ordered a copy of The Osterman Weekend, Sam’s last film, which I saw at Toronto’s Imperial 6 Cinemas on its initial release in 1983, and remembered as borderline unwatchable. But if The Getaway was this good, perhaps I had just missed the point on Osterman (at the time I had yet to see The Wild Bunch or Ride the High Country or Bring me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, now three of my favourite American films, only Straw Dogs and at much too young an age [14]).

I have this theory: that films from the 70’s have gotten better, and films from the 80’s have gotten worse. It’s remarkable how few exceptions there seem to be. Sadly, The Osterman Weekend is not one of them. Not only was it is as bad as I remembered, knowing Peckinpah’s work makes its badness more tragic. Not primarily because of the vast gap in quality between Osterman and his earlier films — well, except for Convoy and The Killer Elite, though I think it is worse — but because it is a kind of announcement of the annihilation of a great filmmaker. It depicts a world in which all the values that were both celebrated and mourned in his great works – and that ability to both mourn and celebrate at the same time has something to do with their greatness– have ceased to exist. Those values have been destroyed by vast institutions (within the narrative, the CIA and the mass media; while embodied by the film itself, 20th Century Fox and the cheesy producers [Highlander: Search for Vengeance, anyone?] who hired Peckinpah because he would work cheap and could do some signature slow mo). The “action” scenes come off as self-parody, which may have been inevitable given that the techniques of Peckinpah’s brilliant depictions of violence had already been absorbed by the mainstream which had fully inverted their meaning. The performances range from wooden to embarrassing, but what the actors have in common is an apparent cluelessness as to what kind of movie they are in and what they are supposed to be doing. Where Peckinpah’s great films were narratively spare, charting a linear trajectory as they accumulate mysterious depth, Osterman is not only cluttered to the point of absurdity but seems to deliberately void itself of narrative coherence as it proceeds (in spite of a screenplay by the wonderful Alan Sharp.) Where his previous films are preoccupied with the relationship between man and nature, and man and the community, in Osterman nature has ceased to exist (the film mostly takes place in an ugly house cluttered with video equipment, and the exteriors are largely barren) and the community has been rendered an abstraction by the mass media. In short, it may be that by 1983, the artistic construct known as the “Sam Peckinpah film” could no longer exist, not only because of Sam’s alcoholism, but because of history. (Alcoholism may have been only symptom, not cause.)

In any case, it seems like Sam, who had been given the kind of soul-breaking punishment Hollywood reserves for its most committed artists, had decided to offer a parodical reflection back at that world of its idea of what a commercial film is in the early 1980’s, in all its ugly, noisy, incoherent meaninglessness.

The saddest spectacle is watching auteurists try to justify the film’s brilliance, as though the subject matter was an artistic choice as opposed to the only job on offer, and as though it were an artistic testament rather than a self-inscribed grave marker.

It is true that the nihilistic ugliness of the film can be identified as a current in Peckinpah’s work as far back as The Wild Bunch. Part of what made Sam great as an artist was in the demons he confronted. In The Osterman Weekend, he shows us what ugliness is like without the artistry, since the world had no use for the artistry.

I haven’t yet listened to the commentary track by the redoubtable Seydor, Weddle, Simmons and Redmond, whose books I have devoured. Perhaps they will convince me otherwise. Nor have I watched the “directors cut” included, though I would bet dollars to donuts that it is just a more extreme version of everything I have stated above. Peckinpah spent 8 months editing the film before being fired, and I suspect he was just trying to leave them as big of a mess as possible.

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