Tag Archives: story

Bully: A Film By Lee Hirsch (2011)

by Carl Wilson

I didn’t want to see Bully at first. Immediately when I read about it in the paper, I felt that I could see the whole documentary unspooling in my head, with scenes of micro-brutality and indifferent response that were more than over-familiar, but painfully so. I’m glad the movie exists, along with the whole anti-bullying campaign of recent years (even if I am sometimes a little fatalistically skeptical about how much it can change). Still, I thought, I’ve processed those experiences, don’t want to revisit them, and don’t see any hint that the film has anything unexpected to offer.

Nevertheless, this week a friend persuaded me to go. On one level I guessed right: As cinema, as documentary, this is not highly accomplished. In the final half hour, it descends into PSA territory, as it tours us around rallies held by parents in memory of kids who killed themselves, with the dulling tropes of balloons being released, candles lit, voices supposedly un-silenced – all the modern American mediatized rituals of mourning and “never agains” and the white-on-black number to call in the final frame.

But it turned out to affect me, spending time with these bullied kids and frustrated families –  the heartbreakingly brave and funny lesbian teen who is trying to transform her small town singlehandedly until she realizes that’s way too much to ask of herself, her beautiful friends, the parents trying to reach out and feel the shape of this thing and finding it always too small or too big to get hold of and never just right, the “fish faced” geek who I had to admit irritated me the way he irritated his tormenters.

Sitting through the vérité evidence, moment by moment, did provide a sort of therapy – not so much in the sympathy I felt for what the characters were enduring as in the way it had me constantly anticipating how the moments we were seeing would affect the lives ahead of them. Of course the lens through which I was doing that forecasting was my own experience, and so the lens became a mirror, in which I could see the threads tracing back from today to those moments of my own, way back. It was a very vulnerable feeling, but a cathartic and informative one too, a reminder that we never really finish with any parts of our lives – they just land differently in each successive version of our story.

So here’s what I think I learned: Whatever the particulars of the little bundle of dynamite you happen to carry around under your sweater, even a bad movie about it might be worth seeing, perhaps differently so than a bad book. The way the medium plays with duration, suspending it or simply making you watch every minute more closely, affords you a little space to try moving the hands on the timer, even to bring the explosion a few seconds closer, and then to safely rewind it again.

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Scud Mountain Boys at Lee’s Palace in Toronto, Sat. Feb. 25, 2012

by Carl Wilson

Memory, as everybody knows, is an odd, perverse thing. When I first saw the reunited Scud Mountain Boys’ stage setup at Lee’s Palace last weekend, I said, “Oh, that’s funny, it’s just like the photo on the back of one of their albums where they’re sitting in somebody’s apartment around a kitchen table, playing and drinking.” Then I came across the above 1990s-era photo online, clearly not a candid home snapshot but one that includes microphones and at least a bar booth if not an actual stage. Was this the album shot, or a publicity picture I got with the Sub Pop CD reissue of their first two albums, when I worked at an alt-weekly in Montreal in the mid-90s, which is how I first heard of the band? Or another picture altogether? I wanted to dig out my copy of the CD to check, but almost all my CDs are walled in with a bunch of boxes in a nook off my kitchen and retrieving it would be basically a home-renovation project.

What a more exhausting and error-fraught sort of excavation it must be to dig up three people with whom you were once intimate, but haven’t spoken to in 14 years, and propose that you do the thing you used to do together, before you stopped talking. But now-Toronto-based songwriter Joe Pernice (better known for his subsequent and current band, the Pernice Brothers) did that after a close mutual friend of the group’s unexpectedly died. The deceased had been a fan and the idea was to honour his memory. Not right after, though. As Pernice explained on stage, it took him a year to make the phone calls. But whatever he was afraid of happening didn’t happen, maybe because “nobody really remembers what caused all the shit any more.”

What I hadn’t known was that the kitchen-table-on-stage was a standard live Scuds motif in their initial run, around the Boston area, not a cute reunion gimmick. You could argue that now it has become a cute reunion gimmick. I think it is more apt to say that it is a technique, one of those stage-magic tricks you discover and maintain because it works, makes the show the way you need it to be. Now I find it virtually impossible to picture them standing in standard band configuration, rather than drinking beers off the table (Americans visiting Toronto always love Keiths), bending over in the uncomfortably expressive angles around their instruments that people do in a home song-swap session (not a “jam,” as Pernice admonished), mumbling in each other’s ears, telling tales between tunes.

But this was not folksy-homey coffeehouse shtick. Pernice’s songs are too infused with rue for that, as much as classical pop craftsmanship ever has been, lying (their pretty white asses off) where the mouths of the George Jones, Jimmy Webb, Alex Chilton and Joe Strummer rivers meet. His persona now is laid back and salty-charming, but the songs make it easy to picture it when his back-in-the-day yarns tend to include heavy doses of anti-anxiety meds. Then you’re tempted to imagine “all the shit” wasn’t so much the bass player, the mandolinist/drummer or the lead guitarist’s faults – but maybe that’s just because they weren’t talking as much on stage. Second-guessing other people’s memories is an even less reliable thing.

Indeed, I wondered what the person in question would have had to say about the story Pernice told about writing one of his best-loved songs: A girlfriend at the time, he said, kept going on about what a romantic song “Hey Jealousy” by the Gin Blossoms was, and he exasperatedly responded that the guy in the song was just trying to get laid. To prove his point he wrote a seductive, early-70s-style, gorgeously hazy tune in which a guy tries to wheedle his way back into a girl’s bed (“I would give anything to make it with you, one more time/ I would give everything I own”), which builds up to chillingly menacing insinuations. He titled it, “Grudge Fuck.”

The crowd was full of pushing-middle-aged folks, no doubt with their own recollections to husband. There wasn’t a lot of dancing or swaying, as if everybody were still following the cool-rules of 1997, when they went to more shows, when audiences stood or sat nodding with their arms crossed whenever not moshing. But when they did express emotion, it was with surprisingly rowdy outbursts, of varying appropriateness: Why did people scream every time Boston was mentioned? Was the room really full of Mass. expats or were they just trying to bonafide their in-the-knowdom? Even on a Saturday in a bar, do you shout every time a song mentions drinking and drugging, when those are the things clearly killing the protagonists? Jeez, it wasn’t St. Patrick’s Day.

Unfair. But the intimacy made it tempting to rubberneck into people’s minds. Pernice suddenly did a double take at a woman holding up a homemade shirt in the front row: “Is that you?” He explained that she’d shown him the same shirt at a show in another town 15 years ago – when her parents brought her, and she was, “like, 13. … Wait, I don’t like the way that sounds.” The dysfunctional-neighbourhood feel was cemented when Sadies (and former Pernice Bros) drummer Mike Belitsky cracked the singer up so much from the back of the room with a text message (his iPhone was on the table, to watch the time) that Pernice had to take a few minutes’ break after corpsing on his first couple of tries at the Scuds’ somberly beautiful cover of Cher’s “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves.” He had to think of “nuns beating me” and other dark childhood images to regain composure.

After all, I’m not the boss of anybody else’s nostalgia. (Though I’m tempted to call Pernice on leaving out that he didn’t just “work in a bakery” when the band started, but was doing an MFA in creative writing.**) Hell, I’m not even the boss of mine. I was grateful finally to see a band that never played near me in their original lifespan. And to see them enjoying each other’s company. Even though there’s a part of me that selfishly hopes this slight return will be the sum of it. That even wishes they’d remained, as the slogan of Lubbock, Texas’s The Flatlanders had it, “More a Legend than a Band.” (Yet even they later reunited for a string of shows and new records.) That sympathizes with Darren Hayman’s title, “We Love the Bands that Don’t Re-form.”

It’s an adult pleasure to have memories that stay memories, memories you can’t recover, even ones you never got to attain in the first place. Perhaps we just confuse reality with rarity, essence with inaccessibility. We think there’s only so much room around a kitchen table. Or, whether superstitiously or maybe with real folk wisdom, we long for minor rites of sacrifice, destruction, some kind of preview of death and loss to gird us for the real thing, even fantasizing it can homeopathically prevent the real thing: “I’m going to burn the silo when you go,” a farmer whose wife is on the way out sings in one sterling Scuds song. “You’ll see the flames, and maybe know.”

We’re damn fools, the thing is. Can’t we be allowed sometimes to forget that? The sugar-lick torture of the Scud Mountain Boys was to remind us and make us like it.

 

** Joe informs me that there was a significant time lag between the bakery and the grad-school period – sorry for presuming on my own in-the-knowness!

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Pine Point: An Interactive Documentary by Mike Simons

by Carl Wilson

The furthest north I’ve ever been was in Grade 10, when I played second trumpet in the high-school band and we went on an exchange to Pine Point in the Northwest Territories. The dominant feeling of the trip was the sheer anxious thrill of being so far from home, billeted with a strange family, and playing concerts to audiences full of strangers. The kids in Pine Point were really fun and kind. But the other notable thing was that their town seemed kind of fucked up.

This wasn’t a secret: It was a mining town, and the mine was closing down; there was a big sign that we saw every time our bus drove out of the city limits to go play Hay River or some other neighbouring community, which read, “WOULD THE LAST PERSON LEAVING PINE POINT PLEASE TURN OUT THE LIGHTS?” I’ve always remembered that, as an unusually robust instance of gallows humour – in a town down south, the city and the cops would never have left the sign standing. Since then, people from other resource- or industry-dependent towns that dwindled have told me that someone there pulled the same prank.

But it wasn’t just that the town was in decline. It was also that some of the young teenagers in the band at the Pine Point school had their own apartments, where they lived on their own. After band practice we would go over there and party, and they had a lot more booze and drugs around than at the parties I went to back home. They threw around a lot of dirty language within earshot of their teachers and didn’t get hassled for it. All of this was pretty shocking to us, the Catholic high-school band that played adulterated versions of Handel and such (because “high-school band” actually is a genre of music that doesn’t quite correspond to anything people really listen to). It wasn’t just gallows humour here, but a kind of gallows culture.

We’d thought the town we came from, Brantford, was fucked up. And it was: It had been an industrial centre, home to one of North America’s biggest farm-equipment manufacturing plants, where half the town had worked. And when I was a kid, Massey-Ferguson shut down, plunging the city into a spiral of unemployment and underfunding that it didn’t really claw its way back from until well after I’d left town. Our downtown was a ghost town, battered by a series of unsuccessful renewal schemes, to the point that even now it’s a popular location to shoot horror movies. And I’m sure some of the kids who dropped out of school in Brantford ended up fending for themselves in shitty apartments, too (in fact I know a couple who did). But it wasn’t a fact easily taken for granted, whereas up here it seemed to be.

I just got a quick and confounded glimpse of what was going on in Pine Point, but it was enough to slap me awake a bit, punch some holes in the roof of my sheltered existence, get a mouthful of that taste that’s the vastness of the world. But those were days before the Internet, when long-distance phone calls were still expensive, and I didn’t keep in touch with any of the kids I’d met up north. I think a couple of my bandmates did for a bit, but I don’t remember getting many reports.

So when I stumbled across this beautifully made NFB interactive documentary called Pine Point, I had to struggle to remember for a bit – “wait, isn’t that the place …?” And then, there on the third page of the documentary (I’m sure there’s more accurate technical language in which to talk about this young medium, but I don’t know it) is a sequence that leads up to that sign: “WOULD THE LAST PERSON LEAVING … ”

The narrative begins with a statement by its maker, Mike Simons: “Pine Point was the first place I ever went alone. I was 9, living in Yellowknife and travelled there for a hockey tournament.” So in some ways, he’s coming from the same perspective, as someone to whom Pine Point was a vivid but fleeting youthful flash. There were differences, of course: His was a 45-minute trip, while ours must have been the better part of a day – a 90-minute bus ride to Toronto, some four hours to Edmonton, another couple of hours to Yellowknife, then a terrifyingly small, rattling plane across Great Slave Lake to Hay River and another bus to Pine Point. He came for sports as a kid, me for music as a teen. And I think he was there a few years earlier than I was.

But he went searching for that memory on the Internet, and discovered that Pine Point no longer existed – not that it had just faded into non-existence, but that it had actually been totally demolished and carted away in the year after the mine closed in 1987. But many of its former residents had banded together on the Internet and started having annual reunions.

As Simons notes, the blurriness of hometown memory takes on a particular poignancy when there is nothing left to compare with it, when that place has really become just a concept, hung precariously on the consensus among a limited group of people that it was real. My uncertainty that Pine Point was the place I visited, that’s almost like a vulnerability in the system – like Tinkerbelle, or God, or other characters in stories that will flicker out of existence if no one believes in them. I reach crucial points in the documentary and think, “Woah, the high school burned down six years before I was there? I vaguely remember hearing that – or am I just synthesizing that memory now on the spot?”

Fortunately, Simons’ thoughtful, deeply textured project takes that private tapestry of images and stories and transplants it squarely into the more secure public realm. (This week it won a Webby, which is a medium deal.) Of course, it gets there through the work of an outsider, but Simons puts in the foreground the tenuousness of memory and the difficulty of preserving let alone communicating it. And that fragility finds an echo in the wounds and tragedies that many Pine Pointers turn out to have undergone in the decades of their dispersal.

They’re the kinds of stories you’d find if you followed any random collection of people over a few decades, as Michael Apted has shown, but just as having seen his characters as children renders even their more banal adult misfortunes wrenching for the viewer, somehow the way each individual Pine Pointer’s roots extend into the fallow frozen dirt of the vanished town (with its “beauty you almost feel guilty for noticing,” as Simons puts it), makes every further deprivation they suffer feel like a greater injustice. At the same time, though, he argues, there’s also a blessing in the fact that Pine Point is gone, as it can never betray them, by changing, or even being different than they imagine it. It is theirs forever, or rather as long as there’s a them to have it.

And this is the reason you never have to have been to Pine Point to appreciate Simons’ achievement here: Really it’s about mortality. The death of the town symbolizes any death, and the way that we each will be remembered, until we’re not. It’s why the interactive nature of the project is so suitable – it gently forces you to get your hands in there, not to try to stay out of this fray of life and death.

The documentary counsels appreciation of little things like teams, tournaments, hobby groups and parties, as well as those big bits of history that unite us, because they all serve as pegs to hang our quilts of memory on (Simons remembers the day a Russian satellite crashed near Yellowknife the way the Pine Pointers remember the high-school fire and the way we’ll all remember getting the news of Osama bin Laden’s assassination this week). And some day when they pack each of us up and cart us away, you want to have accumulated a nice healthy collection of those involvements large and small, so you leave people more to think about, more to recall you by, than that you seemed kind of fucked up, in that period when you were closing down.

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Vagabond (1985) – written and directed by Agnès Varda

by Margaux Williamson

(My friend Amy Lam asked if I wanted to go see this at the Bell Lightbox in Toronto. I had seen it before, but only once on my television. We ran into our friend Jon Davies in the theatre and sat next to him. After the movie Jon told us that this particular Vagabond screening had a no-popcorn-allowed policy. Amy and I were pretty surprised by this information though we hadn’t wanted any popcorn.)


Vagabond is about a young female drifter named Mona who lives mostly in a tent that she carries on her back, having abandoned the accepted needs, requirements and rules of polite society. Vagabond could also easily be described as a movie about filmmaker Agnès Varda’s curiosity with a young female drifter. It is one of Varda’s first movies to combine a documentary approach with fictional content – an interest that eventually drew her out of the “French New Wave Legend” category and into the “Influential Contemporary Genius” category.

The movie begins with Mona’s dead body lying in the cold landscape of a French vineyard. Varda tells us, from behind the camera, that this young woman seemed to have come from nowhere and that now she is gone without anyone coming to claim her body. Varda tells us that she wants to know what her story was – as best as it can be understood. She says she wants to gather information from the people who came across Mona in her drifting in order to find Mona’s story.

And so we start again – with the living Mona coming out of the water. The movie follows the rest of her actions and her interactions (and the testaments of those who interacted with her) until her death. It all takes place in the south of France. Some of the interview subjects offer their judgments of Mona and reveal their prejudices – others express admiration and curiosity. These reactions may not be surprising, but it is compelling that most of the admiration and curiosity comes from the women, old and young. Many of the performers are non-actors. Perhaps it is because Varda is so adapt at directing “play” that the performances from the non-actors fit in so seamlessly with the “actors” and with the loose and direct style of the whole movie. There is a real sense that everyone is “at play” at telling an incredibly serious story.

The characters include Mona’s employers for a short time, lovers for a brief moment, hitched rides that end quickly, and casual companions who are easily lost. These characters end up circling each other, too, at different times and places. It starts to look like a small world with cause and effect. We see a community being created through Mona even as she holds herself away from it. These intricately webbed interactions seem a little bit more fairy tale than realistic but we understand this fairy tale is based on evidence from the real world. Along with Varda, we are telling ourselves a story about Mona too. It is often challenging avoiding the human tendency to make stories – to make order out of random interactions. This movie does not repress the urge to connect the dots. It is the movie’s primary pleasure.

In the narrative hunt to learn who Mona is, we start to see a map of the south of France as traced by Mona – the rich people, the labourers, the small towns, the vineyard landscapes. Mona doesn’t let anyone (not even the audience) into her thoughts and feelings. We feel grateful for this, grateful for this expanse of land outside human neurosis.

We feel grateful too that Varda is more curious about Mona than pitying. Maybe it’s because Mona wants no help, represses nothing and desires little that there is a notable lack of tension around her. Her brutal honesty and lack of social discretion and generosity do her no favours – we see her get kicked out early from a ride because she insults the driver’s car, unprompted. But we also know that she wasn’t really going anywhere anyway so it made no difference that she got kicked out. Her lack of repression combined with her lack of need creates a palatable absence of social anxiety – at least for Mona and for us in the audience who may be inclined to feel sorry for her.

The original French title for this movie translates as “with no roof and no law”. Unfortunately, living without rules comes with its own joyless burden. Boredom trails Mona’s lack of social anxiety like a disease. It is boring to not need anything – to not give anything. We only see Mona’s desire ignited, and boredom lifted, on the rare occasions that she drifts by a radio and hears rock n’ roll.

Like the differing opinions of Mona help by the characters she comes across, the audiences will have a million different opinions about Vagabond. For me, it made me think that too much freedom from society can feel less like rock n’roll and a lot more like a muddy, boring entropy.

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Rescue Dawn (2007) – directed by Werner Herzog, based on the life of Dieter Dengler

by Margaux Williamson

(I saw this while in a hut on the coast of Mexico. For dinner, I had split a can of beans with my boyfriend while we looked through the movies I always bring with me when I travel. They are movies that I sort of want to watch and sort of don’t want to watch so they keep for a while. Rescue Dawn was there in a sleeve along with Old Boy, Dawn of the Dead and a Cassavettes movie. We decided on Rescue Dawn. It ended up being a great movie to watch in the tropical dark while the palm trees shook around outside, ants climbed into my drink and giant cockroaches walked by.)

Rescue Dawn is a drama based on the true story of Dieter Dengler’s crash into enemy territory during the early days of the Vietnam War. It was made by Werner Herzog who, ten years previous, made a documentary about Dieter Dengler called Little Dieter Needs to Fly. The drama is pretty accurate, the documentary (one of my favourites) takes some liberties.

Rescue Dawn begins and ends within the time of Dieter Dengler’s U.S. Navy service. Little Deiter Needs to Fly is focuses on Dieter as a middle aged man who lives in California. In California, Dieter tells and reenacts the story of his life to Werner Herzog. He is handsome and thoughtful. He is not resentful of anyone he recalls and is quick to smile. He looks a touch uncertain of Werner Herzog’s process but also completely committed to it.

In the documentary, he tells us about his childhood in World War II Germany. It involved being hungry and bombings from the U.S. military. He tells us that during a raid on his village, as he stood in an upstairs window watching the chaos, that he caught the eye of a U.S. pilot who happened to be flying by the window. He said it was then that he knew he had to fly.

He immigrated to the U.S. when he was 18 and joined the navy. He eventually went to Vietnam where, on his first mission, he crashed a plane into enemy territory. This was followed by his capture, his imprisonment at a POW camp, an escape from the POW camp, a journey through the jungle and an eventual rescue by the U.S. Navy. Hunger is also a big part of this part of the story.

When Dieter tells his story, there is very little dramatization or emphasis on emotional pain, very little emphasis on the cruelty of others. It is easy to believe that there is no repressed rage or revenge fantasies for this man – only an endless depth of successful defense mechanisms and a mountain of hard-won understanding on human life. Later, in California, he shows the camera his stockpile of dry food that he keeps in giant barrels under his suburban floorboards. This is almost the most painful part of Little Dieter Needs to Fly, and here he doesn’t say anything. We understand that he is both optimistic enough to survive the unimaginable but also realistic enough to survive it too.

I probably would have watched Rescue Dawn earlier had that one person at the Toronto Film Festival not told me that it was very bad and had that movie poster featured a goofily beaming Christian Bale instead of a serious Christian Bale. Also, I loved the documentary so much and had seen it several times so I wasn’t sure it was necessary to see it dramatized.

Though after watching Recue Dawn, I remembered that what is even better than a favourite movie is a good story that is worth repeating. Had I not watched Rescue Dawn, I might have missed that within one of my favourite movies was also one of the best stories that I know.

In Rescue Dawn, as we witness the actors committing themselves to their roles within the story’s parameters, it is easier to make some sort of logic out of Dieter Dengler’s ways. In one illuminating moment, after a fair amount of ill treatment at the hands of his captors, one of them blows a shot gun close to Dieter’s head – knocking out his hearing for a moment but not hurting him otherwise.

After, already, a fair amount of suffering, Dieter finally looks genuinely startled by the blast. “NEVER, NEVER do that again!” he screams, still contained in his handcuffs, surrounded by enemies. It was as though he had been in reasonable negotiations up until that point but now they had really crossed a line. His scream was a warning to not cross that unreasonable line again. Here we understand immediately how reasonable he thinks humans are, how much he is relating to them – even the ones that don’t speak his language, who drag him through the jungle in chains and point a gun at his head. It is as though he really understands that he could have been in their position as captors. But still, he is screaming, he has limits.

This is a person who had somehow managed to be on the ugly side of two ugly 20th century wars, was a victim of both and who voices no complaint. It is fair to say that with this complicated history maybe he did not so easily choose to make villains out of others.

Apart from Werner Herzog’s brilliant Little Dieter Needs to Fly, we now have more of the story of Dieter Dengler, a person whose kind, knowing and careful eyes and whose piles of food under his Californian house’s floorboards still have a lot to tell us – something about how to be insanely optimistic about other humans while staying realistic to the core.

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Black Swan (2010) – conceived and directed by Darren Aronofsky, written by Mark Heyman, starring Natalie Portman

by Margaux Williamson

(I saw this movie with my friend Ryan Kamstra. I wasn’t sure if I would like the movie, but I thought I might like it better if I saw it with Ryan. We have a pretty easy time laughing at things while also taking them very seriously. This is usually helpful with work that takes no breaks for jokes. We saw it at a big multiplex during the day.)



Swan Lake is an old story. Tchaikovsky brought it into form for the ballet in 1876. It tells the story of a princess who is under the spell of an evil sorcerer. By day, she is a swan, and at night, a woman. Other women are under the same spell but the princess is called the Swan Queen. They are confined all together in the prison of Swan Lake. The only thing that can break the spell is the promise of true love from a prince.

We have enjoyed this story for so long because the story both helps to clarify and to mythologize the medium that delivers it – ballet. During the day, the ballerinas are on their toes, defying gravity and human limitations to move in freakishly hypnotic and otherworldly unison. We sense there is something wrong but we also so enchanted. Afterwards, if we happen to be at the same party with the dancers, we watch them smoke cigarettes, drink vodka and occasionally glare in our direction. Mere mortals! But mortals are the only things we ever fall in love with.

In the movie Black Swan, the story of Swan Lake is updated for both the 21st century and the medium of film. This changes a few things. Here the story extends beyond the stage and into the lives of the people creating the staged performance of the Swan Lake ballet. This solves a perpetual problem with the old story: We never really knew why a sorcerer would turn a princess into a swan – other than “because he was so evil” and that is never such a good answer.

Now,  freed from the narrow perspective of the stage and the fairytale, we understand more easily that a sorcerer would turn a princess into a swan because it is really something to watch a woman dance like that.

In the old story, a prince does come. He even comes close to breaking the spell for the Swan Queen, but his efforts are thwarted by the sorcerer’s trickery. The sorcerer presents his daughter to the prince as though she is the Swan Queen. The daughter, although dressed in black, is a look-alike of the Swan Queen.  The prince is fooled and offers his everlasting love to this wrong woman – this black swan.

When learning of his mistake, he runs to the Swan Queen begging for her forgiveness. Being young and full of goodness, she easily forgives him, but that is not enough to end the spell. The ballet ends with a suicide or sometimes with a double suicide – since now this is the only remaining option.

But here, in the 21st century, we are not so interested in the prince. The prince, whose only purpose is to break the spell of being such a strange creature, is of no use to us.  If the spell broke, the Swan Queen would lose her day job. So, in Black Swan, the prince is barely more than a prop. Though we see some elements of his character fused with that of the sorcerer (the company’s artistic director) – the man in charge of the swans and picking the right woman for the role of the Swan Queen. What the Swan Queen wants more than anything is to be all swan. The Swan Queen here is Nina played by Natalie Portman.

Though the prince has lost sexual value, the sorcerer (the director) and the black swan (a new dancer at the company named Lily) have gained it considerably.  The director is the boss that Nina wants to please and learn from. And Lily,  with her playfully devious and sensual nature, inevitably interests Nina. Lily has so much to show her. These objects of attraction we can understand. They can only help improve her craft, bringing her closer to staying a Swan Queen forever.

Since the origins of the Swan Lake ballet, the Swan Queen and the black swan are often played by the same dancer. Nina’s attempt to embody the black swan successfully (having mastered the Swan Queen already) forms the narrative of Black Swan.  If she fails to embody the darker, more sensual depths of the black swan, Lily might be cast in her place.

In an earlier movie of Darren Aronofsky’s, Requiem for a Dream, his manner of exploring the murky and painful depths of drug addiction in Hubert Selby Jr.’s book of the same name, seemed a little generic or unfocused – as though the formula for serious art was obvious: the darker the art, the better the art.

But in Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky’s intentions seem much more articulated and transparent. It seems as though he has set himself up in this underworld, roaming around in the clichés and sludge, because that is the place he loves the best. His pleasure and a very subtle humour accompany everything – though there are no jokes. It helps here that the characters are not victims of drugs, but of excellence. The goal for excellence frames the masochism involved, in this decent into the underworld, as a rare pleasure rather than a necessary cost of pleasure.

One of the best things about the movie is the complete naivety that surrounds Nina as she bravely and blindly attempts to descend to the depths. Because of her inexperience in these depths, she gives everything she finds there the same value:  sex is equal to murder is equal to confidence. This makes her quite a villain.

Throughout the movie, Nina longs to earn the ballet director’s nickname “little princess” that he bestows on only the rarest and finest of Swan Queens. It is really something to see how bloody things get before this small woman finally earns her nickname.

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Defenestration the Movie, by Everything Is Terrible (2010)

by Carl Wilson

Action-movie trailers slam together a film’s most explosive eruptions of sound and vision to promise that the actual blockbuster will deliver an escalating sequence of adrenaline jolts and leave the viewer exhilarated and spent at the end of the orgy. A film, of course, seldom fulfills that exactly. If it’s a good one, it deliberately defers into suspense and expectation, like a good lover, to heighten the release when it comes – and also forge attachment to the characters, raise plot stakes and other Robert McKee “Story” steez, so the kaboom affects feelings, not just feeling.

But what would it be like if movies really were like their trailers? One hint lies in this extended montage of window-smashing movie moments by a member of the U.S. collective Everything Is Terrible, one of many groups that continue the found-footage tradition begun in the pre-digital decades by the likes of Bruce Conner and other 16-mm pioneers. EiT generally mines gems of VHS trash from garage sales and junk shops to spotlight awkward and incongruous moments in cable-access, educational films, direct-to-video films and the like. But here they’re drawing on big successful Hollywood films (thus Defenestration: The Movie‘s absence from the group’s YouTube channel).

The auteur teases that he’s got a 30-minute version he hasn’t posted, which I would happily pay for, but the seven-minute-plus version is a start. It’s the most relaxing film I have seen in a long time, more and more with every viewing. I don’t know if a sequence of hundreds of shootings or bomb blasts would have the same effect, but it doesn’t take long for the illusion that someone is being thrown or jumping out (or into) an actual window to dissolve, supplanted by a sense of watching a little magic trick being done by scores of different magicians.

The “glass” is usually, as many movie fans know, just boiled and (temporarily) hardened glucose known as sugar glass or candy glass. More recently it’s probably computer generated, which is less fun. In either case after repeated exposure it no longer looks sharp and dangerous but sweetly flimsy, its jagged points more like tinsel icicles on a Christmas tree. Each broken pane becomes a nostalgic reminder of the shards a few clips ago. You begin to hear the limited range of crashing sounds in Hollywood’s collective audio library, so that there’s a minimalist-score rhythm of repetition and variation. The actors’ bodies, detached from story or celebrity, are just floppy-doll projectiles, secondary in importance to the glass they shatter.

The one time somebody, as you sensibly would in real life, uses a heavy object to break the window rather than hurling themselves through, it seems like a clumsy breach of the rules of broken-glass aerial ballet: What’s the matter, you never learned fourth position?

But beyond its tinkling, tumbling aesthetic quality, there’s an additional draw about Defenestration: The Movie for me: I once threw myself through an actual pane of glass.

I was maybe 6 or 7 years old, and my family was visiting friends who must have lived somewhere near Niagara Falls, Ont. (because I know that what happened made me miss a much-anticipated trip to Marineland). I no longer know who this family was, but one sunny summer afternoon I was playing some sort of chasing game with their kids (I remember a daughter about my age). A not-especially-swift runner, I was lagging behind when one of them ran in the back kitchen door. I saw that the window in the door was raised, and thought I could shave seconds off my time and cinch the tag by diving through it. I did not take much time to consider the wisdom of this.

The door was just very clean, it explained with a crash. There was blood in gushers.

I was gathered up in anxious arms and barreled off to the hospital, and had the rest of the weekend to contemplate the stitches in my arm and a few different places in my head, wrapped in gauze, drinking Koolaid and reading comic books, while the other kids went on their summer field trips.

I still have the scars, though since I turned 30 the one I was proud of, the mark of identity on my forearm, has sadly faded to a phantom of the angry and insistent thing it was in my teen years, when I rather hoped strangers would misinterpret it as an unspoken signal of some kind of a dark and violent past. (Which had a certain psychological truth, though not a literal one; it wasn’t only posturing.)

Aside from minor car crashes and unpleasant but not-so-dramatic physical assaults, that glass-door-dive is probably the closest experience I’ve had of movie-style violence. And I wonder if this is what makes Defenestration especially soothing. If there is something to the Freudian idea that we are drawn to repeat our traumas, literally or symbolically, then this movie is custom-made therapy for me.

Though I no longer remember the pain or distress that must have been involved, and have only a cinematic recollection of it myself, there’s probably a trace in my subconscious. Or at least some level on which I feel, through the medium of my visible scar, that the sound and sight of glass breaking is an element of what’s made me myself. That stitching sutured an element of the story-of-Carl to my body. (In Jane Siberry’s song “Hockey”: “He’ll have that scar on his chin forever/ Someday his girlfriend will say, ‘Hey, where …?’/ And he might look out the window – or not.”)

And perhaps Defenestration also works as a kind of exposure therapy, the way that if you have fear of heights (as I more certainly do) they say the best thing is to go higher than you feel comfortable over and over, and then a little more. Although it’s also the increasing unreality, the dissipation of what little threat a through-the-window movie scene carries into ritual and trope, that’s so easing and ultimately meditative about it.

I’m sure for more profound traumas there’d be no equivalent effect. Although a montage of the Bush years looped over and over might be nice. To get to see the Terrible turn to farce and then to poetry, and then to complete abstraction, to light and form and Foley music – that’s a grace that might only be found out past the policed boundaries of Story.

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Filed under carl wilson, movies, TV/video, visual art