Monday, April 16, 2012
HARD CORE LOGO II - Review By Greg Klymkiw - This offbeat and deeply personal sequel to Bruce McDonald's legendary 1996 punk extravaganza is a surprisingly truthful and elegiac tribute to a lost generation.
Hard Core Logo II (2011) dir. Bruce McDonald
Starring: Bruce McDonald, Care Failure, Julian Richings, Shannon Jardine, Peter Moore
By Greg Klymkiw
I have to admit that part of my favourable response to Hard Core Logo II is strictly on a personal level. Firstly, my inauguration into the canon of director Bruce McDonald was Roadkill, his crazed rock and road odyssey through Northwestern Ontario. It was the fall of 1989 and during the last year in which I was writing about films. And I really did love writing about movies. I'd been doing so since the late 70s, but I was about to turn a corner in my life and this part of it would be ending a few months or so later.
At the time I was attending the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) and in addition to doing some marketing work on behalf of the film co-operative The Winnipeg Film Group, I was moonlighting as a writer for the now-defunct "Cinema Canada" magazine and was presented with the task of reviewing McDonald's movie. It wasn't hard work at all. It was a terrific picture and my delight with it poured from my soul and through my fingertips and into my word processor like shit through the proverbial Canadian Goose.
At the time it reminded me of both David Lynch's Eraserhead and Allan Arkush's Rock n' Roll High School - hypnotic, dream-like, gloriously black and white, energetic, madly nutty,laugh-out-loud funny and pure rock and roll joy.
I've seen it a few times since and I stand by this assessment.
And goddamn! Roadkill was as Canadian as a fucking beaver pelt adorning Norman Jewison's pate. Every surreal moment from my punk years in Winnipeg seemed to spring miraculously to life. Endless nights in dark, now-defunct watering-holes like the "Native Club", "The Royal Albert Arms" and the basement of the "St. Charles Hotel" (AKA "The Chuckles") - seeing everyone who passed through (early XTC, the Popular Mechanix, the notorious rape-rockers The Mentors) to insane seven-hour drives to Thunder Bay to listen to heavy metal bands (often of the local variety) at the Inn-Towner - that miraculous dive where every chick had hair permed-out like Medusa which, under black light it glowed with an almost radioactive "buy-me-some-fuckin-beer-and-maybe-we-can-fuck-eh" come-hither-with-a-stubby quality.
I felt as if I had died and gone to Heaven.
From here I followed Bruce's films passionately. Most of them I loved, some of them I liked and a number of them had me scratching my head with a kind of what-in-the-fuck-are-you-doing-you-psycho response. In 1996, when I saw his Hard Core Logo, which I loved, I remember being swept away by this road movie involving the crazy punker Joe Dick and his band on a comeback tour through the western prairies of Canada and was convinced McDonald would never top the film.
I was wrong, of course. Throughout the years he delivered one terrific picture after another - most notably his brilliant zombie picture set entirely in a rural radio station Pontypool and his truly whacked adaptation of Maureen Medved's novel The Tracy Fragments. The only film of his I didn't see was the notorious Picture Claire. At TIFF it was screening while 9/11 was happening. The night he was showing his "director commentary" cut at the Bloor Cinema, I was in Winnipeg. I'm cool with that. Every director I love has one or two "Holy Grail" pictures that I hope to partake in someday.
So let's fast forward to the present and how seeing Hard Core Logo II hit me where all the best movies should - on a personal level. Firstly, I bring you back to my own personal full-circle coincidence of HCL II being the first McDonald movie I've seen to write about since I stopped writing about movies. And yeah, here I am, 23 years later, back to the future, so to speak - again writing about movies (amongst other writing chores like screenplays and a text book). I have to admit to a certain sentimental attachment going in to seeing HCL II on this level.
Beyond that though, is the personal relationship one forges with certain artists and their art. Bruce was born about a month after me in the same year. He was born in Kingston and grew up in Scarborough. I was conceived in Detroit and born/raised in Winnipeg. Same difference, really. For many years, without knowing each other in any way, shape or form, we grew up with similar interests and experiences. On that level alone, he's a filmmaker who spoke to me as a contemporary and I've lived through 23 years of his work - connecting aesthetically, but also personally - his work seeming to almost umbilically connect to my very being.
This, I'd say, IS extremely important. When a filmmaker connects with audiences on this level, then truly this is an artist worth studying and revering. However, it's especially noteworthy that his work connects with me as a Canadian with shared experiences.
Hard Core Logo II is NOT a retread or reboot. It IS, a sequel. HCL I, a clever mock-doc wherein the lead character blew his brains out on-camera at the end seemed pretty much sequel-proof. What McDonald does, however, is turn the next phase of the tale into a semi-personal and quasi-fictional mock-doc - focusing on the character he himself played, "Bruce" the filmmaker.
And here, 23-years later, "Bruce" is working successfully in American television. He's the creator and director of "The Pilgrim", a ridiculously popular Christian western aimed squarely (and somewhat cynically on the part of the fictional/actual filmmaker) at the moronic religious right. When the star of the series Rufus Melon (a brilliantly scuzzy and hilarious Adrien Dorval) is caught in a horrendous sexual scandal, the show is immediately cancelled and Bruce is without a job.
Where he'd previously been ignoring reports that rock singer Care Failure (played, no less, by Care Failure of "Die Mannequin" fame) has psychically channeled the spirit of the late Hard Core Logo frontman Joe Dick, "Bruce" now drops everything to make a new documentary to reclaim his former glory as an independent filmmaker.
Going the super-kamikaze filmmaking route, he leaves his wife and child home alone and brings along only one crew member - his next door neighbour, the completely bonkers New Age Wiccan video/performance artiste Liz (Shannon Jardine). She mans, as it were, the camera, while he records sound, directs and interviews. He's promised Liz a co-directing credit, but as his personal notes reveal later on, he just needs (and treats her) as a glorified schlepper.
The two of them follow Care to Saskatchewan where she will record a solo album under the guidance of Joe Dick's former mentor Bucky Haight (Julian Richings, repeating his original HCL role and astoundingly proving again why he's one of Canada's greatest character actors).
McDonald and his co-writer Dave Griffith put together a number of scenes which give a strong sense of the drudgery and boredom involved in producing an album but when things threaten to get a bit too languid, we're tossed a few phantasmagorical montage sequences (something McDonald has been obsessed with in his latter output and which are handled with aplomb by editor Duff Smith). These insane patchwork quilts of exorcism, talking animals, flashbacks to Joe Dick blowing his brains out, etc. are worthy of such 70s and 80s head films like Alejandro Jodorowsky's The Holy Mountain and Slava Tsukerman's Liquid Sky.
The dreary Saskatchewan locations also add considerable Canadian chic to the whole affair. I used to think, for example, that looking at the topography surrounding my old hometown whenever I landed in a plane at the Winnipeg International Airport was the most depressing thing in the world. Hard Core Logo II reminded me that NO - landing at the Regina Airport is far more soul-sucking.
We're guided through this oddball low-key tale, contrasting nicely and unexpectedly with HCL's raging drive, through the laid-back journal entries of filmmaker "Bruce". If anything drives the engine of this happily sputtering engine it's exploitation.
Because this is a Canadian film in a Canadian setting with Canadian characters - the exploitation is, not surprisingly, Canadian. That is, characters gently, subtly remind each other how much they're exploiting each other. McDonald's film captures this exploitation ever-so subtly.
There are the newspaper clippings accusing "Bruce" of exploiting Joe Dick from the original film. There's the implication that Care is exploiting the memory of Joe and furthermore, by possibly pretending to be possessed to get "Bruce" to make a film about her. Bucky accuses "Bruce" of exploiting Care. "Bruce" accuses Bucky of exploiting her. Care accuses both of them of exploiting her. "Bruce" and Bucky gently suggest mutual exploitation of the dead Joe Dick. "Bruce" is clearly exploiting the mad schlepper Wiccan and even the disgraced actor Rufus Melon shows up to exploit "Bruce", in order to party with Care and to get a guest spot with CBC's "Strombo" to declare his "healing".
Gentle, subtle exploitation is always the Canadian way. Canadians prefer smiling and alternately stabbing in the back - gently. They almost never look someone squarely in the eyes to gut them.
And within the context of the world McDonald creates - nobody (much like Canadians in reality) seems to want anything of any real import.
Except for one thing.
And this is the surprising, profoundly and deeply moving aspect of Hard Core Logo II. When it is determined what is truly important, a sacrifice is made - one which takes us into an afterlife and where the spirit of love and of family overtakes and overwhelms us.
I must admit to being taken completely off guard here. I should have seen it coming, since the film is strangely bookended with something so uniquely personal that it's often the element that - subtly - sneaks its way through the entire film. And when this sequence occurs, I must admit that I was touched emotionally in ways I never expected. It's both a heartbreaker and a spirit-lifter.
The movie begins, builds and ends with a humanity that's been hinted at in some of McDonald's earlier work, but explodes in ways that will, I think, especially touch a particular generation of Canadian with an equally particular series of experiences.
The movie is probably not for everyone. Those expecting a replay of McDonald's earlier successes will be denied an easy road. He delivers an offbeat journey and one that perfectly exemplifies a segment of the punk generation - that generation (especially, I think, in Canada) that sprouted at the tail-end of the baby boom and created a whole group of rebels who existed between the hippie sellouts and the Gen-X McJobbers.
The real rebels. Those who truly had to pay a price for their ideals and in so doing, continue to clutch desperately and/or longingly at those things everyone thinks they want, but for this generation, when they discover that wondrous thing, they know it's exactly what makes life worth living.
"Hard Core Logo II" is playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox and other select cinemas across Canada. It is being released by Alliance Films. For information of tickets, playdates and showtimes at TIFF, click HERE.
Thursday, April 5, 2012
THE VANISHING SPRING LIGHT: TALES OF WEST STREET - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Xan Yu's extraordinary film is a document in its purest and most poetic form.
The Vanishing Spring Light: Tales of West Street (2011) dir. Xun Yu "Fish" Starring: "Grandma" Jiang Su-Ha, Xiao Da Wan-Bi, Xiang Qian-Hong
By Greg Klymkiw
“How far we all come. How far we all come away from ourselves. So far, so much between, you can never go home again . . . it's good to go home, but you never really get all the way home again in your life . . . and once in a while, once in a long time, you remembered, and knew how far you were away, and it hit you hard enough, that little while it lasted, to break your heart.” - James Agee, A Death in the Family
Grandma Jiang is dying.
Wracked with pain after suffering a massive stroke, she lies in her bed, physically unable to assume her usual perch in front of the family home on her beloved West Street. This World Cultural Heritage Site in Dujiangyan (Southwest China) in the Sichuan Province near the site of an irrigation system that was a massive feat of ancient engineering, has housed generations upon generations of families who lived a simple, traditional life.
This is where Grandma Jiang lived for 50 of her 75 years.
In the time of her life, Grandma Jiang loved nothing more than passing endless days on the porch - smoking cigarettes, taking in the sights and sounds passing by this historic street that once served as the gateway to the Silk Road and sharing conversations with friends, neighbours and occasional visiting relatives. Her loyal daughter-in-law Xiao Da manages the mahjong parlour in the living room while her bumblingly good-natured son Xiang Qian drives cab, when not blind drunk, but often hung-over.
Though petty squabbles erupt amongst her daughters who live their own lives and almost grudgingly make efforts to visit and care for her, Grandma Jiang has, in the words of the Armenian-American writer William Saroyan, striven to "discover in all things, that which shines and is beyond corruption and encourage virtue in whatever heart it may have been driven into secrecy and sorrow by the shame and terror of the world".
But now, wrapped in blankets, looking like a living mummy (and still puffing on cigarettes), she is alone save for Xun Yu, the filmmaker who spent two years living with this family before taking an additional two years shooting the first of four documentaries about West Street and its gentrification (and by extension, the modernization of China).
"All I can hope for is a quick death," Grandma Joang tells Yu. "And after death? I guess I'm headed for the Afterlife. Where else can I go?"
In spite of the fact that it's about death, The Vanishing Spring Light: Tales of West Street is a celebration of life. Through the changing of the seasons, the increasing metamorphoses of West Street and the diminishing health of Grandma Jiang, Yu trains his eye upon the passage of existence. Simple, often beautifully composed shots in very long takes create a rhythm that is hypnotic and compelling.
This is a document in its purest and most poetic form. Yes, it is slow, but it is never boring. Yu allows his camera to capture all the pleasures, sorrows and intricacies of lives that are well, and in some cases, not-so-well lived. Through his caring and carefully placed lens we come to know and care for Grandma Jiang and those around her as if we were there ourselves.
This is one of the most staggering and profoundly moving documentaries I have seen in many years. In its own way, the film is as challenging as Pirjo Honkasalo's stunning exploration of the effects of the Chechen War The Three Rooms of Melancholia or Ulrich Seidl's almost unclassifiable, yet forceful Jesus, You Know or most profoundly, the late Frank Cole's masterwork of artful observation, A Life. Like those films, and even to an extent the works of Frederick Wiseman (though without his traditional lack or preparation), Yu lets life unfold as it most naturally does.
And just prior to her final death rattles, Grandma Jiang's eyes - forced by her position on the bed to look upwards, her gaze seeming to hug the infinite - she openly and alternately fears and welcomes death. She laments that she "didn't follow the teachings well", feeling now, more than ever. like "a would-be Buddhist". Though even as we hear her say this, we have clearly witnessed an individual who has lived life to its fullest and Yu's film shares this extraordinarily humanist event with us, as its subjects have shared their lives with him.
"I can only die the way I have lived," Grandma Jiang says before death.
And so it is, so it has been and so it will be for all of us.
Xan Yu's beautiful, elegiac and sometimes heart-breaking film is a testament to Grandma Jiang and all those who lived their lives as she did. As William Saroyan wrote: "In the time of your life, live — so that in that wondrous time, you shall not add to the misery and sorrow of the world, but shall smile to the infinite delight and mystery of it.”
"The Vanishing Spring Light: Tales of West Street" is currently in release via Kinosmith and in Toronto is playing at the Bloor Hot Docs Conema where the film's visionary Canadian producer and filmmaker Daniel Cross will be present for the screenings to discuss the making of the film. For showtimes and tickets, visit the website HERE.