Critiques of Hollywood often seem to work well when they are made by outsiders. David Cronenberg had never before made a film in the US, but even with Maps to the Stars he spent only 5 days shooting exteriors in LA and most of the film was actually shot in Toronto. Hollywood Reporter‘s reviewer Todd McCarthy brands Cronenberg’s film a failure – or at best a weak and tired satire (Variety didn’t like it either). I’d have to disagree. But then I’ve never been to LA and my ideas about Tinseltown come only from the movies. Cronenberg and scriptwriter Bruce Wagner (a Hollywood insider whose novels draw on his own experiences in LA) seem to have seen all the movies I’ve seen and probably more.
‘Maps to the Stars’ refers to both the tourists maps of celebrity homes, the players in Greek tragedies and also the mystical bullshit emanating from Stafford Weiss (John Cusack on great form) as guru to celebs. He offers ‘massage therapy’ to the Norma Desmond character (Julianne Moore having enormous fun). Sunset Boulevard is just one of the obvious references. Mommie Dearest is quoted in one gag and Carrie Fisher appears in a cameo reminding us of Postcards From the Edge (1990) which she wrote and which starred Shirley MacLaine and Meryl Streep as a mother-daughter acting pair. The Julianne Moore character, Havana, here attempts to revive her career by pursuing the role taken by her own mother. Robert Pattinson plays the generic role of the outsider in the guise of the struggling wannabe actor who has to take jobs as a limo driver to pay his way and who inadvertently links together the players in this comic tragedy. The tragedy begins with the arrival of Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) arriving at LAX from ‘Jupiter, Florida’ who wants to visit some very specific sites and needs a driver. It takes a while to suss out exactly who Agatha is with her burned skin covered by long gloves. By then we’ve already met the rest of the Weiss household with 13 year-old son Benjie (Evan Bird), a foul-mouthed Justin Bieber-type star and his controlling mother Cristina (Olivia Williams).
Cronenberg in his deadpan way has suggested that the film is a humane family tragedy. It is that – and an attack on the vacuous industry/society that enables/provokes the acts we see performed by the central characters. It isn’t really an exposé of contemporary Hollywood as such. As Tony Rayns points out in his Sight and Sound (October) review, Wagner’s experiences relate to Hollywood in the 1990s before the domination of superhero movies and animations. Instead, Cronenberg presents the family tragedy in such a way that it reminds us, sometimes obliquely, of earlier films about Hollywood. At times I got flashes of Lana Turner in Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) and also of Nick Ray’s In a Lonely Place (1950) when Agatha quotes lines of romantic poetry (Bogart, a screenwriter has a desperate love for Gloria Grahame). Though not a Hollywood ‘industry’ story, I also thought of James Dean, Sal Mineo and Natalie Wood in Rebel Without a Cause, when they ‘play house’ in the Hollywood hills. I was intrigued to see that Cronenberg in a press conference answered a question about the ghosts that appear to characters in the film with a reference to the ghost of James Dean haunting the world (“Il est vrai que le fantôme de James Dean hante encore le monde . . . “). Dean is also a link to the Cronenberg film that Maps to the Stars most resembles for me. Crash (1997) was one of Cronenberg’s most controversial – and certainly most misunderstood films. Given that Maps to the Stars involves many scenes of expensive cars gliding between expensive houses and expensive shops perhaps the resemblance is not surprising. I tried at one point to discern whether or not Cronenberg and cinematographer Peter Suschitzky were using the 25mm lens that became their trademark on earlier films. I’m not expert enough to tell, but there were scenes in which the ‘otherworldliness’ of the settings certainly came through the clinical images that director and cinematographer create.
Cronenberg’s Hollywood critics argue that he doesn’t get it and that Wagner’s script is out of date, but taken as a Ballardian speculative fiction with Hollywood memories haunting the tragic lives of its characters, I think Maps to the Stars works well. It’s amazing what you can do in Toronto with a few palm trees!
The current Norman McLaren centenary screenings and the ‘Documentary Special’ edition of Sight and Sound (September 2014) have prompted me to think about one of the most important public bodies associated with film production: the National Film Board of Canada. The NFB is 75 years old this year having been founded by the Scottish documentarist John Grierson in 1939. His fellow Scot Norman McLaren was recruited in 1941. The Film Board went on to embrace and significantly develop the film culture of Francophone Canada and to encourage filmmaking for all Canadian communities. As well as a resource for Canadians, the Film Board has become a major international producer of documentaries, animated films and fiction shorts and features, winning so far – as the banner above proclaims – over 5,000 awards in its 75 year life. The NFB has produced a timeline graphic as part of its celebrations and has encouraged everyone to display it, so here it is:
My own encounters with the board’s films came first in the 1970s when I remember seeing its documentaries in various programmes at the National Film Theatre here in the UK. When I started teaching I found that the film library at Canada House on Trafalgar Square in London would lend copies of films (no charge) on 16mm to use in the classroom and I borrowed several NFB films in this way. It was around this time that I became aware of the legacy of John Grierson’s work and the importance of Norman McLaren – as well as the diversity of Canadian filmmaking. I don’t know if such arrangements survived the demise of 16mm but educational activities remain an important part of the NFB’s overall programme. More recently I’ve become aware of the importance of the NFB in the remarkable growth of Quebecois filmmaking from the 1960s onwards. Often quoted as the most important Canadian feature, Claude Jutra’s Mon Oncle Antoine (1971) is one of several feature films available both online and for download from the National Film Board website. More recently, the NFB produced the marvelous Sarah Polley film Stories We Tell (2012). The online collection of films is extensive and anyone could spend happy hours or days exploring it. Many films are available in both English and French language versions – the practice seems to have been to dub rather than subtitle the alternative versions of many of the films. This is a little unfortunate since the dubs sound artificial. But that’s is a minor quibble.
Women as creative filmmakers at the NFB
Because I was recently reading about the difficult careers of John Grierson’s sisters Ruby and Marion (in The Media Education Journal – Issue 55, published by the Association for Media Education in Scotland), I was intrigued to stumble across the wartime short documentaries made by Jane Marsh at the NFB in the early 1940s. Jane Marsh produced, wrote and directed six films between 1942 and 1943 and five of them are available online. She eventually fell out with Grierson because she felt that he didn’t give her proper recognition for her achievements. Jane Marsh’s beautiful colour film from 1943, Alexis Tremblant: Habitant was written, directed and edited by Marsh and photographed by Judith Crawley – one of the first films from the NFB made largely by women in the creative roles:
Grierson was old-fashioned, even in the 1940s, in his attitudes towards the many women who worked at the NFB during the war. An interesting short film about the wartime period at the NFB can be found here. Evelyn Spice Cherry was a young woman from Western Canada who met Grierson in London where she became a director in the 1930s and was then invited to join him when he set up the NFB. She would make around 100 films in all, though she left the NFB in 1950 when it came under pressure from anti-communist witch-hunters – the Board has been at the centre of a range of controversies, which is probably an indicator of its engagement with Canadian life. Evelyn Lambart was one of the first female animators at the NFB, collaborating with Norman McLaren on six productions. Grierson was a chauvinist but also an inspirational figure who encouraged women – as another female director Gudrun Bjerring Parker attests:
In the post-war years other women became significant directors at NFB including Caroline Leaf who joined the NFB in 1972 and directed both animations and live-action documentaries – I enjoyed watching one on the singer-musicians Kate and Anna McGarrigle from 1981.
The collection of NFB films available to view on https://www.nfb.ca is invaluable for cinephiles, film historians and anyone interested in Canadian culture. The database of films needs to be seen alongside those available from the British Film Institute, British Council and other publicly-funded resources such as PBS in the US. I hope to explore some of these in the next few weeks. In the meantime, please checkout the NFB site.
This programme, organised by McLaren 2014 in partnership with the National Film Board of Canada, is a celebration of one hundred years on from the birth of Scottish animator and filmmaker Norman McLaren. In Yorkshire both the Hyde Park Picture House (Friday August 8th) and the National Media Museum (Sunday August 3rd and Saturday 9th) are offering screenings. And both venues are also offering Digital Animation Workshops (with different age ranges – for HPPH) in which participants can use the McLaren iPad App (National Film Board of Canada) to create short animations. These will later to uploaded to the McLaren 2014 Website.
Norman McLaren was born in Stirling on April 11th 1914. He studied at the Glasgow School of Art. His notable films include Hell Unlimited (1936) an impressive and innovatory anti-war short film with touches of the surreal. This film led to him being invited to join the GPO Film Unit by John Grierson in 1936. He also worked as a cameraman in Spain during the war to defend the Spanish Republic from the fascist rebellion. He emigrated to the USA in 1939 and in 1941 was invited by Grierson (again) to join the newly formed National Film Board of Canada. He also worked in Asia for a time helping to develop visual methods in overcoming illiteracy. He died in 1987.
McLaren frequently worked on live-action documentaries and animated films where he drew directly onto the celluloid. He was an important innovator in the techniques of drawing on film and also experimented with 3D animation and animation translated into synthetic sound waves.
He won an Academy Award for his 1952 live action film Neighbours, which made use of pixilation techniques.
The screenings will feature 13 of his short animations, mainly from his work at the National Film Board of Canada. His best works are beautifully drawn, technically assured and both stimulating and sometimes very humorous. His technical ability encompassed a range of styles, including abstract works. The prime focus tends to be movement and colour is often added for emotional resonance. Included in the screenings will be his first professional film, Love on the Wing (1938), an advertisement for the Empire Mail Service, but also an exercise in technique and surreal combinations: a war-time contribution V is for Victory (1941): A Chairy Tale (1957) which ‘brings to life inanimate objects’: Blinkity Blank (1959) which explores motion by painting directly onto raw film stock: and Pas de Deux (1968), a live-action film of ballet dancers, which uses step-printing on an optical printer.
The workshops promise to be instructive but also fun. And the screenings offer a rare opportunity to see masterworks from the field of animation on the big screen.
Hyde Park Picture House – email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Goon is billed as a ‘sports comedy’. It can also be more narrowly defined as a comedy about ‘minor league’ sport and it’s related to the sports biopic since the story is loosely based on the brief career of Doug Smith who wrote a book about his time as an ‘enforcer’ in minor league ice hockey from 1988 through to the late 1990s. The film could also be described as a ‘comedy-drama’. An ‘enforcer’ is a semi-official ‘fighter’ in an ice-hockey team whose job is to protect the team’s star player and also to intimidate the other team. Because ice hockey has always been a very physical game, governing bodies have tolerated a certain amount of violence on the ice. Some spectators are also keen to support enforcers. This violence is obviously attractive to filmmakers as it enables various conventional storylines and provides narrative devices to pep up genre narratives. The best-known ice hockey comedy focusing on violent play as a deliberate tactic is probably Slapshot (US 1977) in which Paul Newman is directed by George Roy Hill.
I missed Goon on release in January 2012 in the UK and I’m glad I caught most of it on Film4 last night. I found the film interesting for several reasons. First, I always find Canadian genre pictures have a different flavour to them even when, like Goon, they involve Hollywood stars. Second, the milieu of the minor or ‘semi-pro’ leagues takes the narrative into small-town locations with a more authentic working-class feel. Goon is a slight disappointment in this regard since, presumably for financial support reasons, most of the film was made in Manitoba around Winnipeg when the action in the story is supposed to be located in Eastern Canada. The enforcer’s team is the fictitious Halifax Highlanders. Even so, it is interesting to see a film that purports to be featuring St. Johns Newfoundland at one point.
The central character, the ‘goon’ is played by the American Pie actor Seann William Scott and the ‘villain’ – Ross Rhea, the legendary enforcer in the league – is played by Liev Schreiber. Writers Jay Baruchel and Evan Goldberg have developed the character based on Doug Smith so that he was adopted by a Jewish family (the father played by Eugene Levy, another actor internationally famous because of American Pie). Doug feels ‘stupid’ because his father and his brother are doctors and he works as a bouncer. An incident when he is watching a hockey game leads him to try out as an enforcer and he becomes successful. The narrative then leads him towards a showdown with the Schreiber character, while a sub-plot covers his relationship with the man he is there to protect, a former ace player who despises Doug because he is not a skater or a good hockey player. The ‘comedy’ in a film that is more bloody than funny is partly derived from the romcom strand. I thought this worked quite well. Doug off the ice is rather sweet and quite stoical in his attempts to woo Eva (Alison Pill). This trope, i.e. the sweet guy outside the sporting arena, is familiar from boxing pictures but it works here as well. I should point out that as well as the violence, the language is also very harsh – this may be why so many sports fans like the film.
Directed by Michael Dowse (whose CV includes directing the UK comedy It’s All Gone Pete Tong in 2004) the film seems to have earned most of its $6 million+ box office in Canada and the UK with just a limited US release. North American sports pictures generally don’t do as well at the international box office as they do domestically. Ice hockey is popular in Northern Europe (Sweden especially) and Russia and the film does seem to have reached these territories, though perhaps only on DVD. I read that the violence tolerated in the US/Canada is not acceptable in European leagues so I’m intrigued as to what they made of the sport-based content. The rest of the narrative is universal in appeal and I think that clearly Canadian content probably helps sell the film in small towns in other countries – the IMDB message board for the film has a lively discussion of the Canadian accents in the film (which to my inexpert ear didn’t seem as pronounced as in some other Canadian films). As a Brit I find ice hockey to be the most accessible North American sport possibly because of its important role in Canadian culture. I’m still grinning at the sight of large posters depicting the Queen in the various arenas in the film. I’ve never seen that at a UK venue (but perhaps others have?).