Room is this year’s favourite amongst mainstream critics with four Oscar nominations and many other accolades, including a BAFTA for Brie Larson as Best Actor. It is a major film for both the Canadian and Irish film industries and it is proving immensely popular with its audiences – already established in IMDB’s Top 250 film entries. Its emotional power eventually worked for me but, surprisingly, in a relatively conventional way. I think I was expecting something quite harrowing but it came across as something different.
The narrative opens with Joy and her son Jack living in a small room as Jack’s fifth birthday approaches. It soon becomes apparent that they are prisoners in the room and that Jack was born there and has no experience of ‘the world outside’. I was quite surprised that Jack ‘escapes’ from ‘Room’ (as he calls it) and the remainder of the narrative deals with what happens to Jack and Joy when they are ‘outside’. I’m still thinking through how the two parts of the narrative fit together. I wonder what might happen if one part was considerably longer and the other shorter? But perhaps the narrative needs a balance between the two? Since the original novelist Emma Donoghue wrote the film script it’s reasonable to assume that the balance is correct but perhaps it depends on the audience? As a childless person, I was less interested in the ‘Room’ sequences than in the family melodrama that followed the release of Joy and Jack – although I think I recognise the interesting questions that the incarceration throws up about Jack’s development cut off from experience of everyday life. One of my viewing companions said how much she enjoyed the viewpoint of the child and it is certainly true that Jack Tremblay the young boy who plays ‘Jack’ gives a remarkable performance. Brie Larson as Joy is also good in what is a difficult role but for me the film picked up with the appearance of Joan Allen as Joy’s mother.
Director Lenny Abrahamson moves into the big league with this film. I didn’t see his previous film Frank, but I do wonder if something has changed with Room. I think I prefer his Irish films What Richard Did (2012) and Garage (2007). In all three films I feel a sense of distanced observation, even though difficult emotional situations are being explored. But in Room the approach just doesn’t seem to work quite as well as in the earlier films – perhaps there was some kind of subconscious attempt to be truer to the script – or perhaps young Jack is just too sympathetic a character? Thinking about Room some days after the screening, I also note that we never find out anything about the man who captures Joy. In the book I understand he is referred to as ‘Old Nick’. I didn’t think about this during the screening but making him a ‘non-human’ character is actually quite disturbing.
I did find the dialogue difficult to follow at times. Perhaps I was disorientated by having to sit in the circle of the Hebden Bridge Picture House (because the stalls have not recovered as yet from the flooding over Christmas). I’m usually much closer to the screen. At one point I thought that Jack referred to being “here in America”? There is actually nothing in the film to confirm that it is actually Toronto that is the location of the action. Yet this did seem to me to be a ‘Canadian film’. It seemed calmer, less frenetic than how I might expect a Hollywood version of the story to work out. I liked this – just as I liked the film overall. But I remain doubtful as to whether it is one of the handful of films that deserve honours and rewards (but then I don’t really value Oscars and BAFTAs – they seem simply commercially-driven celebrity events these days).
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