Friday, February 24, 2006

Cassavetes in the Provinces: on Love Streams Upcoming Vancouver Screening


1. Of or relating to a province.
2. Of or characteristic of people from the provinces; not fashionable or sophisticated.
3. Limited in perspective; narrow and self-centered.

“Who are you doing the piece for?” Tom Charity asks me.

I hesitate. “Well, so far I’ve contacted the Georgia Straight, the West Ender, and a couple of the free papers around town, but no one’s gotten back to me. Certainly it’ll end up online on my blog, and if I can get it into print elsewise… We’ll have to see.” I sigh, afraid that something so provisional won’t excite him. “Do you still feel… is it worth your while doing?”

He laughs. He knows what it’s like; also a writer – the former film editor of Time Out magazine, and the author of John Cassavetes: Lifeworks – Charity has a lot more experience in these matters than I do. It turns out he’s also pitched a similar piece to a local paper that sometimes publishes him. Thus far no one really cares.

I had no idea until recently that the British-born author was based in Vancouver. It happens that I was carrying his book with me as part of a Cassavetes project that I was working on when I happened upon the new Vancouver International Film Center program, and discovered that Charity would be introducing a screening of my favourite Cassavetes’ film, Love Streams, on March 7th (which by coincidence happens to be my birthday). I would write a piece and promote the event, I decided – assuming then that Charity was still based in the UK and would be flying out. Imagine my surprise when I discovered he was here all along…!

Charity first came to BC in 1999, as a juror for the Vancouver International Film Festival, and found the city very appealing. “I was looking for a change of pace. My wife came over the following year and she felt the same way, so we decided to change our life… Which was perhaps not a shrewd career move, but it’s a beautiful city and we’re glad to be here.”

I asked Charity if he felt somewhat stifled by the cultural life in Vancouver. I have several friends who do; though I was born in Vancouver, I grew up in the suburbs, and spent three years on the outskirts of Tokyo before moving back here, living in Kits for a year and then finally settling in downtown. I find myself often drawn to outsiders in their perspectives of the city, and agree with many of my friends from elsewhere that Vancouverites tend to be clannish and mistrustful, and that there can be dry spells where not much of any note happens.

Charity sighs in agreement. “It’s more provincial than we’d realized… But we’re very pleased with the Vancity Centre. The arrival of the Vancity Theatre has focused the Cinematheque’s programming in a good way. I think it’s nothing to be ashamed of, the rep scene here.” The problem is that a lot of the films that screen at these theatres fly beneath the notice of the local newspapers, as both he and I are discovering recently.

I ask him about the policy of certain papers to focus on local movie news, to the expense of commenting on events like the Cassavetes screening. “I think it’s a Philistine position – and you can quote me on that. I know that Pieta Woolley” – the movie editor of the Georgia Straight – “was interviewing Mark Peranson earlier this week, and her angle was, why aren’t you showing more BC films? It’s very, very sad.”

I have my own history with Pieta Woolley, which I don’t mention. I’d had an interview with her a few weeks’ previous, during which she’d asked me to pitch several ideas about the local movie industry that I could write about for her paper. When she finally arrived at the Starbucks, where I’d been waiting for half an hour, she seemed enthusiastic about the stuff I’d come up with: a profile of Leonard Schein, the film entrepreneur who started the VIFF and now runs Festival Cinemas, including the Fifth Avenue and the Ridge; an article, cutely called (I thought,) “Vancouver Plays Itself,” about films where Vancouver, instead of standing in for some large American city, actually represents Vancouver – which I thought would, at the very least, give me a chance to write about Bruce Sweeney’s delightfully local Dirty and Last Wedding, two of the best films this province has produced (I have yet to see his Live Bait). Following the thread, I then suggested a profile of film industry folks caught up in “Servicing the Beast,” working for the obnoxiously big Hollywood productions that tend to take over blocks of our city at a time, often incurring the resentment of local residents and rubbing Vancouverites’ noses with the fact that we’re more important as a stand-in for other North American cities than we are significant in our own right. They all seemed good ideas, and fit her requirement that I write things that are “local film-industry related.” She hasn’t gotten back to me about any of them. Maybe I just didn’t seem enthusiastic enough?

The problem is, I’m not. I’m glad that there are interesting filmmakers in BC, and it’s great that the Straight wants to promote them, but my concern as a cinephile ultimately is to write about films that are worth seeing, wherever they’re from – particularly if they’re going to be playing in Vancouver. We’re one of the first cities in the world to play the new print of Love Streams, which was struck in November for a Gena Rowlands retrospective in Brooklyn. It’s a film which actually has merit in film history -- unlike the relatively worthless Hollywood movies the Straight spends pages reviewing. To ignore it simply because it’s not BC-made seems like a disservice to one’s readership.

Alan Franey, the director of the Vancity Theatre, agrees that a too-local focus is problematic. “We wouldn’t be doing this if we were showing just BC or Canadian film – that’s not the way to serve the industry. The best way to cultivate an industry and to serve BC filmmakers is to be showing the best cinema internationally.”

This is not to say that the Vancity is hostile to Canadian content; in the three months since they’ve opened, Moving Pictures has screened The Grey Fox and Michel Brault’s very interesting Les Ordres, about the FLQ crisis there, and will be running Quebec filmmaker Mort Ransen’s Margaret’s Museum on March 9th. The Vancouver-shot Masters of Horror series screened in January, featuring local actors like Thea Gill and Terry David Mulligan in roles; and Amnon Buchbinder’s Whole New Thing – the runner up for the “Most Popular Canadian Film at the 2005 VIFF” – will be premiering there later this month. A special rental on April 2nd will see Velcrow Ripper’s Scared Sacred playing in a matinee.

I asked Franey if the small turnouts for Vancity events thus far are dispiriting to him.

“I would think that Vancouver is sophisticated enough to sustain what we’re doing, but… well, we’re not New York. The question is what sort of audience is there locally who’s sophisticated enough to know the good of what we’re offering… That almost sounds elitist, but you have your cosmopolitan centers where cutting edge art can be supported, and then you have your smaller cities where that doesn’t happen… I think I have a more resilient spirit in this regard than some of the other people who are working here, who are just so disappointed. I’ve been in exhibition for pretty much all my life – my wife and I owned and operated the Vancouver East Cinema for years, and I was the manager of the Ridge – so on the one side I’m quite used to disappointment, and as far as cinema attendance goes, it just gets worse and worse and worse. But on the other end of things I know it takes awhile, and I know the fundamentals are in place at our theatre… I mean, we’ve got state of the art seats and projection equipment, the building’s fabulous, and we’ve had excellent word of mouth from people who do attend, so I’m confident that it’s going to build and build…”

Jim Sinclair, the director of the Pacific Cinematheque, Vancouver’s other downtown arthouse cinema, agrees with this view. “I think there is an audience for these kinds of movies in Vancouver. It’s not a question of not being sophisticated enough. The Cinematheque has just had its best three years ever,” he reports happily. “We had a record year in 2003, our second best year in 2004, and then again our second best year in 2005 – it surpassed 2004, but didn’t quite make it to the high mark of 2003.” With time, word of mouth, and a sign so that people can see it when they drive by – something Franey admits the theatre is lacking – attendance at Vancity events should grow.

I asked Sinclair if there is any feeling of competition between the Vancity and his theatre. He dismisses the thought. “Anything that contributes to film culture in Vancouver and in BC is going to be good for the Cinematheque. It seems to me that both organisations have a vested interest in seeing the other do well.” Asked about the question of seats, he laughs and says he is “painfully aware” that those at the Vancity are much, much more comfortable than those at the Cinematheque; but he wishes the Vancity nothing but success.

Certainly with events like the upcoming Cassavetes screening, I hope that Franey and Sinclair are right that it’s just a matter of time. I’ve yet to be disappointed by an event at the Vancity, having seen several excellent films there as part of the film festival – most notably the Seattle-made Police Beat, co-written by Zimbabwe-born, Seattle-based Stranger writer Charles Mudede – reviewed here – and several things since, including Joe Dante’s Homecoming, and the eye-opening documentary Workingman’s Death (with a great John Zorn score). Most recently, of course, I attended their screening of Sokurov’s The Sun, about the final days of the Japanese Emperor’s existence as a divine being (reviewed below) and the Les Ordres event. I have tickets for the African film Yeelen, later in the week, and am drooling to see Love Streams again on the big screen. It hasn’t played locally since a Cinematheque retrospective on Cassavetes’ work, shortly after the director’s death in 1989.

As for our being provincial... I admit that the term rankles just a little. I have enough identification with the scene here that I'd like to see venues that do matter to me flourish, and it depresses me, when I see the lineups of obnoxious idiots on Granville Street every weekend or the crowds of young people packing the Paramount, to see truly exciting cultural events attended by a handful at best. The issue doesn't seem to me to be one of BC-made film vs. the rest of the world, but life-sustaining art vs. mindless entertainment. There's far too little of the former in the world for me to go about inquiring where it comes from, when it knocks at the door...

Tom Charity will be in attendance for the March 7th screening of Love Streams, and will introduce the film and provide a Q&A at the end. (The film will also be playing on the 6th, 8th, and 12th). For more of my interview with him, see the March edition of Discorder – I finally found a local paper that would run the piece, and they’ve been most supportive, so perhaps hope is not quite lost…!

I really would have liked to have gotten a piece in the Straight… Guess that won't be happenin' anytime soon...

Post Script:

Blogger Filmbrain points out an interesting little detail of the Criterion Cassavetes Box Set: If you take the slipcase off and look inside of the first pressing of the set, down at the bottom, you’ll find the tiny words “Jimmy Crack Corn.” Whatever this is a reference to – aside from the song, obviously – is a mystery to me, but according to Filmbrain, its inclusion greatly angered the Criterion folks, and the phrase has been removed from later editions, something confirmed on the Criterion Forum, where theories of the meaning of the phrase range from a meaningless personal in-joke between designers and a not so meaningless snipe at Cassavetes’ alcoholism (which, as is explained there, what the song, "Blue Tail Fly," is about -- a slave being happy that his master is dead from drinking. I never knew that). Note, finally, that I have been unable to substantiate the rumour that first pressings of the “Jimmy Crack Corn” edition are fetching a premium on eBay… as of yet.


The Discorder article is online here, along with the opportunity to comment! Cool!

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