Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Egoyan's Adjuster to screen at the Cinematheque


I have mixed feelings about Atom Egoyan. His early films have nowhere near the obsessive interest they had for me when I was just starting my inquiries into serious cinema; the questions about the morality of the use of images posed in films like Family Viewing and Speaking Parts - once my favourites of his films - seemed of overwhelming significance to me in the 1980's, when I was asking questions myself about how to view/represent the world. They were good films for a young person at the time to see, and seemed of a piece with various films I was watching by Wim Wenders (The State Of Things); Bertrand Tavernier (whose Death Watch is a greatly underappreciated piece of cinema never distributed in its proper cut in North America; the film stars Harvey Keitel, Romy Schneider, Harry Dean Stanton, and Max von Sydow - a cast so good that that alone makes its relative neglect here somewhat puzzling); Egoyan collaborator Peter Mettlier (for The Top Of His Head); and even Steven Soderbergh (whose first feature, Sex, Lies, and Videotape, was a film I utterly loved, and seemed very compatible with Egoyan's early work; he has proven, for all his industry success, even more disappointing than Egoyan, such that I don't think I would revisit a single of his films, with the possible exception of Schizopolis. And yes, I tried to watch Che - I found it gutlessly "factual," Soderbergh seeming unwilling to risk interpreting or even identifying too deeply with Che, sticking passionlessly to events, often at the expense of ideas or emotions. It is quite an accomplishment to make a boring film about guerrilla warfare, but Soderbergh has done so). Plus, back then, I was a university student being exposed to film criticism for the first time, reading Laura Mulvey and the like; and cinema in the 1980's was in a much different position from the cinema of the 21'st century.

Not exactly sure how to summarizes those changes, but the same films that I loved so much then now seem far too controlled; while some images still resonate over and above the text, generally, I feel too aware, watching Family Viewing or Speaking Parts now, what their program is, with each character's assigned value leaving little room for mystery, discovery, or fresh emotional insight, and each line spoken seeming too loaded, as Egoyan's thesis inevitably unfolds. While I have no idea if Ray Carney would agree, for me, they're the best example that I can think of of what Carney has called "the decoder ring" school of filmmaking, where a filmmaker has an idea, translates the idea into images, and the cinema literati then unpack the images, translating them back into the idea, having had little cause to investigate their own values or emotional responses en route (but applauding the filmmaker no less if they happen to agree with his or her idea). Put another way, the last time I tried to watch Speaking Parts, I felt bored to death; about the only thing I felt was the same old stunning charge at the scene where Gabrielle Rose engages in mediated masturbation with Michael McManus, which I hold to be one of the sexiest and most striking moments in Canadian cinema, right up there with the "cunnilingus attack" of Bruce Sweeney's Dirty. As you may gather, I'm a bit perverse...

Egoyan may well feel stifled by the too-narrow focus of his earlier films now, too, mind you, since his subsequent career has shown him struggling with expanding his cinema to bring in larger questions - of history, of memory, of racism and genocide and terrorism. Idea movies, still, for the most part, and still often concerned with questions of representation and mediation - but the ideas are bigger, and the films more likely to instill emotional, rather than intellectual, responses. I've enjoyed and admired some of his later films (Exotica, Ararat), been annoyed and embarrassed by others (Calendar, Adoration), and thought some interesting failures (The Sweet Hereafter). I've also flat-out ignored a couple (Where The Truth Lies, say). There is only one film of his that still holds a great deal of interest for me - a film of his that, while seeming to cohere, is so rich in ideas that it seems Egoyan himself might not fully understand what he is up to; even though you sense that on some level it all makes sense, however you fiddle with your decoder ring, there seems no one final text to arrive at that will explain all the images in it, let alone the connections between them. And what images they are! There are scenes in this movie that are compellingly surreal, having the capacity to startle and strike chords deep within that continue to reverberate long after the film is over: the homeless guy staring at the family through the picture window and masturbating; Maury Chaykin, disguised as a bum, putting his hand between Gabrielle Rose's legs on the train, and her subsequent smile; the moment where Chaykin, masked, asks Elias Koteas if he's in or out, as he pours gasoline over the furniture... even the question of why people sing in the shower somehow tickles something in back of your brain and sets it quivering. I haven't looked at the film in six or seven years, and have only seen it to completion, I believe, thrice, but these moments are scored in my subconscious, never to leave. The film is beautiful, creepy, and profoundly unsettling, and has a very interesting cast (also including Don McKellar and Arsinee Khanjian, whose scenes as porno censors also linger, though owe perhaps the most to Egoyan's earlier work and come to a too-pat resolution). I won't even try to explain what the film is "about;" I'm not sure I could. Yet - contra to my feelings after seeing a later David Lynch film, say - I feel certain that it all makes sense, in ways I cannot articulate; and because I sense that the film could ultimately BE made sense of, I am not stymied or annoyed by the difficulties of reading the film... though I am almost tempted - as Lynch would advise, no doubt - to just accept the pregnancy of the images and my intuitive response to them, without arriving at any clear conclusions as to what it all means.

In any event, there will be three screenings of a new 35mm print of The Adjuster at the Cinematheque in March. If you haven't seen the film, this would definitely be a good way to do it. Here's hoping - as with some video versions - the masturbating bum's huge hard cock (fake anyhow, no doubt) is not excised from the print. The audience really needs to be confronted with his suburban-townhouse fetishism (and taste of a violation of the censor's code) for the full impact of the film to be felt - especially considering he may well be a stand-in for the audience, a voyeur confronting voyeurs... Never has a homeless man's cock been so symbolically laden, so potent...
...no, really...

No comments: