SFFF Day 6 – Into the Unknown

The final day of the Saskatoon Fantastic Film Festival opened with Matthew Rankin’s The Twentieth Century (2019), a fictionalized portrait of Canada’s weirdest, longest-serving, and middlest-of-the-road Prime Minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King. The film side-steps Mackenzie King’s secret spiritualism and instead creates a broader, stranger fantasy of Canada at the dawn of a new era. Rankin’s prerecorded introduction for the film described it as “nightmarishly Canadian” and his words were apt. The Twentieth Century is an Eraserhead/Isle of Dogs-esque imagining of Canadian history and culture, one obsessed with maple walnut ice cream, the scent of fresh timber, passive-aggressive manners, Indian leg wrestling, and medicinal “puffin cream.” Inspiration was taken from the Prime Minister to-be’s personal diary and Rankin connected with Mackenzie King’s tendencies toward vanity, repression, self-righteousness, and self-pity. Played by Dan Beirne with petulant primness, Mackenzie King struggles to achieve his maternally prophesied political and romantic aims (and sublimate his dominating shoe fetish), and the film traces his misadventures through the brutalist interiors of Rideau Hall, the frozen utopia of Quebec, a sunny and freshly logged, new age Vancouver, and a baseless and fetid Winnipeg.

A former Winnipegger himself, Rankin carries on the prairie post-modernism of Guy Maddin and John Paizs, and like his predecessors, Rankin finds ways to make a hard earned dime look like an eccentrically spent dollar (or loonie). Hand-painted and animated in sections by Rankin himself and utilizing a palette that evokes the colours of Canadian banknotes, The Twentieth Century’s stunning production design recalls earlier film eras with its intertitle chapter cards while it also embraces the fresh Canadianness established in the aesthetics of Group of Seven painters like Lawren Harris and York Wilson and the modernist designs of Expo ’67. Rankin even loads his historical subject with a gleeful perversity and a shameless phallocentricism that would do Ken Russell proud – watch out for that ejaculating cactus and that narwhal horn! The Twentieth Century is an acid trip-take on peace, order, and good government and it is staunchly glorious.

Oscilloscope Laboratories has picked up the rights to Rankin’s brilliant film and we can only hope that its eventual hard media release will not only include The Twentieth Century but also many (if not all) of Rankin’s short films including Negativipeg (2010), the most Winnipeg-ish thing I’ve ever seen committed to film.

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The Devil and Daniel Mouse (Clive A. Smith, 1978)

An inspiration to the Nelvana animation studio’s first feature, Rock & Rule (Clive A. Smith, 1983), The Devil and Daniel Mouse (Clive A. Smith, 1978) was the Canadian animator’s second television special. Following 1977’s A Cosmic Christmas (Clive A. Smith, 1977), this Halloween program takes its inspiration from Stephen Vincent Benét’s classic short story “The Devil and Daniel Webster” and mines Canadian artistic anxieties over American cultural imperialism and selling out. Struggling folk duo Jan and Daniel Mouse are fired from their last gig and Jan sells her soul to the demonic record producer B.L. Zebub, transforming her into the hit sensation Funky Jan. Success is bittersweet for Jan as she misses Daniel but when B.L. claims his payment under the contract, it’s Daniel who stands up for her in a trial of the damned that culminates in a musical final statement that carries the day. The short features some solid tracks by John Sebastian of The Lovin’ Spoonful and singer-songwriter Valerie Carter, as well as some stunning animation for the infernal B.L. Zebub.

Those looking for more on The Devil and Daniel MouseRock & Rule, and the failed early efforts of Nelvana to achieve its own commercial and artistic independence should consult Keir-La Janisse’s excellent essay “A Song from the Heart Beats the Devil Every Time: The Fear of Selling Out in Nelvana’s The Devil and Daniel Mouse and Rock and Rule” in Gina Freitag and André Loiselle’s The Canadian Horror Film: Terror of the Soul.

The Green Fog (Guy Maddin, Evan Johnson, and Galen Johnson, 2017)

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents The Green Fog.

Commissioned by the San Francisco Film Society to close the 60th San Francisco International Film Festival, The Green Fog is the latest from Canadian iconoclast Guy Maddin and is an unusually evocative homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo assembled from Bay Area footage taken from a diverse array of sources including studio classics, ’50s noir, experimental films, and ’70s prime-time TV. With the help of co-directors Evan and Galen Johnson, composer Jacob Garchik, and musicians Kronos Quartet, this San Francisco fantasia celebrates the city through a century’s worth of assembled film and television, while also capturing the obsessive pull of Hitchcock’s spellbinding classic. The result is inventive, invigorating, and hilariously quirky, offering a “parallel-universe version” of a canonical cinema masterpiece, an unlikely city symphony, and a refreshing document of film history.

SPECIAL FEATURES

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N.Y., N.Y. (Francis Thompson, 1957)

Let’s take a look at another city symphony while we wait for the next MMC! proposal, specifically Francis Thompson’s wonderfully distorted tribute to life in New York City! Thompson’s short film celebrates the rhythms, geometries, and absurdities of city life through a variety of fanciful lenses, prisms, reflectors, and editing techniques (all of which Thompson was quite secretive about). Originally a painter and an art teacher, Thompson began his filmmaking career with The Evolution of the Skyscraper in 1939 and later won an Academy Award for To Be Alive! (1964). In a frequently quoted comment on the film, Aldous Huxley remarked on Thompson’s ability to escape colour photography’s tyrannical claim to verisimilitude and use the medium to further the voice of non-representational art. Huxley observed:

And then there is what may be called the Distorted Documentary a new form of visionary art, admirably exemplified by Mr. Francis Thompson’s film, NY, NY. In this very strange and beautiful picture we see the city of New York as it appears when photographed through multiplying prisms, or reflected in the backs of spoons, polished hub caps, spherical and parabolic mirrors. We still recognize houses, people, shop fronts, taxicabs, but recognize them as elements in one of those living geometries which are so characteristic of the visionary experience. The invention of this new cinematographic art seems to presage (thank heaven!) the supersession and early demise of non-representational painting. It used to be said by the non-representationalists that colored photography had reduced the old-fashioned portrait and the old-fashioned landscape to the rank of otiose absurdities. This, of course, is completely untrue. Colored photography merely records and preserves, in an easily reproducible form, the raw materials with which portraitists and landscape painters work. Used as Mr. Thompson has used it, colored cinematography does much more than merely record and preserve the raw materials of non-representational art; it actually turns out the finished product. Looking at NY, NY, I was amazed to see that virtually every pictorial device invented by the old masters of non-representational art and reproduced ad nauseam by the academicians and mannerists of the school, for the last forty years or more, makes its appearance, alive, glowing, intensely significant, in the sequences of Mr. Thompson’s film.

The Movie Orgy (Joe Dante, 1968)

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents The Movie Orgy.

A send-up and a celebration of mid-century American kitsch, Joe Dante’s epic pop culture mash-up, The Movie Orgy, entertained college campuses through the late 1960s and 1970s, drawing upon an ever-changing library of ’50s drive-in movies, vintage commercials, TV westerns, and political speeches. Re-discovered and re-cut by Dante for a revival screening in 2008 into its 280 minute “Ultimate Version,” this legendary cinematic event is now available outside of theatres for the first time. SEE a colossal collage of nostalgia! SEE an experience of mind-rotting celluloid hysteria! SEE thousands of performers in roles that earned them obscurity!  SEE bosomy starlets, juvenile delinquency, Christian puppetry, Elvis Presley, Groucho Marx, and Richard Nixon!

SPECIAL FEATURES

  • High-definition digital transfer, supervised and approved by director Joe Dante, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
  • New interview with Dante
  • Rated Z, archivist David Neary on the history and significance of The Movie Orgy
  • Posters and promotional materials
  • PLUS: An essay by director John Sayles

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Cassette Girl (Hiroyasu Kobayashi, 2015)

(Believe it or not, MMC!‘s next Criterion proposals are forthcoming. In the meantime and in anticipation of our next two proposals which deal with practices in appropriation, I thought we might consider another animated treatment of media ownership and access, this time from Japan!)

In a recent piece for Locus Magazine, Cory Doctorow laments the failed promise of digital media and selective rights management. In the article, Doctorow recalls how the digital revolution promised infinite distribution, customized rights to content, and cheaper prices. In fact, the opposite has occurred. Access is limited and often temporary, pricing remains static, and choice is dictated by owners who rights seems to be held in virtual perpetuity. Doctorow’s most pithy and salient point comes near the end of his editorial – “There’s a name for societies where a small elite own property and everyone else rents that prop­erty from them: it’s called feudalism.”

With feudalism comes poachers, bringing to mind Hiroyasu Kobayashi’s wonderful animated short Cassette Girl (2015). The film, one of the best from the Japan Animator Expo series, offers a beautiful pastiche of anime tropes, including a spunky young adventuress, her giant mecha companion, and an elaborate transformation sequence with obligatory undressing. The girl and her ‘bot search for vintage content on old video cassettes, causing them to run afoul of the tyrannical media police and initiating an elaborate battle that dominates the short. What makes Cassette Girl so impressive is its spectacular embrace of hard media and actual ownership. Physical possession is not merely a means to defeat Cassette Girl‘s media police, but a transformative process that remakes the world itself in favour of its media-poaching heroes (complete with full frame parameters and minor tracking issues). If only the battlefield over DRM were truly this awe-inspiring!