Monthly Archives: February 2011

Small Town Murder Songs

My first remarkable reaction during the opening credits Ed Glass-Donnelly’s Small Town Murder Songs was “hey it’s Peter Stormare, the silent wood chipper guy from Fargo!” He’s not so silent, so blonde, and so criminal. But he is still in a movie about a crime in a tiny rural community. Instead of Brainerd, North Dakota, we have Greyfork County, somewhere in Mennonite land, Ontario.

Stormare plays Walter, a police officer who has to deal with the community’s first murder. A stripper’s body is found by a lake, and the London, ON hotshots (yes, this is a very small town) move in to supervise the case.

Walter is an outcast from his Mennonite family, the target of the community’s snide remarks, and the errand boy for Detective Washington’s  (Ari Cohen) investigation. Despite an underwritten character, Stormare lets you see the bottled rage behind the thick moustache, the frustrations of a born-again Christian trying to be good and turn the other cheek. You see his self-delusion, his attempts to justify actions, and to forget the vague violence of his haunting past.

He is further tested when his ex-lover’s boyfriend emerges as the prime suspect. Though Rita (Jill Hennessey) is not exactly a classy dame, it is hard to divine what she sees in Steve (Stephen Eric McIntyre), a greasy waste of breath with bad teeth. Why does she so adamantly defend him? What did Walter have with her that draws him back to her house despite all the risks it carries for his job?


Ed Glass Donnelly: Rising talent?

While Glass-Donnelly ponders his characters, he does not shed a lot of light on them. Clocking in at a slim 75 minutes, the film hands out moments, some that capture relationships brilliantly – Martha Plimpton’s Sam telling Walter about her day at the diner – and others that leave more to be desired – Officer Jim’s teasing of his capital-r Rebellious teenage daughter. Like the beautiful shots of pastureland and migrating geese, these are postcards that make one sigh and think “aah, Ontario… aah, Canada.”

These moments would be served better as pauses to a gripping, hard-boiled narrative, which STMS is not. There are too many slow-motion montages and not enough personality-enhancing dialogue. We see Walter, badass that he is, mollify a guard dog with a branch as the indie folk of Bruce Peninsula says something about living the good life and having a wife and kids.

My impression is Glass-Donnelly treated this as an exercise, a stepping stone in his promising career. While there are the grains of depth and story, there is a little too much self-conscious style injected over so small a film – the inter titles quoting Mennonite proverbs come off as amateurish, not profound.

I think eastern Ontario is ready for a home-grown film noir, a brilliant crime drama that captures rural people, their accents and daily interactions. If you want a Gothic mood with not too much explanation, then STMS will be an hour well-spent. If you wanted something more, a Canadian Fargo or Dirty Harry, then, well, at least it is a little over an hour spent.


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Filed under Canadian, New Ones, TIFF 2010

Chivalry in the Cracks

The other Terry Gilliam movie I’ve been meaning to see for a long time is The Fisher King (1991), a modern take on the grail legend. It’s uneven and too long, but, as usual, gives you a lot to chew on. Jeff Bridges plays Jack, a narcissistic radio hosts whose comments unwittingly compel a man to shoot up a restaurant. After his wife is killed in the massacre, Perry (Robin Williams) slips into homelessness, madness, and a quest to find the Holy Grail. To help him cope with his guilt, Jack tries to help Perry regain sanity and find love.

It’s messy, lovely, funny, and overburdened with too many scenes and too many outbursts. But it’s also got a very sweet theme. Despite the cold alienation and mundanity  of twentieth century life, moments of romance, imagination, and grace appear to those who look for it. The grail becomes a symbol for redemption and meaning in the flowing crowds and taxis of Manhattan.

Enough summarizing. Let’s recap the traditional Arthurian legend of the fisher king.

The Curse of Desolation

He’s called the Wounded King, the Maimed King, Lord of the Waste Lands, Pellam, and in my edition of the King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table (Roger Lancelyn Green, 1953) King Pelles, lord of Castle Carbonek. According to Green’s sources, Sir Balyn the Savage was visited by an image of the Grail at Carbonek. A voice, presumably God’s, told him to quell his temper, but instead he grabbed a spear and stabbed Pelles, a reenactment of Christ’s stabbing by Longinus. This so-called Dolorous Stroke permanently wounded the king and turned his lands barren and fallow. In some versions he has a son who fishes in a river by the castle, hence the Fisher King and his father the Wounded or Maimed King.

Later, when the image of the grail revisits Camelot, the knights quest after it. Sirs Gawain and Lancelot arrive in Carbonek to find Pelles old and thirsty, his people distressed. As Sir Percivale approaches, Naciens the hermit proclaims:

King Pelles and all you people of the Waste Lands, rejoice and be exceeding glad. For Gawain has taken away the Curse of Desolation which Balyn brought upon you when he struck the Dolorous Stroke. Therefore be sure that the Grail Knight draws near, and the long penance will soon be ended.

Pelles is cured by the blood of Christ dripping off Longinus’s spear – it appears along with a lot of unaccounted for grail maidens in white. The body of the sovereign is the microcosm of the body of his people, his state. So his lands grow fertile again, and he doesn’t have to fish no more.

Enter Eliot

Jack’s sarcastic catchphrase on his radio show is  “forgive me.” Forgiveness for his rude and condescending behaviour to his callers, and later forgiveness for triggering the restaurant shooting. Like humanity waiting to be redeemed for their sins by Christ, like the people of Carbonek waiting for their crops to grow, Jack takes three years off from work to “sort out his emotional issues”. In exile, he drinks too much, mistreats his girlfriend Anne (Mercedes Ruehl) and spurns the rest of the world.

Pelles’ story has been frequently alluded to in art. T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland is a poetic reinterpretation of the Fisher King, setting the wounded Pelles in post-World War I London. There’s disillusionment here too, and a search for growth and vitality:

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow / Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man, / You cannot say, or guess, for you only know / A heap of broken images.

Gilliam and Bridges amp up Jack’s desperation by making him a barren soul. His apartment is walled with glass and tiled in black; it has the studied nihilism of Patrick Bateman’s aesthetics in American Psycho. Visually the point is clear. Jack is empty, arid, a stony rubbish that needs some water. By forming a bond to Perry (Percivale) and losing himself in the troubles of another, Jack finds the grail of friendship. I think this is the humanist and slightly saccharine point Gilliam is trying to make: we are each other’s Holy Grails.

What’s pretty cool is how the set design shows the flowering of old stories in between the skyscrapers and asphalt of New York City. Gilliam finds classical figures like arches to introduce scenes when Jack encounters Perry:

Or placing important plot points such as Perry’s pursuit of the Red Knight and the monologue about the Fisher King (a little different from Green’s) in Central Park, a jewel of nature blossoming in the centre of a metropolis:

Or a Corinthian column outside the window of Perry’s hospital bed:

So there’s definitely a connection between antiquity, nature, and Perry, the deluded Grail Knight. He praises the romance paperbacks Lydia (Amanda Plummer) buys every two days:

There’s nothing trashy about romance. In romance there’s passion, imagination, beauty. Besides you find some pretty wonderful things in the trash.

This might as well be Gilliam speaking. The ex-Monty Python animator makes no distinction between “high art” and “low art”. His films are smart and crude at the same time. Perry’s mythical infatuations and hallucinations of the Red Knight are heavy in symbolism and folkloric history, but he’s not above letting a nude Robin Williams loose in Central Park, screaming “it’s good to let the little guy hang out”.

Eliot is more pretentious, seeking the self-contained order in literary works to stave off the “anarchy and futility of contemporary history”. Quoting Dante, he turns London into a congregation of soulless workers:

Unreal City, / Under the brown fog of a winter dawn, / A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many, / I had not thought death had undone so many. / Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled. / And each man fixed his eyes before his feet. / Flowed up the hill and down King William Street…

One last comparison. There’s a scene in Grand Central Station when Perry falls under the trance of Lydia, a woman who hasn’t met him yet. The flowing crowds suddenly pair up beautifully into waltzing pairs, turning the pulsating terminal into an elegant ballroom. Here’s the before and after.

In the end Perry becomes the ailing king, beaten by two very 90s street thugs into a coma. I’m not sure what the switch in roles means, only that Jack has to get himself in emotional order and break into a billionaire’s house to steal the cup of Christ – or a placebo of the cup of Christ – to pull Perry back into consciousness. Since I can’t resist quoting more Eliot, here’s are a few lines at the end of The Waste Land:

I sat upon the shore. / Fishing, with the arid plain behind me / Shall I at least set my lands in order?

Read a book, watch a good movie. It’s a good start.

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Filed under Jeff Bridges, Old Ones, Terry Gilliam

Religious Ideas in 12 Monkeys

I don’t know why it took me this long to see 12 Monkeys. I call myself a Gilliam fan, or a fan of 80s Gilliam. After the mild disappointment of Brothers Grimm and the stomach-churning shame of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, I thought the man had derailed after The Fisher King, unable to face the headaches and crises of another shoot and another duel with the studios. Last night I saw 12 Monkeys (1995) at Cineplex’s Digital Film Festival. Part conventional thriller, part mind-bender, it blurs the same dreams-reality present-future border Brazil mined ten years earlier. Bruce Willis stars as Cole, a convict from 2035 sent to retrieve knowledge from a pre-viral past – hopefully you’ve seen it already so the following ideas will have some context for you. If not, read no further, there are some serious spoilers to be warned of. But see 12 Monkeys, it’s two hours well-spent.

James Cole = Jesus Christ

Is Cole a Christ figure? He’s sent to the past from the future to save humanity from a deadly virus, or at least allow the humans of 2035 feel fresh air again. He’s granted a pardon for helping the scientists find a cure. So he is meant to be a saviour who is pardoned for his early, unspecified sins by acts of altruism and suffering.

Cole and the eye of God?

These appear like fragments of Christian myth inverted and warped by Gilliam’s imagination. Cole doesn’t succeed in creating a new future for humanity, and for the film’s second act he tries to forget his duties. Only his psychiatrist Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe) r can convince him he’s perfectly sane, and she discovers that Dr. Peters is the real carrier of the virus. Cole is a very reluctant Christ. Even when pushed by Railly and Jose (the divine messenger from the future who gives him a gun) he fails to stop Peters from boarding his flight. While he is shot dead, he is not really dead: he is watching his own death as a child.

He can’t save the world from the apocalypse, which does not bring ultimate salvation. Humanity limps on under the ground, possibly a metaphor for hell. 12 Monkeys deserves a lot more views before a substantial thesis can be teased out, but there is clearly a postmodern angle, maybe even parody being played on the Bible. Cole does not want to save anybody, he wants to remain in the past/earth and forget the future. In a way, he wants to forget God; what better representation of an omnipotent being in science fiction than the unknowable, unfathomable, but all-powerful future?

The Flood

Also, the animals running around Philadelphia scream Noah’s Ark, as the virus does the Flood. Again, Gilliam has turned the Biblical story on its head: instead of a diety punishing humans for being sinful, a diety (maybe just karma) is punishing humans for mistreating animals. The Army of the 12 Monkeys protests animal testing. Humans are said to be “an endangered species”. A monkey is exploited to save a child at the bottom of the well. Animals go on to survive the virus and reclaim the earth, while the humans are driven underground like rats.


There are doubtless other mythical references at work – I’ve even read an argument that Cole is Osiris and the other characters Ancient Egyptian deities. Watching any of Gilliam’s films is like unpacking a T.S. Eliot poem, where allusions point to older allusions which point to ancient allusions.

The ending reflects Eastern theology and, tellingly, is a lot more optimistic than the gloomy Christian overtones. Kathryn and Cole and James are locked in a cycle of two presents: he witnesses his own death and looks into her eyes, though he does not know this until he grows up, gets thrown into the past, and walks into that airport on that particular day. Is this an endless journey, repeated infinitely, without James able to break it because, as a child, he does not understand what’s going on?  It’s a beautiful, mind-blowing conclusion. Maybe most touching is how Railly looks into the young Cole’s eyes and smiles, as if she knows she will see him again.

This could be the Sanskrit Sangsara: the endless wheel of life and death. According to Buddha we have all been in Sangsara for an indefinite period of time, continuously suffering, dying, and getting born, only to suffer and die again. Eliot probably had this is mind when he wrote “April is the cruellest month.”   Release from the cycle of mortality comes with Nirvana, a freeing of identity and end of the world. Has Cole reached Nirvana? The last shot is one of his eyes watching the Peter’s plane take off, suggesting grown-up Cole and young Cole have merged and he understands what is going on. Or he could be ignorant and go through the same cycle again.

From the 1962 Chris Marker film La Jetée, the inspiration behind 12 Monkeys

David Webb People and Janet People’s by-the-books script is an odd bedfellow to Gilliam’s flamboyant sets and cartoonish wide angles, but it’s a partnership that is mostly functional and sometimes brilliant. 12 Monkeys explores very human issues, which is maybe why there are so many religious allusions. The drive behind Cole’s story is the very human desire to reverse, escape, and finally defeat time. Cole might have reached Nirvana, but like the end of Inception, we are left without an answer because we have to fill in our own.


Filed under Old Ones, Terry Gilliam

“The film wasn’t released, it escaped.”

After months of campaigning, the ever-lengthening awards season draws to a close in January, when the new releases feel like leftovers from the summer. Look at the mediocre debuts of the last few weeks: The Rite, The Dilemma, The Green Hornet.

You can always find exceptions to the rule, even if you have to go far back into history. On January 25, 1970, 20th Century Fox screened MASH at a few theatres in New York, New York. It is surprising Robert Altman’s film even got that far. Fox was heavily campaigning for the upcoming releases of Patton and Tora! Tora! Tora!, weighty affirmations of American patriotism that were to be the real war movies of the year.

Until MASH was in front of its audience, it had always been a hard sell. Richard Hooker (born Hoernberger) wrote and edited the book over eleven years, only to be rejected by everybody except William Morrow. The book was a hit. Fox was interested, though they only paid Hooker a couple hundred bucks for the right.

Neither was there much enthusiasm among filmmakers for the project. Altman was thirteenth in line for the throne. His love of improvisation and overlapping dialogue, his disdain for scripts – these would become his celebrated trademarks. In 1970, everyone on set was wondering what the hell he was doing.

Lead actor Donald Sutherland, worried that reels were being wasted on secondary characters, tried to get Altman fired. In retrospect the attention to ensemble acting is what makes the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital such a colourful community. Comedy and tragedy mingled over surgery tables of spurting blood, stripping death and the military of sacred status.

MASH cost 4 million to make and expanded from a platform release to make over 80 million, the second highest gross of the year. Although Altman was done with Fox, he now had the credentials to start other projects. In the next few years he made McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), The Long Goodbye (1973), California Split (1974) and Nashville (1975), the bulk of his legacy.

Media historian Rick Mitz argues the film made dark comedy a staple reflex of mainstream entertainment. Humour is often the only possible reaction to the futility of life, and where can the human condition appear so desperate (and hilarious) as the front line of an inconsequential war? There is little overt reference to Korea, the film’s official setting, and most filmgoers associated Hawkeye and Trapper’s mischief as reactions to the frustrations of the Vietnam War.


Filed under Filmmakers, Old Ones, Robert Altman