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Inside Quebec - July 2011
By Maurie Alioff

<Maurie Alioff>
All images belong to their individual copyright owners.

Maurie Alioff is a film journalist, critic, screenwriter and media columnist. He has written for radio and television and taught screenwriting at Montreal’s Vanier College. A former editor for Cinema Canada and Take One, as well as other magazines, he is affiliated with the Quebec media industry publication, CTVM.Info. His articles have appeared in various publications, including Canadian Cinematographer, POV Magazine, and The New York Times.

Rock On!

For Quebeckers, especially Baby Boomers, the late Gerry Boulet (1946-1990) is a music legend. Those who still hanker for Quebec’s sovereignty embrace him as a symbol of nationalist passion that burns far less brightly than it did during the heyday of Boulet’s band, Offenbach. Like many pictures about music icons, Alain Desrochers’ Gerry<Gerry, movie poster> opens at a turning point moment in Boulet’s life, flashes back, in this case to childhood, and then propels forward, hitting all the obligatory scenes one would expect from the ode to rock star genre.

Newspaper columnist and author Nathalie Petrowski’s screenplay yields a minutely detailed, energetic, but conventional and somewhat plodding movie. Played convincingly, if not always engagingly, by Mario Saint-Amand, Gerry morphs the British-style pop rock of his group, Les Gants blancs, into blues-based, operatic Offenbach. Along the way, he lives out various defeats and victories (Offenbach was the first francophone band to play Montreal’s Forum), trips out on acid and sex, skyrockets over-the-top, pays the price, fights with bandmates, and faces the biggest tragedy of his life. Along the way Gerry woos earthy Denise Croteau (Madeleine Péloquin), the first big love of his life, then dumps her for Françoise Faraldo (Capucine Delaby) while shooting a documentary with the ethereal blonde’s director brother in France.

Like the Johnny Cash biopic, Walk the Line, the film opens through the legend’s eyes. We see what he sees before we see him, a mythologizing effect conveying god-like stature. Gerry is in his backstage dressing room before a show, a bottle of Wild Turkey and a pack of Gitanes prominently displayed. Booze and ciggies, and of course other drugs, loom large. And this visual shorthand also clues us into the fact that while the story is about a performer, who while steeped in American rhythms and idioms, is very French.

In the movie’s evocation of Gerry’s childhood, destiny’s child appears as a drum major in a small town marching band right out of Born on the Fourth of July. The little girls of St. Jean sur <Gerry, movie still>Richelieu are gaga over him as he struts down Main Street, twirling his baton and projecting a precocious charisma that I don’t quite get.

Neither does a condescending, chain-smoking priest who sneers at the heathen music Gerry plays on the church organ, and tells the kid, “Your future is in a factory, just like all the generations before you.” Gerry defiantly rejects the unsolicited prediction coming from a cynical old man who embodies a dying religion, one that is about to give way to faith in rock ‘n’ roll. And in Quebec at the time, rock music was linked to the defiance of the Quiet Revolution and the separatist movement that liberated Quebecers from both all-powerful clergymen and Anglo economic control. Gerry is rock star biopic with a socio-political-historical backbeat.

When Boulet formed Offenbach in 1969, he dreamt of scoring in the U.S. as an English-language artist. In the film’s major turning point concert scene, the crowd starts chanting, as crowds did back then, “En francais! En francais!” even if the performer was a Serbian. A bandmate shouts “We’re not French, we sing in Québécois,” and the boys in Offenbach triumphantly belt out a number in their native tongue. Since Gerry’s June release, audiences have been buying into this movie, but to what extent they are responding to its obvious nationalist cheerleading is hard to say, given the ongoing meltdown of the sovreignist Parti Québécois, and elimination of the Bloc Québécois in the last federal election.

Gerry depicts its protagonist as a raunchy gars ordinaire, enthusiastically partaking in the movie’s loutish shouting in the streets, beer swilling in almost every scene, and  bottle smashing from muscle cars. But our hero can also <Gerry, movie still>can be romantic, and even courtly with the ladies, exemplified by a protracted, hypersensitive lovemaking scene with Françoise. Man, Gerry even wants to sing an Edit Piaf song, respecting the original words.

Mario Saint-Amand’s version of the rocker is strikingly close to the original, but overall, the actor is too relentlessly macho with his grating voice and ultimately annoying diabolical laugh. Sometimes, Dionysian comes across as obnoxious.

Pre-marketed as an inevitable hit before its release on 125 Quebec screens, Gerry has been a big money—maker since its June launch, earning over a million in 10 days. The picture functions, but it ain’t no Ray, Walk the Line, or I’m Not Here, Todd Haynes’ kaleidoscopic, shapeshifting vision of Bob Dylan. The dead rocker movie that preceded Gerry, Jean-Philippe Duval’s Dédé à travers les brumes (Dédé through the Fog, 2009), has more sparkle and bounce, partly because Duval is a funkier, more playful, and innovative director than DesRocher, and partly because as a character, Dédé Fortin (stunningly incarnated by Sébastien Ricard) is so much more disarmingly one-of-a-kind than Gerry Boulet.

Poison Pals

For film critic Anne Billson, horror movie apartments are far scarier than rambling, shaking old houses, “possibly built over ancient Native American burial grounds.” Billson continued in The Guardian, “I'm surprised there aren't more slasher movies set in flats. Tenants or flat mates can bring out the psycho in all of us.” And of course, “The king of apartment horror has to be Roman Polanski, who has given us the ultimate flat-dweller's nightmare trilogy.” 

In Polanski’s Repulsion, Catherine Deneuve contended with walls that sprouted groping hands, not to mention her irresistible impulse to slash jugular veins with a straight razor. Prying neighbours destabilized Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby “before the satanic chanting starts up next door, and Polanski's degenerating relationship with his <Good Neighbours, movie poster>neighbours in The Tenant – the masterpiece of apartment horror – is liable to bring anyone out in a cold sweat. Hell isn't old dark houses – it's other people.”

Jacob Tierney’s third feature, following 2003’s downbeat Twist (Dickens on smack) and last year’s satirical comedy The Trotsky (High School goes Communist), the ironically titled Good Neighbours takes a shot at merging apartment horror with comedy, stirring up memories of Rear Window and The Tennant with a dash of Friends.

Set for some reason in 1995, the year of what will probably be Quebec’s last referendum campaign for sovereignty, the picture tracks the ambiguous, potentially explosive relationships conducted by three young apartment dwellers in Montreal’s NDG district. Like Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window, Spencer (Scott Speedman) rattles around his pad in a wheelchair while Louise (Emily Hampshire) obsesses on her pet cats, and new arrival Victor (a relatively restrained Jay Baruchel) tries to settle in. Beyond the venerable apartment building where most of the action plays out, a serial killer stalks the neighbourhood. Not only is Spencer, Louise, and Victor distressed and destabilized by the crimes, one of them probably is the maniac slaughtering young girls in the middle of the night.

The “good neighbours” are an odd trio. Despite his handicap, Spencer is a good-looking, self-confident charmer with a muscular body that his nurse, (Diane D’Aquila, reminiscent of Thelma Ritter in Rear Window), seems to be drooling over. Like Christian Bale in American Psycho, Speedman keeps flashing 1000-watt smiles that fade to black when no one is around. Louise’s neurotic tics and blocked social skills contrast with her wheelchair-bound buddy’s<Scott Speedman, Good Neighbours> easy geniality and sexual charisma, particularly when she’s enraged by the murderous cat hatred of her nemesis, tenant Madame Langlois (Anne-Marie Cadieux). When push comes to shove, the sexually inhibited Louise becomes ruthlessly determined, and in one pungent moment, shot in silhouette, a magnificently loaded condom dangles from her fingers. As for Victor, he’s the earnest, doggedly responsible, relatively cool head, who covets Louise.

The three characters meet one-on-one or together for dinners, chats, and discussions about the serial killer. They seem to get along, but they are far from being soul mates. As Spencer tells a cop in one scene, “To say that we are friends is an exaggeration.”

Opening on a wintry morning, the movie’s predatory ambience is established quickly as a cat menaces an aquarium full of tropical fish. The film effectively builds a feeling of apprehension, even though nothing that violent or menacing, beyond little shocks and quirky cinematography choices, occurs until late in the story. When the blood does hit the fan, viewers are regaled by one of the most perversely violent scenes ever seen in a mainstream thriller that’s not from Asia. The picture’s flaw is its excess of meandering, teasing back-and-forth <Kevin Tierney>between the leads. It should have cut to the chase faster.

Just ending its theatrical run as I write, Good Neighbours has played Quebec exclusively in its original version: no subtitled or dubbed prints although a “TV quality” dub was produced by distributor Alliance-Vivafilm. The company decided to forego even a single French-subtitled copy for the Quebec release despite the popularity of The Trotsky, not to mention positive reviews for Good Neighbours.

The moviemaker’s producer, Kevin Tierney (pictured) fired off emails decrying the strategy and collaging positive pull quotes about his son’s latest picture. Some observers speculated that the decision had something to do with Jacob Tierney’s public critique of the Quebec film industry as being too white, and otherwise undiversified. Alliance says it was about dollars and cents – nothing more.

During a radio interview at the time of the picture’s release, well-known culture broadcaster René Homier-Roy asked Tierney why his film didn’t better represent the cultural diversity of the NDG neighbourhood, as if Tierney should have thrown some Rastas and East Indians into a movie based on Quebec writer Chrystine Brouillet’s 1982 novel, Chère voisine (Dear Neighbour). On top of that, Good Neighbours actually does present various kinds of Quebeckers, including Jews, Chinese, and francophone Québécois.

Soon after its limited Quebec release, Good Neighbours picked up a Canadian Comedy Award nomination for best film. Tierney and Baruchel got the nod for best director, writer, and actor, CCAs they won last year for The Trotsky.

Desolation Cairo

Once upon a time, my girlfriend and I were in a voluminous, richly carpeted tent somewhere on the Moroccan coast between Essaouira and El-Jadida. We were guests of a Sheikh who was throwing a party during a major moussem, a festival commemorating a local saint. A fierce-looking man with a thin, white scar running down one cheek, our host decided to amuse himself by asking me to dance with one of the shikhats in attendance. Traditionally, shikhats we<Arabian Nights>re geisha-like courtesans who danced, sang, and otherwise entertained male clients. Today, they are mainly entertainers who perform at events ranging from weddings to folk festivals.

So I got up from my pillowed spot on the carpet, excited that I was now face-to-face with one of these mythic women I had read and heard about. As my girlfriend grinned, and the Sheikh smirked, I gazed upon the shikhat in her brocaded Berber robe, elaborate jewellery, tribal facial tattoos, painted lips, and deep, kohl-rimmed eyes. She made eye contact, but she was also elsewhere, a distant, mysterious place. As the shikhat moved her body with subtly suggestive gyrations that had something in common with what we think of belly dancing, but only tangentially, I tried to follow her, lost in those eyes and hypnotic sway. (For a diluted approxiation of what she was doing:

At Night They Dance, a new documentary by Isaballe Lavigne and Stéphane Thibault, has zero to do with tbe sophisticated choreography and rich costuming of North African and middle-eastern dances performed by shikhats, cabaret belly dancers, or the exotic women in Arabian Nights fantasies, (pictured above). The movie depicts Cairo’s nocturnal belly dancing scene as hardscrabble business, a nasty hustle, not an art, not a meaningful ritual.

The film pushes in on Reda, an ex-dancer who showruns three of her daughters, dancers at all-male parties in huge, glaring rented spaces. Dressed in costumes that have more in common with Go-Go getups than the art of belly dancing, the <At Night They Dance>sisters make perfunctory, desultory, graceless  moves surrounded by men scrupulously avoiding eye contact while getting off on the exposed flesh and throwing money around. The girls look bored or distressed, enduring celebrations devoid of real celebration. When one of the dancers gets arrested, and you think about the Egyptian police abuse that provoked the Arab Spring, you are even more aware that Reda’s family is engaged in very risky business.

Like many recent documentaries, At Night, They Dance is extraordinarily intimate. Lavigne and Thibault are flies on the walls of Reda’s always hectic apartment, overhearing explosive arguments about drugs, sex, and money, not to mention advice on handling difficult clients. Imagine how Reda felt leaving her perch on her living room floor for this year’s Cannes Film Festival, where At Night, They Dance screened in the Quinzaine, the first Quebec doc to do so since 1971. Graced by gorgeous, mood-shifting images of Cairo at night, the film’s only romanticism, the movie won a Special Jury Prize for a Canadian feature at Hot Docs 2011 and had a theatrical run in Quebec.

Wounded Warriors

London born, once a Montrealer, and long-time Angelino Lionel Chetwynd has never played according to standard rulebooks. A high school dropout who won a scholarship to Oxford’s Trinity College, a lawyer who chose moviemaking over the courtroom, a leftist activist who became one of Hollywood’s best known conservative Republicans, Chetwynd has accumulated a long list of writing, producing, and directing credits since he picked up an Oscar nomination and a Writer’s Guild of America award for his work on The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz.

A while back, Chetwynd and his wife, actress Gloria Carlin co-chaired a dinner on the University of Southern California campus, an event that cast a spotlight on a USC program designed to train social workers in the skills required to help returning veterans and their families. Organizers announced a scholarship for Master of Social Work students in the program and introduced the first recipient, himself a veteran. The scholarship is named for actor Gary Sinise, who Chetwynd told me, “has done more USO shows with his Lt. Dan Band than Bob Hope and works tirelessly on behalf of wounded veterans.”

Hollywood supporters of the initiative, and members of the dinner committee, included Clint Eastwood, Tom Hanks, David Mamet, Ron Howard, Jerry Bruckheimer, Tom Selleck, Robert Zemekis, and Jon Voigt. Sinese, honoured at the event, and Voigt attended. When the guests raised a glass to veterans, Sgt.<Lionel Chetwynd> Bjorn Ditmar and two oter Canadian members of The Black Watch who fought in Afghanistan, were in the room.

Chetwynd says that he got involved in the dinner through his association with a US-Canada undertaking called Wounded Warriors, “which helps with any issue involving veterans who return broken in mind or body, and is linked to the USC Social Work Program. I wanted a Canadian presence at the dinner,” he continues, “and that took the form of a visit by the Pipes and Drums Band of the Black Watch (Highland Regiment of Canada). The military also sent down two Air Force singers who were a sensation singing the national anthems and a trio that played through dinner. The Canadians did us all very proud.”

The Black Watch’s appearance at the dinner brought Chetwynd back to his teenage self, when as a troubled drop-out, he enlisted in the regiment as a private, an experience that he believes rescued him from total meltdown.

Two nights before the USC event, Sinese’s Lt. Dan Band, which by the way is named for the character the CSI New York star played in Forrest Gump, did a gig for students, the RTC, and veterans. “And on that night,” Chetwynd recalls with pleasure, “I wore my kilt. I hadn’t worn since I was 19. I was always shy about wearing it because I wasn’t on active service.

“My military service is really meagre, so it’s very difficult to explain how important it was in shaping me, changing me from what I was to what I became. It was the beginning of my self-esteem, my feeling that I was somebody. I can’t qualify for the 10th grade, but if I work really hard, I can qualify for this.” Now an associate member of the officers’ mess, Chetwynd is grateful to “the current colonel, Bruno Plourde, a really terrific guy, who gave me the permission to wear the kilt and supplied it.”

As for Chetwynd’s ongoing adventures as a Conservative in La-La Land, he recently dropped his membership in the influential Caucus for Producers, Writers and Directors. Why? A new book by Ben Shapiro, “Prime Time Propaganda: The True Hollywood Story of How the Left Took Over Your TV,” quotes Vin Di Bona, who Chetwynd worked with on the steering committee, as saying it was “probably accurate” that scripted TV shows are pro-liberal, and that he was “happy about it” And Di Bona was not the only well-known player to make the admission.

In an open letter to Caucus chair, Dennis Doty, (quoted in Variety and The New York Times), Chetwynd refers to Di Bona as a friend and “talented, decent person,” but expresses his disdain for views that contradict his ideas about American fair play and intellectual diversity.

“I do not defend (Shapiro’s) book, having yet to read it; I address only the matters raised by its research content. … Many of those interviewed held the opinion that discriminating against conservatives was a simple virtue - i.e., one all could/should accept. Vin’s comment was mild compared to some. Many called for wider efforts at shutting out voices with which they happen to disagree. But, what if we substitute for ‘conservative,’ words like African-American, or Gay, or Jew, or Muslim, -- or, God forbid, Leftists, Communists, or Liberals?”

As he has asserted for years, Chetwynd writes in his letter, “I experienced overt Blacklisting for my views as a conservative – at the very hands of those who piously deplore the Blacklisting of Communists in a former day. As 1950s Blacklist victim Carl Foreman warned me when I told him I was moving to Hollywood: ‘Beware the fearless defenders of the safely contentious.’ He was right: Rhetoric is easy, principle is hard.”

Arthur, Arthur

Animation filmmaker Theodore Ushev became fascinated by the late Arthur Lipsett around the time that Ryan Larkin, another brilliant but tragic National Film Board of Canada animator, suddenly emerged from obscurity via Chris Landreth’s Oscar-winning, NFB co-produced short about him. Ushev once told me that he was even more intrigued when he discovered that he lived very close to the Cote des Neiges apartment where Lipsett struggled with demons that eventually pushed him into his 1986 suicide.

Like Ryan Larkin, Lipsett drew international attention that included an Academy Award Nomination for his short, 1962’s Very Nice, Very Nice. But where Larkin tended toward lyricism and whimsy, Lipsett spliced outtakes, archival footage, and found sound into ironically apocalyptic visions that are as prescient today as they were when Lipsett startled viewers that included George Lucas, Ingmar Bergman, and Stanley Kubrick, who wanted him to direct the trailer for Dr. Strangelove.

Awarded the Genie and Prix-Jutra for best animation, on TIFF’s list of 2010’s best films, and recipient of a Special Mention at the recent World Wide Short Film Festival, Ushev’s NFB-produced Lipsett Diaries uses digitally processed crayon and paint drawings for a complex wash of multi-layered images that aim at capturing Lipsett’s chaotic mental state. Fragments of his own work explode throughout Ushev’s. And at one point, Kubrick’s letter to the NFB praising Very, Very Nice swims into the mix. The imaginary diaries, written by Chris Robinson, are suggested by Lipsett’s films and voiced by Xavier Dolan in a sonic space that sounds like some woebegone mind tunnel.

A close friend of mine met Lipsett on the street just before embarking on a long voyage. He told Lipsett he was leaving town, and asked Lipsett if he wanted him to back something back. In what may have been a rare moment of calm, Lipsett smiled, “Bring me seashells.”

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