As long time readers of this site know, every summer I attend the best film festival in the whole wide world, Fantasia, which specializes in movies from Hong Kong and the movies from around the world that share that balls to the wall, to the hell with logic let's make movies gusto that typifies your Hong Kong cinema. Like, say, the icon that I use as an avatar from the Korean rasslin' movie Foul King of which I wrote last year.
Sadly, this year, the air conditioning exploded at the Imperial Cinema, home to Fantasia. Equally sadly, the Imperial is owned by the City of Montreal having been donated to the city specifically for putting on film festivals. Naturally, before agreeing to fix the air conditioning, the topic had to be discussed in committee at which the history of air conditioning, the environmental impact of air conditioning, the history of cinema, and the environmental impact of cinema all had to be discussed, not to mention the impact on tourism of having or not having air conditioning in a theatre, and the environmental impact of increasing or decreasing tourism as a result of having or not having air conditioning at the Imperial. It goes without saying that all of these deliberations were conducted in rooms that were, in fact, air-conditioned. By the time that the city finally decided that replacing the air conditioning at the Imperial cinema was a swell idea, the organizers of Fantasia had canceled the event for this year, knowing that even if the city did approve the air conditioning that it would never be ready in time for their festival, and that cooping up several hundred frenzied Montrealers in a dark room in July without air conditioning would be cruel and unusual punishment even for the socially retarded geeks that make up their target audience.
Fortunately, the second best film festival in the whole wide world also takes place in Montreal, namely the Montreal World Film Festival. Now, le Festival des Films du Monde is not the industry shmoozefest that the little shing-dig that they throw in Toronto is, nor is it a celebration of the independent spirit of Yankee film-making that Sundance is. What it is, is a celebration of World Films. Now, it may be Montrealers clinging to the illusion of our own cultural superiority (naaaahhh!), or we may, like Aesop's Fox, have declared that the grapes that we cannot reach are probably sour anyway, but, in Montreal, rather than freaking out over the latest Hollywood sop to the cultural elite, we prefer to get excited over the latest masterpiece from Iran.
Normally, by the time the FFM rolls around in late August, I am suffering from Fantasia burn-out and can barely muster the enthusiasm to glance at the schedule, let alone wander into yet another darkened room to see yet another sub-titled piece of cinema. But, this year, I am instead suffering from Fantasia withdrawal. On the plus side, my pain is your gain, or so one hopes. Individual tickets to FFM films are $10 (Cdn), with a booklet of 10 costing $65 (Cdn), so I purchased a booklet of ten on Saturday. It remains to be seen whether I will actually see ten movies, but I have already picked up tickets for at least eight films, so my investment appears to be worth while.
The danger of attending films at the FFM is that I could find myself watching a three hour Polish movie about pudding and gay cowboys, or, worse, a four hour Brazilian mini-series about gay pudding and cowboys. At least at Fantasia I can be comforted with the knowledge that even if I am watching a six hour Japanese cartoon series about boy-cows and pudding gaiety that there will be guaranteed some form of heroic bloodshed in the last hour to make it all worthwhile. FFM comes with no such guarantees. After work tonight, I made my way to the box office at Place des Arts to trade in my film coupons for tickets to my seven movie choices, which had to be ordered using a crypto-alpha-numeric system that seems more appropriate for opening safes or ordering lottery tickets than it does for attending a movie. I lined up with my fellow cinematic safe crackers, each of us hoping that our precious combinations would open the vault to cinematic bliss. As I picked up my tickets, I noticed that the Irish film Mapmaker, which I had wanted to see, but had marked off as not fitting my agenda, was playing at 7:30 pm at the Eaton Centre. I traded in one more coupon for E4.25.4 and made my way to the Eaton Centre wondering why I had been so convinced that I would be unable to attend Mapmaker.
Making my way into the Eaton Centre, my throat parched from a hectic day of dealing with drunken and/or insane retail shoppers, I cursed my lack of foresight at polishing off my bottled water at work and not replacing it. I made my way to the first floor Eaton Centre candy counter which is on the second floor of the cinema and the, let's see, the seventh floor of the Eaton Centre, a shopping mall that is neither very central nor contains an Eaton's anymore, Eaton's having gone the way of the Great Auk and intelligent political commentary on CNN. I was appalled to find that for the duration of the film festival the popcorn machines had been boarded up to make way for muffins and bischotti. Fortunately, the cultural elite managed to keep their refined hands off the coke machines and I was able to order a frosty beverage, paying the princely sum of $3.80 (Cdn.) for a medium drink. The coke machine in question being, in fact, a Pepsi machine, I was forced to satisfy my caffeine cravings with an unchallenging Pepsi. It should be noted that I could have ordered a Mountain Dew, but this being Canada, where we are protected for our own good from being exposed to giant Samoans beating up on women, the Mountain Dew in question would be decaffeinated, and Mountain Dew without caffeine is just Doo.
Prior to Mapmaker, we were shown a short New Zealand film called The Platform. Like most short films it consisted of a short crude one punch-line joke featuring male nudity and violence. The cinematic equivalent of a Chuck and Billy match, in other words, and it was, to coin a phrase, Rasmussenesque in its brilliance. That said, the best part of the film was the jazzy score which went totally uncredited, while the director thanked his third grade English Teacher for teaching him how to spell and how to tie his shoes without drooling on his socks, and the producer thanked her entire sorority individually for helping her lose her virginity with dignity.
Mapmaker, 2001, Ireland, written & directed by Johnny Gogan
Mapmaker begins with my filmic kryptonite: intrusive voice-over narration. I loathe narration to films especially when they give us information that we can acquire for ourselves with a few seconds of calm reflection. In this case, literally everything that the protagonist tells us, we learn for ourselves or he reveals to other characters through dialogue, so the entire intrusive bit smacks of a director panicking because no one talks for the first five minutes of the film. Our hero, Brendan Coyle (played by Robert Bates), is an Dublin Quaker and engineer who, as the movie begins, is driving to a small town in Northern Ireland to apply for a three month contract to create a map of the countryside for the local Heritage commission. He picks up a small boy (played by Oisin Kearney) at a nearby gas station who has come South to get some sanitary product for Sheep not available in the North. The lift is offered not out of kindness, but out of mutual self-interest. The boy is from the small village that Brendan is traveling to and knows the fastest way there. Immediately we are given a clue to the key to the film's heart, as Brendan points to the compass dangling from his rear-view mirror, protesting that the boy's shortcut is taking them South instead of North. Brendan's plan is to create his map using a GPS tracking system attached to a video camera, but in the very first moments of the film he is shown that rather than trusting to technology, he would be better placed to put his trust in the local guides.
I was interested in seeing this movie because the idea of Mapmaking as a metaphor for explaining the past and predicting the future is an exciting one to me, especially after reading the Island of Lost Maps over the summer. In this case, the emotional stakes are raised by the film's location of Northern Ireland. The very act of making a map is a political one, especially in a community where the Catholics could have one name for a location and the Protestant's another. Making the lead character a Quaker is an inspired choice as it implies neutrality, but in Ireland neutral usually only means that both sides are shooting at you. When Brendan meets the local Heritage committee chaired by both the local Catholic priest and the local Protestant minister, the promise of an exploration of this topic seems ready to be fulfilled. Sadly, rather than delve into the notion of a divided community with divided ideas of what places should be called, Mapmaker instead chooses to focus on a murder mystery linked to the Time of Troubles, as Brendan's mapmaking tangles him up in the past of the community that he finds himself in.
In the process, we are reminded that another tenet of Quakers besides pacifism is Bearing Witness to the Truth, as Brendan finds himself investigating the disappearance of the father of the young boy that he picked up at the start of the movie. "What's your name?" asks Brendan after their third or fourth meeting. "I have lots of names, and I don't answer to half of them, " says the boy impudently, artfully raising the possibility that he is refusing to answer because giving someone your true name gives them power over you, and Brendan is a kind of modern sorceror trying to pin down the true names of the surrounding area, and thus control it, tame it, circumscribe it, map it. The boy finally acknowledges that his mother calls him Cub.
Cub's missing father was the local expert on the small trails and unique landmarks of the area. Thus Cub, as his heir, is the chiding reminder that all of Brendan's technology can't help him map the hidden heart of the countryside, its' mysteries and its' legends. In Ireland, the metaphorical, the hidden, the mystery are more important than the surface truth will ever be. The failure of Brendan's technology is never more apparent than when he is studying his video footage only to discover Cub hidden in the frames, watching him at work, hidden in plain sight. Brendan's technology blinds him instead of helping him to see.
Cub's father disappeared while working as a guide for a team of British archaeologists, after two IRA gunmen were betrayed to the British. The local suspicion was always that he had been an informer for the British, and that he had been murdered by the IRA. This suspicion is confirmed as Brendan, tangled up in his technological gear, literally trips over the corpse of Cub's father. At which point, the film goes right off the rails as Cub promptly disappears for the middle portion of the movie and we watch Brendan flounder trying to solve the murder and sort out his feelings for the female member of the Heritage committee, the married Jane (played by Susan Lynch who is simultaneously heartbreakingly beautiful and totally plain in the way that only Irish women can be, c.f. Molly Parker.) The disappearance of Cub is keenly felt as the movie ought to be about Brendan learning to trust in the local guides and putting away his technological gadgets, but that theme is thrust to the background so that Brendan can help the local constabulary, who make Thompson & Thomson look like the second coming of Sherlock Holmes. At a critical moment in the movie, Brendan describes exactly what the murderer must be like and the local detective rather than saying. "aha that only describes one person in the entire village!" instead squinches his forehead together in an attempt to mimic thought as his hamster falls off the wheel.
The less said of the denouement the better, although it is one of those mystery stories where every one acts like an idiot in a dumbest man goes to jail contest. Once the matter of the mystery is out of the way, we can return to the movies true theme and see Brendan's solution to his dilemma of how to fit the lyrical and the metaphorical Irish countryside into the prosaic and literal world of maps. The solution is appropriate, but lacking in power since we have been distracted away from even noticing that Brendan was struggling with the question.
While I would recommend seeing Mapmaker, I would tend to describe it as a lost opportunity. It looks like a film with a great second draft screenplay that should have had a third and a fourth draft written before being shot. Creating a character like Cub and building a relationship like that between Cub and Brendan takes no small helping of talent. Leaving Cub, the metaphorical heart of the film's thesis, out of the middle half of the film is nothing less than movie malpractice.
As it turns out, while I was watching Mapmaker, my previously purchased ticket to watching SummerSlam at the local Paramount theatre was lying neglected in my wallet as a combination of fatigue and work-related stress had given me some form of temporary amnesia, only cured by a visit to slashwrestling.com on my return home. The resulting D'OH could I am sure be heard in three countries.
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Not to unduly drag this back to the top, but I just wanted to thank CRZ and Odessasteps for two quality posts. By the way, if anyone could tell me who wrote "In Flanders Field", I'd be grateful. It's slipped my mind and driving me mad!