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A Casualty of its Success? MoMA’s Canadian Front Series Offers Mixed Bag

A Casualty of its Success? MoMA's Canadian Front Series Offers Mixed Bag

When MoMA’s Canadian Front series launched in 2004, it filled a clear gap in New York’s cultural calendar. Canada, possessing one of the most robust and prolific filmmaking industries in the world, was routinely ignored by US exhibitors and distributors alike, and beyond its vaunted trinity of elder statesmen – Atom Egoyan, David Cronenberg and Guy Maddin – few (if any) of its filmmakers were widely recognized on the international scene.

This may still be the case, but as Carolle Brabant, executive Director of Telefilm Canada (a Canadian federal agency dedicated to promoting the country’s film), proudly attests, their obscurity is quickly fading: “I think there is really a momentum, particularly in the last 3 months…we’ve had successes at Sundance with six feature films being presented in Sundance. In fact one of seven films was Canadian at Sundance. We’ve had Oscar nominations with “Incendies” and “Barney’s Version” and really we see MoMA as working this momentum.”

A lovely sentiment, but unfortunately not one that this year’s Canadian Front bears out; there are a couple of notable standouts, but too often the program tips toward the mediocre, and in a few cases, the downright shoddy.

None of the films Brabant mentioned as harbingers of a national cinema in bloom made it into the current edition of the Canadian Front. The omission of these leading titles is almost certainly due to logistical challenges rather than curatorial decisions, as is evidenced by the fact that Xavier Dolan, Denis Villeneuve, Denis Côté – directors of this year’s heralded Canadian films – have all been featured in the series previously. The congested and competitive film exhibition calendar is a much likelier culprit. With MoMA’s program stuck between New Directors/New Films (interestingly, ND/NF is also co-programmed by MoMA along with the Film Society of Lincoln Center) and the Tribeca Film Festival, many of the top Canadian titles are being siphoned away.

ND/NF grabbed “Incendies” and Côté’s “Curling,” while Tribeca is premiering “Beyond the Black Rainbow,” “Angels Crest” and the “Bang Bang Club.” As Canadian cinema makes further inroads into American art-houses, MoMA is also forced to contend with theatrical releases of films such as “Barney’s Version” and “Heartbeats.”

Laurence Kardish, Senior Curator of Film at MoMA, and the main organizer of Canadian Front since its inception, agreed that the field is getting increasingly crowded, noting that, “it’s not that Canadian films are becoming, ‘better or more interesting’. I think that the critical community is just now becoming more interested in Canadian films.” Kardish talked almost wistfully about the truly impressive roster of filmmakers that the Canadian Front helped popularize in the US – a group that includes luminaries ranging from Guy Maddin and Robert Lepage to John Greyson and Sarah Polley. Discussing this year’s lineup, he offered, “I would have loved to include ‘Hearbeats’ in this program, but IFC opened it several weeks before.”

With many of the critical darlings picked over, MoMA was forced to dig deeper, and the results vacillate, both in cohesiveness and quality.

Films in the 2011 Canadian Front:

By a considerable margin, the strongest film in the series is Sophie Deraspe’s “Les Signes Vitaux” (Vital Signs). The narrative centers on Simone, who, following the death of a close relative, resolves to spend her extra hours volunteering in a nursing home. The young woman strays around the premises playing cards with the elderly, sponge-bathing and spoon-feeding them, and it is quickly discernable that her motives are not entirely altruistic. As her affinity for frailty and death eerily grows, it becomes difficult not to question the morality of her intentions. Is she using the tenderness of the patients’ last days to forge deep connections with them, with a speed and certitude unimaginable with her own peers? Even if coldly calculated, is this seemingly symbiotic relationship by nature harmful? What right does she have, as a new acquaintance of the dying, to share in their most intimate and painful moments? She seems little perturbed by these heavy considerations, at least until her intermittent lover, a ruggedly handsome boor, clumsily confronts her.

Sophie Deraspe’s “Les Signes Vitaux.”

Deftly balancing a brooding naturalism with the occasional bright moment of suspense, Derapse excels at the fine alchemy of mixing opposites. She expertly plays a non-actor against a seasoned one; frequent wry humor against the gloomy confines of her cinema, and most pointedly, lofty questions of life and death against quotidian concerns that may, in the end, be of the greatest importance. She achieves a rare and difficult harmony between establishing emotional investment in a film and steering clear of mawkish sentimentality.

The tendency toward a forced sentimentality is the downfall of two Canadian Front titles that double as flat puns, “Force of Nature: The David Suzuki Movie” and “Score: A Hockey Musical.” In “Force of Nature,” director Sturla Gunnarsson makes the classic documentary miscalculation that a subject’s enthralling life story automatically translates into well-crafted film. Gunnarsson constructs a biopic of Canada’s leading environmentalist by mixing footage of Suzuki’s “legacy lecture” (a live talk summing up his life’s work) with a guided trip down memory lane that reconstructs his formative years. The talk serves as proof of Suzuki’s remarkable talents – he is an eloquent, passionate speaker with the unique ability to distill complicated information into accessible, lyrical language. The showman’s skill and brimming intensity on view here juxtapose sadly with the cutaway segments.

Gunnarson manages to flatten Suzuki’s character by guiding him to situations where the only appropriate responses to the camera’s insistent gaze seem to be either soul-crushing sadness tinged with tear-stained empathy or wild-eyed jubilation at the myriad miracles of life. The first category holds no distinction between visits to a Japanese interment camp, a wrecked childhood play area, and a seafood market peddling in freshly killed fish; the latter encompasses an even more absurd spectrum that ranges from glee found in a fresh-air hike to the awe of contemplating humankind’s capacity to reason.

Watching an elderly man chuckle to himself in a tent over his good fortune to be outdoors does not make for compelling cinema, and tellingly, the most spectacular visual cues in “Force of Nature” are witnessed on the PowerPoint effects that serve as a backdrop for the legacy lecture. The film seems to take its misguided form from this very conceit – in favor of an incisive observation of Suzuki, it opts for a sturdy audio presentation, backed by filler visuals and blind reverence.

Complaining of trumped-up schmaltziness in a musical comes off as killjoy behavior, but Michael McGowan’s “Score: A Hockey Musical” brings this criticism upon itself. The musical tale of gifted teenage hockey player who grows of age (on the ice and off) sounded like a zany idea with oodles of promise: who wouldn’t want to see beefy athletes gliding in majestic Busby Berkeley routines while crooning about their love of Canada’s national pastime? Unfortunately, what transpires are wildly off-key numbers (a musical may not be the best cinematic genre for amateur performers), half-baked, slowed down boy-band dance numbers, and a hackneyed plot that make the twists and turns of Rudy seem unpredictable. Worse still, “Score” seems to winking the whole time, knowingly phoning it in, essentially concocting a special hybrid of ironic musical. Plainly put, this is a contradiction in terms: musicals are all about the glorious conflation of fantasy with reality – something as antithetical to irony as imaginable.

“Jaloux,” “Small Town Murder Songs,” “La Fille de Montreal” (A Montreal Girl), and “Beauty Day” all suffer from being cinematic exercises rather than full fledged, original films: “Jaloux” is thriller/suspense 101; “Beauty Day” is the quintessential punked-out daredevil picture; “Montreal Girl” is a study in lo-fi docu-drama; and “Murder Songs,” while certainly the most accomplished of the bunch, wears its influences (Coen Bros, PT Anderson, “Twin Peaks”) so prominently on its sleeve that it proves hard to find a truly imaginative strand. Each of these features showcases skilled direction, and the promise of stronger work to come, but the experience of viewing them feels akin to watching Kobe Bryant (or, more appropriately, Wayne Gretzky) run drills – one gets a tantalizing sense of their athletic prowess, but who wouldn’t rather see these stars in a game?

“The Neighbor,” Naghmeh Shirkhan’s quietly inventive debut, provides the perfect counterpoint to these imitative works. Starting from Shirin, a headstrong and sentient Iranian émigré, the film spirals out into the lives of her neighbor; a young mother unprepared for single parenting; her cheery but bored daughter; and eventually to a broader set of characters that intersect with Vancouver’s Iranian community. A shortsighted (but technically complete) synopsis of the film could read: two women meet and reluctantly bond over a precocious child.

Slight on narrative, the film prefers to employ sparkling cinematography and clipped scenes that focus on physical interactions in lieu of heavy dialogue. These vignettes are punctuated by a series of dance performances in which Shirin alternates between ballroom lessons and traditional Iranian dance. Gracefully navigating the ambiguous territory between loneliness, identity and place, “The Neighbor” captures a expatriate community that is at once uniquely situated in Vancouver and, on a deeper level, connected to the whole world over.

The 8th Annual Canadian Front opens today at the MoMA with “Force of Nature: The David Suzuki Movie” and runs through Monday, March 21.

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