Sunday, August 02, 2015

Madame Bovary, plus some notes on the Vancity Theatre

I have always loved the Vancity Theatre more than other theatres in Vancouver.

A big part of that is the design. They have fantastic seats, for one. They're like flying first class on a plane. No other theatre comes close in this town, except maybe International Village (formerly Tinseltown). The projection equipment and sound system are state of the art, of course, but when it comes to theatres the way to my heart is apparently through my ass, because it's the seats that have always stood out for me. They're just that great.

Another part of my fondness for the place is that for years they were an underdog: they'd program these amazing film events - this is back in the day when Cinema Scope's Mark Peranson was picking them, mostly - and no one would show up. Films you'd never see anywhere else: I remember attending a screening of Bela Tarr's seven-hour long Satantango, one of the most ambitious, achingly beautiful, provocative film projects out there, and the audience was me, my friend Marina Sonkina, future programmer Tom Charity, and maybe three other people. That continued for years: major new film events, or super-cool repertory picks like Cronenberg's Rabid, Romero's Martin, Bill Gunn's Ganja and Hess, and Larry Fessenden's Habit, all of which I saw as part of a series of vampire films there - with only about five or six people in the audience. It was enough that when Tom Charity introduced Cassavetes' magnificent Love Streams, coincidentally on my birthday, I interviewed he and Alan Franey about both the film and the then-very-disappointing lack of interest in the cinema. None of us knew what to make of it.

Then *I* began hosting the odd film event there, and my feeling of attachment deepened. It became much harder for me to actually get my bum on the seat, mind you - moving back to Maple Ridge in 2009 greatly reduced my abilities to make it out - but I still feel very fond of the cinema, and still scan each new program for interesting films, knowing full well that I probably won't get out to see them. That's part of the reason that I write about the films there less than I once did. Another issue is that to preview a movie these days, you basically have to watch an online screener, which, with my crappy computer monitor, slow and jolty hi-speed connection, and general lack of time spent in my own apartment, is not really something I crave doing.

Perhaps the final reason I'm less passionate about writing about film there though is a happy one: they no longer seem to need the attention, need the press so much; more often than not, screenings sell out. There's the sense that finally the place has caught on. Tom Charity, in private conversation awhile back, chastened me for plugging a recent Ed Wood porno screening instead of the major Orson Welles retrospective that was staged both at the Vancity and the Cinematheque, but what can I say, I really didn't feel like Orson Welles needed the help. (Apparently he did - attendance wasn't very good, I gather - but hopefully I can be forgiven for assuming people would go to those films without my praises).

Anyhow, I'm glad to see that finally people have figured out how cool a place the Vancity Theatre is, generally speaking. You still have to kinda tell folks now and then where it is - but only the sort who don't know where the Cinematheque is either. There are several upcoming movies of note this summer: I've been wanting for awhile to expose my girl to Taxi Driver, for example, or to revisit Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing - and what better way than on the screen?

Actually there is a bunch of cool rep stuff upcoming, like Midnight Run, a really fun 1980's bounty hunter comedy with Robert de Niro and Charles Grodin, which people seem mostly to have forgotten about. (There has been talk of a sequel, so that could be especially fun, if the film is coming just in time for part two; I don't actually know what's happening on that front). Trainspotting, too, is a very worthy film to revisit, though I took it in again just a couple months ago, so I might not make it out to that.

Can't say much about the new films upcoming, mind you, mostly because I haven't seen any of them. There was a lot buzz about Violent when it played the VIFF. Sublime Frequencies fans should make it out for the documentary on Cambodia's neglected rock'n'roll. The trailer for Khalil Gibran's The Prophet - an animated anthology film from the director of The Lion King - was pretty impressive, though it's an atypical choice for the Vancity; surely it will please the masses, though! Plus there are some interesting-sounding bicycle themed films that should do well by Vancouver audiences (see here and here); and there's even a new Joshua Oppenheimer film - the fellow who made The Act of Killing - which, as it happens, is currently playing.
This is all to bring me round to talking about Madame Bovary, alas. Caught it yesterday; believe it's the first film I've made it to there since that last horror festival, back in March. There's plenty that's curious about the film. It obviously owes at least some debt to the films of Lars von Trier, replacing the expected cool detach of classical European arthouse with motile handhelds and what often seems to be natural light. This brings out the von Trierian aspects of the protagonist's sufferings: her dissatisfaction, what it drives her to, the judgment of the community, the cruelty and hypocrisy of the men she deals with: it all plays rather like Dogville or Breaking the Waves or a relatively sex-free Nymphomaniac. Too bad Sophie Barthes is nowhere near the filmmaker that von Trier is, though! I liked her previous film, the oddball item Cold Souls, well enough - and was happy to see Paul Giamatti continue his collaborations with her here - but Madame Bovary barely managed to involve me in its title character's plight. Maybe it's that the film frames the story with Emma Bovary's suicide, so that even if you haven't read the novel, you know where things are going from the gitgo; or maybe there's material missing from the sequences of the title character's early years, that would have engaged me in her hopes and her disappointments more - but I had a really hard time making the necessary identifications with the main character. My only point of connection was Emma's passion for shopping as a remedy for smalltown drudgery; I'm as "je suis Madame Bovary" as they come, which makes the lack of emotion I felt at her downfall kind of puzzling. I wanted to feel so much more, and to see more, too - to see the mechanisms of cinema used to increase my identification with the character, which I guess would mean more closeups of gorgeous clothing and maybe some hotter sex scenes... (Mia Wasikowska does do a nude scene but Jesus, Barthes should watch Roeg's Don't Look Now to see what a filmed sex scene can look like).

In the end, I'm really not sure what was missing, but I just couldn't care that much about this film. Emma Bovary just seems like a mediocre person, bored by her husband and community, betrayed by the promises and lies of commerce, and taken advantage of by horny men, so that her final fate seems less a tragedy than a shabby end to a shabby life. Wasikowska's performance, further, seemed mannered and self-conscious throughout - I generally like her but felt at all times like I was watching an actor emoting rather than a character suffering. The Belgian sets are gorgeous, as are the textiles, and *I* would have considered fucking Ezra Miller, who has the mien of a doomed romantic poet, but you know what, this film really isn't very good...

So go figure: I finally make it out to the Vancity Theatre, for the first time this summer, and I'm totally disappointed. About the only point of interest is that I find myself in agreement with Ken Eisner, for once (though not about the "stately cinematography;" my impression of the camerawork was quite different - I could have used a bit more stateliness, in fact).

As the Japanese would say, shikata ga nai. 
Note to self: read the article about how "I am Madame Bovary and You are Chewbacca" sometime soon. (It has references to HP Lovecraft!).

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