Thursday, September 27, 2012

Gearing up to see the new Bruce Sweeney: VIFF and The Crimes of Mike Recket

Bruce Sweeney's 1998 feature Dirty is my favourite film about life in Vancouver (I'd go further and proclaim it the "greatest," but there are many Vancouver-shot, Vancouver-set films that I have yet to see). The characters in it are all highly recognizable, driven by compulsions that are absurd, pathetic, and yet very human: there's a pot dealing Strathcona dominatrix with mother issues (Babz Chula, RIP); an "outsider" from Port Alberni (Benjamin Ratner) who has no capacity to communicate his needs - which may include a homoerotic fixation on his roommate - and so periodically explodes in fits of inarticulate, counter-productive rage; a young woman in the basement suite (Nancy Sivak), binge eating and hiding from the awareness of her massive, unpaid student loan debts; an anal, stress-case student (Tom Scholte) with a need to be spanked and humiliated... These are great characters, and all too familiar, and, since it's a very self-consciously local film, with Vancouver representing itself, those of us who live here are invited to find ourselves amongst their sorry lot, which I, for one, find disturbingly easy to do. It's like seeing a Mike Leigh movie about your hometown: no other film I'm aware of captures a sense of how damaged human relationships can get out here on the loony left coast of Canada, where cultural ties and community bonds are strained-to-invisible, and people don't slip through the cracks so much as they push themselves, wriggling. Cinema Scope's Mark Peranson has described Sweeney as a behaviourist in this very good bio of the man; I'm not quite sure I'd go there, but certainly Sweeney has a fine sense of how strong the compulsions that drive us can be, and his sense of social decay is so developed that one would almost take him for a conservative - except he seems to like his characters far too much, and know them far too well. If none of that is enough to explain my fondness for the film, as I never tire of saying, it also has my favourite-ever cunnilingus scene in a non-pornographic film - perhaps the funniest, certainly the most disturbing and the most emotionally charged piece of pussy-eating you're likely to see at an arthouse cinema (it has no prurient interest whatsoever, I should mention). I have only seen Sweeney's first film, Live Bait, once, and don't remember it that clearly, but I still feel comfortable to assert that the real promise of Sweeney as a regional feature filmmaker shines through in Dirty, his second film. It's just great; I wish it would come out on DVD.
Sweeney followed Dirty up with another well-received ensemble piece, the equally local 2001 film Last Wedding, which follows three sets of male/ female relationships as they disintegrate. The cast is terrific - Scholte, Ratner, Chula and Sivak all return from Dirty, as does Frida Betrani (who I'm pretty sure I shared a bus to UBC with, once; unless I was wrong about that, she's actually a lot more attractive in person than she is onscreen, maybe because she plays such difficult characters). Maple Ridge homegirl Molly Parker is also in the film, though I don't recall her role well enough to comment. While there are memorable characters and moments throughout - especially a heated argument about trends in Vancouver architecture which compares Yaletown to Kowloon - for me, at least, Last Wedding wasn't as impressive as Dirty, in that, by the end, Sweeney leaves us identifying only with the male characters we've followed, the women all seeming faithless, unforgiving, or certifiably delusional. Regardless of what the men have done to deserve their lonely fates, the film at least SEEMS to come perilously close to taking an Us/ Them stance, inviting us (the male audience) to join the men on-screen in a defeated, joyless bit of "aren't women impossible" partisan bonding. While I've had my share of insane relationships with females - including some that would doubtlessly make Sweeney slap his forehead - and I enjoy self-pity and male bonding as much as the next guy, in my heart of hearts, I believe men are every bit as fucked up as women (certainly they are in Dirty), and I expect a serious artist to try to rise above his personal wounds in making a film; something about Last Wedding seemed less mature, less fully realized than I'd hoped it would be, a slightly smaller, less accomplished film (...while still being a film everyone who lives in Vancouver should see).  
Apparently, after 2001, Sweeney had some troubles with getting a new project together, because there were several years where he had no film to show. I briefly interviewed him in late 2006 and he told me that he wrote a screenplay in that time that he ended up not liking, that he ended up abandoning. His next film came out in 2007: American Venus, starring Rebecca DeMornay as a gun-loving control freak who visits Vancouver from Spokane in pursuit of her former figure skater daughter, who desperately wants to break free of her mother's clutches and feels little to no trust for her. The film boasts at the very least a fascinating performance from DeMornay: she's scarily unhinged at times, sometimes in a believable and disturbing way, sometimes in a twitchy, over-the-top, scenery-nibbling fashion, but she really rules the film, and is certainly a worthy addition to the list of compulsives in Sweeney's pantheon. We believe the character she crafts - a manipulative monstrosity of a mother; and we believe that being able to shoot her handgun off is a necessary adjunct to her personality. This addiction, despite taking a form I've never seen or heard of otherwise, is believably drawn; and we can amply identify with her daughter's desire to break free from a Mom so nuts. The problem is, Sweeney hinges the entire movie on these elements, allows DeMornay's character and her compulsions to overwhelm anything else in the film. Jane McGregor gives a fine performance as the daughter, but her character is defined entirely by her desire to escape her mother; all other details of her life and personality are omitted. Matt Craven - probably still best remembered as the chemist-ex-machina in Jacob's Ladder - is equally believable as DeMornay's patient husband, but is given little else to do besides mediate between his wife and daughter. We get a glimpse of what could be an interesting relationship between DeMornay's character and a cop she picks up at a bar so she can get access to a gun (Nicholas Lea), but it is very brief; the relationship comes to an abrupt climax as, visiting a firing range after a drunken date, the cop goes down on DeMornay while she fires the gun he's given her (another rather outlandish cunnilingus scene! I don't recall any pussy-eating in Last Wedding, but maybe this is some sort of signature, like Quentin Tarantino's view-from-the-trunk-of-a-car?). She screams in orgasm - and he disappears from the film, his role served.

This is all amply twisted and compelling stuff, but in the end, a film about one character, however powerful she may be, runs the risk of seeming too thin ('specially when it's only 81 minutes long); in looking for more from the movie than is there, there's a great temptation - Sweeney seemed to want to discourage audiences from going here when he gave a Q&A at the VIFF premiere of the film - to read DeMornay as representing America, and to see the film as trying to explore the American fixation with guns, but even that doesn't really work, since she is so obviously not a "typical case." Even more disappointingly, given the regional mandate Sweeney has set for himself, to make films where Vancouver plays itself, American Venus is strangely unsatisfying in its depiction of this city. Sweeney seems to deliberately obfuscate certain locations and phenomenon: he locates crack dealers on the waterfront, not the DTES; he has a character talk about the "west side" instead of the "west end" or "west Van;" and he sets a scene near the US border in an underground walkway that is actually just outside Stanley Park, which surely any Vancouverite will realize. Maybe this is some sort of in-joke for Vancouverites, who will recognize (unlike American viewers) what the film gets wrong, but when you add these details to the lack of much in the way of recognizable scenery or neighbourhoods, it's really not as "local" a film as one might hope. The film gets mostly negative-to-mixed reviews on IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes, which is a bit unfair, but at the best, it's a lot smaller in scope than either of Sweeney's previous two films. It's still worth seeing, but...
Between American Venus and Sweeney's new film, The Crimes of Mike Recket, playing the 2012 VIFF, Sweeney made another feature, Excited, a comedy about a man with a problem with premature ejaculation. Since Dirty, I've liked each Sweeney film less than the previous, so much so that I actually couldn't bring myself to watch Excited when it played the VIFF a couple of years ago; I wanted to protect my previous high esteem for Sweeney from the possibility that he'd made a film that was, um, smarmy and cheap, which was, frankly, how the subject matter sounded. Maybe it's just me, but I've wondered at times if premature ejaculation isn't some overblown, media-created phenomenon, like dandruff or ring-around-the-collar, that gets made far more of than it merits. I mean, sure, it takes time and practice for men to learn to control their equipment, and less sexually experienced guys are likely to come far quicker than their partners might like, especially if they're at all nervous (say, if it's their first time with a new partner and they feel anxious: that's a bad combination, especially if you really WANT to please. I've certainly been there and done that). Far as I can determine, tho', coming too quick now and then is a fairly normal male experience, is something that guys GROW OUT OF, and generally shouldn't be made much of, unless the goal is to give people new and stigmatizing hangups. 
But who knows: maybe Excited comes to exactly those conclusions (or maybe there are people out there who actually DO have a problem with coming too quickly, above and beyond what I've deemed normal, here? I haven't fucked any guys, and it's not something men really talk about among themselves, so I really wouldn't know). In the hopes that I'm wrong in my misgivings, I've broken down and ordered Excited on DVD, while it can still be found on eBay (it had a brief release in 2009, garnered no reviews on Rottentomatoes or IMDB, and is already apparently out of print; I was perhaps not the only person who dodged seeing the film). In any event, Mark Peranson seems to have liked it, in that bio he wrote.
As for the 2012 VIFF - opening today! - a nameless friend also in the media tells me that he really liked The Crimes of Mike Recket, but that he stood alone amongst his peers in this opinion (I trust his opinion more, tho' it also received a lukewarm TIFF review). I really hope I LIKE this film, would like the opportunity to help it along. I wouldn't mind an excuse to interview Sweeney again, or even Gabrielle Rose (my favourite Canadian actress and, incidentally, one half of what is probably the greatest "webcam sex" scene in legit cinema, from before the word "webcam" had been coined, in Atom Egoyan's 1989 film Speaking Parts: a scene which not only is poignant, emotionally charged, and gripping as cinema, like the cunnilingus in Dirty, but is briefly, shockingly hot; it's one of many reasons I admire Ms. Rose's bravery...).
There was a period not too long ago when Vancouver had a really exciting independent film scene, with some very promising filmmakers emerging, mostly out of UBC: Sweeney, Stopkewich, Shum, Geary... seems like every one of them still active is doing shorts, is working in TV, or has left town (Reg Harkema, despite his ties to our coast, seems a Toronto guy to me, now). I like the idea of our having a proudly, deliberately regional cinema, tho', and am annoyed that Vancouverites seem fairly blase about these matters, ignoring interesting films and filmmakers, or at least not trying very hard to support them. Outside of recent surprising developments in the world of local genre/ exploitation (the Soska sisters, Panos Cosmatos - both of whom seem interested in effacing the specifics of Vancouver in their films), there's really not much else I'm aware of happening in BC these days (I may be a bit out of the loop; I was lukewarm on the one Carl Bessai film I saw, Unnatural and Accidental, and haven't sought out his other films, so I'm not equipped to mention him here). Bruce Sweeney WAS my favourite of our local filmmakers, ten years ago, but I have no idea where I stand vis-a-vis his recent cinema. I'd like to reinstate him to that position, at least in my OWN court of opinion... Let me like this movie, please!

1 comment:

Allan MacInnis said...

Wow. I really liked Excited, how about that? Very sensitive/ honest film. Not the best DVD release, alas - they cropped it! - but I'm glad I caught it. And wow, is Laara Sadiq great in it! She's apparently been working with Sweeney for some time, was in his first film, Live Bait, is in The Crimes of Mike Recket... something about her performance in Excited reminds me of Babz Chula, actually... can't really say why that is...