Saturday, January 18, 2014

Two brief reviews: Rhymes for Young Ghouls, Asphalt Watches

I may be in the minority on Rhymes For Young Ghouls, but I didn't like it much. It starts things off with what seems to be a rather glaring error, for those attentive to cinema. In a scene set in 1969, someone explains to a confused kid that zombies are living dead people who like to eat brains. Those with any knowledge of zombie lore or horror cinema know that in 1969, the age of the modern zombie had only barely just begun, with 1968's Night of the Living Dead; even that movie would have been pretty cutting edge, for people to have known about it on a reservation in Quebec in 1969, I imagine, so any reference to zombies should probably have involved undead slaves produced by Haitian voodoo, still the dominant conception of the zombie at that time. Plus the whole zombies-eat-brains thing didn't get underway until 1985's comedy Return of the Living Dead... Why do I suspect that director Jeff Barnaby was not aware of this (how young is he, anyhow? Was he even around in 1985?).

There are various other ahistoricisms in Rhymes - like visual art clearly influenced by contemporary Japanese anime and manga, which were hardly well-known anywhere in North America at the time. (Some of the art suggests Vaughn Bode but even he was pretty cutting edge - the Cheech Wizard strip didn't get started, saith the Wiki, until 1970). The music is a mixture of old blues and contemporary rock, including a Black Lips song; none of it suggests 1969. All of this may well be deliberate, with the old blues evoking the history of slavery and racism, and the zombies and manga giving points of identification for contemporary youth - but Barnaby goes to some lengths to get other things right, like having old Canadian money, including one and two dollar bills; the cars people drive look right, too, though I'm no car expert. I'm not against deliberate use of anachronism in a film, if that's what these things were, but in this case they mostly took me out of the world the movie was trying to evoke and set me quibbling. If at least the anachronisms had been glaring and obvious (like Alex Cox having helicopters in Walker, say) they wouldn't have gotten in the way...

Maybe all that seems pretty minor, especially given that a lot else about the film is so accomplished. It has terrific production design, an interesting eye, and has good performances, I admit. But it's also very dark, somewhat brutal, and for a film that seems to want to rally its community against injustice, is in the end pretty depressing. And it oversimplifies history and motive - especially in the character of a brutal, corrupt Indian Agent who is a pure caricature of The Evil White Man. He's not at all believable, and distracts from any real political force the film might have; the problem with the Residential School system was not that it was run by comfortingly obvious, vicious, thieving racists, but by people who in many cases actually believed in what they were doing, wrong as it was. Reducing them (and by extension, all white people, since the Indian Agent kinda serves as our representative here) to ill-intentioned, transparent monsters might be the stuff of a good thriller, and it might *feel* good, especially in a film where revenge becomes a motive - one fellow in the audience applauded loudly to see the white baddies get theirs - but it's not very mature or considered. Even this mostly glowing TIFF review notes that the film's characters lack nuance, likening it to Inglourious Basterds or Django Unchained. We may be seeing the legacy of recent Tarantino here - the ahistorical historical "yay team" revenge thriller, rewriting the injustices of the past so audiences of today can pat themselves on the back. It's a mode of filmmaking I could live without...

Asphalt Watches, meantime - on the same bill, though considerably better-attended - was sort of weirdness-for-its-own-sake, but at times very funny and entertaining. It kind of wore me out, eventually, but I've never seen anything quite like it, and have to give it credit for that.

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