Tuesday, January 04, 2022

Ryszard Bugajski's Clearcut, All the Haunts Be Ours, and the story of an unlikely commentary/ interview

A note about screengrabs from Clearcut - these are not taken from the Severin box set, but from a DVDr of the Vision Maker Media screening transfer that I mention below. They are sourced from the same print as the Severin - director Ryszard Bugajski's own - but they are lower-res, and no doubt only a glimmer of how good the film looks from the brand-new Severin 4K scan.

So the Severin Folk Horror box set , All the Haunts Be Ours, is now purchasable online. I have only seen a few of the films on it, including Kier-la Janisse's essential documentary history of folk horror, Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched, which I interviewed the filmmaker about here, but her documentary has me excited to see many of the other films on the set, which casts a broad net in defining films as "folk horror," not just focusing on the obvious British manifestations (The Wicker Man and The Blood on Satan's Claw and the like - those films are not part of the box, though they do loom large in the doc) but taking an international sweep - including, most importantly to me, the Canadian-made film Clearcut, in which Graham Greene gives a chilling, career-best performance as either a pissed-off, violent fella named Arthur, or else a trickster manifestation, who abducts a mill owner (Michael Horgan as Bud Rickets) and a liberal lawyer (Ron Lea) who is involved in their losing land claims case. 

Arthur takes his two hostages into the forests of Ontario for a Canadian "outdoor ordeal" par excellence. As a thriller, with ruggedly physical performances, considerable suspense, and amazing locations, Clearcut would play (in some respects) just fine on a double bill with other Canuxploitation classics like Rituals - my other favourite Canadian film, incidentally. As the ordeal progresses - and they arrive at a sacred site decorated with ancient rock art - the film takes on the flavour of an "involuntary vision quest," by which Arthur's trickster is striving to teach the unteachable Rickets about the value of nature, and maybe actually reaching through to the lawyer when it comes to the need to take ACTION, even direct action, rather than just submitting briefs and playing by the rules and making ineffectual oaths about injustice when the system predictably fails to correct itself. The lesson is proven to have worked when the lawyer actually attacks Arthur, his tutor - though the ending is still not entirely what you might expect...

Now, the filmmaker at hand, Ryszard Bugajski, was a serious man, a serious filmmaker - a man who, before leaving his home country to come to Canada, had made a very challenging film about the injustices and tortures perpetrated by the Communists in Poland, The Interrogation, which got suppressed for years, and won him the honour of being told he would never work in Polish film again (unless maybe he informed on his colleagues). You can hear Bugajski tell all of these stories on the Clearcut commentary, which is edited together out of an interview I did with him maybe five years before he died, which really took in his whole career - even though it was Clearcut I was most interested in; still, you have to tell a story like this; how does a Polish political filmmaker end up making one of the most challenging and confrontational political thrillers ever made in Canada? How is it that my favourite film about Canada's relations with its First Peoples is made by someone from Europe? (Granted, there's a fine book that the film is based on, MT Kelly's A Dream Like Mine, which I've read and recommend - but there's a lot that the film changes from the book, which is also something Bugajski and I talk about on the commentary)...

The Interrogation can be found for free online; it's a key film to watch if you have illusions about life under Soviet-style Communism - or just if you want a sense of the film practice Bugajski was coming from, before he made Clearcut. The Interrogation is typical of the serious, compelling political dramas Bugajski made, even has direct similarities between three of his later films (General Nil, The Closed Circuit, and Blindness, all also telling true stories from Polish history about characters who are unjustly tortured by the state). And it has its own interesting and unusual release history, too (as we discuss on the commentary, the director himself helped make bootlegs of The Interrogation available underground, so that people could see the film after the authorities gave it a big thumbs-down!).

But all told, Ryszard Bugajski's background was very different from yours or mine. What your average English-speaking/ North American movie fan might see in a film like Clearcut - what parallels we might notice between the story arc and that of horror movies or thrillers we have seen - well, those resonances might be there for us, and they might even help us view the film in different or interesting ways (some rich, some perhaps perversely irrelevant), but to the extent that they are there, they're functioning on an archetypal level, as a feature of some sort of universal subconscious,  as a universal feature of storytelling, maybe. They sure aren't there because Ryszard Bugajski SAW the films you might be reminded of; I know, because I asked him.

For instance, it is difficult for a film viewer who grew up watching horror in the 1980s to not read aspects of Clearcut in light of films like the old Eric Red classic The Hitcher, where it turns out the point of the ordeal imposed by the abductor is to strengthen the victim to take up arms against him; the killer is training a non-killer to kill, enacting a kind of death wish against himself, creating his own chosen assassin. That's exactly what happens at the end of The Hitcher, and not that far off what happens at the climax of Clearcut; after his being a punching bag through most of the film, the lawyer character (Ron Lea) finally has enough and tries to kill Arthur, which Arthur seems to genuinely respect - all quite like how Rutger Hauer approves at the end of The Hitcher of C. Thomas Howell's attempts to kill him. It turns out that the director had not seen The Hitcher, at all, however. Even though Bugajski, as a filmmaker under Communist authorities, had access to films that the average Polish movie-viewer would not be able to see, something like The Hitcher was not the sort of film that the authorities in Poland would have deemed important enough to allow them to screen. (Re: The Interrogation, I also asked Bugajski if he was aware of, had been able to see any of, the Corman-produced Women in Prison-type films that someone steeped in sleazier fare might see resonances with, but ditto, there - though I have seen The Interrogation pop up on lists with films like The Big Bird Cage or such, located within the WIP subgenre, But Bugajski didn't know the subgenre, had no intention of participating in it, and never even saw films like that prior to leaving Poland. He'd heard Corman's name, he explains - that was about all. Raises interesting questions, really: should a film be located within a subgenre by fan categorizations when the filmmaker was completely unaware of those films? ...or should we try to look at the film as outside that category, & consider it a mistake to class it with films the filmmaker had never seen...? 

I'm not going to give anything more away about the contents of the commentary - there ARE American films and filmmakers that made a mark on Bugajski, but I'll leave that for people to hear about in the commentary itself; they came as very pleasant discoveries to me and there's no reason to deprive you of that pleasure. Let me instead give you a tiny bit of a history of my involvement with the filmmaker, and how the commentary came to be. 

I first saw Clearcut in 1991, when it came out on VHS during my tenure as a video store geek at Rogers Video in Maple Ridge. In fact, I still have the VHS tape I bought at the store where I worked. It seemed something special to me even in 1991, though (as I say in the commentary) I knew people who felt very much otherwise about it. There's a kind of remarkable figure in my past, who came into my life in the 1990's and made me question a lot of my values, a kind of "spiritual teacher" if you will, himself of a First Nations background, who was of the opinion that the film was "irresponsible," because it wasn't the kind of film that would win friends for First Nations activists, since it made them seem dangerous and scary and so forth, rather than spiritual and sympathetic and easy to embrace.

I mean, sure, Arthur is not a great PR spokesperson - not one who is likely to win friends and influence people on the campaign trail, as he goes around biting the head off a snake, "debarking" the film's mill owner with his giant knife, and just being pretty sharp-edged and nasty in some of what he says (including the infamous "I'm going to cut my finger off and make a necklace for your fat fuckin' wife" chant he goes into during the climactic, "wrong" sweatlodge at the end of the film).  He does have a fair bit in common - relentless, unstoppable, possibly omniscient - with the monster in monster movies, the slasher in slasher movies, and however naive Ryszard may have been about those kinds of films, you do have to sort of note that the film resonates on some level with them.

But the objection still misunderstands that throughout Clearcut, mean as he might be, Arthur is the one who holds the moral high ground, and the viewer realizes that. We the viewers may be more similar to the liberal lawyer - I certainly am - but that doesn't mean we think he's in the right or don't want him to learn from his ordeal. He's a man of talk - "the man who talks for us," as a young girl named Polly calls him in the film; but who, it is implied, does precious little else. We may not sign up to man the barricades at a future mining site because of the positive impression Arthur makes, but we won't go off patting ourselves on the back about how our right white liberal sympathies actually make a bit of difference. Something more than hand-wringing and cursing the injustices is required... 

That objection, then - that the film is irresponsible, will lose sympathy for the cause, etc - also misunderstands that the film isn't really saying anything about Native activism at all. It's discussing the failures of Canadian liberals (you can capitalize that if you like) to actually make way for any meaningful progress for First Nations people, even though we've known about the problems in Canada for years (and yes, there is discussion of residential schools and missing children between myself and Mr. Bugajski, late in the commentary; it chilled me to revisit it on the tape, since the topic was nowhere as timely when the conversation took place). We have been the perpetrators of genocide. We have not come to terms with it as a nation. And we are more than happy, usually, to say right-sounding things, in the absence of taking adequate action to ensure that these injustices do not keep continuing - to do what Peter Maguire does: to talk. (Consider the case of our prime minister...). 

Anyhow, loving this film, loving how righteously pissed off it is, loving (maybe) the punishment it doles out to, uh, well-meaning liberal do-nothings like myself, I have done, over the years, everything I knew how to do to keep the film from disappearing from public view. Adrian Mack interviewed me about a screening I hosted at the Vancity Theatre back in 2015, when the film was only available as a German DVD with forced subtitles, too much contrast, and darks that were too dark. I think only a couple dozen people made that screening - but it didn't matter; arranging it was less about who came to see it that night and more about just asserting into the world that the film still existed. At the time, I blogged about it, posted an interview snippet, and even - as a direct result of the Mack story, I think - helped connect a company called Vision Maker Media in the US with Ryszard Bugajski, the filmmaker, to get a better scan made, for a screening they were hosting. The scan was based on his own personal 35mm print (which would also be the source of the Severin scan), and used for at least one screening in the States, and was a vast improvement on the German DVD (I am presuming the Severin 4K blu-ray scan is even better yet, but haven't seen it; like I say, my screengrabs are from the Vision Maker version). The film had long been unavailable in anything like a decent format on DVD or such in North America, and when you could find it on the grey-to-black market (or on torrent sites), it was presented in terrible-looking pan-and-scan based on the old VHS tape. Over the years, I bought three different "bootleg" releases to see if they looked any good or had anything special going for them. They didn't. There was (and still is, as I write) a shitty-looking VHS transfer on Youtube, but it really does not do justice to how GOOD this film can look, how spectacular its compositions can be; it's a lousy way to watch the film. The film needed to come back to the world, so people could see it, in a proper restoration; for my money, it's one of the most confrontational, biting, politically fearless films about First Nations in Canada, and it hasn't gotten less relevant since it was made circa 1991... but it's also a real source of visual pleasure, a really fine film to settle in and WATCH...

So how did I end up interviewing Ryszard Bugajski? It happened in 2013, when  I was covering VIFF for local papers (and this blog), and I noticed that Ryszard Bugajski had a film in it (The Closed Circuit). All this was a couple years before that public screening that I hosted, note. Given the opportunity to speak to him, I seized the opportunity, even though it wasn't exactly clear who it would be for or when it would come out into the world; lucky for me, he was just fine talking to someone with a passionate interest in his films, took it on trust that I would do SOMETHING with the material. We spoke over a few occasions in 2013-14, some of which saw him talking to me from a car phone between public appearances in the US, and some of which took place with Bugajski at home in Poland - he had eventually repatriated and resumed movie-making there - with me on my Mom's landline in Maple Ridge, feeding the call into a cassette recorder. The idea initially was to do a career retrospective for a film magazine, and to time it with the release of Clearcut then being discussed by a UK label (at that time, Second Run DVD, who had put it out  The Interrogation, had expressed interest). 

It was challenging from the start, trying to figure out where the article should be published. The one film magazine I *had* written for at some length, CineAction, would have been a perfect home for the piece - an academic film journal dealing with the politics of film, published out of Canada, and having a historical association with my favourite-ever film critic, Robin Wood. Alas, they had folded (they're back online now, I gather, but all of this took place while they were calling it quits). The other magazine I found who was interested in the article had no desire/ budget to pay me a red cent for it, to my dismay. It was going to be a lot of work to transcribe, and it just annoyed me that a glossy American film mag you could buy at Chapters would pull the "sorry, we don't pay" thing on a prospective contributor - one who was offering (what seemed to me, anyhow) a major piece of writing, certainly a labour-intensive one. Another complication: Second Run never did put out Clearcut, for reasons I remain unclear on; it's possible they just weren't happy with the quality of the German transfer previously mentioned, and didn't have the wherewithal to create a new scan. I wrote them a couple of times to try to figure out what was happening, but it was always... just... stalled. Which meant that even if I found a magazine that WOULD pay for the work of transcribing and shaping the piece - even a pittance, just to make a gesture at being fair - there would be no way for people who read the article to see the film in a decent quality North American release; nor were General Nil and The Closed Circuit available here, either, for that matter. I did write a few DVD labels, including very high profile ones like Criterion, to let them know about the film, to request its release - but no one seemed to care much. Without a way for people to follow up reading about the film by actually seeing it, the timing all just felt wrong... so I stalled, hosted that 2015 screening, and waited for a moment that seemed right to put the interview into the world, with the tapes of my talks with Ryszard always close at hand...

...And then he died. I had no idea he'd even been sick. With his untimely passing, it seemed further away than ever that his film would be restored and made widely available... I pestered the VIFF, the TIFF, pestered Jesse Wente (who had a hand in making the film the centerpiece of a tribute to Graham Greene that had taken place in Toronto)... I begged friends who I thought might know more than I do: if we're going to keep this film from being forgotten, WHAT DO WE DO?

Finally I decided two things: to involve the Cinematheque in hosting a public screening - which we set up as a free event for Canadian film day, April 22nd, 2020 - and to just skip the movie mags and put the interview online here, on my own damn blog, so anyone empowered with Google could find it. I dug out my tapes and started transcribing again... as news of a strange new virus began to spread. The Cinematheque screening was all planned out; we acquired a copy of the Vision Maker scan as the basis for projection, had a page all printed in their program, and then it all got unceremoniously cancelled, as the Cinematheque went dark that spring due to COVID. By the time it was shut down, it came as no surprise whatsoever... we've been in discussions to make it happen again, using Severin's even higher-quality scan, but with omicron causing havoc, who knows when exactly that will take place! 

I was feeling pretty bummed after that cancellation, when a few months later, to my total surprise, I got an email out of the blue from Severin's Kier-la Janisse, telling me that Clearcut was being included on their folk horror box set, and asking her to help track down a 2015 video introduction that Ryszard had done for his film, I believe for that Vision Maker screening (she thought it had been done for my screening, the one Mack had written about in 2015 at the VIFF Centre - but it hadn't). She knew me from a few things in Vancouver - I had attended a few festivals she'd curated, and had hooked her up to host the Border Radio Q&A with Chris Desjardins a few years ago in Vancouver, when the Flesh Eaters were in town. She also knows Mack, and had presumably read my 2015 interview with him. But we are in no way close, and she didn't know the half of what I had on Clearcut, and I didn't know that that introductory clip (since found) existed. Instead, what I told Kier-la at the time was that "what I do have is a 90% unpublished interview with Ryszard Bugajski, which I would be very happy to edit into a commentary track for the blu-ray." 

She was game. Despite it all being last minute, slightly panicked on my part, and requiring way more back-and-forth between us than she'd envisioned, I delivered before my due date. It took about three or four days of committed work, at this very computer, for the most part, to get it done, with the help of my vastly more computer-savvy friend Dan Kibke, who helped me transfer the 4 hour interview from cassette into a digital file with a (roughly) hour and a half-long commentary. There was lots we had to cut, of course, but most of that dealt with General Nil and The Closed Circuit. It was actually super fun to do, watching Dan manipulate software that stupified me, and getting to hang out with him; we haven't spent a lot of quality time together in the last few years, and having a project to work on together was really good for our friendship. Plus the end result was a really cool, lucid commentary about Ryszard's history up to and including his coming to Canada, with a fairly in-depth interview about the making of the film ("How did you do the dying moose?" "Did Graham really bite the head off a snake?" "Was there any direct or indirect influence on the shoot from the Oka crisis?"),  with some brief discussion of his return to filmmaking in Poland, ending, in fact, on his final film, Blindness, which he had yet to begin making when we talked about it (but which played Vancouver at the Polish Film Festival, about a year or so before Ryszard died; that's how I met Shane Harvey, in fact). And through it all, as Dan and I shaped the piece into its final form, I had fireworks going off in my head: I MADE THE RIGHT CALL! PEOPLE CAN NOW HEAR RYSZARD TALK ABOUT THE FILM HIMSELF! I HAVE MADE GOOD USE OF MY INTERVIEW AND DONE RIGHT BY THIS FILM! ("...and I didn't have to transcribe four hours of tape!"). You don't have to buy some stuffy film mag - you don't even have to be able to read; you can just switch on the commentary track on the Severin disc (one of two commentaries on the disc, note; there are LOTS of cool extras, as fits Severin's MO) and listen to a more-or-less seamless conversation between Ryszard and myself. 

Now, at present, as I write this, Severin's website - recently rebuilt - does NOT mention this extra, but a friend who bought the set confirms that my commentary with Ryszard IS on there; I'm told the omission is just an error from the rebuild of their website after Black Friday. Also unmentioned is an audio interview with Graham Greene that I helped set up - a thing which briefly saw me standing in a Tim Horton's parking lot in Duncan, texting some suggested questions for Kier-la to ask Graham, because once we got his contact info, we were told to act fast. I haven't experienced THAT extra myself, and am very keen to hear it - some of those, presumably, are my questions Graham is answering ("Ryszard was unsure about why whether people were more respectful to the production when Floyd Red Crow Westerman showed up - was it because he was an elder, or because he was a celebrity, or...?"). There's also something that I did with soundtrack composer Shane Harvey, who was instrumental in setting up the interview with Graham and who had some really interesting stories about Clearcut and working with Ryszard - 

- one snippet of which I held back for just this sort of blogpiece. Shane and I had wrapped the Zoom interview, and then he thought of another story; it was easiest for me to just record the audio, quickly, than to figure out how to re-start a Zoom recording. "Did he tell you about going to a Native reserve to get gas at one point in his career?" Shane asked. Lord no, I laughed, and settled in for a story.

"It was like, Idaho or something; I can't specifically name the places he went," Shane began. "I guess he felt a bit guilty at the time that he was a Polish director, even with his great success with The Interrogation, that he was able to direct a film about Canadian Natives; like, how can a Polish guy know what's going on with Canadian Natives? And he went to a gas station in mid-west America, that was on a reserve, and he was paying for his gas. He got talking to the people in the little store, and this was back in the day when people had a few movies stacked up in the back corner of the store. And there was a Clearcut there! He said. 'I directed that film; see that film that is on your shelf?' And apparently the Native gas station attendant said it was the most used, rented-out video of all time in the store. 'It's never available - it's always rented!'"

Shane and also talked about Polly, the young girl in the film, who smokes the film's first cigarette (befitting its sacred use as visible breath) and who pops up throughout the film, toting the lawyer's briefcase. "She's in some way a continuation of him [Arthur, I think Shane means], and that's why when Peter Maguire says, when he's been arrested, and they're like, 'What happened to that Indian guy?' 'He's dead, but he can come back.' And I think it's coming back every day in our lives." 

All of this equals real cause for 2022 to be the best year of my film geek life. Clearcut is finally back among us, looking better than it has looked since the 1991 film release. By dint of having stalled on publishing a print version of my interview, anyone who wants to learn about Ryszard's career or his ideas in making Clearcut will be able to ACTUALLY HEAR him talk about the movie himself - a man who is no longer around to be interviewed, speaking anew in nicely cleaned-up audio (thanks, Dan!). My conscience is now clear, my strategy, such as I had one, is vindicated - I don't feel guilty about the four straggling tapes anymore. About the only thing that I feel could have been better is that I had no great quotes in the formal interview section of the tapes to elaborate that Graham Greene, who had initially not been very friendly to the film, had actually come round to pick it as THE film for a retrospective of his work (involving Jesse Wente; see the Kier-la interview linked above for more on that). That is in there, but not as clearly explained as it might have been. 

Mr. Greene, if you read this article and/or listen to the commentary, you might be distressed to learn that for some time there, Ryszard thought you kind of hated Clearcut. Rest assured, as a result of the conversation between us, he was very happy to discover you'd changed your tune and came to really appreciate the film. He did learn of the Toronto screening where you picked it as the representative film of your many works. (It's certainly my favourite of your films, I must add, though I enjoyed you plenty in Thunderheart and Dances with Wolves and pretty much anywhere else I've seen you...).There just wasn't a way to shape what we had into the commentary, given the time limits Dan and I faced, the fact that Ryszard was no longer around to provide new quotes, and that some of our discussion about these aspects was part of sort of chit-chat outside the interview per se. (Did Kier-la ask you about that whole "I see a naked man" thing, I wonder? I'd love to know what was goin' on there...).

Of course, as I say at the outset of the commentary, there are some less than circumspect phrases that turn up, with Ryszard frequently defaulting, for example, to the term "Indian." He knew just as well as I that that term is passe and not really part of accepted discourse when it comes to Indigenous people; we even talk in the commentary about how he discovered this. But habits are hard to break, and AT NO POINT had we envisioned the conversation appearing as a commentary, when we initially did it; when you're writing for a magazine, you have a bit more freedom to tidy up things like that.

It's a pretty interesting commentary no less, if I do say so myself. Very proud of it. Also, fans of Willie Dunn, Kevin James Howes and the Native North America series should note that Dunn's film "The Ballad of Crowfoot" is also an extra on the Clearcut disc (disc #9 of the set), with an interview/ commentary with Kevin himself... I mean, Severin are some kind of amazing when it comes to their extras, eh? There's lots more I'm not mentioning, because I've yet to experience it myself...

The All the Haunts Be Ours folk horror box is now available through Severin Films. No stand-alone disc version of Clearcut has yet to be announced, so just go ahead and buy the whole damn box; if the other films are anywhere near as good, it's going to be the purchase of the decade. Also note that Severin is now the copyright holder on the film Clearcut, by arrangement with Mr. Bugajski's estate, so contact them if you are looking to set up public screenings. Note that there may be one this spring/ summer at the Cinematheque, but COVID is a factor again, so... who knows what will happen!

Thanks again to Kier-la, Dan, Shane, and to the estate of Ryszard Bugajski. 

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