History! Films Reviewed: Max Manus, Summer Camp, Crash and Burn Karaoke, Covered, I Went to the Zoo the Other Day, Women Without Men

There are a whole lot of history-related movies opening in Toronto this weekend, both mainstream releases and films at the Images Festival. First, a new Norwegian movie, an historical spy drama called “Max Manus”, directed by Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg.

Max Manus and his buddies all live in Nazi occupied Norway after the country fell to a Blitzkrieg invasion. The Quisling puppet government is in power, but Max and his friends’ biggest worry seems to be that they’ll soon ban Django Reinhart’s European jazz as ideologically incorrect.

So they form an amateur resistance group, coming up with cool nicknames, distributing propaganda flyers, and having fun time of it… until Max gets caught by the Gestapo when they find some explosives hidden in his apartment. This is where his legendary reputation begins. He escapes (in a beautifully shot sequence) by diving out the second story window onto the street below. He soon becomes known as the “window jumper”. And this is also where the movie becomes more interesting, with Max and his friend Greygers eventually walking across the Swedish border and from there onward to Scotland, (where the King and army live in exile) to become… saboteurs!

Max Manus (the movie) is a real throw-back to old-school war resistance stories, the sort of things you used to find in old british boys’ comics. So you get lots of shootouts, Max hiding in doorways wearing a black toque, or paddling past giant war ships in a wooden rowboat to plant these little underwater magnetic explosives. Cool!

Max’s nemesis is the diabolical Siegfried, the young Nazi head guy who keeps capturing and torturing the resistance fighters, but whom Max has always managed to evade. The movie itself is a very earnest — not camp, not melodramatic — look at a national hero, who I have to admit, I’d never heard of before the movie. For a historical drama, it’s a bit to historical, with not quite enough drama. I think because he’s a national hero, it would have been almost sacrilege to have him hopping out of beds with femme fatales; but I would have liked it pouring on a little more

intrigue, double-crossing, and steamy romance, to fight off the occasional boring factor. Anyway, I had fun, so go see Max Manus — if you like earnest, wartime Norwegian espionage historical dramas.

Images is an annual film festival in Toronto that “showcases moving image culture”, or as I would say, shows art movies. Beware: these are not conventional narrative movies – they’re works of art shown on a screen. I have to keep reminding myself that they’re not movies, they’re art—but I still end up gravitating toward the stories. Also beware, that the pace is slower, I mean much, much slower than a commercial movie you might go to.

Toronto’s Ross McLaren’s works are featured this year. “Summer Camp” is a fun one – it’s a strange piece made up of found footage – black and white glowing rotoscopes of old CBC Toronto audition tapes from the late 60’s. This piece has teenage kids sitting on a stool reciting hokey monologue scripts about the fat cook at a mythical summer camp. Eventually you start anticipating each line you hear over and over: “She was so fat she could hardly get up the basement stairs.” “She’s always saying, Do this! Do that!” “She made me eat porridge!” Then there’s an improv part where they talk to their “brother” (a CBC actor) who says he’s dying of cancer and has three weeks left to live– they’re supposed to cheer him up. So you get to see the auditioning teenagers looking really uncomfortable to be talking about – or denying – death. Toward the end it starts to get really funny when one of the auditioners challenges the whole premise. I don’t know what it is about watching found footage for an hour, but I just ate it up.

Crash and Burn Karaoke, another movie by McLaren, is a real must-see. I’ve seen it lots of times but I love this one. It’s grainy black and white footage he took at a seminal punk concert in a Toronto club in 1977, by the Diodes, The Dead Boys, Boyfriends, and Teenage Head. The movie — with music not synched — has the guitarists (and audience) writhing on the stage, pogoing around, twisting their arms, snarling, drooling. There’s actually a very long shot of — I believe it’s Steven Leckie — with non-stop spittle and drool hanging out of his mouth. At Images, it will be presented in the form of Crash and Burn Karaoke, with lyrics appearing on the screen.

John Greyson has made a short film called Covered: It’s a report on a Gay/Lesbian film festival in Sarajevo that got closed down by right wing protestors. I wavered back and forth between loving and hating this movie. Loving the extremely wide bias and vivid images of stuffed birds, wooden birds, bird bones, alternating with pissed off filmmakers, and assorted musicians simultaneously playing off-key guitar on separate youtube clips… but not at all liking the long, written-out mock quotes by “Susan Sontag” that appear on the screen, or the voice of someone – is it Greyson himself — laboriously repeating the – is it Bosnian? — narration, on the soundtrack, in the manner of an elocution lesson. This is a movie, not a magazine article: I found the written and spoken words interrupted the flow, and distracted from the film’s visual beauty and its message of the danger and indifference of established politicians in the face of threats to marginalized groups. Too much of the film’s meaning relies on a steady stream of written narration in the form of subtitles and constant, superimposed texts.

Hamilton director Luo Li’s hour long film, called “I Went to the Zoo the Other Day”, is a beautifully-shot, black and white film filled with pictures of the Toronto Zoo. A couple are at the zoo. The camera follows them around the fish tanks, the elephants, tigers. We listen to their conversations – all in Serbian with subtitles!

They make comments and tell stories. Like a story of the guy who leaps in to save a drowning animal; or the middle-aged woman who considers some of the zoo animals as her own children, and carries their pictures in her purse. These stories are talked about, not shown. All the animals in this movie look really old – maybe Director Luo Li purposely found extra wrinkly elephants, middle-aged looking gorillas, lazy boa constrictors, surly-looking camels.

Half the time you’re watching the animals through bars or glass walls with the viewers reflected on them… then it’ll switch perspective, and you’re suddenly watching people from inside the glass — what the animals must see looking out. Who’s in the zoo, us or them?

Sometimes I wish the couple in the movie would speak English, so I could forget about reading the subtitles and concentrate on the amazing images – is Li deliberately using a language to increase dissociation or alienation between the viewers and the actors? It works, but why do it? I think the unnecessary putting up of walls between film and viewer is a mistake. Since neither the filmmaker, nor the intended audience, nor the topic, is related to Serbian, why use it? It seems gimmicky.

In any case, the acting is excellent, the stories are good, and the visual side of the movie is amazing – really nice images, from a mosaic of fish through an aquarium window, to the relaxing apes, the milling people. Every shot is perfectly composed and constructed, and pleasing to watch, edited together at the pace of a leisurely stroll through a park. It ends with scene filmed through the windshield as they drive down the highway, with just a recording of whale music providing the soundtrack.

Another event at the festival which I definitely want to go to is the One Take Super Eight, put together by Alex Rogalski of Regina, Saskatchewan, in its first Toronto version. It’s a grab bag of three minute, unedited, super eight movies shown one after another for the first time. From the camera, to the lab, directly to the screen – unseen by anyone. Could be good, could be awful, could be god-awful… might be awful good.

Women Without Men, is directed by video artist Shirin Neshat, based on the novel by Shahrnoush Parsipour. I saw it at the Toronto Film Festival last year, and it’s being featured at Images and being released commercially as well.

Women without Men is a Farsi-language film (shot in Morocco) adapted from the popular novel of the same name. It tells a story about a handful of women in Tehran who manage — during that brief period of nationalist Prime Minister Mossadegh’s government (in the fifties) — to escape a life dominated by men.

An upper-class woman, married to a general, leaves her husband to live in a house in a fruit orchard she has bought. A prostitute who is driven crazy by her work and a young woman who is supposed to become the second wife of a man she doesn’t want to marry, both find there way to her Eden-like orchard. Another woman leaves her home to join the street politics she hears outside, and eventually joins the Communist Party. Through a series of complex, circular scenes the epic gradually unrolls its magic-realism style plot. Certain scenes remain in your mind long after the movie ends, such as party-goers quoting Camus and reciting classical Persian poetry, and women exchanging remarks in a harrowing, foggy bathhouse.

I enjoyed this film but, never having read the novel, it was tough. I found it difficult to keep track of all the characters and plot turns. It also surprised me that the movie was not always successful visually (since the director is a photographer and video artist). I found the excessive use of CGI’s, faded tints and almost sepia tones throughout the movie distracts from, not adds to the drama. Still, the film provides a glimpse at Iranian women’s history and the richly cosmopolitan, intellectual culture seldom seen on a screen.

4 Responses

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  1. Sonja Greckol said, on April 4, 2010 at 5:55 am

    Daniel, I love what you do with these reviews. They contextualize the films, they provide reflective comments and invite the reader as an intelligent viewer willing to be thoughtful about films. Thanks, Sonja

  2. 120mm fan said, on December 2, 2010 at 9:43 am

    me and my girlfriend would always frequent karaoke bars because we love to sing ~~,

  3. eddie said, on July 28, 2011 at 11:09 pm

    that picture with the drool is Stiv Bators of the Dead Boys not Leckie (he was more inclined to be cutting himself with broken beer bottles as i remember it)

    othere than that nice article

    • CulturalMining.com said, on July 28, 2011 at 11:19 pm

      eddie — you’re totally right.


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