“CanFilm Five” is the Canuxploitation blog’s ongoing guest column, which brings together prominent filmmakers, bloggers, critics and programmers to discuss their most loved offbeat Canadian films.
Toronto-based Jason Lapeyre’s first feature, the gritty crime thriller COLD BLOODED (2012), won Best Canadian Film at Fantasia 2012. His second feature, co-directed with Robert Wilson, I DECLARE WAR (2012) was an official selection of the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival, won the Audience Award for Best Film at Fantastic Fest the same year, and was released theatrically by Drafthouse Films. He has also directed a documentary feature about mental illness called FACELESS, and produced the short film THE CAPTURED BIRD (2012(, which was executive produced by Guillermo del Toro. His films have played in over 75 film festivals around the world and won more than a dozen prizes. The Drafthouse DVD/Blu-ray of I DECLARE WAR was released November 12, 2013 and is available from drafthousefilms.com. His previous film, COLD BLOODED, is also now available in the U.S. and Canada on iTunes, in Redbox and streaming.
To celebrate the recent home video release of I DECLARE WAR (makes an excellent Christmas present!) we asked Jason to run down his five favourite Canadian films that aggressively ignore, abuse and otherwise cross the line of genre convention.
One of the most enjoyable things about making I DECLARE WAR was playing with the genre conventions of a war movie and bending them to the needs of a movie entirely cast with children. I always appreciate when filmmakers take a risk by pushing and pulling the conventions of a genre in the hopes of making a film a little more interesting or effective. Most of the time it doesn’t work but, when it does, it can be incredible (see, for example, the entire career of the Coen brothers).
What if you made a horror movie where the antagonist was an inanimate object? No, not a possessed inanimate object, like Chucky, I mean literally an inanimate object, like a really, really creepy, life-size anatomical doll? That’s the premise of this late ‘80s horror movie, and it’s surprisingly effective. It was a huge risk for the filmmakers to pin (heh heh) their hopes for the film’s effectiveness on a single prop, but they hit the jackpot when they either found or built “Pin” itself. It really is a frightening and disturbing enough thing to build a whole horror movie around. I had a phone meeting with an American distributor once who was obsessed with Canadian tax shelter movies, and when I told him that I had heard a rumour that the Pin doll itself was actually for sale, he almost crawled through the phone to demand where and when he could buy it. It’s that awesome. And, as a bonus, Terry O’Quinn is in this, which is reason enough to watch anything.
PAS DE DEUX (1968)
What if you made an animated film that wasn’t animated? Or even stop motion? Only a genuine master like Norman McLaren could pull something like this off, essentially inventing a new filmmaking technique to create what is, in my hyperbolic opinion, the greatest work of art ever made in this country. This 13-minute short film (available to view for free, in full HD below and on the NFB website) involves two dancers performing a pas de deux set to intense, dramatic classical music. But McLaren shoots them in black and white and lights them in harsh, monochromatic tones, so they look almost like graphite sketches (imaging Frank Miller’s SIN CITY – but ballet) and then uses an optical printing process to create multiples of the dancers, so each one becomes a flowing, impossibly elegant shape, sometimes dancing with themselves, sometimes becoming inconceivable geometric patterns. The effect is breathtaking, and it’s not just a flashy technique, he really uses it to tell the story of the two characters more deeply. This isn’t a filmmaker tweaking a genre in hopes of being more effective, this is a filmmaker balls-out trying something that’s never been done before, and it’s a grand slam. Incredibly bold, something that can’t often be said about Canadian filmmaking.
What if you made a crime film where the hero wasn’t a criminal, but wanted to be? And where the villain was a sadistic transvestite? Of the five films listed here today, this is the one that probably strays the least from its genre conventions, but it’s also probably my favourite. It stars Elliott Gould and Christopher Plummer, was written by Curtis Hanson (who would go on to be an excellent genre director himself with L.A. CONFIDENTIAL and 8 MILE) and directed by Daryl Duke, and tells the story of a bank teller (Gould) who, realizing that he’s about to be held up, stashes fifty grand in a safe deposit box and blames it on the bank robber (Plummer). Then the bank robber realizes he’s been ripped off and starts looking for the teller to get his money back. It’s a really smart, really fun movie, from Gould and Plummer’s cat-and-mouse battle of wits to Plummer completely deranged character, who gets turned on by violence and dresses as a woman to commit robberies. It also has some utterly reprehensible violence in it (always a plus), cameos from John Candy and Eugene Levy, and a score by Oscar Peterson. And, as an extra bit of Cancon trivia, it was shot in the Eaton Centre in the very year that it opened, in all its mid-70s architectural glory.
THE DEVIL AT YOUR HEELS (1981)
What if you made a totally straight-faced, NFB-style documentary about a completely insane, oafish daredevil stuntman? This criminally underappreciated film (available for streaming in its entirety below) is a standout work of documentary filmmaking in a country that punches waaaay above its weight when it comes to that genre. It’s about Ken Carter, a Canadian who claims to be the world’s greatest stuntman, and to prove to everyone that he’s a better stuntman than Evel Knieval, he decides to jump a rocket car across the St. Lawrence seaway at a point where it’s one mile wide. And land in a field of poppies. That’s his plan. The whole world hears about this lunatic and ABC Wide World of Sports sends a news crew to film the preparations, along with Knieval himself to inspect the jump. Knieval takes one look at the setup and tells Carter he’s insane, and that he’ll be killed if he attempts it. But does Ken Carter back down? HELL NO. It would have been so easy to make this film as wild and unhinged as its subject matter, but what’s so great about it is the incredibly dry, detached narration and typically Canadian sardonic humour and sarcasm used to tell the story. A risky choice that pays off enormously: the net result is hilarious, like an SCTV sketch about CBS’ 60 Minutes played out to feature-length. I can’t recommend this enough.
What if aliens from another planet, who had never had any contact with human beings before, decided to make a horror movie about human beings, engaging in normal human behaviour? Well, if that happened, then the result would probably be more coherent and recognizable as a movie than THINGS. Ah, THINGS. What can you say? This one isn’t so much a case of a filmmaker bending the rules of a genre – it’s more like a filmmaker operating so far outside even the most basic rules of the medium that the end result is something genuinely unique. Which is so rare, and so special, as to almost be commendable. I was actually introduced to this film when Paul Corupe, Canuxploitation.com’s mastermind, asked me to film his interview for the DVD re-release of the film. I was rewarded with a copy of the finished product, and happily sat down to watch it. Jesus God. Vaguely resembling a horror movie, the film is shot on 8mm, the sound is entirely dubbed in post, and…without literally describing to you the content of every shot of the film, I’m not sure I have the power as a writer to convey what this movie is “about”. THINGS challenges the very concept of “aboutness”, shattering the very underpinnings of narrative cinema – not intentionally, mind you, like a Harmony Korine or a Peter Greenaway, but more accidentally, like a drunken hoser backing into a Ming vase at a house party. One simply has to bear witness to THINGS in order to call themselves a Canadian film completist, endure it until you get your badge of glory when that infamous title card comes up at the end: ”You Have Just Experienced…THINGS.”