Monday, 29 April 2013
15 REASONS TO LIVE - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Klymkiw HOT DOCS 2013 HOT PICKS
15 Reasons To Live (2013) *****
Dir. Alan Zweig
Review By Greg Klymkiw
Everyone says that Alan Zweig's new picture is a major departure from everything he's made to date. They're wrong. Since his first feature length documentary Vinyl, the first of his semi-unofficial "mirror trilogy" which then included I, Curmudgeon and Lovable, through to his fourth movie A Hard Name, Zweig has always been about humanity and all his work has been infused with compassion.
15 Reasons To Live is more of the same.
Now, before anyone assumes that's a slag, allow me to add that humanity and compassion are elements of existence always worth exploring - in both life and art. (After all, what else is there? Really?)
Oh, I know, all those championing this as a departure are bringing up the fact that 15 Reasons is not overflowing with self-loathing. He's not looking at himself in a mirror and confessing his perceived failings and then using his subjects to bolster and/or change his mind. He's not aiming his camera at ex-cons, overtly exploring their harrowing dark side in order to find glimmers of both hope and forgiveness. Oh, and for those who saw it (and everyone who should have seen it), he's not even in the territory of his first feature, Darling Family, a tremendously moving and well directed adaptation of the play by Linda Griffiths which was, uh, about a couple on opposite ends of a decision to abort a child.
Or, they say, Oh, he's not a curmudgeon after all.
I can only reiterate: Alan Zweig's films are about humanity and compassion - period. He's a great interviewer - probing, insightful, funny, thoughtful and entertainingly conversational - and this, if anything, characterizes a good chunk of his style. This wends its way through all his documentaries and it's one of many reasons why it's impossible not to be riveted by them.
He's got an original voice as a filmmaker and, quite literally within his vocal chords. Nobody, but nobody can sound like Alan Zweig and ABSOLUTELY nobody can make movies the way he does.
Perhaps the most telling aspect of Zweig's original approach is that he is, first and foremost, an avid collector. His films are populated with large casts of characters and these individuals are inextricably linked to the themes of the films, but as such, he pulls from them the things that make each one of them unique and what he seems to do is collect all these people with the same passion he collects vinyl or books or movies or tchochkes, BUT unlike the inanimate objects he collects, he can't purge himself of his collection of subjects by dropping them off at the Goodwill Store.
He collects people of all stripes and he gets, through his films, to keep them forever - not just for himself, but for the world.
And THIS, for me, is what's so special and if there's any difference with the new picture from his previous work, it's that he forced himself into maintaining a strict number of subjects to add to his collection. And yes, there is one key surface departure - he tells each person's story separately without the documentarian's crutch of weaving in and out of his subjects' lives, stories and perspectives.
Inspired by his friend Ray Robertson's book “Why Not: Fifteen Reasons To Live?” Zweig chose the 15 chapter headings - Love, Solitude, Critical Mind, Art, Individuality, Home, Work, Humour, Friendship, Intoxication, Praise, Meaning, Body, Duty and Death - and with his inimitable producer Julia Rosenberg (one of Canada's true producers-as-filmmaker that I can count on two hands and half a foot) and his Associate Producer Whitney Mallett, the team searched out 15 stories that best exemplified each reason to live.
With the astounding cinematography of Naomi Wise (she paints every face with light and her compositions are exceptional) and dollops of exquisite animation by Joseph Sherman, the team shot each story separately and then with the breathtaking work of editor Eamonn O’Connor, each story was cut separately until embarking upon what must have been an even more formidable challenge, working with the assembled stories and, well, assembling them. O'Connor's cutting is especially revelatory. Each tale is perfectly paced, to be sure, but the transitions from tale to tale are quite simply, masterful - at times subtle and gentle, while at others delivering my favourite kind of cut - the cut that takes your breath away. Literally. (These cuts, when they work, are not jarring - they kind of slide in and sidle up to you and before you know it, you've been winded.)
And damn if this structural approach doesn't work just perfectly. The film shares an architecture similar to that of "Dubliners" by James Joyce and "Winesburg, Ohio" by Sherwood Anderson - each book having several great stories that work just fine on their own, but when taken all together, they generate an effect not unlike some dazzling combination of a full novel meshed with a mesmerizing tone poem. This, if anything, is what launches Zweig into some kind of stratosphere - a film that brings together everything that makes his work so goddamn special; all the compassion and humanity your heart could possibly desire in a perfectly cohesive package celebrating life itself.
I think it's safe to say that 15 Reasons To Live is a film that will have the kind of shelf life that only a genuine masterpiece delivers - a film for now, to be sure, but more importantly, one for the ages.
I don't think there is a single story that will not resonate beyond the here and now.
A tale of love against a dream to walk around the world;
A search for solitude amongst the masses;
The application of critical thought in the face of religious dogma;
The appreciation of art when everyone says it'll never be appreciated again;
A slice of individuality from a mysterious source;
A sense of place when one finds a home that means forever;
When work becomes that which fulfills you and feeds your soul;
A sense of humour that manifests itself in a simple, but ultimately layered choice of a name that infuses your identity with one that reflects all your gifts;
Friendship that's thicker than blood when a debilitating disease threatens your quality of life;
A realization that an intoxicant can inspire you to never say never again;
To seek the ultimate outlet to praise and worship that which fills your life more than some spurious non-entity;
Seeking, finding and maintaining the meaning your life gives to yourself and God's creatures;
To honour thine body to honour thine soul to honour the gift of expression through exertion and concentration;
To save a whale;
And finally, the discovery that peaches ARE life itself - sweet and ever regenerating.
These are the individual stories that equal a much bigger and profound story - one in which mankind seeks all those things that give meaning to one's life and how, through faith and perseverance in one's own humanity and place within the universe, anything - ANYTHING - is possible.
And Zweig does all this and more. He gets to have his cake and eat it too. We get to have our cake - his film - and eat it too. Where in previous films, Zweig held a mirror to his face so that it might reflect not merely himself, but us, he takes a step further - he takes grand stories that celebrate life and makes them all the mirror for us to gaze into and realize that what's precious is right in front of us and we've got to seize it and never let go.
The final tale Zweig imparts in 15 Reasons To Live is, without question, a cinematic equivalent to the final story in Joyce's "Dubliners". After first seeing Zweig's truly great film, I thought deeply on my own life and where I had been, was being and where I needed to go. Like the Joyce's final words in the final story of his masterpiece, Zweig's picture, and in particular his animated tale of death made me think about those words - words which give my life solace and meaning when the dark is darkest:
A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.
To paraphrase Joyce, I can't shake the fact that Alan Zweig has, with this future masterpiece of cinema, created a work that will make all of our souls, both the living and the dead, look to that which faintly falls through the universe and makes us all swoon ever so slowly.
"15 Reasons To Live" has its world premiere at Hot Docs 2013. For tickets and showtimes, visit the Hot Docs website HERE.
FULL DISCLOSURE: I have know Alan Zweig since 1987. I produced his first feature documentary. My daughter is a reason to live (in my life as well as in his film). I love movies. When I see movies I cherish, I need to write about them. End of story.