Friday, 26 April 2013

THE AUCTIONEER - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Klymkiw HOT DOCS 2013 HOT PICKS

The Auctioneer (2013) ****
dir. Hans Olson

Review By Greg Klymkiw

While I've never been much on all the egg-headed gobbledygook associated with documentary forms like the Direct Cinema movement (first developed by Quebecois NFB types) and the closely related cinéma vérité, I do respond to the one thing they both share - the desire to capture reality as it unfolds before the camera. On the Quebec side of the equation we had the likes of Michel Brault, Pierre Perrault and Gilles Groulx and south of the 49th parallel, such Anglo stalwarts as Frederick Wiseman, the Maysles (Albert and David) and D.A. Pennebaker - all practitioners of this form on both sides of the border who, among others, created a body of fascinating and groundbreaking work.

What I often enjoy and appreciate is when there is no narration, little or no score (save for natural source music) and no question and answer styled interviewing of any kind. This poses a challenge to the filmmaker to impart information and tell their story by shooting a whack of footage that's then shaped in the edit room. Obviously, some "manipulation" will be involved in terms of following a beat sheet or even script but usually what happens when the camera rolls is, well, WHAT actually happens. It's not only a challenge for the filmmaker, but in some ways, it can pose an entertaining challenge for the viewer - forcing one to glue one's eyeballs to the screen and really pay attention to what's there and, in many cases, to "get into" the rhythm. Doing both, when the picture is genuinely good or great, yields a truly rewarding experience for the viewer.

The Auctioneer, a National Film Board of Canada (NFB) production, is just such a film. Its virtues are many on so many levels - most notably in terms of both narrative and form - happily yielding a finely wrought, delicate and extraordinary portrait of life on the Canadian prairies. Oh, and lest you mistake this for some overwrought piece of midwestern Canadian nostalgia piece like Who Has Cut The Wind, you'd be sorely mistaken. Though the film is replete with sentiment, it's all in the look, not in the telling.

The story is simple as simple can be. This is especially pleasing because it allows director Hans Olson to work magic from the deftly structured scripting by Clark Banack. The film focuses on the dying art of buying and selling on the prairies. Against the backdrop of farm life in and around Vegreville, Alberta we follow a transaction between an auctioneer and a young man looking to sell off the contents of the family farm. The film meticulously follows the initial contact, through to the examination of goods to be sold, then the preparations on both sides to ready the goods for auction and finally, the auction itself.

Sounds like a barn-burner, huh? Well, in its own unique way, it is. By keeping his camera trained on all the salient details, Olson provides a genuinely fascinating look at what it means to sell used goods in a rural setting - one where ebay auctions still don't quite do the trick. I'll never forget when Canadian filmmaker John Paizs told me that audiences love learning new things when they're watching movies - it's something that always delights me now, on a more conscious level than before. What Paizs referred to, of course, were those little touches that occur primarily within straight up narrative filmmaking, but in documentary, teaching is as important on an overt level as is enjoying a good story. The Auctioneer does both superbly.

There's virtually not a single moment (when the film focuses on the selling and buying) that I didn't learn a whole whack of new things while at the same time, deriving pleasure from following this character-driven yarn about two men on opposite ends of the spectrum finding mutual ground in the very act of selling properties that had lost usefulness for one party, but had plenty of life left for others. (On a strictly personal note, since I've become a bit of a gentleman farmer in the past year, I genuinely learned stuff from the film that I'm going to be able to put to practical use.)

And now, here's where I impart what's extra special about this film - it's the maraschino cherries on the ice cream sundae, so to speak. This movie looks gorgeous. I can't think of a single shot that isn't imbued with ravishing compositions and an expert use of light. Olson's eye and cinematographer Mike McLaughlin's superlative lensing combine to create a painterly look not unlike - and I kid you not - that rendered by the great John Ford and his groundbreaking work with the likes of cinematographers Winston Hoch and Gregg Toland.

This is no mere eye candy. Given the fact that Olson has chosen to utilize a restrained approach wherein the camera shoots from a fixed position and records the action/information, it's especially important that our eyes are glued to the screen. What we gain from this approach, as an audience, is first being drawn in to appreciate the gob-smacking virtuosity of the look, then to fixate on the action and finally, and perhaps importantly why those who live in this world are not to keen on kissing it goodbye. Progress and moving on is not always the best choice when the land given to us by the Creator is as overpowering as this. (And, of course, why my ire is so raised by the destruction of the Oil Sands in the same province.)

This approach to documentary is strangely akin to that of Austrian director Ulrich Seidl who also shoots his work with sumptuous, gorgeously lit compositions and though The Auctioneer borrows from a direct cinema and vérité tradition in terms of capturing "reality" it, like Seidl's documentaries, keeps things on sticks. And if there's anything hand-held at all, Olson and McLaughlin have been blessed with the steadiest operator in the world. All this said, Olson and Seidl part company in terms of subject matter since the mad Austrian is firmly committed to exploring humanity in the most ugly human behaviour (save for Seidl's astounding work on Jesus, I Love You).

For such a visual approach to work means that the pacing of the film requires a very challenging languourous quality and its a testament to the editor of The Auctioneer, Dev Singh, that he chooses the most exquisite sweet spots in his cuts so that we move forward emotionally and narratively in a manner that quite literally takes our breath away from shot to shot. This, of course, sets up a rhythm that takes a small bit of time to get used to, but once we do, we're completely hooked - not unlike that of Terencee Malick's pre-Tree of Life pacing when he made real movies and cared about blending style with storytelling.

There is one tiny problem with The Auctioneer in terms of content. Our title character moonlights as a funeral director. The film takes great pains to present this to us in ways that fit the narrative and theme like a glove, but alas, a golden rule is broken. It's the old Storytelling 101 rule of never introducing something that doesn't pay off. The usual analogy would be, if your movie shows us a gun, you have to fire it. Frankly, the movie is begging (or if you will, dying) for a real funeral or memorial service. We get it metaphorically, but that seems like an unfortunate cheat. There might have been exigencies of production that prevented this, but if this was the case, Heaven and Earth needed to be moved at all costs to capture it. The alternative would have been to excise this completely from the film.

It's a minor quibble, but John Ford never avoided an opportunity to have a funeral and/or memorial service and/or graveyard scene. What was good for Ford should also be good for a filmmaker as clearly and richly talented as Olson.

And speaking of John Ford, based on this extraordinary film and Olson's previous dramatic shorts, he's poised to pick up Mr. Ford's torch. If someone in Canada is stupid enough not to deliver a nice fat cheque to Olson, he might need to leave here and go to a place where good, classical filmmaking is appreciated.

He's the real thing. So's The Auctioneer.

"The Auctioneer" is playing at the Hot Docs 2013 film festival. For showtimes and tickets, visit the festival website HERE. It's playing with an excellent short documentary I've reviewed in these pages called "Packing Up The Wagon: The Last Days Of Wagon Wheel Lunch". Feel free to read that review on the same page "Special Ed" is reviewed by clicking HERE. If you're interested in a completely different portrait of life in Alberta, Hot Docs is also presenting Charles Wilkinson's excellent "Oil Sands Karaoke" and you can read my review HERE.