|What do Leonard Cohen, Raymond Carver and Drumheller, Alberta have in common? The Valley Below|
Dir. Kyle Thomas
Starring: Stephen Bogaert, Alejandro Rae, Kris Demeanor, Mikaela Cochrane, Joe Perry, Lori Ravensborg, Mandy Stobo, Alana Hawley
Review By Greg Klymkiw
"Ya gotta keep your stick on the ice." - Canuck advice in The Valley BelowLeonard Cohen's great post-modernist novel "Beautiful Losers" is an important book on many levels, but for me, it's always been the place to begin in terms of exploring the complex mystery of what it means to be Canadian within the context of our culture, and by extension, our popular culture. Cohen charts the disparity between the indigenous populace with the sons and daughters of the European colonizers, but furthermore, that of the great divide twixt French and English. Diving even deeper, we're confronted with both the historical building of a nation based upon exploitation, theft and violence and the contemporary results of said exploitation.
It's those very results, which count the most, and they're what come to the forefront of writer-director-editor Kyle Thomas's important first feature film, The Valley Below. Structurally the film is imbued with a kind of Raymond Carver flavour in terms of it being comprised of four ambiguity-fraught short stories about love, relationships and alcoholism. They're related, yet separate and all tied to the lives of those who make their home in the dead-end world of Drumheller, Alberta. I am inclined, however, to more strongly associate Thomas's film with Cohen's work than that of Carver.
The legendary Bard of Montreal's novel is essentially broken into three different "books", separate, yet intertwined. In spite of the novel's post-modernist qualities, its poetry, its harrowing evocation of rootlessness is rooted as deeply as the deepest roots can possibly drill down into - that being, the psyche of a fractured, regionalist nation. Amidst the post-modernist style, I'm still walloped by Cohen's equally attuned sense of realism, albeit measured out to taste, if you will, in healthy dollops here and there.
The Valley Below has realism to burn, but it's adorned with its own dollops - generous birthday-cake-icing-squirts of exquisitely-wrought cinematic poetry. Also, not unlike Cohen's book, the film's parts operate in stylistically distinctive ways (especially in Thomas's use of different composers for the astonishing score representing each part), yet ultimately its parts are skilfully welded together by the whole.
If there's one central character in Thomas's multi-character film, I might suggest it's the setting itself - a repressed small town of honky tonks, greasy spoons, strip malls, bargain basement "getaway" hotels and a whack of grotesque folk-art - everything from the cheesy statues of ancient dinosaurs which once ruled the vicinity to a humungous plaster of Paris Jesus Christ overlooking the desolate beauty of Alberta's Badlands, the topography of which, dwarfs everything. (In "Beautiful Losers", it's history itself which feels like the central "character", that which holds dominion over all.) In more ways than one, Drumheller is as much to The Valley Below and, by extension, to Canada, as Nashville was to Altman's Nashville which, furthermore was reflective of America itself.
The characters of The Valley Below are a familiar, yet colourful grab-bag of people we all know or have been ourselves, or, indeed are. They're also decidedly Canadian and as such, are virtually inconsequential compared to the vastness of the land itself. It's the macrocosmic focus of Thomas as the filmmaker which gives the characters' collective inconsequence the weight of individual consequence and at times, challenges which seem virtually Sisyphean.
Kate (Mikaela Cochrane) is on the cusp of leaving Henry (Joe Perry), her good-natured, loving, yet aimless childhood sweetheart to seek out new horizons of academia and life experience in the big city. She's torn between flight and adhering to the small-town notions of having a family and staying behind. She's especially conflicted upon discovering a very real and pending reason to stay. Her choice, either way, will have substantial weight behind it.
Warren (Kris Demeanor) is the Zamboni operator and general caretaker of Drumheller's skating rink, a pleasant-enough job to finance and fuel his dreams of becoming a singer-songwriter. Still, what he wants more than anything is to be reunited with the mother of his little girl (and mostly, one gathers, the child), but he's both unwilling and unable to deal with his general lack of ambition (which, is probably skewed as opposed to being completely non-existent) and most of all, his alcoholism. His ex has escaped well beyond the confines of Drumheller and pursued her talent as a visual artist. Alas, Warren is satisfied with the repressive pettiness of his environment and merely paying lip service, to others as well as himself in terms of making the changes he needs to better himself.
Barry (Alejandro Rae) is the buff, amiable constable at the Drumheller cop-shop who prides himself on pulling local ne'er-do-wells out of the drunk tank for honest heart-to-hearts and dispensing sage advice (small-town Canuck-style, of course) instead of bringing criminal or misdemeanour charges against them. He volunteers as a D-Jay at the local community radio station and is married to the sexy, beautiful and loving Jill (Alana Hawley). Though they struggle with the real dilemma of being unable to have children, their sex life is as charged with excitement as their genuine, deep friendship with each other. They seem, in many ways, like the perfect couple. Barry, though, has a secret, or rather, an intense hobby he keeps solely to himself - a model reproduction of Drumheller with an ever-circling train within it.
Finally, though, Thomas delivers the heartbreaker of all the film's stories. Gordon (Stephen Bogaert) is a taxidermist and a damn fine one at that. He spends endless hours in his basement workshop with local wildlife dispatched by the locals. He meticulously creates glass-eyed stuffed trophies of these once living and breathing creatures of the bush. That enough clientele require his services for him to live in a nice house and provide very well for his family suggests just how many critters fall prey to rifles or to becoming roadkill in Drumheller.
Like the huge lifeless reproductions of dinosaurs and Jesus dotting the landscape, Gordon is able to provide a whack of equally lifeless approximations of the county's fauna to go on display in the living rooms and rec-rooms of dreary Drumheller's denizens. His work requires much in the way of solitude - maybe too much. He's neglected trouble spots in his marriage to Susan (Lori Ravensborg) and maybe, just maybe, left them too late. He loves her, his kids and their home. He believes that love, like taxidermy, requires hard work and he plunges himself and Susan into intense marriage therapy. Between stuffing animal carcasses, he goes out into the woods to cut down a fresh Christmas tree with his son and books a getaway romantic evening at the local inn. It's a cheap. tawdry little place, though and hardly conducive to reviving a marriage that is, for all intents and purposes, dead.
There is clearly, the possibility that this will not turn out to be a White Christmas for everybody.
This is a movie that gnaws away at you ever-so slowly and before you know it, the picture's ripped your guts out. Basically, Thomas has delivered a film that is as muted as it is charged with the kind of emotion that explodes when you least expect it. Visually, via the face-punching terrible beauty of Michael Robert McLaughlin's cinematography, The Valley Below is a film that indelibly aptures the myriad of exterior and interior vistas with a high level of artistry, always rooted in character and tone. Thomas elicits performances from his entire cast - from leads down to background extras - that ring with raw truth (especially Stephen Bogaert who manages to elicit tears and a sickening feeling of emptiness in your gut).
This is a film that's as much a reflection of Canada's indigenous landscape as it is a dramatic examination of the country's ethos.
Thomas doesn't provide us with a narrator for these four tales, but in a sense, his eye is the narrator, his simple, evocative quill=strokes as a writer create a silent storyteller to reflect the terrible truth.
Leonard Cohen's "Beautiful Losers" does have a narrator, someone to guide us into the complexities of his own multi-character narrative. Cohen's narrator is the character referred to in the first person as "I", an academic studying a tribe of near-extinct Native Peoples, a man who is all too aware that the subject of his research is a group of people whose entire history seems founded upon a dubious pedestal of constant and utter defeat at the hands of its colonizer enemy. "I" furthermore identifies himself, if not the entire nation of Canada as being afflicted with the literal and figurative ailment of constipation.
Certainly, whenever I try to put my finger upon what it means to be Canadian, constipation is most definitely the first thing to pop into my head. (Certainly our neighbours south of the 49th parallel have no problems with being bunged up, but are, if anything, afflicted with all sluices open and gushing.) Curiously, whilst first seeing The Valley Below, I couldn't help but recall the "Beautiful Losers" narrator when he announces to himself and the reader the following sentiments:
"Why me? The great complaint of the constipated. Why doesn't the world work for me?…How can I begin anything new with all of yesterday within me?"Cohen refers to "yesterday" as being that "unassailable bank" in his "psyche" that so desperately requires "shit." In a sense, Thomas's film is as inextricably rooted in this psyche as Cohen's "Beautiful Losers". All of the characters in Drumheller, Alberta are living on the long-decayed waste matter of dinosaurs, the refuse of some global disaster from millions of years ago that have turned the land, the province, the very psyche of its inhabitants into murky black oil wells, tar pits, endless rolling prairies and the gorgeous desolation of the Badlands.
The bottom line: How does one begin anything new with yesterday backed up within?
If Cohen's novel has an overriding link to Thomas's film, it can be found in the title "Beautiful Losers". Some of the greatest works in Canadian Cinema have been populated with what I like to think of as beautiful losers. From Joey (Douglas McGrath) and Pete (Paul Bradley), the beautiful losers on the road in their Chevy Impala from Nova Scotia to Toronto in Donald Shebib's Goin' Down The Road to beautiful loser Rick "Marshall" Dylan (Keir Dullea) the fast-drawing, gun-toting, alcoholic hockey player in Peter Pearson's Paperback Hero to beautiful loser Billy Duke (Art Hindle), the hard-playing pretty-boy goon in George McCowan's hockey classic Face Off, Gordon Pinsent's beautiful loser The Rowdyman, the man-child who refuses to grow up and last, but certainly not least, even French Canada has a fine history of the beautiful loser in the cinema - most recently and notably in one of the best Canadian films of all time, the tale of the crusty old car salesman in Le Vendeur by Sebastien Pilote.
Now we can add Kyle Thomas's The Valley Below to this stellar history of Canadian Cinema's ever-so-beautiful losers.
THE FILM CORNER RATING: **** 4 Stars
The Valley Below is an A-71 Entertainment Release which began it's Canadian theatrical run at the Magic Lantern Carlton Cinemas in Toronto.