Friday 13 September 2019

Rankin's Feature Debut, World Premiere @ TIFF 2019 / By Greg Klymkiw

The Twentieth Century (2019)
Dir. Matthew Rankin
Starring: Dan Beirne, Louis Negin

Report and Review By Greg Klymkiw

The festivities surrounding the World Premiere of Matthew Rankin’s glorious feature film The Twentieth Century at TIFF 2019 got off to a delightful start when I received a communique from him hoping that I might be able to muster the added “psychic energy” to attend yet another social event.

You see, I’d been kvetching to Matthew about the ridiculous number of film festival social events I had been attending (including a four-hour-long stint at the Canadian Film Centre BBQ on Sunday in which I traversed my way through amongst the throngs on the lawns of the North York Windfields estate).

I was keen to celebrate Matthew’s formidable achievements and when he extended an invitation to a soiree hosted by his Quebec-based distributor Maison 4:3, I was, in fact, thrilled to accept his gracious entreaties. Though Matthew and I hang our hats these days, respectively in Montreal and Toronto, we are both Winnipeggers born-and-bred and any excuse to hang out in our homes away from our Prairie Hearts/Roots, is enough of a cause for celebration.

However, when Matthew provided the address to the fête, my jaw dropped and I wondered if he had concocted a friendly ruse to send me into the heart of darkness in the east end of downtown Toronto. You see, the celebratory event would be taking place just behind a notorious rooming house that doubles as a brothel for street hookers and a home for malcontent veterans.

This same location was also just across the street from a park filled with enterprising purveyors of crack cocaine, meth and other mind-altering delights.

“Seriously, Matthew, is this REALLY where the party is?” He confirmed the address. The cockles of my heart warmed to a comfortable level of Hellfire. 

Gotta love Montreal film distributors!

The party itself was on the top floor of a gorgeous brownstone and outfitted with all manner of delectable comestibles and libations. A special treat included an array of candies (which I filled my pockets with to eventually give to the daughter of Coppers director Alan Zweig).

And, get this: bowls of cigarettes were available.

This was truly a first.

I’ve been going to film festival parties for decades and I have NEVER seen oodles of free cigarettes available on the buffet tables. (Though, in fairness, during one of my sojourns to the Berlin Film Festival in the late 90s, the Berlinale marketplace was crawling with young ladies dressed as Cowgirls handing out mini-packs of Marlboro cigarettes.)

But this was indeed a first! Cigarettes with pita, dips and candies knocked this event right out of the park. Though I had quit smoking cigarettes months ago, I did indeed break down and join Matthew’s producers out in the back alley for several smokes, a grungy locale conveniently perched behind the aforementioned rooming house of dubious repute.

Curiously, given the wide availability of hallucinogens in the park across the street, no such treats were available at the party - at least not in plain view.

And then, on Tuesday came the main event - the official world premiere at the huge packed house at the Ryerson Theatre on Gerrard. This yielded yet another first. The Midnight Madness director of programming Peter Kuplowsky was adorned in full Royal Canadian Mounted Police regalia. Prior to introducing Matthew and the film, Kuplowsky took to the stage and sang “Oh Canada” in both English and French. Hundreds of audience members stood at attention and sang our national anthem along with him.

Needless to say, the movie was a huge hit - greeted with laughs, gasps and applause. Matthew was accompanied after the screening by his entire cast and a spirited Q and A ensued.

The movie is great, to be sure, but the film's mad inspired genius was matched by the showmanship of a truly magnificent party and premiere. Winnipeggers and Montrealers are an unbeatable combination, mais non?

And now, as to a few ruminations on the greatness of Matthew Rankin and the great movie itself...

I wish I could remember the precise year I first met Matthew Rankin, but I do recall it was on the grounds of the Windfields Estate which houses “Uncle” Norman Jewison’s Canadian Film Centre (CFC) during the annual Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) CFC BBQ. In those halcyon years I taught and mentored young filmmakers there, sharing an office (the late E.P. Taylor’s office, no less) with John Paizs (a pioneer of independent filmmaking in Winnipeg).

What I recall about first meeting Matthew was coming face to face with this insanely young, dashing, erudite gentleman and member of the Winnipeg Film Group (WFG) who sought me out amongst the throngs of TIFF denizens prowling the rolling lawns in search of free booze and hamburgers. Matthew might well have been in search of similar libations and comestibles, but I remember this first meeting very fondly due to the fact that I was in the presence of a filmmaker from Winnipeg, my old “Winter City” (a phrase I continue to coin and rip-off from Paizs who placed the term in the mouth of his immortal title character in the legendary WFG short The Obsession of Billy Botski).

I was immediately drawn to Matthew, this brilliant young fellow whose acute cinema literacy was at a highly advanced level, but that he also amazingly seemed to have an encyclopaedic knowledge and love of those in Winnipeg who came before him. He not only knew and loved the 100+ years of Cinema History, but he was able to rattle off scenes, shots and dialogue from a myriad of WFG films. And now, here we are in 2019. When I first got wind of the title of Matthew's film I assumed it would be an homage to the great 1934 Howard Hawks pre-code screwball romantic comedy Twentieth Century with John Barrymore and Carole Lombard (a movie I’m not embarrassed to admit to having 40+ viewings under my belt). Rankin’s film is definitely in the spirit of that magnificently insane movie - it’s decidedly screwball, wildly romantic and blessed with style to burn. However, as I used to say to all my young filmmakers, it’s important to ingest 100+ years of history to not only “rip-off cool shit”, but to take that influence and use it as a springboard for their own unique voice. Rankin’s film is easily just as funny as the Howard Hawks picture, but it’s pure Rankin.

Over the years I was so privileged to discover and revel in Matthew's work. The Twentieth Century brings me back to everything I loved and continue to love about his short films: the classic piece of prairie post-modernism, Death By Popcorn: The Tragedy of the Winnipeg Jets (which Rankin co-directed with the estimable Mike Maryniuk and Walter Forsberg); the magnificence that is Mynarski Death Plummet, the only film to ever detail the bravery of that famous Manitoba “Moose Squadron” gunner (and with clear, glorious nods to Powell/Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death); and of course, Rankin’s Cannes Film Festival hit, The Tesla World Light which so grandly plunged us into the magnificent synaesthesia of the visionary Serbian-American engineer-inventor Nikola Tesla. (Of course for me, on a personal level, one of the cool things about The Twentieth Century was seeing Matthew pay homage to a number of films made in Winnipeg that I had actually produced.)

And here’s the amazing thing - Rankin’s work reflects elements of Canadian history that are all but forgotten and ignored. Though some might have a smattering of knowledge with respect to the clearly insane Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King (Dan Beirne), the central figure of The Twentieth Century, Rankin plunges us into the early political life of that complete and utter madman in ways that no mere biopic would ever be able to do. (King's perverse relationship with his Mother played by the initimitable Louis Negin is definitely a high point in the film's perversity sweepstakes.)

The Twentieth Century is a kaleidoscopic dreamscape, the likes of which we’ve never quite seen. And it’s not only gorgeous to behold, but it’s laugh-out-loud funny. And yes, it is infused with love for the sheer joy of cinema. Seeing this movie reminds me of why I fell in love with movies in the first place.


The Twentieth Century: World Premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF 2019) Midnight Madness series

COPPERS - Review By Greg Klymkiw - TIFF 2019 - Zweig Explores the Humanity of Policing

Coppers (2019)
Dir. Alan Zweig

Review By Greg Klymkiw

It seems that with each film by Alan Zweig I have the same response after I view the new work for the first time. My response goes something like this:
Great. Yet another masterpiece of filmmaking. When will Canadian filmmaker Alan Zweig go wrong? When will the runner stumble? Ever? Or will he continue to feed the soul of the world with one terrific picture after another?

Thus far his output includes such critically acclaimed and award-winning work as There is a House HereWhen Jews Were FunnyHurtHope15 Reasons to LiveA Hard NameI, CurmudgeonLovable and Vinyl.
If his newest film, Coppers, is any indication, there’s no stopping him.

This raw, nerve-jangling, darkly funny and extremely moving documentary portrait of retired police officers has its World Premiere at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF).

Zweig’s frank, incisive interview style is always the hallmark of his work and no-more-so does it shine than it does here. In the film, Zweig betrays his deep-seeded hatred and mistrust of cops – something he developed from his many years of driving cab on the night shifts of some of Toronto’s meaner streets. But like all of his previous work, he is genuinely interested in learning something new about the subjects and worlds he chooses to focus upon. What he learns in these explorations is dazzlingly applied to letting us learn things as he does.

The retired cops he interviews open up to Zweig and their stories are often horrifying. The movie hits the ground running with one officer’s recollection of her first night on the job when she was forced to save a victim of a violent crime with an empty pizza box. I’ll let you discover on your own why she needs this cardboard receptacle and how she uses it, but it’s worth noting that what Zweig sets up is an extremely effective mode of conveying the horrors cops face everyday by doing interviews in moving vehicles as his subjects drive through the mean streets of their former beats and are reminded continually of events that continue to haunt them.

He revisits the cops in a multitude of settings that allow for continual variations in their respective states of being and memories.
I think anyone who thinks they know what being a cop is like or thinks that all cops are scum incarnate, will have their eyes opened. And yes, occasionally all those negative aspects of policing do indeed rear their ugly heads in the film. One of the things I responded to on a personal level, was getting to know these men and women and their lives as officers, but at the same time feeling a sense of familiarity with the subjects – the stories they tell, the manner in which they communicate, often felt queasily recognizable to me – not because of the clichés we’ve become used to in film and television policiers, but I kept seeing and hearing things I heard from my own father who served as a policeman for ten years until the pressure and horrors of the life forced him to leave the force and make a new life for himself.

Like many of the officers depicted in the film, though, there were aspects of the life that never seemed to escape him. For me, I kept seeing something in the eyes of all the officers in Zweig’s movie – men, women, of colour, or not – a sense of having seen things that never leave their hearts and minds, reflected in their gaze so many years after. Even now, I can see that incalculable, almost indescribable pain in my own father’s eyes.

With Coppers, it’s clearly apparent that bad, evil, racist cops exist, but at the same time, Zweig also allows for an alternate perspective – a perspective that he himself discovers on his journey as a filmmaker. Though this might seem like an oxymoron, it’s anything but. Coppers explores the humanity of policing. By putting faces and emotions to the lives of these officers we experience something genuinely unique. We hear about their horrific experiences – everything from blood-spattered homicide scenes to domestic abuse cases and beyond.

Contrasting this are the results of constant exposure to things most of us can only imagine – results that include suicide, depression, PTSD, alcoholism, domestic disfunction and often a need to seek early retirement from a profession that is deeply damaging and disturbing.
I hesitate to use the word “sympathetic” to describe the approach, but it is most definitely humane. In spite of this humanity, or perhaps because of it, Zweig’s film doesn’t veer from the ugly side of policing – especially within the organization itself.

One of the stories involves the first Asian woman to work in the Toronto Police Department – the racism and sexism she faces from her colleagues and superiors is beyond the pale. The police service bureaucracy upholds her as a “poster girl” for diversity within the department, yet behind the scenes she is treated with disdain and overt hatred. We get a sense of her dreams and optimism at the beginning, but how her feelings are decimated and betrayed at every turn.

Yes, the film provides plenty of horror stories from out in the field, but doesn’t veer away from the cruelty exhibited behind closed doors. The implications are clear – if this is the kind of behavior exhibited towards officers by colleagues and superiors, how far does this extend to the communities the department is charged to “protect and serve”?
What’s wonderful about Zweig’s documentaries is that you always feel like you’re seeing something new, fresh and exciting from a filmmaking standpoint.

He utilizes a number of recurring visual motifs in the lives of these retired officers that are not only effective storytelling techniques, but are genuinely cinematic. In film after film, Zweig displays a unique voice and style that is all his own. He makes documentaries, but he is not a documentarian (a word I hate and often relegate to the lowest order of those cranking out dull informational docs with no voice or real perspective). Zweig is a filmmaker, an artist – of the highest order. Coppers is a great movie and not to be missed.


Coppers: World Premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF 2019)