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Ray Pride

By Ray Pride

Away From Her (2006, ****)

01_300dpi.jpgI AM NOT ONE TO RESIST THE OPPORTUNITY TO RUSH HEADLONG AND HEEDLESS toward an apparent horizon of light and gush when I see a movie that cares for the mystery of love and longitude in shared human experience, but I have to say that the only release in 2007 to hover near the Irish marvel of a musical, Once, opening next week, would be 28-year-old Sarah Polley’s feature debut as a writer-director, Away From Her. After 12 years as a memorable screen presence, and six years since her 38-minute, dearly laconic comedy I Shout Love (2001) etching a dysfunctional, twentysomething Canadian relationship tethered to repetition, proximity and Hockey Night on CBC.
Away From Her, based on the Alice Munro short story “The Bear Came Over The Mountain,” [linked here] opens with credits on white, something filmmakers are usually urged to avoid for a number of technical reasons. But that, succeeded by cross-country ski tracks across a white field, gently, yet emphatically, introduce the content of the story: all that fades; light, memory, life. Julie Christie plays Fiona, a woman who realizes that her memory is fading and that she will have to urge Grant, played by the iconic patriarch of Canadian cinema and television, Gordon Pinsent, to do the right thing, to recognize that the conflicts that will come as her Alzheimer’s progresses must be addressed now. Of course, Fiona is in the person of 66-year-old Christie, her shoulder-length armor of curled tresses, this wildness of hair gone to silver and straw, and she is powerful, in scenes of strength and precognition, but later in those of loss and befuddlement and rage as well.

Polley’s husband, David Wharnsby, edited the picture, and they traffic in a shattered temporal scheme of great acuity, understated yet blissfully right for a story about losing grip of memory. One is reminded of her co-producer Atom Egoyan’s experiments in movies like The Sweet Hereafter,09_300dpi.jpgin which she acted, but Polley and Wharnsby work with a deft, even effortless touch, more like Alain Resnais’ early films like Last Year at Marienbad. Of course a movie about memory’s synaptic reaches and catches ought to be fractured!
Yet the movie, with its maturity and grace, never announces itself as “art.” Like most Canadian filmmakers, Polley is not afraid of profanity, and there is a great scene where a young woman, younger than Polley’s own 28, observes Grant as he observes Fiona across the room, now obsessed with another patient at the nursing home. Even when she introduces a character that could be a stand-in for expectations of a young, female director, she does so with humor and lived-in gusto. There’s even a terrific, recurring hockey gag I won’t give away, and you have to love a resident who admires Grant as a “charmer,” and further reflects, “At this age, it’s a real clusterfuck, all the charmers are taken. Or dead. Mostly dead.” (When Fiona’s disinhibition rises, she’s given lines like “People want to be in love every day. What a liability!” And Polley hints deftly at Grant’s past indiscretions by having Fiona reflect on his many female students, “All those sandals, all those bare female toes, Grant…”)
The couple has been together for over four decades. Resentments have been tamped, if not banked. Fiona and Grant seem genteel, characters who would read Alice Munro aloud to each other, as they do Louis MacNeice and W. H. Auden’s travelogue “Letters from Iceland” and Michael Ondaatje’s heart-dashing poem, “The Cinnamon Peeler“: “When we swam once/ I touched you in the water/ and our bodies remained free,/ you could hold me and be blind of smell./ You climbed the bank and said/ this is how you touch other women… / And you searched your arms/ for the missing perfume.” Polley imports only a few of those lines, yet the film is as much an adaptation of those words as of Munro’s. Away From Her—a title drawn from within the short story that quietly 10_300dpi.jpgshakes the rafters when it is spoken aloud and illuminated in the picture—is also discernibly an actor’s work, rich with reflective pauses, faces caught in consideration, the simple in-between-ness of the human pause.
Polley’s been promoting the hell out of this movie, in hopes of many more to come, and recent profiles keyed to the film’s release such as Karina Onstad’s in The New York Times, have made ready pop-psych out of her life story, which includes childhood scoliosis and as a result, steel rods in her back for life. (Julie Christie, I will grant, has said that Polley is much more mature than she and that she loves the insistent metaphor of Polley’s spine alongside her gentle demeanor to reflect her gifts as a director.) But Polley’s doggedness is unmistakable. This is the sort of movie that can smash the heart to bits and 116 minutes later, piece it back together, filling the room with more oxygen than you can stand. There are moments of fathomless lucidity and grace.
Every film upon the face of creation could end profitably with one of two images: the flat horizon beyond the sea or the turn of a woman‘s face toward or away from the camera (as at the end of Godard’s A bout de soufflé or in paintings by Gerhard Richter), turning her neck to evade or engage a gaze. Polley understands both iconic gestures in her closing shot. Her potential is great and Away From Her is just so measured, so tender, so kind, so very, very good. (Lionsgate’s official site is here.) [Ray Pride]

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“Roger Ebert claimed that the re-editing of The Brown Bunny after Cannes allowed him a difference of opinion so vast that he first called it the worst film in history and eventually gave it a thumbs up. This is both far fetched and an outright lie. The truth is, unlike the many claims that the unfinished film that showed at Cannes was 24 minutes shorter than the finished film, it was only 8 minutes shorter. The running time I filled out on the Cannes submission form was arbitrary. The running time I chose was just a number I liked. I had no idea where in the process I would actually be when I needed to stop cutting to meet the screening deadline. So whatever running time was printed in the program, I promise you, was not the actual running time. And the cuts I made to finish the film after Cannes were not many. I shortened the opening race scene once I was able to do so digitally. After rewatching the last 4 minutes of the film over and over again, somewhere within those 4 minutes, I froze the picture and just ended the film there, cutting out everything after that point, which was about 3 minutes. Originally in the salt flats scene, the motorcycle returned from the white. I removed the return portion of that shot, which seemed too literal. And I cut a scene of me putting on a sweater. That’s pretty much it. Plus the usual frame here, frame there, final tweaks. If you didn’t like the unfinished film at Cannes, you didn’t like the finished film, and vice versa. Roger Ebert made up his story and his premise because after calling my film literally the worst film ever made, he eventually realized it was not in his best interest to be stuck with that mantra. Stuck with a brutal, dismissive review of a film that other, more serious critics eventually felt differently about. He also took attention away from what he actually did at the press screening. It is outrageous that a single critic disrupted a press screening for a film chosen in main competition at such a high profile festival and even more outrageous that Ebert was ever allowed into another screening at Cannes. His ranting, moaning and eventual loud singing happened within the first 20 minutes, completely disrupting and manipulating the press screening of my film. Afterwards, at the first public screening, booing, laughing and hissing started during the open credits, even before the first scene of the film. The public, who had heard and read rumors about the Ebert incident and about me personally, heckled from frame one and never stopped. To make things weirder, I got a record-setting standing ovation from the supporters of the film who were trying to show up the distractors who had been disrupting the film. It was not the cut nor the film itself that drew blood. It was something suspicious about me. Something offensive to certain ideologues.”
~ Vincent Gallo

“I think [technology has[ its made my life faster, it’s made the ability to succeed easier. But has that made my life better? Is it better now than it was in the eighties or seventies? I don’t think we are happier. Maybe because I’m 55, I really am asking these questions… I really want to do meaningful things! This is also the time that I really want to focus on directing. I think that I will act less and less. I’ve been doing it for 52 years. It’s a long time to do one thing and I feel like there are a lot of stories that I got out of my system that I don’t need to tell anymore. I don’t need to ever do The Accused again! That is never going to happen again! You hit these milestones as an actor, and then you say, ‘Now what? Now what do I have to say?'”
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