13 December 2008

Passchendaele


Passchendaele was the film that opened this year's Toronto International Film Festival. I just saw it for the first time last night with the ever-cinematic J-A. I'm not too interested in trying to critique it properly, but I just spent an hour and a half going over the reviews and the IMDB discussion boards, and there are a few points I feel haven't been covered yet by the chattering masses.

I deliberately waited until Passchendaele came to the Fox Theatre in the Beach. This had nothing to do with the endemic Torontonian laziness of not wanting to hike to another neighbourhood for something. The theatre opened in 1914, the same year that Canada entered the war Passchendaele is set in, and has been showing films since then. It supposedly has a stage behind the projection screen, although I've never seen it used. Passchendaele is shot like one would expect a film in 2008 to look like, but I wanted as much connection with the time period as I could get.

I got a root beer to go with my popcorn as a nod to Snoopy's WWI beverage of choice, and then J-A and I settled into the seats and admired the theatre's recent renovations. Then we waited some more. I did some sock knitting , and J-A worked on a scarf. We joked about how we were carrying on the traditions of the first women to watch films in this theatre. Then one of the staff members went to the front of the theatre and explained that the projectionist hadn't arrived yet, but the projectionist's union had been called and one was on his way. During the wait, people joked and talked. The staff members who came in to give us updates were gently heckled, but the hecklers were heckled back by other members of the audience, so no-one got irate.

The film finally started just under half an hour late. If you want a proper review, go ahead and Google some. These are just some of my impressions:
  • I liked that the film pointed out that Canada was already multicultural by Edwardian times. I say this as a Canadian of Dutch/Croatian/Hungarian/German/who-knows-what-else descent who is sick to the teeth of only seeing characters of British, French, and First Nations ethnicity in dramas (I know many First Nations people have some bones to pick about how they're depicted, but they can explain that themselves far better than I'll ever be able to). In Passchendaele, a major part of the plot is driven by the conflict between being a born-and-bred Canadian and being of an ethnicity at war with the British Empire. It sounds weird, but it was refreshing to see that on the screen and up-front.
  • For me, one of the most important scenes is the very brief one that takes place near the end, where someone delivers a live chicken to a platoon and tells them they'll have to kill and pluck it themselves if they want it for dinner. The soldier who is holding the chicken shrugs, breaks its neck in a single deft movement, and gives it to someone else for plucking. When another soldier teases him on his skill, he cracks a joke about how it's what he would do at home. A few minutes later we watch the same platoon killing German soldiers with guns, knives, bayonets, rocks... It's the first time I've ever seen on film, especially a Canadian film, something I remember being told in history class: one of the reasons that Canadians were such effective troops in the Great War was because they were farmers — they had learned how to kill in the barnyard and the slaughter-house, and they knew it for what it was, unadorned and unromanticised.
  • I noticed a lot on the message boards on how "hokey" or "corny" the dialogue was, with some people even claiming the acting was bad. Dealing with the latter criticism first: ever seen films from this time period? They look ridiculous and melodramatic now, but at the time were praised for their naturalistic acting. Conventions change, and so do people's behaviours. At one time people really did "pull their hair out" when they were frustrated; now we just say it as a colloquialism.

    As for the dialogue: funny how people are criticising the dialogue using words that would have been popular at the time. Of course it's going to sound silly and old-fashioned — it's from ninety years ago! Give it another fify years and the language will be foreign-sounding enough that it won't grate. Right now it makes us uncomfortable because it's close to how we speak, but not close enough.
  • A lot of discussion has been made of how too much time is spent on the "home front," and not enough on the battlefield. From what I remember of the eyewitness accounts I studied in school, trench warfare alternates between mind-numbing boredom and mind-numbing terror and chaos. Either way, showing early automobiles vie for road space alongside horse and buggies is more cinematically interesting. Besides, there's some scenes in the film where different characters talk about how the war is everywhere, not just "over there". If you're just sitting there waiting to see a scene where someone shoots someone else, you're going to miss out on that.
  • There was also a certain amount of noise on the forums about how there's no big hero's ending at the film. I'm glad. If there had been, it would have contradicted the point that although people did incredibly heroic things and behaved with honour... they shouldn't have needed to. One point I saw being made in the film that I was glad to see was that the people who make the rules and the people who live under them are so far apart in viewpoint it's nearly impossible for them to really communicate at all. Without giving out too many spoilers: the main character gets a medal for the very event which gives him shell-shock. It turns out the persistent rumour of a certain German "atrocity" is a misinterpretation of an honourable gesture. And so on.
The Fox is a theatre you have to learn how to attend to fully enjoy. This is true for all cinemas, but as Canadian life has changed since 1914, so have our cinemas. Along with the 1914 ambiance, they have a 1914 heating system (probably upgraded at least once, but it still works like it's ninety years old, and I love it for that). It was about -10C outside, and maybe 17C inside. I knew ahead of time, and was perfectly comfy in my winter boots and handmade cardigan. Being a chronic anaemic, my fingers get cold easily, especially when I sit still for long periods of time, and I had to stuff them into the one sock I already had finished. The toe is shaped according to a design Lord Kitchener invented during the Great War, which has since become the standard in British Commonwealth nations and the US.

I'm glad I saw Passchendaele in an Edwardian theatre, on a cold day, with my sock knitting. Films are always more about what you bring to them than what they bring to you. The "here we are, now entertain us" crowd needs to be taught that level of engagement, or else "twitches" and "jolts" are all that are ever going to get through to them.

If you feel like going to the movies this weekend and live anywhere at all near Toronto, try to make it to the Fox.

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