Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Muriels Addendum #1: Gone, But Not Forgotten

Yesterday, we recognized Heath Ledger as our choice for the Best Supporting Performance by a Male in 2008. And while Ledger’s turn as the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight was easily our favorite in this category- by a rather decisive margin, I might add- we also thought it appropriate to pay tribute to the entire career of this talented actor, who was taken from us far too soon. Sadly, Ledger wasn’t the only Muriels contender who passed away during the last calendar year. So, with help from my Muriels partner in crime Steven Carlson, I thought it only fair to devote some space to a handful of other late greats who got a little Muriels love from the voters- three very different performers who may be gone, but will now live forever in the cinema.

Ann Savage, 1921-2008

It's about having presence. Ann Savage was 86 when My Winnipeg was filming. She hadn't appeared in a film since Fire with Fire twenty years prior. Yet from the first shot, from her repeated fiery intonation of, "Was it the boy on the track team or the man with the tire iron?" it's clear why the ever-nostalgic, ever-hindward-facing Guy Maddin chose her to play his surrogate mother in his latest docu-fantastic slice of madness.

What he couldn't have known for sure at the time is that the role would be her last, yet it seems a fitting epitaph. My Winnipeg is among other things a film about the secret lives of things, about unseen influences and the effects of forces beyond our control. Chief among these influences is "Guy Maddin's" mother. For such a role, to do so much with a small slice of screentime, you'd need an actress with forceful, unshakeable presence. Enter Ann Savage, aged but still possessed of a violent temperament. The carnal, castigating brutality of her signature role in Detour (another Muriel voter once exclaimed, "Her performance makes you feel like you just had really rough sex"), with time, evolved into an ice-cold imperiousness even stronger than a Manitoba winter.

Infirm yet iron-willed, her face held in a near-perpetual haughty sneer, Savage is thoroughly convincing as the kind of woman who could tear you apart with naught but a glance, the kind of woman who could inflict the kind of Freudian psychosis that drives Maddin's films. The iconography is obvious and deliberate, and it's to Savage's and Maddin's credit that she successfully plays to her most famed type while also stepping just enough to the side of it so that the whole thing works as a typically Maddin-esque exercise in joyous, fevered deconstruction - finding the truth of things through artifice and ruin.

To that end, there's also fleeting glimpses of tenderness or vulnerability to round out the picture; when she starts a relationship with Maddin's "brother," or when she flails about helplessly in her bed as her beleagured children undertake a cruel act of revenge, the caricature suddenly becomes briefly, honestly human. She's believable as the kind of sneering tyrant who would drive a man to suicide every day for fifty years and just as believable as the kind of woman who could talk - nay, demand - the same man back off that ledge. The film may not be about Savage, but she possesses it. Her ghost haunts it. What a way to go. ~ S.C.

Guillaume Depardieu, 1971-2008

By any indication, Guillaume Depardieu didn't have the easiest life. It's one thing to have a troubled relationship with your father; it's entirely another for him to be one of France's most famous and iconic actors and to have him publicly disown you in a major publication. Lots of people get into motorcycle accidents, but not all of them have a leg voluntarily amputated in the wake of said accident. His was a life marked by equal parts bad luck and bad temper, with his death from pneumonia at the age of 37 marking an especially nasty example of the former.

His death strikes me as untimely not only for his relative youthfulness but for the trajectory his career was taking at the time of his passing. Things were falling into place. He was moving out of his father's formidable shadow, and much of that can be attributed to his exemplary work in Jacques Rivette's The Duchess of Langeais. If it is the artist's job to transmute pain into beauty, if one must suffer for one's work, then what we have here is a master class in the art of sublimation. Depardieu, as war hero Armand, shows us a man who is a seething cauldron of violent emotion locked in a battle of wills with a woman he can never actually have, yet the roil of his desires stays just concealed by his noble, "proper" exterior.

So Depardieu's temper gets channeled into repressed frustration, the threat of an explosion that never comes (even after a midnight abduction of Jeanne Balibar, playing the titular character). His permanent limp becomes an expression of agonized longing, with his every move bearing the pain of a love that circumstances and society will not allow. The love turns to sly gamesmanship, the gamesmanship turns to rage, the rage turns to hatred, the hatred finally becomes grief. What we're watching is practically an exorcism. His steely gaze betrays nothing and gives away everything. Without moving a muscle, Depardieu is tearing himself open. Who is to say where he could have gone from here. Sometimes fate is stupid. ~ S.C.

Fred Knittle, 1925-2009

Stephen Walker’s Young @ Heart isn’t a particularly distinguished documentary. But damn if it didn’t work on me like a charm. You might say that I was primed for it- my grandfather had passed away only a few months before (on the eve of last year’s Muriels), and it had yet to really hit me emotionally.. Additionally, I was in a crucial early stage of my relationship with Angela, which no doubt left my heart somewhat tenderized, albeit in a very good way. Because of these factors, I’m not sure I trust my initial reactions to the film, especially considering how annoyed I was in retrospect by Walker’s use of MTV-style music videos starring his senior citizen-aged subjects.

But amidst it all, there’s still one transcendent scene- Fred Knittle’s rendition of Coldplay’s "Fix You," backed by the rest of the group. More than any other scene I saw this year, this simple, straightforward musical number struck me as the perfect marriage of content and context. The knowledge of the number’s significance not just for Fred but for his fellow Young @ Heart performers goes a long way toward explaining why it works so well. In particular, there’s the idea that the song was originally intended to be a duet with another beloved member of the group, Bob Salvini, who passed away only weeks before the song’s first public performance. In light of the then-recent deaths of Bob and several other Young @ Heart-ers, the lyrics of the song take on an added poignance, especially when he sings of "when you lose someone that you can’t replace."

Not being a Coldplay fan myself, I found myself surprised how much more affecting "Fix You" was when sung by a deep-voiced octogenarian. Could it be that whereas when Chris Martin sings the song it comes off like a fairly standard sensitive ballad, in Fred’s hands it actually sounds like it’s backed up by a lifetime of pain, loss, and regret? In short, Coldplay may have performed it first, but from here on out, it’s Fred who owns the song. To his credit, Walker stays out of the way of the scene, content to behold while Fred and the group weave their spell. As Fred sits, bone-weary, in a chair onstage, the lyrics punctuated by the noise of his respirator, the scene works a rare magic that had me bawling like a baby, one of the few movies in recent years that has gotten me choked up. And even on subsequent viewings, it’s still extremely affecting.

Fred Knittle passed away on New Year’s Day 2009, at the age of 83. Young @ Heart was his only big-screen appearance, but it was more than enough to make a big impression. Farewell Fred, and may lights guide you home. ~ P.C.


Jeff McMahon said...

I love Savage's performance in Detour, nicely done.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

"Could it be that whereas when Chris Martin sings the song it comes off like a fairly standard sensitive ballad, whereas in Fred’s hands it actually sounds like it’s backed up by a lifetime of pain, loss, and regret? In short, Coldplay may have performed it first, but from here on out, it’s Fred who owns the song."

Abso-damn-lutely. Beautiful piece, Paul. Your reservations about the doc are well founded, as is your emotional reaction. RIP, Fred, et al.

Kza said...

Absolutely fantastic job, guys.

If I'd known Savage was in MY WINNIPEG, I mighta made more of an effort.

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