The Vancouver International Film Festival is gem of a deal for Vancouver cinephiles. Hundreds of films, dozens of genres and subjects represented, and little of the over-the-top celebrity culture that crowds life and creates long lineups at Toronto and Cannes.
I usually make a point of looking out for any films with overtly ‘city’ or urban themes. There are some fabulous examples of cities playing a central role in movies, not just as settings for the action, but as subject matter, as a key referrent or metaphor, or even (if I can use personification in this sense) as a character. Metropolis by Fritz Lang, and Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg are two that come to mind. The cities are the story in these two films.
This past Sunday I caught up with a couple of mid-length movies that were screening as a double-bill at the VanCity theatre.
The first, The Indian Boundary Line by Thomas Comerford (2010), serves as a 42 minute reflection on Rogers Avenue in Chicago, formerly the “Indian Boundary Road” that marked the division of territory between the United States and Indian Territory. The road was renamed after Phillip Rogers, an early homesteader, farmer and developer, and has long since been absorbed into metropolitan Chicago (it sits at the northeast end of the city, near Evanston).
Using a combination of period records, recreated maps and a scratchy technique of rough edits and breaks, Comerford’s film circles around the theme of colonization, relating aspects of settler interactions with the Pottawattomie and other tribes, the treaty process, and the ultimate conversion of these dispossessed lands into an unassuming street punctuated by ‘proteced’ parks and golf courses. The idea of the old highway as a boundary, a marker of power, is here eroded by the passing of years and the erasure of history – a process that erodes aboriginal and settler history alike, burying old villages with the same ease as it shunts a once stately heritage plaque out of sight, burying it behind a dull-coloured postal box.
The idea of erosion is picked up in Thom Andersen’s Get Out of the Car (Canada, 2010, 34 mins). More of a slideshow than a movie, Get Out is an archival work, serving to record the faded patina, peeling paint and broken signs of Los Angeles. Accompanied by a fine soundtrack (a jukebox of hits from the same 1940s-1980s period as the film’s visual subjects), the movie shifts from one site to another, lingering long enough to brush us with the aesthetics of a faded and decaying iconography before moving on. We jump from one vanishing (or vanished) cultural landmark to another. Old taco joints, faded automobile signs, former community gardens – all markers of cultural industry and intent – now engaged in a form of slow fade out.
Both films weave intriguing narratives out of the intersections between place and memory, and the asesthetics of disapearance. It’s a journey in which the viewer is led around without a tourist’s bubble, a guidebook of facts or a Lonely Planet sensibility. The settings of both movies are different from the menu of must-sees (or “hidden gems”) that serve as typical fare for visitors. Quite the opposite. Both focus attention on the sort of places that residents of the areas probably walk by on a daily basis without even noticing.
Of the two, Get Out of the Car holds up better. It succeeds by not lingering to long in any one place, or by saying too much. It allows the viewer to construct his or her own narrative, and to appreciate the sense of transition that ultimately comes to mark neighbourhoods and streets in all cities. In so doing it serves as a form of celebration as well, revealing the subtle mixture of beauty and pathos that can be found in aging icons and peeling paint.
The Indian Boundary Line, by comparison, suffers a bit from more experimental conventions (a long sequence of GIS coordinates, over-reliance on split-screen cameras) and could have benefitted from a bit more time in the editing room. The premise – the role of a road as boundary, the notion of using this linear path to explore the changing face of a space and its inhabitants – is excellent. That being said, a bit more time drawing out these threads, and a bit less time on overwrought technique would have enriched this film, lending it the same sort of maturity as the history it was examining.