AFF Day Seven: Poetry in Motion

Over the course of seven days, I've developed a bit of a routine around my festival attendance. I wake up thinking about the films from the previous day. I head downtown, walking through the Public Gardens, making sure to take a different path each time. I sit at Smiling Goat, the café nearest the cinemas, and write a post just like this one. Then, of course, I watch more movies, restarting the cycle. Call it mundane or call it meditative, some of yesterday's films hit me on a similar wavelength.

 
The Rehearsal (Alison Maclean)

The Rehearsal (Alison Maclean)

 

Transformation is the heart of drama. It's what makes the coming-of-age formula so appealing as a plot, so much so that writers tend to forget that it doesn't have to apply just to adolescence. In The Rehearsal, Alison Maclean's adaptation of a novel by New Zealand author Eleanor Catton, a well-regarded drama school serves as the background for the metamorphoses of young adults training to become professional actors. It's a sort of thespian puberty, emphasized by Maclean and her cast through awkward framing and line deliveries that slowly grow more confident as the students develop into layered, performative versions of themselves (do they sound like teenagers yet?). The script and performances are as much about what isn't being said as what is, especially in the case of standout James Rolleston, who plays the main character, Stanley, from the eyes outward. Stanley's relationship with a younger girl whose family is tangled up in a highly-publicized scandal adds layers about the line between truth and fiction and asks how, as an actor, do you choose whose story gets told? It's one part deadpan Kiwi humour, one part Whiplash, and one part creative ethics, a procedural post-coming-of-age pleasure.

 
Chicken People (Nicole Lucas Haimes)

Chicken People (Nicole Lucas Haimes)

 

Did you know that breeding chickens can be a competitive endeavour? I grew up in a rural town, so I guess I knew somewhere in the back of my mind, filed away with other mindless facts like how many varieties of blueberries can be grown in Nova Scotia (it's over 30). What I didn't know was that, in the United States, there are roughly 230 competitions annually. At each show, up to 10,000 birds in one of 154 different breeds are judged on how well they fit the Standard of Perfection, a set of breeding and grooming guidelines that are more than 100 years old. Forget white meat or dark; Nicole Lucas Haimes' documentary Chicken People wants to teach us about the real world of poultry and the people who raise them. She tracks three subjects — Shari, Brian, and Brian — as they prepare to head to Ohio for the biggest feathery face-offs of the year. The trailer draws on the goodnatured humour of the film to such an extent that it looks like these fanatics might end up as the butt of a Christopher Guest-like joke, but Haimes is much more compassionate in her execution. Through their stories, we learn about the different modes and purposes of passion and obsession: Shari needed an immersive hobby to steer her clear of her alcoholism, one Brian uses the farm work as a way to connect with his father, and one was simply raised to find something you love and never to stop short of perfection. Their interest is infectious, aided by informatively edited segments from the shows and lots of cut scenes displaying the chickens as living works of art. The topic may be insubstantial, but examining the peculiarities and cachés of human culture will always place a documentary above more common "message movie" fare for me.

 
Paterson (Jim Jarmusch)

Paterson (Jim Jarmusch)

 

Speaking of peculiarities, they're a noted specialty of Jim Jarmusch, who hasn't changed his tune a bit with his latest, Paterson. Adam Driver stars as Paterson, a bus driver in Paterson, New Jersey, and the winking doesn't stop there. Paterson lives a quiet life with his girlfriend, writing poetry in a "secret" notebook during spare moments. She's an artist too, but she can't seem to slow down and focus on a single pursuit, always looking for a new angle that will bring her fame and fortune (or, ultimately, fulfillment). It befits her, then, that she always appears in black and white to match her monochromatic project-of-the-week, be it paintings, or cupcakes, or shower curtains. In contrast, the blue of Paterson's work uniform matches the blue of his lunchbox, the tips of his matches, and the waterfall where he goes to scribble his thoughts at lunch — his life is in balance. Somehow, thanks to Jarmusch's dreamy magic touch, none of this is nearly as pat and obvious in the film as it sounds to describe it. Driver is fantastic as a silent observer, making the tiniest of expressions into a performance that steals every scene. The relaxed cinematography offers a truthful view of the city; as buildings roll by in the reflection of the front window of the bus, you're left with a strong sense of how Paterson must see each day. In one poem, Paterson muses on a line from an old song, positing that "Would you rather be a fish?" is evocative enough on its own that the rest of the song need not even exist. Jarmusch has achieved the same contented minimalism with this film: no scene needs to be there, but you'll be glad that they are.

 
Below Her Mouth (April Mullen)

Below Her Mouth (April Mullen)

 

After a movie about simply watching, it was the audience's turn to become the voyeurs. Below Her Mouth, the latest feature from Canadian director April Mullen, goes beyond the typical intimate observances of its whirlwind romance plot and gets downright physical — in case you weren't sure what to expect upon entering the theatre, the film starts with an orgasm and builds from there. Erika Linder and Natalie Krill respectively star as Dallas, a roofer, and Jasmine, a fashion editor. The two meet at a bar and, though Jasmine is engaged and initially persistent in turning down Dallas' advances, the stereotype of the predatory lesbian converting the straight girl wins out and a spark of passion ignites between the two. The film is wonderfully shot, and the two women look great cavorting around sunny Toronto, dancing under neon red lights, or having very graphic sex in apartments that wouldn't be out of place in a design magazine. Mullen has stated that she was very concerned with authenticity in a queer relationship and with representing the female gaze, and she does a lot in terms of visuals and choreography to overcome a clunky script that feels too tidy about sexual orientation and repression. In fact, their romance might even work better as a silent movie, with the existing sleepy score adding an ethereal ambience. The real triumph of the film is that it was made with an entirely female crew, a simply miraculous feat in a completely inequitable industry (a post-screening Q&A unearthed a funny story about how the only man on set left the toilet seat up on his first day). I'm on board with everything Mullen and her crew are trying here, and I hope that they can continue making films that cash in on the promise shown in the elements from Below Her Mouth that didn't materialize.

Sadly, tomorrow will be my last daily recap of the 2016 Atlantic Film Festival. The menu includes Kate Plays Christine and major awards contender Manchester By The Sea.