Author: dylanbennettrhys

NOTES FROM FRANCE PT. 2


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Additional excerpts from my journal from last week, our last week in France. More seems to have happened in 2018 so far than in entire previous years…it is odd and exciting. I just signed a lease on a new apartment. Back to the south side. Content to stay in Edmonton for now. There are stories here. And they are ours to tell.

But so France:

Sunday, February 4th

On the train to Clermont-Ferrand. Trains are quiet and just as romantic as you expect. Lizzie sits across from me in her new wool coat, her head resting against the window, her eyes closed restfully as the soggy French countryside drips by. Cozy on the train, the dreary grey of the French winter looks quite beautiful; the fields are still vast and green, the old houses (some no doubt older than all of Canadian civilization) cast their spells on us. 

Lizzie and I have had world-changing conversations over the last few days (as always happens when we travel–everything simmering under the surface of the quotidian has a habit of coming out when you change your surroundings). What an amazing person to be able to get to know. Pride seems an inadequate word. It is a start. 

Friday, February 9th

It’s been a very emotional week. First: feeling overwhelmed, then anxious that I wasn’t doing enough, then nervous about the screening, then very proud of my film–the acting specifically, which after seeing nearly 50 other short films this week I feel confident describing as “world-class”–then incredibly inspired by the other work on display at the festival, then anxious again about how little French I can speak and how every single meal is consequently an adventure, then elated to meet some really talented and beautiful people from Quebec, then sad that now most of them have left, then anxious again about how everything is so expensive in Europe with the Canadian dollar being what it is. Lizzie and I had a stupid fight about money last night. This morning we joked: “Money! Destroying marriages since its inception.”

I think Peak Oil belongs here, but I know I have a lot of work to do if I want to make something that will stand out at a festival like this. I think I know how to do that now, though. The next step for me if to craft something that is truly stunning from a visual storytelling perspective that doesn’t lose the vulnerability I’ve been able to draw from actors since day one. It’s funny: in some ways I was closer to the romantic/impressionistic style of movies I want to make now when I was in film school; I just had no idea who I was or wanted I wanted to make films about. I am excited to get home and get back to work. This festival came at the perfect time.

Sunday, February 11th

We are flying home. It is an odd place, where the desire for a sense of normalcy clashes with an implicit understanding that you are returning to a part of the world that has far less crackling, sizzling energy than where we’ve been. Always there is a hope that you bring some of the lightning of other places home with you, that the essence of what you admire about another place somehow might have woven itself into your clothing, and when you get home you can dress yourself with it. Like the cliché about the teacher who learns more from her pupils, the true value of traveling is often not what you see or do while you’re away, but how it informs what you see and do when you get back. 

We picked up a copy of Vincent Van Gogh’s letters from the book store at the Museé d’Orsay. This was written by Vincent in a letter to his brother Theo in 1878, before he had given himself over completely to the idea of becoming an artist. At this point, he was still convinced the he would find his place in the church, like his father before hime. But I think his words betray an insight into the nature of people and a belief in a truly spiritual vocation that organized religion could never hope to satisfy or employ correctly (as Van Gogh clearly must have decided himself):

“It is good to love as many things as one can, for therein lies true strength, and those who love much do much and accomplish much, and whatever is done with love is done well. If one is affected by some book or other…then it is because that book was written from the heart in simplicity and meekness of spirit. Better to say but a few words, but filled with meaning, than to speak many that are but idle sounds and as easy to utter as they are useless.

Love is the best and the noblest thing int he human heart, especially when it is tested by life as gold is tested by fire. Happy is he who has loved much, and is sure of himself, and although he may have wavered and doubted, he has kept that divine spark alive and returned to what was in the beginning and ever shall be.”

 

Until next time.

Dylan – Edmonton, AB

 

 

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NOTES FROM FRANCE PT. 1


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Over the next few days I want to post some excerpts from what I scribbled down in my journal as Lizzie and I made our way through Paris and hopped a train to the 40th Festival du Court Metrage Clermont-Ferrand (Clermont-Ferrand Short Film Festival, the largest festival in the world dedicated exclusively to shorts) where Peak Oil screened out of competition as part of Telefilm Canada’s Canada: Not Short On Talent showcase. The screening was sold out; the filmmakers who were attending their own screening had to sit on the floor.

It was my first time at a film festival of this scale. It was definitely overwhelming at first. So many people clambering for attention, gasping and reaching for anything resembling a leg up. An air of real desperation in the place. For me: a feeling like I didn’t belong and I didn’t know what I was doing. Like if I knew better or was smarter or more charming I could’ve sold my film or formed a career-changing relationship relationship with a producer. But these were not my goals, not this time, not with barely one foot in the door. My goals were to see as many short films as I could and to meet new filmmakers from across Canada and around the world. To see how my film measured up against the best short films the world has to offer, and what I need to do in the future to make a film that will truly stand out in a place like Clermont-Ferrand. In short: to learn. And I learned. I learned so much.

Friday, February 2nd

In Paris for a few days with Lizzie before we catch a train down to Clermont-Ferrand for the festival. Sitting at a small café across the street from the Museé d’Orsay where we’ve just taken in a number of paintings by Van Gogh, Maximilien Luce, Vallaton, others. My relationship with visual art is entirely different than when I was last here ten years ago. The influence of fine art on cinematography is slowly unfolding for me–I’m beginning to see with the eyes of a visual thinker now, nearly a decade into making movies. Also have a completely different understanding of/appreciation for the subjects these painters decided to portray. How much of Van Gogh’s work is pastoral, for example, or how Luce and the neo-impressionists were committed to humanism while still hoping to preserve a sense of poetry, and how this manifests in their portraits of working people and factories. In short: there is so much to learn, such a surprising amount of overlap in the reverent approach of these painters’ representations of blue-collar life in the late 19th/early 20th Centuries and the way that I’d like to photograph Edmonton. That has been the most unexpected part of this trip so far: the degree to which I find myself inspired to return to my wheelhouse, my under-photographed little corner of the world…

We walk everywhere. The way traffic works here both puzzles and astounds us. My French is enough to get us from place to place and order food and coffee without (seemingly) alienating the entire Parisian service industry. Nice to be here in the winter when there are demonstrably fewer tourists, but it’s definitely colder than either of us expected. The wet sort of cold that softens you just enough for the wind to rip through your bones…

Lizzie wears her red scarf around her shoulders like a shawl. Her face is striking, like out of one of those paintings we’ve just seen. Cigarette smoke wafts in from the street and I do not want to go back out into the cold. 

 

Until next time.

Dylan – Edmonton, AB

 

LETTERS


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As my wife noted on her blog earlier this week, I used to maintain that I knew nothing about poetry. Despite what Lizzie might say about my lyrics from years ago, I think that was mostly true. Before I met Lizzie, I hadn’t really opened a book of poetry since university (unless it was specifically handed to me by Joe Gurba). I used to have some ridiculous line about how poetry intentionally obfuscated emotion, that there was therefore something dishonest about it. I can only think that this must have been some kind of defence mechanism against opening myself up to something tender and real. Now, though, I live with a poet, and there are these incredible volumes lying around the apartment. I trip over them and they fall open and draw me in. The opposite of reading the morning news is to read a poem with breakfast. Instead of feeling angry and disappointed with all the potential we are collectively wasting as a species with our petty, materialistic conflicts, you will remember why you woke up in the first place.

In October, 2016, Lizzie and I had just returned from a trip through California. We had driven from Edmonton to Los Angeles, then up the coast all the way to Vancouver and back through the Rocky Mountains. Now back in my hometown, I was wandering the streets, trying to rediscover something, anything, romantic or even interesting about it. It’s common to experience a hatred or boredom with where you live after you get back from weeks away. I was facing the challenge by taking pictures, carrying my camera everywhere like a tourist. I walked to a favourite coffee shop, taking photos the whole way, searching for some undiscovered layer in my city waiting to be exposed, if I could only peel back the outer skin. At the coffee shop, I ran into an old friend who said “everyone should write poems.” I had never even thought about it. Then I wrote two or three that week. It was an unprecedented revelation for me: that it is possible to create without a camera or a crew or even a melody. I would simply scribble away, then later type these sparse phrases out and email them to Lizzie.

Just over a year later, we have a little volume of the poems we’ve emailed back and forth to one another. We called it LETTERS and you can buy it here.  Here is one written by me to perhaps pique your interest. The first poem I sent to Lizzie.

yesterday

your face is all screwed up

I can see you’ve spent the day

chewing your nails and

picking at your face sadistically

not because you’ve forgotten how to sing

but because in spite of profound resonance

and even earthquakes

plate tectonics shift too slightly

to be noticed in your lifetime

 

Until next time.

Dylan – Edmonton, AB

 

RAINY DAY WITH ELLA


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Some people believe in reincarnation. That there is a soul and it moves from body to body. That there are old souls who have experienced perhaps dozens of lifetimes and new souls who have experienced only a handful.

I think the greatest case to be made in favour of this view comes when you meet someone so wise beyond their years that you feel this can’t possibly be their first go-around. I remember feeling this way when I met Ella. If you haven’t heard her sing, you should listen. 

In the summer, we were going to make a little movie to coincide with the release of her latest project. But for a variety of reasons (mostly involving complete burn-out on my end), we didn’t manage to get together more than once. The other day I came across the footage from the one afternoon we hung out at her house while the camera rolled, and decided to just cut something simple out of that. A brief portrait of one rainy day in May. Mostly we talked in the kitchen while Ella did the dishes and her roommate Layne recorded a song in the basement. With all the noise you can barely hear what she’s saying, but that’s why you should listen closely. I think we could all stand to do less talking and more listening.

Hope you enjoy.

 

Until next time.

Dylan – Edmonton, AB

ON HAVING A DOG


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Having a dog is good for your mental health because he is always excited to see you and it becomes impossible to deny that your existence is meaningful.

Having is dog is bad for your mental health because if the dog is upset or behaving badly, you will feel responsible. The dog will become a manifestation of your complete and utter failure to do anything competently, let alone well.

Having a dog is good for your mental health because he will get you up early and make you go outside. Once you are outside, you will remember that the world is beautiful and that majestic phenomena like sunrises happen every day. You may pass an old Chinese lady on the street and even though you don’t speak her language, she will smile at you. She will smile because your dog is very friendly and loves people indiscriminately, and the way his tail wags so aggressively that the momentum starts to contort his entire torso will make anyone smile. This transcendence of cultural and language barriers will make you feel more connected to the human race and would not have happened if you had been on the same street at the same time but without the dog. The dog has therefore reminded you that you are not alone because he would not let you hide in your little room with your books and ideas and computers and pornography and whatever else. The dog even helpfully barks at you when you start to pay attention to your smartphone instead of the living things around you, like the dog.

Having a dog is bad for your mental health because after a while you will feel like you will never get any work done ever again, because all you do now is walk the dog, feed the dog, and pay attention to the dog. And you absolutely have to work because you are broke and you have already spent too much money making sure that the dog has everything he needs, like vaccines and things to chew on that are not your friends or your friends’ things. And you are afraid all the time because you know from listening to other people’s dog stories that it is only a matter of time before your dog chases a squirrel and slips on some ice and requires knee surgery, and you won’t be able to afford the knee surgery so you’ll either have to put the dog down or subject it to a lifetime of perpetual knee pain. You’ll probably even have to put the euthanasia on your credit card – you can’t even to afford to kill your dog humanely. This must really make you a monster. The vet will look at you with a hatred and condescension that will say “what business did you have adopting a dog in the first place if you couldn’t even pay me thousands of dollars to perform a routine knee surgery? You are the scum of the earth!”

Having a dog is good for your mental health because he will ease the gruesome banality of running errands. You used to think it was awfully inefficient and time-consuming and a bit of an indulgence to take over an hour to walk to the grocery store and back, but now it is a two-birds-one-stone situation because the dog needs a walk anyway! This will make you feel very good about your time-management skills. The potential to brighten the days of old ladies (Chinese or otherwise) and/or anyone else on the way to grocery store simply by occupying the same block while attached to a cute dog will make you feel twice as good. Perhaps you will meet a handsome carpenter who is also out walking their dog, and the two of you will talk about the way masculinity is changing and how difficult it is to truly stop believing in God when the world offers you so few comforting alternatives.

Having a dog is bad for your mental health because he may bark at you or even bite you because you have failed to provide any other puppies to play with on the trail today. This will make you frustrated and angry, and in the case of an especially bad bite on the angle or knee cap it may even initiate a fight-or-flight response that you will have to suppress, because you do not wish to be the sort of person who beats their dog.

Having a dog is good for your mental health because you will learn that if you are calm and compassionate towards the dog and you refuse to match his excitement with anger, the dog will eventually acquiesce and go back to happily jaunting through the snow without you. This will teach you a valuable lesson about dealing with all sorts of situations in life that involve people, not just dogs.

Having a dog is bad for your mental health because you and your wife have made your apartment look and feel just the way you like it, and you have filled it with all sorts of furniture and Criterion boxsets and your dog does not care about any of these things in the least. For example: the dog will not clean up after himself. He will just go about happily coating the entire house from floor to ceiling in strands of coarse black hair that your wife, in an imitation of Sisyphus, will dutifully try her best to lint-roll into oblivion on a Saturday morning, even though she’s exhausted from her shift at the bar the night before. When you leave the dog alone, free of the kennel you couldn’t afford last month, he will react by very calmly destroying everything he can fit his jaw around. You were the first one who wanted the dog, so you will feel responsible for bringing this apocalyptic terror, this reign of chaos down upon your home.

Having a dog is good for your mental health because you will be forced to confront the reality that you love the dog more than the cover of the booklet that came with your Three Colours trilogy boxset. More, even, than that perfect pair of ’80s style high-top sneakers you found at Value Village last year. Once you make this realization, a certain Buddhist-like detachment from the trappings of materialism will wash over you. You will realize that things that are warm like hair and slobber and blood and feces are signs of life, while things that are cold like tables and chairs and couches and floors are not.

You will want to err on the side of slobber and blood. You will want to be alive.

 

Dylan – Edmonton, AB

EMPATHY MACHINE


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When Roger Ebert was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame, he said “movies are the most powerful empathy machine in all the arts.”

I believe this too. I think it is the most important thing about movies. Much more than their aesthetic or commercial value, although I enjoy these aspects as well and do not wish to diminish them.

My friend Aerlan and I have been talking a lot about filmmaking as ethnography lately. Technically, an ethnography is a “scientific description of the customs of individual peoples and cultures.” [New Oxford American Dictionary] A film, you could argue, is an artistic description of the same. There are, of course, what are defined as “ethnographic films:” usually observational documentaries detailing the practices of non-Western/developing cultures. This is not what we mean. What we are interested is this sentiment, expressed by Ebert in that same address: “When I go to a great movie I can live somebody else’s life for a while. I can walk in somebody else’s shoes. I can see what it feels like to be a member of a different gender, a different race, a different economic class, to live in a different time, to have a different belief.” It is bizarre, but in a way it is undeniable that fiction can present a less alienating path to understanding than documentary. I think this has to do with a greater opportunity on the part of the fiction filmmaker to design and curate the experience of the audience. With this in mind, one must be careful not to become didactic, not to present an ‘issues’ picture where a specific and carefully calculated agenda is shoved down an audience’s throat. This is bad art, because good art inevitably, crucially, unbearably asks more questions than it answers. As Aerlan writes in a paper called Time, Empathy and Movement: Ethnographic Film Methodology: “the process of the ethnographer [filmmaker] is to design an experience that will allow the possibility for interpretation. To find a subject worth examining, by considering it as something impossible to examine in any other medium but the one they work in.”

This last sentence is of particular interest to me because screenwriting textbooks and seminars are always instructing you to make sure that the screenplay you are writing is essentially and irrevocably ‘cinematic.’ By that I mean that the medium of cinema is essential to the storytelling, that it could not be told any other way. People like Robert McKee go out of their way to disparage those art house films with long takes of their introspective protagonists staring out the window or something. “Why does this have to be a movie?” they ask (ironically, so does Charlie Kaufman at the end of this speech he gave at BAFTA). “If the story is about what is going on inside a character’s head, why isn’t it a novel?” The answer is empathy. Empathy is what happens when we see close-up shot of Juliette Binoche in Trois Couleurs: Blue and because we are not told what to think about it, we start to ask ourselves: “what could she be thinking?” In this way we are invited to, as Aerlan writes, “participate in the experience of the film, triggering [our] emotions, thoughts and perspective.”

‘Why does this have to be a movie?’ Because of what happens when we look at another person’s face. Louis C.K. talks about why it’s easier for kids to be shitty to one another on the internet: because they don’t have to look at the other person’s face. Cassavetes called an entire film Faces because he knew what maybe not all screenwriters do: that an actor’s face in a single shot can sometimes tell a better story than you could ever write. This ability of the actor when permitted is, to me, the most cinematic trait of all. More than any set piece. More than any crane shot or lighting. And I love all that stuff, that romantic aspect of filmmaking and film watching. But when forced to confront that very pertinent and expensive question: ‘why does this story have to be told as a movie,’ when the story in question is more slice-of-life, more ethnography than space opera, I will continue to invoke Ebert’s empathy paradigm and stand behind it ardently. This is more than enough of a justification for any story or style, especially in the modern discursive landscape of divisive vitriol.

A final word from Ebert on the subject: “The great movies enlarge us, they civilize us, they make us more decent people.”

Amen.

Until next time.

Dylan – Edmonton, AB

FELLINI’S TRUTH


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I’ve never really cared for Fellini’s films. I’ve only seen the big ones: La Dolce Vita and 8 1/2. I enjoy them, but they’re never the kind of movie that get me personally excited about movies or making movies as a concept, though they seem to really light a fire for other people. Which is fine! I’m not about to dispute the talent, vivacity, and splendour on display in a Fellini film. It’s simply a matter of personal taste. The world could use a lot more peaceful disagreement, don’t you think?

Anyway, all that said, I just discovered a gem of an interview with Fellini from a 1966 issue of Playboy that has me wondering whether he might actually be one of my favourite social theorists and I’ve just never known it. (Small aside: In the introduction to the interview, he’s described as “bedaubing and bedizening his cinematic canvas with giddy abandon,” which still doesn’t make me want to watch his movies but certainly had me excited to read more about them.) I’ll let Federico take it from here:

“In 8 1/2, society’s norms and rules imprisoned Guido in his boyhood with a sense of guilt and frustration. From childhood many of us are conditioned by a similar education. Then, growing up, we find ourselves in profound conflict — a conflict created by having been taught to idealize our lives, to pursue aesthetic and ethical ideals of absolute good or evil. This imposes impossible standards and unattainable aspirations that can only impede the spontaneous growth of a normal human being, and may conceivably destroy [them]. You must have experienced this yourself. There arrives a moment in life when you discover that what you’ve been told at home, in school or in church is simply not true. You discover that it binds your authentic self, your instinct, you true growth. And this opens up a schism, creates a conflict that must eventually be resolved — or succumbed to. In all forms of neurosis there is this clash between certain forms of idealization in a moral sense a contrary aesthetic form.

It all started with the Greeks when they enshrined a classical standard of physical beauty. A man who did not correspond to that type of beauty felt himself excluded, inferior, an outsider. Then came Christianity, which established an ethical beauty. This doubled man’s problems by creating the dual possibility that he was neither beautiful as a Greek god nor holy as a Catholic one. Inevitably, you were guilty of either nonbeauty or unsaintliness, and probably both. So you lived in disgrace: Man did not love you, nor did God; thus you remained outside of life.”

And this is what he had to say about marriage in the 1960s that would (sadly) still be considered radical now:

“Marriage as an institution needs re-examining. We live with too many nonfunctioning ideologies. Modern [people need] richer relationships…The tragedy of modern [people] is that [they] need a multiplicity of individual relationships, whereas, at least in the culture in which I live, [they are] still forced into a single-mated world. Without it, [their lives] could develop into something interesting, into a higher evolution.”

Trying to do just that, Rico. It’s not without its challenges, of course. We’ll keep you posted.

This interview appears in a collected anthology of interviews with film directors in Playboy over the years, and they’re all terrifically candid, enviable conversations. I mentioned it to my dad and he said it’s because Playboy had the $$$ to hire the best writers. Makes sense! Certainly their track record with fiction is well known. Also, back in the day it seems like an interview for a magazine feature was expected to last upwards of ten hours over a few days; Lizzie‘s lucky if she can get someone on the phone for 20 minutes.  There are no pictures at all in the collection, so afterwards you can unironically tell people that you do in fact read Playboy exclusively for the articles.

I am experiencing a resurgence of confidence lately and hope to be writing all the time. Look for more here should you so desire. ❤

Until next time and I hope you’re well.

Dylan – Edmonton, AB