INTERVIEW: Andrew Gutman curates UP NORTH & UNDERGROUND at Close-Up

In the second of a new series of posts with our friends at Close-Up Film Centre, RADIANT CIRCUS chats to guest curator Andrew Gutman about UP NORTH & UNDERGROUND, a programme of under-screened classics of the Canadian underground film scene (03 to 04 DEC).

Films in London: CALENDAR at Close-Up, part of UP NORTH & UNDERGROUND (04 DEC).
Films in London: CALENDAR at Close-Up, part of UP NORTH & UNDERGROUND (04 DEC).

[RADIANT CIRCUS]:
RADIANT CIRCUS exists to help people find their way to more adventurous moving pictures. What has your personal film journey been like?

[Andrew Gutman]:
My film education basically started in high school, memorising Oscar trivia and following news from European film festivals as a nerdy pursuit. I grew up in southeast Michigan, which isn’t exactly hurting for theatres, but my friends and I wouldn’t think anything of driving most of an hour to get to an arthouse theatre to watch whatever indie or foreign films they had playing – often our only option even just to see something like MOONRISE KINGDOM. Even then, though, I was usually pretty frustrated by what I knew was out there but never found its way to me. I was always really eager to seek out as wide a variety of film as possible – genre, time period, country of origin, whatever – and I took any opportunity to find something unexpected.

When I was doing my undergrad in Washington, DC, I met a professor who had a lot of experience in film programming and festival direction in the area, who really opened my eyes to the possibilities of how I could work in film in a way that helped bring new and exciting titles to audiences, and that brought me eventually to London.

How did your programme at Close-Up come about?

This programme (UP NORTH & UNDERGROUND) is being done as part of my MA work at the National Film and Television School’s Film Programming and Curation course, and focuses on underseen alternative Canadian classics from the 90s, out of the Toronto New Wave and adjacent movements. The programme already had its first leg earlier in November at the Prince Charles Cinema, where I showed John Greyson’s AIDS musical comedy ZERO PATIENCE and Don McKellar’s apocalyptic dark comedy LAST NIGHT.

I had admired Close-Up’s programming since not long after I came to London, and I knew their specialism in film projection would be a good fit for my project, as early on I anticipated I would possibly be dealing with rare prints, or at least ones that would need to travel a long way. Many of the films from the time and place I’m interested in are not well-travelled outside of Canada, and frequently are hard to find even there, so I knew I needed to find a venue that could be trusted with this sort of material.

What drew you to these particular films?

Different things for both films. I had known from early on in my planning process I wanted to show something by Guy Maddin – he’s such a distinctive Canadian voice who is at this point, I think, more well-known personally than most of his films. ARCHANGEL stood out to me among his 90s work because of its weird history-trivia kind of premise, about Canadian soldiers sent to Russia to fight the Bolsheviks. Not only does it have an early form of Maddin’s signature silent film-flavoured approach to storytelling, but it also has this weird wartime love story to it that goes delightfully off the rails. It’s a film I’ve always associated heavily with Maddin, but that gets overshadowed by some of his more recent and more widely-seen films; I’d like to see it reinstated as one of his best works.

With CALENDAR, it was sort of the opposite. I was initially hesitant to include something by Atom Egoyan, because I was more familiar with his recent work which didn’t seem to match my concept for the programme. But as I dove into his early films, pre-THE SWEET HEREAFTER, I found that a lot of what he had made was wonderfully strange and playful. This is especially true of CALENDAR, his weird, Armenia-set oddity that does as much in 75 minutes and a very limited number of unique shots as any of his other, more “normal” films. I think it’s a film that gets rather forgotten among the other Egoyan films, sandwiched between THE ADJUSTER and EXOTICA and seeming like a minor outing at a glance, but I think it’s a deceptively complex and intricate film, with a delicate approach to its puzzle-box story.

Also, the two films together make a nice “Canadians Abroad” double bill. Not intentional at first, but appreciated regardless.

Are there any common themes or approaches that made you select the titles in your programme?

Canadian cinema, when people give it some thought, sometimes gets this weird reputation of being dry and boring, or just being an extension of American cinema. This is due in part, I think, to people just not knowing about or having much opportunity to see a lot of the work that comes out of the country – there’s a lot of distinctive, bizarre films to be found. Of course people know about David Cronenberg, but even beyond him there was this whole underbelly of Canadian film in the 80s and 90s (and still today!) that has an edgy, daring quality to it that I wanted to highlight in my programme. It goes so far beyond just what I was able to secure for screening. Films by Bruce McDonald, Lynne Stopkewich, Clement Virgo and others all speak to this, but the work is so hard to access, especially outside North America. I just want to give people a taste of this period of film, and I wanted a spread of titles that showed the creative diversity of Canada at the time.

What goes into bringing films like these to the screen? What were the biggest challenges?

Sadly, a lot of the films I wanted to show simply weren’t in the cards. It’s a common story for the time period; a lot of the production and distribution companies have gone under or been devoured by a bigger fish, it’s not clear who the rightsholders are, and the prints are squirrelled away in some forgotten basement. The filmmakers I got in touch with are usually quite happy to hear about interest in screening their work, but as often as not they can’t offer much help. One director did offer to ship her single, personal 35mm copy of a film to facilitate a screening, but we were unable to reach a workable deal with the rightsholder even with her involvement – even after you find the film, it’s not always so straightforward. I started out with a longlist of like twenty titles I wanted to show, but it narrowed itself down pretty quick – most of them were simply beyond my means to find and screen.

Luckily, I also met many enthusiastic, generous people who worked with me to make these screenings a reality. It takes the work of a lot of dedicated cultural and artistic organisations to keep these films available for new audiences, and to prevent even films less than 30 years old from simply being lost.

What would you say to people who might not know these films or the filmmakers? How can we get more people out of the multiplex to give these kinds of films a try?

I would say it’s worth it just to jump out of your comfort zone every once in a while – especially because you might be surprised to find your zone is larger than you thought at first. ARCHANGEL is made up like a silent film, sure, but it’s also surprisingly funny and has a dreamy beauty about it that’s not hard to appreciate. CALENDAR has a sort of strict formal look to it, yeah, but it also has an immensely satisfying unwinding story.

I feel too often people – both skeptics and fans – make too big a deal of the differences between so-called “art films” and mainstream blockbusters and get tied up in superficial qualities, ignoring the ways both can be rewarding experiences. There’s nothing preventing anyone from finding value in lots of different kinds of films, one simply has to seek them out.

What are your ambitions for the future? What will we see from you next?

Programming this season has been a learning experience for me, and I’m eager to give it another go once I have an idea and some resources lined up again. After I finish my MA I aim to keep working in film, whether I’m still in London, back in the US or Canada, or anywhere else.

What’s your biggest screen wish for 2019?

I’m a huge fan of Edward Yang, but it’s frustrating how even out of his tiny body of work several of his films aren’t available in high quality formats. I’d love to see restorations of THAT DAY ON THE BEACH, A CONFUCIAN CONFUSION, or MAHJONG – he’s had a couple big restorations in the past several years, so maybe this isn’t even that far off. I’d just like audiences to be able to see the whole set the way they deserve to be seen.

But in terms of Canada – anyone wanna do an Allan King season?

… and that’s the meat of it!

Films in London: ZERO PATIENCE screened at The Prince Charles, part of UP NORTH & UNDERGROUND* (10 NOV).
Films in London: ZERO PATIENCE screened at The Prince Charles, part of UP NORTH & UNDERGROUND* (10 NOV).

HUNGRY FOR MORE?

*Included here because it’s a RADIANT CIRCUS favourite and, you know, World AIDS Day (01 DEC). Catch up with our 2017 list of ten unmissable films on the same theme HERE.


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Featured image: ARCHANGEL screens at Close-Up (03 DEC).

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