“New Canadian Documentaries”

At the National Gallery of Art

July 19-27

At the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center July 18-24

In the six years that the National Gallery of Art has been presenting an annual overview of new Canadian documentaries, certain themes have emerged. There’s Canadianness itself, a difficult thing to define in the shadow of the United States. Then there’s the future and the people who dream it, topics that overlap with some Canadians’ quests for fame—quests that often lead, of course, to the United States.

Boxer George Chuvalo, the protagonist of The Last Round (at 5:30 p.m. July 20), temporarily went to Detroit when his native Toronto didn’t prove the ideal arena for his attempt to become the world heavyweight champion. Ultimately, though, the United States came to him, when the wildly controversial Muhammad Ali couldn’t find a place to fight south of the border. The year was 1966, and the newly Muslim, draft-resisting Ali was poison to the U.S. boxing establishment. Meanwhile, the long-overlooked Chuvalo, four years older than Ali, was desperate for a championship bout. Fans of the so-called sport of boxing can argue about whether Chuvalo deserved his big break, but what’s truly fascinating about Joseph Blasioli’s crisp documentary is its snapshot of the times: American racism, Ali’s charisma, and the Vietnam War all reduce Chuvalo to a bit player in his own story.

John D. Scott’s Dear Pam (shown with the unpreviewed Rage Against the Darkness at 2 p.m. July 19) considers a Canadian who courted fame more successfully. Born on July 1, 1967, Canada’s centennial day, Pamela Anderson was an average girl who grew up in small towns on Vancouver Island before surgical enhancements and Playboy transported her to Hollywood. Or so Scott supposes—this 25-minute film is really about his (and a few other people’s) fantasies of Anderson. The director’s cutest conceit is to compare Anderson to various well-known Canadian edifices, but his too-long short doesn’t really develop such ideas. Ultimately, Dear Pam is not significantly more trenchant than an episode of Baywatch.

Fantasy is also central to Almost Real (at 4 p.m. July 19), which presents a lineup of extreme virtualists: a man who runs a prayer Web site from a desert monastery, participants in online ultraviolent-game tournaments, a computer-home-schooled 8-year-old, a guy who’s constructing a “virtual Egypt,” a woman in a B&D relationship with a man she’s never encountered in the flesh, a couple living in a wired home for seniors, and an employee of an encrypted data center that sits on a stark ocean platform outside any country’s control. Director Ann Shin’s case studies are intriguing, but they don’t seem that remarkable: A selection of contemporary North Americans who remain unplugged from the Internet would be more startling.

Almost Real will be shown with Evo, a wide-ranging documentary inspired by the Burgess Shale, a monumental Canadian fossil bed described as a “genetic Book of the Dead.” Director Oliver Huckenhull glances at many interesting topics, only to obscure most of them under video gimmicks. The lives and work of Charles Darwin, Ernst Haeckel, and Stephen Jay Gould compete with MTV-style tics and the vocodered pronouncements of a cyber-geisha, leaving the less McLuhan-esque viewer craving a demixed version of the film.

Searching for Canada in a period more recent than the 500-million-years-past Cambrian Era, Catherine Martin’s Océan (at 2:30 p.m. July 26) follows the path of the only passenger train between Montreal and Halifax, which chugs through Canada’s economically ravaged Maritime region. The 50-minute film is mostly a series of vignettes, which fans of timeworn trains and declining small towns should find evocative. Occasionally, however, the director inserts an interview, breaking the mood without adding much enlightenment. The film will be shown with the unpreviewed Men of the Deeps, about a famed men’s choir whose members are former Cape Breton miners.

Also unpreviewed is the double bill of Devouring Buddha, a short “tone poem” about the Khmer Rouge’s genocidal reign over Cambodia, and the program’s epic, the three-hour Gambling, Gods, and LSD (at 4 p.m. July 27). This study of spiritual extremists—from bungee jumpers to religious ecstatics—promises to explore another perennial Canadian-documentary theme: the possibility of outlandish behavior in a country that even its natives think of as a little too buttoned-down.

Martin and Barbara have the sort of spiritual rapport that lifts young love above mere lust. He’s a brilliant visiting composer and conductor; she’s an orchestral violinist who’s not too awe-struck to point out a small error in his score. Their artistic collaboration turns into a giddy affair, and soon enough the two have fled chilly Gothenberg for a resort in sun-dappled Morocco. Yet Martin and Barbara (real-life couple Sven Wollter and the late Viveka Seldahl) are not youngsters: They’re both in their 60s, with longtime spouses and grown children. The sudden soulmates divorce with a minimum of fuss—this is Sweden, after all—and begin a romantic idyll. Their families are stunned, but only one of their friends or relatives, Barbara’s son, protests loudly.

After its love-struck prologue, A Song for Martin becomes the story of a marriage that’s also meant to be seen as a profound artistic partnership. (This premise is weakened by the fact that Martin’s music, actually composed by Stefan Nilsson, is unremarkable.) As Martin composes, Barbara serves as copyist, editor, and sounding board. Then he begins to forget things, and the diagnosis is Alzheimer’s. Barbara, who was thrilled to facilitate the work of a supposedly great composer, is demoted quickly from muse to nurse. The task of finishing Martin’s opera becomes a painful farce, with Barbara forced to lie to both her husband and his publisher about the piece’s progress. An attempt to reawaken Martin’s slumbering consciousness by taking him to Morocco is very nearly disastrous, and a family reunion at a restaurant proves humiliating. The esteemed composer now doesn’t know any better than to urinate publicly in a potted plant.

Writer-director Bille August, who adapted this film from Ulla Isaksson’s novel Book About E, directed The Best Intentions, one of Ingmar Bergman’s merciless analyses of his parents’ marriage. Without a Bergman script, however, August isn’t inclined to cut too deep. Indeed, the director has come to specialize in star-powered international co-productions—The House of the Spirits, Smilla’s Sense of Snow, Les Misérables—not noted for their psychological acuity. Essentially a two-hander, A Song for Martin puts aside the big-budget bluster of those movies, but not their tendency to emphasize outward events over internal inquiry. Although staged on an intimate scale, the film is about a force larger than its characters: Martin’s illness may be within his brain, but it’s an intruder, not part of his personality.

A Song for Martin has been compared to Richard Eyre’s Iris, with advocates of the former deeming it truer because it’s more unpleasant. Unlike Iris, which uses flashbacks to keep the young Iris Murdoch alive, August’s film relentlessly charts its namesake’s decline. Things can only get worse, the movie warns, and then they do. That may be honest, but it’s also tiresome. Strong performances and a literate script lift this film above the status of a disease-of-the-week TV drama, but the last half-hour doesn’t provide any insights into either the characters or their situation. As the formerly vigorous composer disappears into himself, A Song for Martin becomes merely an endurance test. CP