Oddballs take over at the Whistler Film Festival

Known as the filmmaker’s fest, the Whistler Film Festival brings mavericks together with some coolly creative offerings.

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      Historically, there aren’t too many films that have included a detached yet tumescent penis as a plot device, but there you go. Welcome to the 11th Whistler Film Festival. That errant ding-dong appears a few times in Guy Maddin’s latest chiaroscuro fever dream, Keyhole, one of six films in the festival’s annual Borsos competition for best Canadian feature film (last year’s winner was Larysa Kondracki’s outstanding The Whistleblower).

      “Maddin might be a bit of an acquired taste, and you don’t want to go in expecting anything with his work,” WFF artistic director Stacey Donen tells the Georgia Straight by phone, “because you sort of have to sit there and let it ooze into you. But the man is brilliant. He’s unlike any filmmaker in the world, and he makes the kind of films I aspire to screen here. To have that filmmaker in our country is something that I’m very proud of.”

      Like Archangel from way back in the beginning of his career, the characters in Keyhole—embodied, among others, by Jason Patric, Isabella Rossellini, and Maddin regular Louis Negin, permanently nude in this case—all appear to be suffering from a form of amnesia as they engage in an ever-widening gyre of mysterious, repetitive behaviour involving homemade electric chairs and a chronic masturbator living in a closet. Because the setting this time is a haunted house populated by hard-boiled ’30s toughs, what we get with Keyhole is Maddin’s version of gangster noir—albeit with delirious echoes of Jean Cocteau, Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit, and the porny Curt McDowell–George Kuchar midnight classic, Thundercrack!.

      To make matters more intriguing, it’s only by a small margin that Keyhole is the strangest and most striking entry in this year’s Borsos competition—or at the festival as a whole. Donen, a former programmer at the Toronto International Film Festival who joined the Whistler festival three years ago, has a strong maverick vision for the compact event, taking place this year from November 30 to December 4. Contrasted with TIFF’s 10 days and VIFF’s 17, Donen’s view of WFF is that we should ignore the width and feel the quality.

      “There are thousands of festivals out there, and we try to find our place in the world,” he says. “For us, it’s wanting to be a filmmaker’s festival. There is definitely an industry component, but it’s not all about buying and selling. It’s more about the films; it’s more about the ideas; it’s more about the creating. It’s the work that’s important.”

      Needless to say, the setting adds a certain signature vibe. “Whistler’s a resort, right? It’s not the hustle-and-bustle festival,” says Donen. This sentiment is echoed by Kris Elgstrand, the codirector and writer of another Borsos entry, the marvellous Doppelgänger Paul, or a Film About How Much I Hate Myself.

      “There’s a very sorta warm, cozy, collegial quality to the whole festival that I really like,” Elgstrand tells the Straight on the line from Whitehorse, where his partner, Arabella Bushnell, is appearing in a play. “You don’t really have that desperate need to impress because everybody’s wearing snow boots and parkas and things like that. So, automatically, everybody’s kinda put on the same playing field.”

      Donen has been a consistent champion of the work of Elgstrand and his frequent collaborator, director Dylan Akio Smith, going back the duo’s “Man Feel Pain”, the winner of TIFF’s 2004 best Canadian short. Their new Vancouver-lensed feature is an oddball gem that garnered more warm notices for the team at Toronto this year. Despite a marked shortage of disembodied wieners, Doppelgänger Paul is, nonetheless, a near flawless puzzle box of a movie, beginning with one man’s inexplicable conviction that he’s found the doppelgänger of the title. With an almost Zenlike economy that spans everything from the script to the performances to the crisp cinematography, the film gradually turns its attention to a variety of themes: loneliness, male friendship, voyeurism, and plagiarism. It also features one of the more convincing thumb dismemberments we’ve seen in recent years and the not unwelcome appearance a couple of times of Urban Rush TV hosts Fiona Forbes and Michael Eckford.

      More importantly, Elgstrand’s screenplay for Doppelgänger is a model of subtlety and dry wit. Asked what prompted him to write it, he offers: “I always feel like I should have a better answer, but it’s just one of those things where a notion occurs to you one day. One guy thinking this other guy is his doppelgänger, and then the joke being that they don’t look anything alike. It was really just that idea.”

      Elgstrand also concedes that Doppelgänger Paul was something he blurted out while another of his and Smith’s projects got caught in the wheels of endless development, hence the eventual emergence of a subplot involving a hijacked 20,000 page manuscript called A Book About How Much I Hate Myself. Elgstrand, who describes himself as “a bundle of anxiety and nerves”, naturally figured his script was trash. “I phoned him right away and told him I thought it was one of the best things he’d written in years,” says doppelgänger Paul himself and another frequent collaborator, actor Brad Dryborough.

      “I think [codirector] Dylan gave him the same response,” Dryborough tells the Straight. “It had this, almost—I don’t really wanna use the word whimsy—but a kind of whimsy. It was a little more oddball; it was just a little goofier. It has depth, but it had a lightness that a lot of Kris’s stuff doesn’t have.”

      According to Dryborough’s costar, Tygh Runyan, everybody assumed Elgstrand was writing about himself. “Dylan had mentioned to me a couple of times, ‘You’re basically playing Kris,’ ” says Runyan, calling the Straight from somewhere in Vancouver (although he calls L.A. his home these days). “I don’t think that that’s necessarily the way I work, so I did create Carl as his own personality but drew from a few of Kris’s attributes. Mainly his walk.” (“He admitted it!” Elgstrand explodes when briefed on what Runyan said. “I didn’t notice, but my friend Martin actually said that. He said, ‘You do realize he’s doing your run?’ ”)

      Runyan’s performance as the solemnly self-loathing weirdo Carl is another of the film’s small miracles, so, presumably, all is forgiven. Indeed, for a microbudgeted local wonder, Doppelgänger Paul more than holds its own against such auspicious Borsos contenders as Randall Cole’s 388 Arletta Avenue, Jean-Marc Vallée’s Café de Flore, and the foreign-film Oscar entry Monsieur Lazhar, directed by Philippe Falardeau. It also lives up to artistic director Donen’s promise that WFF is a “filmmaker’s festival”.

      Further to that, Donen also notes that this year’s WFF guests include the “actor’s actors” Michael Shannon and Jay Baruchel (She’s Out of My League, The Trotsky), as well as the “comedian’s comedian” Patton Oswalt. “People that are very well respected in their own world and now getting out to the rest of the community”, as he puts it. Baruchel is being honoured with a tribute on the evening of December 1, and Oswalt (Spencer on TV’s The King of Queens) will receive a Spotlight Award for supporting performance of the year after the opening-night screening of Jason Reitman’s latest, Young Adult. Take Shelter and Boardwalk Empire star Shannon—whose career has taken a sharp upward incline of late—is attending his own Spotlight tribute and gala on December 3.

      Shannon joins a gallery of past Spotlight honorees that include Donald Sutherland and Bruce McDonald, along with last year’s subject, a filmmaker who is perhaps emblematic of the individualist spirit Donen is striving for: Two Lane Blacktop director and cult figure par excellence, Monte Hellman. As it happens, Hellman’s sparse but pristine filmography includes two recent films starring his friend, Doppelgänger Paul’s Runyan.

      “He’s certainly celebrated within certain camps,” Runyan says, “and certainly within the independent end of the spectrum he’s a hero and champion. But I think that was really cool of Whistler to do that for him, and to do a tribute as well. I think it marked the festival as a haven for the independent mavericks of the world.”

      Donen is also keen on drawing attention to the WFF’s New Voices international-feature competition, pointing out that he secured Mexico’s Machete Language, Australian film Hail, and the western Canadian premiere of this year’s winner for best first feature at TIFF, Edwin Boyd. “As a cinephile, this competition is one that I’d want other cinephiles to keep their eye on,” he says, “because these are all young, new filmmakers on the rise, and you’ll have the first opportunity to see their work. I really think this New Voices competition is very, very strong.”

      As for the more established voices receiving western Canadian, B.C., or Whistler premieres, the WFF has lined up Sarah Polley’s Take This Waltz, Luc Besson’s The Lady, the much anticipated Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey, and Whit Stillman’s first film in 13 years, Damsels in Distress. “People who’ve seen the film are going either way,” Donen reports with a laugh. “They love it or they hate it, but I’m a big fan. Anybody who knows his stuff will be excited about seeing it, and there’s even a song and dance number in there. Whit Stillman, to me, is sort of a lost name out there because he hasn’t made anything for so long. This is another one that I would get in line for.”

      Ditto for another hot potato getting its western Canadian premiere, David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method—a film that Donen gleefully characterizes as “Freud, Jung, and spanking!”

      Along with a solid schedule of shorts and further competitions for documentary, short, student shorts, and “mountain culture” prizes—and let’s not forget Guy Maddin’s fully erect dink—Donen is looking at Whistler’s best program yet. Which is saying something, given WFF’s rapidly growing reputation. Runyan, who says it’s his favourite Canadian festival, is toying with the idea of dropping by, even though he’s busy shooting a movie in Vancouver. “Maybe I’ll just drive up to say ‘Hi’ to everyone,” he says, “see how it went.”

      Meanwhile, his not-so-doppelgänger, Dryborough, really sums up the Whistler Film Festival’s unique appeal with an observation that comes from years of festival-hopping. “I find that it’s just so relaxed,” he says. “Nobody’s in their evening gowns. All that stuff’s missing from it.”

      For more information, visit www.whistlerfilmfestival.com.