Monday, July 25, 2016

Review: Mécanix

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2016
Images from the Internet

Written, directed and edited by Rémy Mathieu Larochelle
Ofilms / Avant-Gore Films / IPS Films /
Unearthed Films / MVD Visual
70 minutes, 2003 / 2016

Many cities have arthouse theaters. In New York, we’d head down to those like the Film Forum on West Houston Street, occasionally watching real life art going by such seeing rats running down the street as we went into the theater (happened more than once).

Along with the Scandinavian films that would depress a hyena (which SCTV lampooned so well with Whispers of the Wolf), we’d also see films that were certainly not conventional in any way, such as those by Richard Kern, Kenneth Anger and Stan Brakhage’s Dog Star Man (1964). Occasionally there would be a Canadian entry, and some were quite innovative, like the shorts Pas de Deux (1968) and Neighbors (1952), which we saw together in revival form (hey, I’m not that old).

The genres of avant-garde and transgression are different, but they can overlap, sometimes quite extensively, occasionally blurring the lines. The Montreal-filmed Mécanix can be seen as just such a film. But, of course, it’s open interpretation. In an interview segment included as an extra, the director also mentioned German Expressionism, which was at its height during the silent period with the likes of Nosferatu (1922 by F.W. Murnau) and Metropolis (1927, by Fritz Lang). Similar to that style, there is very little dialog (more on that later) until the final act, though there is a lot going on here, especially visually.

Non-human (goat creature)
Metropolis is actually a good comparison point because of some of the similarities in themes (though the resemblances kind of end there). The story, from what I make out, is about a world split into two strata. The first is the lower class humans who service the overlords. The second is the creatures who rule the humans, which consists of mostly animal-like puppets and pixilated clay beings of a mostly rudimentarily shaped type (though the goat one is quite cool looking). Like Metropolis, part of the plot is the human’s trying to overcome by… well, it is confusing as it’s a bit philosophical, quite fantastical and poetically opaque. It’s also about, as stated during the film, “The desire of all things.” Note that the film is in Quebecois French with English subtitles, though as there is so little speaking, it’s not like the viewer is going to spend much time reading.

Speaking of the story, I’m going to do something I’ve rarely done before, which is repeat what’s on the box (in part), because I had trouble following a narrative:

…The last human beings are forced to be the slaves of the strange creatures that rule this strange world. There is only one thing these beasts fear – the embryo of the universe: the origin of everything … is hidden in the last freeborn man. The scientist helping the beasts must vivisect every human on the planet to stop this embryo from growing and destroying it forever.

What interests me, as a media theorist (that’s right) is the hinting of both the works of French philosopher Jacques Ellul and Toronto professor Marshall McLuhan, whether intentional or not. McLuhan tends to be thought of as dreading the inevitability of the takeover by technology, but it was actually Ellul who posited that theory (beware!) in his seminal book, The Technological Society (1964). He described what he called Technic, or the way things are done; for our film here, the term used is Mécanix.

In Understanding Media (also 1964), McLuhan theorizes how technology is an extension of humans (e.g., cars are extensions of the legs, pens are extensions of the hand). One of the stop-motion creatures even states (whispering soto voce) to the central character: “Mécanix are the extension of your being, like you are an extension of nature.” In actuality, though the humans are here are the extensions of the creatures, helping them get fed (though it seems like they always refuse the food), and to try and find the “embryo.”

Both human and nonhuman
The motion of the creatures is jumpy (you do what you can with your equipment), especially considering this was done with 16mm film rather than digital. There is no computerization used (anti-technology, or just what was available?), which is admirable. In fact they use the same technique/technic for the mixture of animation and living actors that they used in silent films. This is explained in the interview extra.

There are some really nice moments, like a beastie who interrogates the main human character has his snout wrapped in wire, and before he asks any question it unwraps and a ball of wire falls from his maw. After each query, the ball goes back into his mouth, and the wire wraps it up again. Larochelle designed and built all the puppets and animation creations, and also pixilated them, which took about half a decade.

The image of the film is murky, like the Yellow River: muddy dark brown and a bit hazy at times. But it is not as convoluted as the narrative. I’m not saying this as a negative, but if you’re looking for light and airy fare, or a blood feast, this may not be where you want to be searching. However, it is interesting cinema in its artistry, and in its sheer labor (oh, wait, it’s Canadian… labour), considering the filmmaker was just out of college.

Included as its only extra (not counting the chapters) is a single camera 30-minute interview with the director and a producer, Phillippe Chabot. The prewritten (but previously unread by them) questions were handed to them on a sheet of paper that is held during the taping. About 50 percent of it is interesting, but when it is and they are taking it seriously, it had my attention.

I’m glad this is getting a new release, because works like this deserve to be in the film canon, and I certainly hope at some point Larochelle releases a follow-up of some kind (does not have to be directly related to this), because he shows he has a head on his shoulders with this dark almost-poetry and definitely philosophical allegory. That being said, I also hope he actually adds a commentary track on the next reissue to further explain what he was meaning by the actions on the screen.

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