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Premieres & Events

"It's About Instinct"

(L-R) Sarah Polley and Olympia Dukakis at the opening night of MoMA's Canadian Front series (Photo: STV)

By S.T. VanAirsdale

Sarah Polley visited MoMA Wednesday night for a screening of her feature directorial debut Away From Her, the opening-night selection of the museum's Canadian Front series of films from the States' upstairs neighbor. Beyond the discussion of the movie itself, starring Julie Christie and Gordon Pinsent as a married couple lost in the real and imagined ravages of Alzheimer's disease, the question on many people's minds -- especially those of us godless Americans -- was what exactly distinguishes Canadian cinema from the close DNA resemblance of its US counterparts. In a discussion with The Reeler yesterday, even MoMA film curator Laurence Kardish couldn't quite explain it; in the post-sceening Q&A, Polley tried her damnedest on her country's behalf.

"This is something I keep trying to find words for, and I always fail miserably," Polley said. "I suppose that for me, as an audience, you instinctively feel excitement that it's from the place you're from, and that it's speaking from your experience or your environment. For me, that's the whole point of a national cinema: Something that's kind of intangible and you're unable to articulate it, but you feel that it describes some experience that you're not going to get anywhere else. I'm sorry if that's all completely abstract, but for me it's about instinct. It's also having the courage as not only filmmakers, but as funding bodies, as producers, to not be imitative -- not to decide that the best we can do is imitate America."

All right, stop it. Polley evokes this dynamic in both overt (an institutionalized former Winnipeg Jets announcer who observes his surroundings play-by-play) and atmospheric (i.e. snow everywhere) fashion, while also tailoring the laconic weave of Canadian author Alice Munro's original short story to the screen as an alternative to the memory-loss melodrama American audiences might otherwise anticipate. The adaptation is exclusively Polley's ("I've actually never spoken to Alice Munro," she said. "I had two voice messages on my answering machine from her in the past two years. That's the most contact, unfortunately, I've had with her."), but the mood is emphasized by Canadian actors Pinsent, Kristy Thomson and Wendy Crewson, all of whom seem to settle into their scenes in a way that their co-star Olympia Dukakis never quite does. Coincidence? Or just another misplaced imposition from my irresponsible American ass? (For what it's worth, Christie is utterly brilliant, acting on top of acting; I don't know what this means for those keeping track at home on their Nationalist Legitimacy Scorecards.)

Where Dukakis was especially haunting Wednesday night, however, was in discussing the effects of Alzheimer's on her own late mother, for whom the "scabs" of buried memories scuffed open in the illness's advanced stages. "I kept trying to be helpful to her," she told the audience. "I kept thinking that if I could get her in the present, that she wouldn't feel the pain of all that. Then I realized it was the only way I had enjoyment. I thought, 'Well, I can do this -- I'm an actress. I can act this.' She's talking about her sister? I could get into the improvisation about her sister and what happened. Her brother and what happened; these terrible acts that happened, and how he looked -- his eyes were so evil. It would go on and on and on. I didn't know any other way, and eventually it became very hard for me to be with her.

"In the last year, it was impossible unless someone came along with me," Dukakis continued. "I couldn't stay in the room longer than 15 minutes. It's very, very difficult seeing these scabs come off -- about a time I wasn't even around. When she was young, when all these things happened to her. The most I could do was just nod and try to have a conversation with her."

"I know my grandmother, in her last year, was constantly asking me where my mother was," Polley said. "And I had to try to avoid the news that her daughter had died -- over and over and over again. For me, it was so much worse that she had remembered her than she had forgotten her. It was the most tragic part of what she was going through in her last days."

Whoa. So: In the end, we never did reveal the essential truth of Canadian cinema, but Canadian Front continues through March 18 at MoMA, offering you at least a few days to possibly suss it out for yourself. And please, pass it along if/when you have it.

Posted at March 15, 2007 11:17 AM

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