Flirting With Disaster
Perhaps the most modest and romantic disaster movie ever made, Don McKellar's Last Night is a crystallization of free-floating millennial anxieties, a portrait of ordinary people dealing not merely with their mortality but with the panic of imposed significance. It's six hours before the world ends, and the characters in Last Night are each, in their own way, still fumbling for that final meaningful gesture. As the actor-writer-director himself dryly remarks, "The film is about closure, in a big way."
Last Night-booked at Cinema Village through the New Year-is the Canadian representative in the series of 10 millennium movies commissioned by the French company Arte (others, released earlier this year, include Tsai Ming-liang's The Hole and Hal Hartley's Book of Life). Asked to make a film set on December 31, 1999, McKellar-best known as a quizzical presence in the films of morbid, cerebral countrymen Atom Egoyan and David Cronenberg-instead delivered a witty existential comedy about the apocalypse. "That's because I misunderstood the commission," he insists. "I was thinking more about the feelings brought on by the turning of the millennium."
McKellar says the premise of his film can be traced to a childhood fixation. "I used to have these recurring nightmares. On one occasion, I went running out in the street in my pajamas trying to wake up the neighbors because I thought it was the end of the world. They brought me inside and tried to talk me out of it. I guess it's been there for a while."
Though hardly a direct rebuke to the likes of Armageddon, Last Night is at once more narrowly focused and more expansive than the average disaster movie. "In films like Independence Day, half the world is destroyed and there's a celebration at the end," says McKellar. "And you're thinking about those people that were wiped out-those are the people I empathized with. I wasn't trying to create a social portrait like those disaster films where the ghetto family and the hardworking cop and the rich people all come together. My characters are similar in that they've all come to terms with it. It's still about coming together, in a sense, but only in the last possible moment."
Last Night's protagonist, Patrick, a prickly, sarcastic architect played by McKellar, isintent on spending his final moments alone. The plan seems to be going smoothly enough until a distraught woman (a heartbreaking Sandra Oh) shows up on his doorstep. McKellar distills deadpan humor (the tone is comically unhysterical) and, in the end, unexpectedly rich emotion from the extremity of the context. "The most banal issues become issues of world importance, and selfishness is suddenly validated," he says. "With some films, you'll think, 'Oh, you little brat, just deal with your insignificant little problems.' But in the face of the end of the world, they're crucial problems."
The film builds to a pitch-perfect finale, an attack of desperate romanticism that sneaks up on you almost unnoticed. "It became clear as I was writing it that I had to go for genuine emotion," says McKellar. "People are surprised by how they feel at the end-which I understand, because I'm very cynical about sentimentality. I often think I have to trick myself in order to feel something at a movie."
In writing the screenplay, McKellar says that, much like his character, he had to work through the protective reflex of irony. "I often feel blocked or frustrated by my own ironic response," he says. "It's the plague of a generation. A lot of films are crippled by it, though it's also a valid language and an honest reflection of the way people speak and deal with the world now. But a lot of it is also the sarcasm developed as a response to political correctness and what was perceived as an overly earnest pose. But it isn't a refutation. It's just reactionary, and it makes me want to be the most extreme politically correct guy. I'm always defending causes I barely agree with."
Although he considers Patrick a "more abrasive version" of his usual screen persona, McKellar says that he didn't have himself in mind for the role. "When you write for yourself, there's a danger of seeming self-serving, sort of like Good Will Hunting. But my producers said it was a perfect part for me, and I thought it was a way of committing myself fully to the film. I've done a lot of collaborations, and I've always been able to defer. This was a way of saying, 'There's no one else to blame.' "
The character also represents, he says, a personal ambivalence about the archetypal Canadian protagonist, "that more internal, sensitive, authorial figure. I was trying to push him to a point where he has to break out. But I also wanted to validate that kind of persona to some extent-there's a lot of self-loathing in Canada about these kinds of protagonists."
In his other incarnation (TV star), McKellar plays a decidedly un-Canadian antihero-an agoraphobic, passive-aggressive couch potato-on the popular series Twitch City, which last month received its U.S. premiere at AMMI (where McKellar, hardly a brand name in the States, was the subject of a mini-retro, much to his own amusement). An anti-sitcom in which the lack of punch lines is often the biggest punch line, Twitch City registers as a strange new form of meta- television. "One of the big taboos of television is watching TV on TV," says McKellar. "My first impulse, as a formal idea, was just to show someone watching television and that would be it. But I got bored with that." He eventually settled on a TV-addict protagonist "who watches television as a critical project. Then there was a temptation to make him cretinous. But the incapacitation is not about laziness-there's real intelligence behind the decision not to participate in the world."
Different as Last Night and Twitch City are, the picture gets more confusing when you factor in McKellar's credit as cowriter on the classical-music sagas The Red Violin and 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould. He says the diversity of his résumé can be awkward ("it's difficult to find people who like them all") yet oddly comforting ("it means I'm not forcing some arbitrary sensibility on different projects"). McKellar is also keen to downplay his triple-threat status. "The distinctions have always been less clear for me than for most people. A good writer is a good actor, at least mentally; a good director understands writing and acting."
Of the seemingly incestuous Canadian film community, McKellar says, "I'm sure some people think of it as a clique, but it's very supportive. We grew up knowing we would benefit by other people's fortune." His association with Cronenberg dates back to 1992, when the veteran director graciously agreed to play a porn addict in McKellar's short film Blue ("I wrote him a letter promising no prosthetics, no jokes about The Fly"). Roles in Egoyan's The Adjuster and Exotica fostered another close relationship. "Atom actually said in interviews that he thought of me as a surrogate Atom, which is quite bizarre. We used to get mistaken for each other a lot. He tells this story of how he was at a screening where my mother came running up to him. My mother denies it." Still, the two seem to be willfully perpetuating the confusion: In a short on which they recently collaborated, McKellar plays Egoyan-"not in a Being Atom Egoyan kind of way. I played Atom, and he played an interviewer. He was asking questions and I never responded."
McKellar says he's eager to move on to another directing project, having spent more than a year promoting Last Night (the film was released in Canada last fall, but Lions Gate decided to time its U.S. release for maximum millennial frisson). For a couple more months, though, he'll have to continue deflecting the obvious question that his filmhas raised about its director's own plans for New Year's Eve. "I always lie," he says, "normally in some way that flatters the questioner. At Cannes last year, I was telling journalists that I'd visit their country. You can probably guess from the film that New Year's Eve celebrations aren't my favorite occasion. Normally I try and hide in my room, but I'll feel guilty and end up at some party. I honestly don't know yet. My film is about keeping open possibilities. It encourages people not to be decisive."
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