To the inventory of ecstatic film finales, add Don McKellar’s version of the end of the world in Last Night. McKellar combines Pete Seeger’s recording of “Guantanamera,” a riff on Vertigo‘s whirling 360-degree embrace, and two radiant faces (his own and Sandra Oh’s). The unlikely fusion results in a moment that rivals Giulietta Massina smiling into the camera in Nights of Cabiria, or the seaside sunset in Eric Rohmer’s The Green Ray.
A comic stealth weapon in Atom Egoyan’s Exotica and David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ, McKellar has flown almost entirely under U.S. radar. In his native Canada, he’s best known as the writer and star of the inspired TV sitcom Twitch City, in which he plays an agoraphobic couch potato whose sex appeal is as undeniable as it’s mysterious. Although he’s cowritten two features-32 Short Films About Glenn Gould and The Red Violin–Last Night is his feature directorial debut.
Playing on millennial anxieties, Last Night proposes a familiar existential question: what would you do if you-and everyone else on the planet-had only six hours to live? McKellar’s characters have had two months to ask themselves what matters most to them and to plan their final moments accordingly. Patrick, who’s played by the filmmaker and is the film’s governing consciousness, is adamant about spending his last hours alone. This puts him in the usual conflict with his clingy, guilt-tripping mom, and, less predictably, with his best friend, Craig (Callum Keith Rennie). Craig is working his way through a list of sex acts hitherto only fantasized, and wants Patrick to participate in a guy-and-guy experience. In other words, the end of the world, while removing pesky material questions like what you have to do to pay next month’s rent, still leaves you with the everyday dilemma of balancing your own desires against the demands of family, friends, and society, not to mention your neurotic superego.
Like the character he plays, McKellar is a romantic with a taste for the absurd-the kind of romantic who might feel that it’s a privilege to be present at the end of the world, especially since no one was around to witness the beginning. Patrick is testy, stubborn, and almost terminally ambivalent. Love does not come easily to him, but by a quirk of fate, he’s thrown an opportunity to affirm Eros in the face of oblivion and he takes it. On his doorstep he finds Sandra (Sandra Oh), whose plan to get across town and home to her husband-with whom she plans to commit suicide-has been derailed by gangs of marauders. (The end of the world doesn’t bring out the best in everybody.)
Bare-bones filmmaking, Last Night is nothing special to look at, but it has a witty, trenchant script, lots of complicated characters, and a few actors who turn human frailty into something nearly sublime. With his worried-aardvark face and his half-choked, half-drawling voice, McKellar matches defensiveness with vulnerability. Oh’s impulsiveness and emotional intensity make her a great foil for him. David Cronenberg as the buttoned-up manager of the gas company and Genevieve Bujold as a high school French teacher who’s spending her final hours looking up former students are silly, sweet, and valiant. Bujold is particularly hilarious when, departing Craig’s apartment (their 15-year-old fantasies happily coincided), she encounters Patrick, and demands to know what he’s been doing with himself. Patrick dutifully delivers his résumé in halting French and bids her “au revoir.” Not au revoir, she answers, drawing her coat close to her breast, diva style. “Adieu.” It’s a Hollywood adage that audiences will flock to films that make death seem less than final. Existential to the core, Last Night takes the opposite tack. In the inevitable adieu is the meaning of life.
**Annihilation is also the basis for Radu Mihaileanu’s Train of Life, a fable about an Eastern European shtetl that escapes the Holocaust by faking its own deportation in a train rigged to look like those the Nazis used to transport Jews to concentration camps. This train, however, is bound for the Soviet Union and freedom. A Romanian-French director who worked as an actor in Bucharest’s Yiddish theater, Mihaileanu employs a farcical style, leaving no doubt that the film is a fantasy spun in the face of death. Unlike the despicable Life Is Beautiful, which turned the horror of the camps into a feel-good comedy, Train of Life uses mordant Jewish
humor to re-create and celebrate the shtetl life that the Nazis destroyed. It’s entertainment that never lets us off the hook.
Train of Life, which won a slew of jury and audience awards on the festival circuit, has intelligence and a boisterous charm (though the combination of Yiddish style and the French language is a bit disorienting). In its satiric treatment of Nazism, the film is not unrelated to Agnieszka Holland’s World War II epic, Europa, Europa. And although Mihaileanu relies on a theatrical tradition that employs stock characters, the film is most engaging when, like Europa, Europa, it delves into the connection between masquerade and identity. Because they will inevitably encounter Germans en route, some of the Jews must impersonate Nazis. While everyone’s survival depends on their performances, the more convincing they are in their roles, the more the other Jews resent them and the more they feel as if they should hate themselves. Thus the shtetl woodworker (Rufus) who plays the Nazi train commander is a more compelling character than the hero, the town fool (Lionel Abelanski) who imagines the story to keep his village alive.
**A portrait of an aspiring film director, Chris Smith’s American Movie has its share of disconcerting power relationships. Smith’s minimalist first feature about overqualified wage slaves wasn’t exactly a Hollywood calling card, but it certainly alerted people to his talent. Rather than pursue the fiction feature route, Smith spent three years documenting obsessed Wisconsin filmmaker Mark Borchardt as he
attempted to get his dream project, Northwestern, off the ground.
Though he’s acquired basic film-school
lingo, Borchardt’s appreciation of cinematic form and expression is limited to the ghoulish ambience and gory specifics of the films that fascinated him as a prepubescent: Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, and Texas Chainsaw Massacre. While there’s no doubting his passion, as a filmmaker he’s an uninteresting case of arrested development.
Smith films Borchardt on the set and in
various home environments with his three kids, doting mom, skeptical dad, loyal girlfriend, and contemptuous ex-wife. His decrepit Uncle Bill is persuaded to provide completion funds for the 20-minute horror short, Coven, to which Borchardt returns when Northwestern proves overly ambitious. His brain permanently scrambled by bad acid, Borchardt’s best friend Mike Schank makes an indelible impression, as does Mark’s alarmingly affectless brother, who must be projecting when he opines, without a trace of humor, that he expected Mark to become a serial killer.
His honorable intentions notwithstanding, Smith has preempted Borchardt’s cherished Northwestern by packaging it as American Movie. With a passive-aggressiveness worthy of Warhol, he has used the camera to exacerbate a relationship of unequal power. Borchardt has been accompanying Smith to one major festival after another. Although I don’t begrudge Borchardt his year of fame, what he doesn’t seem to understand about his exploitation creeps me out.