In Warners films of the 1930s, Montreal seems to be the place rich women send their discarded lovers to. In Female (Michael Curtiz, 1933) when rich Ruth Chatterton’s boytoys ‘get love-sick and start demanding more, she buys them off; and if that doesn’t work, she ships them out to Montreal, which in this film is like outer Siberia’. Poor gangsters take advantage of Montreal’s reputation as both a ‘free city’ where women, jazz, and booze abound but one that also has a lot of woods to hide in: as you can see in the clip below from Lady Killer (Roy Del Ruth, 1933), Montreal’s a good a place to go on the lam to when escaping the heat in the States:
‘The evil that men do lives after them; the good is interred with their bones’. So says Shakespeare in Julius Caesar and so shows this film.
Two henchmen, Santiago (Daniel Faraldo) and Benny (Daniel Tarbet), work for a narco kingpin. They run an outfit in the middle of nowhere – but close enough to a taco stand and a Christian revival tent — where they torture and kill their victims. They’re housed in an armed warehouse full of the heads of rivals they’ve captured and murdered, which they occasionally send as messages to the competition. It has a holding chamber reachable only by a portable staircase where they can keep kidnap victims and torture them at leisure. There’s an industrial freezer where corpses in various states of dismemberment can be kept on hold with various body parts defrosted at various times to suit every type of communication. There’s also a surgery fitted out for torture and even an industrial furnace where corpses of those nameless, unloved and thus of no use in this particular kind of communication can be easily cremated. They’re professional and have no qualms about doing their job though Salvador is better at it, more ruthless, whilst Benny is American and can’t quite get rid of his namby-pamby qualities. However, how will they act when the next package they receive is the very lively, spoiled and manipulative 12 year-old daughter of a rival narco honcho.
The Evil That Men Do is a very dark and very funny film with very charismatic performances from Faraldo and also from Sergio Peris-Mencheta as the narco kingpin’s nephew. It’s beautifully shot and directed, a delight to see, except for the one moment, a chainsaw scene more brutal even than the one in Scarface, that even I had to close my eyes at. The film is listed as Spanish though it is clearly Mexican and contains and evokes that lawlessness, lack of respect for life, sheer brutality and barbarism that seems to be part of the very fabric of life in that country today. It’s hard to see this as merely a genre film or even to accept the violence as stylised or cartoony and designed to fit an imaginary world. The director has been so successful in creating so much out of very spare means that the film hits close to the bone of a country in chaos. The darkness and brutality here speak a culture; and the laughs that the film very successfully manages to earn from the audience doesn’t wash away the sadness of a culture reduced to this.
Seen at the Festival des films du monde, Montreal, September 2015, where the film received it’s world premiere.
I’ve often felt depressed going to the cinema recently and never more so than when I went to see Sin City 2: A Dame to Kill For in Montreal. I rather loved the film; the hushed heightened way the characters spoke seemed like a 40s movie — a kind of pulp poetry; the glossy black and white of the image which has the effect of turning adolescent comic-book yearnings into film noir dreams; the beautiful way the film turns images into metaphors (e.g. the moment Joseph Gordon-Leavitt shrinks at the card-table and gets diced up by the cards he’s lost at); how the sharp square lines of Josh Brolin’s mug seems made for a comic book tough guy; the luscious greens, blues and reds with which Eva Green is coloured as a femme fatale. Though it received terrible reviews, the film worked for me. The problem was the cinema itself. I saw Sin City 2: A Dame to Kill For at the Scotiabank Cineplex. Dames, killing, sin: that’s the stuff of movies and dreams; the S in the Scotiabank is pictured as a dollar sign enveloping the globe. It’s not that money is prosaic. Money is also the stuff that movie dreams are made of. But there was something that bothered me about the juxtaposition of Sin City 2: A Dame to Kill For and Scotiabank Cineplex.
Earlier in the day I’d gone to an exhibit called ‘Vies de Plateau’ at Pointe à Callière, a cultural history of the Montreal neighbourhood I grew up in. As part of the exhibit, we were shown a map of the neighbourhood in grid form highlighting its landmarks. The map showed the big factories and train stations and churches. But half of the landmark buildings were cinemas. The Plateau in Montreal was were the first purpose-built cinema in the world was built, seating 1200 and already with air-conditioning in 1906, the Ouimetoscope, on the corner of St. Catherine Street and Montcalm. Other landmark movie palaces from 1914-1921 included The Globe, The Regent, The Papineau and the Rialto, which was modeled on the Opera de Paris. Except for the Rialto, which is now a concert venue, all of these cinemas have disappeared.
Returning to Montreal I often experience a sense of spectrality. Some of the buildings have changed, the skyline is not quite what it was but largely the geography of the place remains the same. One’s sense of walking through space is no different then when one was a child or a teenager. Looking at Jeanne Mance Park, one remembers spending one’s childhood there in the same swings, in the same wading pool, straddling the lions on the statue, picknicking. It was called Fletcher’s Field then but it still looks pretty much as it did. The same applies to St. Urbain, Pine Avenue, St . Laurent, Rachel, all those streets one grew up in.
The difference is that at one point one either knew or recognized everybody on those streets; that’s what happened when one walks through them every day of one’s life to get to either Jean-Jacques Ollier, Thomas D’Arcy McGee, McGill University or whatever school one happened to be going to when living on the Plateau. Now one walks through those streets and the streets themselves are the same, the geography of travelling through those spaces is unchanged, one turns at the same corners, but now one knows none of the faces that walk through them, and yet the ghosts of those loved ones from long ago appear in one’s memory, the street acting as its own form of urban madeleine, bidding hello to all those people you once knew and reminding you how much they once meant and how one treasures those memories still.
Because I’m of a generation that grew up with and at the movies, old cinemas have a particular resonance: A double bill of Mary Poppins and Bedknobs and Broomsticks at the Atwater was my first time at the movies in Montreal; seeing Saturday Night Fever at the old Palace, which was the size of a football stadium and packed with people itching to disco; watching Casablanca for the first time at the Seville, then a repertory cinema, and drinking hot apple juice spiced with cinnamon; queuing up around the block to see Aliens at the Imperial, working as an usher at Place du Canada and rushing in to the cinema every day I worked there so as not to miss the chainsaw scene in Scarface; going to see experimental cinema at the Méliès and nursing a coffee for hours reading a book and fervently wishing one of the many fascinating cinephiles seated around me would include me in their conversation; treating my brother and cousin, both six years old, to see Superman with the very first money I earned at the Loewe’s, a lifelong memory for both, but being annoyed with them because as soon as I finished taking one to the bathroom the other wanted to go and I ended up missing half the film; wearing huge platforms to make me seem taller and blowing smoke into the teller’s face so she wouldn’t ask me for ID and getting in to watch porn at the Beaver; coming out of the Parisien during the World Film Festival and unsure of what to make of Blue Velvet but knowing it was great; going on dates, holding hands surreptitiously, protesting in front of the old Pussycat theatre, maybe it was even called the cinema L’amour already with the L shaped like a woman’s open legs and the apostrophe shaped like a penis poised and pointing. Later on, already a confirmed cinephile, seeing Sirk for the first time at the Cinémathèque; or taking thermoses and sandwiches to the Buñuel retrospective at the Conservatoire so as not to miss any of the films one might never get a chance to see again. These are memories not only of one’s life but of what one hoped and longed for, who one dreamed of being, at each of those points in one life, a condensed madeleine of a moment before the narrative alters, moves onto different tangents, zigzags its way onto who and what one is now.
What remains of these cinemas are the material remnants of a spectral past that is still very vivid in me. They’re the memories of my life. And it’s interesting to me that they revolve around films and cinema because cinema is itself a spectral form. Historically it was the imprint light left on celluloid of that which was once but no longer is until it is revived by light once more. What you get is a kind of spectral presence, an appearance made of light and shadow that gives sound and movement to that which no longer is. And of course these shadows were brought to life in dream palaces with names like Seville, Elysée, Riviera, Globe, Regent, Palace, Paris or even Papineau. Exotic places, Elysian places, grand places, places of culture, of royalty, palatial, chic or even just the greatest of historical figures. Ghosts came alive to arouse and give shape to one’s dreams and desires in the grandest and most grandiose of places any working class person had ever been to; and you could go at any time and stay for as long as you wanted. These dreams of sex and sin and dames and a better life or even just a better hairdo and nicer living room furniture had names fit for purpose; they seemed to respect and even ennoble working people and their aspirations.
On my way to see Sin City 2: A Dame to Kill For, I noticed that the old York had disappeared, the old Loewe’s is now a huge gym were you could get yoga classes, the old Palace is a Foot Locker, the old Parisienne is an empty space to let, though a remnant of its raked floor is still visible and has not been filled in. The Rialto is a protected building but now a venue for live music; only the old Imperial is still going, the central cinema for the World Film Festival but even the queues outside seemed to be just Golden Agers. It seemed fitness is now more of a vehicle for dreams and desires than movies.
I hated seeing Sin City 2: A Dame to Kill For at a cinema called Scotiabank, with the S pictured as a dollar sign encircling the globe. And I’m a bit unreasonable about it. It’s never bothered me that Arsenal play at the Emirates or that Man City play at the Etihad so why can’t a cinema also benefit from that kind of sponsorship? For most of their history films have been a commercial proposition. They’ve been about making money. But films were never only about money. In fact films made money when the dreams and aspirations their stories conveyed connected socially with those of large sector of society. What was important was to give those dreams vivid expression, incur an intensity of feeling in the audience, make those spectres connect with the real in a social form. To have reduced all our dreams to dreams of money instead of money being a byproduct of the articulation of a great variety of different hopes, aspirations and nightmares — of a job in a certain way well done — is somehow to have diminished everything that films meant. At least to me. Maybe cinema was always about the commodification of dreams and maybe I only feel bad about it now because the commodification seems of the bargain basement variety. I’m not sure. But‘Sin City 2: A Dame to Kill For at the Scotiabank seems to me a juxtaposition in terms wavering between a comedown and a kind of barbarism.