At no time in the past is it likely that people saw themselves as living in a golden age or even a silver one; more likely it was the age of lead they saw themselves embedded in. Despair has always dogged man’s heels. Cynicism has always been the philosophy of least resistance.
Yet every age had the good fortune to produce artists who worked against the grain. Where there was disorganized noise, they created harmony and melody. Where there was ugliness, cruelty and a hopelost acquiescence to both, they created paintings, sculpture, poetry and drama of remarkable beauty and sentient feeling. Some people when placed in a tragic situation simply want to give in, give up and cry. The artists I admire have a tenacious grip on life. Instead of bemoaning that life is meaningless, they create meaning. If man has no dignity, they give him some.
My favorite kind of art, be it films, music or literature, is rooted in a thoroughly disillusioned realism. That is its base, not its conclusion. It recognizes human frailty. It knows full well the self-deception, perversity and moral turpitude of human beings. It does not overlook man’s limitations, it nevertheless looks beyond them. It is art that always speaks plainly and clearly. It is never more complex than its subject matter requires. Its objective is to clarify our lives and make them more intelligible. Apart from offering luminous insights, it may not offer any other consolation or hope.
Paul Almond’s Journey, starring Geneviève Bujold and John Vernon, is a film that collides with all of these standards. If it were simply a careless, un talented failure (like Another Smith For Paradise) or another example of show-business opportunism (like Ivan Reitman’s Cannibal Girls) it would deserve scant consideration. Instead, it is an obtuse mistake, a tragic error.
Paul Almond is one of the few Canadian film makers with the integrity, taste and intelligence to create great, original art. He never plays a cozy game of manipulating familiar emotions. But in Journey, knowing that his career as a director is at stake, and that after the encouraging but limited response to Isabel and Act Of The Heart the need existed for a film with popular appeal, he has created a film that is either perversely meaningless, or else so impenetrably personal as to be inaccessible to any outsider.
Journey is two films that cannot unite. One is a beautifully photographed, realistic study of primitive farm life. The other is a maddening metaphysical muddle that makes no sense. The setting is the Saguenay River region on Quebec’s North Shore, a few miles from Tadoussac. Apart from the haunting scenic background, the main set is a log cabin settlement lovingly built with an exacting sense of period detail. So much care has gone into the mounting of the film, so much that is hard to do has been done well, that it only increases the pain of seeing the film dissipate its potentialities through dialogue that sounds as if it was written by Kahlil Gibran in a stupor. I have never been able to read the New Testament without irritation. And had I been one of the crowd that listened to Jesus relate a parable, probably would have said, “Well, what was that all about?” Listening to someone who has marbles in his mouth is bad enough without listening to someone who has marbles in his mind and can only talk about life through an agate haze. The current revival of interest in astrology, the occult, in a pop star Christ, is a wave of irrationality. It brings to mind an image of dumb, frightened creatures perched on a river’s edge. They have, through arduous evolution, made it out of the water into the air and hot, bleaching sun. But they’re losing their grip. They’re sliding back into a murky slime. They are no more suited for going backward than they are for going forward. They will perish in a morass of bewilderment and fear.
Journey is not made to cash in on any fashionable fuzzy thinking. But one type of murk is pretty much like another. Only in its realistic scenes does the film have a quick, live pulse. In scenes of shearing and combing wool, the gutting of a pig, the birth of a calf, the seeding and harvesting of crops, Almond creates images that are comparable to Robert Flaherty’s classic documentaries, and to the unblinking vision of Luis Bunuel’s Los Olividados and Georges Franju’s Blood Of Beasts. These vivid images are reinforced by Luke Gibson’s folk songs. In such portions of the film there is every evidence of a sensitive, strongly visual sensibility at work. But then the characters begin to speak. “Where am I? Is this really real? Or is it a dream? Why do I feel I’ve been here before? Where is here?” and so on. Their dilemma is not particularly interesting. It is never clearly defined. And it goes unresolved. The film contains speeches so fragmented and elliptical that even Geneviève Bujold cannot make them convincing. She gives a valiant performance, rather than a moving one, because it is impossible to connect with the lines. The film makes no concessions to common sense. It is the most archly baffling film since Last Year At Marienbad. If Journey aspires to that comparison, however, it suffers by it. For instead of feeling that you are in the presence of an intricate puzzle, elegantly formulated as a brain teaser, Journey doesn’t inspire confidence in its convoluted plot. Marienbad offered complexity with clarity; Journey is simply confused.
If Paul Almond would speak as plainly on film as he does in everyday life, and concentrate on material closer to people’s lives, he would, I believe, create fine films. It should be no sacrifice for him to forsake his obscurantist bent and shock endings. They are the least rewarding aspects of his films. His talents are meaningless unless they are exercised in making a film that relates to people. Journey doesn’t communicate. It veils reality instead of revealing it. It adds to life’s confusion instead of clarifying a part of it. I doubt that the fogginess and forked-tongue fabling in Journey is exploitable as a cause célèbre, hotly debated at cocktail parties and in academic film magazines. Or that it will pass as a “stoned” movie: a mind-boggling entertainment for minds that are easily boggled. Its most probable fate is a crushing defeat for Almond. He’ll have to change. His real journey is only beginning.
Recommended: The Candidate, starring Robert Redford, Peter Boyle, Melvyn Douglas and Don Porter, is a rarity: a political film that is neither excessively cynical nor paranoid. It is a commendable try to depict the hack and stab world of politics by tracing the course of a senatorial race in California. Where it falls short is in having as its central character Bill McKay (Redford) a man who begins as a strong-viewed idealist and becomes increasingly passive and confused as he is “packaged” by campaign managers, speech writers and advertising agericies. The film would be stronger if he were stronger. As it is, one concludes only that politics is no place for antiheroes, and that hardly seems a cautionary message. ■
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