Tuesday, July 3, 2007

On Reginald Harkema’s Monkey Warfare - an essay by Kohei Usuda

Hey everybody,

Sorry for the lack of new material as of late. Chalk it up to days spent moving and unpacking, as well as hours of grueling labour in the salt mines (I swear to God I'm going to quit).

That being said, I have exciting news: Kino-Eye finally has it's first contributor. A friend and local film maker, Kohei Usuda has generously contributed a short essay he has written on Reginald Harkema’s film 'Monkey Warfare', a 2006 feature shot largely in Parkdale. I won't say too much about the article (too many cooks in the kitchen and all that) other than to say that I'm always pleased to read Kohei's writing on film, given that he brings to his essays a critical and yet sensitive appreciation of cinema as a medium and as an art.

Read and enjoy (and then contribute something yourself).

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'On Reginald Harkema’s Monkey Warfare'

By Kohei Usuda

Writing on the current state of Canadian films in the new issue of Cahiers du cinéma, Mark Peranson lists Reginald Harkema’s 'Monkey Warfare' – which was shot largely in Toronto’s Parkdale district – as two of 2006’s most unique Canadian films alongside 'Radiant City' by Burns and Brown. Yet, upon reading the reviews of 'Monkey Warfare', one cannot but be alarmed by all the discussions regarding the political implication of the film, such as the theme of “burned-out post-radicalism” that Harkema’s film is supposedly commenting on. At any rate, that is how Toronto Star’s Geoff Pevere begins his review, going on to say that Monkey Warfare “is about things that have gone stale. Things like marriage, idealism, old records and yesterday’s hopes.” Indeed, for NOW’s Cameron Bailey, “Monkey Warfare is that rare Canadian film that takes politics seriously”; likewise, for Eye’s Jason Anderson, “Monkey Warfare returns repeatedly to questions about how one is supposed to go about changing the world and whether violent acts are ever justified.”

Of course, the critics are not wholly mistaken in speaking of Harkema’s film in terms of contextual aspect of the film; however, in doing so, the same critics must not fail to notice the other equally important subject of 'Monkey Warfare': i.e. the subject of recycling, exchanging, and trading. That is how, as we see throughout the film, the Parkdale couple Dan and Linda (Don McKellar and Tracy Wright) make their living: gleaning up offbeat vintage items off the street, and selling them on to the buyers through their website. Harkema obviously underlines this theme by showing the gestures of his characters passing objects from one character to another. As a matter of fact, it is this gesture that the relationship between each character is established. For instance, we recall that it is through the gesture of the young pot-dealer Susan (Nadia Litz) passing a joint to Dan that they strike up their friendship (see OutNow.ch). But obviously we must wait until once that Dan passes his radical ideology to her – as presented in the forms of books and records – that they move beyond their simple association as a dealer and a client. Finally, their relationship based on exchange is fully complete when Susan uses his theory into practice, that is, when she actually transforms Dan’s idea into action. (But unfortunately the story doesn’t end happily for her since Dan refuses to pass on his know-how of making a Molotov cocktail!) Of course, the danger in passing on an object is that, sooner or later, it might come back to its original owner, hence making a full circle: thus, in no time, the young Susan emerges as a radicalized revolutionary, transforming herself into Dan’s older self to haunt his hidden past. This is a classic image of a snake swallowing its own tail. Perhaps that is why there are numerous circular objects in the film, such as bicycle wheels, vinyl records, and so on.

In this sense, despite many critics’ allusion to Godard – Cameron Bailey name-drops 'La Chinoise' as well as 'Two or Three Things I Know about Her' – Harkema’s film is closer to Bresson in essence than to the filmmaker of 'Week End'. Indeed, it was Bresson – and not Godard – who used to film the movements and circulations of objects passing from one hand to another. (The images of hands snatching wallets in 'Pickpocket' are probably one of the most graceful moments in the history of cinema.) Yet, save for one fleeting shot, in this film about objects passing from one hand to another, Harkema refuses to present banknotes in the image. That is to say, unlike Bresson’s 'L’Argent', he refuses to show the transaction of money and goods, the act of which the French director saw as an evil deed. If there is no place for banknote in 'Monkey Warfare', perhaps it is because money is something people use to dispense with; a banknote as an object is nothing more than a piece of paper, without a value in itself other than its symbol as the currency.

In final analysis, we can say that Reg Harkema is a materialistic filmmaker. In the sense that, firstly, he presents interaction between people by filming the movements of objects that pass between them; secondly, he shows things such as knowledge, revolution, politics, history – all elements without substance, therefore un-representable in the image – in filmable objects such as vinyl LPs of left-field music, books on history, on revolutions, etc.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Looking forward to more good reads.
Your work is appreciated. C.