By Filmmaker Flick Harrison.
The film “Marie Tyrell”came to my attention when I was asked to moderate the Cinematic Salon, a monthly informal community event in Vancouver, hosted by Cineworks, a non-profit artist-run cinema centre. The Cinematic Salon is meant to “provide an opportunity for dialogue around film artistry, in which guest artists show and discuss their work, encourage other filmmakers at all stages of their careers, as well as for individuals simply interested in film, meet, discuss and learn from each other’s experiences in film making.” This particular event was called “Flick Harrison: Film Interactive” due to its interactive features as a means to demystify or interrogate the narrative, politics and production of the film.
As it states on the Cineworks website,
“Flick Harrison’s award winning short MARIE TYRELL based on the 1974 short story by Vancouver author D.M. Fraser. Marie Tyrell is a humanizing portrait of a woman on death row, from inquisitive teen to uncompromising revolutionary leader. Like the 1974 short story by legendary local author D.M Fraser, Harrison’s film weaves multiple perspectives, splintered time and forceful poetic language into a startling examination of the politics of dissent. Mixing painterly compositions, traditional narrative, and a richly-layered bombardment of symbols and imagery, Marie Tyrell hijacks the aesthetics of high-art and hostage-video, of indymedia and indiewood.”
As the event’s moderator, and as an interactive media producer, curator and instructor, I felt it was my role to interrogate the DVD, beyond the intentions of the artist, but also as a new thread in the on-going Interactive Cinema discourse. I’d like to share some of my questions and comments, for both the viewers and the filmmaker, some of which were answered, some still remain to be answered.
‘Marie Tyrell’ can be viewed from many perspectives and all of which had to be considered and questioned before the events, so that I could field viewers’ questions appropriately or stimulate discussion effectively. Some of those perspectives include: standard technical execution concerns, production development factors, the political and social issues presented by the content, the film narrative construction and inclusion of non-narrative aspects, the presentation format, the DVD interactivity and audience response or experience. I will briefly discuss all of these perspectives, and finally, the success of the in all these areas.
To start with I’d like to discuss the content of the Marie Tyrell story, which was taken from an adaptation of the D.M. Fraser short story of the same name. The social issues addressed in the film focus on social activism in times of war, terrorism and the line between the activities of it and activism, the current social climate in the world due to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, police brutality and subsequent fascism taking place in so-called democratic societies. The film is trying to address the topical concerns of the loss freedoms including liberty, dignity and free speech, rights that, especially in the US, are threatened after September 11th, 2001. The Marie Tyrell story also suggests that activists are portrayed to uninformed citizens, by the government and the media to be, sometimes are treated as, or assumed to be, terrorists. So that when individuals get involved in protest activities or activist organizations (even art projects, such as with Steve Kurtz and the Critical Art Ensemble case, some fearful citizens believe the right-wing rhetoric, that the two are synonymous. While the divisions between activism and terrorism are not black and white, as they have been perceived in the past and certain cases are sometimes difficult to discern, peaceful civil protest is NOT terrorism. The film seems to be stating that, to take away basic civil rights such as an individual’s right to protest about injustice and government misconduct, is considered undemocratic in Western, countries. However, the film brings these issues to the foreground and show how fragile these right are, in a timely, if fragmentary, dream-like way.
A deconstruction of Marie Tyrell’s narrative elements, reveals its non-linear approach (i.e. the dream-like weaving through the protagonist’s memories), not dissimilar to other recent, popular independent films such as Memento by Christopher Nolan. However the questions that the non-narrative aspects evoke are: Do we really have a story here or a manipulation of emotional response? Does this non-linear approach add or detract from the message or impact? Why did the filmmaker choose this approach to present the political content, wasn’t there a more straightforward approach? The rationale to is primarily that the work, adapted directly from the 1974 short story by Fraser, also wove in multiple perspectives, splintered time and used forceful poetic language to create an impassioned view of his experience of politics in the 1970’s, which parallel those of today. But this approach begs another question, what was the motivation to work with this topic and/or this poem? More fodder to explore Harrison’s political views or an unearthing of under appreciated political commentary to show that things haven’t changed much? I would wager, both.
To change focus now, to the mechanics of the work, let’s look at the DVD construction and its interactive elements. In respect of the domain of Interactive Narrative in film. Between 2000-2001, there were only a few film-makers, interactive artists. Such as Janet Murray, and her Hamlet on the Holodeck fans, whose attention was peaked. Yet this domain seemed to develop more in the online and console gaming world, with a few Macromedia Flash animators and designers interested in creating projects that explored its possibilities (not to mention Science Museums and Planetariums). However, not many filmmakers took up the challenge, if only for the cost of shooting all the “choose your own adventure” elements, necessary to make it work, requiring many different possible choices of scenes or narrative routes for the viewer to pursue. In addition, the presentation format of this type of film is limited to home computers and set-top DVD systems, at that time not common. Yet, here in Vancouver one filmmaker, David Wheeler, attempted such a project, with his interactive DVD feature Point of View (P.O.V.) in 2001, to limited release and exposure.
Recently, in my online travels, I have begun to see more active discussion again of Interactive Narrative, primarily from artists and academics interested in database or generative online, non-linear video. As new and different technologies now are available to explore, the possibilities are perhaps open once more. The conundrum that always surfaces is, however, how can viewers be turned, from viewers who passively immerse in the content and visuals, into users actively involved and interested in changing the narrative outcome? Many in this debate have even suggested that we stop pursuing this and leave film and TV entertainment formats as they are, lean back media, while web, interactive projects and games stay as they are, lean forward media, leave it alone so that never the two can meet.
So did Marie Tyrell contribute to this discourse? Not in my assessment, but it did add a more interesting and thoughtful means of accessing and engaging with the Special Features of a DVD, which is something in itself. So good effort on Harrison’s part taking on the challenge, no matter the motive.
On the Cineworks Cinematic Salon web page for the event, it explains that the:
“Interactive DVD: Buttons in the video can also “interrogate” the narrative, and the politics of the film’s production, by calling up documentary segments: for instance, an interview with Erik Paulsson, who sat on a BC Arts funding jury which rejected Marie Tyrell. Including original footage of Noam Chomsky, Svend Robinson, Larry Campbell, the Woodwards Squat, Arts Council Jurists, and antiwar protests.”
Harrison, a local Vancouver film-maker, often known to have political, controversial and thought-provoking topics for his projects, was having trouble getting his film project funded. For whatever reasons (which are delved into in more detail on the DVD), he took advantage of the novelty factor and the potential of the interactive DVD format, to attract the interest in the project by the film and video funders. It seemed to work, but has it pushed the medium? Some may say “yes”, some may say “no”. As someone who’s researched this domain a little, I would have to say, “not really”, and I think Harrison would admit to this as well.
In terms of exposing the production process, such as: funding concerns, filming and technical elements, and the style or approach, in the DVD’s interrogation mode has interaction that mainly features clickable buttons, which appear at certain points in the narrative and expand on the behind-the-scenes pre-production such as, the funding process; the adaptation of the short story, the politics of it and the era in which it was written, as well as the parallels it has to current day circumstances; and other documentary elements that correspond to the reference points in the interrogation mode of the DVD.
I asked Harrison, did this way of connecting the content to the process, add to the experience for the viewer, and how was it different from standard Special Features that you normally find in most commercial DVDs? His response was that, “the intention was to aid viewers in becoming more engaged with the film making process, not just to have them sit back and take it in as finished entertainment piece, but to have them to think about the all aspects of film making.” This approach perhaps harkens back to the Fluxus or Structuralist Movements in experimental film making of the 60 and 70’s, where the materials for making the film were exposed, to thus, become the film content. In this case, Harrison not only used the technological materials as the product, but all the parts in the process from the funding, to the text adaptation, to the filming of political protests, to the historical fodder for the story, etc. as the materials as well.
Ultimately, the choice made for this approach, again, was to show the unique means of presenting the content, in order to receive funding. Harrison agrees that, in some ways this interrogation mode of the DVD is not so different than presenting the Special Features menu to viewers, to see how the film was made or watch the whole film again with the director’s commentary, etc. However, he sees it as less about showing the viewers how cool the film is but, rather as a tool to sell the DVD, with its special effects etc, but instead about demystifying the whole process of film-making, stripping it down and exposing both the good and the bad. In the end, some could see it as two different approaches to the same end: to make money so to continue to make more films. And while such a motive is a reality, whether you are a big production company or an independent film-maker, let’s just be clear about the fact that they are basically the same thing.
So while I think the overall intention of the interactive component was to find funding to make a controversial or political film, and the interactivity merely a by-product of the process, the result still has merit, in terms of exploring interactivity through film.
Finally, in discussing the presentation format and the audience response or experience, I wonder, was it meant to be seen in a gallery, movie theatre, or on personal computer? Is it intended to be more personal or private? Isolated and alienating (mirroring the film subject matter and main character), does this interactive approach add to the viewer’s experience? Or does it feel familiar? Harrison suggests that he is focusing on distributing the work in two parts: the DVD to galleries and artist-run centres in Canada and the film to Film Festivals, which reiterates my claim that presentation is a difficult task for this type of project. Perhaps he should find a way to put it online (and why wasn’t that a first choice? the lack of royalties and people willing to pay for it likely), atleast some of the interrogation mode documentary clips. This is a huge hurdle for this medium to leap and likely the main reason it is not pursued more; how does one cover the huge costs of making the project if its difficult to present? Speaking from my own experience of watching the film the first time, at my computer. I would say that it really should be watched with a computer and headphones over the theatre setting. The impact of the narrative is felt so much more intimately and the ability to surf around in the interrogation mode helps the viewer to really “get” what Harrison was going for. On the other hand, it also allows those of us with short attention spans to not explore it, as in depth, he might wish. So the jury is still out on each mode experience for this piece.
So is this project successful as a new means to explore interactive cinema? I would say, not really, for reasons given above, but at least filmmakers are still toying with this domain and if the worlds of film and games could start to crossover more, there might be more interesting interactive narratives in both domains.
Is Marie Tyrell successful as a controversial film? I would say, yes. It has many intriguing and provocative ideas and insights that nudge the viewer to consider the current political reality worldwide. It was successful, in terms of my experience, having viewed it both, with others at the Cineworks’ Cinematic Salon, and with my video production students, easily prompting discussion on the issues presented by it.
Is Marie Tyrell successful as an experimental film project? I would say that it is, it effectively uses an non-linear narrative approach, unfolding the world of the main character. It mixes visual fragments with poetic narration, to elucidate the memories of the main and supporting characters, as Marie moves toward her execution for her implied terrorism, as a barrage of memories flashing in one’s mind before they die. It is an aesthetically appealing film (except for one extra long psychedelic segment 2/3 of the way through), that is well told cinematically, leaving the viewer ponderous and emotionally affected.
It was successful in terms of creating a closer connection between topical clues within the main narrative content and with the documentary or interrogation elements of the film making process. This was fresh, and interestingly there were more interrogation documentary clips than there was in the original film. One could easily get so caught up in that part and forget the original film they started with. I’m not sure if this was because the main film was edited more stringently or that on some level the film was just a way to lure a viewer into the politics and world of the film-maker. Perhaps the real artwork here is the whole DVD as a package, which would be more aptly named, “Flick Harrison’s Trails and Tribulations in the Making of Marie Tyrell”, as the real project is not just the dreamlike short.
For more on the interactive DVD and screening bookings or copies, contact Flick Harrison:
For more on the Cineworks and the Cinematic Salon, see:
For more on Camille Baker, see: