Adam Nayman lays out some of the knotty equations his new film series will attempt to solve.
In school—even in film school—they don’t teach you that Showgirls is a deceptively clever camp satire, or that Robocop is a cheeky Christ allegory. And they certainly won’t let slip the secret that for all his self-consciously cerebral filmmaking, Cronenberg may be a bit of a hack. But for those of us who know that we can learn more about the cinema, art, and—why not?—each other by carefully watching a ninety minute movie about a robotic cop than we could ever learn from years of book learning and higher educatin’, there’s a different kind of school in session.
This Monday, Toronto film critic and lecturer Adam Nayman (Eye Weekly, Metro, Cinema Scope, among many, many others) kicks off a new lecture series at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre. Whereas Nayman’s last run of classes looked at different developments in cinemas from across the globe, his latest series focuses on divisive, confrontational filmmakers. Titled, “Love ‘Em or Hate ‘Em: Controversial Directors in Nayman’s Terms” (the pun never gets old), Nayman will zero in on the work of Roman Polanski, Catherine Breillat, local boy David Cronenberg, and his own sacred cow, Paul Verhoeven (the subject of Monday’s kick-off class).
Through lectures, clips, and plenty of lively discussion, Nayman intends to probe the work and opinions surrounding this contentious quartet of auteurs. In the process, he also hopes to give Toronto’s alternative film culture a bit of a kick in the seat.
We chatted with him to learn more.
Torontoist: How did you settle on these four filmmakers?
Adam Nayman: I tried to rack my brain for filmmakers who are not only controversial, but polarizing. I wanted to split it between directors who have been talked a lot about in terms of why they’re polarizing and those that haven’t. And they’re all controversial in different ways. For instance, with Polanski, most of it has to do with his life and the question of whether the best reading of his art is through his life. He’s really no more radical in terms of form and content than any other Eastern European filmmaker who came of age in the ‘60s. Whereas with Cronenberg and Breillat it’s more confrontational filmmaking.
Breillat seems the odd man out, not only because she’s not a man, but because the other three trade in genre pictures, and their style emerges through the way in which they colour outside the lines, whereas Breillat is more unproblematically art house. Unless you consider her newer high-minded fairy tale movies a kind of genre filmmaking.
She is unproblematically art house. What I wanted to explore is whether her move towards a costume drama like The Last Mistress, or revisionist fairy tales like Sleeping Beauty or Bluebeard, constitutes a retreat from the more obviously confrontational aspects of her films. Her career sort of breaks into pre- and post-Fat Girl. The pre-Fat Girl stuff hasn’t been talked about that much. And everything she does now seems to be an aftershock of that movie.
Paul Verhoeven is a favourite of yours, and obviously you’ve thought a lot about him. How do you take that pool of knowledge and present it to folks who might just be popping in to hear about the guy who made Basic Instinct?
One of the things I failed at with my last course was not having enough space for the students. In a classroom environment, to some extent there’s this intimidation that I don’t like. I never liked it in school and I don’t like it when I go to lectures and to some extent I think I was guilty of it. What I really want in this class is for it to be a space where people bring what they think about these directors to the class.
I know there will be people who come to the class who don’t buy the idea of Verhoeven as any kind of major filmmaker. They don’t buy him as a satirist. They don’t think that there’s this interesting gap between idea and representation in Starship Troopers or, to a lesser extent, in Showgirls. But especially with the Verhoeven class, I’m looking for debate.
What about Cronenberg? The books have literally been written on him. How do you insert yourself into that existing dialogue?
It’s good that the books have been written on him. And most of them are pretty good. I sort of subscribe to the idea that he became a better filmmaker and less interesting at the same time. He’s really fascinating in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, as this guy working in a very ragged, in some ways sloppy manner, but who on an intellectual level is always probing and pushing, even if it’s not coherent. He catches up to himself. He was always super-articulate about movies that were in some sense “bad,” but now he’s just as articulate about works of “quality,” these classier thrillers. I think that little bit of friction that made him interesting in the ‘80s has been smoothed out.
Say what you will about Paul Verhoeven, but you’d be an idiot to not find this picture of him kissing Arnold adorable.
This program, like your last one, seems to be addressing the gaps that might exist in Toronto’s alternative film culture. Are you trying to fill these gaps?
I’m not going to say anything about the kind of programming that already exists, except to say that there should be more of it. I think the stuff they do at the Lightbox is good. And when guest speakers come to the Revue or Bloor, it’s good. And what the Underground Cinema is doing with Defending the Indefensible [sometimes hosted by the writer of this article] is excellent. I just think there should be as much of it as possible.
It’s arguable that because the Lightbox exists, maybe there’s more of a need for there to be more of it, if we’re going to have a pluralistic, non-uniform Toronto film culture…I’d love something that’s more like a film club or a film society, something that’s not about one lecturer or curator, but is about people showing films. If there’s any way to start doing that with prints, but to add this scholarly component, this context to it, I can’t think of anything better.
Photos by Corbin Smith/Torontoist.
“Love ‘Em or Hate ‘Em: Controversial Directors in Nayman’s Terms” kicks of Monday, March 21 at 7 p.m. at the Miles Nadal JCC (750 Spadina Avenue). The first class will focus on the work of Dutch master Paul Verhoeven. Remaining classes will cover the work of Roman Polanski (March 28), David Cronenberg (April 4) and Catherine Breillat (April 11). Cost is $12 per class, or $6 with a valid student ID.