Contemporary Obscurity: Last Night

Last NightIt’s well known that the USA dominates the medium of cinema across the globe, perhaps the only nation on earth that takes notable exception to this fact is India, which produces, on average, more films per year than Hollywood and has a dedicated domestic market (if a somewhat significantly smaller international market). Other countries have their own domestic film product of course and whilst in any given year we in the UK will find delights in the cinema of Spain, Sweden, Japan, South Korea, Mexico, France, Russia, Romania and so on, those countries are still dominated by American product at home. Some of the most celebrated of world cinema directors like Bela Tarr or Aleksandr Sokurov have found critical acclaim abroad but are barely noticed by the average cinema-goer in their own countries as American films still dominate the multiplexes. But still three of the very worst countries in terms of the volume of their domestic output are the U.K, Australia and Canada. Why is it so hard to get films made in these countries? Simple - because we speak the same language as the Americans. I am not immune from this fact of movie life, having now seen sixty-five films released in the cinema last year, twenty-six of which were American, eleven of which were British, only one was Canadian and I didn’t even get near an Australian film all year. Even with a deliberate plan to watch as diverse a set of films as possible, American productions still have a clear lead. In other nations there is always a demand for films to be released in their own language, we have no such division that would cause the masses to demand more domestic product. English speaking Canadians arguably have an even worse plight given their proximity to the U.S and the fact that most viewers can not easily distinguish between American and Canadian accents. Often what few Canadian films get through the net are mistaken for American productions, and the great talent Canada has in terms of actors, writers and directors are often lost to the bright lights of Hollywood. Just think of how many famous Canadians are regularly mistaken for Americans: Pamela Anderson, Keanu Reeves, Jim Carrey, Natasha Henstridge, Jennifer Tilly, Kiefer Sutherland, Matthew Perry, Barry Pepper, Dan Aykroyd, Neve Campbell, Kim Cattrall, Michael J. Fox, Brendan Fraser, Michael Ironside, Carrie-Anne Moss, Mike Myers, Leslie Nielsen and of course William Shatner. Now try and think of any Canadian films you might have seen them in…

Canadian cinema often has to fight tooth and nail to get noticed and one method commonly employed is to distinguish themselves in terms of tone and content from their neighbors to the south. Don McKellar is a director who did just that with his end-of-the-world feature film debut Last Night. Released in 1998 and produced for a relatively small budget of $2,000,000, it features a cast of some of the very best Canadian actors still working in their homeland, has the seal of approval from director David Cronenberg (although it must be said this film does not resemble Cronenberg’s works in the slightest) and exposes how hollow and vacuous the effects laden blockbusters that deal with the same subject matter truly are. The script doesn’t require CGI, pyrotechnics or daring stunt work, instead it concentrates on human conflicts and emotions. The world is coming to an end at midnight on Boxing day, the film takes place during the final hours of mankind, although it is never made explicit what will actually cause the annihilation of all life on earth. Subtle hints are dropped throughout the film, one character mentions how everyone will be ‘vapourised’ and as the evening wears on we become increasingly aware that it is still bright daylight when it should be night time; one ominous shot of the sun is a coy final indicator that the sun is exploding or expanding. But the particulars of this apocalypse are neither here nor there, this isn’t a story about a group of intrepid heroes searching for a way to save the planet and prevent the coming disaster, instead all of the characters have resigned themselves to the simple fact that their lives are about to come to an abrupt end. Last Night is a anthropocentric disaster movies which follows a group of loosely connected characters, each of them dealing with the situation in their own ways. McKellar never expands the scope of his narrative to address such issues as what it means for mankind as a whole to be annihilated, what he’s really interested in is how the individual reacts to the situation.

Creating a disaster movie that avoids all the clichés inherent in the genre is quite a challenge – but this film manages to do just that, by dispelling the formalist approach and focusing on the characters and ensuring the characters are not the usual motley crew of disaster movie body-count fodder. Although the films narrative is multi-stranded, the characters of Patrick Wheeler (played by the director Don McKellar) and Sandra (Sandra Oh) are arguably the films two main characters. Patrick wants to be alone when the end comes, Sandra wants to be with her husband Duncan (played by David Cronenberg) but when Sandra’s car is trashed by an unruly mob she desperately seeks help to get to the other side of town in time and Patrick decides to help her (reluctantly at first); during the course of the films events we learn more about both of them as they discover more about each other and despite both of their best efforts it seems unlikely that Sandra will ever get home to see Duncan. Duncan meanwhile is a manager at a gas company and has conscientiously called every one of his customers to reassure them that the gas will still be flowing ‘right till the end’ as he puts it, the film opens with him leaving a message to this effect on Patrick’s answering machine which delightfully sets up the tone of the film. In other loosely connected strands of the films story, Duncan waits for Sandra to return home but is accosted by a young man who seems intent on murdering him just so that he can have the experience of murder before he perishes, whether he kills Duncan or not is seemingly of little importance to either man as in a couple of hours they’ll both be dead either way. Patrick’s parents and extended family enjoy prayer and a relaxed evening at home together, his sister Jennifer (Sarah Polley) and her partner Alex attend an end-of-the-world party in the streets. Duncan’s assistant Donna agrees to keep the gas running as she has no one else to spend the time with, but soon gets bored spending her final hours alone; Patrick’s friend from school Craig (Callum Keith Rennie of Due South and Battlestar Galactica fame) is trying to fulfill every sexual fantasy he can in what time he has left, we open his story with a young black woman arriving at his flat, he admits that his desire to have sex with her is based on the fact that he’d never slept with a black woman before, in a fine example of the films sense of humour she admits to Craig that she “just wants to have an orgasm today” to which he replies “I’ll try my best” this sexual negotiation between a pair of consenting adults is also a good example of the films subversion of movie-stereotypes, Craig is a sex obsessed womaniser but he is portrayed as a sympathetic and sensitive lover who isn’t just merely using the women he encounters but trying to give them an experience as well. Later Craig meets his old school teacher Mrs. Carlton and has a similar sexual encounter with her; she later attends a classical music concert which is being performed by another of her old students. Each of these various characters and plot strands intersect at various points, two characters may be complete strangers at the start of the film but will end up sharing a moment of intimacy as the story progresses and their paths cross.

Last NightLast Night is the ultimate ‘what would you do?’ film and it provides many differing responses to that question via its central characters. How each of them reacts to the situation varies radically; Patrick for example wanting isolation, we discover later in the film why he is so full of sorrow and that his world effectively ended much earlier; Sandra wants to kill herself so that she can have control over when she leaves this world, she confesses to Patrick at one point that even though they’ve known the world will end for a while she deliberately became pregnant to prove to herself that she had the power to do so, the ephemeral existence of her unborn child is a final rebellion against an unfair universe that would cut short her life just as it’s truly beginning. Craig invests all of his time in sexual experiences, he’s written a list of every sexual act he wants to fulfill and has nearly completed the list, when Patrick visits him he openly propositions him even though neither man is homosexual, this bitter sweet scene is both touching and humorous as Craig blurts out his request unexpectedly and Patrick responds, rather embarrassed, by saying he’d need at least a good month to prepare him for that experience and he doesn’t want to have ‘bad sex’ today. Their dialogue follows a tradition of awkward politeness even when (as Craig is well aware) such traditions are now null and void. As they part ways Patrick says “I’ll be seeing you” to which Craig quickly responds “no you won't.” Such a sharp realisation pulls the situation back into focus.

Last Night plays with its genre in a variety of ways, the opening title is deliberately done with a 1950’s B-movie style typeface and the original music by Alexina Louie and Alex Pauk is similarly 1950’s science fiction inflected. To the composers credit the music never becomes overbearing when it could quite easily have done so, its sparse application being a good choice on the part of McKellar. Both the title typeface and music invoke the heightened and campy melodramatic films that McKellar has so meticulously avoided emulating within the drama and style of the film, that he does invoke these movies is again telling of his playful sense of humour and what is masterful about these choices is how he manages to blend incongruous elements so perfectly. Visually the film is very bright, as already mentioned the sun still burns away in the sky as the seconds count down to midnight; apocalypse movies are usually much darker visually, but McKellar proves that this is not the only way to shoot such films and in fact the opposite can be just as powerful, the brightness exposes how empty places are far more effectively than darkness does, and the rare occasions when darkness takes over (for instance when Duncan is threatened at gun point and he slowly backs away into the shadows of his home) it is infinitely more effective because of its rarity. But the film never gets too distracted by these oh-so-clever genre contortions; this is because ultimately McKellar knew that the success of Last Night comes down to one unquestionably breathtaking performance from Sandra Oh, in a part written specifically for her. Whilst initially viewers may worry that her character is a mere damsel-in-distress who needs rescuing by Patrick, that worry is soon dispensed with as we get to know Sandra, who she is, what makes her tick, her obsession with maintaining control over her life, to subjugate death, her deep sadness when she comes to realise that she’ll never see her husband again and her desperation to fulfill her obligation to him and end her life before the world ends. The film combines human collision with laughter and fuses them to an original, intellectual confrontation and an unorthodox aesthetic experience. Through this process McKellar creates meaning and charges the events of his film with a particularly accentuated significance. The final scenes of the film and the climax of all of the varied plot strands is emotionally overwhelming, more so than one might expect at the start of the film. The message of McKellar’s prelapsarian film can be interpreted in many ways but what I took from the film was a paradoxically optimistic message, one that asks you to live every day as if it were your last, one that recognises that death is an integral part of life and one that promotes human intimacy as the final recourse of mankind.