O,Brazen Age was one of my favourite discoveries at VIFF 2015 (and one of the best Canadian films of the year), so it was a pleasure to sit down and talk with its writer/director, Alexander Carson, about his approach to filmmaking, literature, the role of indie filmmaking, his postmodern approach to art in his debut feature.
This is your debut feature, although you have made shorts and worked as a producer on your films as part of the North Country Cinema. How was the transition from shorts to features, and how much of it is a shared vision, not just your own, since you were working as part of a collective?
The transition from shorts to features, for me, was not so challenging because I decided that I didn’t want to do anything differently than on my short films. It’s a longer format, but I didn’t want to get overwhelmed. I decided to stick with personal storytelling, mixed media, all the defining characteristics that gave life to my short films. In terms of scope it was a challenge, obviously a bigger film, shooting in Toronto… But in terms of the actual quality and intent of the work, I didn’t change anything in my process.
In terms of working as part of a collective, Kyle Thomas (writer/director of The Valley Below from VIFF 2014) and I have been working together since we went to film school in Montreal over 10 years ago. We became fast friends at school, then we were roommates; we worked on all of each other’s projects. I was a good shooter, and he was good at sound design. We took turns writing and directing, and we always found a way to make it work. When we got out of school we decided to pursue the collaboration at a professional level. I produced The Valley Below for him, and he produced O, Brazen Age for me. Furthermore, Kyle also acts in the film (as Danny), and he also did sound design. Working on a micro-budget, you have to do a lot of the work yourself, and you have to call in a lot of favours. Having the solidarity of a bunch of close collaborators to support you and help out in a pinch is essential.
Your film resonated strongly with me, and with many people I talked to who were at the premiere: it felt extremely personal, close to your own life – even without knowing you it felt authentic, genuine, etc. How much of it is autobiographical, not necessarily in all the events, but in the tone and approach?
I think you’re fairly spot-on. A lot of it is true to life. The film reflects a lot of my interests. Photography, the history of literature, etc. The film is very much engaged in a kind of intellectual discourse about these topics, and about art, in general. But in terms of the actual relationships in the film, and the emotional core of it, yeah, it’s a film about a group of friends who are both good and bad for each other after all these years. They’re still stuck hanging around together for better or worse. A lot of the people who worked on the film are my oldest friends. My brother’s in it, Kyle’s in it, Nicholas and Evan. That’s what’s interesting about friendship to me, how it can be both things at the same time. Or many things at the same time. Hopefully that complexity comes across in the characters’ relationships. It felt important for me to make the film because that aspect of it is so close to my heart and my experience.
It feels very vulnerable, putting out something that close.
It is a very emotional film in some ways. It’s also about a core of this group of friends—mostly guys—who are educated and intelligent, but also extremely aloof and even cold at points. Uncaring, selfish, etc. I find them extremely likeable and engaging, but I can imagine how frustrating or it might be to actually be in a close relationships with these people. To go back to my previous point, there’s something really interesting in that play between these people being appealing and remote. Alternately tender and cruel. They’re definitely contained in their own worlds, or in each other’s orbits.
At one point, there’s a line, I can’t remember who says it: “I can’t face the world in character anymore.” It jumped out as a universal quality; the idea that we all have our faces and characters we adopt in our lives.
Yeah, Joe Perry who plays Jack, a struggling actor, delivers that line. It’s about him losing faith in the idea of performance as a meaningful thing to do with his life. He’s going through this crisis of faith where he’s thinking that he doesn’t know if he even believes Charlie’s story anymore. He wanted to invest emotionally in her cause she seemed so genuine, representing something missing in his life. But as the weeks go by back in Toronto, he starts to lose faith. He doesn’t know if she was spinning a yarn for him. The idea of doing that for a living, being an actor, being in the trade of artful deception, suddenly doesn’t seem so appealing to him. So that’s in question here for Jack, and several other characters in the film—the question of whether a life in the arts has value. Everyone has to go through that kind of despair in their twenties—the bigger question is how you come out on the other side.
Alex Carson (Right) with Joe Perry (Left)
In regards to faith, in some ways the film reminded me of Flannery O’Connor’s line that the American South is “Christ-Haunted”, whereas O, Brazen Age is faith haunted. Not just in a spiritual or religious sense, although that is certainly present, but a faith in purpose, a faith that it is possible to find meaning in your life. What does that mean to you?
I’m always looking. These characters are very much engaged in that same search. Mired in this world they’ve found as adults, they have to reconcile the world in front of them with the world they were promised as kids. What role does spiritually play in that? In a sense, we live in a secular society, but it’s a graveyard of symbols. We still see Christian iconography everywhere, our society is still steeped in it.
Literature is infused with it.
Exactly, the history of western literature, and storytelling itself in its broadest sense, is so inextricably linked to the history of Christianity. I am always interested in that, in the way we read the world through all of these metaphors we can’t dispense with, whether we like it or not, whether they’re relevant or not in the 21st century in Canada where most people are not expressly religious in the way they would have been 100 years ago, or even 50 years ago. Despite the movement toward a secular society we can’t help but read certain narratives through those lenses. But even beyond references to Christianity, there are numerous references to seminal texts like Lolita. As viewers, we can’t help but contextualize the film in reference to everything that’s come before it. I’m interested in how that attachment to the legacy of Western literature is both beautiful and problematic at the same time.
Being in, as Charles Taylor would say, “A Secular Age”, many people don’t have an understanding of those symbols, yet they’re still reading through them. They don’t know what to do with them even as they’re working through them.
Right, which I think is a discourse that the film actively engages in. I don’t know if I have any answers, but I’m interesting in confronting the topic head-on by presenting a film that is steeped in heavy allusions to these narratives and metaphors that we’re talking about. It’s a delightfully confounding situation we find ourselves in.
Exactly. So, also, even while you’re quoting and alluding to all sorts of texts, without allowing viewers to know what it is directly, keeping the audience constantly second guessing themselves and wondering “Where have I heard that before?” But there are also some personal, original poetry and short stories of your own as well. Many filmmakers would divorce literature and filmmaking as two different mediums of art. You’ve brought them together in your film, actively creating both. How do you connect the two, and how does it affect how you approach filmmaking?
I love reading, I obviously love poetry, especially. I feel like this film is a postmodern storm of quotations and allusions to many, many different literary sources, including many 20th century texts, but also reaching as far back as Greek and Roman mythology. I guess it’s a reflection of my love of text itself. There is a commitment to poetry in this film that is probably extremely unfashionable and unpopular in contemporary cinema.
And often, when there is that much voiceover, even diegetic. Many cinephiles would dismiss it as too literary a film, wanting you to focus on the image instead. Here it works, for whatever reasons.
Because there are so many voiceovers, I tried to do something different with each one. Sometimes the voiceover description and the image on the screen seem to more-or-less reconcile. Other times they conflict, presenting a kind of unreliable narration. And sometimes the pairing is totally associative or lyrical. I wanted to give myself different challenges as a storyteller, and provide the audience with different tasks as spectators.
Right. It’s not this static voice, text, same old. The different sections help too, the five chapter headings, where each line works together almost like a disjointed poem in itself, pieced together from different sources. Where were they sourced from?
They’re referencing sources as far-flung as The Tempest, Paradise Lost, an Eagles song, and Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe. But yeah, it’s very uneven, combining classical and modernist literatures with pop culture—I wanted there to be this playful inconsistency to the whole thing. Keeping the viewer alert and slightly behind, always catching up.
I got that sense too. I was an English Major, so many of these were familiar, but the context hides them. It takes a second to kick in, as many of the references wouldn’t register until a few scenes later. I can’t wait to rewatch it and be able to be with the film, instead of a step behind.
All of these allusions to literature, it’s a bit of a postmodern puzzle. If you like this stuff, you can get in to it; if you don’t, I don’t think it affects your enjoyment of the film. I think it’s an extra level that you can take or leave as a viewer.
I think the words speak enough on their own that you don’t need to have the literary background to understand them. It functions in a similar way to poetry. It’s often steeped in the past, but you don’t need the historical, religious, or literary knowledge to connect to it on a personal level.
Now, visually, the film is cut up between different formats. It’s shot on digital, 16MM, photographs, flashbacks, stories, etc. Like you described the literary style, it’s a “post modern storm” but that description applies to it visually as well. How did you create the tone?
Going back to my short films, I didn’t want to change too much of the visual language I’d already established. A lot of it was predicated on poetic randomness. Not having steadfast rules about how to cover a scene, or which aesthetic to work with at a given moment. In the same way that the film is a collage of references, the visual style is a melange of influences from film history and visual culture in general. Like, the 16mm stuff with the rollouts and the rough grainy quality where it feels like an alt-rock music video from the 90s. It’s part of the overall nostalgia of the film, hearkening to 90s aesthetics: the phones, the cars, the Calvin Klein clothes. We wanted the visual style and art direction to mirror that sensibility through pastiche. We were definitely working in a postmodern tradition, a culture of collage, quotation, etc.
Exactly, I never knew what you would be riffing on next.
We did a test screening of the film when it was almost picture locked, just to see if people had any idea of what was going on. And afterward a lot of people said “I was always a step behind, I didn’t know what would happen next, but I was comfortable with that once I’ve settled in.” If you’re able to enjoy it—like, if you’re able to go along with the ride—that’s great. But if you’re expecting to be able to position yourself narratively, you might be disappointed.
It’s the difference between planning it out, knowing where you’ll end up, or just following along with someone else who knows where you’re going, blindly going along.
That’s the nature of narrative, to provide us with a trajectory, a kind of teleology, a beginning and an end to help us make sense of our lives. I guess that I’m trying to do that while bucking against that tradition at the same time, constantly subverting the viewer’s expectations and running off in another direction. It’s almost an anti-narrative film in that way.
Alex Carson (Right) and Monique Whittaker (Left)
When it begins, with the Charlie bit, it feels like it’s going to be the narrative, but then it veers off course within ten minutes, which really took me aback, but in a great way.
I love movies like that. I know many people find that sort of variation completely confounding, because as viewers, we naturally look to narrative to provide structure, not remove it. But films like Antonioni’s L’Avventura, when you’re following a compelling character for the entire first act—confident that she’s the protagonist—only for her to completely disappear without warning and thus changing the focus of the narrative and the purpose of the film… These are the kind of choices that drive me. I love that kind of surprise. With O, Brazen Age, I was definitely trying to engage that kind of playfulness with viewer expectation.
Take the evolution of Allan (Evan Webber), whose voice we first hear as an unseen narrator; eventually we reveal him as a character narrator in a diagetic sense; then we see him as a minor character in some scenes; then a principal figure in the middle of the film; later, his role dissipates again in the final act… I think this trajectory will be interesting for some viewers, while others will despise it. But I’m committed to unevenness. I think it’s great.
It is the definition of “Your mileage may vary” in this film, but I think it will connect to many movie lovers, and art lovers in general. I think it ties back to how heartfelt the film comes across. It could have been this intellectual discourse on the nature of film, but it’s a felt, living in discourse here, which I feel the best literature and cinema does, bringing together the head and the heart.
I’m glad it resonates with you. I think this film will polarize viewers: people will love it or hate it. Some other films at the festival are pretty safe—stuff that’s capable, but not risky. This film is anything but that, and I embrace that. It’s one of the great privileges of making a micro-budget feature in the digital era. If you’re expecting to connect with all viewers, you’re probably missing the point. There are so many films being made today that indie creators have a great opportunity to make something very specific and seek out their natural audiences, however niche they might be. How we’re going find our audiences outside of the festival circuit is still a work-in-progress for us, but it’s a good problem to have. Finding people interested in photography, theatre, the history of literature, for example, will gravitate toward the film. The next step for us is connecting with those viewers and making the film accessible.
So, as far as the original text in the film, did you write it specifically for the script, or is it pre-existing?
Portions of the script, some of the monologues, poetry, would have been written almost 10 years ago as individual pieces of text at a period of time when I was disillusioned with filmmaking, and how relatively expensive it was as a creative form. At the time, I thought “What can I do with myself that doesn’t require a lot of money?” so I began reading and writing a lot and I kept these pieces of text on the shelf until I had a plan for them. I guess the overall script began to take shape around 5 years ago, and it changed a lot over time. We did 4 table reads with different actors and contributors, people we knew in Toronto’s various art communities, talking about what’s interesting, what’s working, what’s not. It was a long development process, and even through post-production, the picture edit, I would show it to the actors or anyone on the team who wanted to see where the edit was at and weigh in with opinions. It’s great to work with an ensemble of people you trust.