RIGA - Canada has never been one to draw much attention to itself. Yet when it comes to things like film, the massive country has every reason to. Living in the shadow of America's billion-dollar Hollywood movie industry, Canada has managed to quietly sustain its own artistic approach to film. As America pumps out blockbuster after blockbuster, its Northern neighbor patiently chips away at the odd masterpiece.
Like Canda, Riga's Kinogalerija is a modest little theater, which patiently lives within the shadow of Forum Cinema's Hollywood lights. So perhaps it is appropriate that the two have come together this winter for a Canadian film week.
Beginning on Jan. 13, Kinogalerija will host a handful of Cana-da's latest cinematic works, including Trent Carlson's "The Delicate Art of Parking" and Guy Maddin's "The Saddest Music in the World." For those who've never caught a glimpse of Canadian film, this week's festival will be an ideal introduction.
A buzz-maker at the Montreal Film Festival where it won Best Film, "The Delicate Art of Parking" is a mad-capped look at documentary film. Take a subject as trite as parking, drown it in pseudo-sociological commentary and you get a hilarious pastiche based on the corrupt institution of parking enforcement.
Anyone who has ever showed up to their parked car and its no longer there, or pulled a fan of tickets from their windshield will appreciate Carlson's humor and frustration. The film is both scathing and truthful, catching guiltless parking enforcers as they joyfully write up ticket after ticket. For every parking officer are 10 car-owners who vehemently curse the city workers and the system as a whole.
But the gem of the film is Grant Parker, a parking enforcer who, "despite constant abuse from the public, finds truth, honor and serenity in the act of ticketing." Parker's quirky character almost draws sympathy to the profession, as his religious devotion to the job is challenged when his best friend and personal mentor, Murray Schwartz, is run down by an irate motorist and knocked into a deep coma.
It is at this point, that Carlson's cinematic mockery turns into genuine drama. More than a social critique, "The Delicate Art of Parking" is a poignant portrait of an altruistic enforcer who learns that it's not what you do that's important, but how you do.
"The Saddest Music in the World," the film festival's second feature received great acclaim at Riga's Arsenals Film Festival in 2004. A surrealist tragicomedy laced in fantasy, the film takes place during the 1930s and is soaked in classic-movie nostalgia. The movie's essential themes of love, sorrow, loss and hope will sweep any romantic off her feet. And the cinematography is stunning.
In a nutshell, "The Saddest Music in the World" captures depression-struck Winnipeg, where one-time Broadway impresario Chester Kent, alongside his girlfriend Narcissa, has returned to his childhood home. Before long he's knee-deep in a competition to find the saddest music in the world, meeting several old haunts along the way. The film comes to a dramatic peak when Kent runs into a past flame, and every emotion that comes along with her.
The movie is in every way characteristic of Maddin: filmed in silent-film style, using close-up peephole shots, celluloid in all shapes and sizes, color filters, ingenious decor, Vaseline on the lens and a major dose of memory loss, familial conflict and romantic intrigue.
The star cast of Mark McKinney, Isabella Rossellini, Maria de Medeiros, and David Fox only adds to the film's quality.
Although these two films may very well steal the show, there are several more that shouldn't be missed: "Memoires Affectives," "Siblings," "La Peau Blanche," "La Neuvaine," and "A History of Violence" are just as powerful in their own way. Take a break from Hollywood for a change, and spend a quiet evening with Canada. Who knows, maybe you'll never go back.