“I knew that I would dream that night of the city in flames, the brown-brick towers falling, caving in on themselves (in slow motion, great clouds of burning dust), proud lights flickering out, psssfft, all the messages going dark one by one. Christ, I wanted that.” These lines are from “Marie Tyrell,” a story written by D. M. Fraser and published in Class Warfare (Arsenal Pulp) in 1973 and recently transformed into a short film and “interactive documentary”: Marie Tyrell by Flick Harrison, with Susan Box and Tom Scholte. Marie Tyrell is the story of an urban revolutionary overlaid on a scrim of political struggle in 2002. The interactive documentary offers a diffuse gathering of materials: commentary by film crew, passersby, Svend Robinson, Noam Chomsky, and precious footage from Cold War propaganda films, home movie fragments and a number of spoken observations made by myself in the role of Stephen Osborne, Ancient Mariner Returned from a Distant Land, during an afternoon with the filmmaker. We met in the neighbourhood of the Vancouver Least Cultural Centre, where Fraser lived for some years and where I found refuge (as many did) when I needed a temporary home in 1976. I have now observed myself in this documentary several times and am surprised each time to see that I can appear to be Someone Who Knows Something. I do not look at the camera, which seems to overhear me and not to interrogate me: in its view I become a person with mannerisms, characteristics. I had an attack of shingles that week, and in the film I keep rubbing my fingers on my cheeks, which makes me look like I am thinking intently. What would Fraser make of all this? What do people in the twenty-first century make of it, and of the story that he wrote, as transformed into other media? I asked the question of several of my colleagues, some of them even younger than the filmmaker, and some rather more immensely old. All of them preferred the interactive documentary version of the story to the unadorned drama (as did I, but then I am part of the documentary), and at least one found the whole thing to be “tiresome psychedelic polemic.” Others were less offended but moved to “want to read the story in book form, uncluttered by video effects” (“I was perplexed by the film, so went to the text itself,” writes another, who was inspired as well to return to The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera, who claimed in an interview that he could always spot a Stalinist). And another finds that “the overall effect is sometimes more of a hodgepodge than a montage, but one still has to admire Harrison for undertaking the filmmaker’s version of discursive prose, and for letting his reach exceed his grasp.” Almost everyone said they enjoyed seeing Stephen Osborne (several times) on the screen and hearing him rattle on about the dark days of the seventies, which was a relief to me and is possibly a lie.
Trailers and supporting material for Marie Tyrell the DVD can been found on Flick Harrison’s website.
More Marie Tyrell reviews by Geist staff and contributors.
History, some say, is all about continuity and change, and it is this circular aspect that is arguably the most compelling feature of Marie Tyrell, a new short film and interactive documentary from Vancouver filmmaker Flick Harrison. The film traces the story of the title character, an activist, from protest to imprisonment to eventual execution. Strangely, though, Marie Tyrell is not especially concerned with unpacking this tempting goulash of disenfranchisement and empowerment. In its 25 minutes, the film delivers surprisingly little in the way of insight into its principal characters or their points of view, and its progress is obscured by a too-literal reading of the D. M. Fraser story on which it is based, and by heavy-handed post-production. The more affecting moments are found in a persistent sense of menacing authority personified by fog-wrapped riot police and unseen jailers.
If the film is not overly compelling in itself, however, it is surprisingly so when seen in its alternate form as an interactive documentary. The DVD encourages viewers to “interrogate” the film by triggering a series of vignettes embedded throughout. This is not the typical director’s commentary that accompanies many a video disc these days. The best of the interrogative clips serve as back story and anecdotes that illuminate Marie Tyrell and reveal the importance of the original story by Fraser. In its interactive form, we feel the characters more keenly, and can see the rounded edges of history between 1974 and 2004.
I found Harrison’s use of genuine protest sites as a backdrop discomforting, and fragments of the original text made me want to read the story in book form, uncluttered by video effects.
Tiresome psychedelic polemic. —Barbara Zatyko
My first reaction to the film Marie Tyrell was discomfort with its lack of context, so that its brash political noise felt like a bad coffee shop conversation, the kind of talk filled with what Orwell calls “meaningless words.” I wanted to know more about the private and public lives of the two revolutionaries in love, Marie and Gerard, and follow in greater depth the series of complexities that brought Marie to her execution. I was perplexed by the film, so I went to the text itself (in D.M. Fraser’s book of short stories, Class Warefare) and found the most potent lines in the first sentences: “Marie Tyrell and Gerard Mackelwain, her lover, were waiting for the police. They sat together in Gerard’s room, above a bakery, in the commercial district; the air smelled of bread.” We find out that this is the story of a political activist, Marie Tyrell, a woman who calls her friends “comrades,” and though the chronology is disjunctive, the time of political unrest is the late 1960s and early 1970s: “One night in 1968 we were all together in a park, at the edge of a prosperous city; there were troops and tanks massed against us—us?—not far away. A number of us had been gassed and clubbed, other had managed to run away, others to find hiding places.” (These are familiar utterances that take us to Victoria, Seattle, Quebec City or Sao Paulo in the last five years.) These two excerpts from the text tell me more about the story and its historical context than the collage of monologues, blues lyrics, psychological reports and diary entries that the writing dissolves into; these, I thought, in both the film and the story, were poor substitutes for telling the story. If Fraser was going for a disjointed, apocalyptic story he was true to his purpose, and same for Harrison, but I left both experiences feeling little connection to the concerns of the characters, the author or the filmmaker, although I wanted to feel some connection with that time and place. One of my very favourite novels is The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera. The story is erotic, ironic, playful, political and, because of all of these qualities, profoundly visionary: the private lives of Czech people living under Communist rule are mapped out with scorn and playfulness—that is, happiness, joy and irony. The latter quality is what I found most lacking in the story of Marie Tyrell. This is Kundera speaking, in an interview with Philip Roth: “I learned the value of humor during the time of Stalinist error. I was twenty then. I could always recognize a person who is not a Stalinist, a person whom I needn’t fear, by the way he smiled. A sense of humor was a trustworthy sign of recognition. Ever since, I have been terrified by a world that is losing its sense of humor.” The greatest thing about Harrison’s film is that I learned something about political and cultural life in Vancouver in the 1970s, but I didn’t learn it from the interpretation of the story nor within Fraser’s words exactly, though I admire many of the stories in his collected works. I enjoyed hearing from the people who lived the experience of Vancouver during the same years I was a babe-in-arms living in a farming village east of Ottawa. The interviews with Fraser’s friend Stephen Osborne meant something to me and I wanted more.
Although an “interactive” documentary sounds like it ought to be engaging, most of the hyperlinks are boring or self-indulgent. Stephen Osborne’s recollections of D. M. Fraser, the author of “Marie Tyrell,” are the best exception—both amusing and thoughtful, they made me wish I was watching a documentary on Fraser instead.
Marie Tyrell was inspired by a rich, layered story written in the early 1970s by D. M. Fraser, who was responding to, or perhaps anticipating, the beginning of the end of the direct-action politics of the time (except for the feminist movement). The film is faithful to Fraser’s story in both content and form: it recalls the whole spectrum of 1970s political energy, from lucid outrage to appalling self-indulgence; and it deploys many forms, tones and voices to get there. But this isn’t Don Fraser’s story: it is Flick Harrison’s film, and so it doesn’t always work. The story itself (the “what happens” part) becomes flat and lifeless on the screen, as Fraser’s own story of Marie would have been without his unique literary skill and sensibility. But Harrison has added strange graphic effects and stitched his present-day actors into documentary footage of real 1970s protests. And in its way, the apparatus—the documentary material that runs under the entire narrative as a visual subtext—is as full and complicated, if not as smooth, as Fraser’s prose. Among many other things, Harrison has included footage from interviews with Noam Chomsky and Fraser’s old pal Stephen Osborne, clips from anti-socialist propaganda films and the Woodward’s squat in Vancouver, a little movie that Harrison made when he was a teenager, and even a brief chat in a bowling alley with Michael V. Smith, who advised Harrison on fundraising. The overall effect is sometimes more of a hodgepodge than a montage, but one still has to admire Harrison for undertaking the filmmaker’s version of discursive prose, and for letting his reach exceed his grasp.