Saturday, 18 November 2017

Pieces of Mind: Bruce McDonald's THE TRACEY FRAGMENTS

Ellen Page in The Tracey Fragments

In his 2007 adaptation of Maureen Medved's 1998 novel The Tracey Fragments, working from a screenplay by the author herself, Bruce McDonald lays bare the turbulent inner world of an angry fifteen-year-old girl in spectacular, kaleidoscopic fashion. It now having been a full decade since its release, the film remains shockingly underappreciated even among in-the-know cinephiles despite its many remarkable attributes, the most integral and ingenious of which being McDonald's bold strategy of meticulously arranging the thoughts, sights, sounds, and events of Tracey Berkowitz's life into a fractured, relentlessly busy mosaic of images of varying shapes and sizes, forging a sense of restless fluidity that pushes and pulls the viewer through a wild flurry of events, actions, and sensations. In lesser hands, the end result might have proven to be too gimmicky, alienating, challenging, or abstract for viewers to fully appreciate or absorb – and that may still very well be the case for some with the film that exists today, given how dramatically it estranges itself from conventional storytelling methods. But where some will surely see off-putting pretension or needless convolution, others will find a fresh burst of aesthetic originality that operates according to its own peculiar logic, working to draw them deep into the emotionally devastating passages of Tracey's life. 

From the very first time I saw it, I considered The Tracey Fragments to be nothing short of revelatory. I firmly stand by that assessment to this day, reinforced by multiple viewings and many hours spent contemplating its myriad twists, turns, and techniques. At the 2007 Berlin Film Festival, it was awarded the Manfred Salzgeber Prize "for an innovative film that broadens the boundaries of cinema" – one of the only signs of recognition, official or otherwise, of the film's incredible formal innovations that I've been able to detect, much to my dismay. While the multi-image format, previously used in narrative films like Mike Figgis' Timecode (2000) and Hans Canosa's Conversations with Other Women (2005), might have easily appealed to a filmmaker like Jean-Luc Godard for one of his far-reaching forays into philosophical and theoretical territoriesor better yet, one of his intense examinations of the moving image  McDonald and his editors Gareth C. Scales and Jeremiah Munce (who is also credited for the film's conceptual design) instead harness the raw expressive power and freedom of this approach to craft an immersive, emotionally volatile experience wholly dedicated to its young heroine. Ellen Page, who shot to stardom that same year thanks to the popularity and success of Jason Reitman's warm indie charmer Juno (2007), inhabits the role of Tracey Berkowitz with passionate energy and commitment, without which The Tracey Fragments might indeed have come across as an off-puttingly hollow experiment in form. But this is a film animated and driven by her performance, her ferocious intensity and feeling charging the film with fresh, startling life. While at certain points the maelstrom of images and sounds seems ruled by a sentient flow of poetic logic and association, the overall impression is ultimately that of a willful and fiercely intelligent young woman taking charge of her own story by way of intensely personal voiceover narration and confrontational monologues directly addressed to the viewer that blow away all traces of the fourth wall. Tracey's story may bring to mind such other gritty female coming-of-age films as Mouchette (1967), Rosetta (1999), and Fish Tank (2009), yet those works consistently maintain a measure of distance and detachment from their main characters, who are patiently observed and followed by their directors' watchful cameras, but never really given the chance to illustrate for themselves their own stories or the pained inner psyches that dictate their actions save for what we see onscreen. The Tracey Fragments, in stark contrast, fully dives into the dense mindscape from which Tracey's lingering fixations flow onto the screen in rich, expressive torrents of information, her words guiding us through the paths of regret, rage, pain, and longing that follow her wherever she goes. "How do you know what's real and what's not when the whole world is inside your head?" she asks. 

Ellen Page in The Tracey Fragments

For Tracey, that world is a deeply insular place, stacked with mesmerizing repetitions and echoes of faces, voices, lines, sounds, settings, gestures, and events that come back again and again to haunt her like stubborn ghosts. She finds temporary refuge from the storms both within and around her (many times, she is warned of the threat of an approaching blizzard) at the back of a city bus, where she sits, alone, weary, and naked under a "fucked up" shower curtain decorated with lurid green and pink blossoms against a field of white. In an ongoing search to find her missing little brother Sonny (Zie Souwand), she is headed no place in particular – she simply sits and rides through a bleak winter landscape of dirty snowbanks, impoverished neighborhoods, and shabby storefronts, streetlights dimly glowing against stark skies painted melancholy shades of blue, white, grey, pitch-black. Here, the special gloominess so particular to the seamy downtown cores and barren industrialized areas that dot the Canadian landscape in-between its vast expanses of highway and wilderness is captured particularly accurately (the film is set in Winnipeg and was shot there and in Toronto and Hamilton, Ontario). Steadily, as the stream of images begins first as a trickle, then a swelling rush, we become rapidly acquainted with the details that contributed to Tracey's distressing predicament: a home life devoid of affection where her mother and father's tense auras of resentment, bitterness, and depression fill the cocoon-like, orange- and yellow-hued rooms of their house like noxious fumes; the hellish trials of bullying at school where Tracey is mercilessly harassed by her bratty peers in the icy glare of blue- and white-lit hallways and classrooms; the series of frustratingly inconsequential psychiatric sessions with her therapist Dr. Heker (played by a cross-dressing Julian Richings). A new arrival at her school, a punkish dreamboat named Billy Zero (Slim Twig) sends Tracey into blissful fantasies of him taking her away on a motorcycle down the school corridors, while what few signs of actual kindness shown towards Tracey come from Sonny, whom, before his disappearance, she accidentally hypnotizes into thinking he is a dog. Though, sure enough, he spends most of his screen time barking and scampering around on the ground, we see his human self in one crucial flashback to a particularly glum birthday party where he gives his older sister a necklace – perhaps the nicest thing anyone has ever given her, a rare, precious gift of kindness that, like so much else, is ripped away from her, only to reappear again and again (as does Sonny's sky-blue winter coat and knit red hat) within the inventory of reoccurring objects and signs that pepper the film's image field like bits of debris blown from the wreckage of her past life. 

The proudly irreverent voice that made Bruce McDonald the rebel hero of Canadian cinema with such tough-yet-tender cult classics as Roadkill (1989), Highway 61 (1991), and Hard Core Logo (1996) comes through loud and clear here in a thrilling new form, his rock 'n' roll sensibility nicely revamped for the 21st century by way of a score by Broken Social Scene (this particular iteration of the Canadian music collective consisting of Brendan Canning, Charles Spearin, and Damon Richardson, including Liz Powell on vocals in a rousing cover of Patti Smith's "Horses") and an eclectic soundtrack featuring Fembots, Deadly Snakes, Rose Melberg, Peaches, and Duchess Says. On the visual front, McDonald thrives upon the freedom and raw, expressive beauty of the digital arsenal at his command (in a manner not unlike David Lynch at certain points), embracing the unpolished roughness of the images that map out the drab settings through which Tracey wanders. Weaving together a hallucinatory dreamscape, The Tracey Fragments incorporates resolution lines, shapes and figures that blur in and out of focus, superimpositions, slow motion, freeze-frames, graphic novel panels (sampled from Chester Brown's Ed the Happy Clown), and playfully satirical facsimiles of teen television series and magazine covers in hilariously on-point jabs at celebrity mania into the gritty realism of seedy bars, filthy alleyways, shadowy tunnels, and creepily desolate rural areas. As she continues her desperate quest to find Sonny (more a journey of penance than a practical search), Tracey becomes increasingly lost in a dangerous underworld populated by outcasts, wanderers, and sinister characters who drink $2 beers at odd hours in the morning in dingy rat holes, who take refuge from approaching blizzards in dilapidated apartments with broken windows and worn carpeting. Weathering vicious waves of despair and defeat, abandonment and heartbreak, she drifts increasingly closer to a breaking point that threatens to rip away the last of her sanity. Whatever will become of her, we are left to wonder, shattered in our seats by the film that has just ripped across our screens like a ferocious storm unto itself. And we also can't help but wonder, whatever will become of all the other Traceys out there – all those street kids and homeless youth with stories too similar to hers, still out there in the cold and the dark, just like her? 

The Tracey Fragments is a raw, devastating film, delivering an infinitely rich barrage of searing poetry and prose quite unlike anything I've encountered in any medium. The girl at its core is as inseparable from the courageous actress who plays her as she is from the dazzlingly complex film before us; she essentially is the film. When we see it, we see Tracey Berkowitz, age fifteen, caught in a tight gauntlet of adolescence that might as well be laden with razor wire and broken glass. But though she suffers, she still endures, persistent and determined –  to survive, to be heard, to hold on to those fragments of life still dear to her, to keep moving no matter what, until she finally reaches some safe haven, some measure of peace. "No one can stop me," she tells us in the serene final moments of her film. "No one can make me stand still."

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