Friday, September 22, 2017

Soul Survivors: Interview with Clement Virgo (1995)

Sharon Lewis as the DJ in Rude.

As part of our Canada150 series, where we celebrate the country's birthday, we have been featuring periodic articles and interviews focusing on Canada's artistic accomplishments. Although filmmaker Clement Virgo is originally from Jamaica, he came to this country when he was 11 and would in time become one of our prominent directors. Beginning his adult years as a window-display artist in the fashion industry in the late eighties, he soon became a resident at the Canadian Film Centre's Summer Lab in both 1991 and 1992. While there he produced three short films: A Small Dick Fleshy Ass Thang (1991), Split Second Pullout Technique (1992), and Save My Lost Nigga' Soul (1993), which won the prize for Best Short Film at the Toronto International Film Festival that year. While at the Centre,Virgo also developed a script which in 1995 became the basis for his first feature, Rude.

Rude is a triptych about three characters seeking redemption and survival over an Easter weekend in an expressionistic version of an inner-city neighbourhood. General (Maurice Dean Wint) is a painter and former drug dealer just released from prison who has to fight the transgressions of his past, while his brother, Reece (Clark Johnson), gives in to the temptation of becoming a criminal. Maxine (Rachael Crawford) is a window dresser struggling with depression since she ended a pregnancy and lost her lover, Jordan (Richard Chevolleau), a boxer who has his own inner struggles, which culminate in an act of gay-bashing. This whole triad is tied together by the excoriations of Rude (Sharon Lewis), the DJ of a local pirate radio station. While Rude had its world premiere in the Un Certain Regard section of the 1995 Cannes Film Festival, later that same year it won the Best Canadian Feature Film in Perspective Canada at TIFF, and was nominated for eight Genie Awards, including Best Picture, at the 1996 event. At TIFF 2017, Rude was selected to be screened in the Cinémathèque section.

Clement Virgo's follow-up feature, The Planet of Junior Brown (1997), would earn him an Emmy nomination, while the controversial, Lie With Me (2005), stirred strong reaction for its explicit sexual content at the 2005 edition of TIFF. Along with directing the popular award-winning boxing drama Poor Boy's Game in 2007, Virgo co-wrote and directed the six-part miniseries adaptation of  Lawrence Hill's best-selling novel, The Book of Negroes, for CBC Television, which went on to further acclaim when it was screened in the United States.

When I first spoke to Virgo, a few days before the TIFF premiere of Rude in 1995, we touched on a number of subjects including Bryan Singer's clever caper drama, The Usual Suspects (which he had seen at Cannes that year), the place of spirituality in black films, and how he felt his pictures differed from the heated dramas on screen at the time (Boyz in the Hood, Menace to Society) about contemporary black culture.

kc: Was there a moment in your early life when you were convinced that being a movie director would be your vocation?

cv: There wasn't any one moment where I woke up in my room, and a light came on, and out popped Hitchcock (laughter). It was a gradual thing that happened over time. I read film books and became a student of cinema. I was one of those guys who knew which director did what film and basically got my ideas watching different kinds of movies – especially on television, or later on down in Chinatown.

kc: Some directors, though, don't come to film with the same strong visual imagination that you possess.

cv: The visuals come easy to me. It's usually the first thing. For instance, the image of the woman DJ on the microphone – that I used in Rude – was already embedded in my brain. But what I find more difficult is how to write characters, how to write a story, and how to write a plot.

kc: Why do you think that you are so visually oriented?

cv: Maybe because I spent many years in fashion. Every couple of days, I had to do these frozen vignettes, so I was trained to see things in a single frame. I knew how to do that well. But now I find my struggle is to create interesting characters and an interesting plot.

director Clement Virgo

kc: When you came to doing Rude, you certainly created a challenge for yourself by having three stories in one film – Why did you combine them?

cv: I simply liked the idea of experimenting with film structure. I don't think there is still an original story left that you can tell, but I do think there is always an original way to tell it. Look at Bryan Singer's The Usual Suspects. It's not an original story. It's essentially a caper picture. But what makes it original is the manner in which it's told. Thelonious Monk wrote a famous composition called "'Round Midnight" that's been done countless times and each artist has to interpret it through their own intuitions. The story of General coming back from jail in Rude is nothing new. The story of a woman breaking up with her boyfriend is hardly original. And the story of a young gay character is not a first. They are all familiar stories I've tried to find different means to tell.

kc: Even though each story in Rude is told differently, one of the prominent themes seems to be the exploration of black masculinity.

cv: That's definitely a key part of my work. In Save My Lost Nigga' Soul and Rude, issues around black masculinity are prominent. The image that we see of young black males in popular culture is sexually threatening, with a swagger or a pose. For me, it has its limits and affects how people relate to black men. Often in my work, I try to give my characters more dimension. I want them to possess the quality of feeling that we all have. That's what I'm exploring here. I want to get beyond the swagger into areas of pain, loneliness, anger, and where the characters don't just come across as threatening. Perhaps then the viewer will find that they are just as concerned about these things as you and I are.

kc: Why do you think that swagger and pose is so popular an image?

cv: Because I think it sells. When record companies see a young black man with a swagger and screw-face, it means profit. If it makes money, and it's successful, then you market it. That's why there is only one predominant image of black males.

Richard Chevolleau as Jordan in Rude.

kc: Have you personally had to fight those preconceptions?

cv: Sure. Absolutely. I'm always aware of how I dress, or how I look. I know that if I don't shave, and I wear a baseball hat and my high-top sneakers, then go walking down the street, people will react in a certain way. They have seen that uniform on the cover of a magazine, or in a music video, and they associate the way I look with a certain mentality. Sometimes it's easy to deal with that dynamic, and at other times it's hard. So I have no patience for it. The only trouble is that once you react to it, you sometimes end up adding to it. Do you know what I mean? We just don't associate vulnerability with young black people. Now I often do feel vulnerable. Sometimes I feel strong. Sometimes I feel weak or afraid. It's a far more complex thing.

kc: Rude takes place at Easter, and the image of redemption was also present in Save My Lost Nigga' Soul. What is it about spiritual redemption that makes it so important to your work?

cv: I'm trying to explore the idea of forgiveness – you know, the ability to move on once you've accepted your pain and your circumstances. It's a spiritual moment when you learn to forgive yourself. I wanted in those films to create the same feeling I get when I'm listening to Curtis Mayfield when he sings [in "People Get Ready"]: "People get ready / There's a train a-comin'." I want a sense of change and movement.

kc: It's interesting that you bring up Curtis Mayfield since that music comes from a time when there was more room for anguish in black culture. We've shifted today into nihilism because of so many dashed hopes. Are you trying to recapture something of those lost years in your work?

cv: Yeah (emphatically). I've seen Boyz in the Hood and Menace to Society – and my films are not a reaction to those films. But it's curious that in Menace to Society, you end the film with a blaze of bullets, and the young black protagonist gets killed. Now I think the film made $60 million at the box office? But if you kill off Mel Gibson at the end of Lethal Weapon, it becomes a recipe for cinematic suicide. So it's interesting to me that in these new black films, the dominant culture accepts this nihilism. Where in the sixties and seventies you had other voices like Marvin Gaye and Bob Marley. There was more room to express a variety of different emotions. Basically, I'm just not interested in showing how tough it is to survive. I'm more interested in showing survivors.

kc: Does this also mean that you make movies that depict personal experience rather than making polemical statements?

cv: Exactly. When I see a Fellini movie, or pictures like Salaam Bombay!, I get blown away. If it's emotionally truthful, people will understand it. It will speak to them. I'm hoping that when people see my films they will assess them by just reacting to them – or experiencing them. It's too bad that there's all this baggage associated with black images. And I think we've come to expect a certain sociology with these things. Unfortunately, you end up limiting – and censoring – a person's imagination. You tell them that a story can only exist within a certain perimeter, and if you go outside it, you no longer participate in this gay cinema, or black cinema. What I'm trying to do is keep my imagination free. If I want to tell a story about a white guy who carries around a microphone, I'll feel free to do it. I won't worry about what it means. I'll just say it from my point of view.

 Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa, Randy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Talking Out of Turn: A Collection of Reviews, Interviews and Remembrances currently being assembled on Blogger. 

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