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Bruce McDonald on the west coast: The Love Crimes of Gillian Guess (Canada 2004).

What a pleasure to finally see a new feature from Bruce McDonald! After the aborted Claire's Hat (2001) McDonald again takes on a female hero in his exploration of the dangerous contradictions that inform public consciousness. The Love Crimes of Gillian Guess played the Canadian film festival circuit in 2004 and in 2005 is doing the international circuit prior to wider release. Whether the film will get to the next stage (the art house market) is the big question. If it does, it will be almost 10 years since the theatrical release of his last feature--the engaging music mockumentary, Hard Core Logo.

At a Vancouver murder trial in the mid-1990s a female juror named Gillian Guess caused a scandal (and committed a crime) while serving on the jury, when she had an affair with the accused, Peter Gill. He was later acquitted. Angus Fraser, who was a co-screenwriter on Lynne Stopkewich's 1996 debut drama Kissed, has written an amazing script, which, in McDonald's skillful hands, seamlessly weaves together a variety of film genres-comedy, animation, drama and even the musical. The result is a totally unconventional, utterly surrealistic, postmodern frolic that makes it difficult for normal audiences to suspend their disbelief. My favourite image from the film is the magnificent blush red, disembodied lips that fill the screen like a moving work of pop art. This new film is a stylistic leap for McDonald that keeps the audience involved intellectually rather than emotionally, though there are a number of good laughs. He uses comedy to deconstruct our precious sense of reality.

On the surface the film portrays Gillian Guess (Joely Collins) defending her actions in the arena of public opinion, when she appears on a television celebrity talk-show. Bobby Tomahawk (Hugh Dillon) plays the vampirish host and his studio audience is filled with sari-dressed Indo-Canadian women. Intercut with scenes from her brutally sarcastic television interrogation are scenes from the trial itself. Since television is not allowed to record trials, McDonald stages the trial as a Perry Mason courtroom drama, in which he makes us aware of its complete artificiality. Added to this thread are various flashbacks to Guess's childhood and coming-of-age adventures and scenes of her single parent life with her own two daughters. As a result there are at least four realities at play in the film, as well as other sequences that fantasize her developing relationship with the accused and an animated narration of the killing itself presented by the prosecutor, which turns into a cartoon, comic-book account.

McDonald's film is an outstanding piece of social criticism, a satire on the justice system, but more importantly, a pointed attack on the media and television and its polarizing culture of good guys and bad guys. In a number of scenes in the film old American television crime programs appear, mirroring the current narrative with their own cliches. The programs themselves point to the stereotypical characterization that determines public morality, social consciousness and allowable discourse. That most of this influence is American only adds insult to injury. Gillian Guess appears throughout the film dressed as a kind of American Barbie Doll figure, a cultural product that fantasizes the female persona as a sexual object and an icon of beauty. When a real female uses this culturally-created power in her interests, McDonald tells us, she is pilloried as the she-devil, the evil femme fatale that society must expunge. McDonald has already played with this theme in Highway 61, when his female protagonist changes her hair colour to red (the same colour code now used by Ms. Guess in her dress) and turns the patriarchal world upside down by taking charge.

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"It's all made up like a movie," the Peter Gill character tells Gillian as he tries to convince her of his innocence. The theme of make-believe continues when the film repeats a schoolroom scene in which the teacher asks Gillian the difference between dream and fantasy. She knows what a dream is but fantasy is something she cannot describe because she lives it. Her reality is fantasy, as it is for most of us, who are willing to acknowledge the world of our dreamed, subjective selves. In our fantasy life we become characters in our own movie drama, playing roles that have been taught us by visual entertainment. This would seem to be McDonald's central message. In fact, whatever narrative characterization and seemingly genuine dramatization does occur in the film is found only in flashbacks and re-creations. The events at the trial and in the television studio display a Gillian Guess persona that is acted out in a consciously artificial way. McDonald has Joely Collins use sexual retorts, cross and re-cross her silky legs, strut on stage, make salacious gestures at the lawyers etc. that present Guess as a conventionally lewd character and not a real person.

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McDonald is asking the audience to see themselves as the typical morally superior judge, jury and executioner, whose social values and roles are programmed in the same way that fast-food is consumed--quickly and cheaply (fast-food containers appear throughout the film). The ads that appear with the talk-show are wonderful anti-ads that make fun of marketing as the life-blood of the sterile consumer society. The host, Bobby Tomahawk, describes himself as "the everyday man" who demands a primitive, vigilante justice. The mob must have its pound of flesh for the sake of entertainment. In the everyday world celebrity status must be paid for with suffering. "I acted for love," Gillian claims, "and they crucified me!"

Gill and Guess are Adam and Eve, who in one scene are placed in a primordial west coast rain forest to emulate the Garden of Eden. They both proclaim their innocence before a system that plays with them by simultaneously glorifying and denouncing sexuality. (He gets away with it but she doesn't). The film suggests that all crime involves love rather than just hate and that love can make us criminals if we don't follow social taboos. The film attacks the media's distinction between good and evil and presents their affair as an affront to the stage-managed world of the justice system. That the whole thing is presented using the cliched characters of grade-B genre films only adds to its artistic conceit.

McDonald has discovered in the Gillian Guess story an absurdist world that can be exploited for effect. He has created a self-referential film that talks about the contemporary language of the media-constructed mythologies that we live in everyday, mythologies that are little different from the narratives created during a time when public executions of petty criminals were attended by hundreds or thousands of cheering spectators. The Love Crimes of Gillian Guess is the work of a powerful talent, who has entered his mature phase. The film is a creative success that elevates Canadian cinema, but like so much Canadian cinema, its popular appeal is limited. The lack of narrative closure (a poor ending), the sophistication of the film's self-conscious imagery and symbolism, and its disjointed story-line make it a challenge to the average viewer. But then again, why should McDonald pander to low or middle-brow narrative conventions in film and television? He's much smarter doing what he does best--creating delightful, thought-provoking parodies of cinema itself. Is that a crime? I don't think so. To me this film is an act of love.
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Author:Melnyk, George
Publication:CineAction
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Mar 22, 2006
Words:1227
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