The Long And The Tall Of It.
Gerald Saul.

Deco (Darrell) Dawson, the Winnipeg filmmaker whose rising fame as a film artist has attracted national attention, is a familiar sight to Filmpool members who venture into our back rooms late at night. He frequently haunts our hallways as a visiting artist to our co-op, making excellent use of our optical printer. His new film, FILM(dzama), which I had the chance to preview recently, presented new challenges to Dawson through both scale and subject matter.

FILM(dzama) is a filmic portrait of the Winnipeg artist Marcel Dzama who himself has been deemed a celebrity by the Winnipeg art scene. His simple cartoon sketches depict robots, cowboys, animals and nude women, often involved in surreal, or at least unwholesome, acts. To create his portrait of Dzama, Dawson brings the mind, rather than the life, of the artist to the screen.
Acts one and four bookend the film, presenting scenes of a young boy, assumably the innocent side of Dzama, out of doors in a prairie setting on a bright summer day. While unthreatened, the loss of innocence is foreshadowed by the stark contrasty images and foreboding musical score. The boy comes to, and later leaves, a small wooden shack. This diminutive building seems to represent that part of Dzama which struggles with art. In a reversal of metaphors, the child leaves the safety of the exterior world for the troubling but limitless realm of the interior world. Childhood (innocence) is left outside and Dzama (portrayed now by his own father and thus less innocent version of his real self) is faced with an artificial space of his own construction.

The setting for act two, the largest portion of the film, is within this internal world of metaphor and identity. The set on which Dawson shot it makes clear reference to the style of German Expressionism of the 1920s, and in specific to The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari. Upon entering, Dzama a desk and chair which have legs stretching nearly to the ceiling, not unlike the one on which the bureaucrat who troubled Caligari sat, elevated above his station. The artist rises magically to his seat and begins practising his craft. He has a self-appointed position of importance, looking down on everyone but is also precariously balanced and always in danger of falling. Innocence childhood memories are quickly set to paper but are promptly corrupted. The fantasies of the ten-year-old mix uncomfortably with the fantasies of a sexually aware, post-Freudian man. Cowboys, dancing bears, and space robots become subject to unwelcome intrusions of lust and depravity.

A dream sequence is filmed in colour which boldly breaks the black and white world Dawson has constructed. Within it, a younger man in a suit, this time played by the real Marcel Dzama, encounters the body of the nude woman lying horizontally, emerging from a television set. This woman, who is also a caricature like the cowboys or robots but is based on a Louis Brooks-esque short-haired flapper (again circa 1920s), who is non-maternal and sexually uncontrollably. In her horizontal, sleeping position, the nude is now subject to the control of the suited man who attempts to kiss her until he is frightened off by a dancing bear (played by Deco Dawson) which may represent guilt or inhibitions or even simply fear itself. . The scene reminds us that creation is not power, it is not control.

The artist struggles with these and other subconscious beguilings, attempting to keep them contained in a locked trunk. His lust temporarily suppressed, Dzama is haunted by presence of this forbidden trunk, causing a creative block which prevents the completion of any drawings. The allure of the chest’s keyhole, undoubtedly another sexual reference, soon becomes too much for the artist and the Pandora’s box is ultimately reopened. Dzama’s conflict with his subconscious is ultimately lost in favour of being an artist.

Act three finds Dzama in a tavern populated by the characters from his drawings. The nightmares he could not resist releasing from the trunk are now free, never to be contained again. Now the artist discovers that the power he had over his characters was fleeting and he is now the subject scorn and rejection.

Dawson’s films beg comparison to those by Guy Madden, his mentor and sometimes collaborator. At first glance, differentiation between the films by these two is difficult. Single shots may be interchangeable between these two filmmakers. Like Madden, Dawson is drawn to creating images which emulate a romanticised style of filmmaking generally attributed to the 1920s. In both cases, the finished film does not so much mimic the work of that era but rather would refer to heavily aged, badly copied versions of those films, mutilated both physically, through editing and damage, as well as intellectually, through the rewriting of title cards and the addition of arbitrary musical scores. In both cases, the Winnipeg filmmakers create works which are far more dense and less arbitrary that the remnants of the past they “copy”. However, further contemplation reveals a key difference between these two filmmakers. Rather than investigating the nature of story and myth as Madden does, Dawson investigates the nature of ideas, intuitively dissecting psychology along the way (although a literal return to the womb is a comically simplistic interpretation of Freud). While many of the images we discover on the screen are taken from the sketches and paintings of Dzama, it is Dawson who chooses which of these images to present and how to contextualize them. He is not trying to explain the images but rather is using them to draw one of the best portraits of an artist I’ve ever seen committed to the screen.

In the end, Dawson’s film on Dzama leaves us with many thoughts about the nature of art. We are led to wonder if the artist is just another spectator whose only role is to make solid that which everyone sees but refuse to acknowledge. Most importantly, he posits that creation is not control and perhaps even that the creation of art is only possible when control is lost.

Gerald Saul 2005