CM . . .
. Volume XIX Number 24. . . .February 22, 2013
Happiness will appear to you, finally, you’ll think. Like a film without images, an open space, windy, swept by the world’s remaining light. ~ Benoît Jutras, “Outside Your Self”
Twenty-one poets and 11 filmmakers from Quebec collaborate in this 91-minute documentary anthology that takes “the idea of happiness” as its theme. Located “at the cross-roads of poetry and cinema” (DVD cover), it is a bold experiment that joins spoken words to moving pictures. The poem/film hybrids exhibit diverse representations of happiness that range from the private and personal to the public and political. Yet they share a commonality: they acknowledge the elusiveness of happiness and concede explicitly or implicitly that it does not exist apart from its opposite but is bound up with it.
The DVD opens to a page that displays the title in both of Canada’s official languages. While not a literal translation of the French title Un Cri au Bonheur, the English Happiness Bound evokes the conflicted perceptions of happiness that materialize within; that is, there are moments when the words and images may pinpoint happiness, but more often than not, they only approach it. The main menu offers three options: “Watch the Film,” “Poets,” or “Filmmakers.” If the viewer chooses “Watch the Film,” all the individual films of the anthology play as one continuous sequence. If, on the other hand, one clicks on “Poets” or “Filmmakers,” a sub-menu allows one to play select films, all approximately four minutes long. Although the dialogue is entirely in French, with the exception of “The Happiness of Being Innu” (in Innu-aimun) and a portion of Spanish in “The Tree of March,” the menus are available in English or French, with options to display French captioning, English subtitles, or both simultaneously. Note that displaying both captions and subtitles may obscure part of the images, but may be desirable if showing the film to a bilingual audience.
Despite the different approaches to poetry and filmmaking evinced in the anthology, certain motifs lend coherence to the whole project. For instance, quite a few poets appear in initial frames of the films about their poems, some even figuring largely all the way throughout. In addition, many of the filmmakers preface their depictions of a poem with the poet’s philosophy of poetry. Providing the greatest coherence of all, however, is the prevalence of the Canadian landscape with its iconic snow, ice, woods, trees, rivers, and sweeping expanse of horizon. Individual films tend to begin and end with nature scenes; consequently, when the films are played as one continuous sequence, the landscape imagery facilitates the transition from one film to the next.
One wonders if the prevalence of snow and ice and wintry stretches of open fields might to some degree represent the isolation of Quebec poets and filmmakers who work in French from their English-speaking Canadian counterparts. Apart from poets Nicole Brossard and Marie-Claire Blais, and filmmaker Michel Brault, the names associated with Happiness Bound were unfamiliar to this reviewer. Of course, the landscape may also signify the chilly climate in which poetry currently finds itself. In the introduction to his poem “Quiet on the Set,” Danny Plourde theorizes that poetry “is a voice you listen to. And…we’re not listening in Quebec. We’re not.” This anthology could be the game-changer, courting millennial learners—who may very well be more visually oriented than previous generations—to engage with poetry in new ways. Furthermore, it may help to promote the work of Francophone artists among Anglophones.
Regrettably, the documentary remains reticent about the process of selecting and matching participants for Happiness Bound, as well as how much and what kind of dialogue poets and filmmakers engaged in. All the DVD case reveals is that “11 filmmakers bring to life 21 poems about happiness,” confirming that the words here preceded the images. In general, the films complement the styles of the poems, whether the latter appeal more to the sense of sight or to the sense of sound—what Dennis Cooley terms “eye” and “ear” poetry in The Vernacular Muse. For example, the emphasis on descriptions in Rita Mestokosho’s “The Happiness of Being Innu” and Hugues Corriveau’s “Despite It All” would situate them as “eye” poetry. Michel Brault’s cinematography proffers whales, water, caribou, and tundra, and fabulous aerial perspectives of the “Happiness” Mestokosho claims as her “legacy.” Philippe Baylaucq, meanwhile, charms nuances of light and shadow out of melting ice and flowing rivers with his cinematography, as if to assert with Corriveau, “I know the intimate presence of water.”
In contrast, André Roy’s “Happiness Explained to Poetry Lovers” and Claude Beausoleil’s “Happiness Is the Moment, America, Jack and the Road” could be considered “ear” poetry in their emphasis upon oral/aural transmission. Filmmaker André Forcier stages both as dramas, casting Roy as a professor addressing a literary society in the first instance, and Beausoleil as a patron of a café in the second. The oral components in Roy’s poem, such as occasional questions and third-person declaratives, like “The professor said” and “He said,” lend themselves well to Forcier’s dramatic interpretation. Beausoleil’s poem, with its aural bent, also finds a complement in Forcier’s envisioning of it. Beausoleil’s persona enters a café moments after the owner has dispatched a boy with a lunch delivery. So intent is he on explicating Kerouac’s On the Road to a companion, he is oblivious to the other patrons’ regard as he rattles off rhymes and drums his fingers to the anapestic refrain of “Tu répètes, tu répètes, tu répètes et tu dis.” Both these films underscore the performance aspects of the spoken word.
One additional feature of the anthology, subtle yet significant, is the background music which is instrumental in establishing the mood for each film. Jazz, of course, is an obvious choice for “Happiness Is the Moment, America, Jack and the Road,” which has an improvisatory feel to it. In the case of “Happiness Explained to Poetry Lovers,” circus music recalls the town crier-like announcement that commences the poem. Reedy vocals raise spirits in “The Happiness of Being Innu,” whereas a violin haunts D. Kimm’s “Happiness Isn’t Enough for Us,” a poignant portrayal of love and longing. The strains of a harmonica infuse “Quiet on the Set” with a bluesy, folksy sound that meshes with the poet’s direct gaze into the camera and direct address to his audience. In effect, if an audience is uncertain how to receive the words or images, the music can provide clues.
Suitable for recreational or educational viewing purposes, Happiness Bound does, however, contain objectionable language and nudity, as well as a couple of disturbing scenes. One of the latter occurs in Marie-Claire Blais’s poem “Happiness,” in which the persona speaks at one point of seeing a bicyclist riding along a wharf, seagulls, and “peaceful splendor,” but Chloé Leriche’s film shows a man in a plaid flannel jacket and black toque piling up bodies of dead ducks. For Denise Desautels’s “Dark Rose, Slow Rose,” Marie-Julie Dallaire’s film plays in reverse the sequence of a woman applying makeup over bloody gashes and bruises; it’s extremely disorienting to see the woman’s fingers pass over her face, pancake makeup vanishing and injuries materializing. Still, Happiness Bound could pair well with secondary and post-secondary courses on literature, poetry, or intersections of literature and visual art. Consequently, those who wish to show Happiness Bound to a classroom of students may wish to reserve it for mature audiences, or, as an alternative, select innocuous individual films and play only those.
Recommended with reservations.
Julie Chychota first happened upon the happiness that is interdisciplinary/interarts studies in a master’s program at the University of Manitoba in 1996.
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