An Interview with Luc Bourdon
Offscreen: Do you consider La Mémoire des anges to be a documentary?
Luc Bourdon: In my opinion, La Mémoire des anges is a cinematic essay.
Offscreen: Do you consider yourself a postmodernist filmmaker?
Luc Bourdon: I consider myself a collage artist. I don’t really know what postmodernism means.
Offscreen: I’m interested in the idea of images on film taking on new meaning when placed in a different context. For instance, you use scenes from films that weren’t filmed in Montreal. The ones I spotted were from High Steel and a famous sequence from Lonely Boy, but I assume there are others. Do they become “about” Montreal when placed in a montage with Montreal footage?
Luc Bourdon: The cinema is, among other things, an art of lies. The lies in my film, therefore, aren’t truths. Nothing is real except one simple thing: the desire to tell a story.
Offscreen: There’s also a sequence where a boy in a night club turns his head toward the camera and there is an eyeline match with Paul Anka from Lonely Boy, making it seem like Anka is performing in the night club, instead of an open air concert on Long Island. When you use images from different sources to create a narrative, do you think they lose their original meaning?
Luc Bourdon: No. These images do nothing but live again on the screen . . . in a new context.
Offscreen: In one of the DVD interview segments, you talk about using footage from different movies to create a “musical,” and the scenes of the sailors on leave looking for dates reminded me of On the Town. Did you have that or any other films in mind when creating the narrative for your film?
Luc Bourdon: No. I simply discovered a cinematography, an era, songs and music, forgotten films, images lost in time.
Offscreen: You have a scene from a fiction film featuring a young Geneviève Bujold. Does this fictional scene become non-fictional in this context? Most of the other famous faces in the film (Charles Trenet, Oscar Peterson, Willy Lamothe, etc) appear in a performance context. Even Jean Drapeau is giving a press conference. But Bujold, whose face is at least as recognizable as any of the others, is the only one I can think of who appears as a “citizen.” Was this a deliberate jarring effect or was it simply that the footage of the mountain in that scene was too good not to use?
Luc Bourdon: Citizens are there throughout the film. I would even say this is one of its strengths: we see ordinary people (something we have now forbidden ourselves because of the Duclo case – a judicial decision forbidding us from filming everyday life.
Offscreen: Bruce Connor and Arthur Lipsett (among others) used found footage to juxtapose sharply different images. You have nothing as jarring, of course. But you do have early beautiful shots of Montreal echoed later in the film by similar shots of ugly highrises, and you have Drapeau’s comments about traffic and arteries over shots of overpasses similar to the ones that are now crumbling. Do you think your film has anything in common with Connor’s A Movie or Lipsett’s Very Nice Very Nice?
Luc Bourdon: Yes and no. Lipsett and many others made films using found footage. It’s an idea from experimental cinema well known to a certain type of cinephile. For me, working with collage is related to this tradition (experimental construction), but the final result is completely opposite. Our idea was an open and simple film that offered a portrait of the city. A sort of family album.
Offscreen: Besides juxtaposing opposing images, you often use complementary recurring images from different films in a sequence. The one bit everybody who has seen the film mentions is the crossing the street in winter sequence. I took that and similar sequences as giving the message that while Montreal has changed greatly, some things (like winter!) are always the same. Was that what you had in mind?
Luc Bourdon: In the editing room, Michel Giroux and I made a voyage in time. Ideas, memories, impressions . . . we had them all the time. Notably, on changes in the weather. But, joking aside, how do you make a film about Montreal without dealing with winter?
Offscreen: Have you seen two other recent city portrait films, Of Time and the City and My Winnipeg (and if you have, what did you think of them)?
Luc Bourdon: I haven’t seen these films. And I’m in no hurry to see them. I will get the chance during the next edition of the RIDM to see the titles you mention because they’ll be shown (along with mine) in a programme of city portraits.
Offscreen: In Of Time and the City, Terence Davies uses montages of archival footage, but also provides first person narration. Did you consider a voiceover narration? Both Of Time and the City and My Winnipeg are autobiographical. Did you consider making an autobiographical film, or was the fact that the 50s and 60s were so much better filmed than the years that your autobiography would deal with rule that out?
Luc Bourdon: I don’t suffer from the auteur syndrome (I have no pretensions at that level). It was out of the question to talk about myself, because it was much more interesting to make a collage, a film which touches each and every one of us. Did you notice the word Montreal isn’t spoken once during the film? There’s a reason for this: we didn’t need it (who cares?). It’s the same thing for my voice . . . my ideas . . . my intentions . . . who cares?
Offscreen: Why do you think that period is so much better filmed? Is it just that crisp black and white photography provides more beautiful images, or is there more to it?
Luc Bourdon: 35 mm is still the best format. It’s a fact. We picked the best images from over 200 films . . . that’s what explains the quality of the images. There are still beautiful images today. For proof, you only have to create the same type of montage using 200 films from the last decade and you will see many beautiful images.
Offscreen: One of the most interesting features of the film is the way the images go against the commonly held view of the 50s and 60s. The way I was taught Quebec history (and from your comments in one of the DVD interview bits, you were too) is that before 1960 was la grand noirceur and the 60s were a time of hope and progress. But when I look at your film, I think it was made by a guy who’s in love with the 50s. The classic lines in architecture and clothing, the glamorous nightlife, just the way people looked and acted and dressed. And in your images from the 60s, you have the ugly buildings, the congested traffic and so on. Is that a fair reading?
Luc Bourdon: It’s a fair reading. Personally, I’m exhausted by always seeing the same images describe my community and, most of the time, only starting with the 1960s . . . In doing this work, I discovered images of a period that was unknown to me . . . And the public reaction has been the same: they have discovered an unknown period. Montreal was a demolition yard from the beginning of the 60s (like many other North American cities) in order to make way for modernism, a new world, a new generation, a new wind sweeping America (JFK, the youth movement, revolution, riots, etc.)
Offscreen: On the question of multiple perspectives, you have contrasting views on language. On the one hand, going against the accepted history of the “two solitudes” and of francophones being forced to speak English at work, you include footage of anglos speaking English to francophones speaking back to them in French, and both understanding each other. You also have stockbrokers speaking English-accented French to clients. On the other hand, you include the song sequence of “Bozo-les-Culottes” with the line “Que les Anglais avaient tous les bonnes places” to give the other side. Am I reading too much into this, or was this intentional?
Luc Bourdon: Truth doesn’t exist. Points of view exist. They were inscribed in the films we discovered. Therefore, the increasing assertiveness of French Canadians is inscribed in the film. They became Québécois over these two decades (50s-60s) while the city was dominated by an anglo-saxon elite. The world changes every day and it’s interesting to look back because, for this aspect of the film, there are dates and events which, later, would shake up the province (for example, Bill 101)
Offscreen: One thing I have asked everybody who has seen the film about and have generally received different responses from anglos and francophones is your treatment of nationalism in the 60s. Anglos mostly seem to see the clips of violent demonstrations and the song “Aux armes Quebecois” as part of the other images of decline and dysfunction in the last part of the film, while most francophones link these images to the clips of demonstrations against the Vietnam War, and see the nationalism as separate from the negative images. Do either of these responses match your intentions?
Luc Bourdon: While Québécois sang about taking up arms . . . Anglos protested against injustices to the Vietnamese. . . . That was the reality expressed in this part of the film. Montreal is a cosmopolitan city – and has been for a long time – and most world disputes are still expressed today. Jews demonstrate while Palestinians do the same . . . opposing interpretations, a plural discourse – that was what was behind that sequence.
Offscreen: Why did you use the song “Aux armes Québécois”? I’m sure there must have been less sharp nationalist songs on film (Gilles Vigneault singing “Mon pays” or “Gens du pays,” for instance). Or were you looking for a sharp song as something that captured the time better? And why no Gilles Vigneault or similar iconic 60s figures to match the iconic 50s figures like Oscar Peterson? Or footage from Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Leonard Cohen? Was it a deliberate decision to give the 60s scenes a different flavour by avoiding these types of “still cool” figures? One you do use, Willy Lamothe, is certainly iconic, but my impression is he’s not thought of today (or then) in the same way as Vigneault or Cohen. What was your intention in ending the film with him?
Luc Bourdon: “Aux armes Québécois,” sung by Tex Lecor, is a song that is patriotic, racist and representative of the violent era of FLQ bombs and the frustration of a section of the population who were fed up with being treated as second class citizens. It was sung in a setting (a young people’s coffee house of that era) that represented Montreal life (the film for this sequence was taken from the portrait of a young Torontonian who came to study in Montreal and becomes aware of the reality that the city’s francophones are in full revolution over identity in 1966). Not treating the rise of nationalism would have been a mistake. I had long discussions with the producer (Christian Medawar) who was against including this sequence. I replied that it wasn’t my decision, but the film’s . . . Also, Gilles Vigneault sings about the sea, Quebec, his part of the province (the North Shore) while the images of Cohen were too recent. That’s why they weren’t in the film.
Offscreen: You seem to make a point of showing as wide a variety of ethnic groups as possible. Besides French and English, you have Irish, Jews, African Americans (from Golden Gloves) and other ethnic groups. You have old and young, you have working class francophones at home, but also a middle class Jewish home at Passover. You have lots of shots of people working, but also people shopping, going out at night, taking part in political demonstrations, etc. Was it always your intention to have such a wide cross section of the city? Did you know starting the project there was so much great and varied footage?
Luc Bourdon: How could I not look for images of the city’s Chinese (impossible to find), Jews, Italians, Greeks? They all took part in the life of the city. They were part of it and the film we put together tried to take that into account.
Offscreen: There are a lot of images of Catholic clergy. Some seem negative, such as a St Jean Baptiste parade with Lionel Groulx that looks somewhat militaristic and a scene of nuns at mass shot through a grille that makes them look imprisoned. Did you have an attitude toward the Church you wanted to express?
Luc Bourdon: The sequence with the young St Jean Baptiste carried by a man at the end of the parade can’t help echoing all the pedophile cases we’re aware of today . . . This montage was essential in order to express the fanaticism of the whole Catholic establishment of that era. Aren’t the cloistered women with their hidden faces reminiscent of the burqa we condemn today? What we consider inhuman and intolerable was commonplace in our city . . . 50 years, that’s enough to forget it all and lose our memory.
Offscreen: One of the key characteristics of postmodernism is skepticism about modernity and progress. From the very beginning, with the vocal group singing about “the walls come tumbling down” and then the shot of the tramline dissolving into the same tramline covered in grass, I got the sense the film is about a golden age and the decline from it. You also use a song from À Saint Henri le 5 septembre that includes a line about “victims of modernity.” Above all, you follow about an hour of beautiful images (even the shots of poverty look beautiful) with 15-20 minutes of images of discord, dysfunction, congested traffic, ugly buildings (even the skyscrapers that have a certain sleek beauty are somehow impersonal and characterless compared to the baroque and art deco styles of some of the earlier buildings on show). Is this what you intended?
Luc Bourdon: The 1960s – with Mayor Drapeau running the city – were years of transition, revolution and change. This is undeniable. However, instead of apologizing – which we are so used to doing – the idea of the film was also to see the other side (such as, to show certain decisions which were regrettable – notably concerning urban planning). The 60s saw the beginning of urban sprawl and expressways. Everywhere, in North America, we made these mistakes. The restoration and renewal of buildings were not the order of the day . . . while construction (without demolition permits, by the way) were in the hands of megalomaniac developers. Architects fought these frankly deplorable tendencies, which were a series of architectural mistakes. Heritage Montreal was born the day after the demolition of the Van Horne mansion at the beginning of the 70s in the middle of the night and without permission. It was the last straw. Fortunately, because otherwise Carré-St Louis, the McGill ghetto, the Square Mile and even the Plateau Mont Royal would have been torn down to make way for neighbourhoods consisting only of apartments and office buildings. It also has to be said that the city administration (see Arcand’s film Réjeanne Padovani) took part in this movement (it foresaw building a city of 8 million inhabitants . . . that partly explains their actions which, thankfully, were fought against and blocked by citizen groups). In this sense, the NFB collection contains many films documenting and critiquing this period (notably Michel Regnier’s Urbanose series or La P’tite Bourgogne).
We must not forget we destroyed neighbourhoods, houses, lives . . . to make autoroutes cutting across downtown. Is it postmodernist sarcasm to look at our mistakes?
Offscreen: And then, over the credits, you have shots of Expo ’67. What was your intention here? That the 60s had their upside too?
Luc Bourdon: Usually, history begins with Expo ’67. I wanted to finish with singing images – “Cheri, je t’aime” . . . ending with images that say je me souviens in a more open, more enlightened way. Therefore, ending with well known, overused images that underline our absence of a collective memory. To wrap things up with images that, in general, speak to us about the beginning of our civilization (as if we hadn’t existed before). The public’s response – taking this film as an enormous family album – allows me to believe that History is neither a marginal subject nor one impossible to engage with. We all need points of reference and La Mémoire des anges is doing the job for this chapter.
This interview with Luc Bourdon as conducted by e-mail, July 20, 2009 by David Hanley; translated from French by David Hanley