My Thesis Film:
This film is a true oddity in the landscape of global film culture in 2018, and as such it exerted its magnetic power on me. I was drawn to it through the writing of its two critical champions, Rod Bishop in Australia and David Davidson in Canada – who are among the very relatively few people in the world who have, to date, actually seen it. I, too, have now joined that select group of viewers. Even the Nearer-My-Costa-To-Thee crew at Cinema Scope magazine appear to have entirely overlooked its existence so far. (In all fairness, I should point out that it has also, more recently, managed to win Best Student Film at the Montreal World Film Festival in September 2018.)
It is – to foolhardily attempt a preliminary nutshell description – a four-hour student film about the problems of making films (and getting them accepted, screened and properly appreciated) in the volatile, contemporary climate marked by (in Bishop’s words) “the increasing omnipotence of identity politics” – especially as it plays out in the cinema scene of Canada, although many other places in the world no doubt exhibit very similar or at least comparable dynamics.
Erik Anderson is the director, the writer, and the central actor. He has been making movies – including two previous features – since 2013, so he is not the youngest postgrad student we see in My Thesis Film. As becomes evident very early on, he has dual interests, and dual training: in classical philosophy, and in filmmaking. Second nutshelling attempt: we follow the path of Anderson as he tries to convince everyone he encounters – friends, professors, family members – that his next project, his thesis film, should be (and should be allowed to be) a crack at staging or dramatising the first book of Plato’s Republic (basically, a discussion of what constitutes justice). Meanwhile, he is also trying to get his previous 79-minute opus – Misogyny/Misandry: An Evening of Dialectic (2013), which really exists but I haven’t seen it – accepted into film festivals; he is spectacularly unsuccessful in this mission (just as he draws a blank on the institutional funding that every other student gets). One of the best running jokes in My Thesis Film is that whenever anybody asks him either or both “What’s the title of your last film?” or “What’s your new one about?”, he chokes and mumbles something like, “Ah, that doesn’t really matter”, and tries to change the subject.
About 30 or 40 minutes from the finish line, Anderson has an epiphany and announces that his thesis film will be about … all this, i.e., the problems and situations encountered in trying to make his thesis film. Which, is therefore, the film we are watching. Sort of. Because there is no cinéma-vérité, nothing captured off-the-cuff or in any improvisatory fashion here. It’s all been carefully scripted, acted and staged. Indeed, Rod Bishop is quite correct that this is the level on which My Thesis Film is most impressive – he goes so far as to assert that “Anderson’s casting, direction of actors and penetrating dialogue is so far superior to most student films, it’s more than capable of holding its own with any ‘indie’ production from North America”.
When My Thesis Film takes its big “meta” step – somewhere between a Charlie Kaufman conceit and Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories (1980) – it, in fact, loses a few degrees of its hitherto generally well built-up coherence. A professor starts gesturing to “that camera over there” filming “this conversation which is going to be in the film” – and we see somebody in the corner with a camera, but it’s not the camera actually shooting (with perfect mise en scène clarity) the scene we are presently watching on screen. A closing homage out in the street to Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960) doubles back, meta-textually, to an earlier scene we watched Anderson set up with his sympathetic (but more successful) gal pal, Karen (Shaista Latif) … and so on.
Two factors have emerged, since the first completed version of My Thesis Film in 2016, to complicate (in intriguing ways!) all attempts at discussing it dispassionately. The first factor is that there’s now a second version, dated 2018 (and this is the four-hour one I’m reviewing): its running time has been considerably upholstered by a prologue containing that Platonic Republic project he really wanted to make at the outset. I do not think this was an entirely wise decision: it’s the weakest part of the whole, and it further destabilises the credible or logical unfolding of the everyday-life-gradually-turning-meta narrative conceit. (And Anderson, in his thesis exegesis available online, makes clear that he was completely invested in that narrative aspect of the film project, actually shaping and telling a story in certain conventional ways – My Thesis Film is not an “essay” or conceptual collage in any sense or to any degree, despite a fleeting, jokey nod to Jean-Luc Godard and his Masculin féminin .)
The second complicating factor is that, rather sadly and horribly (like a bad cosmic joke), My Thesis Film accurately predicted its own dismal fate: it has apparently been rejected by almost every festival to which it’s been submitted, and has (as I indicated at the start) received precious few screenings of any kind anywhere (the Montreal prize notwithstanding). Was its gargantuan length a problem? This is hard to credit, given that (as Bishop remarks) “Film Festivals everywhere regularly screen three-hour films” – and look at the generous international screening career handed to maverick figures like Lav Diaz or Albert Serra. Be that as it may, the situation of My Thesis Film’s widespread public negation quickly has the effect of magnifying and redoubling everything that is staked out within its content: has it been the victim of those very same cultural “forces” it sets out to (variously) parody, criticise, provoke? And here we circle back to those questions of identity politics.
In a moment. First, a little more on the style and manner of My Thesis Film. It’s somewhere between an “old school” Mumblecore movie – meaning, its absolutely central element is talk, talk, talk – and a somewhat more sophisticated comedy of manners, almost like Eugène Green or Luc Moullet at moments (Davidson also draws the comparison with Moullet). Anderson’s personal film culture (judging from his exegesis) does not appear to be especially cinephilic (which is no crime per se!); certain writer-director-performers who play meta- or quasi-autobiographical games are name-checked (Lena Dunham, Woody Allen) in the film but Anderson, whether he knows it or not, veers (in tone and point-of-view, at least) closer to Ross McElwee’s personal documentaries, or even to a vérité horror-show like Australia’s little-known Video Fool for Love (1996). That is to say, we are pretty much trapped within the skull, the personality, and the world-view – not to mention the tears – of Erik Anderson as he depicts himself on screen. Being part of a staged fiction, “Erik” himself is naturally a character, and thus a mask, a foil. But masks can be tricky things.
Within the movie itself, testy Profs accuse him of being narcissistic, self-serving, self-pitying, even just a Film Fool for Truth. (They also add various things about him being an entitled cis white male, etc, etc.) In the film – and across the entire work of the film – Anderson proposes something different: sure, it’s all going through and with him, it’s his personal story and his personal truth, but what he hopes to stage is something more humanly universal and (dare I say) relatable: a kind of modern philosophical agora (or classroom) via cinema, a clash of viewpoints, a staged discussion, a “dialectic” of different value systems and ideologies. OK, let’s go with that.
But does My Thesis Film succeed in this worthy goal? Only partly, in my opinion. That sneaky word universal is the first of many give-aways as to the loaded – even somewhat rigged – way that Anderson conceives his dialectical “contest” from the get-go. On the one side, there is (dear me) philosophy, metaphysics, even “existentialism” (all these words get a good workout in the four-hour running time) – this is the universally human, timeless stuff, you understand. Then, on the other side, there’s a sometimes very fuzzy amalgam of “post-structuralism” (whatever Anderson thinks that is), post-colonial critique, “intersectionality”, political campaigns for the equal screen-representation of all races, genders, abilities, and so on.
Don’t get me wrong, Anderson has devised some sparky, at times spot-on satire: as in the disastrous philosophy class of an old Prof played superbly by Robert Fothergill (facing “offended critics” from the student body within the first two minutes of his first lecture); or a blowhard filmmaker describing his highly acclaimed “Derridean” slow-cinema-in-twelve-static-long-takes masterpiece; or a seminar session where the media students present and defend their various thesis projects (the worst being the lament from a male student about an “existential male crisis” trend as reflected in Fight Club !).
Anderson, in character, keeps on arguing that what he really wants is fairness for all, a level playing field where what is good – what is best, as in great art – will naturally rise to the state of cultural recognition and appreciation. But alas! What a vulgar, hyper-politicised, homogenising, reductive, unfair world of mass culture we presently live in, where (these are the comparative pairs named by “Erik” in the course of a conversation scene) no distinction is made between a Martin Scorsese movie and The Room, between Tyler Perry and Spike Lee, or between Amy Heckerling and Claire Denis. You might correctly guess the film lost me at that point … the point where an apparent call to recognise and take into account individual diversity seems (to me, at least) underwritten by some very familiar cultural snobbery about what is and is not to be considered film art.
You’re seeing, by now, the immense and intense difficulty, even the trap, posed by this film – beyond all those other factors I’ve already mentioned – for anyone who wants to talk about it? Namely: if you criticise the way it sets up the terms of its argument (deconstruction!), you run the risk of sounding almost exactly like the characters in it (the professors, certainly, but mostly the women, and particularly the perpetually ideologically-outraged character of Cleo played gamely by Shaina Silver-Baird) who already mouth something resembling this critique. By anticipating, including and pre-parodying the argument against it – even if this may not have entirely been Anderson’s initial intention leading up to Version 1 – the movie has outflanked you already in its cagey discourse-game-posing-as-open-dialectic. Something has happened (I suspect, somewhat beyond the director himself) that has drained some of the welcome self-deprecating comedy of My Thesis Film (which would have contributed to its “balance”), and turned it into a kind of polemical battering ram.
This relates a great deal, too, to that skilful way the whole thing is put together. Quite simply, while Anderson is prepared to mock (in that Allen-esque way) his own screen-self – one of the funniest party scenes revolves around everyone in an argument casually insulting his drab looks and unsexy clothes – he also ascribes an awful lot of weight to his own presence, and position: there must be literally hundreds of close-up shots of him grimacing or shuddering in worldly, quizzical-sceptical doubt at all the ridiculous “intersectional” platitudes thrown in his face; as well as plenty of scenes in which he gets to do a double-or-triple take, such as when he keeps returning to the reception desk at a film festival centre to question the fairness of how he has just been treated … And can any viewer doubt that Anderson almost unfailingly always gives himself the best last-word lines in any dialectical showdown he depicts (as, for instance, in the argument over cultural “meritocracy”)?
Rod Bishop (who’s more captivated by the film than I am) pinpoints My Thesis Film, in social and cultural terms, as being among the contemporary “blow-back effects from left-liberal activism” (I hasten to add that Rod’s own political values are very definitely on the left, albeit – as the loyal producer of Philip Brophy’s Body Melt ! – in a complex way). This spectacle of a “head-on confrontation with political correctness and identity politics” is of immense value, he claims, and not just as a symptom of the times (since, to begin with, it’s an inarguably well-made film, and that level of quality has to count for something). Furthermore, Bishop makes the important point that Anderson’s “approach isn’t from the political right”, and I see the truth of that.
David Davidson, for his part, links Anderson’s work to an emerging trend or loose grouping in current Canadian cinema, including Spice It Up (2018) by Calvin Thomas and Yonah & Lev Lewis – another one I have yet to see. Davidson remarks, more broadly, that “it appears that the new generation of local filmmakers, who have started making work around 2010, are starting to be more explicit about the challenges of creation and getting programmed in this city” (i.e., Toronto). And many other cities of the world, may I add. If you want to muck in with these kinds of film-culture arguments, My Thesis Film is an accommodating pond to jump into.