“Letting nostalgia wash over me—I find this extremely satisfying and also heartbreaking at the same time,” says Canadian writer-director Alexander Carson, whose first feature, ‘O, Brazen Age,’ plays at Bíó Paradís this weekend.
In the film, a constellation of characters orbit one another, old friends in Toronto grappling with the existential sadness of young adulthood. (Asked why her eye makeup is running, one explains: “My twenties.”) Some are artists or actors, some are in advertising or homemaking, all are pretty and melancholy; “Lost Reference,” the title of a gallery show they attend, seems equally applicable to all. Some road-trip to take photographs of the diners and graveyards of rural Western Quebec, seeking the spiritual in the everyday; others tell about their dreams.
The stars, by which we might navigate, are a motif in the film, with astrology and astronomy referenced throughout. Constellations, says Carson, are “a metaphor for any kind of narrative construction or any method of creating meaning—you look at something in the sky that has no natural sense to you, and then you draw these links, make these connections.” ‘O, Brazen Age’ is “about that search for meaning […] whether it’s looking for faith, or burying yourself in the past,” he continues, pondering the “Eden before the Fall that these characters associate with childhood and with the 20th century.” Determinedly poetic original dialogue (“And so I am employed. Let us drink,” is the way one dodges a question about his career choices) mingles with passages from ‘King Lear’ to imply a mythic scope to their inquiries.
The film has an Icelandic connection through Atli Bollason, a local actor, producer, artist, DJ and even occasional Grapevine contributor. Atli was a friend of Carson’s at university, and appears in the film as a sort of rogue planet; his character (also Atli) is infamous for never brushing his teeth, shows up at an art opening wearing a set of angel wings, and is notably free of the longstanding intimate entanglements that entrap his friends, for better and for worse.
Carson is close with many of the cast: one was sitting just offscreen when he and I talked on Skype; another is his brother. He prefers an open-ended process, though a finite budget and timespan demanded concessions—much of the film was shot in October 2014, with the cast flying in from all over North America, as well as Iceland, and they stuck very close to the script. But that script was put together the course of several years, over table readings in which Carson and collaborators would sit down to read and think through a new draft of the script, as well as work through a few beers; the conversation continued through several rough cuts of the film. Carson’s nonhierarchical outlook echoes what he calls the finished film’s “meandering, pageant-like structure,” with its emphasis on discrete chapters, montage (with two songs by Dan Bejar) and digressions—itself a kind of constellation.
The film’s look, a heterogeneous mix of image sources and aesthetics, constitutes a few stars in that constellation. By switching between professional- and consumer-grade digital video, Super 16mm, and still photographs, the film references the textures of different eras, as the characters themselves seek out star maps for the new terrain of their lives. Contemporary digital technologies feel distant in comparison to previous generations’ images and objects, tactile archives of bygone moments, says Carson: “I don’t know if it’s healthy to have these attachments to souvenirs,” but it’s compelling, this “way of making these weird, complicated, somehow meaningful, and perhaps completely contrived connections with ideas about the past.”
The film’s characters are grasping for these connections as well, for better and for worse: “They’re stuck in a pre-digital worldview,” Carson explains, with their land-line telephones, answering machines, and Calvin Klein clothes. “They have this romantic association with analog technologies, that represents what they feel like they’re missing in the world they discovered as adults. The characters very much associate the 90s with the world they were promised as children, before they had to reckon with adulthood, 9/11, this awakening that happened, at least for me, around that time—when I left my hometown, discovered that the world was different.”
For Carson, all of this—childhood memories, the grand narratives of Western literature and film, material objects—are both “beautiful and tragic,” ways of “making your present world resemble some sort of fairytale version you have of the world that does not really exist.” The morose, starry-eyed characters ‘O, Brazen Age’ palpably ache with a yearning for a kind of wholeness that remains elusive. So it’s over to us in the audience: “I’m interested,” Carson says, “in challenging the audience to participate in the construction of their own narrative experience.”