Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Stan Douglas - Helen Lawrence

Like all great film noirs, there's nothing black and white about Helen
Lawrence, the post World War Two 'cinematic stage production' put
together by Canadian artist, photographer and film-maker Stan Douglas
in collaboration with screen-writer Chris Haddock. What there is on
both stage and screen in this international co-production is a set of
familiar noir-based iconography that shows off an altogether bigger if
somewhat shadowy picture of life after, rather than during, wartime.

“Post-war periods are real periods of flux,” says Douglas, “and I
wanted to look at how governments deal with the issue. In Canada, A lot
of war veterans came back to Vancouver, and there was a real housing
problem. People were living in huts because they had nowhere else to
go. Also, there was a lot of corruption. Everyone was a little bit
crooked, but after the war that wasn't going to be tolerated. It was a
local symptom of a global condition.”

Helen Lawrence is set between Vancouver's iconic Old Hotel, which was
squatted by homeless war veterans before being sequestered as an
official military hostel, and the mixed race Hogan's Alley
neighbourhood, where illicit gambling dens and whore-houses existed
after hours alongside a lively underground. As with most inner-city
areas of character and artistic endeavour – some might call them slums
– both were razed to the ground by Vancouver's city fathers in the name
of 'urban renewal', modernism's great botched utopia that has
frequently occupied Douglas' work.

Before the bull-dozers move in, however, in steps Douglas' eponymous
heroine, a pill-popping and booze-soaked femme fatale in search of the
man who framed her for her  husband's murder and saw her confined to
the sanatorium.

“She's a foreigner who's come to find somebody,” says Douglas. ““She's
experienced war herself.”

With such a hard-boiled scenario, Haddock's experience writing and
producing TV drama, including episodes of HBO's gangster series,
Boardwalk Empire, is clearly an asset.

“The film noir is caused by experiences of war,” says Douglas. “There
are femme fatales, and tight-lipped tough-guys who've done horrible
things in the war. So filom noir was certainly not like anything on
YouTube. I suppose the negative equivalent of film noir was something
like Singin' in the Rain. They were spectacles to time. Then in the
1970s, post Vietnam War, a lot of film-makers all began at that moment
to make films on a low budget, people like Robert Altman, Martin
Scorcese and Francis Ford Coppola.”

As with the generation of baby-boomers he references, with Douglas it's
what happens after the blast that counts.

“Wars happen,” he says.”Wars are our new reality. It's how you deal
with them that matters.

Helen Lawrence, King's Theatre, Sunday 24-Tuesday 26 August, 8pm;
Monday 25 August 3pm

Edinburgh International Festival magazine, August 2014


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