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Weekend Planner

Movie magic in Montreal

In any language, cinema fans find multiple choices

Email|Print| Text size + By Patricia Harris and David Lyon
Globe Correspondent / February 4, 2004

MONTREAL—Even when we’re only in town for a few days, we’re secretly pleased by a bout of bad weather. Rather than shop the climate-controlled Underground, we follow the lead of the locals and go to the movies.

Spending a weekend among Montreal’s cinerati is a far cry from wandering the multiplex at home, though all of the good and most of the bad American movies also play north of the border. As theNorth American crossroads of French- and English-speaking cultures,

Montreal has always displayed a kind of hybrid vigor in its intellectual discourse. Virtually every impenetrably dense French philosopher of the last half-century wrote film criticism, which gives cinema a distinct cachet here. Being conversant enough in French to follow simple movie dialogue adds to your options in Montreal, but even a monolingual English speaker finds more choices than at home.

The Latin Quarter, a cluster of cafes, coffee shops, and boutiques around the Universite du Quebec a Montreal, is the hotbed of the cine scene. The Montreal center of theNational Film Board of Canada sits diagonally across boulevard Maisonneuve from UQAM. Cinematheque Quebecoise, the film board’s provincial rival, is a few doors down. Both attract film scholars, budding directors, and aspiring actors, as well as those of us who go to the movies just to enjoy the show. Anglophones gravitate to the film board, where two-thirds of the films have English soundtracks and others have English subtitles. (This is rare in Montreal, where commercial films made in French

or English generally play without subtitles.) The collection consists almost entirely of films made with assistance from the film board, so it’s short on feature length Canadian fiction (such as ‘‘Black Robe’’) and long on anthropology, public service, documentaries, and animation.

In addition to the earnest series following the seal-hunting season of an Inuit family are such gems as the bizarre shorts of Arthur Lipsett (a seminal influence on Stanley Kubrick) and the provincial storytelling of Claude Jutras, whose ‘‘Mon Oncle Antoine’’ offers 101 snippets of village life in an asbestos-mining town. The film board has supported animation since 1939, making Canada a world leader in the genre, and the archives include claymation, live action, and digital works. A big part of the fun of catching movie at the NFB is using the Cin´e Roboth`eque, perhaps the world’s largest video jukebox system. From any of about two dozen display stations (many of which seat two people), you tap the touch screen to browse the database and order from more than 6,000 .lms in English or more than 4,000 in French. Order a title, and the robot arm under a glass roof opens one of 2,340 drawers, removes a videodisc, and mounts it in a player, all in about 90 seconds. Once the .lm starts on your screen, you can slow or speed the projection, moving frame by frame if you wish.

While the NFB was spawned from national arts monies, the Cinematheque Quebecoise was created in 1963, when the French-speaking intelligentsia first started flexing their muscles. Founder Guy L. Cote was a film producer and a regular contributor to Cahiers du cin´ema, the Paris-based, seminal journal of cinema criticism and theory.

Since its role is appreciation, criticism, and restoration of film, the Cinematheque Quebecoise casts a wider net than the NFB, and the two neatly complement each other. The CQ holdings include more than 25,000 .lms, television programs, and videos from all over the world. Access is more limited than at the NFB, but the CQ screens three .lms each day, usually with two or three showings of each. All lms are shown in their original languages, which means about a third are in English. (Ever since Jean Luc Godard interviewed Alfred Hitchcock for Cahiers du cinema, French-speaking .lm buffs never tire of ‘‘Marnie.’’) The others are usually either in French or subtitled in French. One ongoing project at the CQ has been the restoration of early silent films made in France by Pathe. Friday nights, the facility neatly dodges language issues by offering showings of these silent films to live piano accompaniment.

Daniel Langlois, founder of the digital animation company Soft Image, helped create the high-tech, self-consciously modernist facility of Ex-Centris (3536 boulevard St-Laurent, 514-847-2206), which screens repertory, independent, and experimental film and video and offers new-media facilities to film and video makers. There’s a strong French accent; foreign productions usually are subtitled only in French. The bar of the center’s ultra- chic bistro, Caf´eM´eli`es (514-847-9218), usually bubbles with debates on such subjects as the merits of a given film’s Foley track.

Ex-Centris stands at the juncture of the Latin Quarter and the Plateau, on boulevard St-Laurent just north of rue Sherbrooke. Its neighbor just south of Sherbrooke offers laughter as the best medicine to cure terminal cinematic hipness.It’s hard to keep a pose when you’re laughing, and it’s hard not to laugh half the day away at the Just for Laughs Museum.

This offshoot of the hilarious summer comedy festival might be the most successfully bilingual institution in Montreal —no small feat, considering the linguistic subtleties of wit, if not pratfalls.

Rush through the timeline of the pre-media age Immortals of Comedy (you already know that Aristophanes was a hoot and Oscar Wilde had a spiteful tongue). Starting with the earliest silent films and continuing to the present, seven theaters run film clips of hilarious performances by the likes of Red Skelton, Richard Pryor, Peter Sellers, Benny Hill, Roseanne Barr, Johnny Carson, and Jerry Lewis. All performances in English are subtitled in French, and vice versa, giving English speakers an introduction to French-Canadian comics like Claude Meunier (whose television show, ‘‘La Petite Vie,’’ was wildly popular in Quebec), Yvon Deschamps, Gilles Latulippe, and the loony duo, Dodo et Denise. In French or English, ‘‘ha! ha! ha!’’ sounds just the same.

Patricia Harris and David Lyon are the authors of "Compass American Guide Montreal," to be published in September by Fodor’s/Random House.)

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