(USA/Canada, 94 min.)
Dir. Matt Johnson, Writ. Matt Johnson, Josh Boles
Starring: Matt Johnson, Owen Williams, Josh Boles, Krista Madison, Jared Raab
Operation Avalanche brings to the screen a conspiracy for the Canadian film scene to rival the allegedly false moon landing that it dramatizes. This new found footage flick/mockumentary is the latest film from Matthew Johnson following his breakout hit The Dirties and it comes to theatres following a ten months of controversy and conversations fuelled by Johnson speaking out against Canadian film pillars like TIFF and Telefilm Canada for their allegedly conspiratorial practices that determine who gets anointed in terms of support and funding. He says that the same established filmmakers receive tax dollars to churn out commercial films that aren’t doing Canadians any service. Bruce McDonald, Patricia Rozema, and Deepa Mehta all just made their best films in years, but here comes Matt Johnson and Operation Can Con to rouse the members of the Toronto New Wave from their slumber.
The real question, though, is whether Johnson’s work stands up to the challenges he frequently sets out for the industry. Johnson’s words, as the ensuing murmuring and think pieces suggest, touched a nerve. His story is unique, for speaking frankly pulled him from obscurity and put him on every list in The Globe and Mail on hot new Canadian directors shaking up the Canadian film scene. Operation Avalanche now hits theatres after months of being championed as part of a renaissance for new Canadian cinema despite the fact that there’s nothing perceptibly Canadian about outside the credits and its roughly on par with Atom Egoyan’s most recent work.
The answer is that Operation Avalanche is certainly a good film that delivers on the promise of The Dirties. It’s a good film, though, but not a great one and it doesn’t entirely merit the publicity Johnson’s getting as he tries to steal the enfant terrible crown from Xavier Dolan. It’s a fun lo-fi adventure made with a surprising amount of finesse for a found footage movie, but the film ultimately suffers from its precociousness. (Another Dolan parallel, but at least it doesn’t rain shirts and pants in Operation Avalanche.) Johnson once again stars as Matt Johnson and he reminds the audience of this fact so frequently that he might as well be wearing a tag that reads, “Hello, My Name is Matt Johnson.” His persona is something that he needs to get under control for his third movie. Johnson’s actually a great actor and his funny, smart-alecky performance works with the film’s self-satisfaction to an extent.
Johnson and company have reason to brag given Operation Avalanche’s history of infiltrating NASA and crashing the set of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. This kind of guerilla-style moviemaking shows that the future of independent film is alive and well. The spirit of the film rejects convention and defies the establishment as the fake documentary film crew sniffs around NASA’s business and fakes a moon landing Wag the Dog-style. Operation Avalanche, however, isn’t quite as good as the backstory that drives it. It’s a lot of fun as it wages conspiracy theories about the moon landing and the team delivers some smart tricks as they turn the apparatus of filmmaking back on Operation Avalanche to show insider handshakes like Kubrick’s front screen projection or post-production magic theatre. It’s hard not to relish the film’s playful act of unravelling the threads of production through the art of moviemaking.
Operation Avalanche also succeeds with the mockumentary style that Johnson used in The Dirties with a few more winks to the camera. However, it's more of the same without the same sophisticated interplay with the footage. There's no apparent reason for Operation Avalanche to be filmed documentary style. It could just be a drama about some guys making a fake doc. The mockumentary style assumes a conspiratorial note as it builds a document akin to the Zapruder film that needs to be watched and rewound in search of evidence. (One scene too many sees the camera creep around corners and catch the action through windows.) A car chase sequence in the final act is especially impressive as Johnson stages an elaborate and jittery old-school set piece through the confines of the cinematographer’s vantage point within the diegesis. The details are fleeting within the lo-fi viewpoints, but the payoff is high as Operation Avalanche puts the audience in the middle of the action with the fuzz on their tail.
Johnson’s film, like The Dirties, is very self-reflexive as it engages with the medium. It’s a movie about filmmaking made by an unabashed film geek. However, and this is where Operation Avalanche’s value as a Canadian film comes into play, for it’s also a film about how much talented individuals can do if given the means and opportunity to meet their potential. Operation Avalanche begins in inky, crappy, π-level grainy black and white as Johnson explains his concept for the fake film shoot to his superiors. “Oh, and we’ll need a bigger budget,” he says. Operation Avalanche then immediately cuts to a colourful 16mm image that offers a swanky face-lift. The guys in the movie have a riot using new toys as their disposal as they learn the ins and outs of moviemaking from legends like Kubrick to deliver superior work. If the Matt Johnson within the film can change history with a few extra dollars, then presumably the Matt Johnson making this movie can do the same—but, as with the problem that the Matt Johnson character faces in the film, the Matt Johnson character in the headline will have to tango with authority to get Atom Egoyan’s next cheque.
This reading of Operation Avalanche is obviously overreaching, as the play between film stocks and filters is obviously more about aesthetics and cinephilia. However, it illustrates how Operation Avalanche is a better talking point than it is a movie.
Operation Avalanche opens in Toronto at TIFF Bell Lightbox on Sept. 30.