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Moon Shot Illustration by Parker McLean.

Moon Shot

With Operation Avalanche, Matt Johnson takes a characteristic risk to break into the American movie market. Adam Nayman on how the director is eschewing Canada’s cozy film industry and making his own success.

IT HAS BEEN SAID that all movies are simply documentaries of their own making. In Operation Avalanche, Matt Johnson takes this maxim as far as it can go. Set in late 1960s, the film depicts an ambitious, talented, ethically suspect, would-be visionary auteur named “Matt Johnson” (played by Matt Johnson) who gets in dangerously over his head on a new project. We join “Matt” as he runs a chancy guerrilla production shot on false pretenses, without official permission, all done without the knowledge of the people it’s about. Like a lot of ad-hoc productions, “Matt Johnson”’s work quickly takes on a life of its own. Once completed, it raises red flags at a respectable government institution, as well as the hackles of some powers-that-be who move swiftly to silence the jester in their midst. Rules are broken. Carnage ensues.

A clever riff on 1970s political thrillers filtered through the lens of mockumentary, Operation Avalanche self-reflexively references its own making at every opportunity: imagine David Holzman directing the Big-Brother-is-watching action of The Parallax View. Or a double shot of Brian De Palma: Hi, Mom!’s peeping-guerrilla aesthetic shot through with the fatalistic conspiracy-theory metaphysics of Blow Out (one of the greatest movies about moviemaking). The “Matt Johnson” who appears onscreen is a fictional character, but he’s also a projection of the real, prankish writer-director who plays him. When Operation Avalanche premiered at Sundance in January, Johnson explained that he and his crew actually went into NASA buildings under false identities to shoot the bulk of the film’s action. Their methodology thickens the cloak-and-dagger atmosphere considerably while also buttressing the script’s play of illusion and reality: the film also suggests that the moon landing was faked.

Pushing the limits of believability and bad taste was the modus operandi in Johnson’s 2013 feature debut, The Dirties, which is, among other things, the closest a Canadian director has ever come to remaking Hi, Mom!—a high compliment. In the film, Johnson plays a high school AV club outcast (named, naturally, “Matt Johnson”), who plans to assassinate several classmates who’ve bullied him and his pals. “Matt” makes the call after the cool kids—“the dirties,” as he calls them—laugh their way through his ragged, postmodern media-class assignment that features nods to Being John Malkovich and Pulp Fiction. It’s not long before the aspiring Tarantino manqué imagines himself as an avenging angel of the hallways, repeating the mantra of his gun-toting video-project alter ego: “Don’t worry, we’re here for the bad guys.”

This is a disturbing idea for a comedy, and The Dirties doesn’t hedge its bets. The main tension in the film exists between the (slowly eroding) certainty of the character’s friends that he won’t really go through with his scheme—a skepticism rooted in their belief that “Matt” is really no worse than a narcissistic jerk—and his cheerful, ever-widening detachment from reality, which is in turn filtered through his class-clown persona to the point that they (and the audience) aren’t even sure if “Matt” means anything that he’s saying. Is he kidding? Can he even tell the difference anymore? Can we?

The question of whether Matt Johnson—not his showboating, pop-culture-sponge alter-egos, but the artist behind them—should be taken seriously has gained urgency of late. However improbably, the director has placed himself at the centre of debates about film funding in Canada, and his interviews in particular have become ground zero. “We’re not critical of the institutions that actually create this art,” he told Now magazine’s Radheyan Simonpillai in January. Their conversation careened all over the place while taking Telefilm Canada, the nation’s major film funding organization, to task for propping up an older guard of directors instead of dispensing funds to younger artists more in need of a boost. “These filmmakers,” Johnson told the Globe and Mail a few weeks earlier, “are culturally irrelevant, and have been for fifteen years.”

By using his celebrity to rail publicly against a coterie of cultural and economic gatekeepers, Johnson has essentially taken the catchphrase of The Dirties and run with it in real life: Don’t worry, he’s here for the bad guys. Whether such behaviour is simply self-glorifying schtick or a sly way to speak truth to power, though, depends on who you ask.

TELEFILM IS AN UNAVOIDABLE reference point in any serious inquiry about how our national cinema is made and by whom. First established in the late 1960s and underwritten by the Canadian government (with waxing and waning budgets depending on the proclivities of different administrations), Telefilm is the biggest and most conspicuous filmmaking funding body in Canada. Most significant Canadian productions come bearing its logo, signifying that the film or television show was submitted for approval at some stage and deemed worthy of support.

Johnson’s account of Telefilm’s current business plan proposes a shadowy old-boys network of desiccated auteurs lighting cigars with the very hundred-dollar bills their cronies would deny the next generation (I exaggerate, but only slightly). In recent conversations with the critics, programmers and producers who make up my Toronto film circle, I’ve heard a consistent refrain that Johnson has commandeered and simplified a complex topic. One Toronto-based director who attended a recent panel at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on film funding in Canada told me how Johnson—who was featured alongside a group of other directors and a representative from Telefilm—took over the discussion and turned long stretches of it into a performance. “There were so many elephants in the room, and everyone [there] was worried about the ferrets running around their feet,” he says.

It’s true that Johnson is simplifying the issue, but that’s also why I suspect his ideas have gained such traction. A young Canadian producer told me that Johnson’s complaints, and the defiant way he expresses them, have an “emotional truth” for young filmmakers bumping up against the economic crunch. It also helps that his critique draws bullseyes on the backs of veteran directors whose new features haven’t exactly set the world on fire——Deepa Mehta, Paul Gross, Atom Egoyan, the list goes on.

The fact is that film funding in Canada is a complex network of contingencies without heroes or villains. There is no studio system. Funding bodies and availability vary greatly from province to province and city to city. We suffer from a suffocating proximity to the American production, distribution and exhibition sector. And, finally, our broad, dispersed network of film schools charge tuition costs that are a barrier for many aspiring moviemakers.

With this in mind, Telefilm’s attempts to combine the risk-averse philosophy of an old-style movie studio (investing in movies with commercial potential) with the aesthetic discernment of patronage and the egalitarian ethos of a government organization (investing in movies to nurture new talent) register as schizophrenic because they are, and always have been. Johnson’s comments hit home insofar as they point directly at certain rituals in need of revision: the idea that younger filmmakers should max out their finances to produce a credit-card-calling debut before receiving institutional support is problematic to say the least.

But the personal aspect of Johnson’s crusade should be considered as well. He told Now, for example, that Telefilm refused to underwrite Operation Avalanche because of his intentions to sell it to an American distributor. He has also taken shots at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) in other interviews, implying that he chose to screen Operation Avalanche at Sundance as payback for TIFF not programming The Dirties a few years earlier. Moreover, Johnson’s willingness to speak truth to power seems, in part, to be possible because he’s reached a certain level of career and critical success—making him an odd candidate to become the voice of the dispossessed.

THIS FALL, TIFF will be showing episodes of Viceland’s reboot of Nirvana the Band the Show, Johnson’s cult 2007 web series.

TIFF’s willingness to showcase a filmmaker whose ambivalence about aspects of the festival is a matter of public record suggests that Johnson is more than an institutional irritant—he may be a paradigm figure. In a country where artists still display an unfailing politeness, Johnson’s candor with the media and utter lack of self-effacement make him an outlier, marking him as the evil Anglo enfant terrible twin to Xavier Dolan (or is it the other way around?). While Johnson and Dolan’s films aren’t directly comparable, they both provide examples of what we might call Canada’s new “cinema of self”: two artists largely defined and then joined at the hip by a tendency for exhibitionism, which in turn gets them noticed both at home and in a crowded international marketplace that doesn’t often embrace Canadian auteurs on their own terms.

Dolan’s narcissism is encoded as much in his bold, expressive directorial techniques (see the Instagram-sized aspect ratio of Mommy) as his own preening on-and-off-screen performances (see his sniping at the critics who slammed Juste la fin du monde at Cannes in May). Johnson, by contrast, puts his all-conquering aspirations up front. He is, in every way, the face of his films, to the point that a 2013 feature in Cinema Scope by Calum Marsh was entitled “One-Man Band,” a designation that might have rankled the crew of filmmakers (including Josh Boles, Matthew Miller, Jared Raab and Evan Morgan) who’ve collaborated closely and in crucial capacities with Johnson since Nirvana.

Still arguably the team’s signature work, Nirvana was also—of course— about “Matt Johnson,” this time imagined as an enterprising (but dubiously talented) Toronto musician scheming with his pianist partner Jay McCarrol (also playing himself) to book a show at the Rivoli, a staple venue located on Toronto’s Queen Street West. If the underlying joke for Torontonians was that the Rivoli isn’t exactly Carnegie Hall, the real pleasure of this cheaply and at times illegally shot series was watching how it played with the theme of ambition. “Jay” and (especially) “Matt”’s need for an audience for their songs was so desperate that they were willing to risk life, limb, sanity and friendship to secure a gig. Even as the duo kept failing to land a slot, the series succeeded as a showcase for Johnson and McCarrol’s quicksilver comic brilliance.

In Operation Avalanche, instead of skulking around Toronto, Johnson pivots to infiltrating American institutions, a deftly self-reflexive development. The difference between this “Matt Johnson” and the ones in Nirvana and The Dirties is that Johnson is now in a position to do damage on a much larger scale. This iteration of “Matt” is a CIA agent tasked with sussing out a mole in NASA’s middle management during the Cold War. Adopting the guise of a documentarian, his cover story spins out of control and out of proportion until, inevitably, he finds himself doctoring the footage of the Apollo 11 mission to the moon.

The sheer chutzpah of a young Canadian filmmaker casting himself as the mastermind behind some of America’s most iconic images should not be underestimated; Operation Avalanche is a film about ambition, both in the abstract as well as in the context of its creator’s career. In one scene, “Matt Johnson” shakes hands with Stanley Kubrick (actually a digitally augmented doppelganger), an interaction that’s jaw-dropping on every level: from the lo-fi special effects trickery used to achieve it to its complex satirical and semiotic implications. On one hand, it’s an image whose humour is rooted in its obvious optical-illusion impossibility; on the other, it seems to be suggesting that Johnson—certainly the character, and maybe the filmmaker as well—sees himself as fit to rub shoulders with the director of 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s one small step for Matt, although the question of where he leaps from here remains very much open.