The Schmooze

Friday Film: Alan Zweig and the Cinema of Emotional Crudity

In 2000, filmmaker Alan Zweig gained modest success on the festival circuit with “Vinyl,” a documentary probing the quirks and eccentricities of compulsive record collectors. (“Compulsive” referring not to some guy with a few hundred LPs, but to some guy who rents a U-Haul locker on the edge of town to serve as a supplementary storage archive.) In a highly conversational, and often confrontational manner, Zweig pressed his subjects to spill the beans about their hoarding impulses, their loneliness, and all of their other personal peccadilloes. And it was all intercut with shots of Zweig interviewing himself in a vanity mirror, mining his own emotional depths.

It’s a style that Zweig — a former taxi-cab driver who shares an affinity with the bare-all first-person narratives of Charles Bukowski and Harvey Pekar — would employ in his subsequent studies of human loneliness: 2004’s “I, Curmudgeon,” 2007’s “Lovable,” and 2009’s “A Hard Name.” In the post-“Bowling For Columbine” climate of documentary filmmaking that favours glossy production values, didactic voice-overs, and dumbed-down argumentation, Zweig’s films reek of bluntness and sincerity. Their ostensibly slapdash quality (he doesn’t light his subjects or use crews; it’s all Zweig and his camera) suits their anxious, candid approach — the cinema of emotional crudity.

Now Zweig, 59, is being honoured with a retrospective of his work at the 2011 Canadian International Documentary Film Festival (more colloquially, Hot Docs), which runs from April 28 to May 8 in his native Toronto. It’s a fitting homage, given Zweig’s cult status in the Toronto film scene. I spoke with Zweig in a coffee shop in the Roncesvalles neighbourhood, one of the city’s less gentrified quarters, where the he makes his home.

John Semley: How did you land on the particular style, or non-style, that defines your work?

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Friday Film: Alan Zweig and the Cinema of Emotional Crudity

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