Review: "The Tracey Fragments" (McDonald, Canada)

Dan Sallitt

The first time I saw The Tracey Fragments, I felt as if I was seeing a revolution in film form, a new visual concept that made us process images in a fundamentally different way. And the second time I saw it, I realized that you could play the soundtrack in your living room and enjoy the film without ever looking at it. I wonder whether these seemingly contradictory impressions are related.

In my Toronto 2007 wrap-up for Senses of Cinema, I described Tracey as follows:

"…Canadian director Bruce McDonald reinvented the cinema with his remarkable The Tracey Fragments, adapted by Maureen Medved from her stream-of-consciousness novel about a 15-year-old Winnipeg girl (Ellen Page) suffering dramatically from the slings and arrows of adolescence. McDonald undertakes to break the screen into an array of panels, of ever-changing quantity and attributes, each containing an independent image. Whether McDonald has created an entirely new art form or an N-dimensional version of an old one, it’s immediately clear that every law of the cinema is rewritten in this universe, and that even the most arid and academic forms of montage are transformed into infinitely flexible instruments. Knowing that he’s discovered the philosopher’s stone, McDonald tirelessly generates new formal prototypes every few seconds, and leaves us at film’s end with the sense that he could have kept going forever. What makes Tracey more than an impressive demo is its unity of form and feeling, the sense that its screen may have been shattered by its young protagonist’s hormonal violence, McDonald’s wild-eyed punkish sense of drama, and Medved’s vivid dialogue ("He touched me, he stuck his cock in me, and he said I love you, in that – exact – order!”). Old-school viewers may have a tough time adjusting to Tracey’s fragmentation, but even they might appreciate McDonald’s surprising compositional grace, which culminates in a beautiful, melancholy riverside tracking shot under the end credits.”

Many of Tracey’s formal ideas are elaborations of the kind of cutting that’s commonly known as "intellectual montage,” in which the collision of different images creates a new idea that wasn’t intrinsic to either image. (I’m not sure that Eisenstein, who coined the term, intended for it to be applied to this simple schema; but I’ll use the phrase for lack of a better.) I’ve never enjoyed intellectual montage (even Eisenstein thought it was too literary an effect without additional qualities): it’s so easy for me to hang a concept on the process on that my mind registers only the concept, and is blocked from any appreciation of texture or mood. So I was surprised to discover that the extra dimensions that McDonald adds to montage in Tracey totally transform it.

Here’s an example. Tracey has run away from her parents’ home and has found shelter with the lowlife hustler "Lance from Toronto” (Maxwell McCabe-Lokos). For a while Lance is so eager for Tracey to stay with him that he absorbs all her hostility, but eventually he loses patience and invites her to leave. Tracey is not eager to go back on the street again; McDonald illustrates her state of mind with an image we saw earlier, of the door of her parents’ house closing behind her.

If McDonald were using sequential images, this cut would be pure intellectual montage: closeup of hesitant Tracey plus shot of door closing equals her worry about leaving. Admittedly, there’s a bit of ambiguity in the concept, in that the place she may be about to leave is nothing like the place she already left; her present anxiety is reflected back in time to color the earlier scene with an anxiety that the filmmakers did not then show us. Still, it would be hard for me to register this ambiguity as any kind of emotion: the Tracey/door edit would be so overt that my conceptual mind would take over and calculate meaning.

As executed by McDonald, however, the scene unfolds with multiple image-bearing panels appearing and disappearing in changing patterns. When Tracey teeters on the edge of walking out, McDonald peppers the screen with dozens of small panels of the door closing. The panels are turned sideways, so that the doors close upwards; and they are staggered in time, so that the minute sounds of the door slam create a ripple, a soft flutter. I can’t say exactly why the doors are turned sideways, but the resulting configuration of panels has a horizontality that suggests calm, and the rotation robs the doors of some of their literalness and makes them more abstract, like a choir of wings beating. The whole effect feels like a lulling communication from Tracey’s unconscious that is in contrast to her agitation.

The intellectual montage concept here, as elsewhere in Tracey, comes hand in hand with new dimensions of sensual and compositional qualities. One cannot say whether the meaning implicit in the montage or the visual/aural organization of the effect draws first blood.

(Of course, one can argue that even the simplest image in any intellectual montage has sensual and compositional qualities. Perhaps there are subjective factors at work here: maybe the mere grain of the wood of the door provides some people with enough sensory counterpoint to overcome the tyranny of the concept, whereas others merely register "door.” Or perhaps a kind of cultural fatigue requires that new dimensions of counterpoint be added over the generations, to restore a sense of experience that we lose due to sustained exposure to cinema conventions.)

The Tracey Fragments is not the first film to use paneled images, but it’s the first feature-length narrative that I know of that relies on paneling as its basic method of visual communication, that dispenses with the safety net of the full-frame image. To give some idea of the degrees of freedom in this system, here’s a partial, not terribly rigorous taxonomy of the effects I noted in Tracey:

  • Subjective panel creation: Tracey imagines Billy Zero saying "I love you, Tracey Berkowitz” before her act of violence.
  • Motivated panel creation: small panels appear and disappear with the sound of Tracey’s breathing.
  • Lyrical panel creation: as noted above, a thousand quiet slamming doors create a fluttering vibration; or, the screen converts over, one panel at a time, to an array of images of buzzing street lamps at twilight.
  • Non-diegetic panel creation: Some panels of Tracey running are replaced by running horses, to reference the Patti Smith song on the soundtrack.
  • Drama tied to panel creation: increase in quantity and frequency of panels when Tracey’s mom won’t speak to her on the phone.
  • Drama tied to new effect concepts: non-rectangular panels appear for the first time after the film’s most violent scene.
  • Drama tied to removal of effects: natural sound and color are restored as Billy Zero penetrates Tracey.
  • Drama tied to end of paneling: there are no panels at all a few times in the film, most powerfully at the ending.
  • Sound track focus: among many panels in a diner, McDonald emphasizes one on the soundtrack, a background vignette of a dejected girl being lured by a pimp.
  • Size focus: Tracey’s panel is the largest in the scene where she is grounded.
  • Suspense cross-cutting: simultaneous panels show Tracey shoplifting and a suspicious store clerk watching.
  • Cause/effect cross-cutting: simultaneous panels show Tracey in a photo booth and the pictures she takes.
  • Point-of-view cross-cutting: simultaneous panels show Tracey reading a comic and frames from the comic.
  • Space-preserving panels: a widescreen panel at the top of the screen shows a panorama of the space where Tracey talks to Billy Zero, with the rest of the screen showing details.
  • Space-restoring effects: panels gradually reassemble a full-screen image after Tracey is pushed out of the car.
  • Time shift: Panels assemble a contiguous space, but some panels are time-delayed, in the scene where Tracey stands up after Billy Zero leaves in his car.
  • Unmotivated geometry play: panels are layered horizontally; or, panels are arranged in a checkerboard pattern.
  • Motivated geometry play: the top horizontal panel of the screen shows the ceiling above Tracey.
  • Text interpolations: Billy Zero’s first appearance at school is accompanied by a panel containing the words "New Boy.”
  • Meta-effects: After echo has been associated with frames of the same action staggered in time, echo is used even with no time-staggered frames. Or: after the use of panels with white and black backgrounds depicting unreal settings, the therapist’s office is depicted abstractly, with white and black backgrounds in a whole frame.

What’s remarkable to me is that McDonald seems to bring these new ideas to artistic fruition on his first outing. He doesn’t expend all his energy in inventing a new repertoire of visual ideas: no sooner does he establish his syntax than he begins to use it with indirection and subtlety, creating complex effects that don’t easily yield their meanings.

McDonald and his admirable writer Medved did not choose random subject matter for this experiment. Not only does the style seem intended to reflect the streaming consciousness of Medved’s material, but there is also a strong underlying musical structure to the film, with music and dialogue working together to organize the story into movements that almost resemble musical numbers. Should McDonald’s visual play best be seen as an illustration of an essentially narrative-based musical conception? Or does such a radical subjective approach to image and sound naturally result in a film that suggests music? It’s fun to imagine Tracey as the seed for a new kind of cinema that would provide enough data to answer these questions.

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