The Fast Runner (Atanarjuat) (2002)

Elbert Ventura

Exotic and universal, The Fast Runner is as engrossing as any thriller, as majestic as any epic.

The Fast Runner (atanarjuat)

Director: Zacharias Kunuk
Cast: Natar Ungalaaq, Sylvia Ivalu, Peter-Henry Arnatsiaq, Lucy Tulugarjuk
MPAA rating: not rated
Studio: Lot 47 Films
First date: 2002
US Release Date: 2002-06-07 (Limited release)

Can a culture that subsists on irony and cynicism possibly make room for a movie like The Fast Runner? Three hours long, viscerally disorienting, and with nary a pandering bone in its body, the first Inuit feature ever made is an unlikely presence in the summer movie season. Then again, maybe it's not.

Derived from the oral traditions of the Inuit, the movie is literally the stuff of myth. And myth, with its timeless themes and resonant lessons, is the stuff of blockbusters -- at least in the hands of mountebanks like George Lucas. Paired up against The Fast Runner, Lucas's Star Wars cash cow reveals itself to be the bankrupt exercise that it is. If the former sees myth as a window into human experience, the latter uses it as a vehicle for mindless distraction -- and little else. It goes without saying that The Fast Runner stands no chance of grossing more than Attack of the Clones's catering budget. Nonetheless, the comparison reminds us how far movie culture has fallen.

And yet things might not be so bad. If the applause that greeted The Fast Runner at the end of a packed Sunday screening is anything to go by, movie-goers might yet make that adventurous leap and embrace a movie un-embellished with bells and whistles and unfashionable in its straight-faced sobriety. Certainly the advance hype can only help the movie's cause. Hosannas have piled up in the movie's wake on the festival circuit. The Fast Runner took home the Camera D'Or award at last year's Cannes Film Festival, and won the best picture award at this year's Genies, the Canadian equivalent of the Oscars. Critics have been scarcely less enthusiastic, with the Village Voice's Jim Hoberman going so far as to call it "a rebirth of cinema."

The Fast Runner may not be the rebirth of cinema -- it may not even be the best movie I've seen this year (though it's close) -- but it's genuinely sui generis. Filmed in the icy expanses of Canada's harsh Nunavut region, the movie raises countless questions, not least because of the seemingly impossible logistics involved in its creation. Cultural milestone and technical marvel that it is, the story behind its making shouldn't obscure the movie's virtues. At once exotic and universal, The Fast Runner is as engrossing as any thriller, as majestic as any epic.

The first half-hour sets the scene in fractured, oblique passages introducing us to a small, nomadic Inuit community. Difficult to decipher, the movie's disorienting opening -- at first off-putting -- becomes clearer in retrospect. It all begins on a troubling note, as the tribe's head, Kumaglak (Apayata Kotierk), is murdered, and Sauri (Eugene Ipkarnak) assumes leadership. In a flashback, the movie recounts the entrance into the community of a mysterious shaman (Abraham Ulayuruluk), who seems to have cursed the tribe. Presumably in the thrall of the evil shaman's seductive powers, Sauri grinds down his rival, Tulimaq (Felix Aralarak), and in the process destroying the tribe's hopes of restoring its placid spirit of communitarian harmony.

Years pass. Now grown, Tulimaq's sons, Atanarjuat (Natar Ungalaaq) and Amaqjuaq (Pakkak Innushuk), have become recognized as the tribe's best hunters. Looking on in heated envy is Oki (Peter-Henry Arnatsiaq), Sauri's eldest son and the tribal bully. Soon, the bad blood erupts into a full-fledged rivalry between Atanarjuat and Oki for the affections of Atuat (Sylvia Ivalu). The rivalry eventually boils into violence, and which climaxes with a savage murder and a daring escape -- an exhilarating foot chase across the frozen wasteland that should be remembered as one of the new millennium's great movie moments.

Poised between ethnography and derring-do, the movie has the unadorned power of legend, and recalls the superhuman exploits and fantastic narrative turns of the Homeric tales. Patricide, adultery, magic spells, an odyssey: all the trappings of folktale and fable are present. The movie's greatest achievement is its representation of the hoary tropes of narrative epics -- oft used and frequently debased by pop culture -- in a way that breathes life back into them. The Fast Runner gets at the humanity in myths, imbuing the ancient with the jolt of universality and timelessness. In these parochial times and this insular culture, it feels like the shock of the new.

For a first time feature film director, Zacharias Kunuk shows remarkable assurance. Oscillating between the unending Arctic horizon and the contours of the human face, Kunuk creates a visual dialectic that perfectly conveys the movie's fusion of anthropological specificity and cosmic abstraction. (It's the stuff of all great epics: the heroism of human achievement played out against a grand, unknowable design.) Shooting on digital video with cinematographer Norman Cohn, Kunuk gives his movie a naturalistic look that makes the most of the handy lightness of DV. It's a nimble movie, packed with handheld vérité, tight shots in cramped interiors, and images of life seemingly caught on the fly.

That life is rendered lovingly. If the movie resists lapsing into landscape porn -- a genuine temptation given its spectacular setting -- it can't quite help but feel like an affectionate encomium to its subject. The camera lingers on tribal rituals and mundane activities, immersing the audience completely in The Fast Runner's world. In a touching gesture, Kunuk fills his frame with children -- defiant reminders that the culture endures.

Not least of the movie's accomplishments is its validation of digital video. The Fast Runner solves the nascent technology's most niggling problem -- its cruddy look compared to celluloid -- by nature of its setting (or its setting in nature). The Arctic expanse, beautiful, stark and stretching out as far as the eye can see, supplies its own beauty, compensating for the medium's visual shortcomings. Even more significant, the movie gives new credence to DV's democratic promise. Simply put, this is a movie that would not have been possible without DV. There might be a hundred idiot DV projects for every The Fast Runner, but if that's the price of democracy, so be it.

Naysayers have sought to invalidate audiences' enthusiasm for the movie by chalking it up to politically correct generosity. Borderline racist, such sentiment belies dulled sensibilities. Is it possible that some people fail to apprehend the movie's stirring power? Predictably, much of the criticism against The Fast Runner comes from the DV-is-the-death-of-film crowd. The usually astute Jeremiah Kipp of Matinee Magazine has even suggested that Kunuk might have been better off waiting for financing, and risk not getting it, rather than shoot his film on a second-rate medium -- a cruel, untenable suggestion.

Exploring rather than exploiting myth, The Fast Runner shows us that, across eons and oceans, human experiences remain constant. In the closing credits, Kunuk seeks to demystify his enchanting movie by showing out-takes of the snowbound production, reminding audiences that what they have just seen was a product of committed artists, rather than a mystical text sprung from the ground. It's a tribute to the movie's peculiar power that the onerous production has to be brought to our attention. Such is the magic that The Fast Runner weaves.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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