The Tracey Fragments (Bruce McDonald, 2007)

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domino harvey
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The Tracey Fragments (Bruce McDonald, 2007)

#1 Post by domino harvey » Tue Aug 05, 2008 8:24 pm

In a year when two other, highly-flawed films garnered attention for their forward aesthetics, here is a film that actually has the bravery to assign a aesthetic to the film and then play by the rules as set for its entirety. Unlike the frequent cop-outs of Schnabel's Diving Bell, McDonald's film never pauses to orient the viewer into a more comfortable (conventional) aesthetic. And for all the pejorative critical bile heaped on the Tracey Fragments for being "too film school," here's a film that uses a specific device for narrative means, rather than a collection of "Oh wouldn't this be awesome in a film"s as in Hayne's Bob Dylan MASH note.

The Tracey Fragments reveals in bits and pieces several traumatic blows to Ellen Page's character, which more or less dissolve/disable her ability to piece together the narrative into a coherent (linear) narrative. The film takes its cues from split-screen cinema such as Chelsea Girls and Time Code (and I'm sure countless experimental films) but expands and extends the aesthetic for the length of a feature film. The screen is consistently moving, introducing new footage and perspectives while reforming existing information. There were probably less than ten shots in the entire film that aren't over-layed, and save one memorable example, those last only seconds. On the other end of the spectrum, the screen can host up to two-dozen different perspectives and counters on a single moment, every image consistently moving within the space of the screen. Describing the film's style can't compare with just posting random screencaps, which give a far better idea of what is work here, though it's naturally better experienced in motion:

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But this isn't just "crazy aesthetics" for articifical, surface reasons. There's a telling sequence about 30 minutes into the film where Page envisions her life via the opening credits to a CW-type program, and the editing there is barely changed from that of the rest of the film. The film isn't an unconventional madness on display, it's every teenager's inability to cope with the world at fifteen. I honestly didn't go in expecting much but this ranks as one of the most exciting and just plain interesting examples of narrative justifying form. It's also one of the most brutal, unglamorous, and surprisingly accurate depictions of the dregs of being a teenager.

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#2 Post by MyNameCriterionForum » Tue Aug 05, 2008 11:40 pm

Thanks for the screencaps -- they've definitely raised my interest. I've been avoiding Ellen Page like The Plague, so I've avoided this... perhaps unfairly.

Not to veer off subject, but how are McDonald's other films, particularly Highway 61 and Roadkill?

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#3 Post by YazanAshqar » Thu Aug 07, 2008 2:59 am

I got the film but didn't have the chance to watch it yet. Seems very interesting.

I like the Idea of it being " First feature film to use Mondrian multi-frame compositions for the entire length ", according to IMDB. Mondrian being a reference to the art of Piet Mondrian.

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#4 Post by lacritfan » Thu Aug 07, 2008 6:51 pm

I really enjoyed Ellen Page's performance in this. It's like the absolute victim from American Crime got injected with the spunk and strength of Juno but found it wasn't enough when you don't have understanding parents or good friends in your life. She has some great balls-out scenes, one where she rages out in a phone booth and another where she calls someone a "stupid ugly bitch dyke fuck ass."
Plot-wise it sorta echos Welcome To The Dollhouse. Like Weiner Dog, Tracey is the resident picked-on girl at school as well as a subplot where
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a sibling may or may not have been abducted.
I thought the Mondrian frames would've been distracting but they do flow very organically and they mostly stay within the same scene so you never wonder if you missed something in a frame or not.
Looks like it came out in a limited release on May 9 and the DVD was already out July 8 so I guess they had pretty much given up on it ahead of time. It's too bad, it deserved more exposure.
Last edited by lacritfan on Mon Jan 12, 2009 4:27 am, edited 1 time in total.

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#5 Post by Barmy » Thu Aug 07, 2008 6:57 pm

Agreed the concept is interesting. I considered going to this when it was released, but I don't think I will ever go to an Ellen Page movie. Hard Candy was my first and last. Maybe when she's 50-something she will become an interesting character actress.

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#6 Post by domino harvey » Thu Aug 07, 2008 7:52 pm

lacritfan wrote: She has some great balls-out scenes... where she calls someone a "stupid ugly bitch dyke fuck ass."
I think that is such a key scene because Page is playing a character with no support system. She can't create witty banter and separate herself from her situation, she can only react with the naive (and not particularly bright) impulses her youth affords.

With regards to your spoiler: (Please don't highlight this if you haven't seen the film, it really does spoil things)
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I thought the audience was supposed to assume her brother had been abducted when in fact it's revealed he drowned while she was getting raped? It's left pretty open, but the last shot is her by that large body of water looking at the tennis ball. Regardless, whatever happened to him happened during her encounter, furthering her guilt, which she tries to handle by convincing herself he actually thinks he's a dog and ran away (like dogs are apt to do). Just like with the justifications concerning her rape (that he's her boyfriend, &c), she tries to deal with things outside of her realm of experience by confining them to arenas she can grasp and manage. That's what makes the ending so good, because once she and the film are finally able to reveal what happened to her, Page (while still confused and damaged) is allowed to end the film under the lucidity afforded by the unbroken, unmanipulated shot.
Last edited by domino harvey on Mon Dec 29, 2008 7:15 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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#7 Post by whaleallright » Fri Aug 08, 2008 5:04 am

Dan Sallitt attempts to inventory the many functions of the split-screens in TRACEY FRAGMENTS in a review at the Auteur's Notebook:

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#8 Post by domino harvey » Fri Aug 08, 2008 5:31 am

Thanks for the link. I don't know who Dan Sallitt is, but like every other entry I've read from that blog, it's unreadable.
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.
I mean, colorful freshman term paper language aside, he's making enough ridiculous claims in that one sentence to disregard anything else he has to say. His article presents no thesis and contains no actual ideas about the film or its aesthetics. It only confusedly catalogs (often at face value) some of the film's formal elements and presents them while hiding behind an ostentatious vocabulary. Embarrassing.

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#9 Post by MyNameCriterionForum » Fri Aug 08, 2008 5:40 am

I think what he's saying is that he wants to fuck Ellen Page.

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#10 Post by domino harvey » Fri Aug 08, 2008 5:52 am

Well, that and that it really strikes me as the writing of someone who rarely if ever reads actual (not on the internet, printed) scholarly film theory and criticism. Let me emphasize, real academic writing does not resemble the linked article. I know all the words he's using and when the ideas invoked in an essay justify this language, such vocabulary isn't distracting. But he appears to have an inferiority complex (and limited knowledge of film as a medium) and thinks confusing the reader with his Scrabblery is more desirable than providing any new ideas about what we both clearly find to be a fascinating film. Add a splash of "We'll never know!"-type dismissals and the whole thing's worthless.

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#11 Post by Mr Sausage » Sun Aug 24, 2008 10:54 pm

domino harvey wrote:With regards to your spoiler: (Please don't highlight this if you haven't seen the film, it really does spoil things)
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I thought the audience was supposed to assume her brother had been abducted when in fact it's revealed he drowned while she was getting raped? It's left pretty open, but the last shot is her by that large body of water looking at the tennis ball. Regardless, whatever happened to him happened during her encounter, furthering her guilt, which she tries to handle by convincing herself he actually thinks he's a dog and ran away (like dogs are apt to do). Just like with the justifications concerning her rape (that he's her boyfriend, &c), she tries to deal with things outside of her realm of experience by confining them to arenas she can grasp and manage. That's what makes the ending so good, because once she and the film are finally able to reveal what happened to her, Page (while still confused and damaged) is allowed to end the film under the lucidity afforded by the unbroken, unmanipulated shot.
Really, don't read this unless you've seen the movie.
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I'm not sure she was raped (nor that the guy was even her boyfriend). Right before the stark cut to them in the car, there's that lyrical moment of tender sexuality that's clearly meant to be Tracey's internal experience of the moment. Then we cut jarringly back to the reality, which is unglamorous sex in a car. Tracey doesn't struggle, and it seems like she enjoys it (brief grab on the upholstery at orgasm), and then the post-coital awkwardness. But her reaction seems too muted for rape; and she does try to touch his face afterwards in an attempt at tenderness, which you would not expect from a rape victim. That he rebukes it, and then pushes her out of the car, I took to be his pathetic response to his not knowing how to deal with the now awkward situation. Anyway, you would expect, with all of those frames, at least one reference to the later (time-wise, anyway), very real rape attempt in the apartment, if the stuff in the car were indeed sexual assault. I also don't think she is misremembering it to us in an attempt to cope, since there is that jarring separation between the moment of fantasy (lyrical movie sex) and the reality (awkward car sex).

As to her relationship with that guy, the movie explicitly asks us to question many of the things Tracey either tells us or remembers. Much of the stuff to do with the 'boyfriend' is fantasy (he doesn't even remember her name when they meet in the woods near the end, which you would not guess going purely on what Tracey has told you up to then). As far as I can tell, three things actually happened between them: the brief conversation in front of his locker after Tracey has got herself up, the bit in the car, and the meeting at the very end.
As a side note, thanks for the recommendation, Domino, I would never have watched the movie without it.

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#12 Post by domino harvey » Mon Aug 25, 2008 2:55 am

(Same rules)
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I consider him taking her under such hideously false pretenses of intimacy and his behavior afterwards to constitute rape. I agree that he was never her boyfriend, that it was just the story she constructed to cope with the aftermath of her sexual encounter. And I agree with your three "real" moments between them. So I guess this just boils down to what the definition of "rape" is-- and dear God, let's never ever have that debate on this board!
And I'm glad you sought it out and enjoyed it, hopefully others will follow your lead!
Last edited by domino harvey on Mon Dec 29, 2008 7:16 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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#13 Post by Michael » Thu Aug 28, 2008 10:40 am

Mr_sausage wrote:As a side note, thanks for the recommendation, Domino, I would never have watched the movie without it.
Indeed. Count me as a new fan of the film. Simply exceptional.

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#14 Post by Mr Sausage » Thu Aug 28, 2008 11:52 am

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I was wondering, recently, how accurately Tracey recalls her parents: if they are really as unbalanced as they come across, or if this is just her perception, and in fact their motives are rational. I think the film is very subtle about pointing out her home life is, in fact, as unstable as it seems. Aside from the fact that one can usually tell the fantasy moments from the reality (which is a good formal guide for what the film wants you to take away from this or that moment), the real clue comes from that phone call Tracey makes. Most will be impressed simply by Tracey's breakdown afterwards; but the mother's silence and emotionless hang-up explains Tracey's home life firmly. No reasonable parent (especially one already missing one child) would leave their fifteen year old girl on the streets of a major city, in winter, with a possible deadly blizzard approaching. An obvious thing to point out, but I thought I should explain that this moment confirms for us a reality (and so much of the movie is a confirmation of what is fantasy or reality in Tracey's mind).

On the other hand, the moment where Tracey savagely insults her mother is probably fantasy. Page's acting was so over-the-top (facial expressions and everything) that it stuck out next to the rest of her performance, and I think we're meant to conclude this is a moment of desire rather than reality.

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#15 Post by Lemmy Caution » Thu Aug 28, 2008 1:00 pm

Good to see a thread up and praising The Tracey Fragments.
Nice first post on the film, Domino.
I saw it back in April and have tried to spread the word. My favorite film of 2008 ... thus far.

Apparently, it was filmed in 14 days and then edited over 9 months. And the editing is what this film is all about. Mostly we have 3-6 screen images going at the same time. Typically three might be of the same image while another three are of a different image or the same image from a different angle.

I enjoyed the first 10 minutes, but was wary if such an exercise could maintain interest over the length of an entire film. It does, with verve. The rhythm and composition and shifting shapes of the image boxes comprise a pretty impressive montage-within-a-frame approach. The film, via its editing and multi-image compositions, tries to give a feel of what it's like inside the characters mind/existence. It reaches a peak, perhaps, during one rather disturbed telephone call.

I fully expect to see this Mondrian technique become standard in music videos of the future, and possibly to liven up standard movie montages.

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#16 Post by lacritfan » Fri Aug 29, 2008 2:54 pm

This is now available on Netflix's Watch Instantly program. Just to add a couple more points :
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I realize another parallel with Welcome to the Dollhouse is (I believe) Weiner Dog also called her mom when she was in the city and the mom similarly just hung up on her.
The ending of the movie has stuck with me
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as Tracey walks in the cold with only that shower curtain, the blizzard coming and after Billy Zero has called her "It" like everyone else. Your heart breaks wondering if she will just continue walking until the cold/blizzard over takes her. I'd like to think she goes home and then the next day at school when the girls tease her in the bathroom she goes into "stupid ugly bitch dyke fuck ass" mode and tells them "I fucking sliced a drug dealer's throat open with the rusty lid of tin can and I'll do the same to you bitches!" and no one ever bothers her again.

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#17 Post by Murdoch » Sun Oct 12, 2008 10:02 pm

I would also like to add my praise for this truly devastating film, one I would not have discovered without this thread. The rage and loneliness of Tracey is quite an exhausting experience, one that constantly strips away hope for a better life for her and I could not help but feel overwhelmed by the last scene.

One question:
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What was the significance of her psychiatrist being a man dressed as a woman? It is accepted in the film that Dr. Heker is a woman, despite being played by Julian Richings. I saw it as symbolic of the surreal experience that visiting a psychiatrist was for her; the transvestite doctor coupled with the white wall-less room that is surrounded by darkness created a place seemingly separated from the world.

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Re: The Tracey Fragments (Bruce McDonald, 2007)

#18 Post by Shrew » Fri Jan 09, 2009 12:20 am

Just watched this film tonight after seeing pop up in several lists in the top 10 thread. I wouldn't call it an great film, but wow, it was an overpowering experience. Amazing how the fragmentation and flourishes save a wretched script. I give it credit for sounding like something a 15 year-old wrote, and Page's wandering monologue catches a lot of the sensitive, desperate, overdone artistic impulses of adolesence. But even the moments that seem 'real' and not manufactured by Tracey's hurried mind reek of Screenwriting 101. Specifically anything involving the Lance character.

But ah, when the film shuts up it hits some wonderful highs.



A great complement to that other Ellen Page flick of 2007, overflowing with the bitter pain of high school Juno wrapped into one tiny "cautionary whale".

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Re: The Tracey Fragments (Bruce McDonald, 2007)

#19 Post by brendanjc » Sun Oct 04, 2009 2:43 am

Saw this tonight, the title jumped out at me after recalling a bit of discussion about it in the 2000's list project thread. I can't say it blew me away. I agree with the general sentiment that the film's aesthetics certainly set it apart and after the first 10 minutes or so I didn't find the framing distracting. I thought Page's performance was strong but the script was pretty awful (especially the stuff with Lance, ugh). The film was an interesting, well-acted investigation into the mindset of a stereotypical teenager's mindset after being put through a hackneyed sequence of events. I found it quite similar to My Suicide, another triumph of style (particularly of editing) that freely mixes subjective fantasy with reality, a film bolstered by a strong central performance but also ultimately compromised by its weak screenplay. For every breathtaking montage or moment of genuine sympathy you feel for the characters in either film there's an equally cringeworthy exchange or cliched situation (talking directly to the camera at length, bad high school poetics, generic students who exist only to hate the protagonist). Still, both films are worth taking the chance on, if only for the considerable promise in the hyperactive editing techniques they've adopted.

This also reminded me a bit of Paranoid Park, in content at least, but it doesn't compare nearly as favorably to that beautiful film for me.

I was a bit surprised to see this film's director is the same person behind Pontypool, a zombie flick I've been looking forward to catching; seeing this makes me anticipate it more since even a basic interest or understanding of human emotion is beyond the grasp of most horror directors (saying this as a fan of the genre).

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Re:

#20 Post by eljacko » Sat Oct 10, 2009 6:37 pm

I might as well have just kept Murdoch's quotation here, because I too watched this movie last Sunday, almost on a whim, thanks to this thread and found it fantastic and incredibly moving; I spent most of the day just thinking about what the hell was going on in Tracey's life (and making any sort of parallels to my own). Jeez.
Murdoch wrote:
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What was the significance of her psychiatrist being a man dressed as a woman? It is accepted in the film that Dr. Heker is a woman, despite being played by Julian Richings. I saw it as symbolic of the surreal experience that visiting a psychiatrist was for her; the transvestite doctor coupled with the white wall-less room that is surrounded by darkness created a place seemingly separated from the world.
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I think it's supposed to add to the unreality of those scenes. While most of the film has those traces of a dream world, to me, the psychiatrist scenes were designed entirely to be a dream of her's. If this girl views the world around her as so broken, it would only make sense that her world's attempt to engage with her on a "meaningful" level would reflect that.

unrelated, but I cannot remember the effect of "movie sex" being spelled out so clearly as this film, and that hit me like a ton of bricks.

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Re: The Tracey Fragments (Bruce McDonald, 2007)

#21 Post by bottled spider » Sun Jun 07, 2020 3:37 pm

Good film. Perhaps it could have been even more fragmentary and disorientating, harder still to distinguish real from imagined. Whether or not McDonald should have risked more complex fracturing, he certainly should have simplified the story. True, misfortune breeds misfortune, and a girl who has an unhappy home life is that much more likely to be bullied at school, and in turn, a victim of bullying is that much more vulnerable to exploitation. All the same, the film lays it on a bit thick:
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The attempted rape is an episode too many in a catalog of miseries. Tracey escapes the attacker not because that could realistically happen under the circumstances, but because the film can't go there. Since her escape is all too obviously expedient, it would have been better to drop the episode altogether.
Other than a gripe about too much stuff happening, this was a tour de force of editing.

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Re: The Tracey Fragments (Bruce McDonald, 2007)

#22 Post by therewillbeblus » Fri Nov 27, 2020 12:52 am

I thought this was incredible, and domino already hit why in the first post better than I could, so I'll just add to the praise with awe at how form can mimic the scattered psyche living with active trauma and point out my favorite part:
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Page spends a good portion of the film as publicly volatile, but there's a terrific moment when she says, “Do you remember in the news when two retards had a kid? That was me! Just kidding..

That pause on "just kidding" hit me like a ton of bricks. Her impulsive animosity, projectile of anger towards anyone and everyone, is pulled back by a brief self-conscious awareness that her emotions and problematic behavior is sourced in her own discomfort with herself and her unfair circumstances. The end of that sentence uttered in meek desperation calls for the desire to be wanted, to belong, to appreciate her support system because it’s all she has… but that voice isn’t strong, isn’t reinforced, and so the glimmer of hope floats away and we return to a misguided resilience without the tools to safely cope in a healthy way.

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