Sunday, March 27, 2011

2004 Toronto Film Festival Report, Part One

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in September 2004)

This is the first of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 2004 Toronto Film Festival.

When Will I Be Loved (James Toback)
Toback could have been one of the best American directors, but it didn’t quite turn out that way. Since his amazing, unprecedented early films Fingers and Exposed (another early work, Love And Money, seems to have effectively disappeared), he’s had a patchy career, often with long gaps between movies. Two Girls And A Guy won most acclaim (leaving aside his screenplay for Barry Levinson’s Bugsy), but it was a quickie project of modest ambition. His last film Harvard Man wasn’t released here, but it turned up on cable – it had all his manic energy, but made you wonder if his fixation on youth (he’s almost 60 now) wasn’t diluting his gifts for exploring extreme characters; among other things, it had so much sex and drug stuff that the director’s motives become questionable. Still, Toback’s swaggering, kinetic approach to filmmaking is pretty irresistible.

When Will I Be Loved, which has now opened commercially, is an interesting formal experiment – a first half of seemingly almost random collisions and allusions and meshings; a second half that closes in on one story illustrating the capacity of human endeavour and its ethically and psychologically murky underbelly. Neve Campbell plays a woman whose hustler boyfriend arranges for her to sleep with a communications mogul for $100,000 (he sells this to her as an application of “The fundamental existential question we all have to face – what am I capable of?”). She bargains up to $1 million, then turns the tables. Mike Tyson and Lori Singer turn up as themselves – both captured in some unexplained personal conflict (Singer’s boyfriend is black, and Toback himself appears as a professor of African-American studies – racial tension is a prominent but unresolved subtext of the film’s first section). While much of the film is knowingly chaotic, Campbell’s loft is an oasis of cool sophistication (she has rich parents) and the soundtrack is full of Glenn Gould and Beethoven strings – you get the feeling of a search for synthesis and assimilation, bolstered by the dialogue’s constant references to “finding out who I am” and “feeling connected” and suchlike.

Toback is unquestionably sincere, his allusiveness is fascinating, and his commitment and vitality are attractive, but When Will I Be Loved again seems to be exploring an increasingly abstract universe of connection for its own sake. Exposed, more than 20 years ago now, had real issues (politics, terrorism), a real sense of globalization, and a personal history expressed in more than passing arguments - it had ambition and melancholy. At least Toback seems able to make films more frequently now, but it seems more and more like productivity without purpose.

10 On Ten and Five (Abbas Kiarostami)
Critic Jonathan Rosenbaum regards Iranian Kiarostami as one of the two greatest working narrative filmmakers (the other is Taiwanese Hou Hsiao-Hsien, whose Café Lumiere also played at this year’s festival). Kiarostami’s earlier films can be watched largely as voyages of discovery, leavened with some relatively accessible musings on the nature of cinema. A Taste Of Cherry won the top prize at Cannes and took his reputation to a higher level. I wrote an awfully snippy putdown of it here at the time, failing to see how its ostensible subject of a man driving around, determined to commit suicide, is actually an exerting essay on self-definition in a time of philosophical and cultural confusion. The Wind Will Carry Us presents another, more mysterious quest which also reveals itself as the honing of a sense of self, and this may be the film that best illustrates the intricacy of Kiarostami’s approach; how absence and omission and repetition forge a distinct space that influences the characters as much as the ostensible narrative does. His dialogue, often consisting of repeated assertions and questions like a weird variation on David Mamet, frequently strikes me as funny, in the sense that one might choose to laugh into the void. His last film 10 consisted of ten scenes of a woman driving around Tehran with various passengers, and seemed to me to be partly about the possibility of female empowerment; clearly more minimal than the other films, it seemed to speak of a desire for new directions.

Kiarostami’s two new films confirm this desire. 10 on Ten is a series of commentaries on filmmaking, delivered in ten chapters by Kiarostami himself while he drives around the area in which Taste Of Cherry was filmed. He emphasizes several times that he had no formal training in filmmaking (he rather high-handedly suggests that the act of watching this film will preclude the audience from ever making the same claim) and his observations are non-technical and, dare I say, largely unsurprising. He gushes over the potential of digital cameras, regarding these as a deliverer of “undeniable truth” – a posture that seemed to me overly idealistic, although consistent with his increasing use of unfiltered images and avoidance of editing and narrative. He contrasts his own cinema – “a cinema of truth” – to that of Hollywood, asserting that “human beings and their souls” are the most important subject matter, torn between heaven and hell because of their “existential ambiguity.” Although some of this is interesting, I cannot say that it particularly aids in appreciating the director’s work, and the film is aesthetically negligible in itself.

Five, dedicated to Yasujiro Ozu, consists of five long takes, all close to the Caspian shoreline. The first follows a log being tossed by the waves; the second, people walking on the boardwalk; the third, dogs gathered at the water’s edge; the fourth, ducks walking in one direction and then the other. The fifth and longest take is also the most mysterious and compelling – shot at night, at various times it catches the moon both directly and reflected in the water, rainfall, waving leaves, cloud patterns, the break of day. Unlike the first four shots, this seems to evidence some modest manipulation of space or time, but its exact nature eludes us.

I assume the dedication to Ozu evokes the Japanese director’s serenity and composure, but I can’t imagine that Ozu – whose movies are more melodramatic, densely plotted and even comic than the legend often has it – would have been drawn to this métier. To remind us of cinema’s essential simplicity is enduringly worthy, but I’m not sure where the achievement now ranks in the relative hierarchy. In the program book Kiarostami says of Five: “It is as if I recited a poem which had already been written. Everything already exists…I simply observed it.” But does this speak of one of the greatest living filmmakers? It wouldn't take much to read 10 on Ten and Five, taken in combination, as symptoms of a director in crisis – first a little too stridently asserting his relevance, then seeking to deny it altogether.

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