Sunday, April 3, 2011

2004 Toronto Film Festival Report, Part Two

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in September 2004)

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

I Heart Huckabees (David O. Russell)
David O. Russell hit it big in 1999 with Three Kings, and now he returns with a film that looks like it might indeed reflect five years’ worth of deliberation, but much less inspiration. On paper it sounds terrific – a dissatisfied young man hires an “existential detective agency” to investigate the source of his troubles. It stars Dustin Hoffman, Lily Tomlin, Jude Law, Naomi Watts and Mark Wahlberg. The movie has more structure than four ordinary movies combined (it plays the “detective” angle fairly straight, with revelations and connections piling up like an LSD version of Chinatown); countless twists and turns, satirical jabs at just about everything (although the main target seems to be corporate cynicism and how it appropriates and bastardizes idealism); dollops of visual gimmickry and non-stop clever dialogue – characters throw theories of connection vs. randomness at each other as though they were arguing about who should take out the garbage. It can’t help but make you think here and there – take a moment to muse about how “there is no remainder in the mathematics of infinity.”

There are some good scenes – I enjoyed the dinner scene with the hypocritical Christians who’ve adopted the Sudanese orphan (I won’t try to explain); and Jason Schwartzman and Isabelle Huppert dipping each other’s heads in the mud (ditto). But it’s persistently monotonous and tedious, it’s too earnest (“I really do spend most of my time thinking about these issues,” said Russell in a recent interview), most of the cast seems off its game, and its energy becomes merely hermetic. And once you remember that Woody Allen and Monty Python (and a hundred others for all I know) had essays or sketches on similar themes, even the film’s frail novelty seems to evaporate.

I thought Three Kings overreached as well, but the film’s politics probably bought it a lot of slack. It’s been reported that Russell recently made an anti-war documentary for the film’s DVD release, but is having difficulty getting it past the studio. Maybe this will goad him into making a next film with more focus and bite. The current movie will appeal to student-types who think words like “nihilism” are automatically funny, but surely not to much of anyone else. And the ultimate revelation – that the truth lies in forging a middle way between extremes – isn’t exactly revolutionary.

Notre Musique (Jean-Luc Godard)
I wonder how many reviewers and critics now are up to the task of commenting other than impressionistically on Godard’s films. This wasn’t such a problem for the early Godard – watching Contempt or Bande a Part, one might stumble over (or even daydream through) a few lines, but the films provided enough narrative coherence and sensual pleasure that even an unskilled theorist could engage loosely with the films’ feverish experimentation. This balance tipped long ago though, and Godard’s work for the last thirty years has been clearly “difficult” in varying degrees. It’s not that he rejects the visceral possibilities of cinema; on the contrary, no director seems as fascinated by the medium’s raw material; by the possibilities of sound and image – even now, his work exudes an almost childlike delight at times. But where such delight leads a mainstream director to make E.T. or Shrek, Godard sees shame at squandered opportunity; the danger in his devotion is that almost all subjects strike him as unworthy of the medium. In the late 60’s, radical politics occupied him, and in the 70’s and 80’s he seemed as fascinated for a while by the politics of the family. The shifting intercourse between cinema and other arts has been a recurrent focus of investigation. He realizes that cinema will fail if it ignores terrorism and imperialism. But his primary subject has been the medium itself, and with an increasingly morbid subtext that strikes many as gathering neurosis and eccentricity.

His last film Eloge De L’Amour played at the 2001 festival, and defeated me completely -I had to consult various sources to construct even the basics of what was going on. Its most accessible moments are based plainly in cinematic reference – such as the girl who comes to the door to collect money to dub The Matrix into Breton, or the potshots at Steven Spielberg. Still, the film confirms how every image of Godard’s is anchored in word and culture and history and in the possibility of other images that might have been used in its place. And in asserting that the measure of love is to love without measure, it reminds us of Godard’s enormous accumulated legacy, a legacy that somehow seems to weigh heavily on him.

David Thomson speculated as follows: “He is the first director, the first great director, who does not seem to be a human being. It was the discovery that he loved Anna Karina (his first wife, and frequent star of his early films) more in moving images than in life that may have broken their marriage.” This surely misses the romanticism in Godard’s work, and the speculation is trite. But it’s appealing to suppose that Godard’s life must be simpler than his art.

Notre Musique now presents a Godard that is more a human being than ever, and the film is his most accessible in a long time. I wonder if it’s coincidental that it’s far less about cinema itself than most of his recent works. His preoccupation here is war, laid out at the start of the film in a magnificent montage of battle and suffering that covers (via old Hollywood footage) almost the entire span of human history. The film then moves to Sarajevo, where Godard plays himself, attending a conference on text and image. The film follows other conversations, other encounters, all in some way levered on discussions of war, on the premise that “more than ever, we’re faced with the void.” Ambiguity flows from the film in waves – for example on the tortured relationship of Israel and Palestine, in which Israel brings the other both defeat and renown. At least Bosnia, says an Israeli journalist, is “a place where reconciliation seems possible.”

In his conference address, Godard (through images from Hawks’ His Girl Friday, of all things), suggests that film may not adequately differentiate between men and women, and from this extrapolates its failure at illuminating war: images from different conflicts betray similar configurations and compositions, and thus a distinct trauma becomes indistinguishable from all the others, with our sympathy for and understanding of their specific pain correspondingly dwindling. It’s a failure of human capacity as much as one of cinema, and the film can suggest no answer to it. It ends on a note of regeneration, but its overall impression is distinctly wintry. Godard himself has never seemed so, well, kindly, as if disinclined now to hector or bombard us. Which means the film communicates a certain despairing stasis. But if it’s a monolith, it’s a singularly beautiful one.

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