Sunday, April 24, 2011

2004 Toronto Film Festival Report, Part Five

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in October 2004)

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

Land Of Plenty (Wim Wenders)
“Of all the new German directors,” wrote David Thomson in the late 70’s, “none has Wim Wenders’ rhapsodic sense of America.” And it was true: when I was getting seriously into movies in the early 80’s, Wenders was a unique bridge between two filmmaking worlds. He filmed the dying Nicholas Ray in Lightning Over Water, improvised a film out of almost nothing in The State Of Things, and reached a mythic highpoint in Paris Texas. He even coped serviceably with the impossible weight of Francis Coppola’s Hammett project. After Paris Texas, Wenders reached probably his height of popular acclaim with Wings Of Desire, and yet the concoction of Peter Falk and angels in Berlin always seemed strained. Wenders has never hit his stride again. Films like Until the End Of The World and Lisbon Story and The End Of Violence all have their points of intrigue – and I’m one of the very few people who liked The Million Dollar Hotel - but they’re also frequently grating, willfully posturing; they don’t leave you with a very positive sense of their maker. In the latest edition of his book, Thomson changes that line firmly into the past tense.

Wenders’ new film Land Of Plenty seems to have redeemed his flagging reputation a little, but I must confess I liked it less than any of the films I’ve mentioned. Made cheaply and quickly, it’s his most narratively straightforward work, and sadly his most conceptually negligible. It focuses on a self-styled (Vietnam vet) “operative” who travels around in an old van kitted out with surveillance equipment, gathering information on perceived threats, and on his niece who returns to America after a long period abroad. This set-up is an effective enough medium for debunking the paranoid and xenophobic excesses of the current climate, and for pointing out how this diverts attention from other problems, but this is it seems to me the simplest of projects. That done, in its last few minutes the film takes on a rampant moralizing tone, with the couple visiting Ground Zero while a gratingly insistent song plays on the soundtrack: “May the lights in the land of plenty shine on the truth some day…”

When did Wenders become so damn conventional? The film has some good scenes and asides, and some reasonable black comedy, but it throws out its political insights in the most banal, unnuanced terms (the contrast between America and Israel seems especially unedifying in the light of similar discussions in Godard’s Notre Histoire, also at the festival); it dawdles and repeats itself. I truly do not blame Wenders if he no longer has that rhapsodic sense of America, but the way he triangulates his message here evokes a hackneyed political consultant more than the director he once was.

The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things (Asia Argento)
I must admit to being mildly besotted by Argento, who by virtue of being both a gifted director and actor and also a wildly exotic hot chick embodies some kind of mythical ideal. She’s best known in the West for XXX, but her true high point to date is Scarlet Diva, which she directed and starred in. It’s a scathing piece of self-examination, bleeding both with ego and rampant honesty, which in her case are probably much the same thing. The scene where she smokes a cigarette as she stands naked and shaves her armpits is a classic of sorts.

Her second film as a director is a crazed fantasy of dysfunctional parenting on an almost apocalyptic scale. Argento (with a one of a kind Southern accent) plays the wretched mother, who got pregnant at 15, gave the kid up into care, and through a warped sense of entitlement and bonding reclaims him eight years later (“If my father had let me,” she tells him on their first day together, “you’d long be flushed down some toilet.”) She takes him on the road, as an onlooker to her blurry life of men, drugs, booze, one dive after the other. It’s interrupted for the kid only when she runs out on him for a few years and he’s delivered to his religious-zealot grandparents, who swiftly turn him into a hell and damnation street corner preacher. Then one day she turns up again, snatches him away, and it all resumes, although with increasingly darker undercurrents as the kid gets older, the mother nuttier, and the grind of it just plain eats away at them.

The film has some horrifying child abuse if you take it at face value, but who would ever make such a mistake? Argento here is halfway to Catherine Breillat’s dream woman – an uninhibited purveyor of whatever passes through her head; only halfway though, because she’s also a gift to every muscle-bound buffoon she comes across, the easiest slut you ever saw. The film is surely intensely Freudian, although at times you might suspect the director is actually a meek, good-as-gold daddy’s girl just recycling stuff she’s seen in the movies. Regardless, it’s quite a piece of performance art, expertly executing its trash aesthetic.

Going Upriver: The Long War Of John Kerry (George Butler)
This decent account of Kerry’s Vietnam experience and subsequent antiwar activism can’t help but seem like a campaign commercial given its timing (it opened commercially here a few days after the first Bush-Kerry debate). The film is no kind of radical documentary; it relies on talking heads and on a conventional approach to archival footage. It’s still fascinating though, particularly if you contrast what’s shown of young Kerry’s leadership of the Vietnam Veterans Against The War with his performance in the current race. Even after his consensus victory in that first debate, many pointed out that he was short on what the first President Bush called the “vision thing,” giving answers based mainly on rational, incremental thought processes. But in some of the footage here his language positively rings out. He’s still a rather opaque figure overall though. Someone in the film says that opposing the war at the time seemed like the kiss of death for any subsequent political career, but you sometimes wonder whether Kerry wasn’t a shrewder strategist than anyone realized (shrewder indeed than he’s seemed more recently).

Not that I’m questioning his sincerity, but a film that takes so much for granted can leave some important flanks exposed. Going Upriver isn’t quite a hagiography, but it must be noted the film barely has a word spoken against its subject, whether personally or in questioning the rightness of his stand on Vietnam. Except that is by the Nixon administration: Charles Colson is quoted as saying they “must destroy the young demagogue before he becomes another Ralph Nader.” Given how Kerry’s destiny now may find itself painfully linked to arch-spoiler Nader, it’s a startling example of the tiny diameter of political circles.

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