Sunday, July 3, 2011

2004 Toronto Film Festival Report, Part Fifteen

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in December 2004)

This is the fifteenth and last of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 2004 Toronto Film Festival.

Kinsey (Bill Condon)
Condon hasn't directed in the six years since his intriguing directorial debut Gods And Monsters earned him an Oscar for original screenplay – although in the interim he picked up another Oscar nomination for the script of Chicago. Kinsey will almost certainly get him up there again.

The movie, which has already opened commercially, earns instant good service points for stirring up controversy (sight unseen, naturally) in the red states, where the very idea of a movie about the pioneering 50’s sex researcher runs contrary to the “moral values” that helped Bush back into office. The irony is delicious of course, for Kinsey’s whole work sprung from empirical need; content to carry out research on insects into his forties, his interest in studying human sexuality developed largely as a response to the ignorance among students who came to him for counseling.

Condon’s film ultimately stands as a surprisingly buoyant paean to liberalism and tolerance. Liam Neeson plays Kinsey as a paragon of benevolent integrity, which sounds prissy but isn’t – he lends the film a nicely modulated moral centre. Unlike the protestors, the movie is well aware of the situation’s inherent absurdity, and presents several ready-made establishment stuffed shirts (many of whom get pulled along by Kinsey’s enthusiasm despite themselves) but seldom goes for easy laughs – given the subject matter, the audience I saw it with was surprisingly reverent.

Later on Kinsey’s research led to extreme self-experimentation and a loss of scientific perspective, treated fairly discreetly in the film. Kinsey also shows (again lightly) how his researchers strained their marriages through similar inattention to boundaries, and Condon really pushes the audience’s tolerance with a brief portrait of an aging sex offender who reels off with relish the statistics on children, animals, and minors he’s abused. But in the end the film rests on knowledge as a gateway to love and fulfillment, and assures us of the happiness of Kinsey’s marriage for all its ups and downs. Maybe there’s something a little defensive about this, and the film definitely sets itself some limits, but overall it’s more breezy and beguiling than you’d ever think possible for such subject matter.

Steamboy (Katsuhiro Otomo)
Animated films aren’t very high on my cinematic priorities – I only see the few that rise to the top of the critical ladder. Having applied this filter, I almost inevitably enjoy every one I see – in the recent past Spirited Away and The Triplets Of Belleville were both outstanding, and Shrek and Finding Nemo highly entertaining (although I find the often-repeated statement that these films are really “meant for adults” a bit questionable, or maybe I should say depressing). Still, I find that in these cases I’m using a different mental muscle – the same one, I think, that gets a work out in museums or art galleries – and that’s terrific, but it isn’t really why I go to the movies. As a medium where everything must be created from nothing, animation may in some sense be a fuller or more demanding art form than live action, but it tends to channel an artist’s inner world rather than to reflect the one we live in. It lacks cinema’s unique and thrilling underlay of democracy – the sense that what we’re looking at is only partly the director’s vision, but also partly our own, partly a product of pure mystery.

Consequently, on first reading the program book, I turned quickly past the write-up for Steamboy, despite its calling the film “one of the most sophisticated and elaborate Japanese animated films ever made.” But as every festivalgoer knows, you always have a point in the schedule where there’s nothing to see, or you couldn’t get in to the movie you wanted, so you end up taking on a complete wild card. And in my case that was Steamboy. Actually it ended up being the very last film I saw at the festival this year.

It was a good final note, because despite the reservations I mentioned, the film is clearly a pure artistic vision – something that couldn't possibly exist without Otomo’s (apparently) bizarre sensibility and range of interests, and ten years’ investment in making the film. It’s focused on, of all things, the development of steam technology in 1860’s England, where three generations of talented inventors clash over the deployment of a new discovery. The film starts off slowly, lingering over the feel and immensity of the age’s new factories, swelling off the screen with almost three-dimensional might. Early on there’s a thrilling chase sequence, but events generally remain quirkily low-key for the first hour; then the film gradually starts to rewrite history with aplomb, destroying Tower Bridge and staging mass conflict in the streets of London.

The film’s theme is the responsibility that comes with progress – “An invention with no philosophy behind it,” says one character, “is a curse.” There’s a real sense of underlying idealism here – was it preordained that progress would be so fully appropriated by and for capitalism? Steamboy has some surprisingly meaty exposition on the subject, although the discussion is somewhat unresolved (I guess we all know already how it turned out though). I won’t deny that the film occasionally seems repetitive, but overall it’s a remarkable viewing experience.

And it belongs with the best of the festival in that it betrays little sign of commercial calculation or compromise. I’m obviously not “against” commercial cinema, but I don’t think the heart of the festival should be about celebrating that application of the medium. Cinema works its magic in many ways, but not the least of its manifestations is that one person with a cheap camera can still occasionally achieve something more illuminating and transfixing and thrilling than the entire Hollywood infrastructure. As long as that’s the case, and as long as those achievements have a chance of being celebrated, it will deserve our continuing faith.

Festival Summary
As always, seeing 10% or so of the movies hardly positions anyone to make a comment on the event as a whole, but my own little chunk of this probably went as well as it ever has. I’d say I saw five movies that make it as near-masterpieces; Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s CafĂ© Lumiere, Jia Zhang-ke’s The World, Jean-Luc Godard’s Notre Musique, Francois Ozon’s 5 X 2 and (perhaps best of all) Ousmane Sembene’s Moolaade. Last year I only had a couple in that category, and that was probably being a bit generous. And while one can’t avoid a few entries on the other side of the column, a year in which Pedro Almodovar’s Bad Education – for many people a highlight – counts as one of my least favourite films clearly constitutes nothing to complain about. You know, after a year like this, I may even come back next time.

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