Friday, August 31, 2012

Abuses of Power

In Craig Zobel’s terrifically executed new film Compliance, Sandra, the manager at an Ohio fast food outlet, gets a call from a police officer, accusing one of her employees, Becky, of theft, apparently corroborated by surveillance footage. With his arrival delayed by other demands, he asks Sandra to detain the employee, to interrogate her, to search her. Sandra’s hesitant, but since the officer confirms he’s already cleared the approach higher up the corporate chain, and since his command of the situation is self-evident, she goes along, and since Becky’s just a scared young woman who needs her job, she submits. It’s a busy Friday night, and the staff is stretched, so as the detention stretches on, and the officer’s arrival is further delayed, Sandra is forced to involve other employees, and then even her fiancee. But the film shows us early on that the officer isn’t who he claims – it’s a prank, a sick manipulation, an exploitation of human gullibility and submissiveness.

Walking out

The film has been somewhat controversial, with reports of people shouting at the screen or walking out – indeed, when I saw it at the Lightbox, I think four people left (a lot, in percentage terms). The issue seems to be that the exploitation of Becky exceeds what a viewer should be expected to submit to, although analyzed as a censor would do, by exposed private parts and what you see them doing, Zobel seems correct in saying “You have the impression that you're seeing more nudity than you actually do.” Anyway, this tells you the movie works well enough as an effectively creepy thriller, fully exploiting the easy identifiability of the premise, and one can easily imagine how someone like Brian de Palma might have pumped up the eroticism and displaced voyuerism, to make something more overtly “Hitchcockian” out of it.

Zobel has something different in mind though, and positions the film more as a social phenomenon (one based closely on documented real-life cases), with almost limitless metaphorical potential. In broad terms, the way Sandra and others so easily submit to the caller’s claim of authority seems to speak to a broader capitulation in America culture. In its first section, setting up the characters and the location, Zobel evokes the fast food joint with great finesse, establishing the economic needs of the characters, and the generational differences that separate Sandra from her employees and later assist in driving a wedge between them. He doesn’t hammer the point – this isn’t a sequel to Fast Food Nation – but he doesn’t need to: no matter how they might tweak their images, such chains embody better than any other commercial enterprise the sickness at the heart of the West, perpetuating countless interlocking cycles of low wages and high profits, ill-health and spiritual deadening, and ultimately a kind of quiet terror, which increasingly reveals itself as Compliance progresses.

Middle America

I found myself thinking for instance of how Barack Obama was hammered four years ago for talking about small towns where “the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them” and going on: “and it's not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” Although it certainly sounds elitist, and perhaps doesn’t display much sensitivity to variations in culture and tradition, the basic point seems incontrovertible to me – that people place too much importance on things that ought to be tangential to them and (to extend Obama’s point) that this confused value system makes them ripe for being persistently duped by their rulers, into acting and voting calamitously against their own self-interests.

I should acknowledge that Zobel wouldn’t necessarily endorse that analysis: in the interviews I’ve seen, he seems to cast the film as an examination of human nature – of how, “in order to have a pleasant life, you have to be able to trust that people are who they say they are” – rather than a political statement. Quoting someone who saw the film as a portrayal of “Middle America,” he says “I think that's an inherently distancing and, honestly, condescending, way to look at it.” As such, the film starts to remind you of one of the old-time Hollywood creations which support endless reverie and analysis, regardless of whether their directors would have endorsed any of it (as a viewing experience though, with its intense focus on faces and interactions and its careful evocation of place and texture, it’s more reminiscent of the 70’s, reminding you – not that a reminder was needed - of how frothy and tiresome much of cinema seems now).

Disquiet of doubt

A recent New York Times column by Frank Bruni demonstrates further the film’s metaphorical reach, roping in additional touchpoints of American malaise: “People also routinely elect trust over skepticism because it’s easier, more convenient. Saddam Hussein is stockpiling weapons of mass destruction; the climate isn’t changing; Barack Obama’s birth certificate is forged; Mitt Romney didn’t pay taxes for 10 years. To varying degrees, all of these were or are articles of faith, unverifiable or eventually knocked down. People nonetheless accepted them because the alternative meant confronting outright mendacity from otherwise respected authorities, trading the calm of certainty for the disquiet of doubt.”

Is there any silver lining in all this? Only perhaps that the character that finally brings it all to a halt is the film’s most obvious archetype, whose grizzled reaction of intuitive revulsion and refusal embodies the way Americans like to picture themselves, regardless that it’s increasingly a marginalized stereotype. But Zobel allows no sense of triumph, muddying the waters further in an intriguing series of final scenes, which allow some traditional narrative closure while cementing the sense of unbridgeable gulfs and shortfalls.

Even the title carries a bit of extra resonance, if you’ve worked in the financial industry as I have – for example, the Ontario Securities Commission has a “director of compliance and registrant regulation,” and there’s a prominent publication and website called “Compliance Week.” But of course, compliance – in the sense of obeying a bunch of rules – isn’t necessarily the same as (and may sometimes even be a smokescreen for having failed at) building an ethical culture. In the same way, the film’s portrayal early on of the prevailing rules for closing the freezer door, maintaining the food assembly line and so on tells us nothing about the quality or virtue of the food or of the organization; they’re rituals, of the sort that clog up our lives – and if they leave any element of our lives that’s not clogged up, then the media companies happily do all they can to clog up the rest.

Compliance isn’t a perfect film – if anything, I’d argue it should make its viewers even more uncomfortable in parts – but when a picture is this provocative, and so mentally bracing and useful, you’re more than happy to take it as it is.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

2005 Toronto Film Festival Report, Part Four

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in October 2005)
This is the fourth of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 2005 Toronto Film Festival.


Le temps qui reste (Francois Ozon)

Ozon’s 5 X2, rather to my surprise, was one of my favourite films at last year’s festival. It’s the story of a relationship told in five sequences, the structural innovation being that they run in reverse order. The film’s intrigue is in Ozon’s near-incredulity at the possibility that such relationships might exist at all, and in how he consequently renders events calmly but ineluctably strange; among other things, it may have provided last year’s most astringently gay perspective on a predominantly straight world (Pedro Almodovar’s Bad Education, although much more widely praised, seemed to me merely gauche by comparison).


Ozon has seemed for a while to be aiming for the top of the heap of European directors. He’s extremely variable and resourceful, moving from the black comedy of Sitcom to the hermetic Fassbinder tribute Water Falls On Burning Rocks to the allusive and mysterious Under The Sand to the contrived delight of 8 Women. Somehow his work nevertheless seems to be all of a piece, held together by a wry skepticism at bourgeois assumptions. His new film Le Temps qui reste demonstrates all his proficiency, but is probably only a minor addition to the canon. It’s about an abrasive young photographer who receives a diagnosis of terminal cancer, decides to forego treatment, and spends his remaining time sifting the elements of his life – he breaks up with his boyfriend, reconciles with his sister, pays a touching visit to his grandmother, and so forth. There’s also a somewhat bizarre out-of-nowhere plotline that serves to reconcile his ambivalent view of his own childhood, and to deliver him to an ultimate state of benevolence and acceptance.


The film has some of Ozon’s most overt homosexual content, but he’s content on this occasion to work within familiar ideological and emotional structures – the character’s personal journey is conventional, and the film is accessibly even-toned.  None of this undermines its emotional impact – scene by scene, it’s exceptionally well judged. But I saw it the day after watching a pair of other French films - Gentille and Un couple parfait – that provided, between the two of them, as much enjoyment but a higher dose of subtle subversion and technical provocation. By comparison, Ozon’s film simply seemed minor. He’s so smart though that this is probably part of a deliberate strategy, to establish his mastery of all points on the spectrum: his next film will probably kick us hard, where it hurts.


Lie With Me (Clement Virgo)

Virgo’s film was preceded by advance buzz about its daring  - the programme book calls it a “distaff version of Last Tango In Paris”. It follows a young Toronto woman through a series of sexual encounters (linked by instantly forgettable other stuff), eventually focusing on her fraught relationship with a particular guy. The movie is shot in a ramshackle, drifting, close-up style, and this is occasionally successful in complementing the protagonist’s turbulent psyche – it also benefits immeasurably from the fearless central performance by Lauren Lee Smith. But on the whole it’s a superficial thing, unable to put these elements to any even quasi-profound purpose. The character’s inner thoughts, captured in voice over, are somewhat less than revelatory – for example: “I didn’t know how to love him. All I knew what to do was f***. It’s not enough to f***.” As for the sex, it’s at least more convincing than anything in Atom Egoyan’s new movie, but not very interesting for anyone aware of recent trends in European films. The movie does however attain a certain distinction from setting these goings-on against such familiar settings as Dundas Square and the Annex, which serve as compelling insurance against viewing any of it as being remotely glamorous.


06/05: The Sixth Of May (Theo van Gogh)

Theo van Gogh achieved his greatest fame in death, when he was shot in Amsterdam last year, apparently in response to numerous provocative statements on Islam. His films were not well known outside the Netherlands – I had only seen one of them, and it wasn’t at all memorable (I do recall it had something to do with phone sex). His last film takes off from the other high profile Dutch shooting of recent times – Presidential candidate Pim Fortuyn, who was killed in 2002, ten days before he might well have won the election. The film posits that a photographer, happening to be close to the scene, starts to string things together in All The President’s Men style, although (this being thirty years later) with more technological panache. Events move along zippily enough, but I will confess to not following all of the links, nor even fully comprehending where matters end up. I don’t think this is just my problem either – there’s not much sign that Van Gogh had his eye on an international audience here, and in any event his direction is fairly run-of-the-mill. There seems to be a vague attempt to embody some of Fortuyn’s signature issues and complexities in the narrative; for example, the anti-immigration stance inherent in his declaration that “Holland is full,” modified by his distance from the far right that’s generally associated with such stances, is echoed here in several inter-racial relationships, and perhaps also (maybe more insidiously) in the deceptions engineered by one of the immigrant characters. Intriguing as that is though, it’s far less resonant than any of the footage of Fortuyn that’s interspersed through the film.


All Souls (numerous directors)

Van Gogh’s death itself gave rise to a festival film, a compilation of short segments by 17 Dutch filmmakers, all linked more or less explicitly (for a non-Dutch viewer it’s not always easy to know which) to his murder on November 2, 2004 (coincidentally, but with a macabre artistic utility, the date of the last US election). As with most exercises of this kind, the approaches vary widely, from symbolic fantasy to erotic reverie to documentary to faux documentary to absurdist comedy to gentle observation to impressionistic collage; the most common theme is the difficulty of accommodating diversity and accepting societal evolution, without inhibiting free speech and while accommodating “tradition” (at least partly a xenophobic construct). The quality, in truth, averages out at the lower end of the spectrum – in particular, this isn’t much of a showcase for the Dutch sense of humour, although the best sequence, an evocation of an Amsterdam terrorized by a mysterious cloud, yields the punch line (an effective one, in context) that it was all caused by an old woman emptying her vacuum cleaner bag off her apartment balcony. Highs and lows aside, the film ably communicates the immense trauma of the event; it’s not analytical so much as bereft and woebegone, circling round Van Gogh’s departed spirit as if in the forlorn hope of effecting his return.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Some Like it Hot

Billy Wilder’s Some Like it Hot is an American classic, placed at number one on the American Film Institute’s list of the funniest American movies (number two was Tootsie, with which it has some obvious similarities), and voted among the best films ever made in various other polls. I saw the film again recently, after a long absence from it, and felt again that its status is a bit overblown. When I use this space to write about non-current movies, it’s usually to illuminate the under-appreciated, not to throw stones at beloved artifacts. But then, defending our beloved artifacts only deepens our love for them. So take this as my constructive gift to Some Like it Hot fans.

Nobody’s perfect

The film follows two jazz musicians who witness the 1929 St. Valentine’s Day massacre and take the only available route out of Chicago: going in drag and joining an all-girl’s band en route to Florida. Joe falls for the singer, Sugar Kane, and makes moves on her at the resort in the guise of a millionaire oil heir, disguised this time behind a thick pair of glasses and a Cary Grant impersonation; Jerry finds himself pursued by a kooky real-life millionaire. Eventually the gangsters turn up in Florida, but the two couples get away, with the classic closing line when the kook discovers Jerry is actually a man: “Nobody’s perfect” (number forty-eight in the AFI’s list of top movie quotes).

The movie is a masterpiece of pace and structure. It starts with some artful misdirection, allowing us to think we might be watching a gangster movie; the top-billed Sugar doesn’t turn up for the first half hour or so. It’s crammed with one-liners and conceptual flourishes, but by modern standards allows its key characters lots of breathing space; when it cranks up the pace for the home stretch, it almost assumes an air of blissful stream of consciousness (how do the guys, under hot pursuit, change back so quickly into their female disguises? Who cares!). It has great black and white photography, as polished as onyx and silver. And above all perhaps, it has Marilyn Monroe, in one of her most iconic roles, a little heavier than the studio wanted (and quite a bit heavier than present-day conventions would allow) but beautiful and tender, and performing some of her best-known musical numbers, in particular “I Wanna be Loved by You.” It’s probably as easy to watch as any film could be.

So why the reservations? Partly because much of its impact depends on simplifications which, although constituting reasonable applications of suspended disbelief at the time of its production, now seem rather grotesque. Most of these involve, inevitably, sex. That famous last line speaks to a libido so over-charged, it’s lost track of the basics, making any rational human interaction implausible (and, it seems, making any meaningful physicality unthinkable). The movie pulls Jerry into a similar vortex: his head initially spins from the intimate access to scantily-clad women, but when the millionaire proposes to him, he succumbs entirely to the notion that he might get married, with Joe having to forcibly remind him he’s a boy. This doesn’t make any psychological sense of course, especially since Joe never exhibits the slightest gender confusion. This might sound like too heavy a hammer to apply, but I can’t help thinking in contrast of how the richest Hollywood films - like many of Howard Hawks’ for instance - remain emotionally plausible and moving, despite their heavy stylization and the limitations of the time.

Jack Lemmon

The film’s portrayal of Jerry is actually quite mean-spirited. Their relationship at the start is one of those inexplicable double-acts where they seem to operate as de facto life partners, making all major decisions collectively, even though Joe basically abuses and manipulates him. Hawks uses structures like this too, in Only Angels Have Wings for instance, but his films always convey a sense of an intricate and inherently balanced social system, responding to each member’s inherent strength and weakness and moral resources. In Some Like it Hot, Jerry just seems like a loser who keeps getting duped, and there’s something rather cruel in how he’s the first of the two to set his sights on Sugar, only to be shoved aside when Joe focuses in the same direction.

Jack Lemmon plays Jerry, and I’ll tell you, I love Jack Lemmon, he’s one of the few actors who influences my movie choices (I recently chose to watch Under the Yum Yum Tree – what more do you need to know?) but this is just about my least favourite of his major performances. I know that’s odd; for a lot of people it’s the opposite. But his “Daphne” is a gargoyle, tittering and screeching; to say the least, it’s an unsophisticated approach to the character. Lemmon’s great strength as an actor, I think, was in embodying the impossible weight of conformity – time and time again he showed how the business suit barely stays on for all the tics and anxieties and excess booze. Some Like it Hot hints at that theme – how could his sexuality be so fluid if his ego wasn’t basically a wreck? – but it’s patently not what the film is about. Tony Curtis as Joe does more with less, but once again the winner is Hawks, for I Was a Male War Bride, coincidentally with Cary Grant.

Billy Wilder

None of this should suggest I dislike Billy Wilder’s work, although I guess I’m cooler about it than The Artist’s Michel Hazanavicius, who calls Wilder the “perfect director” and thanked him three times in his Oscar acceptance speech. I tend to prefer the older Wilder, loosening up the pace a bit and taking advantage of more relaxed standards in films like The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes and, especially, Avanti! As for peak-period, firing-on-all-cylinders Wilder, I’d go instead for One Two Three with James Cagney, an even faster-paced, higher-functioning machine, built around a Coke executive in West Berlin. An interesting thing though – the plot turns in large part on a Communist rabble-rouser who Cagney through force of will (and lots of shouting) remakes in no time at all into an immaculate pin-striped capitalist, a transformation not so far removed from Jerry’s instant inner metamorphosis into a woman. You could view that as a wisely cynical view of human integrity, or as plausibility sacrificed for narrative contingency, papered over by dazzling speed and facility (his late curio Fedora takes the device to its extreme, revolving around the substitution of one person for another – the difference is that Fedora illustrates greater empathy for the psychic toll on the victim).

 But maybe this all only means that some, including me, don’t really like it hot, because they can’t take it hot…

2005 Toronto Film Festival Report, Part Three

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in September 2005)

This is the third of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 2005 Toronto Film Festival.

Three Times (Hou Hsiao-hsien)

In my preview article I said that this film by Taiwanese director Hou might be the prime event of the festival, and it may well have lived up to that expectation. It’s made up of three episodes, each starring the same two actors. The first, set in the 1960’s, is a delicate examination of the gradually established love between two young people in sparse circumstances. In the second, in 1910, the setting is a high-class brothel, for an equally well-observed study of emotions, but carrying a more fragmented outcome; this episode is filmed silently, with intertitles, which is both an experiment in cinematic form and an evocation of the restraint of the age. In the third story, set in present day Taipei (among so much else, the film tracks Taiwan’s growing urbanization), cell phones and text messages have replaced letters; the content of what’s conveyed has become transient and disposable; and the relationships themselves have become coarse-edged and self-serving (when the conversation is silent in this episode, it’s because it’s drowned out by loud music). The film might thus have been designed largely to show up contemporary society, but Hou’s approach is too nuanced to traffic in easy attitudinizing. Three Times is full of parallels and echoes, and is exquisitely constructed and manufactured; the overall trajectory of each story is clear, but each retains considerable mystery; each forms a mini social critique of the times. After this and his last film Cafe Lumiere, it seems possible that Hou is stripping down his film’s complexities and becoming more purely a humanist, albeit a very specifically Taiwanese one, and this should surely cause his audience and popular stature to increase, although to the extent that this ultimately renders him more conventional, there is something to regret in the evolution too.

Why We Fight (Eugene Jarecki)

In his final Presidential speech in 1961, Dwight Eisenhower chose to focus not on patriotic platitudes, but on a specific and pointed warning about the US military-industrial complex, and on the crucial role of an “alert and responsible citizenry” in tempering its potentially reckless evolution. Forty years later, all of Eisenhower’s presumed fears have been realized: an out of control military budget directed through cozy if not wantonly corrupt political-corporate affiliations; complacent media; an ideologically-driven, arrogant administration (especially post 9/11) that launches a war of such hazy rationale and stated benefits that you ask ten people what it’s all for and get ten different answers. Jarecki’s hard-hitting, enormously effective documentary sets out all of this in straightforward nuts-and-bolts terms. It’s obviously a spiritual cousin to Fahrenheit 911, but with a total absence of showboating. Among the possible objections to it are, well, a lack of balance (although I’m only throwing that one out in my own attempt at balance) and perhaps a little too much time spent on the personal testimony of a retired cop who lost a son on 9/11, supported the war in Iraq to the extent of petitioning the Army to have his son’s name painted on the side of a bomb, and then suffered a cataclysmic meltdown of faith as the official story crashed and burned. The film’s final grim reckoning is spoken by one of the bewildered Iraqis: “America will lose because its behaviour is not the behaviour of a great nation.”

Delicate Crime (Beto Brant)

This Brazilian film was one of my wild card selections – I went into it not even remembering the programme book synopsis.  It’s a work of art of a kind that reminds you how easy and ingratiating even the more ‘demanding’ films can be. Initially it seems to be about a theatre critic – a man “who has always lived life in the third person” – and his faltering relationship with the off-stage world, but it slowly shifts its focus to a one-legged woman with whom he falls in love, and the artist who uses her as a model. The film reflects on the relative ethics of physical and artistic violation, and the degree to which the motives and self-exposure (physical, emotional, aesthetic) of the perpetrator might condition one’s judgment of the action. Ultimately art surpasses life in the film’s scheme to the degree that it sees no need to resolve the critic’s story – he is last seen lost in a stark process beyond his control, while the model attains a nobility that initially appeared impossible. The film feels a little academic at times, but on the whole I count it as one of those classic, unexpected festival discoveries.

Takeshis’ (Takeshi Kitano)

In that same preview article I said that Takeshis’ “sounds potentially self-indulgent, but should at least be highly entertaining about it.” I’d say that was just about right again. This is Kitano’s 8 1/2, with the star playing both himself and a guy behind a grocery store counter who wants to be an actor. The movie goes off in all directions, with dream sequences within dream sequences within dream sequences, at times dizzily surreal, and at others seeming rather beautiful in how it strips conventional plot mechanics down to an absurdly elemental framework. Apart from Fellini, it at various points evokes Godard for its relentless deconstruction, and David Lynch (for a bunch of stuff I don’t know how to explain). The film is not really a great advance for Kitano after Dolls and Zatoichi (at various points, it’s like watching bits of those movies again, along with bits of everything else he’s ever made) – it has the air of something he wanted to get out of his system, and although it’s formally very interesting, and admirable for its pace and tenacity, I’d be very surprised if it had an independent commercial life ahead of it here.

Sarah Silverman: Jesus Is Magic (Liam Lynch)

I am not much of a stand-up comedy fan, but even so I don’t mean it as faint praise when I say that this recording of a show by comedian Sarah Silverman is probably the best thing I’ve seen in the genre. Silverman ploughs the old “Is there anyone I haven’t insulted” furrow, gliding through just about every available racial, sexual and societal taboo, while nevertheless managing still to come across as a generally nice Jewish girl, and weaving in shots at so many clichéd middle-class attitudes and responses that at the end you’ll wonder whether there’s anything left for her to cover. I would give you an example, but virtually nothing she says can be printed here, and anyway it’s at least 80% in the delivery. The film lasts only 73 minutes in total, about 20% of which pads out the main show with musical and other inserts of variable quality. Like so many others, Silverman has often been stuck in dull mainstream roles (a recent one was the roommate’s girlfriend in School Of Rock), although she had one of the more intriguing snippets in The Aristocrats, but come what may, this should ensure her spiky/vulnerable genius a place in the hall of fame.

All-time best!

Every ten years since 1952, the British film magazine Sight and Sound has polled critics and historians on the best films of all time. I’m pretty sure this used to be of limited interest to anyone other than Sight and Sound readers (a small group, needless to say), but given changing times, the Internet was all over this year’s iteration (the results of which, for instance, were live-tweeted). Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane had been in first place since 1962, but I think most people expected a change, and so it came to pass: the quasi-official best film of all time is now Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (which was second last time). Here’s the entire top ten: Vertigo, Citizen Kane, Tokyo Story (Ozu), La Regle du jeu (Renoir), Sunrise (Murnau), 2001: a Space Odyssey (Kubrick), The Searchers (Ford), Man with a Movie Camera (Vertov), The Passion of Joan of Arc (Dreyer), 8 ½ (Fellini).

No Play Time

Naturally, there were as many reactions to this as there were people reacting. My own reaction was that apart from some internal shuffling, the list was surprisingly similar to last time: seven of the ten were unchanged and two of the new entries had been on the top ten in past decades, the only “new” entry is Man with a Movie Camera, made in 1928! Having said that, I couldn’t have thought of too many other films that seemed likely to make it up there. If I’d had to make a guess, I might have put some money on Jacques Tati’s 1967 film Play Time, but that was at number 42, so I was way off.

And yet, maybe not so far off. Play Time received 31 votes, which sounds meagre when you know that 846 people voted (each submitting a list of ten). But the tenth film, 8 ½, only received 64 votes, and Vertigo took the crown with 191 votes, representing just 22% of the participants. So there’s really little consensus here on anything, beyond the enormous depth and richness of cinema history – over 2,000 films received at least one vote.

Of course, I’m far too minor a figure to have participated, but I played with this subject in an article a couple of years ago. Although I’m sure the list I came up with would change every time I thought of it (I’m not sure how I left Rivette and Bresson off there, other than just the hellish constraint of keeping it at ten), this is still a pretty good snapshot of my view of things: F For Fake (Welles, 1973), The King of Comedy (Scorsese, 1982), Late Spring (Ozu, 1949), Love Streams (Cassavetes, 1984), My Night At Maud’s (Rohmer, 1969), My Sex Life…or How I Got Into an Argument (Desplechin, 1996 – this is my sole pick that really goes out on a big limb), The Passenger (Antonioni, 1975), Play Time, That Obscure Object of Desire (Bunuel, 1977), The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Demy, 1964). Of those, Late Spring was number 15 in the new poll, and Play Time as I mentioned was at 42; the others just got a handful of votes, if any. But lots of voters were far more iconoclastic than I would have been. After all, my list illustrates one of the insurmountable problems – I probably wouldn’t have voted for Citizen Kane, but only because of another Welles film I like even more. From a tactical point of view, list-wise, it’s way better for a director to have one preeminent achievement than to divide admirers between too many masterpieces.

Vertigo versus Kane

So it basically seems hopeless to me to probe the list for any broad meaning. Still, as I mentioned, all kinds of people had a good time with it. For example, Aisha Harris in Slate advanced three theories: that “Vertigo can be seen as more closely aligned with today’s cultural climate than Citizen Kane’s largely male-centric realm,” that “any overwhelmingly lauded figure or work of art is going to eventually face backlash,” and that “while Welles’ classic is technically innovative, it rings hollow emotionally.” But this all implies a much more conscious and unified judging process than actually existed, as if Vertigo and Kane were facing off before the Supreme Court. Actually, given the expanded voting pool, Kane received more votes than last time, regardless that Vertigo received even more more votes. Elsewhere on the Slate website, Alyssa Rosenberg noted the absence of female directors and opined: “women directors are working in genres that are simply never given the same critical respect as male-dominated genres…Nora Ephron's best movies may live in the hearts of audiences forever, but I'd be surprised to see the Sight & Sound critics give her space on their ballots.” Well, there are plenty of reasons why Sleepless in Seattle didn’t make the list, but gender-driven snobbery isn’t one of them: Avatar, The Dark Knight Returns and Porky’s didn’t make it either.

Which makes the point that although voters were allowed to apply any criteria they wanted, the group wouldn’t have put much emphasis on popular acceptance. I find everything in the top ten completely entertaining, in the sense that watching them is a completely enveloping and satisfying experience, but I’m not sure that was true for all of them on first viewing. As reactions to The Artist illustrated, silent cinema – which encompasses Sunrise, Man with a Movie Camera, and Passion of Joan of Arc - is unknown territory for many. Ozu is one of my favourite directors, but it takes time to ease into his worldview. Even Vertigo used to be widely regarded as one of Hitchcock’s lesser films (judged purely as a narrative machine, it might seem to dawdle) and I can imagine many viewers being rather mystified by it. But if you have any inclination to acclimatize yourself to cinema as art, and time to seek out writers and commentators who can facilitate your reactions, these ten films form a terrific place to start.

Wonderful Times

In one sense at least, we’re living in wonderful times: when I first became aware of this exercise around 1982, the listed films were just names – unless they happened to turn up on TV (and most of them wouldn’t), you could only dream of them. But this time, I already had eight of the ten on DVD, and I’d watched a ninth just a few months earlier on cable; this prompted me to order the odd one out (Man with a Movie Camera – and even then, it’s not so long since I saw it); I owned thirty-five of the top fifty, and I don’t believe any of the fifty is unavailable. Really, for people who love cinema, this poll might provide enough new ideas and intentions and desires to rewrite their schedule for the rest of the year.   

2005 Toronto Film Festival Report, Part Two

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in September 2005)

This is the second of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 2005 Toronto Film Festival.

Water (Deepa Mehta)

This was the opening Gala this year, beating out the new Egoyan and Cronenberg entries. It’s the third film in Mehta’s “Elemental Trilogy” – the previous two were Fire and Earth, neither of which left any impression on me at all. Since then she’s made Bollywood Hollywood, a truly terrible film, and the unappreciated The Republic Of Love  (which I didn’t see). Water is about the mistreatment of women in 1940’s India, first married off at startlingly young ages, and then – when their husbands die on them –internally banished to an ashram for widows; based on what’s shown here, the only practical role men might ever allow a widow to fill is that of whore. This is all rooted in Hindu dogma, but as one character says, disguised as religion, it’s just about money...having one less mouth to feed.

It’s powerful material, and makes for Mehta’s best film. She went through a lot to make it. The film originally started production in 2000 in India, but filming was shut down after mass protests; the director received death threats and was burned in effigy (it was ultimately shot in Sri Lanka).  Still, respect for Mehta’s commitment cannot dismiss the fact that the film is still significantly flawed by her excessively linear sensibility. Bizarre as this might sound from any synopsis of the plot, it often feels somewhat sugarcoated, with a sappily portrayed love affair powering much of the plot mechanics. It has some moments of considerable tragedy, but Mehta doesn’t bring much tonal variation to events, blunting their impact both as drama and – more significantly – as politics. The cameo at the end by an actor playing Gandhi also seemed to me rather fanciful. It’s a handsome and engrossing work, not unworthy of its high-profile status, but it’s hard to align oneself wholeheartedly with the general wild enthusiasm it’s received.

The Well (Kristian Petri)

I subscribe to the critical orthodoxy on Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane – it’s one of my favourite films. As everyone says, it has immense stylistic imagination and confidence and always seems boundlessly energetic, but there’s something almost supernatural to its scope – it’s more closely rooted (we now know) in Welles’ own psyche and destiny than he could possibly have appreciated at the time, and performs a more effective biopsy on a certain strand of 20th century culture than a young man should have been capable of. Whenever I watch the aging Kane stagnating in his vast collection of artifacts, his youthful exuberance collapsing into helpless intransigence, I can’t help thinking of Welles’ subsequent career; with its countless unfinished projects and restless shifts of focus, his unquestionable air of majesty, figuratively and physically over spilling all normal boundaries, toppling over (often knowingly, it seems) into bitter comedy. The imagery of artistic and personal gluttony hangs heavily over him, but to see him only in those terms obscures the delicacy, radicalism and considerable poignancy of his work.

Some of Welles’ uncompleted films are as famous as other directors’ masterpieces – The Other Side Of The Wind, and Don Quixote, which he shot on and off in Spain in the 1950’s. In The Well, documentary filmmaker Kristian Petri posits himself as a successor to Thompson, the investigating reporter in Kane, traveling through Spain in search of the secret of Welles’ love for the country (he shot several films there in addition to Quixote, paid extended visits throughout his life, and decreed in his will that his ashes be buried in the titular well, located in a famous bullfighter’s private garden) and perhaps of greater insight into the director’s fragmented career. As he freely admits in his voiceover, the most compelling parallel may be between Petri’s dawdling, travelogue-like approach to this project, and Welles’ almost compulsive inability to knuckle down and finish anything (vividly described here by Jess Franco, his assistant for a time, and later himself the antithesis of Welles as a mega-prolific genre director). Petri comes across as naively earnest, ultimately concluding (underwhelmingly, obviously) that Welles was “a riddle with no conclusive answer’; he also blows his film’s most attainable prospect of true distinction by failing to show us very much of the copious recently unearthed footage shot by Welles in Spain. Even the legendary Quixote is seen here only in a few grainy fragments.

Still, the film is fascinating for all those who revere Welles. He was fascinated by bullfighting, and occasionally thought of making a movie about it, captivated in particular by the tragedy of its structure, exemplified by the bull’s central “innocence.” Ultimately, he concluded that a film on the subject could “never outstrip would merely degrade it.” Which resonates with so much of Welles’ work, built around characters of extreme, wanton flaws and yet unquestionable grandeur, observed with perhaps the most tender, intricate tenderness in all of cinema.

L’Enfer (Danis Tanovic)

This is Tanovic’s first film since winning the foreign film Oscar for No Man’s Land, based on a script that might have been destined for Krzysztof Kieslowski (of The Decalogue and the Three Colours trilogy), had he lived. It’s an overstuffed melodrama, tracking the anguish of three sisters; one with a cheating husband, another in a hopeless love affair, the third simply unfulfilled and hollow. The theme of absent or errant fathers is central to the structure, with past errors and betrayals replayed from one generation to the next. And the women react in turn, sometimes by tying down the hatches and doing all possible to hold steady, but sometimes more drastically. As one of the three makes clear in a presentation on Medea: “under extreme pressure women will ultimately explode...and children end up in pieces.”  Add all of that together, and it seems that modern life must be a hell indeed.
I watched Kieslowki’s Red/White/Blue again recently, and came away uncertain that the director for all his ambition possessed a very coherent theory of modern existence. But he created astonishing networks of allusion and connection, was thrillingly alert to the currents in modern Europe, and was subtle enough in his evocation of the divine and the mystical that it never seemed utterly contrived. By comparison, L’Enfer, although beautifully made in a formal sense, seems much more conventional and ingratiating. Tom Tykwer also took on left over Kieslowski material a few years ago with Heaven, and produced an oddly distant, academic work. Tanovic does a warmer and subtler job, but it surely seems simpler in this version than the wily old master would have allowed.  

American Stories

As Beasts of the Southern Wild was starting, the people behind us suddenly broke into a flurry of anxious whispering, as they realized this wasn’t The Dark Knight Rises (I guess the poster on the way in must have been obscured by the big bag of popcorn). They left in a hurry, but the incident was rather useful in provoking a train of thought on the disparity in contemporary American myth-making. The one that gets all the attention and the financial love, of course, is the Batman movie – an enormous corporate investment, knowingly packaged and positioned to provoke an audience frenzy, violently asserting its seriousness by drawing on prevailing insecurities, sure enough of its impregnability that it need acknowledge the opening-night mass murder in Colorado merely by delaying the box office results and canceling a few parties (gestures so cynically flimsy that they seem to me morally much inferior to just doing nothing). If there’s any meaningful engagement in there with modern anxieties and needs, it’s limited to what’s handed down from the manipulative gods at the top of a cold, calculating mountain; audiences can flatter themselves they’re in the presence of a cultural phenomenon, but they might as well kneel down in front of MacDonald’s.

Beasts of the Southern Wild

As a counterpoint, Beasts of the Southern Wild is the most intimate of fantasies. Even as you’re watching it, you can feel the filmmakers crafting and refining it; it deliberately resists the potentially limiting, closed-end perfection of a fully “polished” film. The director Benh Zeitlin is from New York, but has lived in New Orleans for several years, and as a recent article in Film Comment put it, set out to make a film that resembled “a massive community art project.” At the centre of this community he put a 6-year-old girl called Hushpuppy, living with her drunken, disengaged father Wink in a fringe community called “the Bathtub.” A storm rises up, seemingly prompted by the dislodging of the polar ice caps, and the water level rises cataclysmically, causing the residents to be evacuated to a government facility (a “fish tank without water” as she describes it); their desire to reclaim their home intertwines with the advance of several massive hog-like beasts, long-frozen and dormant.

Even that synopsis tells you that the film draws heavily on memories of Hurricane Katrina and the well-documented disruptions and injustices that followed, while consciously busting through the parameters of quasi-documentary, or even normally-grounded fiction. In that same article, Zeitlin said: “The movie is sort of pushing past realism all the time into this hyper-real place or this fantasy place, but because all the pieces are so organically found and every element is built so organically, I think it sort of keeps it in realism in this way that is really important, so that it doesn’t drift away from what people can relate to.” The breathless nature of that statement, with its two sort-ofs, alerts you to the project’s earnestness and potential over-preciousness. But I think Zeitlin’s sense of the work’s internal rhythms and proportions is keen enough that he avoids most potential pitfalls.

Makes me feel cohesive

The film is crammed with odd, memorable fragments: the initial depiction of Hushpuppy’s life, imagining her dead mother’s voice emanating from her clothes, which remain strewn around the house, and concocting a terrible-looking meal out of soup and cat food, lighting the stove with a blow torch; her and Wink’s boat, built out of found elements prominently including the back-end of a trailer; a later memory of the mother – as recalled by Wink - as a woman so steaming hot that she could boil water just by walking past it (duly visualized, in the literal way of a young girl’s imagination); an encounter with a sea captain who subsists on chicken biscuits and has kept all the wrappers (“The smell makes me feel cohesive”) and any number of proud, defiant images of the little girl, who in the latter stages acquires a like-minded posse. The connective material between these is sometimes rather murky, and you can feel the relative poverty of means, like trying to cover up cracks in the fabric with mud and smoke. But in this case, it enhances the film’s authenticity as personal testimony; the “imperfections” in the wider imagining reflect the limits of the protagonists’ understanding and capacity for action.

In this vein, Hushpuppy’s voice-over narration perhaps relies too much on bromides about how “the entire universe depends on everything fitting together just right,” versions of which are repeated more times than I tried counting, and which provide the film’s final note – a proud assertion of one’s inviolable place in the cosmos, whatever the obstacles. Put another way, the film, for all of its oddities, has a distinct overlap with the “triumph of the human spirit” tales that crop up throughout American cinema.

Clichés of cinema

The problem with this aspect of it, perhaps, is that it doesn’t pay sufficient attention to the institutions and forces that make it so tough for the human spirit in the first place. The movie clearly has a political undertone – it presents the levee as a structure that protects the monied interests lying on the other side, and the flip side of the Bathtub community’s internal camaraderie and coherence is that it seems to be free of any external intervention; one would hesitate to characterize the people as beasts running wild, but the title forces it on us as a point of reference, until the catastrophe strikes and the wheels of disaster control start turning (because of course, in the delirious official morality, it’s fine if people live in poverty and deprivation, but a moral affront if they perish in something that looks dramatic on TV). And by the way, although Hushpuppy and her father are black, that’s not true of the entire community: the issue is one of class, environment and opportunity, not simply race.

Writing on, Tim Grierson said that although he likes the film, it’s a “model of the worst clichés of contemporary art-house cinema” – in his words, it fetishizes “authenticity,” it tries way too hard to be gritty, it treats poverty as something noble, it confuses simple characters for memorable ones, and it touches on real-life events without saying anything about them. Unfortunately, Grierson’s articulation of these points is so poor that it’s hard even to allow a token acknowledgment that one can see what he means. The same website’s review of The Dark Knight Rises gushed: “It is a powerful, riveting action movie, full of dread and weight and pain and looming apocalypse. It is an amazing accomplishment to have created this whole dark, sad universe and turned it into an insanely popular franchise.” Well, maybe that’s amazing, or maybe it just embodies the worst clichés of mainstream perception, how we’re meant to be more interested in someone else’s overblown dark, sad universe than in trying to engage with our own.

Friday, August 10, 2012

2005 Toronto Film Festival Report, Part One

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in September 2005)

This is the first of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 2005 Toronto Film Festival.

Breakfast on Pluto (Neil Jordan)

Neil Jordan has been directing films now for over twenty years, but I somehow still think of him as being relatively new. This is partly a compliment insomuch as it speaks to the sense of boyish reinvention that underlies much of his work, from Angel through The Crying Game through The Butcher Boy to The Good Thief, not to mention the Hollywood stint that culminated in Interview with a Vampire. He started as a writer and has continued to publish periodically, and his films have always evidenced a literary sensibility. This is of course a common way of denigrating directors whose works appear to lack that cinematic je ne sais quoi, and I must admit I share that same adverse predisposition - it's as if a literary facility, founded in the intimate arrangement of words and phrases, were generally at odds with the more fluid technology of cinema. This is too trite though, for Jordan's films are highly intuitive and able, and in any event, the notion of a man with a movie camera, imposing his personality on celluloid through sheer force of will, is no more than a pipe dream, particularly given the infrastructure that surrounds even a medium-budgeted production. Still, the truth is that it matters little to the appreciation of any particular Jordan film whether or not you’ve seen any of those that preceded it, something that impedes the thrill of bearing witness to evolving artistry.

Breakfast on Pluto continues the pattern, following the life of an Irish boy who would rather have been born a girl, and whose abstracted take on life helps him in navigating personal travails galore, as well as fraught encounters with the IRA, British police, and so forth. In the end, of course, he forges a stable if highly unconventional present where all the loose ends of the past are neatly arranged. The film has lots of flash and glam and evocation of seedy locales and edge-of-center behaviour, and is again confidently cinematic and consistently sensitive (although I could have done without the whimsical talking robins). Cillian Murphy gives a well-sustained study in chronic feyness, surrounded by guest stars such as Bryan Ferry as a bag of sleaze. The programme book called the film “electrifying, carnivalesque” which is not inappropriate, if you focus on the inherently short-lived, transient nature of those qualities.

Manderlay (Lars von Trier)

I wouldn’t strenuously disagree with the common list of faults identified by critics last year in Lars von Trier’s Dogville: pretentiousness, repetition, lazy point scoring. Even so, this film about a woman’s humiliation in a small Depression-era village is stylistically so fascinating (it was shot in its entirety inside a Swedish warehouse, with no sets) that a reasonably minded viewer should have been able to stay with it through these challenges. And it’s clearly a major piece of political cinema, even if one’s assessment in that regard is inevitably going to be coloured by personal preconceptions.

Von Trier conceived Dogville as the first in a trilogy about America, of which Manderlay is the second.  It has the same stripped-down style, faux-archaic voiceover narration, and potentially hectoring approach to narrative and significance. After leaving the village at the end of the previous film, Grace (now played by Bryce Dallas Howard) comes across an unreconstructed slave plantation where she declares freedom for all, and installs herself as a benign temporary despot, to oversee the transition to democracy. If her powers of persuasion and rational argument fail, she has a coterie of her father’s gangsters on hand to back her up. Most of the movie follows the ups and downs of this social experiment, and the prototype-like quality of the visuals meshes well with the content. The parallels with the current situation in Iraq, and with countless other episodes in American history – or even its entire history, depending how coercive and duplicitous you take the governing ideology to be – are obvious, and although these parallels sometimes seem to come too easily to be that valuable, it’s perpetually surprising how much complexity von Trier squeezes from the mix. The film’s digressions into sexuality may be even more provocative, although I’m not sure his handling of that aspect is quite as assured.

Ultimately, the film’s main ingredient may well be sheer audacity, but at least von Trier’s applying himself to far more worthwhile ends than the average egomaniac director (a value judgment on my part, obviously). When I looked back the other day, I was surprised how often I had one of his films in my top ten for a given year. His Dancer in the Dark was a potentially harrowing tale of suffering, interrupted by several large-scale musical numbers; it’s a deeply contradictory, ambiguous film, with the lead performance by Bjork ably encapsulating those traits. Before that, his film The Idiots hung out with a group of middle-class professionals who’ve become preoccupied with “finding their inner idiot.” Notorious among other things for its orgy sequence, it certainly possessed a certain congruence of form and subject, and had a squirming comic effectiveness. Even earlier, his TV series The Kingdom was a mesmerizing ahead of its time melodrama. I think the only von Trier work to have failed to make much of an impact on me was Breaking The Waves, still probably his greatest consensus success. Still, in the recent documentary The Five Obstructions, he was fairly honest about showing himself to be smug and borderline insufferable, and most critics do not like Manderlay as much as I do. It would not be surprising, before too long, if he simply wore out his welcome.

Adam’s Apples (Anders Thomas Jensen)

This Danish film, about a convict released into a sort of halfway house overseen by an eccentric priest, has a fairly terrific first half. I don’t usually make a point of citing the names of unknown actors, but Mads Mikkelsen as the priest pulls off a characterization of great originality; convinced that the Devil is out to get him (a theory somewhat borne out by his immense personal bad luck), but indefatigably resourceful at every turn. Later on the film takes on more than it can handle – matters get cartoonishly violent, or else overly explicit in other ways, and it ends up as a bizarre and somewhat off-putting exercise in, I suppose, magic realism. The programme book claims that the film’s visual style evokes “Bergman, Dreyer and Tarkovsky,” but if anyone seriously agrees with that, I will take on Adam’s bet from the film and bake them an apple cake.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

The Sunshine Boys

In the 1970’s, the big three of American comedy were Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, and Neil Simon. Simon didn’t act and direct like the other two, but made up for it in productivity – during that decade, twelve films were based either on his plays or on his original screenplays, and he was nominated three times for an Oscar (without ever winning). When I was first getting into movies at the end of that decade, I saw a lot of Simon’s films – they were usually TV-friendly and therefore easily accessible, and they usually starred actors I liked, such as Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. Of course, judged by the standards of that era (which were pretty damn high) they didn’t seem like particularly important films, but I would frantically mine American cinema for workable clues to adulthood, and it seemed to me I was more likely to turn out like a Neil Simon character than, you know, a Scorsese one. This was a broadly correct prediction, although I’m happy to say I’m probably less neurotic than most of his people (let alone Scorsese’s).

Willie and Al

The Sunshine Boys was one of my favourites, because it intersected with another of my objects of fascination, the textures and structures of classic American showbiz – for example, I liked the idea of being the kind of person who read Variety, and indeed I subscribed to it for many years, for as long as it retained any faint smell of its past folk-lorish self. It depicts Willie Clark and Al Lewis, who were partners for decades in a successful vaudeville act, until they broke up in acrimony; as the play begins, they haven’t spoken for over a decade. Willie’s nephew, an agent, gets them a booking on a TV salute to comedy’s golden age: they can do the show on autopilot, as long as they can stand being in the same room as each other.

The movie was directed by Herbert Ross in 1975, and starred Matthau and George Burns, a now-classic combination. Matthau was actually twenty-four years younger than his co-star, but it didn’t matter a bit, when his portrayal of the aging Willie was so entertainingly broad and stylized. Burns in contrast kept it dry and tight, and ended up winning an Oscar. The play is currently on stage here, at Soulpepper’s theatre in the Distillery District, and I went to see it the other week. It stars Kenneth Welsh and Eric Peterson – no doubt beloved Canadian veterans, but not because of their long association with dumb jokes and slapstick. Peterson seems like too small a personality to embody Willie’s sloppy charisma, and Welsh’s attempt to channel Burns too often comes across as mere inertia. You never really feel either how they could have worked together so effectively, or fallen out so savagely (it’s obvious that Willie’s stated reasons – that Al kept poking him with his finger and spitting on him while pronouncing words starting with “T” – are the tip of an iceberg, but we surely ought to feel the shape of that iceberg more fully).

Comic timing

Also, given the emphasis in the play on comic timing and delivery, the pacing is too slack – I kept registering moments where director Ted Dykstra should have told them not to take a pause (especially ironic in a play which explicitly talks about the timing of jokes. For my money, Jordan Pettle as the nephew gives the best performance in the play: although it’s a much less showy part, everything he says in it sounds natural and unforced (and more nuanced than Richard Benjamin was in the movie).

Still, I enjoyed sitting there and ticking off the lines, as well as waiting to see if everyone in the perilously ancient audience would make it through to the end. The program book gamely argues that “hidden in the hilarity are real fears about aging, being left behind, and being relegated to history…we root for them, even as we laugh at their pride, their blindness and their need to be right.” Well, I suppose that’s right, but not much more than these “real fears” might be detected in the subtext to any depiction of older people. The play undercuts any claims to emotional reality through a rather opportunistic approach to Willie and Al’s frailties, dialing their senility up or down as the context requires (part of the movie’s achievement is in making this coherent – we feel how the two of them rouse each other to function more effectively, even if it’s just for the purpose of doling out abuse). I doubt it’s one of Simon’s most deeply felt works – it’s more about executing a concept than exploring one.

Not what it used to be

Coincidentally, the play has also recently been revived in London’s West End, possibly with a Broadway transfer ahead: that version stars Danny DeVito and Richard Griffiths, and supposedly digs a little more deeply into the characters. The reviews for the Soulpepper version were a bit flat – it didn’t seem like a lot of the critics really saw much point to it. Indeed, if Soulpepper did too much of this kind of thing, they might as well just convert the whole place into a dinner theatre. But on the other hand, Neil Simon didn’t attain his status just by being glib and prolific: his body of work encompasses a vast examination of love and discord and anxiety and loss, and since his heyday wasn’t so long ago, it’s tempting to think it can speak to us now. Or at least, to the privileged group of us who can afford theatre tickets, to be blunt about it.

And yet, when I was watching the movie again, a few days after seeing the play, I kept registering how far away it seems. Of course, this particular Simon work was always going for that – the opening credits run over a montage of old vaudeville bits, followed by a nice opening shot of a now desolate marquee; soon after that Matthau and Benjamin walk past the old Ed Sullivan theatre, dirty and derelict in 1975, but nowadays cleaned-up and shining every night as the venue for the Letterman show. It’s progress, of course, but Letterman doesn’t pretend the show has the same heart and kick it used to, and so it goes with New York, and with so much else. The movie of The Sunshine Boys gains from dirt and clutter and the weight of memories and traditions, like waiting every Wednesday for Variety to find out who died, a vigil which by its nature provides a measure of commemoration, even if you can’t remember who the people you’re commemorating actually were. Of course the present isn’t what it used to be, but equally as depressing, neither is the past.