Saturday, August 11, 2012

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 clichĂ©d 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.

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