Sunday, June 16, 2013

2006 Toronto film restival report - part 6

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in October 2006)

This is the sixth of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival.

After the Wedding (Susanne Bier)

Bier’s last two films, Open Hearts and Brothers, were both exceptionally easy to watch. She builds her stories on once-in-a-lifetime conflations of events, embracing melodrama and near excess, from which by virtue of her naturalistic style she extracts a sense of modest universality and skin-of-its-teeth plausibility. I think After the Wedding pushes its luck too far in this approach though: for a while it seems like a complete bust, then salvages a bit of respectability, though hardly all. An aid worker comes back from India to his native Denmark to pursue a potential million dollar donation; the big shot invites him to his daughter’s wedding, and the visitor immediately realizes there’s more to this than he thought. “Don’t you see that there is a point to all this?” demands the millionaire, but you know, it sometimes gets tough here, particularly when one is fighting off a faint revulsion at images of deprived Indian slums being used as a bargaining chip in yet another calibration of Western morality. The point of all this includes reflections on the possibility of renewal, on the importance of honesty, on the necessity of making choices, on the impossibility of having it all, on the ambiguous effect of money, and several other things you’ve also never thought of before. It’s all nicely done, but the programme book’s claim that this is one of the “most important” films of the year is a bit of a hoot.

The Missing Star (Gianni Amelio)

I wish I’d had a chance to see more of Amelio’s films, and I wish even more that I better remembered those that I have seen. In particular, I remember his 1994 Lamerica, set in Albania after the fall of Communism, as an engrossing intersection of personal and national politics. It’s possible that Amelio has been too cerebral for mass success, although his recent work has seemed to be shifting in an easier direction. The Missing Star continues this evolution in a way, for the story is extremely minimal and simple (if rather weird) – an Italian factory sells a blast furnace to China, but an engineer is convinced that it contains a defective part, and he travels to China to locate and fix the machine. It often seems that Amelio’s real intention might have been to make a documentary, for the film is an amazing document of the unseen, vast, brutally arduous underbelly of China’s economic miracle. The central character is as vaguely defined as in any film I’ve seen recently – we know little more of him than what we glean from his actions – and the odyssey becomes increasingly existential. The film has a weakness for extreme coincidences and only-in-the-movie contrivances, and yet even these add to the sense of a different dimension in play. It’s a strange project, but I suspect it may linger with me.

Black Book (Paul Verhoeven)

This is Verhoeven’s return to Dutch filmmaking after more than twenty years in Hollywood, during which he reached the heights (by some definition) of Basic Instinct and Robocop before recklessly plunging into the classic low (by some definition) of Showgirls and the irrelevance of his last film, Hollow Man. Verhoeven is nothing if not consistent, and Black Book looks almost exactly like a film he might have made thirty years ago: check off the brassy visuals, broad-stroke characters, generous nudity, ceaseless momentum and, not least, the faint undertone of stupidity. It’s the story of a Jewish woman who colours her hair blonde and goes to work for the Dutch resistance, falling for the German officer she was assigned to seduce and then falling under suspicion as a collaborator. Any serious portrayal of wartime conditions and issues gradually falls away, to be replaced by the suspense of fingering the real traitor. Verhoeven always seems like the least reflective of filmmakers, and this occasionally gives his film an old-fashioned muscularity. There’s no windy introspection and attitudinizing here – characters are defined crisply and simply, and if we forget that classic Hollywood did things the same way, the old-fashioned symphonic score is there to remind us. In a fashion, it’s rather amazing.

And then I saw these next two in their subsequent commercial releases:

Manufactured Landscapes (Jennifer Baichwal)

Baichwal’s documentary about photographer Edward Burtunsky won the award for the best Canadian film at the festival. Burtunsky specializes in capturing modern industrial landscapes – enormous mining excavations, dense cityscapes, panoramic workspaces, images inherently frightening in what they depict of our imposition on the earth, and yet helplessly, terribly beautiful. The film is an effective survey of his work, and shows him at work in various settings, concentrating in particular on China, a country for which Burtunsky’s style could well have been invented; at other times (such as in the incredible opening shot, tracking across a factory floor for at least five minutes) it uses cinema to complement his work (by seeing the context for some of his shots we further appreciate his superb eye and feeling for the image). The artist disclaims any particular political intention for his work, stating that this would only limit the viewer’s response, and the film generally follows suit, and yet I wonder whether this is an adequate approach. The flow of images makes it all too easy to immerse ourselves in the sensual or anthropological pleasures of what we’re looking at, and while most viewers who see the film will be tuned in enough to detect the ambiguity, that doesn’t take us very far (especially since Burtunsky’s comments on his own work are mostly superficial). Regardless, it’s a fascinating, fluid work.

The U.S. vs. John Lennon (David Leaf and John Scheinfeld)

Any doubts about Manufactured Landscapes further recede if set against the much more fundamental problems posed by this new examination of the rock legend. Barely showing anything of the Beatles years and little more of his solo career, the film focuses instead on Lennon’s political activities, and on how these brought him into conflict with the U.S. government, leading in particular to his long battle against a deportation order. It’s a monumentally conventional piece of work, with a distinguished but remarkably unimaginative (and often barely relevant) line-up of talking heads, from Gore Vidal to Mario Cuomo. The impression I get is that Nixon and Hoover’s interest in Lennon was a mere drop in their paranoid ocean, but although the story doesn’t seem that complicated the movie nevertheless fails to tell it very clearly. All in all it falls quite a bit short of what you’d imagine the festival’s entry requirements for documentaries should be – you may confidently skip the movie and glean its entire contents from twenty minutes on Wikipedia, with the Imagine album playing in the background for aural texture.

Twin Peaks

Despite my great admiration for David Lynch’s films, I’d never seen his famous Twin Peaks TV series until recently, when we noticed the whole thing was available via Rogers On-Demand and decided to go for it. We’re not into the binge viewing thing you hear about now – it took us over six months to watch the thirty episodes. This shouldn’t be taken to indicate any lack of enthusiasm though – I could have spent much longer inside Lynch’s insinuating universe. Indeed, sometimes, in moments of disequilibrium or disquiet, I find myself imagining it’s not the TV show that ended, but everything else.

Who killed Laura Palmer?

The show originally ran in 1990 and 1991, and even in Britain, where I was living at the time, I remember the question of who killed Laura Palmer sucking up a big chunk of media space for a brief period (although the answer can of course be discovered now in two seconds online, I won’t reveal it here, so as not to discourage readers from taking the journey for themselves). The story begins with the discovery of the murdered homecoming queen in a small town in Washington State, which soon triggers the arrival of FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan). It turns out Laura was mixed up in much shady activity, yielding a range of suspects – from early on though, it also seems the answer may not entirely belong to this world. The mystery was solved partway through the second season – although only because of network pressure, according to Lynch – and the focus then shifted to a new drama: an ex-partner of Cooper’s turned bad, Wyndham Earle (Kenneth Welsh), who plots revenge against him for a past transgression. The second season ends with several unresolved cliffhangers, with Cooper in a perilous altered state and several major characters possibly dead. Since the audience had all but vanished by then, there was no third season.

Around the dark core of Laura’s story, the series weaves other strands of intrigue, as well as much lighter, often downright goofy material. Lynch himself pops up periodically as Cooper’s superior, who – being profoundly hard of hearing – shouts at the top of his voice, except that in one of the last episodes he can mysteriously hear a local waitress perfectly well, and so doesn’t need to shout at her. This attunement to the possibility of small mysteries and wonders, in the most mundane circumstances, runs through the whole show. After an accident, an unhappy middle-aged woman regresses to thinking she’s back in high school, and embodies the illusion so well that she even reels in one of the leading jocks as her boyfriend. More mundanely, but very engagingly, Cooper never seems to lose - despite his heavy preoccupations - his enthusiasm for the quality of the local coffee and pastries.

Fire Walk with Me

The show amiably evokes the eccentricities and preoccupations of small-town life: beauty pageants, local campaigns, harmless weirdos (the best known being a woman who carries and converses with a log). But the foundations are severely compromised, not just by evil men and by personal weakness, but by international conspiracies of virtually Bondian scope, and increasingly by the intrusion of the unknown and unchartered (had the series continued, it would have been no surprise if the town had turned out to be built on the site of a long-buried alien spaceship, or something like that).

A lot of this is mumbo-jumbo of course, with the clear sense of being made as it goes along (which Lynch was nicely candid about in the interview book Lynch on Lynch). A plotline that came and went about Cooper being framed seems somewhat perfunctory (despite involving a cross-dressing David Duchovny), and I wasn’t that enthused by the Wyndham Earle strand. But for all the bumpy history, the purity of Lynch’s delight in innocence and goodness, even as he can’t help himself from placing it under perpetual threat, gives it a pleasing coherence.

The year after the show ended, he made a movie, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. Rather than wrap up the loose ends (he admits to having been less personally invested in the second season), he returned to the original mystery of the troubled girl, “radiant on the outside but dying inside.” Sheryl Lee – who appeared in the TV series only as a corpse, in flashbacks and visions, and for a few episodes as Laura’s cousin – now occupies the centre, as the film tracks the last days of her life, after first dramatizing an earlier, related murder investigation involving Cooper, which was mentioned but not deeply probed in the series. The film wasn’t well-received, and Lynch’s vague plans of returning to the material again went nowhere.

Lynch had disappeared…

Funnily enough, I did see the film when it came out – a rather senseless decision for someone with no knowledge of the preceding show. Understandably, I was largely mystified by it. Watching it again the other day (now in full knowledge of what came before, as one should be) I was struck by how scrupulously it intersects with the facts established in the earlier episodes, but even more by the depth of its plunge into the darkness engulfing Laura and her family (much more explicitly rendered than network TV would allow, and with greater Freudian richness) – in its closing stretch, the film is little more than pure misery, turmoil and trauma. This, it seems, is why even many of the series’ remaining fans hated it. But I found Fire Walk with Me rather movingly conscientious, if that’s the word, in its refusal to ingratiate itself. Quentin Tarantino probably spoke for many when he said of the film: “David Lynch had disappeared so far up his own ass that I have no desire to see another David Lynch movie until I hear something different.”

Well, there hasn’t been a David Lynch movie for seven years now, and there’s no clear prospect of getting another one, although he continues to generate occasional shorts and other art projects, and was a very memorable guest star in a few episodes of Louie. According to a recent New York Times interview, he spends much of his time teaching and promoting transcendental meditation. When I reviewed his last film Inland Empire here, I quoted one writer’s assessment of it as “a film that exists for itself and for its maker, not necessarily for us.” It’s not hard to know what he means (a more eloquent expression of what Tarantino said, perhaps), but of all American filmmakers, Lynch may long have been the least preoccupied by what it might take to keep “us” intrigued, let alone entertained. It’s just a miracle of birth and of art, I guess, that he makes it so compelling to submit to his sensibility rather than your own, even if that sometimes frightens you.

2006 Toronto film festival report - part 5

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in October 2006)

This is the fifth of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival.

Bunny Chow (John Barker)

I probably wouldn’t have chosen this movie if not that I was lucky enough this year to visit South Africa, an experience that left my head spinning.  Between the bush and the townships, I’ve never felt such profound doubt at the way I’ve been applying my life (for better or worse, it passed). Bunny Chow poses no such challenges. It’s a ramshackle little film about three stand-up comedians from Johannesburg spending the weekend at an open air festival, each dodging various problems of women and self-determination. It’s produced by MTV Europe, which shows up in the ingratiating, improvisational style more than in the unflashy black and white photography. The movie is an engaging calling card for an African cinema that’s about something more than the burden of being African, although you wonder if it took blinkers to pull that off: the characters seem only relatively prosperous, and yet live in wonderful accommodations and drive nice cars – there’s no hint of Jo’burg’s notorious violence nor of its vast areas of deprivation (and it depicts a remarkably comfortable melting pot too). Hard for me to judge how representative this might be of the greater truth, but the film’s idealism is emphasized (albeit rather sweetly) at the very end, when it leaves the more self-confident characters to stew in their own juice and hands the final note of triumph to the consistent loser. Maybe I would have enjoyed it more if I weren’t so inclined (for now anyway) to second-guess it.

Syndromes and a Century (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)

One critic called Thai director Apichatpong possibly “one of the most brilliantly original directors in the world.” I haven’t seen his previous pictures, and can’t assess how distinctive his new film might be within his own body of work, but it certainly doesn’t feel like part of anyone else’s. The film starts in a rural hospital where it seems to be telling one story, focusing on a young female doctor and her interactions, then eases into another story told via flashback, before suddenly effectively starting all over again, replaying some of the same scenes with variations, now set in a more urban, dehumanized environment. It becomes progressively more allusive and disconnected, almost acquiring the tone of science fiction, seeming to seek out a more despairing tone, before finally reaching the threshold of a further reinvention. The underlying theme, I think, is the persistence and renewability of the human condition – there are several references to reincarnation, and the film conveys a serene faith in cyclicality. The tone remains gracefully balanced through numerous potentially jarring narrative devices, and the movie is pointedly contemporary for all its mystic ambitions. It’s not the easiest work to assimilate on a single viewing (I have some trepidation that I’ve misunderstood the thing completely), but my initial impression was that Apichatpong’s cinema might indeed be one of awesome possibilities.

Nouvelle Chance (Anne Fontaine)

After seeing Fontaine’s Entre ses mains last year, I wrote that she seemed capable of major work. Nouvelle Chance is not quite that, but it’s a completely delightful, gracefully meaningful creation. A would-be theatre director, with ambition far exceeding his talent, meets a Golden Age star while putting on a show in a retirement home, and hits on the idea of casting her in an obscure 18th century play, playing opposite a younger (but aging) and mainly decorative actress he encounters in his day job as a swimming pool attendant. The project, as Fontaine presents it, is a tumble of living history, glamour, classicism, logistical nuts and bolts, artistic differences, a love affair, betrayal, and swirling spirituality; the film satirizes artistic pretentiousness without ever demeaning the underlying object. The pitch-perfect ending conveys rejection and fulfillment in equal measure. Even if the film were not so charming and mature, it would be notable for the casting of Danielle Darrieux, dripping resonance across every frame she’s in, although co-star Arielle Dombasle is also as evocative and beautiful as one could possibly desire. I’m not sure why Fontaine is not becoming better known; maybe it’s damning with faint praise, but her films are as satisfying as Francois Truffaut’s – falling short of the highest possible level, but so enthralling that it hardly matters at the time.

And here are two others I saw in their subsequent commercial releases.

Confetti (Debbie Isitt)

It’s impossible to figure out by what criteria this got into the Festival – even the programme book write-up sounds strained. As it notes, this is a British Christopher Guest-type exercise built around the conceit of a bridal magazine running a theme contest around original wedding concepts – the three couples chosen to participate in the gala finale are tennis nuts, obsessive naturists, and fans of old Hollywood musicals (they’re all so patently inadequate that the movie’s contrivance almost stalls at the starting gate). The movie was largely built on improvisation, but on this occasion they would have been better off with a script – only a few of the actors come up with anything funny to say, and then only intermittently. It limps along, feeling tinny and parched, never acquiring much shape or momentum, until the finale, where events perk up a bit until Isitt comes out with the worst-photographed Busby Berkeley-like routine I’ve ever seen (the fact that the movie is deliberately inartfully shot doesn’t make it any more palatable). And while the wedding industry seems like a reasonable target for veiled commentary, no even half-meaningful statement can be extracted here. It all, of course, makes Christopher Guest look like a comic genius.

The Journals of Knud Rasmussen (Zacharias Kunuk and Norman Cohn)

This year’s opening gala reportedly left the greater part of the audience either bewildered or asleep, and I may as well come clean – I went to see it on a Friday afternoon, feeling fine when I went in, only to doze off for a good chunk of the film. This is not a happy admission for a determined contrarian and hard-line art film booster to have to make, and I’m not trying merely to claw back points when I say that the film’s strengths nevertheless come more easily to me afterwards than its flaws. Like Kunuk’s previous film Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner), the film  - set among the Inuit in the early 20th century as Christianity takes hold - seems to owe almost nothing to preexisting cinema. It’s as if the technical equipment and skills had been imported into an untouched world through some shamanism, and then absorbed into its unique tradition of storytelling and perception. The film is extraordinarily vivid at times, with virtually every scene yielding something distinctive, and of course it’s crammed with anthropological revelation and diversion. But this was all true of Atanarjuat as well, and that film was considerably more accessible overall. Kunuk is unquestionably true to himself and his roots, but it remains to be seen whether this can generate art that consistently speaks to the world beyond.

Before the fall

Writing here in 2004 about Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset, I  almost lost myself in rhapsody: “Watching Before Sunset I increasingly felt the detritus built up from years of imprecise viewing was being cleared away, allowing a return to something purer and elemental (I know that’s overdone – but it really is how I felt). The film makes you realize the mundanity of most people in movies now – we watch them as figures in a narrative, maybe we fear for or even cry for them, but the lights come up and they’re soon forgotten. It’s popular to point out that stars now don’t match up to those of the 30’s and 40’s, and it’s true, but in fairness nothing about the infrastructure gives the current contenders much of a chance. In Before Sunset the film slows down, their faces fill the screen, and they flood over us.” I went on like that for several more paragraphs too.

Before Midnight

The film was a sequel to Linklater’s 1995 Before Sunrise, in which Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy played Jesse and Celine, two students spending a night together in Vienna. At the end of that film they agreed to reunite in six months’ time: Before Sunset informed us that he turned up and she didn’t, but then they meet again nine years later and take off together for a coffee, even as the clock ticks down to his departure for the airport. That film ended (beautifully) on a highly unresolved note; in the new film Before Midnight we learn that they stayed together (without getting married), and live in Paris, with twin daughters; he teaches and writes novels (drawing heavily on their own past); she balances motherhood with a career in what sounds like environmental advocacy of some kind. The film places them in Greece though, at the end of a six-week vacation; as the film begins, his son by his ex-wife leaves to return to the States, causing him to worry about his failures as a long-distance father. The two share a dinner with friends and then walk to a nearby hotel, where they’re spending a night away from the kids, and where all their resentments and dissatisfactions bust open.

The new film has generally been greeted as enthusiastically as its predecessors. For example, in a Slate piece headlined “The third Before Sunrise film is not just good, it is nearly perfect,” Tim Wu said: “Dialogue between the principals, as expected, is pitch-perfect. But there’s something new here: the language of marital battle, which rises to a ferocity comparable only to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. But if you can take it, and if you know you love your partner, but find yourself frustrated and angry nonetheless, this film cannot be missed. In a manner arguably unequaled in film, Before Midnight captures exactly just what makes it so infuriatingly hard to stay in any relationship.” It follows that this would have to be a more exacting kind of near-perfection, the purity I mentioned in the preceding film replaced by the contamination of time and experience, hope and giddiness replaced by realism and compromise. Before Midnight, you might reason, could aspire to be as accomplished as its predecessors, but not as purely pleasurable. After all, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, if the comparison’s valid, is barely pleasurable at all by usual standards.

Virginia Woolf?

As it is, I don’t think the comparison to Virginia Woolf makes much sense at all, and Before Midnight probably goes down too easily for its own good. The film doesn’t work through a heightened stylization in any way comparable to Albee’s play, and doesn’t have anything as tragic at its centre. As in the previous movies, the approach here is naturalistic, aiming for the messy rhythms of normal conversation, but on this occasion that yields a nagging sense of extreme contrivance. In Before Sunset, the device of having them reunite just before his scheduled departure for the airport justified a high degree of cramming and compression, but there’s nothing particularly artful about the new film’s juxtaposition of Hawke’s familial preoccupations, her reaching a career milestone, and – for God’s sake – his receiving a text message that his grandmother died, all within a few hours. Wu says the film contains “perhaps the most interesting dinner conversation of all time,” but it’s too interesting to feel true – the dialogue is all nicely spaced and distributed, with none of the digressions and dead zones of real social intercourse: everyone talks entirely in comic or metaphysical zingers (or both). (And as an aside, I’m not sure why Linklater chose to cast the dinner with unhelpful extra-textual digressions, such as having the group’s elder statesman played by Walter Lassally, who won an Oscar for the cinematography of Zorba the Greek in 1964).

This sense diminishes somewhat as the movie strips down to the two of them, but there’s still a bothersome sense of an entire life of conversational eggs being shoved into a single day’s basket: Celine chooses this day to ask unanswerable questions such as whether he’d approach her on the train now as he did when he first saw her, or heavier ones such as whether he had an affair with a particular woman. By the mediocre standards of mainstream American cinema, it’s all gloriously written and performed, no question. But it feels more like a mainstream American film than its predecessors, not least in the persistent refusal of that cinema to make films about normal people.

Marital battles

The great majority of “marital battles” take place in infinitely drabber physical and psychic circumstances than we’re witnessing here; most couples couldn’t even imagine being approached by a stranger for an autograph, or possessing the mobility and resources whereby living in Chicago versus Paris is effectively a matter of choice. For all Celine and Jesse’s problems, viewers are still more likely to see them as an aspirational ideal than as some kind of direct touchstone, and to the extent they embody the latter, it’s expressed through tired observations about how men believe in fairies who pick up their dirty socks, and the like.

I don’t mean to go overboard in expressing my disappointment, because for all the reservations I’ve expressed about it, Before Midnight is a compelling film. The two actors and their director remain in perfect sync – Delpy’s beautiful pain-in-the-ass quality is particularly well-utilized. If they continue to make these films every nine or ten years – and I certainly hope they do – then it’ll be one of the more delightful projects in modern cinema. But the new film tips closer to the category of “stunt” than “examination.” Maybe it was futile to imagine it could have been any other way, and yet the earlier films seemed capable of almost anything.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

2006 Toronto film festival report - part 4

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in October 2006)

This is the fourth of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival.

Nue Propriete (Joachim Lafosse)

This was a total wild card selection for me – I know nothing of Lafosse’s previous work. Not that the presence of Isabelle Huppert doesn’t provide a major guarantee against wasted time – I’m not sure there’s an actress who chooses material so consistently well (certainly from her own perspective, and usually from ours too). Nue Propriete turns out to be an interesting but minor effort about a divorced woman living with her somewhat aimless early-20’s twin sons, in a boisterous but finely balanced relationship which disintegrates when she thinks of selling the house to get on with her life. The “private property” of the film’s English title is not primarily the disputed dwelling, but rather the unique and unknowable contours of any family, and for much of the way Lafosse depicts this quite engrossingly, with a fine eye for quirky detail, sometimes pushing general notions of appropriateness (the film, carrying the opening dedication “To our boundaries” could be read as a cautionary tale against the perils of discarding familial norms, and thus as being somewhat conservative). The direction of all this is broadly predictable, and Lafosse’s final shot is a lame stab at evoking universality. Still, the film is certainly strong enough to mark him as a director of interest. And, of course, the acting is compelling.

Time (Kim Ki-duk)

Kim’s eclectic career seemed to be buzzing along just fine, and then came a few speed bumps including a stinging critique in Sight and Sound. I read somewhere that he’s threatening not even to release his films in his native South Korea any more. He seems to be one of those directors who keeps cranking out movies, always with pictorial composure and a certain inherent gravity, but with thinning underlying ideas. Time doesn’t help his case very much; I found it quite a letdown. The premise is promising enough – a jealous girlfriend, neurotic about the prospect of her boyfriend getting tired of looking at her, submits to plastic surgery and disappears for six months to recuperate. He tries to get something going with someone else, but it’s all thwarted for one reason or another, and anyway he finds he really loves his missing girlfriend. But then she comes back, and things get very complicated. The movie seems to me best suited for those who’ve been longing for an Asian version of Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected – if there’s any serious commentary here on plastic surgery or identity more generally, it’s submerged under narrative logistics. The film’s knowingly artificial ambiance suits its theme, but results in an increasingly academic viewing experience.

Woman on the Beach (Hong Sang-soo)

I think it was Paul Mazursky’s Willie & Phil in which one critic discerned the theme of how men do the asking but women do the deciding. Well, I guess it may have been covered elsewhere too. And here it is again in the unexpected setting of a deserted South Korean beach resort. A film director (who’s less refined in person than people imagine from his pictures) drags along a younger friend to the resort to help him work on a script; the other brings his girlfriend, and the director falls for her. Then another woman enters the picture, leading to some increasingly complex relationship geometry (the director sketches this on a napkin, in triangles and trapezoids, at one point) and some increasingly philosophical (although always accessible) musing on how it all breaks down between the sexes. Hong exploits the bleak surroundings without overplaying the symbolism; the film is clearly a comedy, even if the laughs are mostly bunched up in the earlier section. And he has an intriguing sense of personal breaking points. The film probably isn’t ambitious enough to stand among the most memorable that I saw at the festival, but it has the feeling of a director gently hitting the targets he was aiming for.

I didn’t see these next two at the Festival, but in their subsequent commercial releases.

All the King’s Men (Steven Zaillian)

Zaillian’s remake of the 1949 classic (which I must admit I don’t remember at all) wasn’t received with much enthusiasm, and turned into a swift box office failure. It’s a handsome enough package, but the overall approach is often mystifying. There seems to be no point remounting this story of Southern state politics, focusing on a small town populist who rants his way into the governor’s office, if not to position it as contemporary commentary, but it’s hard to extract much relevance from anything here. After the initial build-up, Zaillian hardly even seems interested in the raw texture of politics, instead letting the film bog down in some hackneyed sidelines, and events are often so choppy that I genuinely wondered at one point whether the projectionist had loaded on the reels in the wrong order. Sean Penn is entertaining, but always too technical and conscious of his effects, in the lead role, but the fine surrounding cast (Jude Law, Anthony Hopkins, Kate Winslet and others) mostly stagnates in either unsuitable or inadequate roles. Inevitably, the resources involved give it a patina of watchability, and there’s the odd galvanizing moment of melodrama, but overall the film feels consistently wrong-headed, even absent.

The Last Kiss (Tony Goldwyn)

Gabriele Muccino’s The Last Kiss was a huge hit in Italy a few years ago. Centering on a man who - freaked out by life crystallizing around him - cheats on the pregnant girlfriend he adores, it weaves in any amount of angst about relationships; it’s not so far removed from soap opera of course, but still highly accomplished (it also struck me, when I saw it, as a milestone in depicting how cell phones have rewritten the fabric of everyday interactions). Tony Goldwyn’s remake, written by Paul Haggis, stays fairly close to the original in most regards, but comes in half an hour shorter, and thus about 25% simpler. It’s certainly smooth and generally engrossing, often articulate and with some raw moments; on the other hand it’s too often sketchy, inconsistent, lunging for emotional climaxes. Zach Braff seems to me a wholly inadequate central figure, unable to invest his character with more than a petulant, sitcom-level restlessness; the movie is otherwise well cast, although most of the actors are allowed only a few signature moments. Like All the King’s Men, although in a very different way, the basic point of the remake never becomes clear – it’s as if a higher power had imposed the project on the filmmakers, and they could never transcend damage minimization mode.

Fun with Rewind

Recently some triple-digit cable channel I’d never focused on rebranded itself as “Rewind”, with the following blurb: “Rewind is Canada’s first specialty channel to connect Generation X to the films they grew up watching. Featuring favourites from the 70s, 80s and 90s, Rewind will transport viewers back to the era of the VCR through daily access to some of the greatest films of all time.” In a sample week, the greatest films of all time as per Rewind’s analysis might include the questionable likes of Teen Wolf Too, Hot Shots Part Deux and Revenge of the Nerds Part Two, but hey, if you truly grew up watching such things, then maybe you’ll follow the reasoning (I didn’t particularly, and so I don’t). In between these highlights, the channel has been a sporadically intriguing source of largely forgotten oddities, and here are three of them I recently, uh, rewound.

All Night Long

I actually went to see this when it came out in 1981, but not many others did, and it’s probably Barbra Streisand’s least-known film. She replaced another actress at short notice after production had already started, in what’s really a supporting role, and tried out a Marilyn Monroe-kind of presence, with odd and only vaguely effective results. Gene Hackman (for whom this was something of a comeback after two years away) plays a retail company executive who loses it and gets demoted big-time, to night manager at one of the outlets; Streisand’s character has an affair first with his son (Dennis Quaid!) and then with him. The film was directed by Jean-Claude Tramont, who was married to Streisand’s agent; he seems to have struggled to hold it together, and never made anything else afterwards. The theme of self-discovery is more persuasive for Hackman’s character than for Streisand’s, who seems to end up with him mainly because he decides he wants her and he’s nice about it (not that this couldn’t accommodate a meaningful point, but as presented here, it probably doesn’t, it’s just the same old convention playing out again). Everything about the movie seems to recede as you watch it, but it has an understated oddity which I like to think of as “European,” even if, in this case, that could be taken as a synonym for “bewildered and overwhelmed”.

House Calls

This was actually a hit in 1978, and even generated a spin-off TV show, although maybe I needn’t say “even” because it happened a lot in those days. Walter Matthau plays a recently widowed doctor who starts dating younger women, but then decides maybe he’d be happier with an English battle-axe played by Glenda Jackson. You know, Glenda Jackson won two Oscars during the 70’s, but it’s hard to imagine she cracked a smile at either of them. She was a generally severe presence, drawn to punishing and sometimes downright weird material, and yet in her heyday she was the female lead in several mainstream comedies. Maybe so soon after Nixon and Vietnam the studios subconsciously didn’t think people deserved to laugh. Since 1992, she’s given up acting to sit in the British Parliament, where she was a thorn in the side of her former leader Tony Blair, being much further to the left than he was. I wonder if even she believes she was ever in House Calls.

Anyway, I find I have an odd liking for these unforced, middle-age-friendly slices of Hollywood-imagined life. The film plainly isn’t powered by the kind of calculation that would prevail now for laughs per minute, or for striking set-pieces, or emotional climaxes. The underlying premise seems simply to be that it’s pleasant to spend time with these seasoned professionals, even if they’re not doing that much. It’s a lazy film at best – for example, it seems the hospital is meant to be a notorious hotbed of incompetence, but it’s so sketchily evoked you can’t really tell - and the notion of Walter Matthau as an unprincipled horn-dog just seems quaint. He’s always mesmerizing to watch though, always conveying a delicious inner life, and ultimately actually selling the premise that attaching himself to Jackson’s character wouldn’t merely be an abject rejection of all possibilities and hopes.

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

This is the one that has to be seen to be believed. A massively misjudged over-conceptualization of the Beatles’ concept album, it posits that Sgt. Pepper was a real-life figure who performed during the two World Wars, eventually leaving his magical musical instruments to the town of Heartland, which flourishes in 1978 as a moronically benign enclave where Peter Frampton and the Bee Gees seemingly perform songs from the album on an endless loop, and no one gets tired of them. The performers gets sucked out of Heartland into the corrupt recording industry, and in their absence, Mean Mr. Mustard arrives in town and turns it, in the manner of the what-might-have-been portions of It’s a Wonderful Life, into a derelict hellhole. Eventually the day is only saved when the town’s weather vane comes magically to life and puts things in order.

The film’s reputation is terrible, and rightly so – it’s weirdly unfocused, cheesy and bland. Much as I said of House Calls, except much more gratingly in this case, the premise seems to be that the 1978 audience would lap up any old rubbish, as long as it’s colourful and populated by familiar faces and sounds. Sometimes it’s a Wizard of Oz-type fantasy, sometimes a strangely grim parable on modern-day temptation, sometimes an anything-goes grab-bag of performances and special effects (although “special” isn’t really the term, given the unremitting shoddiness in this area), placing little importance on how it shifts from one mode to the next. There’s no dialogue – everything is sung, with George Burns’ narration filling in some of the gaps (in the sense of someone hurling sand into the Grand Canyon). Some of the performers mug grotesquely, while others barely register at all. Worst of all, it barely offers a single serviceable interpretation of a Beatles song, let alone an interesting one.

At the end, after the movie proper has just about collapsed, it unveils its piece de resistance, a large gathering of celebrities joining together to reprise the title track. According to the Internet, formal invitations were engraved and sent to “virtually everyone” in the entertainment industry – among those who responded were Carol Channing, Keith Carradine, Robert Palmer and Leif Garrett (that’s just a small sample, but makes the point that something less than virtually everyone accepted). It’s ridiculous, awful, messy, and yet rather endearing, conveying utter certainty in the audience’s submission to cold Hollywood math, that if you keep attaching one razzly dazzly brick on top of another, in the end you’ll have a solid tower of entertainment. Not only was I transported back to the era of the VCR, I was tempted to keep on going until safely back in the womb.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

2006 Toronto film festival report - part 3

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in September 2006)

This is the third of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival.

Dong (Jia Zhang-ke)

Jia is on course to become one of the preeminent living directors. The World was one of the revelations of two years ago, and he just won the top prize at Venice for a new film Still Life. This was slipped into the Toronto festival at the eleventh hour, after the programme book was printed, and I didn’t get to see it – but I did see Jia’s other new work, the hour-long documentary Dong. This follows Chinese artist Liu Xiao-dong on two trips, one to the rural Three Gorges area, where he paints local workers in their environment, and then to Bangkok, to paint a group of scantily dressed young women (in a composition called “Hot Bed”). He says that being an artist is “more trouble than most down to earth jobs,” but of course the privileged access that generally allows him to capture his subjects without assuming any responsibility for them, moral or otherwise, suggests otherwise. Both sequences challenge the artist’s detachment though: the first by pulling him into the orbit of a grieving family when one of the men is killed; the second merely by showing and following these women without specifying their stories. The intersection of creative talents and settings allows some eternal questions about art to be posed again quite bracingly, and the film is beautifully presented. Still, if one was going to see one Jia film at the festival, I expect this was the wrong one to choose.

I am the Other Woman (Margarethe von Trotta)

Von Trotta, as the programme book puts it, is a “pioneer of woman’s cinema,” and one of the first foreign films I ever saw in a theatre was her Friends And Husbands. Her last few pictures have been stodgy historical dramas, but here’s a welcome change of pace: I am the Other Woman is a periodically kinky psychological thriller. A businessman encounters a whore in a hotel bar and sleeps with her; the next day he meets a staid lawyer, and it’s the same woman, but she doesn’t remember. Or is she lying? He plunges headfirst into an obsession, sharing all the details with his girlfriend, and then he meets the woman’s monstrous, manipulative father and his subservient household, and the plot thickens. The movie is highly reminiscent of, but nowhere near as acute as, Claude Chabrol’s work from the Ten Days’ Wonder era (there’s a Chabrol film playing on TV in one scene I believe), although the core set-up – with a man drawn into the orbit of a damaged woman - also has distinct similarities with Hitchcock’s Marnie. The weaker status of the male protagonist, compared to Sean Connery’s character in Marnie, might constitute von Trotta’s “feminist” angle on the genre, but that doesn’t amount to very much. Overall the film provides adequate ambiguity and intrigue, but only limited substance.

Rescue Dawn (Werner Herzog)

This is only Herzog’s second fiction film in the last twenty years, although he’s been making documentaries at a fast and furious pace. Some of them are terrific, but how could the maker of Aguirre: Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo be done with spinning yarns? Rescue Dawn had a troubled (i.e. for Herzog, predictable) production history, with the crew reportedly questioning his methods, but it’s pleasing to report that the director was right. This is the concentrated true-life narrative of a pilot shot down over Laos in 1965, captured and tortured and held prisoner, always planning escape; Christian Bale, who is excellent, appears in every scene. Herzog has told this story before, in his documentary Little Dieter Needs toFly, and is clearly enthralled by the man’s refusal to yield. It finds expression here in a film of immense physicality – it’s at its most gripping when the screen crackles with the sensation of dense brush or mudslides or sheer fatigue and disgust, and you get the sense of a camera crew suffering almost as much as the protagonist. The framing sequences have an equally astute sense of period. It doesn’t have the spiraling grandeur of some of Herzog’s earlier fictions, but it’s completely enveloping on its own terms.

The Bubble (Eytan Fox)

Fox’s recent Walk on Water, built around a dissatisfied Mossad agent on a mission to kill an aging Nazi, was a real melting pot of ideas, inevitably fascinating – probably one of those movies where the flaws serve to make it more resonant and intriguing. The bubble bursts the other way with Fox’s new film though. The title is a commentary on fashionable young Israelis who imagine they can live a largely apolitical life, and the film’s pleasant, sexy first half is appropriately airy. Its centre evokes a gay Romeo and Juliet – he’s Israeli, he’s Palestinian – and this leads to some challenging twists as realism floods into the film’s latter half. But the film never acquires real gravity – for example, its treatment of what motivates suicide bombers is astonishingly sketchy (compare the recent Paradise Now for instance), and even at its most tragic, it frequently skirts back for some cheap quip or easy set-up. You get the feeling that Fox overvalues the revelatory nature of what he’s put together here, starting with the very obviousness of that title metaphor. Compared to the Festival’s more complex works, The Bubble is merely fluff.

Strike (Volker Schlondorff)

Schlondorff has had an amazing, varied career – starting in Germany with somewhat radical, low-budget films, then through a glossy art house phase after winning an Oscar for The Tin Drum, to the nutty nadir of the Woody Harrelson concoction Palmetto. Now he’s back in Germany and again immersed in history and politics. Strike is a concentrated piece of Polish “witness to history” storytelling, covering twenty years in a Gdansk factory worker’s evolution from unschooled, unquestioning “heroine of labour” to early leader of the Solidarity movement. Early on, she’s presented as borderline comic in her zeal, and the movie seems almost naïve in its potency (in the same way that Ken Loach’s work sometimes does), but as it goes on you see it as a heightened portrayal of the mess of human experience from which pivotal figures are formed. The film is brassily photographed, assaulting our senses with weathered faces, the grind of heavy machinery, personal gains and reversals, and hissable exposes of corruption and complacency. Ultimately it’s a work of commemoration, perhaps more interesting as history than as cinema, but there’s unquestionably a place for such filmmaking, and Schlondorff sure feels at home here. Maybe the restless veteran has it figured out at last.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Piano man

Steven Soderbergh says Behind the Candelabra is his last film for now, but I don’t really believe him, because if you were announcing your last film at the age of fifty, wouldn’t you make something that felt like your last film, by virtue of its extremity or joy or despair or profundity or whatever it might be? Behind the Candelabra, a depiction of Liberace’s six-year late-in-life relationship with his much younger lover, is an entertaining project, but there are a million semi-forgotten stories in the dusty archives of popular culture, and this is merely one of them; you can react to the material and its historical resonance, but as a piece of filmmaking, it’s less stimulating than most of Soderbergh’s recent work.

Changing times

It may be less notable for itself than as a measure of changing times. Soderbergh has been talking in interviews about how he tried and failed for years to get financing for the project as a theatrical release (“the consensus was that there would be no audience for the movie outside of a gay audience”); eventually it came to the attention of HBO, which immediately said yes (although it’s now on cable in North America, it’s being released as a movie movie elsewhere, and it was even part of the competition at the recent Cannes festival). I don’t think this necessarily marks HBO as being morally or culturally superior – it’s a different business model (driven by customers’ continued interest in subscribing for the channel as a whole, rather than enticing them into buying one experience at a time) in which the “edginess” and “risk-taking” is inherent to the branding. But it’s certainly another indication of how it’s increasingly meaningless to address the mainstream film industry as anything other than a commercial enterprise.

Another evolutionary marker: Michael Douglas and Matt Damon play gay characters with a straightforward commitment that’s remarkable only for no longer being remarkable; even ten years ago, such choices would have been discussion points in themselves, and twenty years ago (the year Tom Hanks won an Oscar for Philadelphia, although his performance now seems timid by comparison) they would have been commemorated as profiles in courage. On the other hand, every viewer of the film knows that these are two iconic stars, comfortably (in Douglas’ history-of-sex-addiction/glamorous-trophy-wife- adorned case, even strenuously) established as not being gay: the movie is plainly an expedition from the outside into gay history, not a report from within it.

The same story

Also, the truth of this history seems blunted in at least one key respect. The film starts in 1977, when a friend introduces the wide-eyed Scott Thorson, who has vague dreams of becoming a veterinarian, to the famous and glamorous piano player, one of the kings of Las Vegas, who maintains an image of outrageous campiness and yet insists for public consumption that he just hasn’t found the right woman yet, and that ice skater Sonia Henie was the lost love of his life. Behind the candelabras and the spotlights though, it’s all out in the open, and Thorson’s soon installed as the latest in a long line of disposable boyfriends (where he sets a record by lasting four years). The thing I think is blunted is this: Thorson was 18 in 1977, 48 years younger than Liberace; Matt Damon is currently 42, which is 26 years younger than Douglas. No matter how good he looks, this casting decision imposes an undertone of at least relatively greater equality of desire and experience, and although the sex scenes between the two are as frank as you’d usually need them to be, they don’t convey the clashing physicality of a teenager and a man pushing sixty.
On this point, Soderbergh said in an interview: “The dynamic of the relationship that he had with Scott was very volatile, but it’d be the same story no matter what the gender: Older powerful figure, younger beautiful person with no power…” But this seems disingenuous, in that much of the movie’s interest comes from its depiction of a very specific gay culture, intertwined with but largely hidden in the folds of showbiz, where a man like Liberace – through the combined forces of money and willpower - is able to develop and sustain apparently enormous appetites, serviced and protected by circles of enablers. Liberace was also one of the first celebrity victims of AIDS (although his retinue, including his physician, initially lied about it) and so constitutes a complex transitional figure – this is in the movie, but really just as a brief postscript, less central to its overall effect than a fantasy scenario in which Thorson drifts away during the funeral, to imagine one last show-stopping performance. All in all, although the movie may have been too gay for the studios, I think you can easily argue that the movie would have constituted a much more piercing historical investigation if it were gayer.

Plastic surgery

Soderbergh seems most engaged during the passages dealing with plastic surgery, in which the neurotic star first touches himself up, then decides Thorson would also be enhanced by becoming a Liberace replica; Rob Lowe’s performance as a doctor who provides a walking cautionary billboard for the perils of his trade pushes the film into surreal territory (contrasting sharply with the naturalism of others in the supporting cast, including Dan Aykroyd and Debbie Reynolds). But again, I’m not sure the film really tries to make us feel the reality of what’s happening there, of a teenager manipulated into altering his features to satisfy a much older man’s sexual circuitry. My point isn’t that Soderbergh should have presented this as a stops-out episode of abuse (I don’t know whether it’s that or not) – plainly, plenty of people defend plastic surgery as an exercise in self-expression and self-determination, whereas others argue it’s driven much more by misplaced societal preoccupation with appearances, but as presented here it’s little more than, say, quirky. The point about appearances might seem to have some correlation with Liberace’s emphasis, both personally and professionally, on opulence and spectacle, and more broadly with out of control consumerism, but the movie doesn’t pursue that line of investigation either.

Anyway, it goes down very easily, executed with all the director’s customary skill, and Douglas manages to convey something of Liberace’s inner life, and external charisma, without posturing or falling into caricature. But in an inversion of how (according to one source) Oscar Levant said something to the effect that if you strip the phony tinsel off Hollywood, you just find real tinsel underneath, it feels at times as if Behind the Candelabra, once it goes behind the candelabra, just finds a bunch of other, sadder-looking candelabras, which it then doesn’t bother peering behind.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

2006 Toronto film festival report - part 2

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in September 2006)
This is the second of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival.

Bamako (Abderrahmane Sissako)

During the last year or so I watched the documentaries Life and Debt and The Take, which slammed the malign effect of IMF and World Bank policies on Jamaica and Argentina respectively, and made me think I had been insufficiently skeptical of those institutions (if only by not thinking much about them). Then I had the almost life-altering experience of visiting South Africa, and going to a township, where I found myself at a loss to imagine how such deprivation could be constructively addressed in my lifetime. Sissako’s new film, combining these strands of thought, was high on my must-see list for this year. It’s based in the brilliant concept of a legal proceeding - African Society vs. the International Financial System - held in a courtyard in a destitute Malian village; there’s some stinging testimony against the ruling economic powers (and some distinctly weaker arguments for the other side). The film teems with outrage, although it doesn’t grasp at easy solutions – the greatest tragedy, it implies, is in how the history of exploitation and belittlement has by now seeped into the country’s DNA (manifesting itself, for instance, in institutional corruption and fraught personal relationships). It has many fine moments, but a fair amount of it seems rather laboured too, leading overall to a less revelatory experience than I was hoping for.

Transylvania (Tony Gatlif)

Gatlif is of Gypsy descent, and devotes most of his work to illuminating that underappreciated culture. He crams his pictures with tumultuous music and human chaos - a word that comes to mind is “zesty”. His last film Exils was an entertaining romp, and the new effort particularly appealed to me because of the presence of the explosive Asia Argento, who’s directed a couple of kinetic movies herself. And indeed, it’s hard to imagine Transylvania existing without the two of them. Argento plays Zingarina (now there’s a Gatlif kinda name!), a French woman who comes to the country in search of a Transylvanian boyfriend who got her pregnant back home and then disappeared. She finds him, he rejects her, and she goes off the rails; ditching her friends and settling into an itinerant life with a rough-edged petty wheeler-dealer. Among other things, Asia gets to scream, break plates, have milk poured over her, have sex on a car within feet of a foraging bear, smoke while pregnant, and submit to a harrowing labour scene. There might be a rough allegory there for the new European melting pot, and the mythic connotations of the setting lurk around the edges too, but it’s hard to get past such ramshackle psychology and narrative motivation. Hard to worry too much though, when it’s all so damn zesty.

Le Voyage en Armenie (Robert Guediguian)

Guediguian spent years making gritty, heartfelt movies – often very compelling ones - in a particular quarter of his native Marseilles, usually with the same lead actors. He’s only now broadening his reach a bit, first with a recent film about Francois Mitterand (not shown here to my knowledge) and now with Le Voyage en Armenie. Sadly, this film merely plays like a slower, bourgeois version of Transylvania. Ariane Ascaride plays a French doctor exploring her Armenian roots while searching for her dying father. Much of the movie is basically a travelogue with minimal narrative finesse: within a day or two of arriving she’s acquired a motley collection of friends, tangled with gangsters, gone up in a helicopter, visited strip clubs and churches and slums, and made a fair stab at learning the language. Later on the thugs come to the fore, and matters turn rather silly before stumbling to the inevitable closure, in which of course she’s acquired a new equanimity about her family and heritage. Inevitably, given its approach, the film seems to provide reasonable coverage of Armenian tour bus highlights, but it’s so contrived that you can’t engage with it as much more than a series of postcard images. Unfortunately, it’s one of those movies that tempt you to reevaluate the director’s previous work downwards; you wonder whether the modesty and commitment of his Marseilles projects obscured comparable weaknesses.

Shortbus (John Cameron Mitchell)

Well, you’ve probably already heard about this one – a contemporary comedy about relationships in a very specifically post 9/11 New York, featuring lots of unsimulated explicit sex: it’s locally notorious for featuring the CBC’s Sook-Yin Lee (who turns out to be one of the film’s less interesting performers). It follows Mitchell’s first film Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which didn’t do a thing for me, although I suppose I may not have been the target demographic. No such problem here – the target demographic is presumably anyone who likes sex, and isn’t ashamed about it! Sure, it’s surprising at times in its physical, uh, concoctions, but even more surprising is the delicacy of some of the characterizations, even if a lot of it is just scattershot liberalism. Some of it, conversely, is rather trite and silly, and the movie exhibits what you might call Magnolia syndrome – it returns constantly to sweeping animated shots of the city, and pumps up its mythic scope through symbolic uses of blackouts and musical numbers (and, of course, orgy scenes). Overall though, Mitchell’s feeling for the milieu and the people is highly persuasive, and the film never compromises, visually or ethically. Every year, the festival crosses yet another new frontier in mainstream cinema sexuality, and some of those seem primarily like stunts (take 9 Songs for instance), but Shortbus periodically feels almost necessary.

I Don’t Want To Sleep Alone (Tsai Ming-liang)

Tsai’s garish, porn-packed The Wayward Cloud was one of my favourites of last year’s festival, although it seemed to indicate a director in desperate need of a new preoccupation. His new film actually turns out to be more of a retrenchment, but it’s an extremely satisfying one. Although Tsai is filming for the first time here in his native Malaysia, he reduces the city to a largely familiar wasteland (although with an emphasis on diversity), threatened by rising water levels and lousy air quality, following a few deprived people holding on to love-starved existences, desperate for a meaningful connection (sometimes expressed tenderly, sometimes comically, although perhaps the broader point is the difficulty of telling the difference). The plot, such as it is, mostly focuses on a homeless man who’s beaten up and then taken in by a Bangladeshi immigrant who nurses him; when he recovers, he forges a connection with a local waitress. Tsai again deploys long takes, structured around recurring, elemental preoccupations – with a place to sleep, with images of one person tending to another (either functionally or erotically or perhaps both at once). Romantic old songs play on the soundtrack, their underlying sentiments strangely valid for all the strain in the circumstances. Take back what I just said about Shortbus - Tsai’s vision of modern relationships makes Mitchell look merely crass and opportunistic.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Torments of the young

The work of the wonderful French director Olivier Assayas might be divided, very loosely, into two broad categories: culture and tech-savvy bites out of the globalization-fraught modern world; and more traditionally “French” human dramas. A character in one of his finest recent films, Summer Hours, cites at one point the use of a modern telephone (not even an iPhone!) as a symbol of too much progress, and Assayas seems to carry a profound sense of the modern world’s competing debits and credits – he’s a man of immense learning, and of pride in that, who nevertheless understands the potential appeal of succumbing to mindlessness. Canadians might be most aware of his film Clean, a chronicle of an addict trying to take control of her life, notable among much else for making probably the best ever filmic use of Hamilton, Ontario (including a guest appearance by Metric, playing Dead Disco). As in all his works, Assayas invests that film with details that may only make vague sense as you watch them, but which convey an immense sense of layering and intimacy.

Something in the Air

A viewer of his new film Something in the Air (playing at the TIFF Lightbox as I speak; available soon in other formats) would certainly benefit from knowing a bit about the French political and cultural landscape in the aftermath of the May 1968 riots (to which the film’s original title, Après Mai, refers explicitly). The year is 1971, and the protagonist, Gilles, immerses himself in political activity, while also committing to developing his skills as a painter. He and his friends distribute flyers and sell newspapers; they attend meetings; they paint slogans on school property. The group argues about the scope of its activity – for example whether to extend its activities to address broader social problems, or to focus on student rights. They draw on the movement’s connections to make contact with other collectives; they smoke endlessly; they fall in love and have sex. Group members may differ in their degrees of idealism or passion, or in their pragmatism regarding future steps, but they’re not “alienated” in the way of many films about young people – they occupy their lives completely, absorbing experience without straining for it.

The film belongs then to that second category of Assayas films – fully immersed in a very specific, and very French time and place; among much else, it’s consistently ravishing to look at. But the horizons aren’t narrow – various characters travel to Italy, Afghanistan and Britain; they talk about going to the States, or to Nepal. It’s a striking (presumably unplanned) contrast with another film also playing at the Lightbox, which I wrote about here last week, Michel Gondry’s The We and the I. Gondry’s film, set in present day New York, also focuses on a group of teenagers, but the group’s energy is almost entirely invested in transient testing and positioning – who likes who, who’s going where, who knows what, and so on, all heavily reinforced and abetted of course by the ever-present cellphones. In an interview in Cineaste magazine, Assayas drew out the contrast: “kids like myself…we functioned with basically no money…the money you had you would spend on books, usually radical books, newspapers, and coffee…today it’s different; there’s too much money…it’s only consumerist logic that generates products that have a predetermined obsolescence.”

Crispness and clarity

The point isn’t just about nostalgia. Writing in the Globe and Mail, Rick Groen calls Something in the Air “a wispy picture, likeable certainly but lacking in crispness and clarity.” By comparison, I suppose The We and the I is eminently crisp and clear, but it’s related to the disposable crispness of the latest YouTube video, to the weightless clarity of the current talking point. The very point of Assayas’ film seems to be document a milieu marked by the absence of such qualities, and to muse – in a very specific historical context - on the necessity of that absence, necessary because to lay claim to clarity at that age is merely to prematurely sacrifice possibility and internal and external mobility (which is exactly the trajectory of many of those kids in Gondry’s film, whether or not through any fault of their own).

Peter Howell’s Star review also seems to be imposing some preconceptions on the film. He notes that the characters “face the moods, passions, raging hormones and unrequited love that torment the young.” But actually, you could hardly have a picture about teenagers where “raging hormones” are less of a factor: the characters hook up with ease, and if they’re occasionally in the situation of love being unrequited, then they seize on the situation’s dramatic grandeur rather than becoming morose and consumed about it (in the same interview, Assayas says “films about teenagers are always centered around sentiment, love, boys and girls, blah, blah, blah…I recall being interested in those concerns – but they weren’t the centre of my life”). If anything, they don’t “face” those issues; rather, they invite them, realizing their centrality to a full life experience.

Revolutionary syntax

The film returns constantly to the symbolic power of fire, as both a political and a personal symbol, of both destruction and commemoration. It’s hardly an unfamiliar motif of course, but it’s a long time since I’ve felt it deployed so intimately. The characters carry on a recurring debate about whether “revolutionary film” must deploy a “revolutionary syntax” – for example whether even a film sympathetic to left-wing struggles, if shot and edited in a conventionally accessible way, will implicitly support the bourgeois social structure that gave rise to those conventions. Assayas’ syntax here, no question, isn’t revolutionary; but then, the revolution didn’t triumph. His recurring strength, as much here as ever, is to master the evocative force of the syntax we know, and to demonstrate how frequently we squander it on cultural products of, well, predetermined obsolescence.

In the end, inevitably, the characters must start to move on: some double down on their activism, others return to a more traditional path; others are left at least temporarily adrift. Gilles goes to Britain, where through family connections he gets a job on a mind-blowingly cheesy movie set, wonderfully recreated by Assayas (in real life, he had a trainee job in the editing room of the first Christopher Reeve Superman film); he still sells newspapers though, and still attends experimental films (although he refracts the images through his own memories). Earlier, a friend chides him for his aesthetic interests, telling him: “Art is a choice – it’s a solitude,” and a choice incompatible with investment in a collective revolutionary effort. As the film ends, Gilles is starting to refine the choice, his interests shifting from painting to cinema (by definition less of a solitude – almost the last thing we see him doing is lighting his cigarette off that of another crew member), and his political activities becoming more formalized. It’s perhaps already a greater concession than he may have envisaged, and will no doubt become more so still…but even so, what wouldn’t you give to live in a time where even the compromises are so thrilling?