Thursday, August 20, 2015

1999 Film festival report, part six

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in November 1999)

This is the sixth and last of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 1999 Toronto International Film Festival

My Best Fiend (Werner Herzog)
Herzog directed actor Klaus Kinski five times in the 70s and 80s (most memorably in Aguirre: the Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo), with almost uniquely obsessive and fiery results: both megalomaniacs of sorts, they enjoyed perhaps the ultimate love-hate relationship. Herzog relives their collaborations in this memoir, much of which consists of fundamentally conventional straight-to-camera dialogue and archival footage, but which given the subject matter makes for rollicking weird and wonderful results. Kinski was capable both of fierce irrational rage and almost childish tenderness; he could be both courageous and cowardly, virtually simultaneously; he believed himself a genius, and sometimes seemed like it. Given the evidence presented, it’s not surprising that Kinski is no longer with us; looking at the astonishing clips from their films, one’s primary mourning is likely to be for Herzog’s apparently burnt-out fiction film career.

Happy Texas (Mark Illsley)
Two escaped convicts hide out in a small Texas town, masquerading as gay pageant organizers. The movie has been praised as something fresh and distinctive, but I can’t really see why – it’s a fragmented, flatly directed series of mainly familiar set-pieces and relationships. The film substantially dispenses with its “gay” theme pretty early on, and also underexploits the central pageant concept, limiting Steve Zahn’s transformation from rough-edged incompetent into inspirational leader to not much more than a few montages. Instead, it spends most of its time meandering through such unexceptional plot strands as Jeremy Northam’s falling in love with a woman who fixes on him as a confidante, while he simultaneously plans to rob her bank. There’s a rather touching performance by William H Macy as the local sheriff discovering his own homosexuality, but his character is fuzzy as everything else in the film; Zahn, although his work here has been widely acclaimed, relies entirely on a bizarre stream of senseless mannerisms.

The Limey (Steven Soderbergh)
In this triumphantly experimental film, Soderbergh sets out to evoke the elliptical existential style that flourished in the 60’s (in the work of Antonioni and Bertolucci and, more genre-specifically, in John Boorman’s Point Blank). The Limey casts two icons of the decade, Terence Stamp and Peter Fonda, in a sparsely plotted thriller about a hard-edged British criminal (Stamp, naturally) who comes to LA to investigate, and likely avenge, his daughter’s mysterious death. Fonda plays the high-living record producer who, as her lover, becomes the main object of Stamp’s suspicion.

Los Angeles as seen here is a strangely desolate, hazy, yet spatially engrossing environment, and lends itself ideally to the film’s temporal experiments. In virtually every scene, Soderbergh flashes forward to episodes yet to come or back to images from those already elapsed, or to fragments of memory (using footage from Poor Cow, which Stamp made in 1967), or to alternative possibilities. It’s an in-your-face technique, and at first it’s a little unsettling and not particularly productive: one realizes, with some sadness, how easily the radical experiments of 30 years ago led to stylistically hollow hyperactivity – what’s often called an MTV style. In its opening stretches, The Limey merely resembles an elegant application of a chaos theory to filmmaking.

But it quickly calms down and coalesces. Stamp is wonderful as the calmly focused limey Wilson, who’s spent most of his adult life behind bars, offering no concessions: no one can understand his Cockney-slang saturated talk. His considerable limitations, as an effective player in the seedy LA underworld, actually invest him with a serene sense of liberation: there’s one excellent scene, when Stamp cuts loose with a beautifully fluid but highly vernacular monologue, knowing that not a word he says will be understood by the cop who’s interrogating him. If such serenity is emblematic of a certain strand of sixties culture, then it’s as if Wilson’s long confinement has left him relatively unscathed by everything that’s happened since: in his morally gray way, he’s an ambassador of integrity and stability (exemplified by Stamp’s almost spooky failure to age very much).

The Fonda character, by contrast, captivates his jailbait-aged girlfriends with indulgent memories and echoes of the sixties, while positioning himself on the cutting edge of the nineties – he’s an apparently perfect survivor and synthesis whom, we find out eventually, is actually just a sham: involved in a shady deal to keep himself afloat, hopelessly passive and dependent on his guns for hire. As the classic Easy Rider rebel who’s lately reinvented himself as ever-smiling, genial Oscar-nominated reincarnation of his father, Fonda is also perfectly cast here. So the film’s style, as it goes on, seems ever more eloquently questioning and disruptive as it wraps itself around these two enormously resonant antagonists, always emphasizing the fluidity of time, the echoes of moments just elapsed and premonitions of those yet to come.

In addition to all that, The Limey has a number of fine supporting performances, several truly exciting action sequences, some exquisitely funny lines. And at only 90 minutes, it has a concision that’s to be admired – in any decade.

That’s the last on this year’s film festival. To summarize, while acknowledging I could necessarily see only a small percentage of everything on offer (and am therefore no doubt grandiosely extrapolating on the basis of an unscientific sample), it was a pretty good festival – one with fewer truly high notes than some previous year, but with widely distributed, solid quality. I saw only a few movies that can’t be recommended in at least some respect (All the Rage may be the only one I’d actively urge people to avoid). My favourite – and I know I’m in a severe minority here – was L’humanite (the controversial Cannes award-winner which, sadly, seems unlikely to be commercially released here). Runners-up: The Limey, American Beauty, The Emperor and the Assassin, Dogma, The Wind Will Carry Us, Tumbleweeds, 8 ½ Women. The first two of those are already in release – see them now, and look out for the rest!

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