Sunday, November 8, 2015

2002 Toronto Film Festival Report, Part One

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in September 2002)

This is the first of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 2002 Toronto Film Festival.

Ararat (Atom Egoyan)
Egoyan’s opening gala presentation certainly doesn’t seem like the work of a great filmmaker; it evokes instead a disgruntled academic translating his theories onto celluloid. Set in present-day Toronto, it examines the continuing spiritual and emotional impact of Turkey’s massacre of Armenians in 1915. Characters include a director (Charles Aznavour) who’s making a film on the subject, an art history professor (Arsinee Khanjian) who’s a consultant on the picture, and her troubled son. Ararat doesn’t purport to present the objective truth of what happened in 1915, and acknowledges that there are problems in the historical record; it dwells on the difficulties of sustaining memory and remembrance. That aspect of Egoyan’s film is fairly interesting, but it’s filtered through some very cumbersome emotional set-ups and bizarre artistic decisions (for example, much of the film consists of a labored dialogue between the son and an overbearing customs officer played by Christopher Plummer). The messiness isn’t without consolations, but it makes for a distinctly dutiful, visually undistinguished viewing experience. The use of the film within the film, including a gala premiere at the Elgin, seems like mere navel-gazing, but then Egoyan doesn’t exhibit much sense of the real world – you’d think from Ararat that 1915 was the number one conversation topic in our city.

Talk to Her (Pedro Almodovar)
Almodovar has mastered the art of making outlandish narratives seem as natural and graceful as a dance. His new film, in which dance is actually woven prominently into the design, revolves around two men, both in love with (wait for it) women in comas. One (who, in typical Almodovar fashion, thinks of himself as being more gay than straight) sees this state as an enhancement rather than an impediment; the other is understandably more ambivalent. Events build to a shocking violation that Almodovar somehow manages to render smooth and understandable. He has the old-fashioned virtue of liking his characters – his benevolence is almost boundless, sometimes to the point of foolhardiness. But this is as beguiling a movie as he’s made (even after the clear artistic advances of Live Flesh and All About my Mother). It shifts gears and perspectives with imperceptible ease, sliding forwards and backwards in time in a way that makes most narratives of that type seem highly self-conscious. It’s poised and consistently beautiful, even if the broader insights (the title sets out the main message – the importance of communication) don’t amount to much.

10 (Abbas Kiarostami)
It’s always in question whether Western viewers appreciate the work of an Iranian director like Kiarostami too much through our own prism (reflecting our own morals, ethics, aesthetic tradition, sexual politics, received notions about Iran). This may be especially tempting with his new film 10 (not a remake, obviously, of the Blake Edwards semi-classic), which consists solely of ten one-take scenes of a divorced woman, driving in her car with various passengers. In the first scene, her young son lambasts her as a bad, stupid mother; shortly afterwards she picks up a whore who scoffs at her moralistic questions. Later on in the film, the son again criticizes her for various things, but by then she takes it much more in stride. In the later scenes she counsels a distraught woman not to depend so much on just one person, and advises another to loosen her veil (which in such a physically controlled film generates considerable visual excitement). As the film progresses, the increasing use of cross-cutting between characters seems to reflect a growing sense of security and engagement on her part. The film thus appears to be primarily an illustration of a woman’s growing sense of self-determination as she adjusts to life on her own, but I suspect it may be subtler than a single viewing can appreciate. Intriguing as 10 is, I think many Kiarostami fans may miss the broader canvases of his earlier work.

Lost in La Mancha (Keith Fulton and Luis Pepe)
In 2000, director Terry Gilliam finally rolled film on his long-cherished adaptation of Don Quixote. The project came with an unrealistic budget, inadequate rehearsal and preparation time, looming chaos, and memories of his 1989 over-budget fiasco The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen (which earned him a reputation as an undisciplined enfant terrible, not overcome by subsequent relatively saner projects such as The Fisher King and Twelve Monkeys). The first day saw a freak storm that instantly threw the schedule into disarray. By the end of the first week, lead actor Jean Rochefort was in the hands of his doctors with a herniated disk. The film struggled on through a sixth day before collapsing completely, sending millions of dollars and Gilliam’s dreams down the tubes. Miraculously, Fulton and Pepe had cameras rolling on the whole thing, resulting in one of the most vivid portrayals of filmmaking ever made. Gilliam starts off somewhat enamoured of his own legend (“Without a battle, maybe I don’t know exactly how to approach it”); when on the first day he asks how they’re doing for time and the response is “Bad,” Gilliam reflexively snaps back “Good.” His childish giggle when something goes well is infectious. But as disaster engulfs the project he seems overwhelmed, almost paralyzed. His Don Quixote film, from what we see of it, would probably have ended up much like Munchhausen – a treat for Gilliam fans, mainly a curio for anyone else; the fact that we’ve been denied that film, but given Lost in La Mancha instead, probably isn’t a bad trade-off.

Sweet Sixteen (Ken Loach)
At the age of 66, Loach is working faster than ever, alternating missions into unfamiliar territory (Spain in Land and Freedom, Los Angeles in Bread and Roses, one of his least successful efforts) with projects on home ground (or at least Scotland, which is close enough). Sweet Sixteen doesn’t have much new about it, but it’s expertly handled; no one captures the aspirations (or profanity) of the British under-privileged as expertly as Loach. It follows a boy gravitating from selling smuggled cigarettes to upward mobility in the local drug syndicate, all before turning 16. He dreams of seeing his imprisoned mother free and clean, but sees no irony in getting her there on the backs of junkies. Actually, irony isn’t really one of Loach’s standard tools (compared say to skillful tub-thumping) although the situation provides it in abundance (“I used to watch my dad do this,” says a young pusher nostalgically, as he cuts the heroin). Loach’s biggest weakness, for me, is his propensity for gangster figures and their attendant melodrama. Still, this is a consistently gripping, moving work.

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