Saturday, April 30, 2011

Bad Food

Writing this in the closing stretch of the election campaign, it’s no surprise food hasn’t figured as an issue; it never does. Health care, of course, is perpetually in the spotlight. Not health itself, not wellness, just the usual platitudes about protecting the Canada Health Act and preserving funding. There’s a lot of passion (real or feigned, I don’t know) about keeping private money out of the system, but it often strikes me as a morally corrupt battleground. If we collectively gave a damn about equal access to treatment and recovery, we’d focus more seriously on prevention, on acting long before people turn up in the emergency room. I don’t see much ethical distinction between denying medication to an aging Canadian for a particular ailment, and letting young Canadians live on diets that drastically accelerate the odds of developing that condition.

The notional distinction, of course, is that what we eat falls under the umbrella of personal choice, whereas once our body starts to fail us, it’s our right and the nation’s obligation to access the best possible repair. But the choice is bogus. A lot of people can’t afford healthy food. Others have never been adequately sensitized to it. Others may wrongly think they’re eating it, not realizing how wretched the choices before us have actually become. It ought to be the shame of the nation, and of all the other developed nations.

Big Brother Scenario

Our city council recently voted down a proposal to ban soft drink sales from vending machines on city property. "It's the Big Brother scenario," said Councilor Doug Ford. "Government knows best, we should tell you what you should be doing, what you should be drinking, because as parent of four girls I don't know.” That’s right, human history teaches us parenthood is a source of infallible wisdom. I’m sure I would have voted for the ban, but frankly, I would have rolled my eyes as I was doing it. We don’t need symbolic gestures that are easy to parody - it’s increasingly clear they only entrench what we’re meant to be fighting against. It might almost be a plot, to make Coke seem like a symbol of defiant individualism.

The food system is so vast, so ever-present, so in-our-faces and down-our-throats, that it’s hard to see it as a construction, to realize how it didn’t have to be this way (and, not that long ago, it wasn’t). Films like Food Inc. and books like Fast Food Nation have ably mapped the landscape, joined now by the French documentary Solutions locales pour un désordre global. It played at the Bell Lightbox recently under the much less evocative title Good Food, Bad Food (apparently imposed by the distributors, to the displeasure of director Coline Serreau), and it’s available on DVD as well as on SuperChannel.

Compared to the much sleeker Food Inc., Serreau’s film has a rough-edged intimacy, fitting to its focus on localization and provocation. She put it like this in a recent Globe and Mail interview: “We have to get out of this system, and profit is not the aim. Ever. It should never be the aim. Period. Profit has nothing to do with happiness. So if food is linked to profit, food is going to be bad.” Through interviews with economists, agronomists, activists and farmers, and trips to farms and collectives all around the world, Serreau persuasively establishes this moral, ideological and nutritional badness. The industrialized food system, while presenting the illusion of plenitude and choice, imposes dull uniformity (so for instance only five mostly-American varieties of apple are generally available in France now, where there used to be hundreds) and crushes local economies; small farmers are increasingly swept up into multinationals which impose on them their chemically deranged techniques, killing the ecosystem and mandating eternal reliance on even more potent chemicals.

Good Food, Bad Food

Serreau’s advocacy is strongly visceral - she forces us to study the soil itself, contrasting the arid dust of ground that’s been over-treated and over-ploughed with a fertile, lumpy, complex mixture that’s been respected and tended. The film equates the industrial war on traditional farming methods with physical violence - various speakers cite the terms “terrorism” and “genocide.” On several occasions, it goes further, stamping it as a specifically masculine violence, destroying the traditional role of women as the “keepers of the seed;” the system renders women as commodities rather than participants, indirectly creating the warped ideologies that lead in some countries to disproportionate abortions of female embryos. This obviously overspills the normal terms of debate on the issue. The film makes no attempt at a mundane notion of balance – there’s no one here to present the “other side.” There are no eye-friendly graphics, no funny archival footage, no shtick. At the same time, some of the issues covered in those other works – such as factory farming, or the industry’s corrupt treatment of its low-paid workers – are mentioned only in passing, if at all. It’s a determined, focused work of advocacy.

Think Big

Serreau (best known, strangely enough, for the popular 1985 comedy 3 hommes et un couffin, remade in Hollywood as Three Men and a Baby) made the revolutionary implications explicit in that same interview. Asked whether her thesis would mean cities have to disperse, she said: “Oh yes. They’re in big danger. Look at the 35 million people in Tokyo. What are they going to do? Right now, they’re in big, big food danger. They have a power danger. Instead of being forced like this, we should just organize it. Because it’s going to happen.” Put tritely then, the strength of Solutions locales pour un désordre global is that it demands we think big. Of course, since we’re mostly incapable of doing that, it’s also the film’s limitation, stamping it as an idealistic thought experiment of the left-wing French bourgeoisie, the kind of thing that – indeed – might play for a week or two at the Lightbox and score itself a minor feature in the Life section, but will barely churn the soil of awareness otherwise. And I don’t suppose it helps that Serreau’s sweeping prescriptions aren’t supported by any detailed suggestions (or barely even vague ones) on how such a drastic dismantling of our current infrastructure might be “just organized.”

Ultimately, it’s not merely about reclaiming our right to grow our own food; the film says we have a duty to do so. The final speaker recalls how the British Empire must have seemed impregnable until Gandhi came along; now, he says, we need a hundred Gandhis. But the metaphor is flawed – it’s not us against the Empire, it’s us against ourselves, but after the Empire has dismantled our faculties, sapped our energies and tied our hands behind our backs. So we just keep swallowing whatever it shoves into our throats. And our politicians and decision-makers, great champions of freedom that they are, just get out of the way.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

2004 Toronto Film Festival Report, Part Five

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in October 2004)

This is the fifth of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 2004 Toronto Film Festival.

Land Of Plenty (Wim Wenders)
“Of all the new German directors,” wrote David Thomson in the late 70’s, “none has Wim Wenders’ rhapsodic sense of America.” And it was true: when I was getting seriously into movies in the early 80’s, Wenders was a unique bridge between two filmmaking worlds. He filmed the dying Nicholas Ray in Lightning Over Water, improvised a film out of almost nothing in The State Of Things, and reached a mythic highpoint in Paris Texas. He even coped serviceably with the impossible weight of Francis Coppola’s Hammett project. After Paris Texas, Wenders reached probably his height of popular acclaim with Wings Of Desire, and yet the concoction of Peter Falk and angels in Berlin always seemed strained. Wenders has never hit his stride again. Films like Until the End Of The World and Lisbon Story and The End Of Violence all have their points of intrigue – and I’m one of the very few people who liked The Million Dollar Hotel - but they’re also frequently grating, willfully posturing; they don’t leave you with a very positive sense of their maker. In the latest edition of his book, Thomson changes that line firmly into the past tense.

Wenders’ new film Land Of Plenty seems to have redeemed his flagging reputation a little, but I must confess I liked it less than any of the films I’ve mentioned. Made cheaply and quickly, it’s his most narratively straightforward work, and sadly his most conceptually negligible. It focuses on a self-styled (Vietnam vet) “operative” who travels around in an old van kitted out with surveillance equipment, gathering information on perceived threats, and on his niece who returns to America after a long period abroad. This set-up is an effective enough medium for debunking the paranoid and xenophobic excesses of the current climate, and for pointing out how this diverts attention from other problems, but this is it seems to me the simplest of projects. That done, in its last few minutes the film takes on a rampant moralizing tone, with the couple visiting Ground Zero while a gratingly insistent song plays on the soundtrack: “May the lights in the land of plenty shine on the truth some day…”

When did Wenders become so damn conventional? The film has some good scenes and asides, and some reasonable black comedy, but it throws out its political insights in the most banal, unnuanced terms (the contrast between America and Israel seems especially unedifying in the light of similar discussions in Godard’s Notre Histoire, also at the festival); it dawdles and repeats itself. I truly do not blame Wenders if he no longer has that rhapsodic sense of America, but the way he triangulates his message here evokes a hackneyed political consultant more than the director he once was.

The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things (Asia Argento)
I must admit to being mildly besotted by Argento, who by virtue of being both a gifted director and actor and also a wildly exotic hot chick embodies some kind of mythical ideal. She’s best known in the West for XXX, but her true high point to date is Scarlet Diva, which she directed and starred in. It’s a scathing piece of self-examination, bleeding both with ego and rampant honesty, which in her case are probably much the same thing. The scene where she smokes a cigarette as she stands naked and shaves her armpits is a classic of sorts.

Her second film as a director is a crazed fantasy of dysfunctional parenting on an almost apocalyptic scale. Argento (with a one of a kind Southern accent) plays the wretched mother, who got pregnant at 15, gave the kid up into care, and through a warped sense of entitlement and bonding reclaims him eight years later (“If my father had let me,” she tells him on their first day together, “you’d long be flushed down some toilet.”) She takes him on the road, as an onlooker to her blurry life of men, drugs, booze, one dive after the other. It’s interrupted for the kid only when she runs out on him for a few years and he’s delivered to his religious-zealot grandparents, who swiftly turn him into a hell and damnation street corner preacher. Then one day she turns up again, snatches him away, and it all resumes, although with increasingly darker undercurrents as the kid gets older, the mother nuttier, and the grind of it just plain eats away at them.

The film has some horrifying child abuse if you take it at face value, but who would ever make such a mistake? Argento here is halfway to Catherine Breillat’s dream woman – an uninhibited purveyor of whatever passes through her head; only halfway though, because she’s also a gift to every muscle-bound buffoon she comes across, the easiest slut you ever saw. The film is surely intensely Freudian, although at times you might suspect the director is actually a meek, good-as-gold daddy’s girl just recycling stuff she’s seen in the movies. Regardless, it’s quite a piece of performance art, expertly executing its trash aesthetic.

Going Upriver: The Long War Of John Kerry (George Butler)
This decent account of Kerry’s Vietnam experience and subsequent antiwar activism can’t help but seem like a campaign commercial given its timing (it opened commercially here a few days after the first Bush-Kerry debate). The film is no kind of radical documentary; it relies on talking heads and on a conventional approach to archival footage. It’s still fascinating though, particularly if you contrast what’s shown of young Kerry’s leadership of the Vietnam Veterans Against The War with his performance in the current race. Even after his consensus victory in that first debate, many pointed out that he was short on what the first President Bush called the “vision thing,” giving answers based mainly on rational, incremental thought processes. But in some of the footage here his language positively rings out. He’s still a rather opaque figure overall though. Someone in the film says that opposing the war at the time seemed like the kiss of death for any subsequent political career, but you sometimes wonder whether Kerry wasn’t a shrewder strategist than anyone realized (shrewder indeed than he’s seemed more recently).

Not that I’m questioning his sincerity, but a film that takes so much for granted can leave some important flanks exposed. Going Upriver isn’t quite a hagiography, but it must be noted the film barely has a word spoken against its subject, whether personally or in questioning the rightness of his stand on Vietnam. Except that is by the Nixon administration: Charles Colson is quoted as saying they “must destroy the young demagogue before he becomes another Ralph Nader.” Given how Kerry’s destiny now may find itself painfully linked to arch-spoiler Nader, it’s a startling example of the tiny diameter of political circles.

Around the world

Susanne Bier’s Danish film In a Better World won this year’s Oscar for best foreign language film; it exhibits the same general limitations as most recent winners of that historically lamentable award, but it’s still more provocative and rewarding than most of them. The film focuses primarily on two boys: Christian returns from London to his native Denmark after his mother dies of cancer, and makes friends with Elias, the constant target of local bullies. Christian rapidly becomes Elias’ protector, and the two become friends, but Christian’s steely insistence on settling scores (the original title translates as Revenge) puts the two in moral if not physical jeopardy. Elias’ parents are both doctors, and his father frequently works in Africa, encountering his own ethical challenge when a barbarous local criminal insists on treatment.

In a Better World

Although it’s not the most elevated reference point, the basic experience of watching the film often isn’t so far from one of those devil-child movies like The Omen or Orphan; Christian is clearly headed somewhere horrible, and you cringe at the prospect of it. But he’s not a devil-child – he’s a grieving boy, unable to process his loss and everything that surrounded it. Christian’s father is a secondary character in Bier’s scheme of things, but very moving in his incomprehension of how things came to this; the movie couldn’t be remotely as gripping and satisfying, if it didn’t evoke underlying emotions and needs so carefully and fully.

Bier’s underlying plan, I think, is to set up three convenient hate objects – a schoolyard bully, a hotheaded local mechanic, and the African murderer – and to lure us into longing for their come-uppance while also forcing us to confront the dangers of such a visceral response. In that sense it’s vaguely aligned with Michael Haneke works like Funny Games, which push us to critique how violence operates on the viewer. But Bier doesn’t want merely to muse about the apparatus of cinema – she’s aiming for the wrenching social questions. The logic of an eye for an eye ends up merely in blinding the world, but there’s surely a concept of justifiable force, without which we merely surrender to the cruel whims of the monsters among us (she might have been thinking of Obama’s speech when he accepted his Nobel Peace Prize, to me a series of declarations that might have made sense if we were staring down Hitler, but merely seemed grotesque and self-serving when applied to America’s wretched current endeavours). The African butcher is an extreme example of that calculus, roughly representing the fraught question of Western responsibility toward atrocities in Rwanda, or escalating risks in Libya, and so on. Bier more or less abandons that narrative though just when you might have thought it was getting interesting, which might strike you as downright strange; perhaps her thought is that we can’t hope to adequately assess such global challenges unless we put things right at home.

Susanne Bier

The film has little in the way of provocative thinking on the domestic front though, and if it did have any, it wouldn’t likely survive a series of closing scenes that sweep numerous narrative and moral strands under the table to emphasize forgiveness and reconciliation. Still, I don’t suppose we should need the input of another movie to inform our meditations on the topic. Bier likes to intertwine the personal and political – her After the Wedding contrasted aid work in India with an even more convoluted domestic melodrama. She always seemed temperamentally suited to the “prestige” end of Hollywood moviemaking, and tried her luck there a few years ago with Things we Lost in the Fire. That film seemed conceived largely in soapy terms, but Bier’s close-up conviction made it intriguing and affecting, and she certainly made the most of Benicio del Toro; actually I’m not sure if any of his more famous performances have tapped his fascinating depths as skillfully.

Also, her earlier film Brothers was remade in America by another director, and the contrast between the two tells you a lot about Bier’s greater intuition and refinement. Overall, In a Better World is a solid work for sure, but – particularly if compared to the Greek film Dogtooth, which was also (if improbably) nominated this year – it’s hardly a worthy standard-bearer for the diverse capacity of world cinema.

When We Leave

Two other pictures which recently played at the Bell Lightbox are already out on DVD, as well as playing periodically on SuperChannel. When We Leave, directed by Feo Aladag, is about a young Turkish mother who leaves her abusive husband and returns with her son to her own family, living in Germany; while she attempts to establish a relatively modern, self-determined life, they see her as a source of shame, and plot to snatch her child away. The film makes your blood boil even if it relies on familiar mechanisms, in particular the contrast between the poor woman with her modest desire for normality and the recurring brutishness, or at least small-mindedness, of most of the men around her. But ultimately, unfortunately, the predictable narrative devices and largely conventional tone make it feel contrived and unrepresentative (whether or not it actually is those things); viewers predisposed against Muslim culture - or indeed, against the whole broad notion of preserving one’s own culture in an adopted land - will find plenty to latch onto here. I’m not saying that necessarily makes the film illegitimate, but it certainly limits it.

Daniele Luchetti’s My Brother is an Only Child was an interesting if not-very-probing drama from a few years ago, blending together a standard brotherly love/hate thing with an easy-to-take distillation of Italy’s evolving politics. Luchetti’s new film La nostra vita is less interesting, and weirdly unprobing. A construction contractor loses his wife in childbirth, leaving him with a new baby and two other boys; his big project is going badly, and he only got the project by exploiting a grim secret which can’t stay buried (literally, actually) forever. That should be enough of a plot for any film, but Luchetti seems to steer away from any narrative heavy lifting; the film erects a nice façade, then runs for cover as if knowing it would never get past the building inspectors. When I saw the earlier film, I made a note that lead actor Elio Germano seemed to be channeling De Niro; well, if that’s true for his work this time round, I guess I would have to mean one of those bland, emotionally remote (in a way that fails to provide a perspective on emotional remoteness) latter-day De Niro roles. And yet, for this Germano won the Cannes best actor prize - shared with Javier Bardem for Biutiful. Well, as we’ve established, you can’t put your faith in awards.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

2004 Toronto Film Festival Report, Part Four

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in October 2004)

Clean (Olivier Assayas)
Assayas’ last film, the 2002 Demonlover, played at the Cinematheque earlier this year after a long delay. It’s an amazing creation, straining what you’d think would be the edges of someone’s creative prowess. The first half is a precise, superbly executed drama of high finance (perhaps the best since Alan Pakula’s Rollover); the second half deliberately sheds all coherence, taking on the dream logic of a David Lynch film as alliances and understandings persistently redefine themselves. The film exhibits a cacophony of interests and influences, all spinning off the cultural, personal and sexual perils of high-tech globalization, opening up unimaginable wells of neurosis. The film’s visual precision evokes Bresson at times, reminding me that I saw Assayas at the festival some years ago introducing Bresson’s L’Argent in the “Dialogues” series.

Assayas has made several other great movies too, none of them as well known as they should be. Irma Vep, in particular, is a gorgeous essay on making movies. Assayas’ married that film’s star Maggie Cheung (watching the sequences where she prowls around in her black leather bodysuit, you feel that just about anyone in the world would have wanted to marry her) but they divorced after a few years. Now they’ve made another film together, Clean, and it’s tempting (although I know fanciful) to think there might be some commentary on their relationship in there somewhere.

The movie begins with a shot of the industrial landscape of (of all places) Hamilton, and ends with another landscape, much softer and more scenic, across the San Francisco Bay – knowing what we do about Hamilton, it’s appealing to see this as a handy encapsulation of the film’s journey from the lower depths back up to redemption. Actually, the Hamilton scenes may provide some of the most strangely beautiful architectural compositions since Antonioni. But the very use of Hamilton gives you an example of how Assayas looks in places other filmmakers (even Canadian filmmakers, let alone French ones) don’t think of. His film embraces relatively straightforward material – it’s a much simpler plot than Demonlover – while idiosyncratically ventilating and shaping it at every turn. The locations (which also include Vancouver, Paris and London) never seem like globetrotting for its own sake, but rather as an expression of the multiplicity of modern existence.

Maggie Cheung plays an addicted musician whose husband (also an addicted musician) overdoses in Hamilton; she does six months for possession, then moves to Paris to rebuild her life, always dreaming of repairing her broken relationship with her son, who’s in Vancouver with his grandparents (the grandfather is played by Nick Nolte, with remarkable tenderness). Cheung never seems to entirely fit in, no matter where she is (least of all when she briefly takes a job at a Chinese restaurant), and the rootlessness at the film’s centre is augmented by any number of conversations about differing perceptions. The film never loses its basic forward momentum, but peppers its fabric with odd digressions and characters that aren’t integrated into the whole (in particular, a long section built around a glossy feud between two female lovers). It drags at times, but on the whole it’s a highly intriguing experiment, a worthy follow-up to Demonlover, and a major revitalization of a clapped-out concept.

Anatomie de l’enfer (Catherine Breillat)
The program book quotes Breillat as follows: “There are, every time, only two possibilities. Either we talk about it, try to understand, and abolish; or we respect and live in absolute denial…” This presumably explains something about Breillat’s rigorous (detractors would say obsessive and morbid) preoccupation with female sexuality, but of course cannot explain all of it – we’re defined by the choices we make, and the time we spend on one battleground means that we decline the battles elsewhere. And the clearly declining cachet of Breillat’s work (not to mention the intractable nature of the subject) entails that the warrior gradually appears more neurotic than brave. Having said all that, I like her films much more than not. A ma soeur (which caused a stir in Ontario when it was originally banned from release under the title of Fat Girl) was a masterpiece - more cunning and insinuating than her best-known film Romance, with several sequences that perfectly fulfill the director’s clinical interest in the mechanics of sexual politics. The film’s major impact comes in the startling finale - a moment brilliantly gripped in ambiguity and contradiction, a microcosm of Breillat’s cinema.

Her most recent film Sex Is Comedy (depicting the fictionalized story behind the filming of the most controversial sequence from A ma soeur) was relatively light and whimsical by her standards, and never received a commercial release. But Anatomy Of Hell is back to full-bore Breillat. At the start, a young woman wanders distraught through a gay nightclub. She enters the washroom, where she slits her wrists with a razor. A man she brushed against on the stairs comes in after her. “Why did you do that?” he asks. She replies: “Because I’m a woman.” How could this be a film by anyone else?

Eventually the woman pays the man to come every night and watch her – to see her as she cannot see herself. He soon exceeds his mandate as mere voyeur – the woman is mainly passive, as he prowls around her, figuratively and literally probing her identity. The film becomes a tactile and somewhat explicit dialogue, primarily and specifically on female genitalia – their appearance, function, symbolic impact – and on menstrual blood. The film is thus frequently more medical than it is erotic. It’s suffused in expressions of disgust or ambiguity – the blood stains and repels, but its avoidance perpetrates a lie (at one point she speaks out against the abomination of tampons). The only true path is to assimilate all indices of womanhood and cleaned-up soft-focus deceptions. She asks if she should have shaved her armpits; he says there would be no point, for the skin would still be as bumpy and repellent, like a frog (“except that at least frogs have the decency to be green”). “The lie about the softness of women,” he says, “is hateful.”

The film takes place in a large remote house that resembles a theatrical set. When it’s over, the film stays with the man rather than the woman, watching him work through his reaction. But Breillat herself speaks his words on the voiceover, so the appearance of a male perspective is illusionary. In fact both characters are little more than ciphers or symbolic devices, but then the director isn’t aiming for psychological plausibility – it’s plainly a polemical work, a Fahrenheit 911 for below the female belt. Is it a good film? Frankly, I don’t know. It surely achieves Breillat’s purpose – it talks and promotes understanding. Abolition, I fear, will have to wait.

Finding Frishberg

Almost thirty years ago now, I was watching late night British TV (at a time when this meant not watching much at all) and came across a recording from Wales’ Brecon Jazz festival, featuring an American singer-songwriter-piano player called Dave Frishberg. I’m not a particular jazz fan, but something about Frishberg blew me away: his material was quirky and literate and cool, and his croaky/mellow delivery was full of flavour. I rapidly bought all the Frishberg recordings I could find (in those pre-Internet days, this didn’t mean much either) and ever since then, I’ve listened to his work just about more than to anyone else’s. His name seldom comes up in mainstream conversation – frankly, no one I mention him to has ever heard of him – but I’m hardly the only Frishberg freak either: as his website recounts, The New York Times described him as "the Stephen Sondheim of jazz songwriting", and The London Daily Telegraph called him "a Woody Allen of song".

At Hugh’s Room!

It’s been one of my longest-held ambitions to see him perform live, but it’s not easy. He turns up in New York every few years, but I’d only ever find out about it when it was unfeasible to get down there. He now lives in Portland, and performs more often in that part of the world; I’ve considered building a trip to Oregon around a Frishberg performance, but the plan’s never coalesced. Anyway, Frishberg is 78 now, and I’d reconciled myself to never seeing him. I still mentioned it once in a while though, most recently just a few weeks ago when we saw Randy Newman perform here in Toronto. Newman’s another terrific musician, with a fabulously varied songbook and a gorgeously caustic style, and it occurred to me while watching him how much he has in common with Frishberg. But, I said, I know I’ll never get to see him.

So on Sunday April 3rd I was leafing through the Sunday Star, and I happened to look at an ad for Hugh’s Room on Dundas West and Roncesvalles, and it said Dave Frishberg was performing there the following day. And I was shocked of course, in a way I think that impeded my ability to react. I checked the website and it said it was standing room only (obviously I’ve been making a mistake not monitoring Hugh’s Room, a place I’d never been to and was only dimly aware of), and I sort of thought, well, it probably won’t work then. I knew my wife wouldn’t be able to go with me, and in my stunned state I wrote it off. But then the next day I called the place for more information, and then I decided to go as long as this one friend of mine, who I thought would appreciate Frishberg more than most, was available to go with me. But he wasn’t, so I wrote off the idea again. Except of course I didn’t; as the time drew closer, I snapped into action, jumped into a cab and headed over there.

Shaking his hand

And of course all my uncertainty was nonsensical – standing room only or not, I was able to sit myself at the back on a barstool in a nice little spot with a perfect eye-line, and I didn’t mind being by myself at all. Especially because, during the intermission, Frishberg came to talk to someone in my vicinity, and I was able to shake his hand as he passed by. He performed just about all the songs I would have wanted (a couple of them were also on the program for that long-ago appearance in Wales, and of course I’ve heard them countless times since) and it was profoundly satisfying as few things can be. I don’t think about the past a lot – I have ambitions and wishes of course, but they come out of who I am now, not who I was then. But I’ve always had a proprietary feeling about Frishberg, as if he were a quasi-secret resource who somehow helped me get from there to here. So the evening had a deep sense of confirmation, if not quite of closure.

To tell you the truth, I think the years are catching up with my hero a bit. I’ve literally never heard a performance with so many missed notes, forgotten or flubbed lyrics, and several instances of having to start over. I have several Frishberg live albums, and his performances there seem effortlessly well-controlled; in Toronto, he occasionally seemed challenged even to make it to the end of the song. Which was a little poignant of course, but then as I said, he’s 78. It was a long road to that handshake.

What Now, Little Man?

Writing this four days later, I still feel in a way as if I were sitting on that barstool. Obviously, I have Frishberg songs playing in rotation in my head. But I’ve also been dogged since then by a certain eeriness. I’m not sure I have any ambitions, not serious ones anyway, that predate my ambition of seeing Dave Frishberg. I’ve been lucky – I’ve visited most of the places I wanted to, all else in life is good. A disproportionate number of my wish-list relates to movies I want to see, but over the past few years, with the technology explosion, I’ve cleared off a huge chunk of those too, and there’s not much urgency attaching to those that remain. Since watching Dave Frishberg, I’ve been dogged by the sense that I might find myself stagnating. What now could ever have the same effect as that late night program, triggering a thirty-year desire? Honestly, I can’t think of anything that would grab me the same way, and if it did, well, this is the age of access and connectivity; why would I wait thirty years, unless I was consciously depriving myself, which would merely be contrived?

No doubt, this is a literary-sounding conceit, the kind of thing that might occupy and lead astray the protagonist of a novel, but which only emerges to the surface of real life when you have too much time on your hands. But then, I reflect, it’s not really about ambitions, or the passage of time. It’s about how art and artists create narratives for our lives; they create for us a mental architecture we could never have created for myself. I could never define how, but I’m quite sure that if I’d never heard of Dave Frishberg, my mind would be somehow different, in a worse way. If that’s not an operating definition of a hero, I don’t know what is.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

2004 Toronto Film Festival Report, Part Three

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in September 2004)

This is the third of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 2004 Toronto Film Festival.

Silver City (John Sayles)
John Sayles’ reputation is getting a little shaky. His dedication to doing the films he wants to do can’t be in any doubt, and the scope of his interests is impressive, but approval for his recent films has been fitful. I thought Limbo was interesting for the way it digressed from Alaskan politics into existentialism, but the film could be regarded as merely incoherent. Sunshine State was a little flat, although it’s possible that this was part of Sayles’ commentary on Florida. Casa de Los Babys seemed abstracted and impressionistic. Through all of this the rap has often been that he lacks artistic vision, that his writing is increasingly pedantic. He certainly seems like something less than a truly great American director; he has the organization and the commitment, but compared to Robert Altman (who’s often worked in a broadly similar vein) he doesn’t have the occasionally inspired idiosyncrasy or the depth of feeling for messy personality.

Silver City only confirms these reservations. Already in commercial release, its main selling point is Chris Cooper as an airhead son of privilege running for governor of Colorado. Cooper’s hilariously inane speeches evoke you-know-who to a T, but this already shows you the film’s limitations, because it seems not to comprehend the calculation that lies beneath the real W’s buffoonery. Around this, Sayles builds a vaguely Chinatown-ish plot of hypocrisy and corruption involving an abandoned mine and a land deal. But where Chinatown was allusive and genuinely intricate, fluently fusing personal and political decay into a seamless web, Silver City plods from one thing to the other, never finding much buoyancy or coherence. It does make an important point, about the immense shallowness of the right’s homeland-embracing rhetoric. But if you share its views then the film merely states the obvious; if you don’t, it’s easily dismissible as a contrivance.

There’s no sign here of the ethereal tendencies of Limbo or Casa, and the film’s general washed-out inertia could be taken as an expression of the deadened self-satisfaction of power. But it might as easily denote a director who underestimates the audience’s sophistication and overvalues his own insight. Sayles’ trek through America is in danger of becoming downright boring

Kung Fu Hustle (Stephen Chow)
Getting into this film was like going through an airport – Chow’s last film Shaolin Soccer was real big with the pirates, and Columbia Pictures is evidently determined not to have the same thing happen again. All through the film, I’d swear a woman with an infrared detector thing had it pointed at my face, especially when I took an occasional – no doubt suspicious – sip of coffee. Early on I wondered if the film would be worth the trouble – I only went to see it because it fitted into an open time slot. But it’s unquestionably fun. The movie is indeed just one big kung fu hustle, just bang bang bang from beginning to end, crammed with balletic action, mysticism, good vs. evil showdowns, and so forth.

It’s crammed with movie references – Raiders Of The Lost Ark, The Shining, Sergio Leone, Jackie Chan, probably a hundred Asian movies I don’t know (apparently it’s a homage to the Shaw Brothers movies, which I’m not sure I’ve ever seen), and most prominently The Matrix. Indeed, it would almost be conceivable that the entire project is at its heart a debunking of that film and its pretentious sequels. It has an overload of digital effects, some funny (if generally obvious character business, and the most unorthodox villains since Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. If you pine for the choreography and sweep of the classic Hollywood musical, this is probably the genre that now comes closest to providing it. Even so, I'll never be a major aficionado of this kind of stuff – it’s too hermetic ever to be more than the candy you take between main meals. But in this case at least I can see why the pirates might be straining to get their hands on it.

5 X 2 – Cinq Fois Deux (Francois Ozon)
Pedro Almodovar (whose new film Bad Education I’ll review in a few weeks) is currently at the top of the heap of European directors, but Francois Ozon seems to have aspirations to push him aside, and could make it soon. Almodovar has been honing a specific affinity for lush stylization and hall of mirrors narrative, but Ozon is much more 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 of a piece, held together by a wry skepticism at bourgeois assumptions.

I think 5 X 2 may be his best film, although in some ways it’s his least surprising. It’s the story of a relationship told in five sequences, from their initial connection at a beach resort to the signing of the divorce papers. The film’s structural innovation – recently somewhat familiar from Memento and Irreversible – is that the sequences run in reverse order. The tone is calm and penetrating – it’s a tone familiar from observational European cinema. The film’s intrigue is in Ozon’s near-incredulity at the possibility that such relationships might exist at all, and how he consequently renders events calmly but ineluctably strange.

For example, after the divorce papers are signed, they arrange to sleep together again; she changes her mind, but he rapes her. On their wedding night he falls asleep too quickly, so she goes outside and meets another man, whom she has sex with. On the day their son is born, he simply disappears. The film’s expressions of “I love you” are intimately linked to these moments – they all seem like defensive movements in the wake of a transgression. The title clearly sounds more geometric than thematic, and I think this reflects Ozon’s beguilement at the very structure of relationships. The film’s backward trajectory seems to suggest his doubt at our tired paradigms by which they’re kindled, grow, wither and die.

The most explicit challenge to this structure within the film comes from the man’s gay brother, who has an open relationship with his latest boyfriend. Ozon is also gay, and 5 X 2 may provide the festival’s most astringent gay perspective on a predominantly straight world (Bad Education looks merely gauche by comparison). But like everything in the film, this is allusive rather than explicit. Overall, 5 X 2 is immaculately well played by the two actors, and I found it completely mesmerizing. It’s a miracle of utterly fresh coordinates planted in familiar territory, without apparent strain.

Kiarostami in Italy

I can still remember the excitement I felt on seeing my first Abbas Kiarostami film, Where is the Friend’s House, some thirteen years ago (I’m not sure, but I think it was also my first Iranian film). It’s set in the remote area of Koker, and has little plot; I couldn’t figure out to what degree I was watching documentary versus fiction, nor to what extent the film (which is often quite funny in what we might term a deadpan way) was tapping natural rhythms of local behavior versus creating a heightened reality. It’s part of Kiarostami’s intrigue and value that after watching many more of his films since then, these questions remain unresolved in my mind.

Kiarostami’s progress

He won the top prize at Cannes in 1999 for A Taste of Cherry, but spent most of the last decade in a more experimental vein. I think I last addressed him here in 2004, when I saw two of his works, 10 on Ten and Five, at the film festival. The first is a series of unsurprising commentaries on filmmaking; the second consists of five long takes, taken close to the Caspian shoreline. In the program book, Kiarostami said of Five: “It is as if I recited a poem which had already been written. Everything already exists…I simply observed it.” But I couldn’t help questioning whether this achievement seemed worthy of a man often hailed by then as one of the greatest living filmmakers, and I concluded: “It would not take much to read 10 on Ten and Five, taken in combination, as symptoms of a director in crisis – first a little too stridently asserting his relevance, then seeking to deny it altogether.”

Since then I haven’t thought too much about Kiarostami. He contributed an Italian-shot episode to a three-part film called Tickets; it rattled along very entertainingly, but I doubt anyone not forewarned could have identified it as his work. I didn’t see his last film Shirin, which reportedly consists of shots of over a hundred women in a theatre audience watching a film, all of them Iranian except for…Juliette Binoche. She’s also the star of his return to full-length narrative filmmaking, Certified Copy, which is now playing here. She plays an unnamed woman, running an antique store in a small Italian town and raising her son. William Shimell (an opera singer making his acting debut) plays James, an art critic, giving a presentation on his new book Certified Copy at the local university; she leaves him a note and he visits her store, suggesting they take a drive together. Their interaction is rather spiky – she doesn’t actually think much of his ideas overall – but when they stop for a coffee and James steps outside to take a call, the café owner takes them for a married couple, and Binoche’s character plays along. She tells him about it afterwards; gradually they start to talk as if they are indeed married, with this being their 15th wedding anniversary, and with all the problems in their relationship coming to the surface.

Certified Copy

The film might be seen as a cross of sorts between Luis Bunuel and Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise (Kiarostami emphasizes the debt to Bunuel by casting his frequent scriptwriting collaborator as a fatherly passer-by in one scene). Like the latter, it consists mainly of two people talking in handsome settings, with lots of incidental pleasures along the way. But it also has elements of late Bunuel, particularly perhaps of his last film That Obscure Object of Desire, where the woman who torments the male protagonist was played in some scenes by one actress, in other scenes by another. Scene by scene, Certified Copy feels naturalistic, but ultimately it can’t be understood in realistic terms; you could see it as a symbolic narrative of transmigration perhaps, or else as an aesthetic creation lying outside the normal motivations and rationalizations of narrative cinema.

James’ book and his opening remarks address the relationship between originals and copies, arguing for a shift of value toward reproductions and representations. In a recent interview, Kiarostami summed up his intention as follows: “What the film is saying overall is not fundamentally about the history of art. Rather it is saying that the notion of owning an original is a notion that can harm your life. Ordinarily, all couples, all people, are looking for an original, for something exceptional…(but) there’s a poem by Rumi that says: If you look at a div (a horned Iranian mythic monster) with grace in your gaze, you can see it as an angel. Hence everything goes back to our gaze. Everything goes back to you and to the way you look. This is what the film is trying to say.”

Looked at this way, the film’s warnings against a fixation on originals become a caution on retaining a sense of perspective and possibility and remembering that life is what we make of it. In the last shot, James uses the bathroom and looks at his reflection, with us in the audience in the position of the mirror; earlier on we’ve watched the woman in the same way when she leaves the table in a restaurant to apply lipstick and put on earrings. These moments, I think, mean to establish the power of the gaze that Kiarostami talks about, in a sense to lay down our responsibility for these characters. There’s a directness to it that almost reminds me of Hitchcock’s Vertigo, another ravishing tale of uncertain identities (Certified Copy also put various reviewers in mind of Antonioni, Resnais, and Rossellini, among others).

Among the Greatest?

Its great strength, I think, is that it never feels like merely a film of ideas. It’s full of little details and oddities and felicities of observation, benefiting throughout from a productive contrast in acting styles (Binoche won best actress at Cannes; Shimell on the other hand was hammered by some critics, quite unfairly I think). I have no hesitation at all in recommending the film, and if that “crisis” of Kiarostami’s that I talked about ever actually existed, it certainly seems to be over now.

But I still can’t bring myself to rate him as one of the greatest filmmakers. Saying “that the notion of owning an original is a notion that can harm your life” frankly doesn’t seem to me to be saying all that much, and the ideas James expresses often seem trite, or at least under-developed. The film, it seems to me, is smart more than it is wise; you admire its tactics more than its vision. Because the truth is, everything doesn’t go back to you and to the way you look; life holds far more constraints and tensions than that. Of course, as an Iranian filmmaker, Kiarostami knows this more vividly than most of us. That doesn’t imply a responsibility to spend his entire career illuminating his homeland, of course, but there’s not much doubt he was more valuable and original when he did.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

2004 Toronto Film Festival Report, Part Two

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in September 2004)

This is the second of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 2004 Toronto Film Festival.

I Heart Huckabees (David O. Russell)
David O. Russell hit it big in 1999 with Three Kings, and now he returns with a film that looks like it might indeed reflect five years’ worth of deliberation, but much less inspiration. On paper it sounds terrific – a dissatisfied young man hires an “existential detective agency” to investigate the source of his troubles. It stars Dustin Hoffman, Lily Tomlin, Jude Law, Naomi Watts and Mark Wahlberg. The movie has more structure than four ordinary movies combined (it plays the “detective” angle fairly straight, with revelations and connections piling up like an LSD version of Chinatown); countless twists and turns, satirical jabs at just about everything (although the main target seems to be corporate cynicism and how it appropriates and bastardizes idealism); dollops of visual gimmickry and non-stop clever dialogue – characters throw theories of connection vs. randomness at each other as though they were arguing about who should take out the garbage. It can’t help but make you think here and there – take a moment to muse about how “there is no remainder in the mathematics of infinity.”

There are some good scenes – I enjoyed the dinner scene with the hypocritical Christians who’ve adopted the Sudanese orphan (I won’t try to explain); and Jason Schwartzman and Isabelle Huppert dipping each other’s heads in the mud (ditto). But it’s persistently monotonous and tedious, it’s too earnest (“I really do spend most of my time thinking about these issues,” said Russell in a recent interview), most of the cast seems off its game, and its energy becomes merely hermetic. And once you remember that Woody Allen and Monty Python (and a hundred others for all I know) had essays or sketches on similar themes, even the film’s frail novelty seems to evaporate.

I thought Three Kings overreached as well, but the film’s politics probably bought it a lot of slack. It’s been reported that Russell recently made an anti-war documentary for the film’s DVD release, but is having difficulty getting it past the studio. Maybe this will goad him into making a next film with more focus and bite. The current movie will appeal to student-types who think words like “nihilism” are automatically funny, but surely not to much of anyone else. And the ultimate revelation – that the truth lies in forging a middle way between extremes – isn’t exactly revolutionary.

Notre Musique (Jean-Luc Godard)
I wonder how many reviewers and critics now are up to the task of commenting other than impressionistically on Godard’s films. This wasn’t such a problem for the early Godard – watching Contempt or Bande a Part, one might stumble over (or even daydream through) a few lines, but the films provided enough narrative coherence and sensual pleasure that even an unskilled theorist could engage loosely with the films’ feverish experimentation. This balance tipped long ago though, and Godard’s work for the last thirty years has been clearly “difficult” in varying degrees. It’s not that he rejects the visceral possibilities of cinema; on the contrary, no director seems as fascinated by the medium’s raw material; by the possibilities of sound and image – even now, his work exudes an almost childlike delight at times. But where such delight leads a mainstream director to make E.T. or Shrek, Godard sees shame at squandered opportunity; the danger in his devotion is that almost all subjects strike him as unworthy of the medium. In the late 60’s, radical politics occupied him, and in the 70’s and 80’s he seemed as fascinated for a while by the politics of the family. The shifting intercourse between cinema and other arts has been a recurrent focus of investigation. He realizes that cinema will fail if it ignores terrorism and imperialism. But his primary subject has been the medium itself, and with an increasingly morbid subtext that strikes many as gathering neurosis and eccentricity.

His last film Eloge De L’Amour played at the 2001 festival, and defeated me completely -I had to consult various sources to construct even the basics of what was going on. Its most accessible moments are based plainly in cinematic reference – such as the girl who comes to the door to collect money to dub The Matrix into Breton, or the potshots at Steven Spielberg. Still, the film confirms how every image of Godard’s is anchored in word and culture and history and in the possibility of other images that might have been used in its place. And in asserting that the measure of love is to love without measure, it reminds us of Godard’s enormous accumulated legacy, a legacy that somehow seems to weigh heavily on him.

David Thomson speculated as follows: “He is the first director, the first great director, who does not seem to be a human being. It was the discovery that he loved Anna Karina (his first wife, and frequent star of his early films) more in moving images than in life that may have broken their marriage.” This surely misses the romanticism in Godard’s work, and the speculation is trite. But it’s appealing to suppose that Godard’s life must be simpler than his art.

Notre Musique now presents a Godard that is more a human being than ever, and the film is his most accessible in a long time. I wonder if it’s coincidental that it’s far less about cinema itself than most of his recent works. His preoccupation here is war, laid out at the start of the film in a magnificent montage of battle and suffering that covers (via old Hollywood footage) almost the entire span of human history. The film then moves to Sarajevo, where Godard plays himself, attending a conference on text and image. The film follows other conversations, other encounters, all in some way levered on discussions of war, on the premise that “more than ever, we’re faced with the void.” Ambiguity flows from the film in waves – for example on the tortured relationship of Israel and Palestine, in which Israel brings the other both defeat and renown. At least Bosnia, says an Israeli journalist, is “a place where reconciliation seems possible.”

In his conference address, Godard (through images from Hawks’ His Girl Friday, of all things), suggests that film may not adequately differentiate between men and women, and from this extrapolates its failure at illuminating war: images from different conflicts betray similar configurations and compositions, and thus a distinct trauma becomes indistinguishable from all the others, with our sympathy for and understanding of their specific pain correspondingly dwindling. It’s a failure of human capacity as much as one of cinema, and the film can suggest no answer to it. It ends on a note of regeneration, but its overall impression is distinctly wintry. Godard himself has never seemed so, well, kindly, as if disinclined now to hector or bombard us. Which means the film communicates a certain despairing stasis. But if it’s a monolith, it’s a singularly beautiful one.

On Stage

Simon Heffer, a cultural columnist for Britain’s Telegraph newspaper, recently wrote this: “All of us have cultural blind spots, and mine is the theatre...I have never been able to understand why I have this difficulty. I am almost obsessed with films, so it is not the idea of drama, or of actors, that holds me back. Perhaps it is that watching a film, or a play on television, puts what is for me an essential distance between the drama and the audience. When I have been to the theatre – which is less and less as I get older – my first reaction, whatever I am watching, is to find it absurd. I cannot suspend disbelief, which is something one does not need to do when watching a film: one is not in the same physical space as the actors. I also find it rather bizarre to be in a confined space with hundreds of other people who can suspend their disbelief, as the only one who can’t. I am not proud of this limitation. But it is how things are.”

Suspending disbelief

I might have said something similar at one time – five or ten years went by without my going to live theatre. But that ended some twenty years ago, and since then it’s been a crucial part of my agenda – I perhaps go once a month or so on average. Heffer’s reservations are far removed then from my own perspective, but funnily enough, they provide a way of explaining why I think theatre appeals to me so much. I can’t suspend disbelief either – but that seems to me the point. It’s not that you sit within a few feet of two actors and in any sense “believe” their conversation to be taking place, say, half a continent away and half a century ago. If it works (and through the craftsmanship of all involved, it usually does), you do indeed see and sense a space where none exists, but you oscillate between immersion in this imagined reality and a delight in the intertwined processes that power this imagination. In simpler terms, if you suspended disbelief you wouldn’t be alive to the acting as acting, to the subtleties of writing and staging and lighting. Appreciating theatre demands not suspending your disbelief, but rather productively investing it.

I don’t see cinema in quite the same way as Heffer either. Certainly, it’s easy to be seduced by the seamless flow of narrative cinema; not solely through the physical distance from the actors (I suspect Heffer gets very nervous when someone stands too close to him on the bus) but through the deployment of editing and montage and other tools to position you in its constructed reality. But while that can provide a great way of killing two hours, I don’t think it sums up the best of cinema. Indeed, the ease of surrendering your faculties, of just being carried along, can serve as a trap, ensuring that we’re willing suckers for whatever glitzy contraption the Hollywood machine is dangling before us this weekend. Cinema inherently has that “essential distance” from us, but the best films demand that we use our own sensitivity and intellect and morality to partly close that gap; the more it closes, you might say in general terms, the more profound the thrill.

Around a Small Mountain

Some directors use theatre as a recurring subject in their films, most prominently Jacques Rivette, one of my all-time favourites. When I wrote about Celine and Julie Go Boating here last year, I said the film “critiques the conventions that restrict cinema, and that therefore restrict all of us who value it” – in contrast, his films have frequently referred to theatre as a source of relative freedom. Since then I’ve seen Rivette’s most recent film Around a Small Mountain, now out on DVD - with the director now in his late 80’s, they say it may be his last work. A beautiful, conscious-enhancing miniature, it’s about a modern-day traveling circus of sorts; a stranger suspends his trans-Europe car journey to revisit the show from night to night and to engage with the performers, focusing in particular on the past trauma that continues to weigh on one of them - in the end, the circus ring itself provides the means of resolving her issues. Rivette’s adoration of cinema seems clearer than ever – he ends for instance on a ravishing shot of the landscape – and yet the film warns against that danger I mentioned, of benign passivity in the face of polished but hermetic creativity. The use of a circus, of course, suggests that perhaps this involves no more than reclaiming what we knew as children.

And then last week I went to the hottest current show in Toronto, Billy Elliot, widely regarded as one of the best of recent musicals. I’d already seen the show in London a few years ago, and recall being impressed by its showmanship, particularly in the contrast between a very muscular portrayal of the showdown between striking miners and the police, and the delicacy of the young boy who finds his creative soul within all of this. The Toronto production is a bit wan by comparison. The boys playing Billy are customarily acclaimed, but the individual on the night I attended (three of them rotate the role) seemed much more a technician than an actor, letting much of the role’s emotion fritter away. The miserable plight of the miners inevitably carries less charge at this distance, and that’s even if the play didn’t sweep all seriousness away with a rather ludicrously feel-good finale. Oh, I found it easy to suspend disbelief – I believed completely I was watching something taking place on Mars.

The Fantasticks

Billy Elliot is often most striking at its simplest, when it needs no more than a chair and a dance and some artful lighting: at regular intervals though, it resorts to the almost tiresome if foolproof device of filling the stage full of people singing something suitably anthemic. I much preferred Soulpepper’s current production of The Fantasticks, which has only a handful of performers and virtually no props or scenery, but at various times bewitches you into perceiving a wall that isn’t there, or into seeing a ladder as a tree, or in accepting you might look out from that tree and attain near-cosmic vision; even better, it ultimately taps much more complex emotions than initially seems likely. Now that’s the kind of theatre I’m talking about. And where Billy Elliot has a full-blown orchestra, The Fantasticks has just a pianist and a harpist, both in full view at the side of the stage. I was sitting at the front, and at one point (during “I Can See It”) I was so mesmerized by the pianist’s hands that my attention wandered from the stage for a long while. I couldn’t have been any happier, not even if my disbelief had been categorically suspended.