Sunday, June 26, 2011

2004 Toronto Film Festival Report, Part Fourteen

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in December 2004)

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

Bad Education (Pedro Almodovar)
Almodovar stands now at the peak of European cinema in the same way that Fellini, Bergman and Truffaut did in their heydays – like them, he wins Oscars (for both All About my Mother and Talk to Me) and his films attract people who don’t usually go to foreign films. And as with them, of course, there’s bound to be an ongoing debate about whether this preeminence is completely deserved. I wouldn't miss a new Almodovar movie for anything, unless it were a choice between that and a new Rivette, Akerman, Assayas or well, to be honest, quite a few other directors. There’s no Almodovar movie even close to making my DVD-worthy cut. But I confess I’m surprised to find myself writing this, because the recent films have been quite superb. Talk to Me, in particular, is a marvel of outlandish material spun into something rich and meaningful. But its smooth hum evokes a slight concern that Almodovar might be reducing trauma and joy and all else into a generalized benevolence – for now it resembles a philosophical state, but maybe it’s more like the avoidance of one. At the time, I thought the director’s next few films might be critical in establishing his place in the ultimate pantheon.

Sad to report then that Bad Education left me utterly cold. It’s another hall of mirrors plot with flashbacks within flashbacks and multi-layered motivations, all set out in the usual sumptuous gay milieu, but on this connection failing to forge any kind of emotional or thematic connection. The credit sequences feel like 60’s Hitchcock, and there are moments in the film that strongly evoke that director’s use of women (this being Almodovar, they’re enacted by a man in drag). More generally, the film is a kitsch film noir, with some minor Spanish social history as flavouring. I confess though that I make these observations as I might list the attributes of a pearl-bedecked ostrich – perhaps interesting on some hypothetical level, but not of much relevance to anything that’s going on today.

The plot has Gael Garcia Bernal as a struggling actor who brings a story to a famous director he knew in school – it recalls their treatment by a corrupt, molesting priest, with a layered-on epilogue of come-uppance. The director decides to make a movie out of it, hires the actor as the lead; then the priest (now a book publisher) turns up as well, with a different version of things. I confess that after a while I was drifting, and even as I write this a few hours afterwards, cannot recall the film’s intricacies with confidence.

“There’s nothing less erotic than an actor looking for work,” says the director at one point, which captures something of how I felt about the film’s hollow virtuosity. I doubt that Almodovar would care about anything I’ve written here – the film is surely not designed to be analyzed, although the twists and turns, presented with the vividness of revelation, sometimes feel like traumas pulled into the daylight by a flamboyant psychoanalyst. His view of mankind is generous and informed, but his characters know only desire, and movies, which increasingly seems insufficient. But Bad Education has also been acclaimed (albeit a little less than Talk To Her) so maybe there’s a substantial audience that knows only as much.

Keane (Lodge Kerrigan)
I often wonder what some directors do during their long absences from view. Since Stanley Kubrick died, we’ve had several accounts of the crazily meticulous research and deliberation that filled those five or ten-year gaps, but you can sense that gestation in Kubrick’s films, and anyway he could afford to stay at home. But what about a director like Whit Stillman, AWOL for six years since The Last Days Of Disco. Stillman seems much more pragmatic than Kubrick, and surely films like Metropolitan and Barcelona can’t have provided that big a money pot (maybe I’m being naive on this point) so where the hell is he? How does he keep it together, away from the camera for that long. What if he’s sick? What if he’s dead and no one knows it?

At least we can stop worrying now about Lodge Kerrigan, who hadn’t been heard from since Claire Dolan in 1998 – and since Claire Dolan never got released after the film festival, it might seem like even longer (I guess to the 99% of readers who’ve never heard of the guy, it might seem like a whole lot longer). It was a film about a prostitute, starring the late Katrin Cartlidge, and although it sometimes had the uncomfortable air of a male director trying too strenuously to assimilate the classic trappings of feminist filmmaking, it was still an interesting work, avoiding stereotypes and easy enigmas while carefully cultivating a cool ambiguity. To put this another way, the lead user comment on is titled: “A bad, bad, bad, bad movie.” Maybe that’s why Kerrigan disappeared for so long.

Keane looks at times almost like an off the cuff project, but as it proceeds it acquires great deliberative power (although not quite six years’ worth). Damian Lewis plays the unbalanced Keane, who lives alone in a cheap rooming house, oscillating between quiet decency and outbreaks of clear mental illness. He says he had a daughter who was abducted, and is obsessed with finding her – he frequents the bus terminal where it happened, retraces his steps, runs through scenarios in his head. He meets an abandoned woman struggling to take care of her own daughter, who’s about the age of his own girl when she disappeared. He helps her out, and then the woman starts to rely on him for help with the girl while she tries to get her life back on track.

Hitchcock defined suspense as the opposite of surprise, being when you expect something to happen and it doesn’t. In that regard Keane is a suspenseful film, for the character is genuinely unpredictable, and you fear profoundly for the girl’s safety. But Kerrigan isn’t primarily after dramatic effect here. Actually the prime Hitchcockian echo is of Vertigo; like the second Kim Novak, the girl provides Keane a chance to redeem his earlier loss. Visually though, the style is grainy and closely observant, like the Dardenne brothers’ Rosetta or The Son, although the movie doesn’t quite have those films’ intense spiritual dimensions.

Lewis gives an excellent, completely sustained performance, which seems to bear the marks of intense research; at the start, before its shape starts to emerge, the film seems entirely focused on assimilating the character, as though it were a case study. Ultimately it’s a strong visceral experience. It puts Kerrigan back on track to be a leading American director, but let’s be brutally frank – many of the greatest directors make films of twice the complexity of Keane in one third of the time. So his next move will be interesting.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Financial times

It’s a tragedy how little we collectively learned from the financial disasters of recent years. So many aspects of market ideology were discredited, if not decimated, at a huge cost to the economy (even if that “cost,” it seems to me, was largely measured by clawing back wealth that was largely illusory in the first place); our prevailing (if wretchedly complacent) assumptions about what we can reasonably expect from society – employment levels, housing standards, pension entitlements – are still teetering from it. There’s a general awareness that something has to change. But the “change” that’s advocated for is largely incoherent, based on a woolly assumption that major sacrifice and realignment can either be dodged or borne by the voiceless, or else on a barely tweaked version of the same theories that got us to where we are (as in so many things, this is even more gruesomely vivid in the US than it is here).

The problem, I think, is that the society we’ve created for ourselves feels so solid – it’s too daunting a thought experiment to imagine it might actually be fragile and unsustainable. Since we got this far, and our technological capabilities are now greater than ever, then of course we’ll steer our way through, however bumpily. Sure, I suppose it’s likely that some version of humankind will make it through, just as plenty of people survived the Titanic. But through willful blindness and inaction, we’re forcing ourselves to careen into the iceberg, leaving the fate of the passengers to little more than blind chance.

Pay for performance

One thing’s for sure, the captains won’t be among the last on board – they’ll be whisked away in a private helicopter, and back in the warm mansion while the victims of their negligence battle the waves. Executive pay has exploded out of proportion to any index of performance or prosperity, answerable to no logic except its own self-referencing one. It’s absolutely true that corporate leadership is almost unimaginably complex and potentially murderously stressful, laden with risks of various kinds; the job certainly warrants a different magnitude of reward. But that general philosophy has been distorted to justify almost no practical limits. Most egregious is the notion that outsized compensation packages constitute a necessary motivation; that if a CEO didn’t get paid $50 million, or whatever (and didn’t pay as little tax on it as possible), then they couldn’t possibly turn in the optimum quality and intensity of personal contribution. Needless to say, this kind of psychological analysis isn’t applied lower down the work chain (if you’re not sufficiently incentivized by your twelve bucks an hour, well, there’s the door).

Although you can find any number of think pieces criticizing this trend, they’re just so much background noise. It’s important to realize that the executive pay racket is just as much an arbitrary redistribution of wealth as a punitive tax regime would be; there’s nothing “natural” or inevitable about the network of boards and institutions and advisors that keeps it going. But anyone who tries to critique or limit this normalized corruption is too easily caricatured as an enemy of “freedom,” or even as a socialist, as dancing on the slippery slope that leads to all your money being taken away and handed to welfare cheats.

Too Big to Fail

Curtis Hanson’s Too Big to Fail, now playing on HBO Canada, is a good springboard to thinking about these issues. The film is set over a few days in 2008, as Wall Street’s major institutions realize the damage done to their stability and liquidity by the age of irresponsible mortgage lending and uncontrolled derivatives trading. William Hurt plays treasury secretary Hank Paulson, the quarterback in the effort to avoid a domino effect of bank failure that might trigger another great depression. Working under unimaginable pressure, and to a great extent making it up as they go along, he and his team find themselves spending hours on strategic decisions that would normally require months; such as ordering major companies to merge with their competitors, or asking Congress to free up $700 billion on the basis of a three-page bill. We may forget (or maybe it’s that the momentousness of it all was hard to absorb at the time, even if you were watching closely), but it’s all true.

The film is remarkably efficient, telling the story in barely more than an hour and a half, with a super-capable cast (including Paul Giamatti, James Woods, Cynthia Nixon, Matthew Modine, and many others). It’s a fiendishly complex story of course, meaning Hanson spends much of his energy on basic exposition (for a while, it feels like half the screen time consists of old clips from CNN and CNBC): like last year’s Oscar-winning documentary Inside Job, if you have a general sense of these events, the film serves primarily as a recap, providing limited new perspective. Hanson (most famous for LA Confidential) is more than competent, but he’s not much of a stylist (at some point the story demands a fearless six-hour version, as Olivier Assayas made last year about the terrorist Carlos – among much else, this would allow more space for Hurt’s subtle evocation of Paulson’s underlying torment). Still, it’s sadly unusual to receive any films at all on such subject matter, and Too Big to Fail doesn’t squander the opportunity.

Saving their souls

In the end, Paulson assures his colleagues that what they’ve put in place will work, but his uncertainty is evident. As you may recall, the system didn’t collapse – not yet anyway – but it didn’t rebound as they hoped for either. The US economy remains far from where it should be to fund the accumulated heartbeats and entitlements and dreams. Unemployment is high, with all the human cost that entails; the mortgage mess isn’t even close to being sorted out; the company’s finances are out of control. And yet in 2010, Wall Street compensation was the highest it’s ever been. Many of the rules had been broken and rewritten, but as a couple of exchanges in the closing scenes make clear, the executives’ pragmatism about the life and death of their institutions didn’t extend to their own pay: they’d sell their companies long before they’d sell their entitlement-driven souls. Indeed, ironically, the demise of some competitors and the enforced mergers of others meant the remaining players became bigger and more vital than ever, increasing their mystique and reducing their susceptibility to oversight and moral suasion: despite all that’s happened, “excessive” regulation – even over something as demonstrably volatile and perilous as the derivatives market - is still easily demonized as job-killing interference. Sadly, it’s as likely as not that the main “change” we can look forward to is a repeat crisis even worse than the last one.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

2004 Toronto Film Festival Report, Part Thirteen

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in December 2004)

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

The Machinist (Brad Anderson)
Anderson’s low-key mood piece, which played in the festival’s Midnight Madness section, has already opened commercially, attracting most attention for the remarkable weight-loss regimen undertaken by its star Christian Bale. It pays off – from some angles he looks truly scary, and when the movie includes a couple of shots of the pre-deprivation Bale toward the end, the contrast is chilling.

He plays a machine-worker, unable to sleep, wasting away, with little human contact except for a prostitute (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh). Strange things start to happen to him – a freak accident to a fellow worker; mysterious notes left on his refrigerator - and his mental state grows increasingly brittle. From the start it’s obvious that this will be one of those “meta’ movies where everything will ultimately reorient itself in some fundamental way, revealing itself a dream or an enclave inside a Pennsylvania national park or suchlike. Such structures long seized to be interesting as ends in themselves, and this one adds nothing very new to the canon.

Still, the film maintains its drab aesthetic very effectively, and it has some moments of gorgeous masochism (such as when he throws himself in front of a car). But I think Anderson made a tactical mistake in following his last film, the forgettable chiller Session 9, with such a similar piece of work. His earlier bossa nova-tinged romance Next Stop Wonderland was full of delicate observation, with a feeling for its female character that makes a depressing contrast to his lazy use of Leigh in The Machinist.

Demain on demenage (Chantal Akerman)
One of my formative filmwatching experiences, in the mid-80’s, came when I saw Chantal Akerman’s Les rendezvous d’Anna on late night TV. I can no longer remember much about the plot, but I still have a profound sense of the film’s portrayal of alienation and detachment. I’d never seen something that felt simultaneously so unfamiliar and yet so psychologically relevant; it made the kind of movies I usually watched, with their conventional notions of pace and realism, seem paltry (since the title character is a film director, I suppose it also carried a certain glamour). Much later I saw Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, perhaps one of the greatest films about the toll of domesticity and mundane social structures. She’s made many movies since then, including numerous documentaries, most of which are hard to see outside film festivals (the easiest to catch on TV is A Couch In New York, her lumpy comedy with Juliette Binoche and William Hurt; predictably, it’s her worst effort from those I’ve seen). She seems to have an endlessly probing nature, accepting few preconceptions, continually turning over questions of femininity and sexuality and identity, often excavating themes of loneliness or lack of fulfillment.

Many of her films have screened at the Toronto festival, which this year showed her latest, Demain on demenage. It’s a rather strange film, and deliberately so. A mother (played by Aurore Clement, the Anna of Les rendezvous) moves in with her daughter after her husband’s death; they soon decide to move again and start showing the house to prospective buyers. A stream of visitors enters, each with his or her loopy evaluation criteria, some leaving in seconds, others remaining interminably and almost becoming part of the furniture. Meanwhile, the daughter labours away at an erotic novel, building in fragments of conversations she hears around her – she thinks it’s sexy, but people find it funny. The film prods and twists definitions of personal space, both physical and psychological, showing the programmed nature of normal responses and creating a near-carnival of the absurd; it often has the pace and rhythmic joie de vivre of a musical. (By the way, it also has a preoccupation with chicken that I was never able to make sense of).

But toward the end the women find an old journal kept by Clement’s Polish mother during the war. She reads the opening lines: “As I am a woman I cannot say all that I feel…I can only suffer in silence.” It’s a moment of great reverence, and the film almost seems to pause for a formal moment of silence. It soon starts up again, finding a non-traditional happy ending that Akerman merrily sends up even as she presents it. But the point has been made- Akerman may be able to goof around this stuff now, but it took a battle to get there. I can’t imagine Demain on demenage will inspire anyone as Les rendezvous d’Anna once did, but maybe the point is that it doesn’t have to. Fighting for less esoteric ground than Catherine Breillat, Akerman seems able to take a breather and play around with matters that in Jeanne Dielman were quite simply a source of agony.

Old Boy (Park Chan-wook)_
Park’s work is unknown to me, but he has a high profile aficionado in Quentin Tarantino. The new film Old Boy won the Grand Prix at this year’s Cannes event, which everyone assumes was due to Tarantino chairing the jury. The theory seems plausible: if only from the first line of the write-up in the Toronto programme book – “As mannered as a hyper-violent manga...” – you somehow suspect it wasn’t Tilda Swinton marshaling the Cannes jury in that direction.

The film is indeed tailor-made for Tarantino – it has the grim self-immersion of Kill Bill without the tiresome cross-referencing. It’s about a man who’s mysteriously imprisoned for 15 years; when he’s let out, transformed into a semi-crazed Kitano-like force of nature, he sets out to get revenge. It has several scenes with a knowingly high repellence quota, and several fiendish concepts and plot twists, presented in a style that fuses deliberate excess with a darkly tragic grandeur.

It’s a reasonable enough piece of work, and a gift for genre fans, but the fact of this movie and Fahrenheit 9/11 winning top prizes at Cannes only seems to me to illustrate how even rarified forums of cinema are infected by woozy capitulation to pop-culture and sensationalism. Old Boy’s flashy manipulations and contrivances don’t even belong in the same category as the festival’s best films. Park explains his intentions as follows: "I'm often misunderstood as a director who enjoys violence, but really I want to show how violence makes the perpetrator and the victim destroy themselves. I think I give more moral lessons to the audience than Disney!" All right, but this kind of theme is wearily familiar among modish directors, and the choice of moral benchmark speaks for itself.

Woody in Paris

The other day I was watching the 1931 film Kameradschaft, set around a coal mine on the French-German border (mined from both sides, with a dividing wall in between); when a devastating accident occurs on the French side, the Germans put aside their differences (not a small thing, since this is barely more than a decade after they were slaughtering each other in the World War One trenches) and rush across to aid the rescue effort. At the end, the two communities come together, agreeing that their shared identities as miners will define them in future, not the dictates of their masters. Ten years later, of course, this would have seemed like the most tragic of roads not taken. Watching it today…well, the borders have largely dissolved, and the French and German workers are united at last – in bailing out the Greeks.

Why we need Europe

That’s flippant of course, but you don’t need to be a Nobel-winning economist to grasp the essence of where it went wrong – the risks became pan-European, but the rewards (conditioned by the cultures of individual countries and the degree of responsibility of their political masters) remained local. The miners of Kameradschaft were right about one big thing – their unity revolution would have to start at the bottom and work up, rather than be hatched in offices of state and shoved down. As it is, it’s pretty obvious no one knows what to do to fix the mess (any more than they do in the US).

There may, for sure, be trouble ahead. And it’s tragic, because if you engage with the world to any degree at all, and think about this gorgeous, messy, contradictory creation we’ve sped and stumbled our way into, I’m pretty sure you’ll conclude eventually we need Europe to be the way it is. The glory of Canada is largely predicated, really, on not being that necessary to the world’s aggregated image of itself; that’s why we have such equanimity and perspective. In contrast, America is being rapidly smothered by the heavy illusion of its own exceptionalism – it’s an increasingly dull, off-putting national narrative. Europe’s historical and cultural exceptionalism, and the depth of its heritage and resonances, are far more fully established - being in Paris, for instance, approaches sensual and intellectual overload. Europe is festooned with absurdities, many of them archaic and unsustainable, but if we ever let those go, we’d be on a headlong rush toward cold functionalism. I mean, it’s economically ridiculous to think you should be entitled to retire at 62, but thank God there’s a country somewhere with the audacity to argue it.

Midnight in Paris

The literal reason why Woody Allen - for so long the emblematic downtown New Yorker - now works mainly in Europe seems to be that they keep inviting him there, and they have the money. But it would probably be necessary anyway, because his career has become one of those anachronisms that need nurturing, and they’re much better at doing that over there. Clint Eastwood, to compare, is even older than Allen and just as productive, but he sets out to make prestige pictures and/or major hits (usually achieving one if not both aims). Allen, on the other hand, just makes Woody Allen pictures, and frankly, it often seems like everyone (at times, even including him) has had enough of them to last a lifetime. But who wants to call an end to such a long-standing tradition? Not the Europeans anyway.

And not me – I’ve seen every film he’s directed. I reviewed his last movie, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, less than a year ago in this space, and now he’s back with Midnight in Paris. In that last review, I noted how the film’s last few minutes (with a vintage version of When You Wish Upon A Star playing on the soundtrack) “looked kindly on dreamers and modes of escape,” and noted that although his own work has been mostly earthbound, he’s often acknowledged (for example in Purple Rose Of Cairo) the power of cinema to transform reality. As if on cue, Midnight in Paris is perhaps Allen’s fullest embracing of that theme. A hack Hollywood screenwriter Gil (Owen Wilson) is in Paris with his fiancée (Rachel McAdams) and her parents; he wants to move there and to try writing a serious novel, but she can’t think outside the privileged box she grew up in. Walking alone one night, he’s summoned into a passing vintage car, and inexplicably finds himself thrown back in time, rubbing shoulders with Hemingway and the Fitzgeralds and Cole Porter. He falls in love with a Picasso muse (Marion Cotillard) and soon falls into a happy rhythm of alternating between the two worlds, mostly of course to the disadvantage of the present one.

Familiar borders

Midnight in Paris is one of Allen’s most coherent and sustained films in a long time. He doesn’t sweat the details here – there’s no explanation of how the magic actually happens, and the rules governing Gil’s oscillation between worlds seem highly bendable. Although the protagonist may exhibit some of the director’s longstanding tics, the film itself is as un-neurotic as anything you’re likely to come across nowadays, confident enough to leave opportunities galore on the table. For instance there’s a funny scene where Gil tells Luis Bunuel the plot of one of his future films, The Exterminating Angel, and Bunuel doesn’t get it: Allen could have filled his movie with variations on that gag, but doesn’t need to. Adrien Brody pops up as Salvador Dali – it’s his best work in ages, but it’s just one scene. A relative marvel of economy overall, the picture wraps up after barely more than ninety minutes.

Allen also raids his nostalgia file for yet another portrayal of an overbearing intellectual (Michael Sheen), and also shows off his blinkered side by dumping McAdams into a miserably shrewish, superficial role (not the first actress who’s suffered that fate at his hands; his treatment of Cotillard, in contrast, is immaculate). The film is full of echoes of his previous creations, including short stories like The Kugelmass Episode. A few shots at right-wingers and Tea Partiers make you realize how little politics and social consciousness has figured in his work. But this is how it is with the late films of aging legends – you don’t expect to cross new borders, but rather to relish the frontiers they’ve long been exploring (although, miraculously, sometimes you get both!) Although Allen is almost excessively self-effacing in recent interviews, discounting his own work to the point of saying he doesn’t think any of it will last, Midnight in Paris exhibits a consistent quiet pride of sorts, and a relief at being home.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

2004 Toronto Film Festival Report, Part Twelve

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in November 2004)

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

p.s. (Dylan Kidd)
Kidd’s follow-up to Roger Dodger (in which Campbell Scott played a chillingly articulate, almost nihilistic man on the prowl) plays as if the director was freaked out by the dark psychology of that film (not that it took things to the extent it might have) and thus retreated as far as possible in the opposite direction. This yields p.s., an ethereal piece of tissue that will probably play forever on women’s cable networks (it’s already opened commercially). Laura Linney plays a dean of admissions at the Columbia University art faculty, swept off her feet by a young applicant (played by Topher Grace) who reminds her of an old boyfriend (he even has the same name). Linney is wonderful as always; she’s the only actress I can think of who seems to act with her skin, and the initial sex scene between them (within a couple of hours of his formal interview) is nicely done.

But the movie has a total tin ear for human behaviour – you won’t often hear anything as arch and contrived as her initial phone conversations with Grace and those with Marcia Gay Harden as her best friend. It takes off in a weird, unfocused direction in which major incidents increasingly seems to be happening offscreen and recounted to us afterwards; I started thinking I might be watching an Alan Ayckbourn-type experiment where the best stuff was being projected in the theatre next door. In the end you can just about join the dots to see a broad notion of how Linney’s nothing-happening character has come through an intersection of revelations about secret desire and cast off her unnecessary mental baggage to accept Grace simply as a “beautiful snowflake” in his own right – she seems blissfully happy in the end. For the audience, this provides a generalized payoff of well being, but no more than you’d get from staring at a kitten for a few minutes. And I can’t imagine what Kidd was thinking.

Los Muertos (Lisandro Alonso)
Los Muertos is the second film by Alonso, who according to the programme book “is one of the most talented and visionary filmmakers to emerge from the New Argentine Cinema movement” (I didn’t see his first film, Freedom). It follows a man who’s released from prison after many years and travels to see his daughter, living in dirt-poor circumstances in the heart of the jungle. His journey takes him by road, working in some fascinating glimpses of dusty, threadbare communities, and then by boat. He’s a man of few words and he stops frequently to contemplate things he hasn’t seen for years. The film moves correspondingly slowly, but precisely.

But at the start of the film we saw what looked like bodies lying in the forest, and a man standing over them. Presumably this is a memory of his crime (in the following scene we see him waking up). The film has the vague trajectory of Apocalypse Now – a journey that appears to be headed for the heart of darkness – and at various times it seems certain that something dangerous is about to happen. The possibility of violence is made explicit in a surely unfaked, startlingly matter of fact scene where he kills and disembowels a goat (where were the cat-killer protestors when this movie was showing?) The expectations are never met, and it seems to me that this is largely the film’s point – not to tease us exactly, but to make us aware of the limitations of our preconceptions, by showing us something far outside our normal frame of reference. Looked at that way though, it’s a bit of a set-up, a “gotcha” exercise.

That aside, the film is a wonderfully sustained study, fascinating in its details, but I’m not wholly sure what it amounts to. The festival program book calls it “difficult to label,” which seems right, although the film raises the disquieting possibility that the label may be “less than meets the eye.” I concede though that Alonso’s future films may prove me vastly wrong about this.

A tout de suite (Benoit Jacquot)
The festival has treated Jacquot very well over the years – he was the subject of its spotlight section a few years ago, and most of his subsequent films have been screened there. But I wonder how much of an impact this has made. Jacquot’s movies tend to leave little after-impression, and barely seem as if they’re meant to – they’re more like pages than chapters, brief eruptions of incident. My favourite has been A Single Girl, with Virginie Ledoyen as a disaffected young hotel worker whose life is on the brink of acquiring actual responsibility and definition. But maybe the pace of that film – she’s in non-stop motion between cafes, hotel rooms, kitchens, lobbies – provides a more distinctive rhythm than is usual for his work.

A tout de suite is now my new favourite Jacquot film. It’s about a girl who falls into a romance with a young Moroccan. One night he calls and tells her he just robbed a bank; she helps him escape, and then joins him and his accomplice as they flee to Spain, then Morocco, then Greece. The film is shot in a grainy black and white, and is another Jacquot exercise in immediacy – the title “Right now” could almost be his work’s emblematic label. But it’s highly affecting, because it probes the shortcomings of such short-termism as a psychological state or life strategy. The girl, often expressionless, almost never voicing anything of much depth, has the air of someone always on the verge of arresting her momentum, but lacking the resources to pull it off. She’s a student artist, and in an early scene at class, when they’re asked to draw an outline of a person but not the face, she unthinkingly disregards the instructions; she already has outlines aplenty, but needs inner connectivity (perhaps it’s significant that, at the very beginning, we’re told about her distanced relationship with her mother). She smuggles friends in to stay the night, coordinating the logistics with the assurance of someone constructing a secret routine more real than the real one. “It was the good life,” she says of the early days with her boyfriend, “I don’t know if it was true life.”

The character is young, and the consequences of her impulsiveness inevitably grow beyond her capacity to marshal them. But the film doesn’t identify her condition merely as a phase – it’s clearly a psychological state – “to put myself in people’s shoes.” There’s surely something of such a condition in filmmaking too, which is perhaps why A tout de suite, for all its apparent throwaway qualities, feels so measured and consequential among Jacquot’s works.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Reset button

Regular readers may recall last week I quoted from a book about Jacques Rivette, evoking films that place too much emphasis on the world rather than on the idea, and end up “presenting a flat and unquestioning copy of the world that demonstrates no more understanding of it that does a cow fascinated by the trains flashing past its field.” What a coincidence then that the next new film I went to see, Le quattro volte, spends much time on depicting goats (even better than cows!) in fascinated observation. No trains though, and certainly nothing flashing past. Le quattro volte might in fact exist in a parallel universe where the concept of flashing (and all its synonyms) has been eradicated.

Le quattro volte

The film’s title translates most closely as “the four times,” but also carries a sense of “the four phases.” It’s set in a tiny village in Southern Italy, and initially follows an old goatherd on his unchanging daily ritual. When he dies, the focus becomes a newly-born kid goat, then later a tree under which it dies, then the charcoal into which the tree is burned. Writing in Sight and Sound, Jonathan Romney called it “a film at once severe, poetic, beautiful, comic, philosophical, hugely complex and sublimely simple. It also contains the single finest extended sight gag I have seen since the heyday of Jacques Tati, and makes the best ever cinematic use of goats.”

That same article quotes director Michelangelo Frammartino as follows: “The film is based on the ideas of animism and reincarnation...(the sixth century BC philosopher) Pythagoras supposedly said that each of us holds within us four successive lives, each one enmeshed in the others. Man is made of mineral, because he has a skeleton; he’s a plant, because he has blood flowing through his veins like sap; he’s an animal, because he has mobility; and he’s also a rational being. So in order to fully understand himself, man has to understand himself four times.” You’ll detect from this that the film resolutely refuses the narrative and cinematic conventions that place man at the centre of things. It has no identifiable dialogue – it requires no subtitles – and the goatherd is the only character who receives a close-up. The star of that extended sight gag is a dog, reacting to his master’s absence and to an Easter passion parade by barking at everyone in sight, and then engineering a way to free the goats from their pen. As well as being, indeed, very deadpan funny and logistically impressive, the scene (done in a single 10-minute take) extends that theme of interconnection and intertwining ritual, and depending what you think of dogs, injects a further complexity into that distinction between the animal and the rational being.

Dust in the wind

Le quattro volte is indeed a sublime viewing experience; by its very existence, it speaks to the spiritual paucity of hyped-up mainstream cinema. On the weekend we saw it, we had guests, and if I were a better host, I would have gone with them instead to their preferred choice of X-Men: First Class. By all accounts that’s a good film too, but I understand less and less the appeal of these convoluted mythologies which trip over each other for multiplex space, especially since the cultural space assigned to them seems to be financed in large part by trashing the value of reflection and self-examination (unless it’s the feel-good Oprah brand). How did we ever lose control of things to the extent that trees and goats constitute a rarer and more surprising subject for cinema than, you know, planets blowing up.

I suppose one answer might be that fantasy and invention are to be celebrated, because they evidence a productive restlessness with limitations; if the world was built on the implied value system of Frammartino’s film, we’d barely have advanced out of the caves. I do wonder whether Le quattro volte doesn’t limit its impact a little by so thoroughly ignoring, if not denying, virtually everything about the modern world; it’s set in a place where you feel you could pick out a mere speck of dust in the wind and follow it for hours until it comes to rest. From the limited evidence presented to us, the villagers invest their lives largely into religious or cultural rituals, and into forms of work that haven’t changed in centuries: the process it depicts for making charcoal, while perhaps objectively somewhat inefficient (in the same way that herding goats is so much less efficient than factory farming), resembles creating an art installation, all the more stunning for how closely its destruction follows upon completion. In such a place, even a skeptical materialist might believe in a formative connective tissue that still endures, and that the old goatherd’s soul could actually transmigrate into the newly-born goat (the film leaves it open though whether you interpret it that way, rather than as a broader evocation of interconnection between carbon-based forms). If you tried to set such a project in downtown Toronto, it would likely seem nuts. In that sense, Frammartino isn’t (yet anyway) the equal of Robert Bresson, who may have made the best ever cinematic use of a donkey in Au hasard Balthazar, but without looking away from what the world had become.

Political film

According to Sight and Sound again, the director says he considers Le quattro volte a “political film, because it gives viewers choices” – he contrasts this with a dominant Italian culture of “controlling images that were very seductive and very brutal – that prevented you from having any say in the whole equation.” One can see what he means, but again, there’s some irony that such a political project would have to set itself so far away from the big machine it’s reacting against. Unless, that is, we regard the film as a kind of manifesto, a statement that things have become so convoluted and unmanageable and perverse that we require a comprehensive reset button, stripping away all those imposed rhythms and acquired notions of value and necessity, rediscovering the most elemental formative truths. The final image, which calls to mind the white smoke announcing a new Pope, might be read as announcing the birth of a new spiritual order (while perhaps hinting it won’t remain that pure forever).

But as Romney says, much of the film’s intent is comic, embodied in particular by the bravura scene with the dog, but also in the broader sense that, beyond a certain degree of abstraction, it’s almost impossible to know where profundity ends and a cosmic joke begins. After all, mankind might all just be something God threw out to amuse himself after working on bigger and better things. Ultimately, it’s inevitably ambiguous whether Le quattro volte exhibits a superior grasp of underlying truths, but at the very least, it is in no way flat and unquestioning.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

2004 Toronto Film Festival Report, Part Eleven

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in November 2004)

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

Modigliani (Mick Davis)
An obvious labour of love, this gala presentation (and Davis’ debut as a director) concentrates on the last year of the tempestuous artist’s life, in particular his intense relationship with his common-law wife (who ultimately committed suicide the day after his death) and his knowingly pumped-up rivalry with Picasso (who, years later, uttered the artist’s name on his deathbed). The film looks great, with the appearance of slightly yellowing canvas; it sounds less good, partly due to the questionable decision to employ an English-language soundtrack. It depicts much turmoil, but doesn’t touch on the only thing that really matters – the source of the painter’s distinctive aesthetic (what did those swan necks and gracefully distorted proportions really mean?) The lack of a critical perspective ultimately leaves it feeling somewhat inert. Most of its devices, like Modigliani’s conversations with his younger self, or the use of Chariots of Fire-type music to drum up excitement for a big head-to-head painting contest near the end, are clichéd.

Andy Garcia, carrying too many B-movie connotations, is a questionable choice as Modigliani, and the actor playing Picasso has the bad luck, in his very first scene, to be handed dialogue almost identical to that of an old Jon Lovitz SNL sketch. On the whole, it’s far below the best of the festival, which tends for some reason to be typical of gala presentations scheduled for the home stretch.

The World (Jia Zhang-ke)
This was my introduction to the work of Chinese auteur Jia - I didn’t see his acclaimed film Platform. The World is an engrossing work, illustrating a China in transition, touching on its persistent poverty (especially rurally), its abiding mystery and its banality. It focuses on a young boyfriend and girlfriend, both working in a Beijing theme park filled with scaled-down replicas of world landmarks (the Pyramids, along with a mournful-looking camel; the Eiffel Tower; a Manhattan skyline that as the manager proudly points out still has its World Trade Center). Their momentum seems to be toward marriage, but it’s a slow momentum; each is distracted by vague thoughts of other people, family problems, or a sense of alternative possibilities. The park purports to present the world at one’s doorstep, symbolizing its accessibility and the possibility for achievement, but instead it just formalizes their lives’ limitations; she remarks for instance that she doesn’t know anyone who’s ever been on a plane. The movie uses occasional cartoon inserts that through their peppy excess underlie the characters’ inertia (and, as a secondary theme, the mixed blessing of their reliance on cellphones). This all makes the film sound like a real downer, and it’s certainly melancholy, but it’s also filled with humour and incident and is a continuously fascinating work of anthropology – it’s particularly attuned toward women and the forces that drive them toward merely superficial advancement, ornamentation or even prostitution. In some ways the film reminded me of Edward Yang’s YiYi from a few years ago (although Jia at this point is a little more prosaic than Yang) and it was one of my favourite discoveries at this year’s festival.

Ils se marierent et eurent beaucoup d’enfants (Yvan Attal)
Attal’s follow-up to the blandly pleasant, self-referential My Wife Is An Actress (in which he played an ordinary guy married to a famous film star, played by Attal’s real-life wife Charlotte Gainsbourg) shows intriguing development. The early stretch is worryingly bland, centering on the creaky old formula of three buddies: the nicely domesticated one, the one married to a bitch, and the one who sleeps around while claiming to envy the others. Fearlessly embracing cliché, Attal even resorts to that hoariest of devices, the late night poker game. But the film becomes progressively more adventurous, throwing in fantasy, reversals of expectation, temporal shifts, new directions and sidelines, an enterprising music soundtrack with a heavy Radiohead quotient, and a cameo by Johnny Depp. Depp initially seems to be playing himself but later appears to be representing a female fantasy of the ideal male. Maybe that’s pretty much the same thing.

The movie increasingly takes on the air of a plaintive scrapbook, with the courage to leave matters largely unresolved – its ultimate artful messiness, connoting broken-backed compromise as being as good as it gets for relationships, is actually its strongest element. Ultimately it’s still pivoted on the favourite subject of middle-aged male filmmakers without a distinctive worldview (or maybe the second favourite subject, after the inner lives of hitmen) –how can a man settle for one woman when there are so many others out there? And as a secondary theme – what’s it all about anyway? The film has no major insights into all this, but it glides around the weary old battleground with increasing fluency. As if anchoring itself in a long tradition of middlebrow French cinema, it has cameos by Aurore Clement, Claude Berri and Anouk Aimee. The latter two, as Attal’s parents, are used simply to reinforce an easy point about how relationships wither; it’s a waste of resources and yet the excess is almost ennobling.

Ray (Taylor Hackford)
Hackford’s biography of Ray Charles, which has already opened commercially, is a consistently convincing reconstruction of the great singer’s life up to the mid 60’s (the point at which a heroin bust forced him to clean up and reevaluate his priorities). Jamie Foxx pulls off a note-perfect evocation of Charles, frequently achieving the presumed goal of documentary-like fidelity, the period is well caught, and scene by scene the movie plays well (the music, of course, is especially rousing). But there are an awful lot of these scenes, and you gradually realize that they’re not yielding any greater illumination than you’d get from reading a bio while listening to a greatest hits album.

I’m genuinely unsure, from watching the movie, whether Charles is an impossibly mercurial figure whose motivations are opaque even to himself, or whether that’s a measure of the film’s lack of depth. His refusal to play a concert in segregated Georgia, highlighted by the movie as one of his cornerstone achievements, comes across as a snap decision unmoored in any particular political awareness; his ground-breaking swing into country and western music comes from nowhere; his drug use and womanizing are observed but never felt. As if aware of its paucity of analysis, the film keeps flashing back to the death of his younger brother, a few months before Charles lost his sight, and even concludes with an imagined conversation where his mother tells him to clean up, something that smacked to me of desperation. Overall the film doesn’t live up to the considerable surrounding hype.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Looking for Guidance

In an article a while ago, I quoted critic David Thomson as follows: “This may be an era when the movies have to decide whether their subject is self- loathing or human aspiration.” To which I flippantly responded, well, we can have both, and then went on to muse for a while on the limitations of Thomson’s premise, which of course wasn’t that hard to do. But then a few days later I was reading a book about one of my favourite directors, Jacques Rivette (by Douglas Morrey and Alison Smith), in particular a chapter on the criticism he wrote in the 1950’s and 1960’s (which I’ve only encountered in the past in brief snatches), before he devoted himself entirely to making films.

Based on Morrey and Smith’s account, the underpinnings of Rivette’s writings would be easy to dispute, if not to lampoon, and as they acknowledge, his films suggest he might himself have later reconsidered many of his fundamental assumptions. Even so, as I was reading it I suddenly felt my own approach to cinema, even after nurturing and refining it for so many years, was tragically insufficient, built too much on lazily pragmatic, untested reactivity to whatever might be before me; an analytical equivalent of the nice guy who duly finishes last.

An Obscene Realism

I’ll try very briefly to summarize the Morrey/Smith summary. Rivette, as a critic, argued for an emphasis on capturing the totality of reality. He brought a rigorous moral dimension to this belief: “…certain subjects demand to be filmed in certain ways, and it would be unethical to film them otherwise.” He articulated this most famously in a rebuke of the largely forgotten 1960 film Kapo, a drama set mostly in a concentration camp (directed by Gillo Pontecorvo, who later made The Battle of Algiers, itself regarded as a kind of milestone in cinematic realism). Rivette argued “that Pontecorvo has not given sufficient consideration to the aesthetic questions posed by this difficult subject, opting instead for an obscene ‘realism’ that ultimately renders the spectacle of the camps tolerable for the viewer and thereby implies that they were also tolerable for their victims.” He denounced in particular a tracking shot moving toward a woman who’s thrown herself against an electric fence: “the point is that the horror of the camps requires no such emphasis, indeed that to emphasize it in this fashion reduces it to the level of any other subject.”

As this suggests, Rivette generally argued for a self-effacing directorial style, but this doesn’t merely mean one of minimalism and restraint. Morrey and Smith summarize his view of the dialectic of cinema like this: “If one takes the world as starting point, one risks missing the idea and presenting a flat and unquestioning copy of the world that demonstrates no more understanding of it that does a cow fascinated by the trains flashing past its field. If one takes an idea as starting point, however, then the risk is in never attaining the density of the real world, never fleshing out the idea with the weight of reality. The goal, then, is that the idea, by the necessity of its own internal movement, of its dialectic, should, little by little, recreate the world before our eyes, or rather create a different world, all the more ambiguous for being an incarnated idea, and a real shot through with meaning.”

Meaningless Assertions

There’s much more where that came from of course, and I may not have selected the most illustrative extracts. But my point, again, is that on reading this, and reflecting on it even briefly and inadequately, I felt very keenly the meaninglessness of most assertions (including my own) about cinema. I enjoyed it. I didn’t enjoy it. She was good. He was bad. It was too long, too violent, too sentimental, too complicated. The book was better. Some smart writers may explain these reactions more fastidiously than others (or at least express them more eloquently, so the lack of an explanation slips past you), but when you sort through it, they’re still just reactions, even if you intuitively agree with every word they say.

One can easily locate more analytical or theoretical writing about cinema, but a lot of this tends to be aimed at extreme specialists. Is there a visible, accessible figure who writes consistently about film from a rigorous moral position? I don’t use “moral” to mean someone who freaks out every time you see a bare breast - I’m sure the Internet is laden with those – but rather someone who writes about film as a way of writing about the world, and no more accepts certain cinematic practices than she or he would tolerate living in the midst of pollution? Whether or not you thought he or she was correct, either on the foundation of the reasoning or on the specific application, wouldn’t such a writer be more useful than just another self-contained opinion (in the way say that some columnists or commentators, even if one doesn’t usually – or ever – agree with them, contribute to synthesizing and sharpening one’s own thoughts)? Especially if such a writer were free of the primary obligation of responding to whatever happens to be new (which already means their role is driven by the demands of commerce) and wrote instead about what seemed to him or her necessary.

The Fascinated Cow

That’s why I found Thomson’s choice between self-loathing and human aspiration momentarily intriguing, even if trite and illogical for any number of reasons. We don’t need more responders – we need guides. The accumulated span of cinema is vast now, far outweighing our resources of time and money and knowledge and concentration. Sure, we can surrender to it and take the easy route, eating from whatever limited menu Hollywood and other service providers happen to be pushing, but that’s the kind of choice made available to laboratory mice. I’m pretty good at avoiding that – this week for instance I watched films by von Sternberg, Resnais and Hou Hsiao-hsien among others – but I fall into another trap, of trying to devour everything on the premium buffet table, forgetting that liking just about everything easily shades into appreciating nothing, like that cow fascinated by what flashes by.

Jacques Rivette, by all accounts, lives a very austere life, but most of us don’t. Who cares if we’re like that cow, you might say, if what flashes by allows us a period of untroubled contentment? And sure, you can make that choice, but only (I’d say) as a kind of defeat: I don’t think you can brag about it, any more than you could brag (unless you really don’t care) about eating solely at Macdonald’s. At this moment, I’m feeling more like that cow than maybe I should. But I truly intend to start figuring out how to turn away from more of those trains, and then to analyze my patch of grass like I never have before…