Sunday, September 30, 2012

2005 Toronto film festival report, part nine

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in November 2005)
This is the ninth and last of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 2005 Toronto Film Festival.


Drawing Restraint 9 (Matthew Barney)

Matthew Barney’s already semi-legendary Cremaster cycle, made over a decade, finally arrived at the Cinematheque, then at the Carlton, last year, and the complete work ranked among my top ten for the year. The films are as consciously “arty’ as anything you’ll ever see – their perversity and incredible individuality serve as a constant challenge to all preconceptions, but they also achieve a remarkable degree of coherence. They didn’t seem to attract much attention in film circles, which I think shows how even relatively enterprising viewers regard narrative and character as integral to cinema (even for documentaries). They certainly felt like interlopers at the Carlton. I came across one of the series again this year at an art museum in Berlin, where – impeccably displayed against a white background in a vast empty room, with rows of headphones neatly arrayed on a facing bench– it certainly seemed more at home. But the Toronto festival – which also maintains an avant-garde “Wavelengths” sidebar – nevertheless found room for Barney’s new film in its Visions section. For added cultural resonance, it stars Bjork, who is Barney’s off-screen partner, and it has songs by her as well.


The film is as fascinating as the Cremaster films, and somewhat more accessible if the measure of that is the semblance of a linear plot (not enough of a semblance though that I would get anywhere by trying to describe it here). The locus of the action is a real-life Japanese whaling ship, on which the crew engage in vaguely industrial activities which look convincing in terms of the obvious labour expended on screen, but by their lack of utility are obviously an aesthetic contrivance; and a pair of “Occidental visitors” played by Barney and Bjork, who undergo a strange process of transformation involving nudity, extravagant dress-up, mutilation and cannibalism. The film’s varied texture also draws heavily on Barney’s abiding affinity for sticky, malleable substances that might seem to embody some kind of creative potential.


His great insight is of human activity – whether utilitarian or artistic – as an almost rational outgrowth of organic, cellular processes (the refrain of Bjork’s ultimate song is “nature conspires to help you”). He communicates this partly through recurring imagery and juxtaposition – water is a repeating motif here, both in its great capacity as spawn of life and as the medium for a climactic death ritual - and partly through a rendering-strange of the familiar: a tea-making scene comprises superficially recognizable steps, carried out through completely alien-looking objects and ingredients. Barney is a genius at creating a mythology appearing to carry centuries’ worth of elaboration and weight.


Japan, which to a (I know, superficial) Western perspective connotes both spiritual refinement and extreme modern prowess, provides a whole realm of resonances here, with the ultimate bloody denouement yielding a range of echoes from hara-kiri to sushi (!) As with the Cremaster cycle, the experience of watching the film generally seems to belong to something other than straightforward cinematic pleasure, although to make too much of that would understate Barney’s immense control of the elements, and of his unwaveringly rich visual landscape. Overall it appears to me a masterpiece, but even if he makes ten more films as good, I think it will be difficult for Barney to earn his place in the pantheon; his work is beyond cinema, but may too easily be perceived as something that falls short of it.


More Festival Movies


So that’s the last of the films I saw at the festival, and it was one of my favourites, along with Les Amants regulieres, The Sun and Three Times. Since then, a bunch of festival movies have opened commercially, so here are reviews of some of those. Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride is a most nicely conceived and executed animated trifle; after the ungainly Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Burton’s string of underwhelming live-action films before that, it strongly suggests that this is the best medium for his still delectably weird imagination. Roman Polanski’s Oliver Twist never completely transcends the feeling that another version of this material simply isn’t necessary, but it’s extremely well-mounted. Some have found Polanski’s hand barely detectable in the film, but the scrupulous portrayal of its receding central figure amid such grimness and deprivation provides a strong thematic link to The Pianist, and then there’s the withering portrayal of societal hypocrisy. Curtis Hanson’s In her Shoes has Cameron Diaz and Toni Collette as superficially dissimilar sisters who, of course, need each other desperately. It’s a pleasant but slack movie, not ineffective at provoking the viewer’s emotions, but relying for that on easy mechanisms of loss and reconciliation.


Proof was an entertaining play, although surely not as intellectually scintillating as all the awards would suggest. John Madden’s filming of it exposes the material’s thinness, losing the stage version’s coherence (and, if memory serves, most of the laughs); it’s pleasant, but has no reason to exist. Much the same goes for Everything is Illuminated. I haven’t read Jonathan Safran Foer’s highly-regarded source novel, but Liev Schreiber’s filming of it makes only limited sense on its own terms. Elijah Wood’s main character is an eccentricity-bedecked cipher, and the material amounts to little more than a meandering  road movie puffed up with high-minded allusions.


Mike Mills’ Thumbsucker is a moderately intriguing, loose-limbed portrayal of its James Dean-lite central character – a teenager whose neuroses are encapsulated in his inability to quit sucking his thumb – but ultimately it’s too fragmented and inconsequential, with little thematic payoff. And the best bits are all in the trailer. Martin Scorsese’s No Direction Home: Bob Dylan, a three and a half hour documentary on the singer’s early career (up to his 1966 motorcycle accident), has already played on PBS and is also available on DVD. Constructed from fascinating archival footage and insightful contemporary interviews (including some surprisingly articulate self-analysis by Dylan himself), it’s a wonderful viewing experience (I would imagine that holds for anyone, but I’ll admit to be a longstanding Dylan fan). The film richly evokes the musical subculture against which he arose, without ever descending into trite evaluations or theories of causation – it justifies the view of Dylan as the “voice of a generation” while preserving all the wayward ambiguity about what that voice actually consisted of.


Cameron Crowe’s Elizabethtown was a big disappointment at the festival, and had some twenty minutes removed before its commercial release, in which form it still seems significantly overlong. It would take an entire article to set out the film’s incoherencies, indulgences, plain oddities and other weaknesses; overall it leaves the impression that Crowe really had no good idea for a movie, and put something together out of isolated scenes and concepts, lazily strung together with his trademark “mood.” Orlando Bloom, as a failed shoe designer visiting a small Tennessee town for his father’s memorial service, is hardly an effective centre for all this. Despite everything, Crowe’s talent as a director does frequently come through, but it really is a badly thought-out effort.


More next time...

American influences

Paul Anderson’s The Master is certainly one of the year’s most discussed films, but those discussions are often heavy with bewilderment. Roger Ebert said the film “is fabulously well-acted and crafted, but when I reach for it, my hand closes on air. It has rich material and isn't clear what it thinks about it. It has two performances of Oscar caliber, but do they connect? Its title character is transparently inspired by L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology, but it sidesteps any firm vision of the cult religion itself — or what it grew into.” Other writers, such as Liam Lacey in The Globe and Mail (who gave it four stars) praise the film with few reservations, but in a way that leaves you puzzled regarding what they actually admire so much, beyond the acting and craft that Ebert mentioned. Peter Howell in The Star concluded that the film “directs our eyes, ears and minds to the slow drip and dissolve of personality, showing how the path from silly animal to deluded human is shorter and straighter than we think,” which (if true) would only be a major achievement if countless previous films hadn’t demonstrated the shortness of this path.


Rewriting history


One of my favourite approaches to the movie came from Kent Jones in Film Comment, who spent about a third of his article summarizing America’s history of homegrown religions and cults, sexual gurus and motivational speakers. “In one sense,” he sums up, “America is a story of forgetting and eliding, cherry-picking and remolding the past, conflating ideas and notions and isolated gestures and grand movements swirling through the informational ether and rewriting history according to desires and projected outcomes, powered by the dream of breaking through to the other side of neurosis, reality, life, inhibition, or the space-time continuum.” Placing The Master against this kind of canvas instantly counters Ebert’s objection about the absence of a “firm vision” and indeed almost turns that into the very point, that the country’s prevailing discourse has always verged on (or fallen helplessly into) incoherence; sometimes for better, and sometimes for worse, it’s always been made up as it goes along.


Actually, that’s almost a direct quote from The Master, by the son of the Hubbard-ish character, casually disavowing his father’s integrity and intellectual rigour (which doesn’t however prevent the son from finding a place in the organization). The “master” is Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) – as the film first finds him, in 1950, at the centre of a small but passionate group of aficionados, relying heavily on borrowed money and facilities. He encounters Freddie Quell, a damaged ex-Navy man all but incapable of slotting into the post-war landscape, and keeps him around as a somewhat undefined protégé/disciple/henchman and (possibly, to some undefined extent) love object. Joaquin Phoenix makes Freddie severely troubled and troubling – certainly possessing some raw sexual energy, but often hard to understand just on a basic level, and scarily unpredictable and threatening (without however coming close to the cartoon hotheadedness of, say, a Joe Pesci character).  


Dodd and Romney


Ignaty Vishnevetsky (I’m quoting from others here much more than I usually would, but the range of responses is unusually stimulating) praises the film’s first half, but finds the second half “frustrating,” because “it refuses to resolve any of the problems Anderson introduces so potently—through careful cuts, visual shorthand, and immersive juxtapositions of sound and image—in the first half. The film creates Freddie, and then languishes in him.” Indeed, it might increasingly seem to be crafting a kind of metaphysical quicksand, in which it’s hard to distinguish truth from lies, dreams from reality, black from white.


But again, maybe that’s the story America deserves and needs, much more than any more conventionally shaped and resolved narratives. Not to overstate the film’s viability as a direct metaphor for our times, because I don’t think Anderson’s intentions are that literal, but there are a scary number of Freddies out there, either forgotten or chewed up by the system, certainly within the 47% of people Mitt Romney memorably critiqued for their failure to take responsibility. Taken by the numbers, that’s more the story of America than the innovators and entrepreneurs, and Anderson/Phoenix’s conception of the character, as a car crash we can’t look away from, begs us to contemplate his misuse by his country, by cinema, by history. But the film avoids creating an easy opposition between Freddie and Dodd (who, in part, would make one think of Romney for entirely different reasons). Hoffman certainly conveys the man’s intermittent charisma, the eloquence and mysterious sense of the beyond that would cause some to fall under his spell, but he also has moments of complete weirdness, where the mystique falls away to reveal, frankly, a buffoon, and others where he shows himself a vulgar boor, as violent as Freddie in his own way. Plainly, this isn’t a great man, but then, how often has attaining eminence depended on greatness? In part, The Master is about the firming up of the modern concept of ego, in all its deluded, decaying hypocrisy.


Recall or imagine


Toward the end of the film, one of Dodd’s followers asks him about a passage in his latest book, which removes a previous reference to “recall” (his methods to that point have been based on reclaiming a lost innate perfection, based on implicit concepts of reincarnation and abiding purity) and replaces it with “imagine,” implying a much broader banquet of personal (and, from Dodd’s perspective, strategic and tactical) possibilities. He blows up at her, because of course she’s right – the inconsistency can’t be reconciled, but then when have people ever been supposed to actually read that stuff? As The Master ends, the corporatization of Dodd’s efforts, the imposition of formality and grandeur, is well under way, and the impossibility of Freddie ever finding a place within it is more and more overwhelming. “Is this normal life?” he asks his latest sex partner, lifting a line from Dodd’s techniques and deploying it for titillation. “I hope it isn’t,” she says. She’s laughing though, because how could she realize anyone would be building an empire based on such questions?


You can see from all this that the film seems to me fascinating and rewarding (needless to say, what I’ve written here doesn’t even touch on large parts of what it contains), and it’s certainly a remarkable move by Anderson. His last picture There will be Blood – itself a knockout – seems almost nakedly calculating by comparison, too self-obsessed with the goal of crafting the Great American Movie. The Master realizes the inherent limitations of wowing the audience with grand vistas and characters, the danger of tipping into cinematic charlatanism. Surely the film had to divide audiences, to evoke as wide a range of reactions, from antipathy to despair to unthinking allegiance to deeply nourishing engagement, as America itself.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Clint's version

Although it was primarily noted for its structural weirdness and rambling, Clint Eastwood’s endlessly mocked recent speech to the Republican National Convention was also remarkably ineffective as an actual endorsement of Mitt Romney. His case for backing Romney seemed to consist mostly of disappointment in Obama for not keeping his promises and for personal inconsistency (such as claiming to be “an ecological man” while continuing to ride in Air Force One), largely regardless of whether those promises had much merit in the first place. Toward the end he mused on the downfall of attorneys as presidents (perhaps not knowing Romney also has a law degree), on the basis that “they're always taught to argue everything, and always weight everything -- weigh both sides...always devil's advocating this and bifurcating this and bifurcating that.” I’m sure Eastwood doesn’t really believe it’s inherently wrong to weigh both side of an issue, but his own internal contemplation mechanism likely operates on a severe time limit.

Eastwood’s view

It’s not hard to see this worldview on display in Eastwood’s recent career. When I reviewed Gran Torino here a few years ago, I said this: “…his aversion to over-embellishment, to over-lighting, over-acting, over-anything really counts for something. Despite presumably unlimited access to anything and anywhere he wants, Eastwood somehow manages to retain his maverick credentials. Over and over, his protagonists have to assert their rights and individuality against a corrupt or merely foolish governing machine. The movies aren’t morally complex or strident (Million Dollar Baby’s treatment of euthanasia might be the acid test here); they valorize self-determination, but despise those who fail to grasp their responsibilities (even if on occasion those responsibilities consist of little more than not being an a-hole). Eastwood’s fluid but terse style perfectly fits this instinct. Getting it close enough and moving on resembles an article of faith; dawdling perfectionists belong with the despised paper pushers of the Dirty Harry films.” (Or I might add now, with those who’d fuss about the content of a speech rather than just coming out and nailing it based on presence and know, if it had worked out that way).

Those comments on Gran Torino sound about right to me as a distillation of Eastwood’s disillusionment with Obama: the current President just hasn’t figured out how to get it close enough and move on, where a “businessman” might. Eastwood couldn’t help conveying a sense that Obama might actually be the cooler of the two candidates – his fantasy that the invisible Obama in the chair might be telling Romney to go f--- himself seemed implicitly to acknowledge the potential appeal of such an utterance – but such coolness is the enemy of focused productivity. And if Clint’s movies aren’t necessarily morally complex, they’re full of cautionary notes against the flaws of the system and of those who run it. Closing with the thought that “we own (this country) is not you owning it, and not politicians owning it...politicians are employees of ours,” he might easily have been signaling Romney that his endorsement (such as it was) was just good for one term, with the case for an extension yet to be made.

Trouble with the Curve

Eastwood’s new film Trouble with the Curve illustrates his loyalty to those who make the case for it – it’s the first time in twenty years he’s acted in a movie without also directing it, and the first-time director Robert Lorenz has worked for him in various capacities for almost that long. He plays Gus, an elderly scout for the Atlanta Braves, still working out stats by hand and relying on his observations and instincts, long after most of his counterparts have entered the computer age (as many have pointed out, the movie provides a vague counterargument to last year’s Moneyball). His daughter Mickey (Amy Adams) is a hard-driving lawyer on the brink of partnership, and a shrewd baseball brain herself as a consequence of a girlhood spent trailing her dad around; their relationship is now uneasy, but she accompanies him on a make-or-break trip to assess a hot new prospect. Also hanging round is Johnny (Justin Timberlake), a scout from a rival team, who soon starts scouting Mickey as much as he does the players.  

Clint, of course, plays it stubborn and cantankerous, but in the pantheon of wrinkly pains in the ass, Gus is a much milder creation than the character he played last time round, in Gran Torino (which really seemed  tailor-made as Eastwood’s final screen appearance). Lorenz only occasionally taps into the star’s iconic status, for example in a full-bore close-up when Gus mists up by his wife’s grave while talk-singing You are my Sunshine (and of course, those details may tell you all you need to know about the movie) – a lot of the time though, it feels like the inexperienced director was preoccupied by constantly moving on, but without his mentor’s long-honed instinct for whether he’d gotten close enough first. The film’s evocation of organizations and environments – whether it’s the law office, the baseball organization, or the small-town settings of their road trip – feels consistently shallow, and most of the character interactions are perfunctory. The main exception is Adams, an exceptionally bright and resourceful actor here as always.

Still, this kind of bread-and-butter star vehicle has almost gone the way of the computer-free scout now, and I didn’t mind watching it one bit. The film’s real point – not that it should ever have been in much doubt – connects in a flurry of final-act hits, and is simply this: the good people get their rewards, and the a-holes get their comeuppance. I don’t think the movie will be winning any screenwriting awards, but there’s certainly some skill involved in  firing/discrediting/taking down so many individuals while simultaneously valorizing/redeeming/transforming others. None of it makes any sense, but that’s always been the nature of bread-and-butter star vehicles I guess.

Trouble with the Mitt

Going back to the infamous speech in this light, Eastwood’s pretty clearly concluded that Obama belongs in the group that needs to get their comeuppance, a conclusion reached (and expressed) on the basis of instinct more than detailed analysis. Unfortunately for Romney, it’s not as apparent that Eastwood thinks he really belongs with the good guys. Trouble with the Curve is full of old-time actors like Ed Lauter and Tom Dreesen, just hanging out, delivering a line or two, incidental to the film’s driving project, and it feels to me like he’d be most inclined to shove Romney in with those guys (as a Letterman joke put it, maybe he could have cast Mitt as “the guy in the restaurant that comes to your table to make sure everything's all right”). But actually, if Clint directs again, I think he’d be more intrigued by the possibilities of casting the empty chair than by anything to do with Romney.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

2005 Toronto Film Festival Report, Part Seven

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in October 2005)

This is the seventh of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 2005 Toronto Film Festival.


The Matador (Richard Shepherd)

A thin contrivance that somehow hit the Festival jackpot as a gala presentation, this under-nourished comedy stars Pierce Brosnan (relishing the opportunity and almost carrying the picture) as a self-described “psychopathic but not psychotic” hitman and Greg Kinnear as a struggling businessman who crosses paths with him in Mexico; as in the recent L’homme du train, their utter lack of common ground provides the impetus for a bizarre rapport (although, Brosnan reminds the other, “just because we shared a laugh doesn’t mean I’m not unsavoury.”) Events later lead to a second meeting, on Kinnear’s suburban home turf, after Brosnan has fallen on hard times. Most of the (isolated) laughs come from convoluted Brosnan asides such as: “I look like a Bangkok hooker on a Sunday morning after the Navy left town” (which, if you try it out, is much easier to write than to deliver). That aside, the movie feels very musty – it could almost have been one of the lesser Lemmon-Matthau comedies (a variation on Buddy Buddy) and seems at least one rewrite short of completion, particularly as regards the rushed ending.


L’Enfant (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)

The Dardenne brothers won a second Cannes Golden Palm for their latest film – the first was for Rosetta in 1999. According to the programme book, the inspiration for the new film was a young woman who the directors observed frantically pushing a pram, and their films all convey a disciplined adherence to documentary-style realism. Their last film The Son gained some amused fame for the amount of time the camera spent pointing at the back of its protagonist’s head; it was as scrupulous in following the quotidian details of his work, which is his self-definition and ultimately a means of redemption for another troubled character. One gets the impression that the Dardennes would consider conventional notions of cinematic beauty to be merely frivolous, but the danger has been that their films might become more interesting as anthropological exhibits – like staring through the fence into a monastery – than as aesthetic works. L’Enfant does nothing to dispel this thought, and since the film’s sociological content is mostly trite, it generally offers little more than easy entertainment, at which I must say it’s rather too effective for its own higher-minded good.


The main character is a young ne’er-do-well, living through petty crime, whose girlfriend has just given birth to a baby boy; without consulting her, he sells the child into black market adoption, gets it back when she freaks out, but then finds himself in serious debt to the thwarted buyers. The character is portrayed as something of a lovable rogue, but he’s clearly an embodiment of an ethical and educational environment gone horribly wrong (it’s pretty easy to decode the duality in the film’s title – the title of The Son worked in much the same way). The social critique has to be largely inferred though, through such things as the film’s merely minimal trace of any institutional intervention. It resembles a knowing antithesis to The Son in this regard, and in the way that the character may be partly adrift because of having nothing better to do; this is a somewhat conservative stance though, another respect in which the Dardennes seem to me something less than humanist pioneers. Given that L’Enfant also has a soft, indulgent ending (although the easily seduced will regard it as redemptive), that second Palme d’or seems generous indeed.


Mary (Abel Ferrara)

Ferrara’s fiery movie seems to have one overriding point: Mel Gibson is full of s***. Although Gibson himself is only mentioned once, it’s impossible to imagine that Mary would have been made if not for The Passion of the Christ; Ferrara clearly finds obnoxious the self-righteous authoritarianism that surrounded that film, and considers Gibson himself merely a narcissist. He dramatizes this via an arrogant actor-director (played to the hilt by Matthew Modine) whose own Jesus film is attracting heated protests, and whose co-star (Juliette Binoche) has undergone a spiritual conversion and moved to Israel. Forest Whitaker plays a Charlie-Rose like TV interviewer who’s conducting a series of interviews on the nature of faith (with real-life interviewees, Zelig style); meanwhile he’s cheating on his pregnant wife. The object lesson is that faith arises out of lived experience and properly takes a multiplicity of forms; any claim to objective truth is generally repellent on its own terms and ignores the contradictions in the Gospels and other historical texts. Ferrara conveys this in a turbulent dialectical manner; some would see the film as being something of a mess. Echoes of his classic Bad Lieutenant emerge in Whitaker’s ultimate spiritual agony, but for the most part the film belongs to the sleeker Ferrara of his later films like The Blackout and New Rose Hotel. It’s intriguingly turbulent, and seemingly persuasive as a handy survey of current theological thinking; on the other hand the project seems inherently rather petulant.


Entre ses mains (Anne Fontaine)

Fontaine’s last film Nathalie played the festival as a gala a couple of years ago. It’s about a woman who facilitates an affair for her husband, and at times it explores the structure of desire in subtle ways; the closing twist though couldn’t be more clearly signposted, and the film suffers from distinct repetition and artistic narrowness. Nathalie stars Fanny Ardant, Gerard Depardieu and Emmanuelle Beart, perhaps an inappropriately prestigious cast in the circumstances, making the movie’s small virtues seem like water off their plush backs. Fontaine’s new film uses much less high profile actors, and achieves far greater success. It’s about a young married insurance claims officer who becomes involved with a vet – initially he seems quirky and his attention to her is diverting, but his idiosyncrasies gradually become disturbing, perhaps to the point of identifying him as the serial killer who’s terrorizing the town. Nothing very new to that outline perhaps, except the woman’s profession, and that seems significant: insurance’s function as a mitigator of risk and accidents illuminates the film’s examination of contrasting (but of course also interconnected) emotional strategizing. He avoids his pain by spreading his relations thin; she seeks to hedge the predictability of her generally happy marriage. This premise becomes darker and darker, so that what starts as a light observational diversion becomes intensely primal and traumatized. Entre ses mains suggests that Fontaine is capable of major work, although the thesis of this particular film, despite its exemplary execution, ultimately feels just a little too narrow for it to be categorized as that.

My film festival

As I wrote here last week, I don’t go to the film festival any more, and I was never even in the vicinity of any of it, except that on the Wednesday morning I walked past the Ritz Carlton and saw four bored-looking photographers monitoring the entrance. I came back an hour later and it was down to two bored-looking photographers. During that hour I did score a celebrity sighting – I saw David Suzuki, but I guess that’s not so unusual in the vicinity of the CBC building. Anyway, maybe it’s just me, but the festival coverage seemed somewhat heavy-hearted this year, even desperate at times, like a girl who keeps rhapsodizing about her boyfriend even though she knows he doesn’t really love her, and she knows he knows she knows, and she knows you know.

It does raise some quasi-interesting issues though. For example, CP24 devoted an inordinate time to a documentary about 60’s radical Angela Davis, a movie which would surely have been submerged by all around it, if not that Will Smith was a producer, and turned up in support, with the whole family in tow. I think it’s generally good to know a bit about Angela Davis, but then a fine recent movie about her and others, The Black Power Mixtape, didn’t even get a release here. Is any new awareness of Davis (even if we assume it’s not going to be largely superficial and transient) undermined by this celebrity anointing? I personally think it is, that this is just a benign example of a displacement that operates more perniciously elsewhere, but I suppose the point might be worth debating.

Madonna Live!

I guess I could count Madonna as a celebrity sighting, because I went to her ACC show on that same Wednesday night, but a “sighting’s” the least you deserve when you spend that much money. The official start time was 8 pm and of course we knew it would be later than that, but we hadn’t picked up on the reports that it would be 10 pm (it was actually 10.20 pm) so we were waiting a long time. It was worth it though. I don’t mean particularly as a “musical” experience – even more than usual, everything tended to blend into an undifferentiated thudding cacophony, and it was impossible to tell how much of it was being generated “live.” But it was a tremendous feat of choreography, willpower and image-making; an eye-popping digitally-enhanced circus, and by no means designed just to protect the star from her advancing years – sometimes you lost her in the on-stage crowd, but at other times she was front and centre and as raw as you’d ever expect her to be.

Ben Rayner in The Star seems correct in noting that the concert’s heavy promoting of her most recent album, MDNA, rather than the older songs that people actually know, seems like a defiant declaration of relevance, and the MDNA songs all sounded pretty good to me. A lot of the greatest hits fell off the table altogether, or were evoked only in video montages between costume changes (as if to say that if the declaration of relevance wasn’t convincing enough in itself, we should bow to it anyway, out of respect for all the earlier stuff); some of those she did perform, such as Like a Virgin, were drastically reconfigured. It was fabulously interesting as a spectacle, but perhaps quite a bit less stirring as a pop concert, and the atmosphere seemed far more muted than at most other gigs I’ve been to, where the crowd loses it just at recognizing the opening bars of something.

The Future is Now!

Anyway, it finished at 12.20 am, so we abandoned our usual practice of going out for a post-show drink, and just went home. Maybe that’s all you need to know about why I’m not suited for the film festival. However, throughout the duration of the event, I did maintain my movie-a-day average, or as I think of it, my own permanent home festival. This included two films by Godard and others by Tarkovsky, Bunuel and Kazan, so that was hardly so bad.

I also watched the recent Canadian movie The Future is Now!, which was at last year’s Hot Docs festival and is now (I mean now!) available from the usual sources after a brief release a while ago. This bizarrely misbegotten project focuses on a journalist (labeled “The woman of tomorrow”) who decides to take a somewhat cynical man (“The man of today”) and reinvigorate his consciousness and optimism by exposing him to a grab-bag of vaguely progressive individuals, such as philosopher Alain de Botton and scientist Craig Venter. Although the film seems to have had some kind of budget, it’s plain in some cases that the man’s encounter with these individuals is created solely in the editing room, giving it the feel of a modern-day equivalent of Trail of the Pink Panther, which Blake Edwards made after Peter Sellers’ death by using outtakes and discarded scenes.

This just adds to the weirdly stilted and arbitrary feel of the whole thing, in which it seems to matter less whether the ideas presented are actually comprehensible or useful (one interviewee gushes about the “poetic” quality of scientific concepts she plainly only understands superficially), just that they’re ideas (I mean, if you have yourself a dog who plays piano, who’s going to complain that he doesn’t actually do it that well…) At least the movie doesn’t ultimately oversell the value of all this – moved by his experiences, the man of today announces his readiness to make small concessions to the future, like using public transit, but it’s plain he’s at least partly motivated by his lust for the woman of tomorrow (played by Liane Balaban, with a grinding earnestness that I hope belongs solely to my yesterdays).

The Dog’s Future is Now!

I had no reason to use public transit during the festival, but I didn’t drive either – I didn’t go anywhere I couldn’t walk to. One morning, my dog Ozu and I passed by a dog tied to a lamppost. It didn’t seem quite right, but who knows, the owner might have been round the corner or something, so we kept going, but we altered our normal route to come back an hour later, and the dog was still there. She didn’t have a name tag, so we took her to the Humane Society (she was very well-behaved – I’m sure anyone observing us would have assumed she was my dog and that the airheaded stop-start Labrador must have belonged to someone else). I’m not saying this amounts to much, but hundreds of other people must have walked by and seen the dog, and Ozu and I were the only ones to say: that dog’s future is our now! That’s because we decided to put our own egos in check and to treat everyone as being the same, just as Madonna does – I know it’s true because she told the whole ACC crowd that’s what we should do. I bet Will Smith thinks so too.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

2005 Toronto Film Festival Report, Part Six

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in October 2005)
This is the sixth of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 2005 Toronto Film Festival.


Where the Truth Lies (Atom Egoyan)

Much of the local commentary on Egoyan seems rather bemused, the gist of it being something like: he’s a genius obviously and it’s great that he’s ours, but you know, it’s not really my kind of stuff. The commentary gets snippier as notional rival David Cronenberg’s long-problematic reputation finally consolidates. The Globe and Mail recently published a largely pointless comparison between the two, allotting an easy overall win to Cronenberg. I won’t argue – I didn’t think Egoyan’s last two films had much of anything going for them. Ararat in particular evoked a disgruntled academic grudgingly translating his theories onto celluloid; it had some structural interest, but was visually and tonally undistinguished, with so little sense of the real world that you’d think Turkey’s 1915 atrocities were the ongoing number one conversation topic in our city. Maybe this will seem like a snide dismissal of a distinguished director, but Egoyan’s films seem increasingly shifty and uncomfortable to me. Where the Truth Lies (which has already opened commercially) extends this, in spades. The subject matter at least seems enterprising: a young reporter investigates a 1950’s Martin-and-Lewis-type comedy team whose career ended after a young woman turned up dead in their hotel suite. But the treatment is deadening. It has an intricate time hopping, revelation-layering structure, but never generates even a fleeting sense of true complexity or materiality. Everything carries a consistently inert, plastic feeling, and the controversy about the rating-busting sex scenes is rather hilarious: you could frequently imagine the movie had been made by people whose entire knowledge of sex came from other movies. It’s painfully obvious that Egoyan thinks he’s making a smart, provocative movie; that he’s bathing our senses in period atmosphere and visceral pleasure while simultaneously teasing our intellect and engaging with our mature sensibilities. But he’s delusional, indulged, and at this point drastically overrated.


North Country (Niki Caro)

Caro’s follow-up to Whale Rider, also now in commercial release, is a chronicle of a landmark sexual harassment class action suit, brought by a group of women who worked at a Northern Minnesota mine; Charlize Theron plays the prime mover. The mine here is depicted as a physical and moral hellhole, but of course for all their swaggering attitudes the men almost rank alongside the women as victims – they’re all locked in pathetic received notions (possibly, the movie hints at least a few times, based in sexual insecurity), and perilously narrow horizons. One of many nice moments has Theron’s mother (Sissy Spacek) switching off the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings (all too conveniently playing in the background of the action) with a shocked: “That poor man’s family!” The film is mostly conventional in its approach – standard-issue conflicts, several dramatic changes of heart, courtroom revelations – and its visual impact comes mainly from the dispiriting vistas of the mine. Although inevitably engaging, with good performances across the board, it’s ultimately the kind of middlebrow creation more interesting as a discussion springboard than as cinema.


Gentille (Sophie Fillieres)

One of my wild-card selections, the film follows a Parisian anesthesiologist (Emmanuelle Devos) whose boyfriend wants to get married, but she’s not sure what she thinks of it. She habitually indulges her intuitions and her affinity for mysterious rearrangements of the elements – in the film’s first scene she mistakenly imagines she’s being followed (and then invites the guy for coffee); in the second she’s mistaken for someone else, although since she in turn misidentifies the other, it takes an extensive conversation to establish this – and the prospect of marriage (all too symbolically embodied in the ring he tries persistently to offload on her) looms as a direct threat to her self-determination. The film is always light and digressive, but Fillieres’ microscope is more exacting than it initially appears to be. She strips Devos naked, in most unflattering circumstances, on several occasions, and as if that wasn’t elemental enough, has her searching through her own excrement after inadvertently swallowing the ring (and isn’t that a symbol about the pernicious nature of what marriage might do to her insides!) Ultimately it’s a thematically modest work, but the good-hearted examination of human quirkiness is a cinematic well that never runs dry, and Fillieres draws from it with more panache than most.


Un couple parfait (Nobuhiro Suwa)

Another French film, although this time with a Japanese director. It tracks a couple who’ve been together for 15 years, on a trip to Paris to attend a wedding; they’ve decided to separate and are sleeping in separate beds, but it seems they are hardly committed to this decision, and they move between irritated recrimination and falling back into long-established behaviour patterns – when they tell another couple of their decision over dinner, they seem more intuitively connected than the couple they’re talking to do. There’s little anger in the film – it’s shot in a small number of long takes (perhaps 40 at the most), in naturalistic low-key lighting; maybe this is overreaching, knowing the director is Japanese, but it’s tempting to see the influence of Ozu both in elements of the style and in the generally restrained but intense psychology. The movie provoked a fair number of walkouts when I saw it, and might be regarded by many as a one-trick pony, but if you succumb to its particular aesthetic it’s quietly mesmerizing.


Vers le sud (Laurent Cantet)

Cantet’s first two films (Time Out and Human Resources) stuck close to the heart of contemporary France, but Vers le sud is a substantial departure. It’s set in late 1970’s Haiti, and focuses on a resort where well-off middle-aged women come to avail themselves of willing local men; an arrangement in which the women overlook the social and racial exploitation inherent in this behaviour for the sake of a fullness of experience (even if fleeting) denied them elsewhere. When one woman goes too far in demonstrating her affection for one of the boys, the edifice soon collapses, although we never learn all the facts underlying what transpires. Implicit in that is the impossibility of tourists presuming to know Haiti or its inhabitants – a land in which one character calls dollars more effective weapons than cannons, and says of the privileged guests that “everything they touch turns to garbage.” The film is an effective evocation of a fascinatingly specific time and place, laying out its issues with meticulous efficiency, although sometimes (as in the scenes of various characters addressing the camera directly) it exhibits a certain strain. I think some will also find its emotional impact a little muted, but this is not necessarily inappropriate given Haiti’s wretched plight, and the shallowness of the bargain that the women cut with the country.

Weekend in Copenhagen

We actually saw Andrew Haigh’s Weekend, which is now out on DVD, during a trip to Copenhagen this summer. It was in a fine old theatre called the Grand Teatro, which retains a lot of the old ornate movie-palace quality even though it’s now carved up into a bunch of small screens. We had a snack in a bakery at the end of the street it’s on, sitting by the window, and we were facing a poster for Take this Waltz, which was also playing there. It struck me that the CN Tower on the poster looked much the same as the view of the CN Tower we have from our window, and I wondered how many people would ever encounter a movie poster that even slightly reproduces the view from their living room (of course, we can’t see Michelle Williams from our living room). And then the following day, we ran into someone from Toronto in the street – and not just anyone, someone with whom I’ve long maintained an elaborate feud, and who would thus constitute a bleak omen even if I ran into him here, let alone on a different continent. Fortunately, we left before things escalated further. (At least it was better than our last trip, to Ecuador, where we were robbed at knifepoint).


We saw Weekend because we maintain a sort of tradition of going to see a movie in every new foreign city whenever we can, and if it’s something slightly out of the mainstream, all the better. Weekend, an acclaimed British film about a short-lived love affair between two men, fitted the bill perfectly – I’d known about the movie for well over a year, and would certainly have gone to see it in Toronto if it had ever opened here. But it never did, despite the city’s supposed status as a major lover of cinema, and despite our prominent place on the Pride map. If you assume that Toronto should show the best films all the time, not just for one week a year, then Weekend is by no means the only disappointing case study. For example, the Belgian Dardenne brothers are among the few directors who’ve twice won the top award at Cannes, but their last film The Kid on the Bike never opened here. I was in Edmonton a few months ago, and it was even showing there – that’s how glaring an omission that was. Edmonton! (The film eventually turned up on the Movie Network schedule). It seems to me – maybe naively – that the Lightbox might have served to plug such gaps, but the schedule there (Stallone retrospectives, documentaries about sushi-makers) seems whimsical, to say the least.

Anyway, as I mentioned, Weekend is now out on DVD, on the Criterion Collection label. Here’s the summary from the Internet Movie Database: “After a drunken house party with his straight mates, Russell heads out to a gay club. Just before closing time he picks up Glen but what's expected to be just a one-night stand becomes something else, something special.” That’s perfectly accurate, but the title already contains a premonition that this something special might not have a long duration – it can’t have, because in a couple of days’ time, Glen is moving to America. The film might thus at various points be seen as a modern gloss on David Lean’s Brief Encounter, even including the use of a railway station as a defining location.

The default state

In Lean’s film, the strictures were those of class and family and propriety, but Weekend is squarely about gay people and the price (this doesn’t seem to me like too loaded a term) of being gay – how it continues to demand a degree of conscious self-examination and positioning that being straight, the default state, just doesn’t. Both men engage in casual sex, but then try to formalize it after the fact – Russell keeps a detailed diary of all his encounters; Glen tapes interviews with his partners for some kind of undefined art project – and we realize how this reflects a broader necessity to redefine an environment that inherently isn’t theirs. Glen says he despises the conformity inherent in having a boyfriend or in gay marriage, as if appropriating hetero structures were inherently humiliating. Russell’s instincts are more domestic, viewing his home as a refuge from a world he says makes him feel as if he has indigestion. Early on he talks about his love of old things, musing on the vast history perhaps attached to an old cup he got from somewhere, and taking solace in the fact that he’s now the owner of it. The point might be that even if the past doesn’t belong to them, there’s at least hope of appropriating and remaking it.

Weekend has its share of contrivances, not least the unlikely artificiality of the entire situation, but they’re deployed here for radically different purposes than we’re used to. Near the end, Russell turns into the camera in response to some offscreen cat-calling, and his stare is scarily piercing, seeming to indict us as viewers: no matter how sympathetic we might have thought we were being, it’s not enough. Still, I don’t want to suggest the movie is some kind of tract – it’s carried along by terrific, unforced interactions and observations, not to mention large quantities of sex and drug-taking.

Talking about Nottingham

And also by a vivid portrayal of the city of Nottingham, where it’s set – seemingly a place where being openly gay is plausible, but risky. I can’t remember whether I’ve ever been to Nottingham, but if I have, it’s been spruced up a bit since then (I fleetingly felt quite jealous of their streetcars, or whatever they call them there). It was funny afterwards to be walking through Copenhagen talking about how Nottingham looked, but that’s how memorable cultural experiences are made, out of unlikely cross-pollination. If I’d seen Weekend in Toronto I would have admired it just as much, but it could never have seemed quite as special, if only because of my own bad habits. On vacation, I didn’t see another movie that week – the film was able to breathe and mature in my mind like wine, whereas back home it would have been fighting for space the next day with something else (this problem, obviously, gets ratcheted up to a delirious extent during the film festival, which is largely why I gave up on that altogether a few years ago).

For a tourist from Copenhagen visiting Canada, I guess it might work in reverse. Still, that seems to me like a neat expression of something to aspire to – to savour and relish our cultural experiences as though they took us to another country. Maybe it’s not really possible, although at times on that trip, it seemed anything was.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

2005 Toronto Film Festival Report, Part Five

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in October 2005)
This is the fifth of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 2005 Toronto Film Festival.


A History of Violence (David Cronenberg)

I don’t really think of myself as a big David Cronenberg fan, but maybe I’m getting there, because in recent years I’ve watched several of his movies for a second time. The most rewarding revisit was Crash, which I’d hated the first time, but which after a few years seemed utterly fascinating in how it constructs its own language of desire and engagement. In a way the movie’s impact is based on sheer persistence as much as on its specific achievements, and the emphasis on celebrity car crashes seems to me to be making a conventional point about star worship, but overall it’s still a stunning vision of tragic displacement. People often disparage sex films for not actually being erotic – but here’s a film that really merits the distinction: it’s hard to get aroused when the sexuality is so completely about negation. I don’t quite know how meaningful Crash may be as a metaphor for anything real, but at the very least it’s one of the great gloomy fantasies of the age.


His last film Spider seemed much more self-effacing than his other films (excepting perhaps his motor racing movie Fast Company, which I’ve never seen), and as such did perfect service to its peculiar protagonist’s inner world. I admired it immensely, but unusually for a Cronenberg film I felt I more or less “got” it at first viewing, which left little reason to want to see it again. Taken at face value, A History of Violence seems even more susceptible to this kind of reaction; in most ways it’s his most classically controlled, seamless film. Viggo Mortensen plays a small-town diner owner and family man thrown into the media spotlight when he displays amazing prowess in taking on a couple of out-of-town thugs. The attention attracts more shady characters, claiming that Mortensen is not who he says he is, but rather a Philadelphia mob enforcer who disappeared years earlier. Mortensen maintains his denial, but after another encounter pulls him into further brutality, his world’s quiet surface further ruptures.


The theme is in some way obvious – that any appearance of serenity in American life is inherently built on violence and thus potentially unsustainable. Mortensen’s performance is masterfully restrained,  allowing any number of interpretations regarding the true extent of his suppression (his wife is a lawyer and presumably the major breadwinner, and there are subtle hints that his situation is one of willing emasculation). When the violence erupts, it’s always with extreme sudden intensity, and Cronenberg focuses afterwards on details of the bloody aftermath,  disrupting the comfortable distance normally allowed us by generic convention (and providing the film’s most obvious visual links to his earlier work). A subplot with Mortensen’s son, harassed by a school bully but finding his own reserves of unsuspected brutality, establishes the malaise’s recurring nature, how for all the nurturing appearance of family, it’s as effective in passing down what is suppressed as what is visible.


The film is generally quiet, eerily precise, conveying the thin line between picture-book stability and sheer alien despair. And Cronenberg manages to transmit the full warped power of the mob without tripping over into showy cliché or crass glamour. At the end of the day, the material remains somewhat predictable, and the general ideas are in one way or another well covered in contemporary cinema (Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River is an especially eloquent recent example). But Cronenberg suggests here an acute analytical prowess, which could herald an excitingly expansive next phase in his career.


The Sun (Aleksandr Sokurov)

Sokurov’s film (the third in a series of studies of twentieth century power, with Lenin and Hitler already covered) is a fairly astonishing dramatization of Japan’s Emperor Hirohito at the end of World War Two – a time when Japan’s defeat is clear, and he must be the medium for its enforced transition into the modern world; but by virtue of his officially divine status and intensely isolated existence can barely comprehend the task before him. The Emperor’s life mingles ritual meetings with personal diversions (such as studying marine biology) that, while on one level banal, express his intense inner meditation on his status. The film is composed primarily of ghostly yellow – there are virtually no other primary colours on the screen – and frequently carries the visual and aural texture of science fiction; the evocation of Hiroshima and subsequently of the devastated Japan are simply overwhelming. Ultimately, the Emperor reaches a determination that marks both a personal deliverance, and the spiritual death of the nation that he embodied. The film’s Americans by contrast appear flippantly certain of their entitlement to the modern world. The film is a wholly convincing psychological evocation, and simultaneously a supernatural postulate of immense dimensions, with a uniquely ominous governing tone; it may be one of the major works of recent years.


Everlasting Regret (Stanley Kwan)

I’ve only seen one of Kwan’s films – Lan Yu, which played at the 2001 festival. That one was mainly interesting for its very existence – an unabashed gay love story, Chinese style, encompassing full-frontal nudity and relatively little angst. It carried off its chosen project so successfully that I felt it could have accommodated greater ambition (although I may not be fully aware of what it took to get the film made at all). Kwan’s most famous film is the earlier Actress, which I haven’t seen. His new film sees him in lush melodramatic mode, tracking a former Miss Shanghai from the 1940’s to the 70’s, registering partners that come and go in her own life and those around her, incidents of joy and sadness, with regret (particularly for a separated best friend) serving as the predominant emotion. It initially moves very quickly, almost to the point of narrative shorthand, then later slows down a little, while continuing to leap across decades and major incidents. Political events register primarily as points of emotional demarcation – actions rooted in free will intertwine with those imposed by institutional or other circumstance, into a barely differentiated whirl of incident.


This is all shot in a knowingly artificial, pastel mode, almost all in interiors; an initial preponderance of social events such as dances and high living yields to the staid (but not embalmed) rhythms of middle age. As with classic Hollywood melodramas, the style appears inherently political in exposing the cracks permeating the official version of Chinese history, although I think the official version may now be sufficiently discredited that the project can only arouse so much interest. I found the film watchable, but not of great weight – Kwan’s style seemed to me too undifferentiated, resulting in a narrow intellectual and emotional impact. I will admit though that of all the films I saw at the festival this year, this is the one where I most wonder whether I just didn’t get it.