Sunday, May 26, 2013

2006 Toronto Film Festival – Part 1

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in September 2006)

This is the first of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival.

When the Levees Broke (Spike Lee)

I actually saw this on TMN before the festival, in installments, but I’m glad the programmers allowed a space for it on the big screen, where it must have been overwhelming. Over four hours, Lee constructs a detailed, often anguished account of Hurricane Katrina, built primarily on the testimony of those who lived through it, who lost their homes or family members, or were dislocated, or left crushed by the inadequacy of the response at all levels. The documentary footage, of course, is hard to process; the frailty of human infrastructure has never been established so cruelly. Lee’s approach is sober and meticulous, nailing all the salient points about FEMA and Bush and insurance companies (who are subject to some particularly damning testimony) and the local authorities, but never overplaying it, always returning quickly to the human consequences - it’s conspicuously short on the moments of optimism that normally pepper such documentaries. Six months or more after the disaster, vast areas remain unreclaimed, bodies continue to be found, and victims languish wherever they were dropped down (often without regard to family unity), and although the Mayor talks about rebuilding New Orleans, there’s no sense that the institutional willpower exists for such a task. For a director often regarded as flashy and bombastic, Lee is amazingly restrained here, and his film soars on that sorrowful maturity.

Belle toujours (Manoel de Oliveira)

De Oliveira, believe it or not, is 98 years old. His films don’t get shown much outside the film festival, but I very much enjoyed his Je rentre a la maison a few years ago (made when he was a mere 93) – it was clearly self-referential, but with an entrancing sense of ethicism and elegance (and a funny contrivance about a phenomenally miscast film of Joyce’s Ulysses). The new film is a homage and quasi-sequel to Belle de Jour, dedicated to its creators Luis Bunuel and Jean-Claude Carriere, with two of the main characters meeting again forty years later (Michel Piccoli reprises his original role, and Bulle Ogier replaces Catherine Deneuve, quite effectively). De Oliveira isn’t as elegant or as wicked a filmmaker as Bunuel, but his more static style suits the premise of personal demons relaxed by age, and he does work in a couple of images and ideas weird enough to suggest that the old surrealist’s spirit may momentarily have taken over. At other times, in truth, the film just seems a little off (it has, for one thing, the least persuasive prostitutes in recent cinema, not that I didn’t find them rather charming). Much of it though is silent and contemplative, so that the homage is most persuasive at the broad conceptual level, when it merely conveys the contentment of observing something (or someone) of abiding beauty.

Fantasma (Lisandro Alonso)

This is Alonso’s third film; at the time of his second, Los Muertos, the festival programme book called him “one of the most talented and visionary filmmakers to emerge from the New Argentine Cinema movement.” Difficult to assess exactly how huge a compliment that might be, but Los Muertos struck me as somewhat academic, although well sustained. Fantasma is built around a premiere screening of Los Muertos, with the lead actor and virtually no one else attending. The event is framed by various mundane activities within the somewhat run down building complex. In subject and execution, the film is an elevation of cinema, insisting on the fascination inherent in marginal events and on the privileged nature of our spectatorship; and Alonso’s willingness to place his own previous film in such a desultory light shows some laconic amusement at the ultimate stature of the cinematic artist. Having said that, the “vision” here is limited and insular, and the film yields nothing that hasn’t been amply implemented elsewhere. As if it wasn’t already divorced enough from externalities, Fantasma is also (per the programme book) a “devoted homage” to Tsai Ming-Liang’s Good Bye, Dragon Inn, prompting the thought that Alonso’s next film desperately needs to be about anything other than cinema itself.

The Caiman (Nanni Moretti)

Moretti’s movies are generally as understated and modest, and yet as slyly impactful, as the man himself seems to be, prodding gently and quizzically at their subjects, without leaving you feeling any major possibilities have been sold short. For much of its length though I wondered if The Caiman was equal to his usual standard. It’s about Silvio Berlusconi, only recently deposed as Italian Prime Minister after a long, incredibly controversial tenure; filtered through the device of a movie producer, down on his personal and professional luck, who’s trying to finance a young director’s film about the Great Man. In many ways, it’s Moretti’s most conventional work; the family dynamics and comic set-ups are distinctly short on the grace notes we expect from him, and they frequently overwhelm the film’s political core. The tone often seems rather resigned, as if implicitly accepting the opinion delivered by Moretti himself (in a cameo where he’s offered and turns down the lead role in the film within the film) that there’s nothing new to say about Berlusconi, and merely lurching on for the sake of it. But it all seems much cannier in light of the complacency-busting finale, where the framing story falls apart, the gloves come off, and Moretti makes the extent of Berlusconi’s assault on democracy almost frighteningly clear.

Coeurs (Alain Resnais)

In my preview article, I highlighted the 84-year-old Resnais’ new film as probably the one I was most looking to overall. Not that his films have necessarily been among my favourites, but I bow before any octogenarian who continues to experiment, particularly when the most recent results have actually been rather sweet. Coeurs is in many ways one of his most straightforward films, with six unfulfilled characters connecting in various mostly unfulfilling ways (it’s based on an Alan Ayckbourn play, with the illustrative title Private Fears in Public Places). The tone is mostly quiet, refracted through a gauzy, sometimes almost abstracted image quality and a recurring motif of falling snow. There are no exterior scenes, and indeed the search for a satisfactory living space is a key theme - as if one’s inner lack might be externalized and conquered through structure and furniture (the film’s most devout character, and possessor of its most astonishing hidden depths, describes the human quest as being to avoid damnation by trying to pull the hellfire out of ourselves). Resnais expertly blends the film’s depressing connotations into a strangely beguiling surface, one that sometimes quivers with melancholy; he’s well aided by wonderful acting, mostly by actors who’ve worked with him many times before. My hopes for this film were higher than my expectations, but it’s pleasing to report that hope triumphed.

Riding the bus

Michel Gondry’s film The We and the I is set almost entirely on a New York bus, mostly populated by teenagers heading home after the last day of school before the summer: the bus starts off full to overflowing, and ends up virtually empty. Early on it’s mostly full of goofing around as the kids feed off each other; as it goes on, and the collective energy gets diluted, more serious issues and preoccupations come to the form. Since the movie is set in the present day, everyone has a cellphone, so that verbal and behavioural connections are constantly reinforced with electronic ones (in this environment, when someone doesn’t instantly receive the latest video in circulation, it can only be a conscious act of exclusion). Beyond providing glimpses of what they’re looking at, Gondry expands the filmic universe only sparingly, through brief low-tech visualizations of various fantasies and experiences, reminiscent of similar arts-and-crafts devices he used in his films The Science of Sleep and Be Kind Rewind.

The We and the I

Gondry’s original conception of the film was quite vague and unfinished; he fleshed it out by working with real kids in an after-school Bronx program, so that much of what’s in there represents the participants’ own language and experiences. It must be taken in part then as an anthropological exercise, intended to capture something real and current and pressing about their lives and times. In this regard, much as you’d expect, the movie confirms some old impressions while asserting some newer ones. If, like me, you don’t spend that much time around teenagers, it’s easy to forget how sharply eloquent and inventive they are, and of course, how the dynamics of the group may punish those who can’t keep up, or otherwise fail to define their own space. Much of the conversation is a form of testing and positioning, of establishing who knows what and where it gets them. That aside, although the film is of course in large part a celebration, large elements of it might be assessed as fairly horrific. I don’t just mean the specific evocation of youthful death toward the end, but the low- and not-so-low-level harassment, invasion of personal space and property damage that seems on this evidence to be an inescapable part of their regular discourse.

Even more than for many new releases, it’s hard to see the logic of having this film open on one screen at the TIFF Lightbox in the same week as many other movies, with no particular fanfare or context: it’s overwhelmingly the kind of thing that one might take or leave, or at best leave for cable or DVD (when I went, there were fewer than ten people in the audience). This is the emblematic film which, if it has any hope of causing a ripple, can only do so as part of a broader conversation. Personally, I wouldn’t have had as good a time if the place had been full of boisterous Toronto teenagers, targeted into using the film as a springboard for active dialogue about their own lives, but it would have made more sense as a strategy for the film. To treat something like The We and the I as a regular filmgoing experience, presented for the sober engagement of regular cinephiles, runs the severe risk of denying the immediacy of what it represents.

Broader intentions

That’s not to say Gondry doesn’t have broader aesthetic intentions. In an interview he described how he had the original idea “about a more upper-class area in Paris, when I took the bus 20 years ago, and when the kids came out of school they were really shallow and aggressive. They would leave the bus one after the other, the group was getting smaller and the group would get more philosophical, personal.” That basic structure and shift is prominent in The We and the I, and although it seems valid as an exercise in group dynamics, Gondry makes the closing stretch much more philosophical and personal than what preceded it, using the “last day before summer” conceit to tease out various strands that one imagines might not be as pressing on a  regular day (for the riders at the end of the line, by the way, one can’t help thinking that there must be a closer school available – the film lasts over an hour and a half and conveys the sense of proceeding more or less in real time – but maybe that only tells you how little I appreciate the grind that a lot of kids have to put up with). It’s not that the material is implausible, but that it’s plainly compressed, and although that’s inevitable in any such project, one wonders here if it has the effect of romanticizing the milieu. But maybe that’s the whole point, to assert that this place and time, and these kids, support a whole range of emotional and thematic possibility, and of creative force (one kid makes a habit out of spinning engaging tall tales about his glamorous life, which Gondry visualizes in his trademark manner).

For another kind of example: at one point, the bus goes past a woman on a bike, her summer dress blowing, looking as serene as if she were traveling through a French meadow rather than the Bronx, and they all seem to catch their breaths at the unexpected loveliness, until one of them makes a vulgar remark and the moment’s gone. It’s a striking episode, and rather complicated: it taps into the universal longing for transcendent experiences, however fleeting; at the same time, it’s impossible not to register that this is virtually (and perhaps literally, I can’t quite remember) the only white woman in the whole film. The film would be poorer without this brief passage, and yet one wonders whether it’s a passage that belongs mainly to the “we” of the kids, or to the “I” of the director.

Beyond the bus route

On the other hand, if this imaginary group discussion I was visualizing taking place around the film was ultimately going to be worth anything, it would have to carry an aspirational quality – not that such communities should be ashamed or should focus on their own limitations, but it can’t be enough to say life goes no further than the bus route. The film has several students who are interested in art and others whose sensibilities appear a little broader; including the accomplished fantasist I mentioned. By its very existence, the film embodies the possibility of connection and crossing boundaries – Gondry is French after all, and his next project is a French-language drama with Audrey Tautou, which might seem as far removed from here as humanly possible. If the film were just about a bus ride through the Bronx, it might be hard to care that much, no matter what our sociological interests. But it’s a bigger journey than that.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

More summer movies

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in August 2007)

I eventually went to see the latest Harry Potter movie, Order of the Phoenix, on the Imax screen at the Paramount – sorry, the Scotiabank – giving in to the enticement of 3-D (for certain sequences only). An opening announcement informed us that a green symbol would occasionally pop up at the bottom of the screen, as the prompt to put on our 3-D glasses. As the movie kept rolling by without any sign of this symbol, I became convinced that I was missing it – perhaps by slumping too low in my seat for example – and spent much time sneaking glances at the rest of the audience, who I kept imagining might already be transported to a different zone of perception.

Harry Potter

Well, eventually the symbol turned up, and the glasses came on, just in time for some big flying dragons that naturally swoop out of the screen right into your face, and then for a good fifteen minutes beyond that. It’s a mixed blessing I’d say. Occasionally it generates astonishingly vivid, almost overwhelming images. But at other times the heightened definition in the foreground draws too much attention to the flatness of the background, and images containing characters at different depths appear unnatural. I had some trouble following flurries of action too. I’m not an expert in the science of perception, but I wonder whether the ambition of giant-sized 3-D isn’t fundamentally at odds with the way our brains process images. Oh, and the glasses they gave me had dirty lenses.

The technology may take yet another leap forward before 2009, when James Cameron returns with Avatar, supposedly to be filmed and exhibited entirely in 3-D. Anyway, that was really my only point of interest in the Potter movie. I’ve seen the previous four, and although I know the first was clunky and saccharine compared to later installments, I nevertheless enjoyed it the most, simply because of its sense of wonder and discovery. The Potter movies are much darker, more brooding now, which sounds more thematically interesting, except that it’s all such nonsense. At this point it becomes obvious I haven’t read the books either. Well actually I did read the second one, in French, just to see if I could pull it off. It seemed to me pretty dire. But that was after the translator got to it.

I’ve pretty much forgotten the plot of the fourth movie, but a lot of Order of the Phoenix seemed highly familiar, so I’m guessing that’s where I saw it before. As usual, a lot of great actors hang round to deliver a handful of lines apiece, and the central trio isn’t maturing very interestingly. Obviously the film’s technical accomplishments provide much to praise, just as a visit to a science lab does. I really don’t mean to be negative. It’s just not for me. It was the same week, you know, that Bergman and Antonioni died.

No Reservations

No Reservations is a distinctly 2-D remake of the 2001 German film Mostly Martha. That was a nicely poised, sensitive work, although seldom surprising. The new version, drenched in Hollywood sensibility up to the very brim of its pestle, blands out the recipe with off the shelf cuteness (and a side order of would-be poignancy). Catherine Zeta-Jones, who melds a little too perfectly with this limited ambition, is a brilliant chef who spends too much time in the kitchen and not enough in the bedroom; Aaron Eckhart is way too good to be true as the assistant chef who helps her make a breakthrough. Virtually all of the movie’s potential themes were handled more deftly in Ratatouille – even that film’s cartoon food looked more mouth watering than the real creations on display here (if you’ve seen pretty truffles and scallops and crème brulees once, you’ve seen ‘em a million times). The credits say it was directed by Scott Hicks, who made Shine, but it’s just as plausible that it was made by a PG-programmed robot: it has absolutely nothing idiosyncratic, nothing even slightly daring. Not even a recipe. Excuse me while I sweep the toast crumbs off the keyboard.

Two Days in Paris was written and directed (her debut) by the interesting actress Julie Delpy, who stars in it along with Adam Goldberg. They're a couple on a stopover in her native Paris, where their disheveled but highly viable relationship nearly buckles under the challenges of her wacky parents (played by Delpy's own parents - we can only hope for her sake that they're hyping themselves up big-time), her numerous old lovers, and Paris' charming (or to him, horrible) quirks. In many ways it's going for a vibe similar to that of Delpy's career highlight, Before Sunrise and its sequel, although she crams more into this film, giving it a more raucous energy (less potential profundity though). It weakens a bit as it goes on (although she finds a way to freshen up a conventional ending) but for most of the way it's very funny and engrossing. I hope she gets to make more movies.


I was thinking that one day soon I should update the article I wrote a few years ago in which I mused on who might have won the Nobel prize for cinema, if one existed. If I get to that, I’m sure my fictional Academy will be awarding the prize to Raul Ruiz any year now. Ruiz, a Chilean exile who settled in France, used to make three or four films a year, many instantly lost to obscurity, although he’s slowed down now. I’ve seen only a few of them, and I’m sure I could spend my life searching and not get more than a third of the way through his oeuvre. The masterpiece of those I’ve seen is the 1983 Three Crowns of the Sailor, a remarkable piece of romantic myth that remakes itself over and over in the course of two indescribable hours. His most famous film is likely the 1999 Proust adaptation Time Regained: it’s certainly fascinating on its own terms, although I couldn’t say about Proust’s.

His latest film Klimt, another study of an artist, received a rare if brief Toronto release. It’s another fairly fascinating work, although I’d guess it’s solidly second tier Ruiz, with the air of revisiting (if not recycling) earlier techniques. The artist, sensitively played by John Malkovich, often seems here like little more than a pawn in a game of time bending, transposition, reverie and mystery, and some of Ruiz’s devices (characters who don’t really exist, a repeated motif of breaking glass) are definitely shopworn. When I left the theatre I didn’t think I’d learned much of anything about Klimt, although on subsequent Internet-aided consideration I was surprised how much of his essential biography the film contains. By the same token, Ruiz shows surprisingly little of the painter’s work, and explains less, but afterwards I was impressed how much somehow came across, as if Ruiz’s complex structure were a code that your aesthetic sense slowly interprets subliminally. This basic attribute, whereby even a director’s lesser works still resonate more rewardingly afterwards than most of their contemporaries’ prime achievements, goes down real big with my award committee.


Cinematic obsessions

Rodney Ascher’s new documentary Room 237 is an enjoyable journey to one of the many peculiar fringes of cinematic preoccupation. It’s an investigation of sorts into Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film The Shining, one of the emblematic works for which the whole somehow seems to amount to much more than the sum of the parts. Ascher builds his film around five unseen commentators, all after years of reflection and multiple close viewings proposing different paths into the film. One detects references to the treatment of native Americans; another to Nazi Germany and the Holocaust; another sees it as Kubrick’s hidden acknowledgment of his role in faking the footage of the Apollo 11 movie landings.

Filming The Shining

Kubrick’s film, you’ll likely recall, was based on Stephen King’s novel about a troubled man, Jack Torrance, who takes a job as a winter janitor in a remote Colorado resort hotel, bringing along his wife and young son, who has telepathic powers; under the hotel’s malign influence (emanating in particular from the supernatural imprint of a predecessor janitor who went mad and murdered his family), Torrance loses his bearings completely. I haven’t seen the film in a few years, and I haven’t read the book for decades, but I remember having mixed feelings when I first saw it – as many others did – about Kubrick’s dumping of much of King’s backstory, barely allowing us any time with the pre-crisis Torrance (the coarsening of Jack Nicholson’s image seems to date from his performance here). King himself disliked the movie, and later wrote and produced his own more faithful version for TV.

I now imagine that Kubrick assessed the source material as being essentially somewhat silly, and understood that normal concepts of “causality” and “motivation” and suchlike rapidly become absurd in such contexts; at the same time of course, suspending or short-circuiting these concepts allows huge potential creative flexibility and evocative power. One of the (I think) most prescient comments in Room 237 posits that The Shining works as a kind of dream in which elements of a fraught past circulate, and in which the film’s present represents an attempt to grapple with it (Kubrick’s last film Eyes Wide Shut seems to have flowed from a similar intention). To the extent it only encompasses the specific traumas of the hotel, this “waking dream” theory might seem largely obvious, but Room 237 is intermittently quite persuasive in arguing that Kubrick broadened the effect by implanting or knowingly allowing some or all of the historical events I mentioned to echo through the film, and it’s very informative on how aspects of design and artfully broken continuity contribute to this.

No accidents?

Even more than most films, little in The Shining is accidental. The sets were constructed entirely in England, somewhat based on, but in no way scrupulously faithful to, an actual hotel in Colorado; everything the commentators latch onto, whether the labels on cans of food, or the lettering of a room key, reflects some kind of deliberate decision of design or procurement (by someone anyway, if not necessarily by Kubrick). Because The Shining is so concentrated, and is so visually precise and uncluttered, and because of Kubrick’s immense attention to light and design, and his facility with startling swerves of behaviour and expression, his images carry immense weight; watching them before video and DVD, it’s no surprise if audiences carried the constant sense of something escaping them.
But does this in any way constitute a kind of “code” that demands to be broken? Girish Shambu argues, not unfairly, that Room 237 is essentially a “representation of the practice of film criticism,” and as such sees two problems in the film: that the practice “often comes across as outré, freakish or crackpot” and that “film criticism here is a largely apolitical, hermetic activity that moves inwards, carving out a self-enclosed space, the space of a cognitive puzzle, a puzzle to be solved based on clues well hidden by a genius filmmaker.” He goes on: “Spotting hidden references to the Holocaust or to the genocide of Native Americans is not in itself a critically or politically reflective activity. The Shining (while being a wonderful film, for many reasons) simply does not engage with these weighty historical traumas. It is not ‘about’ them in any meaningful way. And neither does it have to be in order to be a great film. But when Room 237 represents film analysis in a manner that treats it as little more than a clever puzzle-solving exercise, it gives no hint as to the social value and political/aesthetic worth of this public activity. It never intuits what is truly at stake in the activity of paying close, analytical attention to films.”

Total balderdash

I think those are entirely fair comments, if you accept the initial premise that Room 237 is in some sense about film criticism. But I don’t think that’s really the case. For one thing, film criticism is always inevitably a function of the critic’s own ideology, sensibility and so forth as much as of the film itself. But Ascher goes out of his way to withhold this element from Room 237 – we never see the commentators, and pick up only stray bits of biographical detail about them (at one point, one of them interrupts himself to go and deal with a crying child, a rather curious editing decision which at least confirms we’re not listening solely to a series of friendless loons). He could plainly have tried to adjudicate some of this, by bringing in people who worked on the film (Leon Vitali, Kubrick’s assistant of the time, has said he “was falling about laughing most of the time,” while watching Room 237, adding: “There are ideas espoused in the movie that I know to be total balderdash”) or appealing to more distanced commentators for perspective. Absent any of this, the film becomes more of an abstracted reverie (I doubt many viewers will keep all of the commentators separate in their minds – certainly I couldn’t) on engagement and possibility and, whether they’d acknowledge it or not, play. Shambu’s absolutely right: Ascher never says to them, basically, well even if you’re right, so what? - what do we now know about (say) the Holocaust that we didn’t before? But in this context you can see that as an act of benevolence rather than omission.

Frankly, as filmic obsessions go, we’re dealing in a fairly elevated neighbourhood here. I’m sure the majority of obsessive multiple viewing in the world is directed towards things like the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the Star Wars series, an exercise which truly has no purpose other than to remove you from real concerns and to cement your identity as a hapless tool of calculated corporatism. The commentators in Room 237 may not be spending all their time as productively as they could, but at least they’re in an extended conversation of sorts with a work of art, which is more than most people ever manage to sustain.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

World of choices

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in May 2009)

I think I’m finally honed this movie watching thing to a state that pleases me. For years I’ve moaned about how the art of cinema gets crowded out, even for true believers, by the shrewd, calculating weight of the commercial machine. I’ve moaned about it, but that doesn’t mean I’ve been that good at resisting it.

As I write this, on the weekend of May 2, some 15 new movies just opened in New York, based on The New York Times review section. There is, categorically, no meaningful aesthetic, intellectual or life-enhancing standard by which X-Men Origins: Wolverine is the most significant of those offerings. Of course, by the nature of the investment it represents, it carries the most urgent commercial imperative, but this ought to mean about as much to film lovers as a new flavour of frozen juice means to a gourmet chef. And yet, even serious film writers give Wolverine pride of place (in, for example, The New York Times review section). Let’s not fool ourselves this is some reflection of democracy or cultural temperature. It’s an orchestrated crafting of the public discourse, and Hollywood’s great at keeping it going.

Spoiled for choice

I don’t mind it; I just wish I were better at ignoring it. But I’m getting better. Yes, I saw the previous X-men movies, although they never meant a thing to me. But no Wolverine - I mean it. After years of seeing three or even four new movies a week in a hopeless attempt to cover all the bases, I’ve kept it to two a week, at the most, this year. Further, those one or two are often far from the “obvious” two to see, if I were writing say for the Toronto Star. So by my weak standards, that’s some sustained fortitude. And this opens up more time for what really interests me more and more, which is to revisit and deepen my appreciation of cinema’s huge, gorgeous past. Of course, except in the most tokenistic of ways, it’s contrary to Hollywood’s ongoing needs to promote too acute an interest in previous decades, because if people really tuned into the extent of the decline, they’d just ignore all the new junk, stay at home and watch well-chosen DVDs.

In an environment where 10 or 15 new movies get into theaters (maybe not here, but somewhere), every week, and some multiple of that circulates around the festival circuit, it seems increasingly hopeless to me even to aim for capturing the cream of the crop. I mean, what are we supposed to put weight on? The Oscars? Hardly. A few well-chosen critics with sensibilities seemingly close to one’s own? It helps narrow things down, but no more than that. And how do you define the cream of the crop anyway? As I’ve often written here, movies’ lasting impact and stimulation often comes from their flaws (however you define that!) as from their unexceptional strengths. To be honest, I miss the old days (not that I was around for them) when everyone could simply agree to watch Bergman and Fellini; it must have saved a lot of time, and the payoff sure wasn’t too bad. But now we’re defined by democratization and fragmentation. Sadly, it means it’s increasingly harder to have an informed, engaged conversation about any aspect of culture, except for junk topics like Susan Boyle – no one’s ever seen the same thing. Choice and self-determination can be lonely things.

Anyway, that Saturday I went to a movie I’d never even heard of until a few days previously – Adrift in Tokyo, the latest example of the downtown AMC’s admirable policy of devoting one or two screens to obscure foreign films. To be honest, I read the movie was essentially two characters wandering around Tokyo, and since my wife and I spent a few days last year doing exactly that, I thought, well, that sounds good enough. The movie was sweet and engaging, but I wonder if any of us will ever hear of it again. Then the following day, having no idea how to choose between such possibilities as Act of God, Tulpan and The Lemon Tree, I just threw up my hands and stayed at home. Will this be a trend? I really don’t know. I’m not even sure what I’m hoping for.

State of Play

I’m not saying the occasional Hollywood movie doesn’t grab me, on thematic or other grounds. Star Trek probably will, but that’s a story for another week. The week before I saw Adrift in Tokyo, I put my money down for State of Play, directed by Kevin McDonald. It’s a two-hour Americanized adaptation of a six-hour British TV drama; I never saw that, but many writers detected a loss of complexity and nuance in translation. What’s left isn’t too shabby though. Russell Crowe (memorably described in The New Yorker as resembling a dumpling in a wig) is a crack journalist for the fictional Washington Globe, covering a local double murder; meanwhile the paper’s online political blogger, played by Rachel McAdams, stalks the latest political scandal involving hot young Congressman Ben Affleck, who happens to be Crowe’s best friend. The two stories turn out to be (a) linked and (b) just the ribbon on top of a bigger package.

It’s an old-fashioned creation, focusing on nuts and bolts gruntwork, and faithful to the continuing primacy of print media. I liked how the suspense highpoint involves Crowe merely hiding in a parking garage from a pursuing assassin, scared out of his wits; no Cage-like transformations of ordinary Joe into Superman. The film looks handsome enough, but could have used the greater stylization of someone like Michael Mann, or in particular of Alan Pakula, who owned the franchise on paranoia in the 1970’s (All the President’s Men, The Parallax View). There’s an evil corporation in the mix, but it’s an awfully dull creation: maybe that’s part of the point though, the banal face of high-stakes mendacity now. Likewise, the stream of flavourful secondary characters could profitably have been made a little spicier. Crowe himself though is very nuanced and enjoyable (and not at all like anything made from batter, or pastry, or whatever it is).

Getting Worse

Recent events may have overtaken the film a little bit. Assassins and bribery and political influence peddling seem positively quaint compared to, you know, almost bankrupting the world as we know it. And sadly the plight of the newspapers is currently even worse than the film depicts (in the course of the movie, McAdams’ character becomes something of a convert to the old ways, but in the real world she’d surely be more of a new-media zealot than that). Still, at the end it subtly tempers any sense of triumph; nowadays the spotlight of achievement just makes you aware of how much darker everything else is getting to be. Much as I enjoyed it, I wondered if in some subliminal way the essential message wasn’t that it’s safer to stay at home.

Home movies

I was reading an interview with the film blogger Girish Shambu, and paused on the following passage:

“Finally, scale of the image definitely matters to me; it’s hard for me to appreciate a film on YouTube. I saw a terrific transfer of Edward Yang’s The Terrorizers on YouTube recently. It’s a great, complex, nuanced film, but I’ve already forgotten most of its images. I doubt that would have happened if I’d seen it in a theatre or on a large TV.”

I went and looked for myself, and indeed, there it was. It’s exactly the kind of thing I love finding online – one of the less well-known films by a great director, one I’ve never seen before, and not readily available otherwise (there’s no North American DVD of it). And while I don’t know the legality of such things, I guess I could easily convince myself that YouTube is a highly visible and law-abiding concern, and that if anyone had a legitimate concern about the film’s presence on there breaching a copyright, then it would have been removed. So I watched it too, and enjoyed it a lot, and didn’t care in the least that it was on YouTube rather than on a big screen. I watched it on a pretty large desktop, and sat up real close, which was enough for me to feel immersed in it.

Submitting to the conditions

It seems to me that to be in love with cinema is also to spend lots of time agonizing about that love, and if you avoid one kind of agony, you submit to another. Shambu sets out various other reasons why he prefers to view films in a movie theatre – for example “I enjoy submitting to the regime of viewing conditions in a movie theatre... I like it that I can’t pause the film, get up and take care of something mid-film, or wait until later to finish it” – but while I generally like that too, over time I feel it more and more as, indeed, a submission. It’s not so much the constraints of the specific experience – although as I get older, I see others in the audience less and less as fellow contributors to a mutually reinforcing mass pleasure, more and more merely as sources of distraction – but of everything that surrounds it. If The Terrorizers played anywhere in Toronto, it would likely be at the Bell Lightbox, in just one or two showings, most likely on a weekday evening, thereby disrupting other stuff I value just as much as cinema. I used to do it – fifteen years ago there were periods when I was at the Cinematheque Ontario for several evenings in a row, even doing double bills some evenings, because there was just no other way to see those rare Fassbinder films, or whatever it might have been.

But that only gave me another version of Shambu’s problem with forgetting the images – my appreciation of the movies was perpetually being chewed up by the movie coming right after, by the logistics of scheduling and traveling and eating around it, by sheer fatigue. It’s the same reason why I stopped going to the film festival a few years ago. Although I know cinema inherently depends on our relinquishing control, I’ve become accustomed to controlling the conditions of my loss of control. For me this easily justifies the trade-offs on image quality and other matters, which I don’t think inherently bother me as much anyway. I’ve occasionally been completely immersed in films on flights for instance (albeit always on my own laptop rather than on the in-flight system).

Trade-offs of movie viewing

I do admit my experience of a film sometimes suffers for taking too many pauses in the course of watching it, but it’s just another trade-off – if I only embarked on watching a movie when I was assured of finishing it in the same sitting, I wouldn’t experience even a third as many films as I do. I guess I’m a believer that the perfect is often the enemy of the good.

Those fifteen-year-ago Cinematheque audiences were awfully thin at times, and while the new Lightbox may have changed that, I doubt it. Take how I found out about The Terrorizers, on the web from someone I don’t even know – if you extrapolated across the globe, you’d imagine thousands of people must know about it by now. But actually, as I write this, the film has only been viewed some 3,600 times, in over eighteen months! That’s derisory really, but that’s just how it is – only a tiny number of people care about foreign films beyond what’s new and current (if that), and even if they do care, they don’t have time to dip in more than infrequently. Experiences like The Terrorizers – even as opportunities you can tap into for free, without leaving the house - are already all but crowded out by the noise of the new and the necessary and the prominent and the easy. If we stipulate further that the experience is only fully realized when it happens in a movie theatre, then we’ll only slowly kill off what little space such experiences still possess in this world. So we have no choice but to retrain our faculties – to love and to own and to fight to remember that image floating on the desktop, or on our laps, or at whatever confined distance it might be, as if it were as high and inescapable as the sky.

The Terrorizers

As for The Terrorizers, it’s one of only eight films directed by Yang, who died in 2007: his best-known is the last, Yi Yi, which is on a Criterion Collection DVD, and I did pay to own that! The narrative follows several intertwining stories, but ultimately focuses primarily on an unfulfilled hospital researcher whose wife, a novelist, leaves him for another man – an event he finds impossible to accept or to rationalize. Although there’s some violence in the film, I take the title to evoke much more than that: the terrorizers might be the people who play thoughtless, destructive pranks, but also encompass chilly, soul-destroying work environments; those we can’t help loving even as they make us despair; and just the whole human infrastructure and its traps, and the toll of trying to navigate within it.

The film’s excellent climax first fools us into thinking it might have been one kind of story all along, while then revealing it was always a much quieter and sadder one. Yang controls the film exquisitely, holding everything in balance; afterwards you remember both the film’s many difficult silences and its sharp eruptions of danger. Whether or not you retain its images, I’m certain you’ll be influenced by the journey, which is all I ever hope for. And what a miracle, really, to live in a time when one can take such a journey at home, without paying a thing for it.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

A film with Peter O'Toole

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in February 2007)

When Peter O’Toole won a special Oscar a few years ago, it struck me how barely connected he was to the rest of the event. Whereas Meryl Streep could survey the room at this year’s Golden Globes and announce (whether triumphantly or wearily, I’m not sure) that she’d worked with just about all of them, O’Toole poses a real challenge in the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon stakes (especially if you don’t cheat via the IMDB). I mean, can you name anything he’s done in the last twenty years? Actually, there’s a lot of it, but it’s all dross. Even those famous seven always a bridesmaid never a bride Oscar nominations, always excepting Lawrence of Arabia, won’t likely spring to mind too easily. It’s as if he was playing a different game all the way along. And of course he was. The elements of his legend can hardly be accommodated within the current industry – brilliant but stylized performances, usually in historical epics or manifest oddities; famously wanton behaviour, which must make Lindsay Lohan wistful if she knows anything about it; sheer longevity, albeit in escalating eccentricity and artistic obscurity. And, crucially, the inescapable sense that it should all have amounted to more, and still might.


Hence the excitement over O’Toole’s new film Venus, certainly his meatiest part in years, giving him a valid shot at that Oscar at last. O’Toole plays Maurice, a close version of himself, although hopefully the real O’Toole has somewhat better digs and isn’t getting by quite so hand to mouth. Hanging out in London with his equally aging pals, snatching a few days’ work here and there (mainly playing actual or pending corpses), he gets a new lease on life via the disruptive, self-centered Jessie, a friend’s grand niece. He takes her to the Royal Court theatre; she introduces him to Bacardi Breezers. He recites to her from Shakespeare; she comes back with Kylie Minogue. But already I can hear you saying, sure, that’s all very cute, but here’s all that matters: do they actually do it?

Well, better put this aside for now if you’re relishing the suspense of finding out for yourself, but the answer is no. Venus’ most interesting, albeit underdeveloped aspect, is in exactly how they don’t do it. Jessie is from a traumatic background, she’s been abused and belittled, and this has left her with “issues” about commitment and body image and connection. Part of her initial attraction to Maurice is no doubt his presumed sexlessness, although this quickly becomes complicated (he is played by Peter O’Toole after all). Slowly she offers him a bit of this, a bit of that, always subject to her own arbitrary but savagely imposed cut off lines. And Maurice goes along, communicating a certain self-disgust, but nowhere near enough that there’s a better way to spend his time. It makes for rather icky, almost sadistic viewing, difficult to reconcile with the chirpy Corinne Bailey Rae song so prominent in the trailer and the movie itself.

I doubt it’s giving anything away to say they don’t get to live happily ever after. The film’s final image is of Jessie, alone now, but having attained a different echelon of confidence, in her body and apparently in herself, now happily inhabiting O’Toole’s elevated vision of her. Based on this, the movie ultimately seems to stand as the story of a woman who puts herself on track by chewing up and spitting out a sad old man, albeit throwing him a few crumbs along the way. In this regard, Jodie Whittaker’s performance as Jessie is quite perfect in the sense that she’s resolutely (and I don’t mean to sound like an elitist about this) a second rate woman – not that pretty or sexy and seemingly not remotely interesting to listen to or be with: the kind of woman for whom one merely settles, because she’s the best there is.

Samuel, The Prophet!

The film effectively evokes the stretched, borderline seedy atmosphere in which Maurice is living out his days, sometimes coming close to the gritty socially observant document of modern Britain normally associated with writer Hanif Kureishi. But how interesting is any of that really? And more crucially, what does it have to do with Peter O’Toole, who never seems fully integrated into this scheme? It’s unclear how coherent the film is even trying to be in this regard: when he visits a church and reads the names of real-life contemporaries such as Robert Shaw and Laurence Harvey off the walls, it’s impossible not to relate this to the real life actor’s pending mortality. It’s all a big show, and ultimately you feel they’d have been better off dumping the plot, especially since it’s so weird and slightly creepy, and just creating moments. As exhibited by Vanessa Redgrave’s few scenes as O’Toole’s ex-wife, philosophical now about the way he dumped her and their three kids for some glamorous co-star, not given much here to convey beyond a kindly weathered quality, but doing it in classic fashion.

And as exhibited by one of the film’s most intriguing moments, although it’s little more than a throwaway, where Maurice has a small (but he insists pivotal) role in some Marie Antoinette-type costume drama. We see him deliver his few lines, and although we don’t know the context (and we don’t know if he knows either) it’s completely mesmerizing, and you have no doubt how the old pro would command the screen. This of course is the bread and butter of the real O’Toole’s career – according to the IMDB, his next film is called One Night with the King, and listed way down the cast list, he plays “Samuel, the Prophet”! The real object of Venus should surely have been to rescue the actor, if only temporarily, from such a fate, but it never really gets there, and thus ends up only sharpening your sad awareness of O’Toole’s odd place in the annals of cinema.

This Film Is Not Yet Rated

Kirby Dick’s documentary about the US MPAA ratings board recently opened here for a week, just ahead of its DVD release. The movie establishes easily enough that the process is excessively secretive, penalizes sexuality more severely than violence and in a manner subject to all sorts of silly rules and judgments, and is basically just a self-serving tool of the studio system rather than a rational contributor to the general understanding of movies. All of which is fair enough, but really, is that news? And although I love movies as much as anyone, and have no liking for arbitrary restrictions, this seems to me mostly inside-the-box special pleading. More movies get made than ever, it’s easier than ever to see them in one form or another, and what business doesn’t have its problems? The biggest issue is that Dick spends all his time fretting about Hollywood moves, and doesn’t chew on the real galvanizing questions, whether political, ideological or cultural. America, and the world it makes, sink deeper all the time into NC-17 territory, and being allowed to see a few more seconds’ naked thrusting in a failed Atom Egoyan movie won’t help one hell of a lot.    

My unrepresentative Indian cinema

A few months ago, someone in my building was trying to get me excited about the Tamil action film Vishwaroopam, and specifically in getting me excited enough that I’d trek out to Richmond Hill to see it in its full splendor. I told him, quite honestly, that this was an impossible task – I wouldn’t go to Richmond Hill to star in a film (so I’m a big downtown snob, what did you expect?) I did look at the trailer on YouTube, but that just made it look like more digital mayhem of the kind I’ve seen hundreds of times (and not even just in English). I was intrigued by this aspect of it though: the film’s obviously a huge deal even in pockets of our own city, but if you don’t move in those pockets, then even a relatively cinema-savvy person like me might overlook its existence altogether. Until fairly recently, I found it hard to let go of a vision of cinematic omnipotence, based on the premise that I could realistically aspire to have seen every notable film ever made, but thankfully, I’ve given that up now.

Blind spots

I’d concede Indian cinema as one of my major blind spots – I’ve seen virtually nothing of what’s called “Bollywood,” although for whatever reason I did see the Canadian Bollywood/Hollywood, which seemed to me just wretched. I once saw the 1955 Raj Kapoor Shree 420, which I quite enjoyed and at the time might have thought would lead to further viewing in that vein, but it didn’t. That’s almost it for my viewing of Indian popular cinema. I guess there’s something aspirational about my cinematic allegiances – for instance, I always loved Japanese films, and so I wanted to visit Japan, which I also duly ended up loving. I’ve never been that interested in visiting India, which perhaps limits my interest in its cinema (or vice versa). (For reference, I was never particularly interested in South American cinema either, and when I finally traveled there a couple of years ago – to Ecuador – I was held up at knife-point, so now I feel even more justified in these instincts. I do like Iranian cinema without feeling a great need to travel there, but I guess no correlation is perfect.)

Anyway, I sometimes manage to score a point with my Indian acquaintances by citing a few examples of Indian, uh, unpopular cinema, which I’ve seen and they haven’t; often they’re only vaguely aware of the films, if at all. For example, not long ago I watched Ritwik Ghatak’s 1960 film The Cloud-capped Star, a very moving portrait of a young girl essentially destroyed by the demands of supporting her poor family. It depicts a society alive to ideals, intellectual pursuits, dreams of advancement, but devoid of any sustainable infrastructure for achieving these, especially for women. The film is very detailed and evocative about the limits of money and of the ambiguous attitudes to it, and it’s a bleak slab of life, in no way overplayed or fanciful, but sometimes evoking an almost cosmic incomprehension at the extent of human illogic and injustice.

Satyajit Ray

Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to get to see any more of Ghatak’s twenty or so films (he died in 1976). His most famous contemporary, by a long way, was Satyajit Ray, much of whose work remains a bit more easily available. Ray maintained a reputation in the West from his very first film, Pather Panchali, which won an award in Cannes in 1955 for “best human document,” and he even won an honorary Oscar in 1992 “for his rare mastery of the art of motion pictures and for his profound humanitarian outlook, which has had an indelible influence on filmmakers and audiences throughout the world.” The notion of humanism recurs in assessments of Ray’s work – his isn’t a cinema of high concepts, but of deep awareness of human struggle and constraints. The comments I just made on The Cloud-capped Star might well apply to various Ray films, except for the bit about the almost cosmic incomprehension: Ray is the most quietly earthbound of directors, which is both his great, tangible strength and perhaps, if assessed by the highest of standards, his relative limitation. You come out of his films marveling at your new understanding of India, but not so much of yourself – even when you feel that “human” connection, it’s perhaps too easy to say, well that’s India, and to escape the sense of personal culpability.

That’s not to say Ray’s films aren’t consistently fascinating and rewarding. I most recently rewatched Days and Nights in the Forest, made in 1969. Four young men take a road trip, deciding to stay in a vacation bungalow and steam-rolling their way in over the gatekeeper’s objections, despite not having the required permit. They get drunk, kill time, flirt with local girls of various social class. It becomes plain that none of the four really have anything going to justify their jocular sense of privilege, and this drives the film’s increasingly stark examination of India’s bitter, callous class distinctions. By the end, Ray has masterfully demonstrated the severity of the lacks in their perception – both of their immediate surroundings and of the bleak facts of life histories more generally (and the “forest” of the film’s title is about as barren a location as you could ever imagine attracting that label) - but it seems unlikely that anything will change: the demands of what it takes to keep going are just too all-consuming.

Lack of angst

That summary doesn’t convey the fluidity of events and exchanges or the unforced vitality of Ray’s observations: the film is entirely engrossing even when little seems to be happening. In other works, he explores other aspects of the country’s tangled identity and history, finding little to celebrate unambiguously. For instance, his late film The Chess Players suggests that what to Western eyes often seems most “civilized” or “refined” about the country may be at the heart of its over-passivity at the hands of the largely unprincipled (behind all the pomp and formality) British occupiers.

In trying to sell me on Vishwaroopam, my acquaintance seemed to put a lot of weight on what he perceived as the film’s lack of angst, and I guess the Indian cinema I’ve described has a lot of that. From all accounts, India has a flourishing, tech-savvy business class that likely sees as little connection between itself and Ray’s protagonists as a Bay Street lawyer sees between herself and the protagonists of Goin’ down the Road. On the other hand, I’m not sure jaunty yarns about international terror networks and secret identities really have much to do with any of us. Such I guess is the eternal see-saw of cinematic virtue…

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Christmas movies

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in January 2005)

A first batch of reviews of this season’s big movies...


Mike Nichols’ Closer was the perfect pre-Christmas middlebrow package, tailor-made to allow any number of think pieces about the sexual zeitgeist. But I must confess that for me, the film failed to spark any meaningful reactions. Based on a play by Patrick Marber, it follows four characters in modern-day London, moving through every permutation of love (except the same-sex ones, although I suppose you can read a streak of latent homosexuality into it) and hate. The characters span every emotion from joy to neediness to anger and bilious self-righteousness; they're often at their most savage when accusing others of transgressions that they’ve recently committed themselves. You can certainly see how on stage this would have generated a draining sense of animalistic claustrophobia. But on film the structure seems contrived; it’s all too easy to write this off as a nasty self-contained anecdote of limited relevance to the rest of our lives. Nichols’ smooth, ingratiating handling just renders it all the more dispensable. The star cast (Julia Roberts. Jude Law, Natalie Portman) are all OK, but it’s Clive Owen who’s justly receiving the most attention – he’s the only one of the four to suggest real savage depths, whereas the others seem mostly like prisoners of circumstance.

House of Flying Daggers

Zhang Yimou’s House of Flying Daggers also has just four speaking parts of any consequence, although the film sweeps forward so grandly that one might not realize it. It’s Zhang’s second straight kung fu epic after Hero, and has a more mature, reflective tone – with hindsight it makes the earlier film seem hyperactive. In this one the action sequences (also generally more intimate and earthbound than in Hero, although with some stunning exceptions) alternate with long sequences of dance or intimacy; the soft green of spring predominates where the earlier film’s colour schemes spanned the seasons. The plot involves a government plan to pierce the heart of the rebel Flying Daggers by having a young policeman ingratiate himself with a blind girl who’s the daughter of the rebels’ former leader; it has numerous twists and turns, but these too seem relaxed and incremental after the dramatic reinventions of Hero. On the whole, less is more – the film is consistently beguiling, although it doesn’t tease the senses or the imagination as fully as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, still the genre’s mainstream high-water mark.

Million Dollar Baby

A couple of years ago, after Space Cowboys and Absolute Power and True Crime and Blood Work, I thought Eastwood must finally be winding down, content to stay within familiar parameters. Now, after the astonishing one-two punch of Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby, he again seems close to the summit of American directors. Mystic River translated the cold moral certainty of his classic persona into a complex examination of guilt and innocence, fully understood by the film as relative rather than absolute states; at times, it had a transcendent intensity and sense of purpose.

The new film is equally as engrossing, although it’s not as obviously ambitious. Eastwood plays the manager of an old-style boxing gym, and Morgan Freeman is the sidekick who helps look after the place. The two circle each other in a sparring developed over decades, but Eastwood’s daily visits to mass and his playful taunting of the priest evidence an unresolved yearning (the movie refers to but never explains a long-estranged daughter). A young woman, played by Hilary Swank, starts coming to the gym and asking Eastwood to be her personal trainer – he turns her down flat, but with Freeman’s help she gradually wins him over, and he makes a devastating, title-contending fighter of her.

The film shows no shame with boxing clichés – Freeman’s voice on the soundtrack lodges enough homilies to populate an entire genre. The characters are essentially stock figures, and much of the trajectory is familiar. But Million Dollar Baby seems to understand these mechanics more fully and fluently than almost any other film I’ve seen. Boxing is of course an increasingly marginalized sport, seemingly too savage and resistant to contemporary styling to sit comfortably in the mainstream, but still fascinating for its immediacy and effortless symbolism. Eastwood’s film is an eloquent study in how boxing’s strange mechanics and culture redefine the three main characters, a theme shaped and deepened through multiple subtleties.

His customary low-key but fluidly minimal style makes for a handsome work, with darkness framing the edges of most frames. The style is perfectly suited to its subject – you get the feeling that the light of the boxing ring is their only arena of possible redemption, and there’s something beautiful in how Eastwood circles the perimeter during her fights, intervening at time-outs to patch up her cuts and to explain to her (as if near-omnipotent for all his limitations) the opponent’s psychology.

The three actors are all excellent – Swank, already a revelation in Boys Don’t Cry, zooms back after a run of indifferent roles with another revelation of an entirely different kind. Million Dollar Baby isn’t as ambitious as Mystic River and I suppose its impact is a little more localized – it’s so recognizable as a genre piece that you can’t help but focus on the aesthetic styling. Which helps you realize how long Eastwood has been moving in this direction. In the 70’s, The Outlaw Josey Wales and The Gauntlet were both great genre entertainments, seeped in his shorthand view of character, but already exhibiting unusual richness, elaboration and if anything excessive mythmaking. Eastwood stagnated a bit in the 80’s, made an amazing comeback in the early 90’s, and now stands bigger than ever. Actors all rave about his sense of economy, how his sets seem more adult and relaxed than any others (Million Dollar Baby apparently only started filming in June, exhibiting a speed to completion that makes all other directors look bloated). The focus and relaxation shines through in the films. Eastwood’s authoritarian streak is still problematic, and his films don’t yield the revelations of the greatest artists, but he’s a fascinating phenomenon, and the new film is a thrilling experience.


Talking of directors whose self-absorbed second-rateness is shown up by Eastwood's speed and economy, here's a new film by James L. Brooks - his first since 1997's As Good as it Gets. To say the least, the wait doesn't seem to manifest itself in the quality of the product. The film follows a young Mexican immigrant and single mother (played by Paz Vega) who takes a job with a plush, neurosis-ridden Los Angeles family (Adam Sandler plays the best chef in America - no, I couldn't buy it either - and Tea Leoni is somewhat amazing - maybe that's a compliment, maybe not - as his high-strung wife); there's some culture-clashing and assimilation and an understated affinity between Sandler and Vega. This is all easy to watch in an anonymous, glossy kind of way, but the film is ultimately quite incoherent, retrenching into an apparent notion of truth to one's origins that doesn't sit comfortably with all the wallowing in high-end lifestyles. It feels as though some crucial piece were missing, as though it were cut out of some longer, more impressionistic and solipsistic musing...not that I would ask to see any more of it.