Sunday, August 27, 2017

2001 Toronto film festival report, part one

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in September 2001)

This is the first of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 2001 Toronto film festival

Last Wedding (Bruce Sweeney)

Sweeney’s gala opener (a brave choice for such a spotlight) tracks the downward spiral of a young couple’s relationship after their overly impulsive wedding; his two best friends’ lives are simultaneously on more or less the same track. Although the details of the three plot strands may differ, there’s not much tonal or thematic variation to any of it, and the film seems much less rich and provocative than Sweeney’s Dirty. He has a taste for actors with low-key styles and just a dash of quirkiness (Molly Parker is the best-known face, but she’s less interesting than her lesser-known co-stars, most of whom are excellent) and a penchant for occasional shock tactics (usually involving sex of course). Sometimes, the combination of the two creates something quite unpredictable and unsettling. The arc of the main relationship, from infatuation to open contempt, is thrilling in some ways (the open contempt, by the way, never seems to completely exclude the possibility of having sex) but it’s undermined by what seemed to me a patronizing portrayal of the woman; she’s an aspiring country-rock singer dropped into a movie populated by white-collar professionals like architects and librarians. On that subject – there’s something about the line “I’m not a dinosaur, I’m a librarian” that may stay with me for a while. The film’s weakest point of all is its ending – a simple period/exclamation mark to cap off events, where you might have hoped at least for a question mark of some kind.

Animal Love (Ulrich Seidl)

The festival devoted its “spotlight” section this year to Austrian director Seidl. Of the four films shown, I caught only this 1995 semi-documentary about a succession of emotionally, economically or sexually marginal people and their close (and that’s generally a euphemism) relationship with their pets. The animals – mostly dogs (some rabbits, no cats) – put up reasonably well for the most part with their owners’ tactile excesses, which include one scene of man/dog French kissing and lots of dubious romping on beds. Much of the film is set in drab, confined settings, with no good-looking people in sight, and most of it is self-consciously posed, consisting of sad little snapshots of grim lives, or monologues or confrontations that the camera obviously couldn’t just have “happened” upon. Some of it though is all too obviously real – like a painful scene of a dog sinking its teeth into another’s neck and refusing to let go. One of the subjects says that animals have a higher moral code than humans do (in another scene, we see this same guy and his wife advertising for sex partners) but most of these people seem way too needy to afford morals. You watch it with equal parts empathy and disgust, which is probably exactly the intent. On the whole though, it’s too narrow an artistic thesis to be of enormous interest; the film’s exploitative form certainly conveys effectively the exploitative behaviour of its human subjects, but repetition sets in awfully early. The movie, thankfully, left me feeling relatively secure about my relationship with my own dog – although not entirely so.

Ignorant fairies (Ferzan Ozpetek)

A middle-class doctor finds out that her suddenly-deceased husband had a seven-year love affair – with another man. Numerous films, like The Daytrippers, have made entertaining diversions out of similar ideas – Ozpetek belabors it for an entire movie. The woman makes contact with the lover and gradually gets drawn into his circle – a slice of gay society that’s portrayed as a colorful cavalcade of conviviality, with people always dropping in for lunch (there’s also someone with AIDS, a transsexual…everyone you’d expect). Her immersion in all this doesn’t make much sense except on the vaguest level of self-discovery, healing and assimilation; the developing suggestion that she and the lover might themselves get together struck me as the lamest plotting imaginable. Equally simplistic are the contrast between the lover’s warm, colorful apartment and her sterile white-walled home, and the extension of the “liberation” theme to include a much younger man who sets his sights on her. The lead actress is unusually frosty and glum, and her heavy touch seemed to me to embalm much of the film. Ozpetek’s The Turkish Bath had danger signs of melodramatic excess; that adverse promise is sadly realized here. The film’s self-regard is confirmed by not one but two loving pans along the faces of the group within the last five minutes, and by the outtakes and on-set footage included with the closing credits.

Pulse (Kiyoshi Kurosawa)

Kurosawa’s film initially seems like a fantasy on the false promise of technology, with the idea of connectivity turned on its head – ghostly websites start to appear on computer screens, pulling the users into suicidal depression. Later on, the film becomes broader and more apocalyptic – and also more explicitly supernatural, which to me meant a lessening of its insinuating power (how many films by now have created a mythology of portals to the spirit world?) Overall though it’s the best of the five films reviewed in this article. Concentrating almost entirely on students and people in their 20s, the film draws excellently on youthful angst and uncertainty, and its apparent centre keeps shifting: these are skillful genre mechanics, aided by a brilliantly sustained washed-out color scheme and a design that locates the fearsome empty spaces even in the best-lit and most ergonomically friendly environments. At its bleakest, Pulse posits that “ghosts and people are the same, whether you’re dead or alive,” that there’s no real connection between any of us, and the film’s heart certainly lies in desolation and capitulation, regardless that it closes on a plaintive assertion of happiness.

The Business of Strangers (Patrick Stettner)

It’s definitely fair to summarize this one as a female In the Company of Men, although it’s more straightforward and the dialogue doesn’t crackle nearly as much. Stockard Channing is a hard-driving businesswoman who hooks up on a stopover with Julia Stiles, a low-level assistant that she fired earlier in the day. The two sort of bond, get drunk, then join together to humiliate a headhunter who may once have raped a friend of Stiles’. The movie is dark and moderately potent in contrasting economic and sexual concerns and neuroses, finding affinities and enmities between the two women in equal measure. For example, Channing’s economic upper-hand is overturned when she identifies Stiles as “privileged little brat” who’s never had to work for anything, and whose attitude is rooted in complacency; her own modest origins still rankle. By the end the landscape is so confused and fractured that conclusions are hard to draw; the movie may be overstating the inherent interest and novelty value of the premise that women can be as multi-layered as men. It’s dramatically pretty satisfying though on the whole, and at 84 minutes it's nicely concise. Channing and Stiles are both excellent.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Terrible art

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in November 2001)

In the wake of September 11, as a consensus settled in, a few people took heavy criticism for straying off-message. Bill Maher and Susan Sontag – both questioning the prevailing notion of “cowardice” – were the most prominent examples. A lesser-known but more truly subversive statement came from the German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen. At a press conference for a series of concerts in Hamburg, he said: “That characters can bring about in one act what we in music cannot dream of, that people practice madly for 10 years, completely fanatically, for a concert and then die. That is the greatest work of art for the whole cosmos. Against that, we composers are nothing.”

Crafted by Lucifer

This produced a storm of protest, against which Stockhausen tried to back off, explaining that the “work of art” in question was crafted by Lucifer, and thus loathsome. But it was too late, and scheduled concerts of his music were cancelled both in London and in New York. I suppose Stockhausen’s subsequent explanation of what he meant is plausible if you interpret “greatest work of art for the whole cosmos” as a value-neutral term. But who would have read it that way?

Among the movies that were canceled or postponed around that time, some raised concern because of a similarity of subject-matter (plots featuring terrorists or aircraft hijackings); others because of a more general nervousness about abrasive material. For example, Training Day, which has no discernible connection, was pushed back a few weeks. But no one, to my knowledge, ever had much concern over releasing John Dahl’s Joy Ride. To be sure, there’s nothing in this film either that explicitly evokes September 11. But starting from Stockhausen’s weird take on events and the antipathy it aroused, it seemed to me that if there’s been a case for holding back any film at all, then Joy Ride should maybe have been the one.

The film depicts two easy-going brothers and a female sidekick on a cross-country road trip, who use a CB radio to play a trick on a trucker who strikes them as having a dumb handle (Rusty Nail) and a dumb voice. Things backfire, horrendously, when the prank results in Rusty Nail beating a man to within an inch of his life. They scoot out of town, but the trucker has discovered their identity and is out for revenge. From then it’s an extended game of cat and mouse, as the huge truck perpetually bears down on them.

Pure sadism

But if the cat is driven mainly, as cats are, just by the instinct to kill the mouse, he also seems to have some major advantages. We, like the characters, never see the trucker. But he sure sees them. He unobtrusively spies on them and gathers information, yet at key moments always contrives to be safely behind the wheel of his far-from-unobtrusive megaton vehicle. He takes steps that would have required a vastly implausible degree of foresight. Numerous reviews pointed this out, normally with some amused affection – the film received decidedly positive reviews overall. The New York Times for example: “The sight of his vehicle slicing through the night and the sound of his phlegmy growl on the radio are sufficiently chilling to keep some nagging questions at bay. How does he learn so much about Lewis, Fuller and Venna, and how is he able to be both in front of them, leaving messages and setting traps, and hot on their tails? Precisely because he’s an invisible, inexplicably malignant presence, with no motive other than pure sadism, those questions seem irrelevant. All you need to know is that those kids need to get away from him, and fast.”

The Times didn’t make any reference in this review to September 11, although it’s been doing so regularly for movies that seem problematic in one way or another. But think about that second to last line – the notion of inexplicable malignancy. Joy Ride has most often been compared to Steven Spielberg’s Duel. But we’ve all seen any number of movies in which the villains are implausibly well-equipped, or unfeasibly quick in staying ahead of the hero, or have an absurdly grandiose motive, or make too many escapes from the edge of death. The trucker hero is merely an extension of so many gravity-defying supervillains. And it’s always been a given that anonymous people perish along the way.

Time to end

But this abstracted attitude, more than brutal events in themselves, is at the heart of the movies’ troublesome romanticizing of violence. It’s a way of evading the real implications of such acts; creativity crowds out culpability. Right after September 11, commentators predicted the end of irony, the end of filmed violence, the end of reality TV – reality had become so real that nothing short of extreme scrupulousness could ever measure up. But they were wrong – for now there’s still a place for hard-edged escapism. But really, if you think about it for a second, should it be fun to watch “pure sadism”? After all, that’s how most of us have chosen to label the terrorists. We know they have motives and a worldview, but the consequences for the West are so horrific that we can barely accept them as such. So, effectively, as far as we’re concerned, they’re pure sadists. And there’s nothing that’s “fun” about them, or what they might yet do, or what the pursuit of them might do to us.

In the thirty years since Duel, dozens of films functioned by positing such sadism – in our homes, our institutions, our trains and planes and buses. But now we know it exists, and what the consequences are. Surely it’s time for such gleeful choreographing of violence to end. Joy Ride is negligible as a character piece, or as something meaningful, so it’s the style and pace and orchestration that critics are responding to. But Rusty Nail is actually exactly the kind of “artist” that Stockhausen was pilloried for evoking.

The irony is that we’ve been awed by stunts and special effects for so long, they’ve become routine. Even if you pursued Stockhausen’s line of thinking, I doubt the terrorists would qualify as great artists – they’re not original enough for that. They’d merely be echoing the cold-minded commerce that underlies such movies. Stockhausen’s statement was almost as barren as a commentary on art as on politics. But the antipathy he aroused ought to be the death knell for a certain type of cinema.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Three titles

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in December 2001)

Maybe the title of the Coen Brothers’ new film, The Man Who Wasn’t There, gives the strategy away a bit too much. The Coens’ films have occasionally been criticized for having more style than substance, for constructing dazzling structures and surfaces at the cost of much emotional or thematic weight (although, times being what they are, they’re probably among the five or ten most esteemed American filmmakers nevertheless). Maybe the new film is their attempt to take this point of view head on – to construct perhaps their most dazzling surface yet, while making it harder than ever to locate the movie’s centre – indeed, glorifying the very absence of one.

The Man Who Wasn’t There

The movie is cast in the mold of a classic film noir – a twisted tale of adultery, double-crossing, sexual tension and murder, with lots of devious plotting, misplaced guilt, and juicy characters (with names like Creighton Tolliver and Big Dave Brewster). It’s even shot in black and white – although the tones have an ultra-modern silvery shine to them. Billy Bob Thornton plays Ed, a 40s small town barber who doesn’t talk much, except to the audience in his voice-over narration. His wife is having an affair with her boss, and when Thornton has an impulse to invest in a new-fangled business venture (dry-cleaning), he decides to raise the money by blackmailing the boss. Things lead to a late-night fight between the two men, and Thornton kills him, but it’s his wife who gets arrested. Which, of course, is merely the film’s first act.

Thornton perfectly embodies the character’s extreme recessiveness and oddly abstract quality – the character does the things that film noir characters have always done, and that we’ve always known to attribute to avarice or sexual jealousy or a wretched temper or suchlike. In this case, the motivation is stripped away – Ed just plays the cards he’s dealt, regardless where they lie with regard to the law. The film’s several references to UFOs seem designed to orient us toward the cosmic – and maybe Ed’s most tangible quality is a vague yearning for transformation. He becomes preoccupied with a young girl who plays the piano – he doesn’t have much of a sense of what the music’s about, or of how good she really is, but she seems to embody a notion of something finer. When she reveals herself to have a cheap streak, it’s basically the end of the road for him.

The Coens have fun with the classic tropes of the genre, and the movie is always entertaining. But it’s an odd project, and a bit of a barren one. Ed could have been one of the scariest creations in movie history, and I think everyone involved knows that, but the movie sells those implications short for the sake of a more insinuating overall effect.


On the subject of easy-seeming titles, what about the Swedish film Together, which depicts life in a mid-70s commune? When I tell you the film concludes with a soccer game in the snow, uniting just about everyone in the cast (even the suspicious next-door neighbor), and with an ABBA song on the soundtrack, it’s fair to expect a pretty soft touch of a movie. And that’d be true maybe half of the time. But the ABBA song is S.O.S., the lyrics of which strike at least a slightly plaintive note in this context. And along the way, the film is fairly clear-eyed and raw about the limits of this living arrangement.

The commune, with its notions of openness and self-sufficiency and ideological purity, looks quaint from this distance – perhaps from any distance. Director Lukas Moodysson is hard-pressed not to play some of the characters purely for laughs – such as the born-again lesbian who zooms in on every visiting woman (for some reason, her ex-husband’s parallel discovery of homosexuality seems like a more meaningful growth journey). And he builds the film around a rather dull story of a woman and her kids who’ve moved into the commune to escape a loutish husband. But his vivid, intimate approach, darting between incidents, builds considerable authenticity, and the movie’s infectious quality ultimately seems legitimately earned. The film suffers though through being reminiscent of Lars von Trier’s The Idiots, another commune-based film with a more daring thesis and a wider emotional range.

Mulholland Drive

The title of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive definitely doesn’t give too much away. Skeptics might say that the movie doesn’t either. The Coens’ movie may have a man who isn’t there, but you can’t be sure that Lynch’s has any real characters at all. At first it seems to be about a young actress who comes to seek her fortune in Hollywood, and crosses paths with a femme fatale-type who’s on the run from something but can’t remember what. Hints of conspiracies and weird doings haunt the edges of this central story. But after about ninety minutes, the movie goes into a very different mode, in which the relationships between the characters have all changed, and most of what’s been set out so far now appears unreliable.

The internet is already full of speculation on what the movie actually means (there’s a particularly heroic effort at salon,com). I can’t add much to questions of literal interpretation (such as whether or not the entire first section is merely the dream of one of the characters). In broader terms, the crux of the movie seems to me to be the narcissism and self-absorption at the heart of Hollywood – the image-making and self-positioning. If this seems a rather old-fashioned theme, more suited for a Hollywood that’s largely been lost – well, that’s what Lynch gives us here: a faded, seedy milieu where artistry takes second place to staying on the right side of gangsters.

The title of Lynch’s movie evokes a scene that’s played twice in the film, first as the centre of an apparently deadly plot, the second time as a stopover on the way to another dumb Hollywood party. So maybe that’s a hint to what’s going on. But of the three films reviewed here, Lynch’s is clearly the least susceptible to conventional analysis and description. Immediately after watching it, I thought I preferred the relative coherence of The Straight Story, and I thought Lost Highway and Blue Velvet more scintillating examples of Lynch’s “weird” mode. But the movie’s stayed in my mind – not so much because of its narrative mysteries, but because of the sense that Lynch has captured the complexities of something real and significant while still indulging his considerable idiosyncrasies to the hilt. Lynch and Coen shared the Cannes best director prize this year, but I’d say Lynch should have had it all to himself.

(PS I subsequently returned to Mulholland Drive here).

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Gay times

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in August 2001)

In Francis Veber’s The Closet, Daniel Auteuil plays a rather mediocre accountant who overhears that he’s going to be fired. This happens in a washroom stall of course; in movies, the washroom stall regularly yields up secrets that in real life couldn’t be cracked by the FBI. So that evening he nearly kills himself by jumping off the balcony. Most of us would probably view this as an over-reaction (he could at least have waited until it was official) but we’d be forgetting that thwarted suicide is a time-honored device for kicking off a comedy set-up. He’s saved by his new neighbor, who gets him talking, and the next morning presents him a grand scheme to stall the firing. If a company fired an employee right after finding out he was gay, it would be obvious discrimination. So Auteuil has to come out of a closet that he was never in!

Lost in translation

If you think this is a witty and imaginative premise, then the movie will probably work just fine for you. The audience I saw it with (which, for whatever reason, contained a higher than average quota of elderly ladies) seemed highly predisposed to enjoy it. Several people laughed themselves silly, in the opening minutes, at the following unremarkable exchange: “Poor guy”/”He’s an idiot.” Maybe they were Francophones, responding to something that the subtitles lost in translation. There was even a fair-sized smattering of applause at the end, which is unusual nowadays.

But as Letterman sometimes says about some of his routines, The Closet only has the appearance of comedy rather than being the actual thing. It’s only eighty minutes long, and moves along pretty quickly, as an actual comedy would. As well as the stuff I mentioned already, it has twists and turns, fights, misunderstandings, an over the top nervous breakdown, and a guy wearing a condom-shaped hat. Sounds like comedy to me so far. But Veber is up to his usual trick (last exhibited in the equally awful, but also much-loved The Dinner Game) – he makes a movie so anachronistic and musty that it ends up seeming as if he’s mining some kind of wonderful classicism. The film opens with the kind of jaunty sitcom music you never get in a movie any more, and its title pops up on screen in big red lettering of the kind that was used to advertise Carry on Doctor. The cinematography of Veber’s films doesn’t exactly fall into the “painting with light” category – everything’s bright and plain and to the point. No shadows to be seen, literally or figuratively.


Veber’s plots often spring from unlikely schemes or ploys that push one or more of the characters into excess. In The Closet, Gerard Depardieu (his every scene suffused with the sense of physical and artistic bloat) plays the factory’s homophobic personnel manager. Some colleagues convince him that in the company’s new gay-friendly environment, he may lose his own job if he doesn’t tone it down and reach out to Auteuil. Depardieu is funny for a while, but then the character’s supposed to get confused about what his real feelings are, and everything goes adrift (he ended up reminding me of Herbert Lom’s Inspector Dreyfus in the Pink Panther movies).

The theme of The Closet, such as it is, is that by introducing some sexual ambiguity into the way he’s perceived, Auteuil gains greater confidence and control over his own life, and rubs off a positive influence on most people around him. A co-worker who’s ignored him for five years suddenly finds him attractive; his disinterested son starts dropping in for dinner. But the film is a stacked deck. In a company employing close to a hundred people, would the revelation of one homosexual really be such a galvanizing topic? Not in downtown Toronto for sure. The Toronto audience seems to go along with it anyway, on the basis I suppose that the film’s not about us but about someone else (maybe it’s set in the same France that the Coneheads come from).

Veber only ever works in France, but he reportedly prefers living in Los Angeles, rendering his films somewhat foreign (and therefore subject to being allowed some slack) no matter where you’re from. Even the title sums up the fuzziness. The Closet is a perfectly generic, easily digestible, title for a comedy with a gay premise. But since the movie is specifically not about being in, or having been in, a closet, it seems a lazy choice.

If only Veber had slowed down occasionally and traded in a little efficiency for the sake of individuality. This year’s films have been severely short of interesting characters. But at least a couple of them turn up in another current movie, Crazy/Beautiful. Kirsten Dunst plays a rich girl who’s into drink and drugs and heading nowhere fast. She hooks up with a diligent, hard-working kid from an immigrant family (Jay Fernandez), and starts to pull him off track.


If The Closet occupies a nowhere land of its own, Crazy/Beautiful is at least recognizably contemporary. It’s a rather compromised version of that though – reportedly due to commercial pressures on the director John Stockwell (it certainly looks that way in the finished film). Dunst seems game for just about anything, and in some of her high-octane freewheeling life force moments is just about as naturalistic as any actor ever gets. But the film is restrained on the details of her condition (we don’t see any drugs or sex), and has rather too many easily digestible montages of frolic and fun, and too much of its lush California setting in general. The ending is soft, although maybe all I mean by this is that it’s a happy ending. Basically, for all its qualities, Crazy/Beautiful ends up seeming mainly like a movie for teenagers.

But it has some genuine pain tucked in there. Dunst’s father, played by Bruce Davison (who suggests a more complex back story and inner calculation than the film can accommodate), advises Fernandez to stay away from her for its own good, essentially writing her off to oblivion. Davison’s character is a former radical, now a Congressman, still apparently in touch with his idealism, which makes this personal betrayal all the sadder, and Dunst’s reaction when she finds out is as lacerating as it should be. Sometimes at least, the movie manages not to pull its punches. Even if you’re not a teenager, it’s a much better use of time than The Closet. Even if you’re gay. Even if you’re just pretending to be.