TIFF Day Five (with grades from Day 8)
Again, we’ll start short, with my grades from Day Eight at Toronto:
GOD IS BRAZILIAN (Carlos Diegues, Brazil, 2003) — 3
THE SINGING DETECTIVE (Keith Gordon, USA, 2003) — 7
GUEST ROOM (Skander Halim, Canada, 2003) — 7
THE FIVE OBSTRUCTIONS (Lars Von Trier and Jorgen Leth, Denmark, 2003) — 9
GOZU (Takashi Miike, Japan, 2003) — 8
And here are the capsules from Day Five, with major spoilers for DOGVILLE and A TALKING PICTURE
DOGVILLE (Lars Von Trier, Denmark, 2003, 9)
All right … this is The Big One. The capsule I was dreading having to write. The film people are gonna be scratching their heads over next year. The film U.S. conservatives will blast someone called “Rightwing Film Geek” for thinking it’s one of the best films of the year. It was widely derided by the U.S. press at the Cannes festival in May as an anti-American rant by an ignorant man who had never been here. And not for no reason, mind you.
The vast 175-minute body of this film portrays the reaction of the residents of Dogville to the arrival of the stranger Grace, played by Nicole Kidman, and her involvement and eventual estrangement from the town. It’s easy to see how the usual suspects would interpret this in all sorts of ways (some of them invited by Von Trier, my favorite working filmmaker). But DOGVILLE is much richer and more complex than that (the unfortunately crude and literal closing credits notwithstanding), and Von Trier the artist-prankster is too good to make something dismissable or without formal brilliance.
On the one hand, DOGVILLE, performed on an “Our Town”-style stage where chalk outlines define the houses and streets and there are only a few props, is too unspecific to be convincing as a national portrait. DANCER IN THE DARK had the same “problem” — while clearly and specifically set in the United States, it really belonged in the world of movie melodramas and worked like gangbusters as a weepie (imagine watching TOP HAT for information about Venice, rather than enjoying Fred and Ginger’s dancing, for the sense of what I’m getting at). In the same way, the main body of DOGVILLE is so stylized, not so much general and unspecific as defiantly anti-specific (it literally screams “artificial set” at every instant), that it’s impossible to take seriously in realistic terms as social criticism.
Also it’s impossible to take seriously the closing credits — basically still photos of poor or oppressed Americans to the David Bowie song “Young Americans” — while taking equally seriously (I will speak vaguely) a back-seat car conversation between Nicole Kidman and James Caan near the film’s end. That conversation, which I have barely begun to fully digest, moves the film onto another plane entirely, the level of theological allegory (again, it’s not subtle — Kidman’s character is named Grace), and justifies the decision to stage DOGVILLE in this fashion. Plus, the anti-American Americans (think Susan Sontag) who might be expected to lap up this film will see an uncomfortable portrait of themselves in a certain character, who I also will not name, but it’ll be obvious when you see the movie.
So you have to triage something, and my inclination is to write off the closing credits as a mistake and love the main body of the film and its dazzling, masterful quality *as a film* — the overhead shots of the chalk-outlined stage; the use of sound effects for things unseen like the opening of doors (very noticeable at the start, when we’re unused to the stylistic trope; gradually diminshing as we’re absorbed in the film); John Hurt’s ubiquitous voice-of-God narration; the gallery of supporting performances, so good that no one stands out; the framing of the first rape of Grace so that we see people going about their daily business through the wall-less sets; the blinding quality of the cut to the first “daytime” shot, when the black dome around the set becomes pure white; the gold-orange light shining on Kidman and Ben Gazzara’s faces as she tears the black curtain for the only time in the film; the snow falling on the black stage set.
But what *is* it all about, Alfie? I’ll keep my cards close to the vest until more people have had a chance to see DOGVILLE (though I *have* outlined the essentials of the theory in person to some fellow TIFF geeks), but I think that after making “Lives of the Saints” films in BREAKING THE WAVES and (sorta) DANCER and THE IDIOTS, Von Trier has filmed a theological justification for Hell.
THE FOG OF WAR (Errol Morris, USA, 2003, 6)
A major disappointment coming from a documentarian of Morris’ stature, especially since I was so psyched about the subject matter — a profile of Vietnam War architect Robert McNamara, the secretary of defense under Kennedy and Johnson. But it retrospect, I can see how the film’s subject matter was just fundamentally alien to Morris’ talents. The maker of THE THIN BLUE LINE, MR. DEATH and GATES OF HEAVEN makes documentaries like nobody else. He coaxes people into saying things that reveal themselves in unintentional ways — sometimes for evil like the killer David Harris in LINE, sometimes for failure like the brothers in GATES, sometimes for a kind of sorrowful pathos like executioner Fred Leuchter in DEATH, sometimes for poetry like the woman on the porch talking about her dog in GATES. And he shows us parts of the world we hadn’t seen before — the pet cemetery business, a man who builds execution machines, a forgotten Texas death-row case.
And those comparisons should tell you why I found FOG OF WAR so blah — though never uninteresting or boring (hence the relatively high grade), and blessedly free of authorial didacticism. On the one hand, the issues covered here — WW2 civilian bombing, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Vietnam War — have been publicly debated ad nauseum in one or another forum for decades. And on the other, McNamara is too cagey, too practiced, too much of a smoothie to say anything he doesn’t want to say. The film even includes a few minutes near the end where McNamara saying he handled the press by always thinking “don’t answer the question you’re asked, answer the question you wanted to be asked.” And FOG closes with McNamara hinting (kinda proudly, I thought) at the possibilities he left dangling: “I’d just get in trouble if I said more. One way or the other.” It’s as if Morris is saying “sorry, but I just didn’t get anything.”
The ominous, portentous Phillip Glass score, very similar to the one in THIN BLUE LINE, promises dark secrets, but the film just doesn’t deliver. You would think this would be the last thing ever to say of an Errol Morris movie, but FOG is just too conventional. The 11-lesson chapter structure notwithstanding, it even basically follows the chronological structure of a TV-movie biopic. Even the Interrotron (a camera machine setup invented by Morris that lets he and the subject look directly at each other, while the subject looks directly into the camera) is pretty much wasted, though it’s never uninteresting. THE FOG OF WAR is basically just a very arty Special Episode of 60 MINUTES, an interview/profile that is so disappointing because it did not need Errol Morris to be made.
A TALKING PICTURE (Manoel de Oliveira, Portugal, 2003, 4)
I pretty much have to see this film a second time, and I can guarantee you that the rating won’t be “4” afterwards. It’ll likely either be a “7-or-8” or a “0-or-1” (the “4” is merely an average for now), because either this is the most insufferable 95 minutes of pretentious, self-congratulatory Euroweenie tripe ever made, or the most brilliant joke on pretentious, self-congratulatory Euroweenie tripe ever made. I honestly cannot decide, and for reasons I cannot explain without giving away the whole movie. Here’s what happened.
On principle, I have never walked out of a movie in a theater — I will not give a bad film the satisfaction. But at about the 60-minute mark of this movie, I decided to walk out for the first time in my life, as the film was driving me up the wall. To that point, it had literally been nothing more than a vacation film of a Lisbon history professor taking her daughter on a Mediterranean cruise. They (and we) see the sights of Marseilles, Naples, Athens, Istanbul and other cities accompanied by some of the worst didactic, exposition-laden dialogue I have ever heard. These are not direct quotations, but it is the general style:
“Mommy, what’s that.”
“That’s the Parthenon, dear.”
“What’s the Parthenon?”
“It was a temple the Greeks built to the godess Athena.”
“She was the protector of Athens, represented in a 50-foot bronze statue.”
“Where’s the statue now, mommy?”
“It was destroyed by [whoever], dear.”
“So is Athens no longer protected?”
(Mother smiles indulgently.)
“The Greeks protect Athens now. It was just a myth.”
“What’s a myth, mommy?”
“It’s like a story …”
And on and on and on and on and on and on. At various stops, legendary European actresses Catherine Deneuve, Stephania Sandrelli and Irene Pappas get on the ship — playing celebrities, but not themselves. They have a dinner Symposium with ship captain John Malkovich, in which all four people, I am not kidding, give lengthy speeches in their native languages, and congratulate one another on how beautiful and multicultural they all are for understanding one another, and how wouldn’t the world be a better, more tolerant and understanding place if run by women just like them (the EU was founded by nasty men, you understand).
I got so sick of all this cosmopolitan cafe society blather that I walked out. I went to the theater’s bathroom, and after I was done thought to myself: “Victor, you just solved part of the reason you were so restless. You’re 0-for-life in not walking out. Go back in.” So I did, but A TALKING PICTURE continues in the same insufferable vein for another half-hour.
However … (and the SPOILERS are coming) then it takes the most bizarre twist I have ever seen. It only lasts about three minutes, has had audiences rolling in the aisles with laughter, and involves a terrorist bomb threat, but it potentially recodes everything that went before it. Is Oliveira saying that these people are a ship of fools, lounging on the Titanic? Is he berating (and, in the film, punishing) cosmopolitan Westerners for narcissism and self-absorption? Does indulgence of Islam spell doom? Does the first 90 minutes play differently, as something other than the leftist Eurotripe I was convinced I was watching, knowing what happens? It’s not so over-the top that it can *only* be parody (unless the pages of the Guardian and the closing credits of DOGVILLE are the same kind of parody). Does such recoding make the first 90 minutes less boring and thus worth trying to unpack all these questions? Stay tuned.