Rightwing Film Geek

Toronto capsules — day 3

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VISION (Margaretha Von Trotta, Germany, 2009) — 4

Downgraded from my initial reaction because looking over my notes, it was clear that there wasn’t very much right about the movie — there just was nothing wrong with it in the way I had feared. VISION is a respectful (in one sense) if ultimately too respectful (in another) biopic of the medieval abbess, mystic and musician. The first sense of respectful is that it takes religious vows, visions and authority seriously and doesn’t overplay the ways that Church matters relate to politics and personality. I’m too inexpert in the specific history to say if there was hanky-panky in the details, but it felt like a seriously historical work with just one or two relatively mild hat-tips to Our Much More Enlightened Time, primarily an excessive interest in corporal mortification.

One shoe I was particularly happy not to see drop was the L-word. I can’t speak to the details but particular attachment between individuals has always been a potential problem in religious communities, a point of which they are well aware and know to strive against. That becomes an issue between Hildegarde and an aristocratic family’s daughter — on both tends at different times. And the film handles that plot thread without sexualizing it even subtextually.

But at the end of the day there just isn’t terribly much to recommend in this movie. There’s practically nothing about Hildegarde’s music, and she’s only the earliest known female composer in the Western canon. There isn’t much about Hildegarde’s visions — they’re described a few times but neither concretized nor dissected in any theological detail either for interest or uniqueness. Perhaps the film’s low point is a denunciation of Hildegarde’s visions that just comes across as Partriarchy Being Mean to the Girl (I remember listening to her descriptions of the visions and I could see some potential red flags — along with reasonable defenses).

But really what hurt the film most is the inherent problems that biopics that attempt to cover long periods inevitable have. Event B must follow Event A because it happened that way, not because it is dramatically interesting. You get all the “This Is Your Life” scenes that are mere ground-covering, included because they happened, as if Von Trotta were substitute-hosting Medieval Week for Eamonn Andrews. There’s elements of a great story here but it all gets rushed (the ending is particularly abrupt and matter-hanging). I think first of the quarrel over moving the nuns to a new cloister away from the monks — on the evidence here, that could have made an interesting film all by itself. As it is, it’s just a too-quick lick and a promise.

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MY TEHRAN FOR SALE (Granaz Moussavi, Australia/Iran, 2)

And I’m not buying it. A high grade for this movie would just be the equivalent of turning your Twitter avatar green or wearing some awareness ribbon (if any colors are left). This is the sort of “relevant” “political” movie that festival audiences eat up, and it actually does succeed in not being terrible early on — the first scene in particular, even though it’s cutting between three sites, could have passed for a documentary and is deftly edited (the first cut in particular is quite violent). But it quickly settles into its mode — didactic and pandering to left-liberal Westerners’ conceptions of themselves. Here’s a typical snatch of dialog, between the female main character and her Australian-citizen boyfriend — both Iranians by birth an ethnicity; “I didn’t realize Tehran was so big” … “it was different during the war, there were air raid sirens while the world looked the other way.” There’s some silly attempts to parallel Australian immigration/refugee authorities and the Iranian theocrats, and aesthetically, the film isn’t much to look at — some scenes look like video mudslides without the apparent excuse of having to shoot guerrilla-style in a hostile country (I actually DON’T know the film’s production history though).

Then we get to the movie’s central character, a female author/dancer/artist who comes across as engineered to win our approval in the West. But to put it brutally, if I were Ahmadinejad or the mullahs, I’d appreciate this movie being the face of Iranian opposition. If you wish to argue that Western influence will lead to shacking-up, drug use, AIDS, casual abortion, bad pretentious modern dance, and music that makes Joe Cocker sound tuneful and euphonic — this movie will confirm that. And at the end, instead of the woman’s patriotism being affirmed in a way that undermines the regime (the comparisons with Panahi’s OFFSIDE are crushing in every conceivable way, but that one most of all), we get her listening on her iPod to the Iranian equivalent of Complaint Rock (“I see no green fields if hope in this waste land”) and a series of guttural screams at Tehran from a hill.

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IRENE (Alain Cavalier, France, 3)

To anyone who thinks that Von Trier making a depression-therapy movie was too personal and self-justifying to produce a work for public view: I invite you to look at this movie, but as a critical compare-contrast exercise (obviously not because it’s really a good movie). You feel kinda guilty dumping on IRENE or a movie like it because it’s so obviously so personal for the filmmaker. Upon the death of his mother, Cavalier looks through some old papers and comes across his diaries from the 1971 and 72, the year surrounding the death of his wife. This film is the resutling tribute to her. That’s sacred ground. And if I were a friend of Cavalier and he had made IRENE as a private exercise, I’d feel compelled to pull my punches if we watched it together (and I might have an objectively different reaction too). But I’m not and he didn’t.

The basic first-degree problem with IRENE is that it looks awful. Even by video standards, it looks awful — muddy, unlit, blurry, unfocused. In one phrase, just incompetent — you would never guess from IRENE that it was made by a successful director with more than a dozen features under his belt, who has worked with Catherine Deneuve and Michel Piccoli, and who had one of his films placed on the Vatican list of Significant Films. Even apart from that, nothing much is added by the jumbled essayistic structure, or by the camera’s usual subjective narrator POV with Cavalier giving a near-constant first-person voiceover, or by Cavalier’s repeated filming of himself and/or himself-shooting. This film really made me appreciate more in retrospect a personal essay film that I saw here last year, Agnes Varda’s LES PLAGES D’AGNES. Where Varda’s self-absorption was charming, self-aware and often quite funny, here I found the self-display actively aggravating. We see a breakout of shingles on his body (why); we get some fairly descriptive descriptions of how Irene acted in bed (I’m a big boy, but I just cringed); and the voiceover is often little more than musing aloud and sometimes is quite literally nothing but repetition of the image. At one point we come across a door that says push, and the voiceover, in French but subtitled for extra redundancy, says “door says ‘push.’ And so push I do” as the door opens and the camera goes through … I am not exaggerating.

In fairness the film does get better as it goes along, focusing more on Irene and less on Cavalier — we get more of a sense of who she was, why he loved her (and sometimes didn’t), more about the ups and downs of their marriage. The last line brings the movie back to the beginning and ties up that Cavalier learned about two women, not just one, while making this movie. In the best scene in the film, Cavalier describes a memory of laying his head on her lap, both naked. At that point, he shows Irene’s face for the first time in the movie, as part of a photo he took of her and the family dog, the animal sick and just a few days from death. In that photo, the dog is resting his head in the same position on her lap that Cavalier mentions being in himself. And Irene is wearing on her face the same expression Cavalier remembered seeing from that same position himself. It was a frog-in-throat moment and almost made up for the descriptions of her orgasm technique. Almost.

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THE WHITE RIBBON (Michael Haneke, Austria/Germany, 4)

Al Pacino finally won a best actor Oscar for SCENT OF A WOMAN; Carol Reed finally won a best director Oscar for OLIVER!; Kate Winslet finally won a best actress Oscar for THE READER. And this year Michael Haneke finally won the Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival.

I take no pleasure in writing that Michael Haneke — one of my cinematic gods, a man for whom I reserved a spot on my Skandies decade Top 10 films, the man I casually refer to as the world’s greatest pure director — has made a mistake. THE WHITE RIBBON is overlong, overcooked and overt in the service of some ideas that are quite stupid. Apart from being in German, from a certain moralism and from looking glorious in black-and-white — there is no internal reason to think Michael Haneke made this movie. There’s some real headscratcher choices — this movie has the first European 1910s Semitic-looking teacher whose father is a tailor and doesn’t (that I recall) go to church — but nobody thinks to ask whether he’s Jewish. There’s a couple of particularly atrocious play-to-the-audience juxtapose edits midway through the film that killed its chances with me — one from hitting a sour music note to a pig grunting; the other from a boy’s embarrassed confession of self-abuse to the sounds of joyful fornication involving one of the town’s society pillars.

There is none of Haneke’s formally chilly style, no distinctive [gasp!] moments like the rewind button in FUNNY GAMES, Majid’s final cut on CACHE, or Benny making a video in … There’s even, as if to remind us, the killing of an animal — but it’s offscreen and telegraphed from the far side of Danzig rather than shot and edited a la Haneke. There’s even a plausible audience identification figure, and he (I am not kidding) has a voiceover to encourage us to identify with him? Is there no limit, even in the age of “Scrooge McDuck is really sexy”? Further, the moralism in the film is directed entirely at (some of) the onscreen characters — there’s nothing discomforting either in implicating the audience either directly (in FUNNY GAMES and the metacinematic material on other films) or indirectly through judgment of plausible onscreen proxies. These characters are all Germans from 100 years ago — it’s too safe to sniff at them, but that’s all we can really do.

What happened? I didn’t mean those opening comparisons simply to be snide about “career awards.” All three, plus THE WHITE RIBBON, whatever else may be said of them are clearly awards-bait movies/performances. Although it isn’t in fact, THE WHITE RIBBON feels like a literary adaptation and is certainly Haneke’s attempt at a Tradition of Quality movie. It’s also about Germans with material that invites, both from within the film and from the auteur himself, dissection as a Nazism allegory — they love that in Europe, and heck, it might even bring Haneke to the Oscars (this is Oscar bait on ‘roids if Austria or Germany should choose to submit it).

Which brings me to the other problem with this movie — a huge one. THE WHITE RIBBON is fundamentally pushing a really dangerous and self-righteous historiographical error — hindsight teleology. This is a popular (because comforting) error in the study of German history — to view German history as a set of logically-aimed events paving the way, inevitably or inexorably, toward the Third Reich, as if that was Germany’s historic telos. Yes, Nazism was historically conditioned and came about when it did because fortuna was favorable. But it is arrant nonsense, Herr Doktor Haneke, to give us corporal punishment of children, distant fathers, small-town gossip (what 1970s French tyranny was having its seeds sewn in LE CORBEAU), anti-masturbation obsession (I wish I were kidding), child viciousness towards the handicapped, men who tire of their concubines, attacks on cabbage patches (this stupid film even TELLS us there’s a doggerel verse for when it happens, i.e., it’s a historic commonplace) and authoritarian education of which Paolo Freire would disapprove — to give us all this as precursors of Nazism or (vjm rolls his eyes) terrorism. Those things you show, Herr Haneke, were all quite present all across Europe and the Western world, and in every case but one, Nazism wasn’t the result. And then to set it all on the eve of World War One makes it double pferdscheisse, Michael, because there were too many and much larger intervening events to put much historical stock in the trifles you present. If World War I had gone differently, Nazism as a mass movement doesn’t even make sense. If, during that war, some Tommy’s bullet had zigged rather than zagged near an unknown German corporal, well … Some form of German fascism would have formed, of course, and it might even have taken power at some point (thanks to minor things like the reparations burden, the French Ruhr invasion, the Great Depression). But without a charismatic demigod with millennialist ideas and a certifiable mental illness, there is no reason to believe it would have been any nastier, either to Germany or its neighbors, than were the fascist regimes of Argentina, Spain, Portugal or Italy.

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WILD GRASS (Alain Resnais, France, 8)

Dear Piers Handling:
Did you actually see this movie before writing in your description “Although the film is light, comedic and frothy, it is never silly”? If you did, could you please provide an example of a movie you DO think is silly along with some idea of why you think it is so? Cuz see, this may be the silliest (and I really do mean that in a good way) film I have ever seen. This is a movie where a woman calls the police to tell a stalker to lay off after he’s slashed her tires (and thoughtfully left a note), and then calls the stalker *herself.* This is a movie where a title card reads “The End” as a couple kiss and the score swells to a crescendo … and then the movie continues with the same characters and others for another 4-5 minutes (I’m guessing). This is a movie where a stalker meets his victim’s coworker and they have sex practically right away. This is a movie that ends with a total impenetrable non sequitur, after a transportation accident that’s not shown and where the only reaction shot belongs to someone worried about state regulations and identifying marks. WILD GRASS starts out with an image of grass popping through concrete, discontinuously and unpredictably and returns to that image to explain its narrative structure. It could not more clearly set itself up and play itself out as a surrealist-dada prank movie, where illogic is followed with increasing rigor until by the end, it’s absolute … silliness to no other end.

Dear Mike D’Angelo:
Your review from Cannes indicates that you totally got this movie and even its bases for going the way it did. So why the perplexity? If you didn’t find the film’s increasing bizarrerie funny, that’s fine — there’s nothing to say. But the film sets up its illogical logic fairly and clearly (you even use the “Dada” word yourself), and follows through on it as it grows increasingly detached from reality (as I think I explain in the letter to Piers). It’s kinda like how in SMOKING/NO SMOKING, Resnais made two scenarios starting with the opposite overt acts of the title until, the butterfly wings having grown into a hurricane, the same set of characters are in completely different realities. You even got the subtext about Resnais pointing out how bizarre the behavior in romantic comedies really is — in fact the more I think about it, the more I think Resnais is taking the piss out of the American romcom. So substitute PLAUSIBLE and ROMCOM for SMOKING and NO SMOKING, and see this film as NO SMOKING alone. It’s the same idea really. And the last shot is the perfect capper — it has to be from a character never before seen, saying something that doesn’t make sense as referring to anything in the movie, and doesn’t make a whole lotta sense per se. It’s the only place the movie had left to go.

Dear Jeremy Heilman:
Maybe our laughter was feeding off each other’s (happens at comedies), but it sounded to me like we were enjoying WILD GRASS more than anyone in the theater. That can’t be. Surely we weren’t the only ones to notice how finely modulated between sanity and insanity, and between id and superego, are the performances by expert farceurs Sabine Azema and Andre Dussollier. Surely we’re not the only people to swoon at Eric Gautheir’s gorgeous cinematography — his splashes of color and pools of anti-realistic light, and all the crazy dentist montages, etc. Surely we’re not the people who can be tickled to death by a movie that doesn’t go exactly where you know it’s going in the first 10 minutes. Surely we’re not the only persons never sure whether you’re laughing at gags or jokes per se but at the cleverness of a film’s sheer inventive illogic. Surely.

September 14, 2009 - Posted by | TIFF 2009

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