Toronto capsules — Day 8
MICMACS (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, France, 8)
I don’t mean this as a slam when I say that you shouldn’t really need to see this movie to predict your reaction. MICMACS is as “typical” a movie for its director as any film I saw at the festival — it does exactly what Jeunet does: the Rube Goldberg devices, the elaborate scams, the weird characters, the obsession with junk, the baroque set design, the elaborate camera stunts, his stock company in the major supporting roles (Dominique Pinon, Yolande Moreau, Andre Dussollier and several actors whose faces but not names I recognized), the central role of fantasy, a genial tone of comic unreality, and impossible coincidences and planning. At the center this time, there’s a better actor and comic than Audrey Tautou — Dany Boon plays the hero Bazil, who lost his father to one weapons-maker and has lodged in his head a bullet made by another. Suitable for a comic down-and-out, Boon plays the role with a lot of Chaplin touches — a silent dance, fussy gestures, a happy-go-lucky attitude even when homeless.
Yet that confident prediction of mine, at least among my pals, didn’t pan out — several disliked this film while saying they liked AMELIE just fine or a lot. There ARE differences with AMELIE and they don’t favor this film; there’s less emotional heft in Bazil’s schemes than Amelie’s, there’s no character-as-director subtext, and the new film is less self-critical of its hero. The plot of MICMACS has a different spirit entirely: Amelie wanted to spread happiness while avoiding her own, while the motley crew that surrounds Bazil executes a revenge scheme against the arms dealers and brings down the companies. Thus MICMACS can come across as the most-discordant part of AMELIE — the attack on the greengrocer who bullies the mentally-slow boy — stretched out to the whole film.
So some of the dislike I do get, and obviously I agree that MICMACS is not as good (AMELIE is a “10” and decade-best contender). Still, I find “what Jeunet does” to be hugely entertaining even if he’s only spinning his wheels. Scenes like the airport arrest of the African smugglers (the “Jeunet is a racist” crowd will have some fun again) are so absurdly, impossibly overplotted and elaborate that this elaborateness makes them funny. Then there’s all the little touches and curlicues like “it’s salvaged gear, it can’t be perfected”; the way the heads of the two arms companies eat shrimp — different ways, both equal caricature; and the Sergio Leone homage at the end (though it might have been a mistake to introduce pictures of real human suffering in a confectionery film like this). But most of all … I got Jeunet’s autograph while the closing credits were rolling — recognizing him and finding the MICMACS page in the 400-page Guidebook while the theater was still dark.
I KILLED MY MOTHER (Xavier Dolan, Canada, 7)
The director of this film has some learning to do. His framing is often amateurish and clumsy — either perfectly symmetrical or ostentatiously asymmetrical. And heck if I can understand the reality of a shot where people are standing, but above both the couch and the pictures hanging from the wall that still extends higher than they do (the image to the right is an actual shot of the notes I took watching the film; translation from my scribble is in the caption).
The director of this film is 19 years old. It is *scary* that I’m criticizing I KILLED MY MOTHER at this level of achievement
Now don’t get me wrong … I’m not giving this film an affirmative-action grade or judging it “for a student film.” Nor did I simply “find fault” to set up a joke. The 7-grade is based on the same scale as I judged every other film in this fest, and I stand by my words that Dolan’s direction is sometimes clumsy. But that first graf is the equivalent of saying of a high-school basketball phenom that his 3-point shot is erratic when he’s closely guarded — it’s true, and something that will have to get better. But. Still. I KILLED MY MOTHER is so well-written and acted, so emotionally honest and complex, and so clearly the achieved work of a super-talented auteur that these stumbles don’t hurt the film that much and they don’t matter at all when looking at the grand scheme of things — Dolan is scary good. The best “young first director” comparison I can think of is Steven Soderbergh’s debut film SEX, LIES AND VIDEOTAPE — another low-budget, realistic, talky, psychologically-bloody relationship movie. And Soderbergh was an old fart of 26 when he blew away the Cannes Film Festival with *his* debut film.
Despite the title, no mother is killed during this movie — an early scene has the son (played by Dolan himself) lie about his mother being dead to avoid having to interview her for a class assignment (a later one shows a short-story school assignment with that title, but no hint of what it contains). Instead this is about a tempestuous relationship between a divorced mother and her (secretly gay) high-school junior son. Right from the very first scene, we sense Dolan’s ability to write cleanly and we see the strength of performances by him and the awesome Anne Dorval as his mother. The scene is basically a single take of the two sniping at each other as she drives him to school, and all the dynamics of the long-worn argument between two people who’ve had this out before — they fight about nothing in particular, then about very specific things, irrelevant events from the past are brought up, attacks and rebuttals based on role (“you’re supposed to be the mother here”). And then he gets out of the car and the mother says “have a nice day.” Put that starkly in a review, it sounds like a laugh line to the audience or an ironic “eff you” to the other character. But not in context, not one little bit — it’s too sincere and genuine. It’s more like the embodiment of “can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em” (contained also in both the opening maxim from De Maupassant and the film’s closing image). That’s the relationship between mother and son as they go through a year of him hiding his boyfriend (and her finding out much earlier than she lets on), being sent to boarding school, playing off the father, him coming home one night drunk to tell her how much he really loves her, etc.
Nor is I KILLED MY MOTHER all plain-vanilla “couples fighting in the kitchen” — there’s also intercalary moments, slo-motion flights of imagination that remind one of the “Yumeji’s Theme” moments from Wong’s IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE (even the music is similar). It never gets LA PIANISTE-style pathological, but the film is taken into new territory by two late scenes. One involves the mother on the phone to the school authorities (an applause-producing scene everywhere it’s played, though I found it pandering), the other has the son being driven by his boyfriend. In different ways, each character indicates that he’s become so accustomed to the relationship between them and its dynamic that they even act it out when around others.
VIDEOCRACY (Erik Gandini, Sweden, 2)
After this thin documentary, an ahistoric diatribe how stupid and pandering Italian TV put the man who runs it, Silvio Berlusconi, into political power, I stuck around for the Q-and-A because I had to ask the director something he clearly, based on the film, hadn’t thought through. This is how I put it, best I can recall:
I really think one thing your film doesn’t seem to address is the particulars. It seems to say that media power simplistically gets replicated into political power (“TV and power are one and the same here,” it says). But if that’s the case, why isn’t Ted Turner president of the U.S., Rupert Murdoch the prime minister of Australia, Conrad Black the prime minister of Canada. Nor is the larger-than-life tycoon as a public figure a new or unique type, either other men in Italy or men elsewhere (I had in mind men like Donald Trump or Richard Branson, though I didn’t name any). Why *this* man and why *this* country, now? I didn’t get any sense of that.
Gandini was clearly caught off guard, and he replied by saying “that’s a very good question.” He repeated that, before saying “I don’t know the answer,” before giving the audience-flattering answer that “perhaps it’s because people in countries like yours don’t let it happen, you’re vigilant.” Which is, of course, no answer at all … why couldn’t these other men I named have narcotized their political cultures with bread and circuses sex and celebrity, something Gandini has to believe (based on this film) Berlusconi is the only person ever to have thought of doing.
VIDEOCRACY had me suspicious about its intellectual suppleness very quickly, in a scene where it’s stated as a fact that a TV mogul can make anyone a star (I know the history of show business too well to believe that; as Samuel Goldwyn put it: “God makes the stars, it’s up to the producers to find them”). The film lost my trust completely when someone said of Berlusconi, “he has given himself immunity from prosecution.” Well, yes and no. Someone in the film later confirmed (“you go into politics and you can’t go to jail”) what I happened to know — that Italian law immunizes many top officials during their terms of office. And that is unremarkable comparatively, as came up during the Year of Monica in the US — the remedy against presidential criminality is removal from office by Congress; only then can a president be prosecuted. Very shortly after that, the film had me in total intellectual rebellion when it mentioned Berlusconi’s media holdings — “the only three commercial channels, when you add State TV to that, he owns 90 percent of the TV audience,” says the narrator. You don’t have to know crap about Italian politics to see the problem — Berlusconi only has even theoretical control over state broadcaster RAI when he is prime minister. Which both begs the question of how he acquired RAI (i.e., became prime minister) in the first place, but also leaves you scratching your head about what happens to RAI when the other party is in power. If you think monopoly ownership of media is a problem, it’s probably quite bad enough that one man owns all three commercial networks (the Wikipedia article on Berlusconi says they add up to 50 percent of the TV audience; presumably RAI has 40 percent), but Gandini couldn’t resist gilding the lily in such a patently dishonest way.
Did I mention “the other party”? Well … VIDEOCRACY forgot to. Really, the more I thought about this film, the more one-dimensional and overdetermined it became, and not because I’m an expert on the ins and outs of Italian politics. But I know enough to know that Berlusconi has been voted in and out of office several times over the past 15 years — something you would not know from this movie. Nor would you likely think it even possible, since VIDEOCRACY paints Italy as if it were some banana republic or oriental despotism under one-man rule or one-party elections. There’s also absolutely no context or even much sense of history (the basic dates of what happened when are not provided and the distinction between state and private TV is not kept clear). Again, you would not know from this movie that before Berlusconi’s entry into politics, Italy already had both really cheesy television (see GINGER & FRED) and the most corrupt, incestuous and insider-backscratch politics in Europe (see IL DIVO). Indeed, between IL DIVO, about an uncharismatic puppetmaster conservative PM (bad … corrupt), and VIDEOCRACY, about a charismatic media star conservative PM (bad … vulgar), I get the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” feeling. Which is made particularly aggravating by the whole film’s self-righteous leftist undercurrent about the vulgarity of the masses, underlined at the Q-and-A by the director himself saying, close as I can recall, “the left tries to think in terms of ideas and logic, and it doesn’t work, because Berlusconi thinks in terms of images and emotions” (a thesis this film refutes decisively by itself).
Like a good Marxist, Gandini simplistically conflates media ownership with politically-biased content, as if that were axiomatic. But in the one moment we see of Berlusconi himself actually speaking, he says critics of his media holdings “obviously have never turned on Italian TV. The outlets I own are among my toughest critics.” Plausible, given what I know about the US and British media. Is it false? Can’t really tell from this film because we never get any actual content analysis to rebut Berlusconi’s claim (if I were cynical, I would say the filmmaker deemed it unworthy of rebuttal). The closest VIDEOCRACY comes is someone saying entertainment shows are pre-empted or end quicker if Berlusconi has a TV appearance (this happens in the US too, and last I looked Obama doesn’t own CBS). And there is one unforgivable moment right after Berlusconi’s words that one might also mistake for a rebuttal — an admittedly ridiculous campaign-commercial song praising him to the skies. Well, OK … other than getting laughs from hipster audiences at the cheesy lyrics (“Thank God that Silvio exists”) and the Up with People style, what does that prove? Was this shown as regular programming or an ad “purchased” for free?; the film doesn’t say. At face value, it merely proves the utterly jejune fact that Berlusconi’s stations air his campaign spots, as if somehow they shouldn’t. Again, comparative analysis — US networks are forbidden by law from turning down ads from presidential candidates if they are paid the going ad rate, and barred from editing their content. And Obama still doesn’t own CBS.
SYMBOL (Hitoshi Matsumoto, Japan, 7)
How to describe this very weird mostly-comedy? I tried on Mike “The Myth of Sisyphus as done in the style of a Japanese game show,” which is probably the best you can do in a phrase, though that doesn’t get across that for about 2/3 of SYMBOL’s length, about half of it is set in the world of Mexican wrestling. Indeed, in the only iPhone pic I took worth publishing, this is how Midnight Madness programmer Colin Geddes introduced the film — Matsumoto sent him the two parts of the costume to wear as apology for not being in Toronto since it was the week of SYMBOL’s commercial release in Japan.
The main body of SYMBOL (and eventually the entirety) focuses on a man in a white room, played by Matsumoto, a big comedy star in Japan. We don’t know why he’s there, nor does he — only that angels appear on his walls, sticking out like bas-reliefs, and then recede, leaving only their baby-boy-parts visible. When he presses down on one, he gets something, either useful or not, possibly helpful in getting out of the box (or not). He’s like a rat in a cage, only he’s a man, so he can figure out things a bit better. A bit. There’s basically no dialog (who is there to talk to?), which gives this segment a kind of Tatiesque quality of a man and objects he can’t handle. Only unlike Tati, Matsumoto frequently flies into reactions I can only describe as “Japanese game show,” which is never not funny when contrasted against the degree-zero style of the setting, premise and dialog. Some of the jokes are fairly obvious — he loses track of what button does what, and so he only gets soy sauce after he’s eaten his sushi — but it’s the anticipation and timing that are funny. SYMBOL eventually becomes more obviously like a Japanese game show, an escape-from-the-room so you can go up to the next level premise, like Donkey Kong. And at two or three points, the film “breaks” and gives us a TV-style preview detailing what Matsumoto will do as he smiles confidently on the full-screen chyron as if his plan to get out of the room were a game-show stunt or something on “It’s a Knockout.”
Unfortunately, the Mexican segment with which this is intercut is terribly conventional — schmuck dad prepares for big match — especially when compared to the wacked-out Japanese one. Worse, it isn’t really very funny — the Fallacy of the Vulgar Nun¹ is out in spades and the acting is atrocious. When you find out what the two segments have in common … how to say this vaguely to avoid spoilers … it makes the Mexican segment too long for what it basically becomes — a punchline to the Japanese story. And then … again vague … we get other segments around the world illustrating the same point that ARE timed more appropriately. Now that Mexican punchline IS inventive and absolutely hilarious, both in itself and in its sheer wtf-is-THAT-what-all-this-has-been-about-ness. But as Milton would say … “the ratio of length to payoff is too big.”
The film continues in a much-less funny mythopoetic vein as Matsumoto “advances” up the game’s stages. Dan Owen suggested to me a blasphemous take on man becoming God, which I couldn’t quite rebut, except to say that it’s less funny than the Camus-like futility of the early parts. But then we get Part 3, after Part 1 (The Education) and Part 2 (The Implementation), only this one is called “The Future” — and it’s back to the brilliant deadpan.
¹ That is, “showing a nun or priest do things like curse, drink, smoke, discuss bodily fluids or drive recklessly is not inherently funny,” cf. “Fallacy of the Vulgar Granny.”
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