TIFF 10 Capsules — Day 4
CIRKUS COLUMBIA (Danis Tanovic, Bosnia, 5)
Tanovic returns home after a couple of unsuccessful Western-made films and returns to the vein of his reputation-making NO MAN’S LAND — a black comedy about the early 90s wars that broke up Yugoslavia. And an early scene gives us the sense that CIRKUS COLUMBIA, set in a small Bosnian village on the eve of the war, will also mark a return to form. A couple of newly-empowered ethnic-Croat city officials drop by a Serb woman’s home to evict her. Her Croat husband has just returned to the newly-noncommunist country after 20 years in West Germany with a hot trophy wife to make good on his claim to the home — to “put things right,” you understand. She curses out the cops at the door and dumps a pot of boiling water on them from a floor above. Then, while they hop around screaming, a tube of burn cream drops into the frame. Obviously, we’re gonna see the whole war played out within the microcosm of this family and/or village. The returning husband has never known the couple’s son, who is being “protected” by a local Yugoslav Army officer who is sweet on the mother but has no Deutschmarks to buy everything up. There’s a colorful cast of town eccentrics and couples. Oh … and the husband has a black tomcat that is like a talismanic symbol of his good luck in the West. Naturally, it goes missing and the whole town gets involved in the hunt (its reappearance is the film’s high point).
There is a lot to like here and I wouldn’t exactly warn people off CIRKUS COLUMBIA. The problem is that the awesome cinema of neighboring Romania has really raised the bar in the last few years on this kind of story and on having the convictions of their mordant blackness. CIRKUS is really only intermittently funny, and then has the gall to get sentimental on us in the last reel, which I won’t spoil. Suffice to say that there are some pretty unbelievable character arc changes and the last image is unforgivably sweet. Let’s just say it’s of two people on an old ride at the titular circus — the exact same ending as one of the shorts from TALES FROM THE GOLDEN AGE. Only, the Romanian film knows how to weave a sick joke into the situation, while Tanovic just gives us the Peaches and Herb “and it feeeels so gooooood” sentiment, which is not undone by panning up to a few puffs of CGI smoke.
Just a misconceived film, if not exactly an unpleasant or punishing one. As everyone et son frere knows, this film is based on an unfilmed Jacques Tati script, about an early-60s magician being elbowed out the industry by newer forms of entertainment. But I think it’s more than name-dropping to point this out, because it’s the key to why this film is, I think, unsuccessful. The protagonist is an obvious M. Hulot cousin and is even named Tatisheff (Tati’s real name). While touring England and later Scotland, he takes on a young girl as a “Cinderella” project and is so successful, she begins to attract another man.
While Tati is very far from a favorite of mine — I think his comedy plays better theoretically and on the page (this is part of why, I think, he is a critics favorite) — even a fan should realize that pointing out that Hulot was a cartoon or Tati had cartoon elements in his films don’t mean that actually animating him is a good idea. Without Tati’s physical presence as an actor and the materiality of his world, the humor becomes even more theoretical.
There are some funny bits here — the most dangerous rabbit since the Carter administration, the reason the magician rolls up his sleeve at one point, and an on-the-side joke you might miss about British cuisine, as the POV sits outside an Edinburgh “chippie” and you can read the menu. But there’s also a distasteful element of self-aggrandizement and/or self-pity in the story, portraying a Beatles clone group (the Britoons) as loud, talentless nancy-boys just makes Tati/Chomet come across as Grandpa in the corner of the room (or Charlie Chaplin in A KING IN NEW YORK) ranting against the dang-fool younger generation and their awful jazz. And ultimately I think Sylvain’s animation style — its grotesque elements, the lack of speech and a barely-realistic template — works against the kind of semi-tragic story of lost love that THE ILLUSIONIST ends up being. I liked Chomet’s TRIPLETS OF BELLEVILLE, so I felt down after this one and realized I hadn’t really seen a great film yet and started to think, “maybe it’s just me … I’m becoming a D’Angelesque impossible-to-please guy.” Until …
Finally, the festival gets started, with its first great film, on Sunday opening night at the new Lightbox theater. Indeed, given how blah a festival nearly everyone seemed to be having and how I was in the first audience for this one — I don’t even think there were press screenings, I definitely went into TABLOID cold of any “buzz” — I think (I hope, I pray) that schedulers deliberately back-loaded the festival until after the Lightbox opened.
Anyhoo … onto this film — Morris’s best since THE THIN BLUE LINE in significant part because it returns to his roots of making films about eccentrics and weirdos that somehow manage to say something profound about them and everyone else in between all the “oh, come ON” moments (just don’t ever make another political movie, Errol, mmmmmkay ….) The Morris film TABLOID most closely resembles is MR. DEATH, both films being profiles of some Nutcase who is famous for Thing X, and then we learn midway through (actually, about 4/5 of the way through here) about his separate, never-previously-mentioned fame for Thing Y.
But while Fred Leuchter went from just bizarre to wicked through an excess of epistemological and scientistic hubris, Morris maintains an appropriately breezier tone for Joyce McKinney’s story in TABLOID. In large part this is because she’s a much more appealing personality (albeit a rapist and a Nutcase; she could be a Tennessee Williams heroine) but also because Morris is interested in her media stardom. He takes an appropriately breathless, tabloidish tone and pace and visual style. Other than the familiar Interrotron look-into-the-camera interviews, the film mostly consists of collages of tabloid headlines or ironically recontextualized found footage of Mormon missionary films, 50s male-body contests, etc. When Thing Y comes along, it was a shocker to me (though I remembered it upon the film’s prompting).
I went in knowing about McKinney’s Thing X, which was a sensational tabloid story in Britain in the late-70s. McKinney became convinced a Mormon friend she wanted sexually had been kidnapped and taken away from her for cult programming. He was on a mission in Britain, which is routine for Mormon men, McKinney’s ignorance of which fact proves her vacuousness. So Joyce goes to Britain, kidnaps him and forces him to have sex with her, thinking that would cure him of Mormon repression. She became a tabloid sex celebrity (think Monica Lewinsky) until she fled the country. Then Fleet Street began digging about her past and a new round of publicity began
The one mistake Morris makes, I think, is giving too much voice (or any voice actually) to an ex-Mormon crusader who basically thinks McKinney’s victim was either asking for it or even if he wasn’t, he deserved it because Mormonism and premarital chastity are ridiculous repressions from which, in Rousseau’s memorable phrase, he should be “forced to be free.” But since that’s basically McKinney’s attitude too, it was unavoidable, and it will have the nice side benefit of seeing how feminists react to this film. When Morris asks the blunt question — “is it possible for a woman to rape a man,” she answers “no” and then tells the familiar joke about relaxing and enjoying it, like the weather a marshmallow and a parking meter. If the sexes were reversed, Morris (and McKinney) would be lynched at the next Take Back the Night rally for telling this story in this way.
Then Thing Y comes along, within the last few years and which I won’t even mention, except to say it becomes a different kind of tabloid story, one Morris suggests fits better in a new era. And it suggests that McKinney’s persona was not fake, kidnap-rapist though she was. She really was just starved for love and sought it any way and anyhow she could find it. Actually, I lied at the start. This is Morris’s best film since GATES OF HEAVEN.
So *this* is what people who thought ALL ABOUT LILY CHOU-CHOU or NOBODY KNOWS were too damn long were getting at??? Even if I didn’t know this film was adapted from a novel, it wouldn’t have been hard to figure out — the lengthy voiceover narration, the wealth of incident, and finally the excess of the latter, as if the adapter just had to “get it all in.” And that’s where NORWEGIAN WOOD falls.
For about 90 minutes I was fine with just luxuriating in NORWEGIAN WOOD’s textures and surfaces. Tran has a way with making languor appetizing, shown in his VERTICAL RAY OF THE SUN and SCENT OF GREEN PAPAYA. In those films, tropical heat created an aimless hazy reverie mood (“Joe” was probably taking notes). Here it’s more the faces of the actors, caressed in light that looks like it was filtered through butter, giving the perfect faces the feel and texture of a creamy dessert you wanna taste on the screen. There’s also a fine setup — college-age boy and girl, Watanabe and Naoko (the latter an unrecognizable Rinko Kikuchi) meet after the suicide of a mutual friend who also was her first beau. And there’s a number of viruoso scenes. I especially liked the worst-thing-you-ever-said mistake Watanabe makes the first time they have sex, which sends her to a rehab-type clinic, away from him; the scene with Watanabe having dinner with his roommate and *his* girlfriend; and a lengthy track back and forth across a windswept Japanese grassy-reed field as Naoko talks about the suicide for the first time. And like with how the Vietnam war was echoing only-just offstage in PAPAYA, WOOD takes place during a Japanese student uprising that plays no role after establishing the time-frame early on, A 30-minute shorter cut of this film would probably be a strong 6 or a weak 7.
But for about 45 or 50 minutes, I was just going to myself “will this thing ever fracking end????” and not for external reasons like bathroom or hunger. There was another girlfriend, and another, and a counselor at Naoko’s camp, and Watanabe moves out the dorm, and one of the girlfriend prospects moves into his new pad, and he tries to take up again with Naoko and I start shaking my watch … faster, FASTER!!! It seems too mundane a complaint, but NORWEGIAN WOOD is just too damn long and has too many characters and incidents. (And the Emperor thinks the opera has too many notes, I know, I know …)