TIFF 10 Capsules — Day 11
OKI’S MOVIE (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea, 6)
Audience Q-and-As at film festivals are mostly awful — the questions are usually vague or banal and asked by inexperienced people who ramble or just make a speech. I saw OKI’S MOVIE at 930am on a weekend, at what was almost certainly the thinnest audience I’ve ever seen populate (or not) any of the 400 TIFF auditoriums I’ve been in. I mention this to explain why I thought the consensus most-memorable scene in this movie was extra super-duper funny given these circumstances — the Film Festival Post-Screening Q-and-A From Hell; drunk, after an unsuccessful screening, to a sparse audience, from a member with some too-personal-for-comfort questions. For the record, Hong was not at the ScotiaBank theatre. Nor was he drunk. AFAIK. What time would it’ve been in Korea?
Anyhoo … I also mention the circumstances to confess though that early in the morning on Day 11 was not the best time to see OKI’S MOVIE, or anyone else’s. Frankly, I was nodding off during it, but (also frankly) because it’s Hong telling the same story he always does, I was able to keep up with it … ahem … in my sleep. The difference here, and I kept being stirred by “Pomp and Circumstance,” is that this seems to be the usual romantic triangle told from four POVs (definitely at least two … the voiceover’s change, though the fact that the movie has a film school setting make me hesitant to say too bluntly).
Besides the Q-and-A, the best part of the film is the last section, actually titled “Oki’s Movie,” which I presume is a film Oki herself made about her relationship with the two men. It’s actually kind of a lovely reminiscence, even using Hong’s own parallel-structure, incongruent-content formula to comment on the two men — a struggling uncommercial film-maker and his film-school-professor mentor — and how she did everything the same, like two paths up a mountain, two meals, etc. Given how juvenile the two men come across earlier in the film, she may be Hong’s most attractive female protagonist yet.
ATTENBERG (Athina Rachel Tsangari, Greece, 8)
First of all, as a former wanna-be Classics professor, I have to give a high grade to any film made by someone named “Athina,” lest she turn all my hair into snakes or lie to me about a remarriage or something. Second of all, rarely can you so perfectly summarize a film with a still as this one does, and I’m not even sure it’s the strangest moment in the picture (would that be the two women walking in perfect unison? in high heels while holding hands?) Let me describe the opening scene in detail, because it perfectly gets across the film’s bizarrerie. I think you can know from bare description of ATTENBERG, better than for most movies, whether you will like it.
The same two women are seen against one of those white concrete walls you can see in the lead still — one is completely sexually naive, the other a complete slut (that comes out in more detail later, but it’s clear even in the very first scene). The slut is teaching the naif how to tongue-kiss. They are viewed in a perfect side-on profile two-shot. They never move and so more-or-less the only movement in the frame is the two women’s tongues (and slight head pull-backs to let speech occur). But here’s the bizarre part — their tongues are the only part of the two women’s bodies that ever touch. When two people kiss, I’m pretty sure it’s customary for them to put their faces together, to embrace with their arms, to hold their bodies against each other, and even for their lips to lock. As a result, there is exactly zero Turn-On Factor (and I don’t think it’s my “homophobia” talking). Combined with the clinically lengthy single-take shot, the result is not only not erotic but even anti-erotic, more like an exercise in animal behavior than even Milton’s Satanic dignity of sin.
For those who insist on literalness, the principal through-lines in ATTENBERG are the relationship between naif Marina (played by Arian Lebed, who deservedly won the Best Actress at Venice) and her dying father, and her attempts — encouraged by slut Bella — to find a lover. But every so often, like the commercials in ROBOCOP, the film drops in one of these intercalary scenes, of these two women doing bizarre walks along the same building project, with nobody else around. Like one of the daughters in DOGTOOTH, Marina’s ignorance is … well, not exactly ignorance, because it’s too self-conscious and knowing in a certain sense. For example, she says at one point “some things should remain taboo, there are reasons for them” (which is fair), but this is a follow to the line “I think of my father as a man without a penis” (which is not; I think he had to have one to become her father, though in this More Enlightened Time … who knows). She says at one point that she can’t bring herself to say the work “cock,” but you know she’ll be using the referent before the 95 minutes is up. On the other hand, an early conversation also has Bella discussing her fantasies about penis trees and compares them to a Pee-Wee Herman movie (I swear, I’m making none of this up). All of which shows that there’s more than one form of arrested development, and it makes Marina’s infatuation with Bella really funny (have I made this film not sound like the black-humor funfest it is? … sorry … ATTENBERG is really funny).
And that’s what the film is — people behaving bizarrely in matters related to sex (and death), in significant part because they see themselves self-consciously, as if on both sides of the observational glass dome. And because they seek insight from animals, as a way to overcome self-consciousness and … ahem … logos. The film takes its title, in fact, from a mispronunciation of British naturalist David Attenborough and his observational TV documentaries of animal behavior (those shows are/were popular in Greece … who knew?). It’s tough to say what is stranger — when the two women are gesturing about like rabid birds, when Marina drives her first-in-a-lifetime boyfriend crazy by insisting on asking questions in mid-act, or when Marina looks into the televised eyes of an Attenborough gorilla for the meaning of life.
Alex Fung asked why I gave a higher grade to ATTENBERG (8) than DOGTOOTH (7) — an opinion on which I may be alone in that huge universe of non-Greeks who’ve seen both movies. The two films’ aesthetics are very similar (Tsangari co-produced DOGTOOTH and Lanthimos has an acting role here), and I don’t think there’s too much disputing that DOGTOOTH is the more-consistently-focused and better-directed film — it commits to its bizarro-world more than ATTENBERG does, creating it as the kids’ entire universe. But that’s why I liked ATTENBERG just a wee bit more. As I said last year about DOGTOOTH, I could never figure out what the point was, why this family shut themselves off this way. ATTENBERG has more thematic control, in other words.
THE TRIP (Michael Winterbottom, Britain, 6)
Gene Siskel used to say that one test he applied to movies is: “is this film more interesting than a film of these people having dinner would be?” In the case of THE TRIP, that would be a very emphatic “no,” because Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon having dinner is exactly what this film is — when it’s being good, that is. And THE TRIP is far less interesting than Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon having dinner when it tries for practically anything else. Still, I give THE TRIP an easy “6” and recommend it more than that may sound because, well …. it’s like sharing dinner with the two funniest guys in your circle. You just watch them try to comedy-one-up each other and enjoy the funniest meal of your life. Nothing more than that, but nothing less than that. (Well, actually it IS less than that. Because, you see, most of our friend circles don’t include Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. Well, mine doesn’t.)
THE TRIP is hurt by its premise — the pair are going on a week-long trip to the Lake District and a series of Bed & Breakfasts that are also foo-foo restaurants that serve all that foreign muck (in the North of England?!?!). At least every “day” of the film, we get food-porn scenes of what looks like product placement for a Fannie Craddock specialty chain. Thankfully, Coogan and Brydon just banter over the food, and it’s sparkling improv comedy, helped along by the fact these two men are playing, hopefully, somewhat fictionalized versions themselves: “Steve Coogan” and “Rob Brydon,” who have a history. Andrew Sarris once said the following about another two-man comedy team:
[Dean] Martin and [Jerry] Lewis were something unique in comedy teams. Most comedy teams — the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, even the Beatles — have a certain internal cohesion that unites them against the world outside. That is to say, the members of a comedy team have more in common with each other than with anyone else. Martin and Lewis at their best — and that means not in any of their movies — had a marvelous tension between them. The great thing about them was their incomparable incompatibility, the persistent sexual hostility, they professional knowingness they shared about the cut-throat world they were in the process of conquering.
And that’s the secret to why Brydon and Coogan are so funny together — there’s a kind of jocular(?) hostility between them, at least as “Steve Coogan” and “Rob Brydon.” Each man is convinced he’s funnier than the other (though it matters way more to Coogan) and so they are constantly trying to one-up one another. It’s not just that the Michael Caine or James Bond or Al Pacino imitations are funny in themselves (though they are) but that the imitations get done in the course of a quarrel over who does them better, as if it matters to each man. I also happen to love the character “Steve Coogan”/Alan Partridge, which Coogan has been playing since “Knowing Me, Knowing You” (ah-ha) — self-involved, not as successful as he thinks he deserves to be (or is), and always with some new plan to get bigger, whether it’s leaving Radio Norwich or making an A-list action movie in Hollywood — a kind of Ralph Kramden of the Glitterati. And always “Coogan” becomes unglued, especially when he tries to make excuses — the funniest laugh in THE TRIP is a newspaper headline that gets parceled out VERY strategically. We don’t however, get a full-on meltdown here, either at-the-camera, like on “Knowing Me, Knowing You” (ah-ha), or even a drunken rant.
The direction is by Michael Winterbottom, but frankly, for all it matters, it could have been by me (and I don’t mean that to pump up my never-directed-a-film self or to per-se denigrate Winterbottom, who’s made some very good films). To paraphrase one of the many gut-busting, improvised laugh lines, “the filmic consistency is a bit like snot, but the comedy tastes terrific.” And to take the metaphor way too far, the snot also drips too long. By the end, we’re seeing attempts at pathos in showing each man’s home situation: Brydon happy and faithful in upper middle-class domesticity befitting his lesser success; Coogan divorced with a son he hardly sees, a girlfriend a continent away but bonking several women during the trip, complete with calls to the other side of the world alone at night as the piano tinkles away the tears (“oh, come off it,” I was sneering).
MY JOY (Sergei Loznitsa, Russia, 8)
Like ATTENBERG, MY JOY was a film I added late in response to festival buzz, helped along by the fact that the two films I had planned in those slots (YOU WILL MEET A TALL DARK STRANGER and A SCREAMING MAN) both had mixed word-of-mouth and are likelier to receive widespread commercial distribution than the far more singular and stranger Greek and Russian films. I’m also glad I’m writing this more than a week after leaving Toronto, because subsequent Twitter debates about MY JOY with @vrizov @inro and @kenjfuj, all of whom are much more skeptical about MY JOY than I am, have crystallized my thoughts about it. MY JOY is a (relatively) more realistic version of DOGVILLE with a hefty helping of Luis Bunuel surrealism and cynicism in its construction of an … ahem …. exterminating angel.
MY JOY’s two halves center on a man who’s a naive truck driver in the first, until something bad happens while he takes a detour off Russia’s main roads, where, according to Tolstoy and other Romantics, he will meet the noble “Rus” peasant. Boy, does he ever. Even while on the main roads though, we get a sense that he’s almost too good to be true. During a traffic jam, he comes across a prostitute (the girl in the still — yes, she’s a streetwalker at that age) and agrees to purchase her services. But he drives her home, tells her to keep the money and tries to buy her family some food, which she rejects with contemptuously obscene brio (yes, at THAT age). The second half does throw you a bit, because Loznitsa never explictly demarcates in detail where you are in relation to the first half. Because you have to infer, you can feel a bit at sea and it doesn’t take an idiot to think it’s just a random series of scenes (for a time, I was that idiot too, though I still was groovin’ to MY JOY as a kind of PHANTOM OF LIBERTY baton-relay of vice, with flashbacks). Not until some flour gets sold was I perfectly certain how Part 2, which takes place in winter, relates to Part 1, which happens during summer. Going into detail will require spoiler territory — you have been warned.
In the second half, the trucker appears in a different guise having survived a vicious attack that we’re cued initially to think was fatal. He’s now grown a beard in Russian “Holy Fool” fashion and appears to have retreated into mute, shocked passivity and can only be an observer until, like Grace in DOGVILLE, he says “no more” and gets medieval on their ass. The “their” in that previous sentence refers to a conspicuously diverse cross-section of a thoroughly corrupt Russian society — corrupt officials extracting bribes, an equally corrupt target trying to pull rank, the parasite wife in furs, the worker who explicitly and proudly preaches going along and keeping silent. “It doesn’t matter who’s in charge,” it seems — Russia will be an effed-up tyranny, whether under communism or under capitalism. Plus, anyone who learned to hate Vlad Ivanov from Romanian movies will get a nice cathartic experience.
There are two flashbacks in the film, which rhyme with MY JOY’s own climax — all three involve a killing, and while the two flashbacks leave a person scarred for life (a non-person in one case, a mute in another), while in the third, a mute non-person is the killer. This is, in other words, a classic disillusionment narrative, about a person who learns the virtue of violence, the very anti-Tolstoy (I dunno how prevalent the old “Slavophile” chauvinism is today, but MY JOY is the opposite of it in every conceivable way). As the Bunuel comparisons indicate, though, this is also a mordantly funny film, amid the depravity and bloodshed. Vadim complained, not unreasonably, that the film is nihilistic, to which I can only say I prefer nihilism to pollyannaism, at least with respect to particular times and places.