POST TENEBRAS LUX (Carlos Reygadas, Mexico, W/O)
This ups the number of theatrical films I’ve walked out on in my cinephilic life to four (the others being TULSE LUPER, SEVERANCE and MARKETA LAZAROVA), and gaining the distinction of being the first to provoke a walkout based on pornographic content in what is supposed to be a legitimate movie.
Which is a bit of a shame, because SILENT LIGHT was one of my 10 Best for the entire decade and the opening two scenes in POST TENEBRAS LUX make it quite clear that Reygadas has not lost his eye or his ability to create a sequence one little bit. In the first, a little girl walks around fields, apparently lost and mumbling words, for the whole day while stray dogs are running about and baying and barking and howling along with the wind. The second scene is the devil walking through a darkened bedroom while people sleep, only you’ve never seen Satan quite like this — an animated, near-featureless, solid-red shape giving off a dazzling glow while holding a non-animated briefcase in a dark, non-animated room.
But those images are also part of the tipoff to what was wrong with TENEBRAS even before the walkout — they both were acontextual and rather willfully obscure and they didn’t get obviously explained in the 30-40 minutes I watched of the film. Nor were they the only bits of obscurantism — everybody has been scratching his head since Cannes over an English schoolboy rugby game of which I saw the pre-match rituals. As the film progressed, it clearly wasn’t going to be a masterwork, just a collection of images that you respond to or not. In addition, Reygadas showed early signs of returning to his early fascination with grotesque sex and violence, reports of which kept me away from JAPON and BATTLE IN HEAVEN and contrary reports being the only reason I ever saw SILENT LIGHT in the first place. The devil shape had a rather prominent penis for no reason I could discern besides Reygadas showing how fearless he is (Is there a Mrs. Satan and some Satanic kiddos? Or does Saddam Hussein now flip?). Also another early scene showed a character viciously battering and choking a family dog, implicitly to death, and this is taken as normal by the other character on the family porch where it happens (not to speak of the several who likely would have been in earshot).
The scene that caused me to walk out takes place in a sauna the central couple is visiting, with dozens of naked bodies as the camera prowls around, making sure we see that those are real dicks, boobs, asses, snatches. It is lengthy (so you feel like you’re getting your nose rubbed in it), acontextual (so you’re wondering “what is the point of this?”), pretentious (the Hegel Room and the Duchamp Room? Really? Come off it, Carlos). The early part of the scene seems to include some of the men pulling a train on another man, offscreen with sounds, and asking others matter-of-factly if they want to join. The latter part involves the wife screwing another man in front of her husband, with her body still offscreen but the sounds increasingly realistic and louder (at the moment I left). Reygadas is just showing off.
At that point, the film I was seeing had become simple pornography and I don’t go to a film festival for that. I am not a prude, nor will I claim to be a better man than I am (everybody who reads this blog or follows my Twitter feed knows my sense of humor isn’t G-rated). I do not condemn the use of nudity or sexuality for a discernible purpose and with a (very) minimal amount of discretion and directorial tact, that invisible quality that tells me he knows that nudity and sex are not routine. I count as all-time favorites LAST TANGO IN PARIS, EYES WIDE SHUT and IN THE REALM OF THE SENSES (the last of which includes scenes that are, by any reasonable standard, hard-core pornography). But here, I was just getting it shoveled in my face and the invisible Potter-Stewartish line of what I’m willing to tolerate was crossed.
CAUGHT IN THE WEB (Chen Kaige, China, 4)
Go read the TIFF Guidebook about this film, both the take out paragraph and the last paragraph of the Programmer’s Note, the former of which I reproduce here:
A young woman’s act of defiance becomes a flashpoint for controversy when a video of the incident goes viral, in this prescient drama about cyber-bullying from celebrated director Chen Kaige (Farewell My Concubine).
As in everything, I am a hard-eyed, illusionless realist (as I typed this, I was disagreeing with a couple of orthodox Catholics about the limits and expectations of politics) … the purpose of these things is to sell the film in question and make it seem appetizing. But there is still such a thing as truth-in-advertising, and one of the many annoying things about the TIFF Guidebook is its tendency to grab onto anything mildly topical, especially the latest leftist cause du jour. If by cyber-bullying, you mean something like the Tyler Clementi or famous Facebook cases, CAUGHT IN THE WEB is not about cyberbullying. The video in question — in which a young woman refuses to give up her seat to an old man; she’s just received a fatal cancer diagnosis and is hiding behind sunglasses, hence the sobriquet Sunglasses Girl — doesn’t “go viral.” It’s broadcast on national TV because it was taken by an aspiring reporter (and then obviously does become grist for online discussions, just like Romney’s or Obama’s latest gaffes might) and the engine for much of the subsequent fallout is a careerist pursuit of second- and third-day stories by that reporter and others. CAUGHT IN THE WEB is about tabloid gossip, far closer to NETWORK or THE FRONT PAGE than to (2012’s) BULLY or the Clementi case (except maybe to the extent that bullies now become something of a public Emanuel Goldstein and the object of Excuses to Commit Sociology, like Sunglasses Girl does in the film. Which I doubt was what the TIFF Central Committee intended.)
Even as a semi-satire on tabloid journalism (as I typed this, Don Henley’s “Dirty Laundry” came up on my iTunes … swear to God), I don’t think CAUGHT IN THE WEB is terribly successful. The tone shifts between satire to tragedy requires a master’s touch and Chen doesn’t have it, especially with the broad acting he encourages. It’s also too damn long at 121 minutes and has way too much plot — the press learns of her affair with her Big Shot CEO boss, which leads to a whole new set of reverberations. “Money changes hands, and I forgot about it as it happened,” I have written in my notes. There’s lots of romantic intrigue I also hardly cared about — Sunglasses Girl hires a bodyguard for her last days, and he has mixed motives.
Between this and Zhang Yimou’s A WOMAN, A GUN AND A NOODLE SHOP I’m also getting a vibe that the Chinese sense of humor is very different from ours in the West (I don’t have an “as I typed this” synchronicity here). I don’t specifically mean my sense of humor either … there are scores of Western films I don’t find funny but I usually quite easily recognize what’s supposed to be funny even if I don’t think it is. My Chinese-comedy sample size is obviously not large and it’s not so alien that I can never enjoy it — I did love KUNG FU HUSTLE, which pushes the freneticism into pure cartoon. But both Chen and Zhang in the early scenes of films that eventually become more serious employ a hyper-caffeinated freneticism for comic effects to a degree rarely seen here and which strikes me as “Too Much,” “Turned Up to 12,” etc. In the Zhang film, it’s more the performers, while CAUGHT IN THE WEB achieves the same effect via short cutting rhythms, smash edits and (within the limits of a relatively realistic contemporary film) frenetic motion and acting. It’s just so exhausting that the effect, for me, was of Chen stepping all over his own punch lines.
BARBARA (Christian Petzold, Germany, 6)
I liked this more than CAUGHT IN THE WEB, but it’s hardly a more enthralling film — indeed it’s quite emotionally and stylistically frigid, even withholding. Fortunately, those adjectives are the very subject matter of BARBARA, which is set in East Germany and centers on a woman, the titular character, who has asked for an exit visa from the Communist dictatorship and also has a West German lover. As a result, among other things, cars start cutting her off as she bicycles around the streets of the small-town backwater where she has been exiled to work as a doctor. Among her patients, for whom she lavishes suspiciously unusual care, is a girl who keeps running away from a socialist work camp. (I’m sorry buds … I don’t see how anyone old enough to remember East Germany’s existence could’ve been in any doubt where and about when this was set.)
Barbara is played by Nina Hoss, a marvelous German actress who seems to specialize, like a young Isabelle Huppert, in a certain understated interiorness. Her face is a marvel of emotional opacity, which she can make sullen or force to life without violating social cues — ideal for someone hiding her true opinions or emotions or plans from the necessity of keeping her head down. While this can make her come across as borderline wooden at times, all three of the roles in which I have seen her used this quality — in A WOMAN IN BERLIN, she was trapped in Berlin at the end of the war and had to negotiate her survival with the Russian conquerers, in JERICHOW, she played an adultress plotting murder against her husband. (I joked about the former film that it was the only thing that ever made me take seriously the radical-feminist claim that all sex under patriarchy is rape.)
The film moves resolutely, but at its own pace and rhythm that it keeps to itself, like its heroine. This tone makes BARBARA very much a slow burn escape-from-East Germany film … TORN CURTAIN this ain’t. Indeed, it isn’t even clear for a while that an escape plan is gonna wind up being the central third-act narrative concern and even when we get there, there isn’t really a set-piece chase … rinse and repeat previous aside. Instead, there is a psychologically resonant relationship with a fellow doctor who may be interested in Barbara but also might be an informant (that being life in “actually existing socialism”). In one fine “come clean” scene Andre describes a story about incubators that felt “wrong” to me and also sounded technologically implausible to an RN friend when I asked her about it. In another, he does a close reading on a Rembrandt painting (or a reproduction, I guess) that also throws the issue of deception and mistakes-that-aren’t-mistakes explicitly into the text. In another scene, the Mercedes-driving lover arranges a tryst in the forest and a Trabant-driving native passes by; the juxtaposition of the cars say everything that needs saying.
CAMP 14: TOTAL CONTROL ZONE (Marc Wiese, Germany/Korea, 7)
I was uncertain about this film for a long time. On the one hand, CAMP 14 undeniably packs an emotional wallop as a portrait of the North Korean gulag, mostly by Shin Dong-hyuk, the only known born-there escapee (yes, people are born into concentration camps and held there for life). On the other hand (I thought), the film really doesn’t do anything not done by reading Shin’s account in print as I did earlier this year, though I forget where and can’t find it quickly. I eventually decided that there is something valuable to this film qua film, but even if in the end there’s isn’t anything else here but a litany of brutality … what a litany it is.
Huge chunks of my notes simply consist of quotes from Shin — “I hadn’t yet learned that you’re supposed to cry when your mother is executed”; “rats have soft bones, so we were able to eat everything”; “walking around North Korea (outside the camp), it looked like heaven — people freely laughing, joking, wearing clothes they liked”; “in the camp I had a pure heart.” Shin repeatedly says things that sound absolutely unbelievable, until you reflect on them. If one has no concept of family and has seen executions for breaking camp rules all his life, why cry? That IS an advantage for a food meat. Every society, no matter how crappy, has to be better than its prisons (that’d be why it’s a punishment to go to prison). He probably did, and that’s the most damning you could ever say about the Rousseauist dream of pure innocence, an undivided soul marked by one telos.
There is other material in CAMP 14 besides interview footage with Shin, much of which is him sitting at the bottom of a flight of stairs. There are two former North Korean prison guards, now in South Korea, both apparently successful and one seemingly downright well-off. Although they say they did what they did because they thought it was right and just, they differ from the Indonesians in ACT OF KILLING by seeming repentant though they do talk matter-of-factly. When asked whether suspects are tortured, one smiled (though more in a “what a silly question, white man” mode than a prideful one) and said “it’s normal.” Though CAMP 14 generally uses minimalist pencil-based animated sequences to depict scenes of Shin’s memories of the camp, it also has rare footage of a North Korean slave camp, taken by one of the two guards at the camp he commanded, a different one from Shin’s. There’s also a scene of a North Korean guard interrogating a prisoner that critics of first-world authorities are invited with deep sarcasm to watch (though I wondered why also there appeared to be blurred subtitles on it).
As for why CAMP 14 is a film … Wiese is no Errol Morris, but he puts silence and the physical presence of his interview subjects to good use. In most documentaries, raw interview footage is cut to the rhythm of the films shot, which requires the subject start talking pretty much at the start of the shot and that the shot end when the the sound byte is over. (And of course, in written accounts, every word follows the next.) Here, there’s at least 4 or 5 times where Wiese includes a lengthy, noticeable hesitance of at least several seconds of screen time in Shin’s reactions to his questions (and does same once with the guards). It’s as if they don’t really want to say what they have to be truthful. When asked about water torture, Shin waits seemingly forever before saying slowly “I don’t want to remember those experiences any more.” So strong are these dead moments that Wiese never actually shows anyone breaking down or crying (assuming he could have; maybe they never did and that’s the point too). The pauses say enough.
GREAT EXPECTATIONS (Mike Newell, Britain, 6)
In between this film and my next, I called my parents, and my father wanted to know what I had just gotten out of. I said “an adaptation of Dickens’ GREAT EXPECTATIONS” / “How was it?” / “Fine. Nothing special but it is what it is and good for what it is … an illustration of a classic novel.” / “Well … what’s wrong with that? If it’s good for what it is, it’s good, right?” Pauline Kael also defended literary adaptations as a genre, saying it’s a perfectly normal pleasure to want to see the films and plays we read in school illustrated and/or adapted with today’s actors. This latest version of GREAT EXPECTATIONS is a pretty faithful adaptation (it’s been years since I read it, but I can’t recall any major plot points or characters it doesn’t hit, though there are accordingly a few it underplays or underdevelops) and if it entertains while it’s on the screen and encourages folks to read Dickens, it has done the Lord’s work.
Still, the film got on the bad side of me early. The key to the whole yarn is the first scene, the meeting with Magwitch in the graveyard. Here is the famous sequence from the 1946 David Lean adaptation.
This film bollixed it up, or at least diminished it, in two ways. First, compared to Finlay Currie, Ralph Fiennes is barely intelligible behind a thicker accent and state-of-the-art (i.e., louder) sound mixing. That same state-of-the-art (i.e., louder) sound and mickey-mousing music also accompanies a smash cut to Fiennes’ face when Magwitch appears, giving the whole scene the feel of a contemporary horror film. I also thought Mrs. Joe was a bit much, but those were the exceptions. Despite being younger than is customary, Helena Bonham Carter was perhaps an obvious choice as Miss Havisham, but she can convince both as a weird old woman (all those Tim Burton films) and a young woman in a flashback to the infamous wedding day. I don’t understand the logic of turning Mr. Jaggers into a single-line Jew if you’ve cast Robbie Coltrane, but I was glad to have him in the role. And by the time Magwitch reappears, the film has recovered its footing, Fiennes has dialed it back a bit and he dominates the rest of the film.
During a scene of paying off debts, it occurred to me that GREAT EXPECTATIONS is the same ruffian-does-social-climbing story as BARRY LYNDON. But while Kubrick (can’t speak about Thackeray) tells the story of a consciously self-made man both profiting from and being defeated by chance, Dickens gives the opposite psychology – a man who arbitrarily and mysteriously gains gentleman status and then finds out it was a reward for a long-forgotten good deed. But then Dickens was some kind of Christian and Kubrick was not. It also occurred to me in the last 15 minutes of this film that there’s just a little much coincidence and “coincidence” and cross-cutting relationships here for my adult taste, though that’s largely what Dickens wrote – he was the Arriaga/Inarritu of the 19th century. Still, this new film gets across Dickens’ humor and class-based fun – the young lads’ punch-up “according the rules,” the Finches of the Grove party, lines like “it’s not generally the custom in London to put your knife in your mouth, for fear of the ants.” And it really delivers on the best scene is the book – the London reunion with Joe (here played with bone-deep class-consciousness by Jason Flemyng), where a snobbish Pip and a not-quite-humiliated Joe try to have a meal.
IN THE HOUSE (Francois Ozon, France, 8)
I obviously wouldn’t push this comparison too far, but IN THE HOUSE reminds me a bit of THE DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE and THE PHANTOM OF LIBERTY. The Bunuel masterpieces were nominally about forever sitting down to dinner but never eating (with plenty of digression in the interim) and a relay race of plot points and characters that become nothing but digressions, never surviving contact with the next plot point or character. Neither film makes logical sense (An emu wandering through your bedroom while a mailman leaves a note? A cafe with nothing but water?), but what they were really about was the Old Master’s comfortable ease as a yarnmeister. His very confidence could hook you into a story or joke or “I dreamed this last night.” The two films are thoroughly entertaining divertissements on the story-telling process and I recommend them highly.
IN THE HOUSE shows Ozon, a much younger man than Bunuel, in a very similar mode. The nominal surface subject is a French teacher (Fabrice Luchini) fascinated by the journal assignments of one of his students, the star pupil who actually writes something worthwhile in a room full of “I hate pizza on Saturday and Sundays suck” essays and “I can’t bring myself to write about this movie. -30-” film criticism. He wants Claude (Ernst Umhauer) to keep writing about his friendship into another neighborhood family and advises him to get involved with the family to provide more material. The Plausibles don’t add up (Claude’s writing may profit by comparison with classmates, but he is no Stephen King, in Mike’s words). Still, Ozon is doing what Bunuel did … seducing us with his silky smooth style, his native wit, and a string that we just want to keep tugging, like the teacher does (we see enacted the stories as he’s reading them).
There’s more here than just an enjoyable romp. We see the stories enacted as the teacher reads them (sometimes Ozon tells us this in advance, sometimes not), and the characters act in a very broad register (what you need accompanying narration) but become subtly different as the stories progress. So when the teacher tells Claude to change his story, he’s not simply offering criticism, he is also, Ozon implies, living out his own fantasies. Kristin Scott Thomas again shows her flair for comedy (reiterated negatively in DePalma’s PASSION) in the outsider role of the teacher’s wife, playing both literature critic and struggling art-gallery curator (there’s big laughs at, among other things, her exhibit of dictator’s heads on blow-up dolls of naked women). Those scenes have nothing to do with the main plot – they’re just Bunuelian diversions – until a late turn that I’m not sure is entirely successful. But the last image – it’s practically cribbed from Hitchcock’s REAR WINDOW – ends things on the right note.
REALITY (Matteo Garrone, Italy, 8)
When Mike D’Angelo said nobody at Cannes recognized, even en passant, the religious subtexts and themes in REALITY http://www.avclub.com/articles/cannes-12-day-three-gomorrah-director-matteo-garro,75387/ there are two options – (1) he is lying his lying ass off (even allowing for the editorial “nobody”) or (2) there were a lot of clueless critics at Cannes. And I very severely doubt (1) … I was speaking simply of logical possibilities.
On the surface, REALITY is about an Neapolitan fishmonger named Luciano (Aniello Arena) who tries out for the Italian version of “Big Brother,” but gets prematurely convinced he’s going to be on the show. He then proceeds to believe he (and others) are being watched at all times, gives up his possessions, stops engaging in petty scams, and otherwise acts in ways that could hardly more obviously parallel a Christian’s rebirth if Garrone had emblazoned “he’s found religion” on his T-shirt. The first and last images of the film are both God’s-eye views. The last narrative sequence breaks off from a Good Friday Stations of the Cross parade. And to mention couple details Mike didn’t … at one point, Luciano is explicitly told (and not by a priest) that “if you want to get into the house, you need to have faith and then you will.” Also, after the interview with the “Big Brother” producers, Luciano spoke in the way one does after a first sacrament, especially first confession (I speak as an adult revert) – “I told him everything and it felt so wonderful” I have scribbled down in my notes. Garrone underlines this by not showing the actual interview, following an old convention, somewhat based on the Sanctity of the Confessional, against showing it.
Since Luciano never gets on the show but the last scene shows him “succeeding” in getting onto the set, we clearly have a parable of delusion (or disillusionment, though I think the last scene’s tone makes that impossible). But what is the delusion … and this is where Mike and I part company (he’s a self-described “devout atheist”). The one thing the delusion can’t be is belief in a non-existent God for the simple reason that “Big Brother” really does exist in REALITY and people really did get on the show, albeit not Luciano. In addition, if God is a Dawkinsian “delusion” within the film’s universe but “Big Brother” serves a church-like function, then accounting for the existence of the actual Church in the film (and it DOES have a notable presence as itself: a Rosary scene early on, the Good Friday procession and a Jesus statue in the courtyard) becomes, if not exactly impossible, at least a bit awkward.
One could even, based totally on the film, have a Calvinist read that the delusion is Luciano thinking he is among the saved, rather than the damned (though I think that’s too clever by half). Instead, I think Luciano’s delusion is idolatry, that is to say, he grants religious status to something other than God/religion – a problem whether God exists or not. This take is consistent with every religious analogy in Luciano’s treatment of the reality show,” it accounts for “Big Brother” real existence (the Golden Calf had a real existence, as a golden calf), and it makes better sense of the Church’s presence in the film. With respect to the last, consider the Good Friday scene. Luciano, who had been shown at the earlier Rosary scene not to be a religiously devout man, attends the service, taken there by a friend who thinks it’ll help his craziness, but breaks away from it to break into Cinecitta and get on the “Big Brother” set. The film never goes back to the service. If the point were an equivalence between the show and the Stations, it would’ve been smarter to intercut the two, like Eisenstein did with the union men and the slain oxen. Instead, Garrone has one follow the other, which more suggests the show as a substitute for religion or a functional religion or a retreat from religion.
BEYOND THE HILLS (Cristian Mungiu, Romania, 8)
… though that 8 has the proverbial bullet on it as BEYOND THE HILLS has stewed wonderfully in my head these past couple of days. Before the festival began, I agreed with Mungiu-skeptic Michael Sicinski that on the basis of one film, Mungiu hadn’t yet deserved status as a “Master,” the program in which TIFF put this film (he also made the very good OCCIDENTAL, but the proverbial “nobody” outside Romania has seen that). BEYOND THE HILLS proves that 4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS, 2 DAYS, which I had on my decade-best list, was no fluke and cements Mungiu’s status as a Master. A Master who is very obviously a pupil of Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, sure, but DeSica was just as obviously a pupil of Renoir and nobody thereby disputes his status. Like the Belgian brothers, Mungiu combines white-knuckle tension and long takes with the seemingly contradictory virtues of careful composition and fastidious framing that uses the whole frame. HILLS was even one of two films I saw this festival that started with the ROSETTA shot – following a character from behind as she charges through a narrowly-framed environment. The character in this case is Voichita, one half of a female-friend pair (also the center of 4 MONTHS) meeting the other half at a train station. She is meeting up with Alina for a visit to the Romanian Orthodox convent where Voichita is serving. The pair were clearly lesbian lovers during Voichita’s secular life and Alina, who had spent the last few years doing menial jobs for money in Germany, has come with an eye to winning her (unwitting) friend back.
What follows is a tale of possible demonic possession or psychotic episodes, in which Mungiu, like in his portrayal of abortion in 4 MONTHS, leaves completely open a literal take that many Western European art-house directors (and most critics) would take pains to close off. One way among others he does this is by Trinitarian compositions that evoke God’s presence in a story that invites a religious explanation without insisting on it – typical of my beloved Romanian style of accreting details that are “just-so” and “telling-without-rubbing-your-face-in-them.” There are two consecutive conversations where the framing is so clearly the Trinity as authoritative that I began sketching during the film (see attached and forgive my appalling drawing; I’m a writer not an artist, plus this was in a dark theater). Those same rhyming shots also parallel religion and science as sources of answers and response to matters that aren’t strictly in either’s purview but in the overlap/between. And like in a Skandie-nominated scene in 4 MONTHS, another shot frames a crowded dinner where an abundance of happy guests chatting away crushingly frames people whose thoughts are miles away.
In HILLS, Mungiu convincingly creates a world so “lived in” that you accept it utterly. My only real complaint, in fact, is that he does this so successfully that the narrative drags a bit. This place is isolated and cold and in nearly every shot, indoors or outdoors, you see the characters’ icy breaths without anyone ever saying “it’s cold in here.” In a late scene, some nuns have to improvise a stretcher, and we see the characters/actresses actually build one from pieces of wood, from pretty-much scratch in real time (did I say long takes were awesome?). In an early scene, Voichita agrees to rub some medical stuff on her ex-lover’s body, after which agreement to do so Alina strips herself to the waist. She handles the chastity-vs.-charity matter with poise, neither rubbing the bared boobs nor flinching at them, as the Harris-Dawkins-Hitchens axis would think she “should.” There’s even explicit dialogue later, apropos another matter, about this distinction between “forbidden” and “improper.” When the nuns prepare the outsider for a first-in-a-long-time confession, as they go down a conscience-examination list of 464 sins, Alina ticks off each one without fail but with increasing resignation at each new number. So successfully does Mungiu create an out-of-time experience in a monastery where out-of-timeness is the very point that there’s really only one detail that unquestionably situates the film in the present day – the existence of cell phones (even the few vehicles we see aren’t latest-model). But neither are the monastery characters simple-mindedly superstitious (again, a distinction impossible for a certain sort of secular Westerner to imagine). When one of the nuns notes that the hens haven’t laid any eggs and that a black cross appears in a piece of wood, the head priest in charge impatiently dismisses “foolishness about signs” and patronizingly says “burn it” when asked what to do with the wood. All that said, I do have to note that, even as a Roman chauvinist who will happily and teasingly call Orthodox friends “schismatics,” I didn’t like how some of the Orthodox lingo was “westernized” in the subtitles – “Pascha” becoming “Easter” and the use of “Mass” (a Western term that Orthodox Anglophones do not use).
NO (Pablo Larrain, Chile, 8)
“They make movies to sell detergent. So why not a movie to sell peace.”
– HIROSHIMA MON AMOUR
Alain Resnais and Marguerite Duras wrote that line, but one way we know they didn’t understand it is that their movie to “sell peace” bore no resemblance to movies made to sell detergent (and hence didn’t “sell” at all). Pablo Larrain understands that line, or at an absolute minimum made a smart political movie about people who did. Gael Garcia Bernal plays ad specialist Rene Saavedra, who stumbles into leadership of the marketing side of the “No” campaign, a liberal-left coalition of Chileans opposed to Gen. Augusto Pinochet, who had called a referendum on whether to grant him another eight-year term (“Yes”) or require him to step down and have multi-party elections somewhat later (“No”).
And so begins a rollicking political satire done in the style of 80s TV shows, 80s ads, 80s styles and even 80s political campaigns. I was hooked right from the credits, which present the name in simple block-character pastels but with the slight color shimmer of old or multi-generation VHS around the edges of each character. In the early scenes, the No campaign act like a bunch of college professors – debating the legitimacy of the election, calling each other “comrade,” and what tack to take in terms of “speaking to the pain we feel.” One even explicitly says “I don’t want to sell democracy as a product.” But they eventually decide to go with a “positive” campaign of uplift (exclusively so, for a while), the application of classic “mood” campaigns. The main visual theme is a rainbow, with each color signifying a party in the coalition and the main slogan was a happy jingle “Chile … l’alegria ya viene” (Chile … happiness is coming soon). The film was silent on this, but I have to wonder about the extent the “No” campaign, which Larrain faithfully represents, borrowed from Ronald Reagan’s 1984 “Morning in America” theme. Even harsh facts are given a candy-colored sheen, as when “No” women sing a jingle about “no more disappearances”
I was turned onto this film by Mike D’Angelo review (http://www.avclub.com/articles/cannes-2012-day-10-cronenberg-meets-delillo-matthe,75718/) and a later personal recommendation. But in his Cannes review, Mike said he “looked in vain for a hint of contemporary relevance,” to which … huh? NO is absolutely timeless, a demonstration of some unknown cynic’s aphorism that “democracy is rule by publicity,” which is why contemporary relevance hits you in the face with every 80s-video, TV-shaped, perfectly-cheesy frame. Every two or four years, the US goes through this cycle of punch-counterpunch, and I couldn’t contain my laughter at an aside in NO about reporting on “the truth behind” people in the ads, from thinking of Joe the Plumber or Katherine Harris (Al Gore: “Do we have anything on her”). Romney and Obama campaign consultants right this very day are weighing the base-vs-swing voter strategy and the wisdom of going negative, including the unintended messages sent – only here the “No” folks are fretting over whether painting Pinochet as a brutal tyrant will instill too much fear, spread cynicism and depress turnout. Other favorite touches: difficulties the “Yes” campaign has making good ads because “all the artists are on the other side”; the “No” campaign’s use of a photo of a riot cop beating a street demonstrator (and no, it’s not at all what you’d think; call it a unity message); and “this looks like a picture postcard, nobody eats baguettes in this country … who cares, it looks good.”
One strength of this film, which I didn’t expect from the leftist Larrain, is that the “Yes” campaign, led by Larrain mainstay Alfredo Castro, isn’t shown to be a bunch of patsies. They respond to the “No” campaign by parodying it – truth be told, I laughed hardest at two of those bits (one takes place in a bed and the other rewrites the lyrics to the “No” campaign’s main theme, “Chile … L’alegria ya viene”) Indeed, when introducing the Skandies, Mike described me as a “Pinochet-admiring lunatic” (the adjective of which is not an exaggeration … here’s the obituary I wrote for another site … http://coalitionforfog.blogspot.ca/2006/12/augusto-pinochet-1915-2006.html) So, for someone like me to come out of NO humming “Chile … L’alegria ya viene” is some kind of miracle.
MUSHROOMING (Toomas Hussar, Estonia, 5)
This is the sort of perfectly competent, mildly diverting but finally unmemorable high-concept sitcom that fills slots in film festivals worldwide, in between the transcendent masterpieces you love forever and the idiotic shit that you so hate it’s at least memorable (see, AMERICA, GOD BLESS). Every country can produce these filler films and they’re so ubiquitous that half the time you’re really looking at them as national portraitures, the better to distinguish this Estonian one from that Bulgarian one you saw at TIFF (or was it FilmFestDC?) two years ago. In the better cases, though, there is at least one memorable performer or one OMFG sequence.
On those limited terms, MUSHROOMING is a perfectly fine film that nobody in North America outside film festivals or the local Sons of Estonia Haalle will ever see or need to see. Ethnically, the Estonians are cousins to the Finns, and if you’ve seen a Kaurismaki film, you’ll recognize both the physical ethnic types on display (stolid husky men with broad-but-small features on flat, fair-skinned faces, mixed in with thin punk or musical types, e.g.) as well as the national humor sensibility (glum deadpan losers in over their heads, though MUSHROOMING’s actors are a little bit broader than Kaurismaki’s). MUSHROOMING takes the premise of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, only it plays it for comedy, in part by having one of the hikers, Aadu Kagu, be a member of parliament be fleeing the press over a brewing financial scandal (he and his wife took a trip to Machu Picchu that he billed as a diplomatic fact-finder). You know that when the hikers hit upon an apparently deserted cabin, they are gonna learn someone lives here by spotting that day’s paper, banner-headlined “Aadu Kagu, Parasite.” There is, though, one very good scene, near the end, where Aadu faces the press for the first time. Let’s just say that the accompanying music is Beethoven’s 7th Symphony, making the whole thing play like a satirical take on THE KING’S SPEECH, and not exactly in the way you might obviously think. It’s one of the few non-obvious things on display.
PASSION (Brian DePalma, USA, 6)
Gawd, this movie is so stupid. And so ridiculously entertaining, often precisely when it is at its stupidest. No movie featuring an ass-cam ad for a cell phone(?) camera (?) (who cares?) is going for The Human Condition vibe. Nor is a movie featuring Noomi Rapace in a pull-back hairdo with bangs completely covering her forehead. Nor is a movie that remakes a (very good IM apparently alone O) three-year-old French film about two women by significantly upping the Sapphic Quotient.
Still, I wish DePalma would at least come across as trying harder for something with emotional heft in addition to baroque set pieces, FEMME FATALE being the measuring stick among his recent films. For one thing, Rachel McAdams is fatally miscast, or, the same thing really, the role has been fatally mis-reconceived from the French original. She plays a role first inhabited by Kristin Scott Thomas, a far superior actress who also has enough old-school wit to make lines like “you have lots of talent, and I made the best use of it” draw tossed-off blood; McAdams recites the identical line, with emphasis on “recite” and “line,” with an effect as far from “identical” as possible. McAdams is also more or less the same age as Rapace, while KST is a generation older than Ludivine Sagnier, which gave the original an ALL ABOUT EVE vibe that pays off handsomely thematically. And whereas in the French film, Sagnier was Sagnier, Rapace has all the sex appeal of a plate of lutfisk, and less life. Thus the first half of PASSION, before a murder is committed and which follows the French original fairly closely, is a failure.
You can literally see the moment PASSION goes “click” and becomes a fun roller-coaster ride – an ominous music cue, a smash cut to a closeup of Rapace, and a dramatic change in the lighting scheme. From that point, the movie is about nothing more than canted angles, heavy shadows, ominous music, split screens (it’s DePalma, of course). But what angles, shadows, etc. That it outdoes in logical retardation what was already a very silly plot is like criticizing the plotting in THE BARBER OF SEVILLE or AIDA or NORMA. Even the limited actresses actually help and I’d’ve been fine with replacing them with air dolls or lifesize puppets.
The film’s high point is undoubtedly a split screen sequence, in which one half of the screen is a murder the perpetrator of which we can’t see, and the other is the performance of a ballet, “Afternoon of the Faun” that looks into the camera and will later play a key alibi role. “Half” is a misnomer, because part of what makes the sequence so virtuoso is that DePalma varies how much of the screen each image takes, going from 50-50 to 80-20 to 30-70 back to 50-50 etc. But even beyond that, he varies the compositions and moves the camera in and out to take the best advantage of the space in each part, whether it’s a thin 10 percent sliver of the widescreen shape or a effectively-widescreen 90 percent. That sequence is the work of a master.
THE ACT OF KILLING (Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, Anonymous; Denmark/Indonesia, 9)
“It’s funny how the colors of the real world only seem really real when you viddy them on the screen.”
— Alex, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE
Is it possible for a man to cauterize his soul? That’s one of the themes of the greatest movie ever made and here is that rare political film that dares to try to match it. ACT OF KILLING looks into the abyss of organized brutality and yet looks up without having blinked. It’s so bold and truthful and unsparing that, yes, I would compare it to A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, and to THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS and, though it works in a different way, to Machiavelli’s THE PRINCE. Jean-Luc Godard famously said that the film that needed to made about the concentration camps was about the guards, not the prisoners. Here is that film.
It follows several members of an Indonesian militia group who were involved in anti-Communist pogroms that killed hundreds of thousands following a mid-1960s gradual coup that effectively replaced Sukarno as dictator. Though it’s in the documentary genre of “muckraking about past atrocities,” there are two huge differences here from such standard-issue films – first, there are no interviews with the prisoners or even IIRC any found or archival footage of the atrocities; and second, the guards are proud of their actions and have hired Oppenheimer and his crew to make a movie about them. Some of the men do change over the course of the film but only very slowly, and (in the most memorable case) by unintentionally almost quoting Alex. What even makes those moments feel earned – rather than the inevitable course of the film’s inevitable didactic humanistic lesson – is the contrast with the unregenerate militia members and the political environment of present-day Indonesia, which is (to put it kindly) not exactly post-war West Germany or post-apartheid South Africa.
I could have done without the cheap juxtaposition of McDonalds and shopping mall images with stats about the massacres or the Michael Moore touch of having people critique democracy while playing golf. I also don’t entirely trust a film about 60s Indonesia in which the word “Sukarno” is, to the best of my recollection, never mentioned. But the number of “I can’t believe I just saw what I saw” moments is simply through the roof and it doesn’t stop with the premise as I’ve outlined. So as to avoid spoilers, let’s just say there were moments – like a walk through a Chinese merchant market – when I wasn’t sure I was actually watching re-enactments. And then at least one – a visit to a village – when I was sure I wasn’t.
It isn’t all about the abyss; there is also comedy here – a lot of it, in a very black vein. The men sit around on the set, in obvious blood makeup/prosthetics, reminiscing about the IRL scenes they’re about to re-enact and debating the best methods of execution and what they learned themselves from the movies (Also, can we now cool it with the “depictions of violence don’t inspire acts of violence” talking point?) Looking at Oppenheimer’s footage (which sometimes resembles cheesy Bollywood musicals, over-the-top gangster footage), they love one surrealistic scene where a killed Communist thanks them for sending him to heaven. It’s not that this all functions as comic relief a la Shakespeare’s clowns or that it gains from juxtaposition with the more serious material (it doesn’t especially do either, actually), but it specifically grows out of the more serious subject – the militia members’ pride.
There is a scene called “Special Dialog” that I will take to my grave. It looks like the Indonesian equivalent of “Entertainment Tonight” or similarly fluffy show and while it’s memorably appalling that militia members are on it in uniform, what really make the scene is the interviewer, who talks about wiping out the communists in the same chirpy manner as one might discuss coming up with a great new martini recipe. What we’re seeing is not “banality of evil” a la Hannah Arendt, “dehumanization” or similar cant, but something far more chilling and eternally relevant – that anything (and I do mean anything) can be done with a good conscience. All a man needs is to believe something is right. These men were Suharto’s Willing Executioners, but unlike Hitler’s, they had the good fortune not to be conquered by foreigners while the blood was still wet on their hands.
The same “take-it-to-my-grave” quality also applies to an interview with one henchmen (whose name I didn’t catch) who, while driving, pours an ocean of scorn on war-crimes tribunals and the Geneva Convention. He’s gives the standard Realist critique of international law, which is rare enough in this kind of film, before sealing the deal. He says of the 1960s atrocities that “re-opening the matter would be a provocation to fight. And if the world wants perpetual war, we’ll be ready.” He’s not saying anything not made implicitly from the other end by the pardoning-immunity powers of post-apartheid South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission: Sometimes justice must be suspended for the sake of peace. And pointing to the ugliest of political truths: what gets loosely called “victor’s justice” is in fact, in every political instanciation, “justice.”
AT ANY PRICE (Ramin Bahrani, USA, 6)
If you only showed me the first half-hour of this film and stopped, I wouldn’t have been inclined to watch the rest of it … at any price … sorry, Scott #hackstamp. In one scene (I have it written on my notes “you just lost me, Ramin”) an Iowa farmer reads aloud a postcard from his son about climbing South America’s tallest mountain, and he stumbles over the pronunciation of “Mount Aconcagua.” Yuk yuk yuk. Isn’t the people in Hickville so stooooopid and uncultured. Nor had that practiced mistake been the film’s first such moment. (Ironically, later that day I heard a friend’s equally-phonetic name mangled by one of America’s most eminent leftist film critics, who regularly goes on “Red States is Backward” rants.)
But as is my custom, I stuck around and I’m glad I did, as AT ANY PRICE becomes something more as it accretes detail and develops the threads of what seemed for a while like a scattershot script. Though it’s an original script, AT ANY PRICE becomes unashamedly novelistic (if you take that as a criticism, stay away) with twists and turns that make into it a kind of “farm noir.” Test film for this film – did you like IN THE BEDROOM? Or MYSTIC RIVER – one element in particular from that film came from nowhere here, yet felt as utterly right as it did in the Eastwood.
Dennis Quaid plays a jerk of a seed salesman who’s family is falling apart. Quaid dominates the film and I thought for a long time that he was overacting. But he’s playing an overactor (if that makes sense). He’s cheating on his wife, the globetrotting son for whom he had hopes is unseen, and the other son (a surprisingly strong Zac Efron) has a ridiculous dream of being a NASCAR driver and wants no part of the farm. But everything is … great. The moment I turned around on this film was Efron’s big-race debut, which did not go the way I knew it was going to. A bit later, I finally wrote “OK, Ramin, you win” (I’ve only seen one previous Bahrani and though I liked GOODBYE SOLO quite a bit, it’s not at all like this). And that was at a scene where Quaid’s father gives a speech about how “times were so much simpler then.” AT ANY PRICE is a rare film that is about both realizing your dreams and being content with not realizing your dreams, in the same person. About nostalgia and false nostalgia, within the same environment.
EVERYDAY (Michael Winterbottom, Britain, 1)
I told taffybud Dan Owen on Twitter that, given the same cast and crew, either he or I could make a film every bit as good as EVERYDAY. That was not an exaggeration or a joke line. If THE TRIP had nothing to recommend it beyond Steve Coogan and Rob Bryden’s repartee, here is an equally episodic, intermittent film that doesn’t have Coogan and Bryden. I seriously can’t recall ever seeing a film that, once the premise had been set up, had quite literally nothing to offer and that the director gave so little indication of answering the most basic question – what is this film about? (I mean strictly among films by directors with major reputations). Winterbottom has always been hit-or-miss but he has made several very good films – TRISTAM SHANDY, THE TRIP, THE CLAIM, and my retrospective memory of 24 HOUR PARTY PEOPLE. But I would love to see the shooting script (if, in fact, there was one) for EVERYDAY, which feels like a case study in how you cannot make drama up as you go along.
EVERYDAY covers five years in the life of Ian Ferguson, who is serving a long jail term with a wife and four children (ages 3 to 8, I’d guess) on the outside. The gimmick here is that Winterbottom shot the film intermittently over five years, so we actually see the actors age, most obviously the children (all real-life siblings). It’s something you can’t fake and it would make the film interesting … if there were any drama. Whatsoever. There are scenes of the kids in school, scenes of the wife at work, scenes of prison visits (“you’re the man of the house,” Ian tells a boy of about 6), scenes of him in jail, scenes of the lengthy trips to the prison. And none of it develops or grows. There is no artistry, imagination or shaping. It’s all chopped up into a minute or so not-even vignettes – with an ugly-ass hand-held video style to boot. There is a post-release bedroom confession by the wife that she’d had an affair with a man we see at the dinner table two or three times and come on to her once and get rejected. And the fight itself lasts maybe a minute. Flimsy setup. Little payoff. Rinse and repeat throughout. There is more prison drama in 5 minutes of OZ. More comedy in 5 minutes of PORRIDGE.
I wouldn’t especially care if the film wound up having nothing to say but “going to prison sucks, for both you and your family.” (I was attracted to this film as being about a working-class British family with the man in jail. I have four extended-family blood relatives who’ve gone to prison – and I don’t mean held overnight in the drunk tank or after a brawl or the like, but felons duly sentenced to hard time.) But if that’s all there is, you need better moment-to-moment texture than this. Hitchcock famously said “drama is life with all the dull bits cut out”; Winterbottom seems to think, on the basis of this film, that “life is drama with only the dull bits kept in.” EVERYDAY is nothing but everyday moments with only the time-lapse photo quality of seeing the kids age. Oh … to think what the Dardennes or Mike Leigh could have done with this premise.
FOXFIRE: CONFESSIONS OF A GIRL GANG (Laurent Cantet, Canada/France, 3)
I had a similar reaction to this film as to AT ANY PRICE, only it starts out even worse and obviously doesn’t rebound nearly as well. The first hour or so of FOXFIRE is one of the most unbearable, unrelenting litanies of misandrist shit I’ve ever seen (I actually considered walking out, but the memory of the Bahrani was fresh. Plus, if college feminists couldn’t chase this “potential rapist” from watching a Take Back the Night rally, no mere film is gonna do the same.). As the subtitle suggests, FOXFIRE is about an all-female gang of juvenile delinquents, set in the late 50s, but Cantet is complicit himself in every manner of deck stacking. Not only does the narrator, who is not otherwise shown to be naïve or out-of-touch like in BADLANDS e.g., carefully relativize and legalese-ize the gang’s actions (“we committed what could have been called crimes”) but every single male victim is, in one way or another, made hateful right before he is victimized – the math teacher is mean in class, the uncle tries to take liberties, the make is cheating on his wife, the businessman is an anti-feminist reactionary, etc. Reverse the sexes in all the crimes and try to imagine the reaction this film would get, with all its legitimate robberies and careful planting of details showing the bitch was asking for it. This first hour at least of FOXFIRE is hate speech against men. No doubt about it. #fact
FOXFIRE recovers some as the group changes from a gang to a kind of commune (though it still finances itself through crimes against men, with the decks still carefully, if less one-sidedly, stacked). In that context, it becomes a bit of an anti-utopian disillusionment narrative against the death of a collarless Catholic priest who waxed nostalgic about the great revolution of 1917 — adolescent adolescence devolving into the realities of adulthood and the breakdown of teen solidarity. But like many such disillusionment stories, the film rambles on for way too long. Still, I liked the fact that the girls vote against integrating their group (somewhat offset the deck-stacking to contemporary audiences), not so crazy about the fact the group’s de facto leader Legs is the one who berates the others about the snub (offsets the offset). Within the confines of video, the dingy period environment is well-captured. The actresses make a seamless ensemble, though a little *too* seamless. Apart from physical types, really only two characters develop into individuals – the narrator Maddy (Katie Coseni) and the charismatic Legs (Raven Adamson). But their two fates … let’s just say – with respect to the latter, that it’s more deck-stacking misandry; with respect to the former, that the man who made TIME OUT does the same thing with the last scene here. To. Much. Lesser. Effect.
THE CLOUD-CAPPED STAR (Ritwik Ghatak, India, 1960, 8)
This was my first Ritwik Ghatak film, and, at least on the basis of CLOUD-CAPPED STAR, he seems to form a bridge between the overtly populist Bollywood cinema of Raj Kapoor and his fellow Punjabis and the art cinema of fellow Bengali Satyajit Ray (the last being the only one of the three to find, relatively speaking, any audience at all in the West). On the one hand, CLOUD-CAPPED STAR has as much music as any Bollywood film, and is about as broadly acted – for good and ill. But the music numbers are either source music or just put on the soundtrack as expressionist sound, both more and less realistic than the “here’s an onscreen number” conventions dominant in Bollywood (and Hollywood).
But while CLOUD-CAPPED STAR, a secular martyrdom story about a responsible elder sister who sacrifices everything on behalf of her ungrateful family, has the same serious concerns and dark subject matter as Ray, Ghatak has much more taste for melodrama and comedy, and could have fit in at the Warners lot in the 1930s. Indeed, the famous last line had been almost the exact title of a Susan Hayward weepie. Ray wasn’t the subtlest director, but Ghatak makes him look like Dreyer. I laughed out loud at the punchline in the scene of a marital quarrel, in which Ghatak has a window from across the courtyard in the back of the frame. A woman always seems to be standing by that window just as things heat up; and the composition and the foreground characters notice her at the same moment. There are multiple layers of irony, none of them subtle – one clueless sibling says “some people suffer for their principles,” but referring to himself while Nita is in the image foreground.
As an image maker, Ghatak is more of a mannerist than any Warners director could ever be. One of the very first images calls attention to itself as deliberately and emphatically composed along multiple planes (shown here, image taken from Omar … http://omarsfilmblog.blogspot.ca/2009/11/meghe-dhaka-tara-cloud-capped-star-dir.html) – a gigantic closeup of Nita in sharp focus, with a longer shot of her brother Shankar sitting on the left and a dimly-seen train in the far background: the dramatic center, the personal antagonist and the social backdrop, all in order. And for a film filled with deep-focus shots, one of the most effective is one of the few where Ghatak uses a narrow focal depth and leaves much of the image out of focus – the conversation between Nita and her mother about how far apart they are. (Put that way, it sounds too obvious for its own good, but the contrast with makes it feel absolutely right.)
Ghatak’s soundtrack is a work of expressionist wonder, again placing himself between Bollywood and Ray. It’s not just the famous whip cracks, which start as Nita descends a staircase after seeing some bad news about a marriage proposal, but also a recurring sound effect that resembles as sci-fi “aliens are here.” It comes from nowhere and has no rational explanation except a correlative of Nita’s mental breakdown. There is also a recurring sound effect of cooking, which Jonathan Rosenbaum said in his intro was a “natural” sound effect. I suppose it is, but Ghatak uses it at one point with the sound cranked up to a Spinal Tap 12 while the image smash-cuts into the mother’s face as her family plans gang aft aglay. In the last 30 minutes, there’s barely a natural sound played at a natural volume in the film.
While the other performers vary wildly in register between Bollywoodish archetypal clowns and torn intellectuals – my mind over the past couple of days has run particularly hot and cold on Bijon Bhattachara as the all-seeing and wise but impotent and he knows it father – Supriya Choudhury’s performance as central character Nita is brilliant in a very odd and eccentric way. Early on, I was thinking “she’s too beatific, her face as placid and plastic as an Indian Doris Day.” Three words, Victor – Bait. And. Switch. Unfortunately, I think Ghatak piles on too many denouements in the last 20 minutes or so, and, ironically, his gifts as an image- and sound-maker made me think several times “OK, he’s found the last shot … up and out.”
One thing that genuinely puzzled me; and I have Indian readers. I’ve read more than once that CLOUD-CAPPED STAR is about the partition of Bengal, into a province of India and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). How? I couldn’t even say for certain when the film takes place, and I’m morally certain there’s no textual reference for where exactly the film is happening. There are references to trips to or events in Calcutta, Delhi and Bombay, but other than the absence of Britons (maybe) excluding the first of these options, there is nothing that requires the film take place in 1940, 1948 or 1955. Nor is religion an explicitly textual subject at any level, though I inferred from the names that the family is Hindu, or at least not-Muslim. But since the family itself doesn’t divide or have members marry outside the religion (like in Deepa Mehta’s EARTH) or anything comparable … help!!
LOIN DU VIETNAM (Alain Resnais, William Klein, Joris Ivens, Agnes Varda, Claude Lelouch, Jean-Luc Godard and Chris Marker; France; 1967; 4)
I don’t know why people thought this film would play as uniquely horrible to me; I’ve seen far worse than this in the field of pinko propaganda documentaries. But I’ll go out on a limb here and say with a perfectly straight face that LOIN DU VIETNAM is not a significantly better film than, and shares many flaws with, Dinesh D’Souza’s 2016: OBAMA’S AMERICA. One may refute that of course by applying an a-priori left-good/right-bad ideological standard, though in that case, there is no need to actually see either movie. And while LOIN may very well be effective preaching-to-the-choir (I’m sure as heck not the guy to judge it on that score), 2016 is demonstrably just as effective.
Like with D’Souza’s film, LOIN has little characterization and no drama. In LOIN, there are tendentious framings of issues like the D’Souza (Has America, more than France e.g., convinced itself that the poor are stupid? Is there polling data on this?). In LOIN, there are eye-rolling conspiratorial histoire(s) like the D’Souza (Are the poor, always and by definition, in the moral right, as the narrator says?). In LOIN, there are huge dumps of undigested talking-head material like the D’Souza (one section is nothing but a shot of Fidel Castro answering a couple of softball question, as if he was Shelby Steele or Paul Vitz). In LOIN, there is reliance on cheap emotional manipulation like in the D’Souza (footage of civilian bombing deaths looks the same in 1965 Hanoi as 1944 Dresden) and reliance on technological cheap shots like in the D’Souza (subjecting Fidel Castro to vertical roll, color separation, horrible resolution would have the same effect as doing it to William Westmoreland). In LOIN, inconvenient facts and context are ignored or downplayed like in the D’Souza (while World War II atrocities by Korean guards in Indo-China are carefully mentioned, the Soviet Union and Red China are more or less never mentioned, and not in any way that threatens to undermine the film’s “rich aggression against the poor” template for the war) I also didn’t appreciate the audience self-congratulatory laughs at Westmoreland’s claim that the US is not a murderous regime – if it were, the radiation levels at Hanoi would be getting down to habitable levels right about now.
LOIN also has some flaws of its own inimitable French-intellectual style – a bizarre soliloquy by one “Claude Ridder” while a hot chick lies silent on a couch/bed to provide confused or longing reaction shots, and a typically self-absorbed bit of talk-to-an-onscreen-camera meta-messing by Jean-Luc Godard himself. There’s also lengthy sequences of street demonstrations that (1) leave no doubt whatever that the anti-war movement was, in significant part, Communist (the French don’t think that’s such a bad thing so they have no incentive to hide it), and (2) confirm my belief that all such events, and the ensuing shouting matches, are mostly tedious and unhelpful. And if all this description makes LOIN sound like an unsorted mess … ding ding DING DING!!!!
Is there anything worthwhile if you don’t enter the theater wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt? Yes. The documentary footage from North Vietnam, including the making of impromptu bomb shelters in Hanoi, is interesting, and a sudden cut-to-black really is shocking. A sequence called “Johnson Cries” is a traditional Vietnamese clown pageant, with the make-up-covered street performers playing LBJ and an adviser and another called “Victor Charlie” plays a Tom Paxton anti-war protest song (it got a round of applause at the screening). Both the North Vietnamese clowns and Paxton have wit and artistry to their works – something the film-makers themselves should have absorbed.
ERNEST AND CELESTINE (Benjamin Renner, Vincent Patar and Stéphane Aubier, Belgium, 8)
There’s no fooling the audience in a kid’s movie — their reaction tells you with brutal honesty whether a film is working. The moment I knew ERNEST & CELESTINE had the audience hooked came during a scene where some ink blotches get timed and shaped to music. Despite the avant-garde sounding precept, a girl one row in front of me at a TIFF Family screening was waving her arms around in a kid’s idea of a conductor’s gestures. And the little girl was right to be hooked … I now regret missing A TOWN CALLED PANIC by this same Belgian animation team.
The story isn’t much — unlikely friendship between a mouse and a bear, who live in parallel cities above and below ground, and each is threatened with community ostracism for this unnatural liaison. The animation is stylish, but in a deliberately low-tech way for a minimalist, hand-drawn retro look that resembles 50s/60s French movie posters. But this kind of film is entirely about the details – attitude, tone and asides that are often at their funniest when they are at their most irrelevant and irreverent. And on that score, ERNEST & CELESTINE is pure fun from beginning to end, with more than enough double entendres (in the broadest sense, not the sexual one) to amuse everyone. Like the original BABE, it’s both wise and wiseacre, and often at the same time; for example one early line from an elderly Rodentian authority figure tells Celestine “only in fairy tales can bears be friends with mice.” Also like BABE, it’s scary and funny, also often at the same time, as when Ernest has a lightbulb moment involving a roast chicken and some breadcrumbs.
But what I appreciated most was the irrelevant details, that reflect a pure whimsy and joy in world-creation worthy of the Warners cartoons. One joke about how mice in weight training do bench presses is both funny for the kids and (for adults who have much knowledge of the real world) macabre. But then it gets twice as funny when we see the bears do the same bench-press method, which is guffawed at because, well, there is no macabre element and They Did It Anyway. Another gag about how Celestine always manages to sneak her way back into Ernest’s cabin literally defies the laws of physics and, like half the Road-Runner / Wile E. Coyote gags, is funny exactly for that reason. ERNEST & CELESTINE doesn’t quite measure up to the best of Pixar but it easily matches everything else in the family-animation field and has equal virtues for … childless adult cynics.
THY WOMB (Brillante Mendoza, Philippines, 6)
Not sure I can really improve on Mike D’Angelo’s Twitter review of Mendoza’s 2008 film SERBIS: “Here’s an environment. Do you like my environment? Immerse yourself in the environment I offer you. That is all.” http://www.panix.com/~dangelo/nyff08.html Though since Mike gave SERBIS a not-recommended 40/100, to my guardedly-recommended 6/10 for THY WOMB, I guess I should at least try to. Still, it should be obvious in my initial joke that I am recommending THY WOMB entirely on that “do you like my environment” terms. The film is 80% ethnography to 20% drama, and anyone looking for a gripping story or unwilling to tolerate longueurs should stay the sex-act-euphemism away. Given my general aesthetic preferences, my willingness to overlook something I almost never would in a film from North America or Western Europe could be called Orientalism or exoticism. If so, so be it. I have never been to the Muslim areas of the southern Philippine islands – emphasis on the noun there … if memory serves, there are no roads in this film (certainly they are few and far between) and all significant transportation is by boat. And since I do not like to travel, one reason among others I like to go to foreign films is to learn stuff.
The plot of THY WOMB barely consists of more than “a woman, who is a midwife, is infertile, she advises her husband to get a second wife, he does so after solving some dowry issues, they have baby.” The ending is … for reasons I don’t want to spoil … enigmatic. To tread vaguely, it can read as horribly ironic. Or, if we take the world as portrayed here seriously, maybe not. These details create a whole world, an environment to immerse … [stop it, Victor, stop it]. The ritual slaughter of a cow and the selling of a boat’s motor both resonate heavier, precisely because the islands’ environment has been so meticulously set up. Selling a boat motor is like selling a bike in 1940s Italy in a way it wouldn’t be in the US, and cows are a precious commodity but even they have to be transported by boat (to awkward effect in one of THY WOMB’s best scenes). Also for example, we see an attack by armed guerrillas on the couple’s fishing boat, the remains of a shot-up Catholic church during another trip, and gunfire breaking out at another couple’s wedding (featuring an eye-opening method of gift-giving). And in all three cases, it was downplayed. For example, after the boat raid, the couple went home to dress the husband’s wounds; no authorities (what authorities?) were ever called and the attack was never referred to afterward. During the wedding, people start to panic at the sound of gunfire, but the wife yells out for people to calm down and continue dancing. It’s as if the environment is everything and even the characters themselves don’t want plot events to stop it.
WHAT RICHARD DID (Lenny Abrahamson, Ireland, 2)
… not much actually.
I quipped to a bud afterward that “it’s CRIMES AND MISEMEANORS shot in the style of a muted after-school special starring Chris O’Donnell.” He said that sounds interesting, and while I guess it might, in this case it is not, because WHAT RICHARD DID is flat, thin and underdeveloped in every way. There’s really only enough material here for a 10-minute short – spoilers ahoy, but really, this film is going nowhere, and the basic premise is the first of about three plot points (rinse and repeat what I said about exoticism regarding THY WOMB; sorry, Irish bourgeoisie). Nevertheless, that plot point occurs about 40 minutes into the film, which I’d normally count as spoiler territory and try to avoid – but believe me, I was looking since the title tells you to expect the central character to do something bad. One of the aggravating things about this film is that it spends so long showing Richard doing everything but shitting rose petals in such obvious counterpoint that you spend almost half the film twiddling your thumbs, waiting for the shoe to drop. Meanwhile, what you’re seeing isn’t interesting enough in a hanging-out vibe to compensate.
The titular character, a rugby-team captain graduating private school and with his adult life ready to start, gets into a drunken fight and what results would earn him a conviction for something like third-degree murder or involuntary manslaughter. But only a couple of folks (also complicit themselves to some degree, and also drunk) know what happened to teammate Connor and the investigation isn’t looking in Richard’s direction. Hence my CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS comparison – can I live with the knowledge of myself as a killer. Not only is Abrahamson no Woody Allen (much less a Dostoevsky), but lead actor Jack Reynor can’t even begin to compare to Martin Landau. He’s appropriately attractive and has a winning personality but can’t deliver a torn soul. The spiritual wrestling here is to the real thing what WWE wrestling is to the real thing. The only real relationship is with his father (there’s a rote girlfriend and Richard’s undifferentiated mates), and there are only three real scenes about What The Film Is About after Connor’s death, one of them in a church.
Some of it is director Abrahamson’s fault – in one scene, Richard literally screams aloud, alone, for about a minute but the hand-held digital camera tries to get closeups as he lurches around the room. But it never succeeds, making the scene a (doubly) unfocused mess. In another scene, the rugby club toasts the dead guy Connor and the camera manages to catch every member of the club’s behavior, except the person we want to see (that would be Richard … for me anyway). And the ending … let’s just say that WHAT RICHARD DID gives us a perfect rugby head fake. In other words, it cheats. Like Richard did.
ME AND YOU (Bernardo Bertolucci, Italy, 5)
I hope Bernardo gets to make another film because I do NOT want the last image of this man’s career to be something as nakedly and banally derivative as the 400 BLOWS endshot accompanied by David Bowie’s “Space Oddity.” ME AND YOU promises a lot more than it eventually delivers, but it does a good job of promising early, very much in a DREAMERS vein of two self-indulgent privileged assholes (half-siblings in this case) setting up a temporary utopia apart from the world, but parasitic upon it.
Jacopo Antinori and Tea Falco are attractive players and hold the screen well enough – I was reminded of a more aggressively sullen Jesse Eisenberg and Kate Winslet. There’s funny moments involving near simultaneous ring tones and I loved the score early on, even the Italian cover of “Space Oddity” (it sounds like Bowie himself). And ME AND YOU is gorgeous to look at, with enough orange pools of light, dust mites, and eccentric angles and movements to make me think Vittorio Storaro were still around. I especially loved a swirling shot that mostly looked up through a glass ceiling to the floor above.
But at about the hour mark, I began to get restless, as the script’s wheels begin to spin (or maybe, “bog down” … “spin” implies SOME movement and a working engine). It’s fine to have Antinori walk in a figure-8 pattern around two objects, as an armadillo had done earlier in a pet shop, but … Bernardo, it’s insulting to intercut the boy with “reminder” shots of the animal from earlier. Also, structurally, a problem with these isolated world / “Elvira Madigan” scenarios is that they really need to have the outside world intrude somehow, and that neither happens here nor much threatens to. And once the sister has set herself up in the idyll (the family basement), ME AND YOU doesn’t really create much conflict between the two of them, so the film winds up being about … not much really except some drug-withdrawal moments. The ending is also far too open-ended and irresolved for my tastes. Even that junkie angle makes the film play like JESUS SON without the loopy digressive interludes. Which is also to say … not much.
WHAT MAISIE KNEW (Scott McGehee and David Siegel, USA, 3)
What Victor knew is Henry James. And I can’t describe this film’s rotten soul without describing the resolution, so consider that your warning. But in one sentence – Henry James wrote a novel about the wickedness of divorce and/or parents (the novel’s allows for both non-exclusive interpretation); Scott McGehee and David Siegel made a film about the virtue of step-parents and the wickedness of birth parents.
The key is two major changes – Maisie’s fate and her age. The story of both works kicks in with a divorce in which the two parents (Steve Coogan and Julianne Moore here) share custody of a 6-year-old girl. Moore and Coogan are typically fine – Coogan getting a chance to play his self-absorbed tool persona in a dramatic context. But Moore’s greatness only allows her to stay afloat against a script that paints her as a complete bitch until she has to make a complete turn on a dime at The Big Confrontation scene at the end. In both film and novel, allowing for different particulars of the two eras (at this level of finding different-times equivalents, McGehee and Siegel have done a good job of adaptation) the two parents are head-thumpingly awful human beings, using Maisie as a tool against the other. In both works, both couples remarry, but here is where the changes start to happen, and not for any reason other than making this film the latest Holly/Indiewood salvo against the traditional family.
The first change is that Maisie is played by the same actress, 6- or 7-year-old Onita Aprile throughout, and as a result, the film has to compress the events of about a decade into at most one year. This means that Maisie’s character trajectory from naïve girl to self-aware teenager is completely gone. Aprile has the right face – semi-opaque as if she understands but doesn’t quite get what she sees. She is now essentially now a one-note character, putting all the chips on the parental characters and making the title rather misleading, or at least grossly underdeveloped for the title theme.
Which leads to the second and more damaging change — the absence of a dotty, silly servant named Mrs. Wix and how that affects the ending. In James, all four parents cheat, the step-parents with each other. In the film, the natural parents basically abandon Maisie and the step-parents (here played by Joanna Venderham and Alexander Sarsgard) only get together in the context of caring for Maisie when each gets left in the lurch by their spouses and only become a couple at the very end, accordingly softening James’s critique of parents and divorce and making an excuse for these step-parents. And at the end, James’s Maisie stays with Mrs. Wix, because she’s convinced that the newly together step-parents will fail, because of her experience and their corrupt circumstances. A novel about divorce, a corrupt marriage society and an adult growing into an understanding of love separate from marriage becomes an apologia for the post-modern family and a distasteful game of a child shopping for ideal parents – NORTH for the art-house set.
AMOUR (Michael Haneke, France, 9)
The World’s Best Pure Director is back after being on a two-film losing streak with me. I didn’t like either the unnecessary FUNNY GAMES remake and the risible “Nazism is bad” period piece WHITE RIBBON, and I had officially supplanted Haneke at the summit of my esteem with the Dardenne brothers. But with AMOUR, Haneke returns to the top of his form, with material ideally suited to it – a clinical, nearly one-set look at an elderly couple, Anne and Georges (astonishingly played by Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant) as she has a stroke and slips into dementia.
Even if I didn’t know, there never would have been any doubt whose work this is – a heart in the mouth moment, a sudden act of unexpected violence, grueling subject matter, lengthy takes with few camera moves but much movement within the frame, rhyming compositions near the start and the end, the literal start with a bang that gets rhymed with a piano concerto that does the same, the fastidious attention to details of sound and decor, the splendidly enigmatic but explicable (to me anyway) final scenes (three head-scratchers here; the impossible scene, the pigeon, the final shot). The only new element, some folks have said, is a surprising auteurial affection for his characters and theirs for each other. Without denying that – the film after all is called AMOUR not MORT (something the very last shot underlines by indirection) – I’d also deny that Haneke’s teutonic moralism is absent. Look at the “impossible” scene and the judgmental fate it implies. At a minimum, this film is a tragedy, not the Haneke remake of a recent Clint Eastwood film I had been expecting and that AMOUR might be consumed as.
But let me just describe one scene for a sense of how much Haneke can pack into one element – a running tap. In an early scene Anne goes blank and nonresponsive while sitting with Georges at the kitchen table, and so he hurries (to the extent his own 80-ish body will allow) over to the tap to wet a towel. Because he is concerned, he leaves it running and that’s the loudest sound as he strives to revive her, the sound of running water an archetype for life slipping away. When that fails, he slowly hurries over to the phone two rooms away to call for help, but even as the camera leaves the kitchen the tap continues dominating the soundtrack, a reminder of the race against time. As he’s calling the number, the sound of the water suddenly turns off, startling both us and Georges. When he gets back to the kitchen, the conversation is based on the tap – Anne scolds Georges for leaving it running, the only thing she knows about the last several minutes. One effect has had four different meanings/uses in a couple of minutes of screen time.
SOMETHING IN THE AIR (Olivier Assayas, France, 5)
I suppose it helps to have as an entree into this film that you were part of The 60s Generation and/or think student radicalism and occupying stuff is awesome, man (this writer was cheering on the Paris cops in the opening scene, so … no). But even if you do, there is no excuse for this film’s dramatic shortcomings. If Assayas had deliberately tried to make a film that shows by negative example the awesomeness of CARLOS – and besides auteurial commonalities, the two films share some period, milieu and structural similarities – he couldn’t have done a heck of a lot better than SOMETHING IN THE AIR.
The first thing that’s missing from SOMETHING that CARLOS had in spades was a great crime/terrorism/“activism” set-piece that got its hooks into you and showed what this character was capable of and why he mattered. The OPEC raid might have been an impossible standard but even Carlos’s early attacks had more of an element of “build” to them, and the sheer number compensated. Here, we just get a demonstration The Pigs break up, followed by a graffiti attack and a Molotov-cocktail/flour-ing. There’s exhilarating flow in the first and some high stakes in the last, but not much else. The second thing missing is a dominating, charismatic central performance, one that structures and unites and pulls through an episodic AndThen-ist narrative. Edgar Ramirez would have won the Skandies best actor any year except Jesse Eisenberg’s SOCIAL NETWORK sweep; Clement Metayer is at best adequate as the Assayas proxy who’s the closest thing to a protagonist this movie has (at worst he’s downright boring).
Without set pieces or a strong lead character, Assayas reverts to a style I associate with films of his I dislike (DEMONLOVER, LATE AUGUST EARLY SEPTEMBER and LES DETINEES SENTIMENTALES), which have a weird, “backing-into” quality, in which Assayas seems to be trying to create a milieu or aura in which the narrative threads just happens to glance off each other and at the side of the screen. (Those were also the first three Assayas films I saw, so there’s a little part of me that doesn’t trust my memory of those films.) In SOMETHING, this bad effect is exaggerated by the fact that Assayas follows a half-dozen characters’ lives for several years in early 70s, which themselves only take up the first 20(?) minutes. As a result the film gets bogged down in repetitive Basil Exposition scenes, ticking off a “catching-up” checklist as you might do with your Christmas card.
So Assayas has failed to create characters and situations that matter, though his direction almost saves the film. Eric Gautier’s camera is so fluid you practically drink it in and is never not in the right place, always managing to catch the action even in a scene that is the archetype of chaos, the street riot. I especially approved of an early upward track with a slight downward pan as a woman was leaving the hero in the woods and tells him not to watch her leave – the new angle means we see her part but not whether he was looking. The repeated fire motifs brighten matters up and tie together some of this sprawling material. And I also heartily approve of “60s was a failure” / “radicalism was/is just a means to the real goal of scoring chicks” / “radicalism gets commodified” as themes. But in a better film.
RUST AND BONE (Jacques Audiard, France, 5)
I probably would’ve given this a 4 had I not then immediately seen the film I did – persuading me there are worse things in the world than an undisciplined, nonsensical script filled with superb actors and a director who at least knows what he’s doing. Audiard even sometimes manages an arresting image, such as the hazy-minded killer-whale attack that deprives a Sea World girl of her legs. And Skandies FYC: killer-whale reunion. Marion Cotillard gets the big Oscar-bait “where’s the rest of me?” scene (and she does well by it). But Matthias Schoenaerts is even better as her sorta-lover Ali, in a role that requires him to be a lovable brute who never asks us to like him and frankly does some despicable things. I haven’t liked either of the two films I’ve seen him in (BULLHEAD being the other), but he could be a great star.
But at the end of the day, RUST AND BONE is still basically a Jean Claude Van Damme movie – LIONHEART to be specific – in which a bulgin’ Belgian responds to a medical issue by making money in illegal bare-knuckle fights. As for the legless Cotillard, RUST compares unfavorably to DIVING BELL AND BUTTERFLY, in terms of putting you inside a handicapped person’s head … here, it feels rushed and pat, like just a minor speed bump or one of the broken noses or cuts Schoenaerts takes in his fights, before she becomes the collector of illegal bets at an illegal activity (handicapped women are SO well suited for that role, let me tellz ya). And no way, no how am I buying that any man has ever first bedded a woman, much less one he once offended by assuming she was a whore, with the line “so, you wanna fuck?” (If this actually works on you … you have my combox for your contact info.) Other unmotivated or unbelievable actions abound – why would Stephanie respond to losing her legs by calling Ali, who is barely more than a stranger?; and why did Ali’s sister and brother-in-law … change their tune … so quickly near the end? Ali’s fight career (from a French Kimbo Slice to a world title fight) and Stephanie’s recovery both progress far too quickly for the amount of change we see in Ali’s growing boy. And the subplots of Ali’s son and Ali’s day job, which involves installing spy cameras, have been too thin to carry the emotional weight Audiard seems to want to give them near the end. It’s well-done French nonsense, in the limited sense that montages set to Katy Perry music and people doing The Wave is “French.” But still nonsense.
THE GREAT KILAPY (Zeze Gamboa, Angola, 1)
One of the most inexplicable choices for a major film festival I have ever seen. I’ve zero-zapped Toronto films like GERRY or MARTYRS before, but I can at least get why they were programmed. THE GREAT KILAPY may be the most uninspired film, at once utterly incompetent while maintaining a certain veneer of competence, that I think I’ve ever seen here. Besides making RUST AND BONE look good, I’m really considering whether I was too harsh on TABU, with which KILAPY shares a structural similarity – a first half set in Portugal, a second in Portuguese colonial Africa (though here the protagonist is a black member of the local upper crust rather than a Portuguese woman). Unless there was some African quota number to be reached, I can’t even imagine what could possess a professional programmer to think KILAPY was worthy.
To start with, the film is neither thrilling nor funny (#fact … certainly nobody in the audience laughed or gasped much). It’s a measure of KILAPY’s incompetence at basic dramaturgy, scene-building, pacing and tonal cues that I’m not certain whether the film was trying to be a comedy, a thriller, both or neither. KILAPY’s basic premise implies some combination of those elements – Joaozinho, the son of a well-connected Angolan, lives a wastrel life in 1960s Lisbon but falls in with independence activists and leftist radicals, while really only caring about money and sex. When sent back to Angola he gets a position in a bank, which he starts bilking to fund an MPLA activist friend and his own taste for Mercedes roadsters. You can see all the ways this basic skeleton might work – as a cynical demythologization, as a caper comedy, as a crime procedural, as a political awakening. But it just … happens. And lies there, with nothing even to indicate the film-makers even realize that they don’t know what they’re doing. There is exactly one scene that threatens to be good – Joaozinho’s father listening to an MPLA radio broadcast while his son enters the house. The rest is a whole lot of “AndThen-ing.”
Nor is KILAPY incompetent in an entertaining or crude way a la Ed Wood. Every scene is perfectly evenly lit, not a shadow or blemish or hint of grain in sight (except for stock footage “establishing” 1969 Luanda so mismatched it’s almost … almost … parodic). It so clean-scrubbed and plastic and false it looks like interminable footage of toothpaste commercials or fourth-rate telenovelas. KILPAY is for some reason narrated by a middle-aged white man who was witness to the very end of events (not that he gets involved in some key way … oh no) to a young black woman in the present day. Why he’s doing this, whether he succeeds, why it matters … dammit, I’ve already spent too much time on a film that nobody (other than the Portuguese, Brazilian, Mozambican and Angolan bureaucrats who funded it) is ever gonna see.
THE PERVERTS GUIDE TO IDEOLOGY (Sophie Fiennes, Britain, 7)
I could largely repeat what I wrote a few years ago about Fiennes and Slavoj Zizek’s THE PERVERTS GUIDE TO CINEMA a few years ago at Toronto (https://vjmorton.wordpress.com/2006/09/09/toronto-day-1-capsules/), only more so. IDEOLOGY repeats the formula, only more so – it’s 60 percent brilliant, 20 percent idiotic and 20 percent wtff? But as film, it’s compulsively and thrillingly watchable. Zizek himself has so much charisma and so non-pedantic, he’s such an astute film critic, and the film is such an editing and effects virtuoso act (e.g. you see Zizek liking on the TAXI DRIVER set, seen from overhead like Travis while wearing the same costume). In addition, IDEOLOGY is film sociocriticism of the highest order and Zizek is so blessedly free of the smelly orthodoxies of this benighted era that even its intellectual failures are (1) of the sort you feel privileged to say “but wait … that’s nucking futs!!!” and (2) inherent in the ideas to which Zizek has committed himself (primarily, post-communist leftism and Lacan psychoanalysis).
IDEOLOGY is also so thoroughly up my alley in terms of the intellectual fields through which Zizek is running (whatever the precise pattern he’s running). Zizek does a wonderful read on BRIEF ENCOUNTER, which happens to be the only film I ever gave to my shrink and insist that he watch, and how the Big Other is constructed. All-encompassing threats like the shark in JAWS are popular precisely because they can be filled with whatever the viewer wants (one thing I constantly keep in mind when reading film criticism). In this brutally truthful film, Zizek sees ideology everywhere, understands the importance of appearance, had me rolling in the aisles at his drinking a Starbucks, thrilled me with his (agreement with my) reads on the “Officer Krupke” number from WEST SIDE STORY, the Noble Lie in THE DARK KNIGHT and military discipline in FULL METAL JACKET, and he gives prime of place to subjectivity over “objective” material conditions (“how do we subjectivize our objective circumstances” in Zizek’s words, is, if it’s a meaningful question at all, the decisive refutation of classic Marx, though Zizek doesn’t act as if he realizes that).
And that last puts the finger on why I found IDEOLOGY almost as maddening as exhilarating (besides his carelessness with details. The journalist in me could pick all day at statements like “TAXI DRIVER is an ‘unacknowledged’ SEARCHERS remake”; “Dostoevsky never said ‘if there is no God all is permitted’,” and “the system of apartheid” in Rhodesia). But more importantly Zizek starts from commitments he cannot question within his own subjectivity and so as a result keeps painting himself into corners and a welter of contradictions. I could write for days on that, so let me just give one example. He argues, using images from THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST that Christianity is atheistic. Because, he claims, Christianity denies the Jewish God by answering the Job question, the unanswerability of which can ground God as the Big Other. But this Big Other “dies on the Cross” and now God guarantees meaning in the universe through His own act of sacrificial love. Given Lacanian psychology as a master discourse, against which religious claims are measured (as Zizek does), that does follow. But the nuttiness of “Christianity is atheistic” or “the only way to become an atheist is to go through Christianity” (that’s a different argument, BTW) doesn’t deter Zizek, and the obvious rejoinder – that love might itself provide a different, superior grounding for God; that Deus Caritas Est, as some recent book has claimed – is an idea that, on the basis of this film, has never occurred to Zizek. Of course, since he later says “we cannot know God’s will because God does not exist,” he’s not even careful with his own contradictions. But well, that’s Zizek. And this film.
FRANCES HA (Noah Baumbach, USA, 7)
Just christen me “The Grouch of TIFF 12,” since everybody I know seems to like this film even more than I do. And don’t get me wrong, give me a half-way developed ending and that grade goes up at least one and possibly two points. Which is a shame because until then, this may be Baumbach’s best film and all thanks and praise must go to, and glory be unto the name of, Greta Gerwig, who could become the Chris Eigemann of the 10s, dividing time between being Whit Stillman’s muse and Noah Baumbach’s (and rejuvenating their careers one hopes).
FRANCES is a tragicomic tale of brightly-dialogued and hyper-self-aware downward mobility, with one’s life measured out, not with coffee spoons, but with roommates and “prospect” jobs and apartment moves. (As someone who’s held basically the same job for 13 years, lived in the same place for 10 and been by myself for 20 … this is a world profoundly alien to me.) Gerwig plays a Brooklyn ballet apprentice (so I must ask: a dancer and … no sambola. Why, Greta … why???!!?) whose career hopes and ability to pay her share of the rent are based on becoming an official understudy, getting extra performances for Christmas season and general hopes to choreograph her own show. Her downward spiral, as she gets gradually reduced to being a summer RA at her alma mater, constitutes the main trajectory. The dialog and positioning among hypercompetitive people draws passive-aggressive blood as things are said with half an eye on their truth and half on their appearance. (Frances’ trip to Paris is what a Haneke comedy would look like.) This is a society as snobbish and appearance-obsessed as Balzac’s Paris or Wharton’s New York, both comparisons that these characters would blanche at because they’re so much beyond All That and have the degrees to prove it. The only constant in Frances’ life is her friendship with Sophie, which she repeatedly sabotages and re-establishes. And if I’m made FRANCES HA sound grim and self-serious … mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. Like Balzac or Wharton, it’s tremendously funny account of status anxiety among the snobs.
But that ending … to everybody fawning over this film who doesn’t have an equally high grade for YOUR SISTER’S SISTER (and you know who you are): How is the montage that substitutes for a third act in the Shelton film any less lazy than the montage that Baumbach deploys here? After 82 minutes of Frances being her own worst enemy, of throwing away opportunities (and wasting thousands(?) of bucks in the Paris trip, e.g.) in the name of pride and appearance and self-conception, all of which I adore per se … how is the last 4 minutes possible? Frances turns from a hipster fuck-up to a reasonably effectual person on the turn of a dime. And it’s not anything that actually happens in that 81st minute – nothing happened there that hadn’t happened before. In addition, it’s not as if unmotivated and unconvincing denouements were a problem I haven’t been having with Baumbach’s last couple of films (which way MARGOT AT THE WEDDING and GREENBERG flip in terms of a character “taking a trip” is pure chance). To cite a journalistic aphorism – one is an anecdote, two is coincidence, three is a trend.
SANS SOLEIL (Chris Marker, France, 1982, 9)
Despite the grade, this heady essay film isn’t perfect — it seems to be some sort of rule that every French leftist intellectual’s stream-of-consciousness has to contain at least three monumentally stupid pseudo-profundities, a quota Marker manages to meet (did you know the American “occupation” introduced puritanical sexphobia into Japan? I sure didn’t.)
But at some point, I quit caring. My jaw was on the floor more often than an overmatched fighter’s, as mind-boggling image piled upon Soviet-worthy montage and as expressionist sound mix competed for attention with technologically-altered footage that isn’t mere wankery. I have the word “wow” written out to the side about a half-dozen times – to scenes of faceless shadows passing bricks to one another without looking, Narita airport protesters turned into abstract shapes by “The Zone,” an endless single take of ticketing at Tokyo subway, people sleeping on train intercut to J-horror shots and then a woman waking up, the whack-a-”mole” game, the giraffe slaughter (not for the squeamish) matched to music that sounded like an electronic version of closing music from UGETSU, and a silly aphorism about Japanese TV watching you that gets illustrated by a progressively faster-rotating montage of faces and eyes almost making this absurd thought seem palatable.
Speaking of Soviet-worthy … Marker is a Commie, but even if you ignore all the filmic gorgeosity, this didn’t really bother me either, because he’s not blind to the failures of left-wing causes. He returns to the demonstrators having the same fight over an airport as they did 10 years ago “only now the airport is there.” He admires the post-60s generation’s spirit but not their utopianism. I also would cite this film’s material on the former Portuguese Guinea as a classic case of a Marxist losing his faith, or at least losing the optimism and confidence that, in its classic form, is intrinsic to Marxism. Not only does Marker underline the “what do we do now” problem all anti-colonial revolutionaries faced, but his (aestheticized) footage of a guerrilla attack removes all the cheap Che romanticism and he frankly acknowledges the bloody history of Guinea Bissau’s independence. In order to “keep the faith” as it were, Marker has to retreat to aphorisms like “history progresses by forgetting” and finally that history has only one permanent ally, “the Horror” (Indeed, I would argue from exactly those premises that there are therefore no such things as “progress” or “history,” but I digress.)
I have it in my head that I recently read about SANS SOLEIL being dismissed as “Chris Marker’s vacation footage,” which … I guess it is, in a sense (some of it is just as clearly found footage), but with editing and voiceover like this, it’s anything but unshaped. It’s also incredibly funny at times – three words: talking Kennedy mannequin. Also Japan developing “a cheaper, more efficient form of Catholicism.” Marker turns it all into a meditation on death, on cultures’ (Japan’s most of all) relationship to it, and on the ways the future relates to the past and vice versa. So naturally, one of the most breath-taking sequences concerns Marker’s love for VERTIGO and his tour of San Francisco. And in a fortuitous coincidence, because Hitch was withholding VERTIGO’s rights, Marker had to use still photographs to illustrate his points about memory and loss. Sound familiar?
TABU (Miguel Gomes, Portugal, 4)
Anchovies are wonderful. Chocolate sauce is wonderful. This wheat beer I’m having right now is wonderful. Anchovies smothered in chocolate sauce and beer is not wonderful. In precisely that sense, TABU is not wonderful. TABU’s ingredients can be wonderful on their own, or on a pizza or over ice cream or with chicken wings. There are good reasons why films mixing certain things is taboo (sorry) and TABU illustrates some of them.
After a folkloric overture, we get one tonal mistake after another. The first part of TABU, “Paradise Lost” is a semi-absurdist comedy largely about three women – an elderly Portuguese woman Aurora, her black maid whom she suspects of putting curses on her, and her younger best friend who wonders about a missing daughter and whom the old woman asks to track down a man’s name, Gian Luca. The problem here is simply that the material is only theoretically funny, though if David Lynch’s deadpan ellipses and indulgences in weird bizarrerie crack you up, feel free to ignore me.
The second half, “Paradise,” is more successful than the first on its own, but it’s both a tonal misfit with the first and unsuccessful on its own terms because of what I’ll call “the gimmick.” Set in Portuguese colonial Africa (likely Mozambique but it’s not made explicit), the story follows a younger Aurora and her romantic involvements. But The Gimmick here is that there is no diegetic dialogue, the film instead featuring only shared voice-over narration and even letters between illicit lovers. The film is also in black-and-white, with the back half being in a grainier format; so it does look nice. And there is a Portuguese cover of “Be My Baby” that I will be trying to hunt down – TABU has its merits, no doubt.
The problem is that the back half is all intended to be hyper-romantic and swoonworthy (I mentioned THE ENGLISH PATIENT afterward to Kenji Fujishima and he said Gomes had cited OUT OF AFRICA in the Q-and-A, which I fled), but it is not, primarily because The Gimmick gets in the way. Depriving people of dialog turns them into abstractions and prevents any real emotional involvement. And while I can get intellectually that the gimmick is more like “memory,” it’s too distancing to move someone other than the actual rememberer. Similarly, the ending is clearly intended to emotionally slay you, and if I’d given a crap about anything that had preceded it, I may very well be counting myself among the slain. (In case it’s not clear, unlike with many bad films, I really can see how some people can [wrongly] think this film great.) As it is, I’m quite firmly alive and unslain.
After persistent heckling for one of the two cinephile Dan Owens I know, here is my annual “What I am seeing at Toronto this year” post. Though I regret to inform Alex Fung that his annually awaited “Canadian bilingualism, c’est le suck” rant, which he says marks the start of TIFF, is still to come. This is being posted using my work laptop Mac in Cincinnati airport (yeah … Washington to Toronto via Cincinnati … cheapness trumps geography and geometry) while I am traveling on a *US* airline (Delta) rather than that prisoner of sensitivities to frogdom [Victor looks up how you say “Air Canada” in French … oh … wow] Air Canada. So not yet, Alex … coming soon.
Anyhoo … as always, this schedule is subject to change depending on buzz. There is also one time, the first Saturday morning, where I know I’ll have to sacrifice at least one of a cluster of three films, and buzz will determine what I do (though given commercial release patterns, I’m likeliest to skip ARGO). I also quickly reconciled myself to not seeing Paul Thomas Anderson’s THE MASTER — the screening I wanted to go to was sold out, and it will have a week-long run in 70mm in Washington, so I didn’t try too hard to juggle things around. The absence of the new Leos Carax and Alain Resnais films — THAT I haven’t quite gotten over yet.
Thu 6 Sept.
Noon SANS SOLEIL (Chris Marker, France, 1982) Jackman Hall
615pm TABU (Miguel Gomes, Portugal) Lightbox 1
Fri 7 Sept.
Noon RUST AND BONE (Jacques Audiard, France) Ryerson
315pm THE GREAT KILAPY (Zeze Gamboa, Angola) Cineplex 2
600pm THE PERVERT’S GUIDE TO IDEOLOGY (Sophie Fiennes / Slavoj Zizek, Britain) Isabel Bader
930pm FRANCES HA (Noah Baumbach, USA) Ryerson
Sat 8 Sept.
930am ME AND YOU (Bernardo Bertolucci, Italy) Cineplex 2
1100am ARGO (Ben Affleck, USA) Elgin Theatre
1245pm WHAT MAISIE KNEW (Scott McGahee and David Siegel, USA) Lightbox 1
600pm AMOUR (Michael Haneke, France) Elgin Theatre
900pm SOMETHING IN THE AIR (Olivier Assayas, France) Elgin Theatre
Sun 9 Sept.
1130am LOIN DU VIETNAM (a buncha commies, Frogland, 1967) Lightbox 3
300pm ERNEST AND CELESTINE (Benjamin Renner, Vincent Patar, Stéphane Aubier, Belgium) Cineplex 6
615pm THY WOMB (Brillante Mendoza, Philippines) Cineplex 9
945pm WHAT RICHARD DID (Lenny Abrahamson, Ireland) Scotiabank 2
Mon 10 Sept.
900am THE ACT OF KILLING (Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, Anonymous, Indonesia) Bloor
noon AT ANY PRICE (Ramin Bahrani, USA) Ryerson
300pm EVERYDAY (Michael Winterbottom, Britain) Cineplex 7
545pm FOXFIRE: CONFESSIONS OF A GIRL GANG (Laurent Cantet, Canada/France) Ryerson
900pm THE CLOUD-CAPPED STAR (Ritwik Ghatak, India, 1960) Lightbox 4
Tue 11 Sept.
1100am BYZANTIUM (Neil Jordan, Britain) Elgin Theater
300pm NO (Pablo Larrain, Chile) Bloor
600pm MUSHROOMING (Toomas Hussar, Estonia) Cineplex 5
800pm PASSION (Brian DePalma, USA) Winter Garden Theatre
1000pm ARTHUR NEWMAN (Dante Ariola, USA) Scotiabank 1
Wed 12 Sept.
1100am GREAT EXPECTATIONS (Mike Newell, Britain) Elgin Theater
345pm IN THE HOUSE (Francois Ozon, France) Lightbox 1
645pm REALITY (Matteo Garrone, Italy) Lightbox 1
930pm BEYOND THE HILLS (Cristian Mungiu, Romania) Scotiabank 3
Thu 13 Sept.
115pm POST TENEBRAS LUX (Carlos Reygadas, Mexico) Lightbox 3
330pm CAUGHT IN THE WEB (Chen Kaige, China) Lightbox 1
600pm BARBARA (Christian Petzold, Germany) Ryerson
900pm CAMP 14: TOTAL CONTROL ZONE (Marc Wiese, Germany) Lightbox 2
Fri 14 Sept.
915am IN THE FOG (Sergei Loznitza, Russia) Lightbox 2
1130am JAYNE MANSFIELD’S CAR (Billy Bob Thornton, USA) Ryerson
415pm PIETA (Kim Ki-duk, South Korea) Scotiabank 9
630pm IN ANOTHER COUNTRY (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea) Scotiabank 1
845pm IN THE NAME OF LOVE (Luu Huynh, Vietnam) Cineplex 2
Sat 15 Sept.
900am KEY OF LIFE (Kenji Uchida, Japan) Scotiabank 11
1230pm CLANDESTINE CHILDHOOD (Benjamin Avila, Argentina) Cineplex 3
400pm BIG IN VIETNAM (Mati Diop, France) and MEKONG HOTEL (“Joe,” Thailand) Cineplex 9
545pm ROOM 237 (Rodney Ascher, USA) Cineplex 2
915pm NIGHT ACROSS THE STREET (Raul Ruiz, Chile) Lightbox 4
midnight JOHN DIES AT THE END (Don Coscarelli, USA) Ryerson
Sun 16 Sept.
1230pm THE SUICIDE SHOP (Patrice Leconte, France) Scotiabank 2
345pm ZAYTOUN (Eran Riklis, Israel) Lightbox 2
615pm DORMANT BEAUTY (Marco Bellocchio, Italy) Scotiabank 4
945pm TO THE WONDER (Terence Malick, USA) Lightbox 1