Rightwing Film Geek

TIFF Capsules — Day 10

CALIFORNIA DREAMIN, Cristian Nemescu, Romania — 6

Of the four recent Romanian films I’ve seen, this is the one that comes closest in style and tone to the East European black-comedies of the 60s (Munk, Forman, Menzel, etc.) — a bureaucratic snafu, an arbitrary decision-maker, allegorical plot, a lot of people waiting around, and establishing a temporary idyll while “the papers are being processed” offstage. With a group of American soldiers trapped in Romanian Nowheresville on their way to Kosovo, you get a range of reactions and interactions, all of them at least bordering on the cynical. I was also floored by the black-and-white flashback to the 40s, which explains exactly why some of the people behave as they do. Compared to the northern part of ex-Commie Europe though, Balkan humor, or at least the behavior of the characters, is a bit less dry and bit more blustery. DREAMIN is a funny delight, but it just went on for too long for the premise and the episodic structure eventually wore out its welcome. I can’t help but think Nemescu would have tightened it up some if he hadn’t been killed in a car accident.

ANGEL, Francois Ozon, Britain/France — 8

I may need to take another look at Todd Haynes’s FAR FROM HEAVEN, to which I had a decidedly mixed reaction, because I so thoroughly enjoyed this movie, which succeeds on exactly the terms that HEAVEN’s fans say it did. A sort of female bildungsroman about a teenage dreamer who becomes a writer of cheap romances and then Britain’s biggest literary star, ANGEL isn’t in any way a parody or a pastiche or a travesty of the 30s/40s woman’s picture. It is simply an example of it, a re-creation of it — outdated conventions and all (complaining about the obvious rear-projection, as does the lead review on the IMDb as I write this, utterly misses the point). And given the subject matter and the central character, this is an entirely appropriate stylistic choice. Like Blanche DuBois, Angel doesn’t want realism, she wants magic. ANGEL is in color — a garish and stylized look by contemporary standards; not so much by the standards of the color available in the 30s, but Ozon is at least nodding in that direction. But in every other respect, you can imagine MGM of the 30s putting out this movie, with Norma Shearer or Joan Crawford or Greer Garson in the lead (even to the lead actress being too old for the early, teenager scenes). You can hear the ghosts of Franz Waxman or Dmitri Tiomkin on the extravagantly romantic, mostly-strings score. The honeymoon is presented in a montage of “around the world” scenography (obvious back-projection again). The sets are deliberately opulent (per the “Tiffany studio” rep) to the point of unbelievable if ANGEL were in any way trying to be realistic or even contemporary, but which by their very stand-out quality, sustain both the illusion of a re-creation and the reflection of a soul who doesn’t want realism. In the same vein, what makes Romola Garai’s performance in the central role so awesome is that she stakes out her own ground within this stylized genre. Garai in no way imitates Bette Davis or some of her particular mannerisms. She simply acts herself but in a manner that recalls Davis, and her character is as much a self-centered dynamic asshole as anything Davis ever created. Like Barbara Stanwyck in BABY FACE, Garai is clearly having a ball playing an unredeemed bitch in the early scenes and then, when the character starts to suffer as the genre demands, she’s just as self-assured in her pleadings. There is simply no substitute for conviction.

THE SUN ALSO RISES, Jiang Wen, China — 5

When you start training in submission wrestling or jiu-jitsu, the first thing you’re told is that submitting or “tapping out” is part of the game. If you’re caught, you’re caught; and “only wimps submit” is not an attitude you can take. In the analogous spirit in the matter of film criticism … I now must tap out to a sunk-in arm bar. I wimpishly admit that I have no effing idea what this movie is about. It’s got something to do with the Cultural Revolution, and there are stretches of 10 or 15 minutes when it almost makes sense. There seem to be a couple of plot lines, one involving a professor and a film screening of Maoist propaganda, and another involving a crazy mother who climbs trees. I almost hope that Jiang just made it deliberately obscure in order to confound the Chi-Com censors. What makes SUN tolerable is that it’s so gorgeous to look at — the high-contrast images with the colors saturated up to 11 (especially on the orange-red, as if the whole film was shot at Roland Garros tennis stadium). It’s also often quite funny or bizarre (particularly in the mother character, throwing sheep down trees). But seeing SUN was like watching a coloratura opera in another language, without titles, without having read the book. You admire the virtuosity for a while and remind yourself to “read the book next time.” But in the end, you can’t embrace it.

MY WINNIPEG, Guy Maddin, Canada — 8

The key word here is “my.” This is the most humorously self-absorbed “City Symphony” movie since Fellini’s ROMA, and any resemblance between this film and the actual capital of Manitoba is purely coincidental and quite probably actionable (“10 times the suicide rate of any place in the world”? Really?) I was stunned when I saw on the credits that the Documentary Channel had helped finance this film — eccentric, brilliant and side-splittingly funny though it is. Some of the history recounted has a basis in fact — but everything in Maddin’s hands becomes raw material for his wack imagination, maybe the greatest comic mind working in the movies now. For example, I have no doubt that some sort of accident at a Winnipeg racetrack really did kill some horses. I rather doubt that the horses fell into the river, instantly freezing them to death. And I’m positive that the frozen-in-death heads did not remain above ice all winter and become a kind of decorative statuary attraction for Winnipegers. In this, MY WINNIPEG is like the greatest ever segment of David Letterman’s “Brush with Greatness” — absurd comic embellishments off real events that we’re not supposed to believe, but told with a straight face because it’s so much more enjoyable that way. In a similar vein, this gives a reason for the use of the usual Maddin style — a fevered, impressionistic look, silent footage (a copious voiceover narration here, though) and a “looks 70 years old” quality. It’s part of the “straight face,” given how old some of the history is. Maddin also makes the film intensely personal, after his fashion, by re-creating certain episodes of his 60s Winnipeg childhood, but his now 80-something mom playing herself (not so, though this is what is said during the film; see comments), hired actors playing the others in his family. And using a chihuahua to play the family’s boxer-pup (or was it the other way around). And remembering the world’s most absurd TV show (to describe it would spoil it) — “The Pride of Winnipeg.” Writing this capsule, I’m already starting to convince myself I’ve underestimated MY WINNIPEG. One complaint though: there was not a single mention of Winnipeg’s second-greatest artists, the Crash Test Dummies, so stunned that I left the theater asking myself “Hmmmmm?”

JUST LIKE HOME, Lone Sherfig, Denmark — 3

I want to finish this quickly, so I can get to some of the posts and updates I’ve put off. So it’s hardly worth mentioning this completely forgettable sitcom, which, if it hadn’t been in Danish (or at least not in English), would never grace an important international film festival. The minute you see that one of the characters is an uptight Christian virgin, the only question is “whom will she bed by the movie’s end?” This being Scandinavia, it can be literally anyone for all it matters. This also being Scandinavia, she and the rest of the women will also get a chance to see every man in town naked.

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September 24, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | 2 Comments

2003 TOP 10 — Honorable Mentions

These were the films that just missed my Top 10 for 2003.

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GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING (Peter Webber, Britain) — It’s hard to say what’s most drop-dead gorgeous thing in this movie, Eduardo Serra’s cinematography, Ben Van Os and Cecile Heideman’s art direction or Scarlett Johansson’s face. All three superbly-controlled surfaces seem to do nothing, yet inspire by their mere calm existence. And they evoke and create a world with no artificial light, no mass-produced goods and a servility that can see beyond herself. Misses the Top 10 because Colin Firth as Vermeer gives the weakest performance of his career (oh … to transplant Michel Piccoli from LA BELLE NOISEUSE) and the film doesn’t offer much more than those three swoonable objects. Actually, that’s not quite true, Tom Wilkinson and Judy Parffitt are pretty good as the randy benefactor and the domineering mother-in-law, but they’re roles any middle-aged British character actor could do in his sleep.

HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG (Vadim Perelman, USA) — I’ve written a little about this film already. Misses the Top 10 for reasons stated there — I just never quite fell in love with it.

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DOWN WITH LOVE (Peyton Reed, USA) — This overthetop, overacted, overdecorated, overcostumed, and oversplitscreened homage/re-creation on the Doris Day/Rock Hudson comedies was the year’s tastiest bon-bon — with pastels that a Castro Street interior decorator would have found excessive. Last year’s Sirk-homage FAR FROM HEAVEN unintentionally showed how difficult it is for a re-creation to keep a straight face under all that artifice. But in an exaggerated comedy, unlike a weepie, such periodisms and incongruities contribute to the fun. I saw DOWN WITH LOVE a couple of days after watching PILLOW TALK, and it helps to have one of those films fresh in your mind. Misses the Top 10 because the last 20 minutes of the movie (roughly, after Renee Zellweger … um … gives a monolog) just isn’t very good or inspired; they’re tying up plot threads. But stay through the closing credits (or best of all, look at the DVD extras) to see Renee and Ewan MacGregor sing “Here’s to Love,” the best scene in the movie and one of the year’s best. Oh. And memo to the Academy: *This* was Renee’s best performance last year (insert grumble about Oscar ignoring comedies.)

phonebooth.jpgPHONE BOOTH (Joel Schumacher, USA) — Nearly every thriller will hype itself with the word “Hitchcockian,” causing film geeks to roll their eyes, but this is one that understands the details of The Master’s style. You can actually be familiar with ouevre and imagine Hitch making PHONE BOOTH. Naturalistically and logically, it doesn’t makes much sense, but I’m not certain it’s really supposed to, like NORTH BY NORTHWEST. The reliance on the villain having supernatural knowledge, the fact that it takes place in a “booth” and the voice on the phone demanding an admission of wrongdoing tells me there’s something else going on here, something that Claude Chabrol and Eric Rohmer were the first to note about Hitch. Works also as a showcase for director Schumacher (yes, really), who somehow manages to keep the basically one-set film visually alive under very constrained circumstances, like in REAR WINDOW or ROPE. Colin Farrell has an easy, meaty role to play, and though he isn’t exactly great, he’s like Patriots QB Tom Brady — doesn’t have the glowing stats but wins the game mostly by not messing up or fumbling the film away. Actors are cattle, etc. Misses the Top 10 because … well, Hitchcock would have made it better.

DRACULA: PAGES FROM A VIRGIN’S DIARY (Guy Maddin, Canada) — I’ve written a little about this film already. Misses the Top 10 because, fun though it was, I found my admiration a bit more distant than I prefer.

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SWEET SIXTEEN (Ken Loach, Britain) — When leftist director Loach hasn’t got politics on (the foreground of) his mind and makes kitchen-sink portraits of working-class urban Britons, he is quite a filmmaker, particularly as a director of actors. He gets a great central performance here from the nonprofessional Martin Compston in the role of Liam, a (smart and tough) juvenile delinquent approaching adulthood — naturalistic, funny, exuberant, defiant, and determined (in both senses). Maybe it takes a Scot to appreciate the exchange: “We’re just trying to keep your customers satisfied,” “You’re a right wee Simon and Garfunkel, you” “well, here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson” (looking at it on my computer screen, I see that it just doesn’t *read* funny. Spoken in Glaswegian patter, it’s hilarious. Trust me.) Misses the Top 10 because the film stacks things too much in Liam’s moral favor. Theo first made this point to me at Toronto, but I became convinced on second viewing during (being purposely vague to avoid spoilers) a stabbing scene — which isn’t really a stabbing scene. Between this and MY NAME IS JOE, Loach should make more films about Glasgow and fewer about Chile.

February 6, 2004 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

TIFF Days Three and Four (grades from Days 5, 6 and 7)

Let’s do the easy stuff first, my grades from the last three days of the Toronto International Film Festival:

DOGVILLE (Lars Von Trier, Denmark, 2003) — 9
THE FOG OF WAR (Errol Morris, USA, 2003) — 6
A TALKING PICTURE (Manoel de Oliveira, Portugal, 2003) — 4
THE COMPANY (Robert Altman, USA, 2003) — 6
LES TRIPLETTES DE BELLEVILLE (Sylvain Chomet, France/Canada, 2003) — 7
GOOD BYE, DRAGON INN (Tsai Ming-liang, Taiwan, 2003) — 8
AT FIVE IN THE AFTERNOON (Samira Makhmalbaf, Iran, 2003) — 4
THE SCHOOL OF ROCK (Richard Linklater, USA, 2003 ) — 7
21 GRAMS (Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, USA, 2003) — 6
THE GRUB STAKE (Bert Van Tuyle/Nell Shipman, USA/Canada, 1923) — 3
SHATTERED GLASS (Billy Bob, USA, 2003) — 7

And here are the capsules for the remaining films I saw through Day Four:

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BRIGHT FUTURE (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Japan, 2003, 6)

This is easily my favorite film by Mr. No Relation, but this really isn’t saying as much as it might sound. Plus the Kiyoshi fans I know think this is one of his weaker efforts — call it a Kurosawa film for people who don’t like Kurosawa. The plot begins with two slacker friends, Yuji and Mamoru, and their boss, who wants to relive his youth. But sometimes whole subplots and sequences play themselves out merely to set up or get to the heart of something else (think THE CRYING GAME or CITY OF GOD), and the heart of the film is a pet jellyfish that Mamoru left Yuji, and the relationship between Yuji and Mamoru’s father.

What sets BRIGHT FUTURE apart from KK’s other films for me is that this time, he has a metaphor (the jellyfish) and stays with it and doesn’t try to get too obscure (CURE ended in a blizzard of non sequiturs; PULSE was just wtf? throughout). We’re kinda expecting this to morph into THE JELLYFISH THAT ATE TOKYO, since most of Kurosawa’s earlier films were horror films of one sort or another. But here, he stays with the film’s third father-son relationship and how it deals with “the jellyfish.” What is the jellyfish a metaphor for — the “sons” friendship, the future, adaptation to environment, all sorts of things (it’s one of those deliberately all-unifying symbols, like Moby Dick).

The film is shot on two different qualities of digital video, and the effect is a grungy, dirty, washed out world where the red on the jellyfish stands out as practically the only primary color, and results in a truly glorious image as a parade of glowing red balls swim through a grungy canal out to the sea. Sometimes the metaphors, hooks and symbols are just too obviously (and sometimes explicitly) metaphors, hooks and symbols — they don’t really work as themselves (there are two father figures; one of them has two sets of sons; the jellyfish revert to their nature once freed; fatherhood is transferred). BRIGHT FUTURE is a very schematic movie, with a deeply ironic and unsubtle ending. Still, I didn’t leave the theater bored or indifferent, and that’s always good.

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ONG-BAK: MUAY THAI WARRIOR (Pracha Pinkaew, Thailand, 2003, 9)

This martial arts film from Thailand is awesome. This movie has a Mr. Big villain that has a tracheotomy and so speaks through a machine, like Ned in SOUTH PARK, and smokes through the hole in his throat. This movie has a hero who jumps through a coiled-up ring of barbed wire, at full speed. This movie does not use wires or computer imaging. This movie’s hero runs over the shoulders of six bad guys in a line. This movie’s hero jumps over one moving car at full speed and slides under another at full speed. This movie has an Australian villain who snarls “Thai women come to my country to be hookers.” This movie has a fight in which a refrigerator is used as a weapon. This movie has two guys falling from a third-story window, and one plants a full kick on the other while in midair. Did you get that … “while in midair”? This movie has a hero who can execute a jump kick to the head while his legs are on fire. Did you get that … “while his legs are on fire”? This movie’s villain has a secret lair in the mountains. This movie has a villain who breaks the sidekick’s arm with a chop against the joint (think Joe Theismann); the hero retaliates by using the same maneuver to tear off that villain’s leg. This movie has a Buddha head crush two villains at once. This movie prompted dozens of winces and gasps (and laughs) from the hardened gorehounds at Toronto Midnight Madness (and the series’ first-ever standing ovation, according to the programmer). This movie had the first question for the director be “how many stuntmen were killed in making this movie?” (A: None.) This movie didn’t let out, because of delays and a lengthy Q-and-A, until 3 a.m. at the end of (for me) a six-film day; I was still on too much of an andrenaline high to sleep for more than an hour. This movie is the most awesome movie in the history of awesomeness.

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THE MAYOR OF SUNSET STRIP (George Hickenlooper, USA, 2003, 7)

A small bit of genius here in the fact that this is a moral film that is never moralistic. You might not even recognize until, purely hypothetically speaking of course, you are looking through your viewing notes in order to write your capsule live from a Toronto Internet cafe, just how thoroughly it repudiates the lifestyle and mores of its titular character, Rodney Bingenheimer.

The illusion and transitoriness of celebrity, in this case a disc jockey who was one of the great celebrity hangers-on of all time, has been done a thousand times before — but seldom with both this much thoroughness and with this much understanding for what made the lifestyle attractive in the first place without coming across as a scolding jeremiad (except in one scene, involving a member of the girl band the Runaways). It’s mostly a bright, fast-paced and funny look at one man’s journey through the sexdrugsandrocknroll lifestyle, and is consumable on those terms.

Bingenheimer was never exactly famous, but he was the ultimate plugged-in guy, and he had a knack for spotting The Next Hot Thing in pop music. This in-between status gave him thousands of celebrity photos with seemingly everybody who’s anybody — a fetish from a very young age; he even recorded a call to JFK’s White House, which we hear. He also had access to limitless sex. Groupies could get close enough to him, but not the actual celebrities, for a hookup. He got more than Robert Plant by being the next-best thing and available — which about says it all. The movie compares Bingenheimer to a West Coast Andy Warhol, but the amazing photos and footage in the film suggest another comparison — Woody Allen’s Zelig character, in that he seemingly morphed into whatever crowd was The In Crowd.

Yet you come out of the theater wondering just how much self-knowledge this guy has. He’s kept on at a radio station merely for show, and he doesn’t seem to realize that he has helped wreck the life of a man who went out West to become famous like him. There are several stand-out references to Kato Kaelin (a punchline) and Phil Spector (potentially a murderer). His father and stepmother are clearly, without saying it but showing it in the placement of photos, ashamed of him. And his girlfriend doesn’t love him.

My fellow TIFF geek Noel Murray said as we walked out the theater that the girlfriend and parent scenes were the documentarian rubbing Rodney’s nose in it. I initially told Noel that I didn’t really think so, but I have changed my mind. However, I have to say that it just didn’t bother me — partly because the film filmed Rodney’s holy moment (dumping his mother’s ashes); partly because Rodney makes it equally clear that he doesn’t love his girlfriend either (he says he’d move to London in a jiffy if he saw someone better); and partly because he seems so oblivious that self-knowledge might have required it.

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TIME OF THE WOLF (Michael Haneke, France/Austria, 2003, 8 )

The first 30-40 minutes of this movie are as good as anything Haneke has ever made, which is saying a lot. The man is the best pure director in the world, but his script lets him down in the middle of the movie. Society breaks down for reasons that are never explained and are thus not important — and the movie’s brilliant beginning shows Isabelle Huppert and her family trying to get by on a day-to-day basis (or a minute-to-minute one, actually) in a world where nothing can be counted on and all social rules have evaporated.

The opening scene, of a confrontation in the cabin, is as tight and tense as anything in FUNNY GAMES. The camera successfully follows a parakeet as it flies inside a cabin; a night-time closeup of a burning branch becomes a glowing speck on the horizon as the first outsider arrives (think of the famous horizon shot in LAWRENCE OF ARABIA); and a much bigger ember becomes the first group of outsiders. It’s all formally breathtaking, along with taut and suspenseful. Much of the action in the early part of the film occurs at night in the countryside, with no source of light beyond the fire the family keeps or the branches they can burn for a few seconds, but Haneke makes everything perfectly intelligible (except that which isn’t supposed to be). This family basically is slow to realize that they are no longer living in the bourgeois liberal social world, but Hobbes’ state of nature.

It is a critique of the modern bourgeoisie, but not one that many liberals are very eager to push — that if social relations are constructed, then outside the rules of society, the only rule is the law of the nature — force, the time of the wolf (they even meet a conscious outlaw), the war of all against all. Even the occasional grace notes are reversed (the smashing of a grave). However, Haneke is too smart to realize that the state of nature can’t last — “man is by nature a political animal,” Aristotle says, and so we get the family joining bands of people trying to form an embryonic society on the basis of survival. Haneke does “state of nature,” though, so much better than he does “civil society.” TIME OF THE WOLF just loses focuses about the midway point amidst an undisciplined flood of new characters that we never really come to know or care about, and no film has room for more than five or six archetypes.

There are still flashes of Haneke’s formal brilliance — a closeup of tears flowing down Huppert’s impassive face at night cuts to a blinding shot of a lush, verdant, sunny morning in the forest; the way he frames the single shot of a child’s funeral. But it’s not enough, though the film bounces back in the last two majestic shots, which I won’t spoil beyond saying that during the last one, a lengthy shot, I was muttering under my breath “please let this be the last shot.” And it was. thanks mickey.

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GOOD BYE, LENIN (Wolfgang Becker, Germany, 2003, 7)

This movie is gonna get a lot of flack from U.S. conservatives when it’s released because it’s basically a Communism nostalgia comedy, but we should give this film a spin, even though it will obviously attract plenty of the wrong kind of praise. Just keep in mind — it’s a light comedy. Basically the family mixup genre, but there’s a lot of heart in it, too — my TIFF geek friend Daniel Owen said it’s basically “everybody loves his mum.” And if that means harboring fond memories of communist tyranny .. well … she’s still your mum.

Plus, to the extent the film has a political point, it’s *making fun of* East German believers and their Western excuse-makers. Sure enough, the reliable nitwits at the Toronto Festival Guidebook People’s Central Committee refer to the unreconstructed East German Communist mother at the plot’s center as an “idealist” (while also somehow saying the film “steers clear of broad comedy,” which I guess is true if the Three Stooges set the standard). If you could groove on the Australian comedy THE CHILDREN OF THE REVOLUTION and ignore the idiotic critical praise it got, this film will work like gangbusters.

In 1989, an East Berlin true believer gets a heart attack while seeing the East German police be mean (imagine that). She slips into a coma and only awakens in early 1990, after the Berlin Wall has fallen and while the country is preparing for annexation by West Germany. Rather than risk another heart attack from her seeing all the decadent consumer capitalism consuming the Workers and Peasants Paradise (stop laughing, people), her son decides to take the bedridden woman home, so he can control the environment and maintain the illusion that East Germany is doing just super. OK, it’s an idiotic premise (he’s obviously gonna have to tell her someday), but it’s basically just Rip Von Winkle.

Once it gets cooking, however, this film becomes very funny, as the son has to go to increasingly elaborate lengths to keep his mother, whose health and thus mobility are improving, from finding out. The best scenes involve creating fake East German newscasts to tape for mother, and they are a perfect parody of Communist kitsch, Communist lies, and this woman’s limitless will to believe (and not just hers). The 1989 footage of East Germans climbing into West German embassies becomes quite literally the opposite, and she finds it believable. And every shred of the “news report” was a lie. But telling lies was the only way she could continue to believe in socialism and communism. Imagine that.

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THE SADDEST MUSIC IN THE WORLD (Guy Maddin, Canada, 2003, 6)

(Open with map of Canada, star on the northern shore of Lake Ontario. Images are in soft-focus, using high-contrast black-and-white. And no sound unless otherwise noted.)

NARRATOR:
The largest city in Canada, known to its residents as Toronto, decided to host a film festival, to find the saddest sound in the world. There were many contenders, from every corner of the globe.

(Cue Bollywood music clip; followed by Japanese samurai yell; Italian cursing; French philosophy debates; the sound of seats hitting the back of chairs as people walk out of 29 PALMS.)

maddin.jpgBut the saddest sound in the world turns out to be unrequited love, the tears flowing from the dashed expectations of a cinephile betrayed. (Cue picture of Victor over a broken heart). He went to the frigid Canadian north in expectation of a masterpiece from the man. (Insert picture of Guy Maddin, gleam on teeth) who made the greatest live-action short Victor had ever set eyes upon.

(Cue 20-second clip from HEART OF THE WORLD, with music soundtrack, preferably one of the cannon shots, depending on the negotiations on the rights.)

Further, he drank from this wizard (insert picture of Maddin, in Merlin costume) the most bizarre cocktail (insert picture of Maddin, in bartender apron and white shirt with sleeves rolled up to elbow) he had ever seen. This cocktail was a DRACULA: PAGES FROM A VIRGIN’S DIARY, as the Merlin of the barstool (insert picture of Maddin, in bartender apron and white shirt with sleeves rolled up to elbow, and also wearing a pointed wizard hat) called it, made from the ingredients Murnau, Mahler, Daghiliev, and Dracula (use flash inserts for mugs of first three men, George Hamilton for the fourth). This feature inspired Victor to start writing a useless blog that nobody ever reads. And all this Maddin (flash edit mug) material came just in the past few months.

(Cue 30s Art Deco title card from THE SADDEST MUSIC IN THE WORLD.)

An encounter with Mr. Maddin’s latest filled Victor’s heart (insert a beating heart from some animal; no goats) with anticipation as he took off (jet sound effect) on his trip to the Great White North. He paid two 2003 Canadian dollars to struggle through the Toronto Metro (subway sound effect) to the far-away Elgin Screening Room (North Pole image). And at first, all was as expected. The good Mr. Maddin (flashback to bartender/wizard costume) produced the expected deadpan absurdist comedy (pan along Isabella Rossellini’s beer-filled glass legs) done in an over-the-top pastiche of early cinema melodramas (cut to Mark McKinney in Snidely American Whiplash costume and Cheshire Cat grin), the softest black-and-white photography in the world (cut to practically any image), obvious studio sets (show Winnipeg in the snow), and fruity line readings (cue a clip from the pair of Winnipeg’s “Saddest Music in the World” contest commentators).

For a period of approximately one hour, perhaps less in the metric system or the Canadian exchange rate, Victor was delighted. One particular laugh of Victor’s (cue high-pitched loud laugh) was even heard and recognized at the farthest reaches of the Elgin (cut to quizzical looks from Mike D’Angelo, Noel Murray and Daniel Owen).

(Closeup of a giant, generic script crushing a Maddin doll as it tips over.)

But then the gods of cinema decreed that there should be a plot. That romantic alignments between the main characters must change repeatedly (cut to shot from the swapping orgy in THE ICE STORM), and that we must be made to care about them as human beings, rather than as ciphers and signifiers (cut to Cinema Studies pupil salivating; Victor in an ascot looking puzzled) for Maddin’s virtuosity and demented sense of humor.

So the good people of Toronto decided (cut to funeral pyres, with the big red word “SARS” superimposed) that this, then, was the saddest sound in the world. The sound of a dejected Victor leaving the Elgin (cut to North Pole shot, with penguins added) after expecting and then halfway getting a masterpiece. But by the end having been left merely with the sound of one hand clapping. What a sad sound.

September 11, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Mahler meets Murnau meets Diaghilev meets Dracula

DRACULA: PAGES FROM A VIRGIN’S DIARY (Guy Maddin, Canada, 2003)

Last night, I went to see for a second time DRACULA: PAGES FROM A VIRGIN’S DIARY (thanks for the link, Missy). In a generally very good review, Jonathan Rosenbaum accurately described this film’s formula, but draw a completely wrongheaded conclusion — “A silent black-and-white film of a ballet based on Bram Stoker’s novel and performed to portions of [Gustav] Mahler’s first two symphonies — who could possibly want to see that?”

Um … me. I dunno about you, but doesn’t that description practically sell itself? If nothing else, even if the movie turns out to be no good or the elements don’t mesh or whatever, wouldn’t such a film have train-wreck value? And wouldn’t there be some virtue in seeing some fine dancing or listening to Mahler’s music itself … even if the film as a whole didn’t work? But in any event, once you’ve seen it, these disparate elements in DRACULA really work very well together and becomes amazing (to me at least, and in retrospect) to reflect that nobody had thought of this strange marriage before.

Silent-cinema after all was born at more or less the same time as Stoker and Mahler were writing. But the media have some strong affinities. Even story ballets, like silent cinema, generally don’t use any words, instead using stylized movement and exaggerated acting to convey an emotion (rather than explain an event). The events in the Bram Stoker novel have the same feverish, dreamy, suggestive late-Victorian quality as Mahler’s floridly Romantic music, and (as my pinko friend Joshua has pointed out in a discussion group) ballet can convey that ethereal, sleep-walk quality better than more-realistic media. The stagy smoke-and-mirrors effects can shroud the Baroque stage design to create an overall atmosphere with fewer concerns about realism that sound and drama create.

But director Guy Maddin (I’d previously seen nothing else by him, and boy do I want to catch up on his work now) actually managed to make a movie, rather than a ballet musical (or an opera with defined arias, recitatives and whatnot). With the exception of a couple of pas-de-deux sequences, the dancers from the Royal Winnipeg ballet company were mostly cut off at the neck, the shoulders or the waist, rather than being framed in the Fred Astaire tip-to-toe, let’s-see-the-feet-doing-the-entrechat frame. But it’s not the dance steps Maddin is interested in — he’s interested in fusing his elements, not just using them. Ballet becomes a means to convey a kind of stylized cinematic movement, as if people were moving and floating through fevered dreams. In his review, Rosenbaum cites a Maddin manifesto on acting that includes the following: “Walking actors have forgotten how to walk. All actors should walk with latent or overt purpose, and cram a little poetry into their gaits while they’re at it.”

It was also obvious (as Missy pointed out to me afterward) that Maddin didn’t direct his actors in the “tone it down” mode, as most film directors do when working with stage actors. Instead, they kept their exaggerated gestures and larger-than-life smiles — one of my favorite moments was a sequence of Lucy choosing among suitors on a swing, with the camera moving out of and into a series of facial closeups. And you know what? When a film is a silent ballet, this exaggeration works just fine because we’re accepting the stylization and the anti-realistic, dreamy universe the filmmaker is creating.

The film, I should add, is also a lot of fun. There’s an (I think) intentionally funny moment when a group of four men carrying torches each do a spin and the beams of light spin along with them. Some of the silent-film title cards are quite witty. Maddin drops in expressionistic splashes of color for money, gold and blood — there’s a universe of longing in a barely-discernible pale-pink stain on Lucy’s white dress. And the film isn’t really silent, there are occasional sound effects, proving again that less is more — there’s a chilling-ick effect from a low squealch, uncluttered by other sounds, when a character gets beheaded with a spade.

August 11, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , | 1 Comment