2005 TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL
All films from U.S.A. unless otherwise specified.
(- seen on video; [v] video piece; [s] short, under 30 minutes; [m] medium length, 30-69 min; * grade changed upon repeat viewing)
seen prior to the festival
Reasonably solid as PT goes, but there are some definite problems. For one thing, his widescreen tactics are just a little tired. You know he'll torment the protagonist with edge lettering, sprocket holes, and a thup-thup-thupping optical soundtrack. But in the films he derived from The Entity, all of this was used to evoke a violent mood, the filmstrip and its registration of Barbara Hershey's image as a kind of redoubled rape. This one's too literal, and Tscherkassky's organization of the material creates a coherent, 15 minute narrative of stalking, murder, and relegation to a celluloid purgatory, starring Eli Wallach and his reversal-image. It did occur to me that, on those rather broad dramatic terms, Instructions succeeds, and that the 70-minute limit is a rather stupid way of designating what constitutes a "feature." (This tells a story as directly as, say, Mulholland Dr., and it stands up with the other Cannes titles I've seen so far.) But what we have here are diminishing returns, and Tscherkassky is wise to retire the bailiwick. [SECOND VIEWING: 4/10/06: I still fundamentally agree with my earlier assessment; Instructions finds Tscherkassky treading water. But when viewed in a less analytic, more receptive frame of mind, there's simply no denying the man's mastery over his materials. There's something funkily percussive about the way he organizes images, the pulsating edits and skittering audio beats. Plus, conceptually speaking, it's a gutsy move to take his cinematic torture machine and substitute its female victim with a male one. It changes the stakes in provocative ways, and if I find the results someone less harrowing (and less formally piquant), that says as much about me as it does about the film, no?]
I have now seen three IPO films, and I've tended to find them precious and overdetermined, adopting the surface affectations of experimental cinema but domesticating them for kinder, gentler ends. Here, she has superimposed multiple printings of several "serpentine dances" from the early nickelodeons, layering them with a mix of bright colors. The intended effect is clearly stained glass, but it actually looks like tie-dye. The repetitive electronic soundtrack (processed tones from Wagner) didn't help. Sound and image float alongside each other but never gel, and the film as a whole feels like an initial idea that wasn't delved into, just presented in its raw state.
It's possible that I am overvaluing this film, although I don't think so. Even though I have seen a few Jennings films I haven't responded to, his mastery over the medium, his orchestration of light and chiaroscuro is unrivaled. Like Miracle on 34th Street and Silvercup, Close Quarters partakes of the physical world as an occasion for abstract light play, but here Jennings is creating relationships between light as pure form and light as a record of living beings, resulting in a new emotional depth that makes this film an artistic breakthrough. This is the film that should be called "fugitive light," since Jennings draws with the sun that pierces gaps in the curtains, those moments when the line or a slash on the wall will coalesce for a few seconds. But in the midst of this we see his actual apartment, his cats and his lover, and they too are allowed to emerge as pure light. And yet, they retain their identity; they are not reduced to abstract forms. The film is a play between the urge to "escape" the domestic via an aesthetic sensibility, and an undiluted love for the domestic, a gathering of bodies and shadows as co-equal loved ones. This is the film that a certain segment of the avant-garde has been trying to make for nearly fifty years, and the painful, radiant beauty of it -- its full embrasure of a sliver of ordinary life, one that shines forth simply because it is so unreservedly loved -- brought tears to my eyes.
This year's two works by LMK could hardly be more different, and Pyramid Lake is the tighter and more "perfect" of the two, although I actually don't mean by that that it's necessarily the better work. But like Lenten Light Conversions, this one has a limited set of procedures and exhausts nearly every conceivable permutation, resulting in a lean, beautiful chamber piece. The baseline image is a canary yellow field interrupted by a tilted white triangular form, and against this home-position Kirby bumps the image upward, emulating the celluloid frame-adjustment, while also introducing carefully manipulated vertical lines on the left and right. Kirby explained that she takes the film-exposure material and loads it into a video processing computer, which then allows her to "play' the score or chart improvisationally, and the dual work on the frame does in fact function musically, like naturals played against sharps and flats. This is the first of Kirby's pieces in this vein that struck me as having a relationship to animation, albeit a contrary relationship that thwarts all learned expectations of typical animated films. The main form doesn't move, and its compositional context shifts around it. In this regard Pyramid Lake contains echoes of Robert Breer's work, but its chief strategies come from painting (the piece is a lot like an Ellsworth Kelly painting evolving in condensed time) and early video art, particularly in its lever-flipping color reversals. The fact that a work so controlled and conceptually fat-free was generated in real time speaks to Kirby's complete mastery of her technique.
...And expecting that level of density from Kirby's work made me somewhat unprepared for BBTE, a considerably longer work with about five times as many visual ideas. To call it "sprawling" in this context probably makes it sound sloppy or uncontrolled, and that's the furthest thing from the truth. Kirby explained that she was guided by the idea of the ten-round martial arts event of the title (her son's black belt test -- I assume he passed), how the examinee must undergo various types of sparring and in doing so reflexively react to the unexpected. Here, saturated color frames reminiscent of the earlier exposure-works are disrupted by pure black-and-white scan lines and video feedback, the sort seen in earlier Kirby videos. I suspect it's a summary work, combining techniques from several different phases of Kirby's practice, and as I noted in the Q&A, this is the first of the exposure pieces that truly struck me at first blush as an improv, with certain expected rhythmic gestures disrupted by a whole new frame of reference. While watching it for the first time, I grooved on it but also felt an acute sense of confusion, since the skills I'd learned from the other pieces didn't work for me here, in the same way that listening to Anton Webern can't really prepare you for Ornette Coleman. In short, I entered the ring with the best intentions, had a great time, but got my ass kicked. I demand a rematch.
This is so clearly a film made by a photographer. Barbieri's tactic is to shoot aerial footage of Rome with some sort of treatment of the lens, resulting in pockets of intense clarity amidst an overall soft-focus fog. It's a trick with space and perspective, which makes real buildings look like an N-scale model railroad. But he doesn't seem to know how to construct meaning through editing, or to work with time in any cinematic fashion, and just provides shot after shot after shot. It's neat to look at but tin-eared, and it flails as it churns on.
Douro, Faina Fluvial (Manoel de Oliveira, Portugal, 1931) [s]
Wonderful to see this rare film, and it certainly has moments of beauty, but one gets the sense that Oliveira's heart is not really in the whole city-symphony project. It's at its strongest during the passages of daily life, peasant labor and the contrasts between a modernity that's butting up against the slums. But the attempts at rhythmic editing befitting an early avant-garde film feel forced, and its no surprise he ended up making a very different kind of cinema.
There's absolutely nothing wrong with Sa-kwa. It's beautifully acted, with its two stars' naturalistic approach serving to underplay potential melodrama. Legend-in-her-own-time Moon So-ri is terrific in this, in control of the slightest tremors of emotion darting across her visage. But Kim Tae-woo, who I last saw in Woman is the Future of Man, is an exceptional foil. His strait-laced Sang-hoon could be played for cheap comedy, but instead there's a quiet tragedy in the way his dorkiness and one-track masculinity stays mostly the same while Moon's Hyun-jung evolves around it. Kang has made a confident first film, but there's a sense in which Sa-kwa plays out with a kind of inevitability. For all the lovely moments of observation that ring true (cf. the family yoga in the woods), there is an overarching determinism, as though life always developed in precisely one way and all Kang or the rest of us can do is watch it unfold. This makes Sa-kwa a bizarre proposition, raising questions of whether movie clichés are repeated because they accurately depict How We Live, or whether we are all making sense of our lives using tired, inadequate scripts. Hong Sang-soo thematizes this problem, but Kang simply embodies it.
A Chilean Kevin Smith film, shot in hideous consumer-grade DV and edited like a Guy Ritchie joint. But seriously, dig this: there's a wise character called Gus who almost never speaks, is chunky in build, has a beard, and wears a black trench coat and Kangol cap. How can such things be? And, short of torching every Circuit City in Santiago, what can be done?
This is the one I've been dreading writing about, since I'm so ambivalent about this film. First things first: there's no denying Haneke's mastery. He has crafted a perfect European art-thriller, anchored by a powerhouse performance by Daniel Auteuil with Juliette Binoche right there for the assist. Hidden is politically astute, dramatically gripping, and even willing to partially rescind its apparent accessibility in the final shot. And yet I'm troubled, because it seems that the ice-cold ferocity that Haneke used to bring to his films -- that was at the very core of their DNA, from scene to scene and shot to shot -- has been tempered, gone underground. Maybe the film's champions don't see it this way, or perhaps they appreciate the switcheroo, with Haneke infiltrating the codes of the bourgeoisie in order to flay them on the slab. But there's no denying that this is Haneke's most thorough application of conventional film grammar, with fewer lengthy medium shots (the clinician's eye he wielded in earlier works) and more shot / countershots, more typical coverage of each scene. As with The Sun, there's a temptation to read these choices allegorically. If the mysterious videotapes of the protagonists' house from across the street are the height of terror -- as Mike said during Cannes, making the usual establishing shot contextually ominous -- then maybe Haneke is implicitly indicting the film festival cognoscenti, with its preference for austere master-shots. After all, we're all part of the same jet-setting intelligentsia as Auteuil's Georges, and as such we probably have blood on our hands in some indirect way. But to me this feels like over-interpretation. Despite the fact that Georges' crime is tied to France's colonial past, and as such opens onto capital-H History in a very direct manner, there is an algebraic neatness to Hidden's narrative interrelationships that seems to quarantine the virus. Haneke probably isn't indicting the audience (for once) because Hidden is too hermetic to radiate outward. And in this regard, I part company with Mike's reading of the film. He has said that there's nothing beyond the allegory -- Algeria as the return of the French repressed. But Haneke has constructed this story with such absolute particulars that it barely relates to anything outside itself. It's a colonial Cain and Abel story, but unlike the sprawl of Code Unknown or the frame-breaking of Funny Games, Hidden keeps it in the family. It's nearly Chabrolian, and I certainly don't mean that pejoratively. If Hidden is intended to be representative of a larger problem, its means allow it to gesture in that direction but never quite connect. And if the final shot supplies the opening-up I'm asking for, it does so with a dash of optimism that may be admirable in the age of National Front politics, but seems stapled on, not entirely earned. All this by way of saying, yes, Hidden is quite possibly a masterpiece. But by its conclusion, its rage is too sublimated to induce much more than a shell-shocked nod of assent. It seems like Haneke was going for something more.
Aerial (Margaret Tait, U.K., 1974) [s]
Margaret Tait was a self-taught filmmaker, and her bizarre juxtapositions and sound / image relationships, while not always successful or even (to me) particularly legible, bespeak a wildness that comes from finding one's own way through the medium. Aerial, having been my first encounter with Tait's work, may well have eluded me, and I would certainly take any opportunity to see more. Like fellow oddballs Arthur Lipsett and Jack Chambers, Tait's work seems like it could open up and reveal itself upon greater exposure.
Aurand's short film purports to be in dialogue with the work of Margaret Tait, and she cites Jonas Mekas and Marie Menken as influences. Menken's jagged, sketchbook editing is in evidence here, but among contemporaries Aurand has most in common with American iconoclast Michele Smith. Like Smith, Aurand has a set of formal procedures -- in the case of Half-Moon, a staccato in-camera editing scheme that fixes on an image and makes it jump around in the frame – and introduces a variety of image content into this function-machine. Following Tait's Aerial, Aurand is focusing mostly on natural forms, especially foliage. Her slightly washed-out tonal range serves to make Half-Moon feel less current, like an unearthed artifact of the 1960s. The film is divided into discrete passages and while their large-scale organization is unclear, there is a facility with image-to-image movement that demonstrates promise. Aurand operates quite differently than Menken or Rose Lowder, but like them, she uses her camera as a tool to force "inert" nature jump to life.
Problem is, brown people aren't foliage. This overlong, unstructured travelogue manages to turn three trips to India into fodder for exotic surface-images. People move in and out of Aurand's camera range, and apart from seeing them play in the streets or engage in traditional handicrafts, we learn absolutely nothing about them. Instead, a blithely colonial gaze reduced these individuals and their experiential reality into a decorative landscape, subject to empty abstraction. (In the Q&A, I asked Aurand if she saw her work as having any relationship to ethnographic film, either partaking in or subverting its codes. Her answer: "No." Too bad Catherine Russell wasn't on hand to suss things out further.) If Aurand wants to treat India as a set of sensory impressions and intuitively respond to their foreignness, that's fine, I suppose. But even apart from betraying a political naiveté, it indicates an unwillingness to engage with the history of her chosen medium. After Peter Kubelka's Unsere Afrikareise, such a film simply shouldn't be possible. And on a reality-check note: a 57 minute film shot in India over three years would include some white people unless the filmmaker deliberately excluded them, thinking they spoiled the scenery.
Sometimes you're just not feeling it. Also why stick around to give it a grudging 5 when I can write this stuff, call Jen, sleep, shit where it's clean, etc.
It's not just that Shape Shift takes a simple idea and explores it to its logical conclusion. And it's not just that the work finds Stark dancing around like a salsa-obsessed maniac. And it's not even the prominent use of pop music that leads me to this somewhat tortured metaphor: Scott Stark is "covering" Brian Frye. Like Frye's early self-portraits, Shape Shift is about the camera's impassive stare at unhip affect, at a brand of goofiness that overcomes its modesty and keels over into an ungainly sexiness. Naturally, Stark's approach is quite different from Frye's; he plays this song in his own style, continuing the computer-generated spatial dislocations he began with SLOW and in.side.out. But his body is the object under investigation / deconstruction, and the effects are hilarious. As Stark stands equidistant from two parallel cameras, he rolls his shoulders and hugs himself in a sort of hip-hop "locking" move. The result is that he starts to look like he has three-foot wrap-around arms -- Scott Stark as Mr. Fantastic. A swimming pool sequence is less successful since the fragmentation of his back against the water generates a rather unclear effect. But soon after we see that Scott is here to dance! dance! dance!, and things really get cooking. To say much more would spoil the fun, but suffice to say that Stark has produced another droll, rigorous winner.
With this latest project, Snow's stated purpose is to explore superimposition as a formal technique. (The title, as you may have gleaned, is actually the words "short" and "story" layered atop each other.) The result is a fragmented narrative in which even the subtitles are smashed together. It's a basic story cut in half; an Iranian painter (or so I'm guessing; everyone in this film speaks Farsi) is bringing a commissioned painting over to the apartment of the man whose wife he is seeing on the side. An argument ensues and the painter hits the other man over the head with his canvas, announcing "a breakthrough in my work!" As with many projects in film, video, or music that entail looped superimposition, SSHTOORRTY creates slight compositional variations by having the overlapping portions run slightly out of phase. (Steve Reich's early tape pieces operate in this manner as well.) This results in shifting relationships between the two "present" spaces, most notably in the two simultaneous views of the painting itself. Composed of three broad stripes (a pretty basic specimen of minimalism, all told), the canvas engages in spatial play due to its multiple movements, often held flat in one shot and then perpendicular in another, resulting in a cross-like, intersecting sculptural form. This, along with Snow's mise-en-scène that as usual resembles K-Mart from outer space (lacquered orange doors, kelly green walls, a wide brown suit reminiscent of those old 70s Botany 500 monstrosities Richard Dawson used to wear), provides the strongest aesthetic charge. If SSHTOORRTY feels slight compared to other Snow projects, it may be due to the limited possibilities of superimposition in video. Compared to the richness of Wavelength or <--->, works that feel almost inexhaustible, SSHTOORRTY sets up its problematic and fully explores it in 20 minutes.
So this one arrived at Midnight Madness with a bit of hype ("the Hungarian South Park!") virtually no film could live up to. And while there were a few chuckles here and there, too much of the humor was either Budapest-specific or just too poorly paced to really deliver. However, one thing I never expected (and something that could never, ever be said for the defiantly lo-tech work of Parker and Stone) was that The District! would often be so visually arresting that I'd forget to read the subtitles altogether and just groove on its funky surface. Part drawing, part rotoscoping, part collage and part Xerox, The District!'s nearest analogue would be the pop artistry of Red Grooms, although Gauder's yellowish-brown palette (like old newspapers and reused teabags) recalls certain works by Larry Rivers. An impressive one-off, and considering the fact that it has no commercial future in the U.S., I'm very happy to have seen it. Also, I should note that while I am not one of those creepy hentai nerds who can get off to mere ink and paint, that tall Gypsy chick in the do-rag was really freakin' hot.
After an extended sequence showing Antoine (Louis Garrel) escaping the police, the film becomes more and more loose-limbed and ambling, following the shifting identities and priorities of the young radicals. It's not that personal drama replaces politics; it's that for a brief moment a new, inchoate way of life seems possible wherein the personal and the political are constantly weaving in and out of one another. It's precisely because our present political moment makes such utopian visions seem so hopelessly naive that Garrel fights so hard to demonstrate the valor and seriousness, the present-day urgency of this world and the need to learn from it, and as much as is feasible, to bring it back. However, this film is not an exercise in nostalgia. To paraphrase the Situationists (whose spirit hovers over Regular Lovers, even if they themselves might not recognize it), Garrel has given us an image of the passage a few persons through a rather brief period of time, asking us whether or not we can see any fragment of ourselves reflected therein. Filmically, there are obvious forebears to Garrel's project. From Godard, Garrel borrows William Lubtchansky's ravishing black-and-white cinematography (a virtual hovering presence of the sixties) and the discontinuous use of music and sound. The doomed romanticism and at times excoriating self-critique are pure Eustache. And yet probably the most significant influence is Andy Warhol. In many respects Garrel has fashioned a work of portraiture, with long passages of close-ups on open, radiant faces, listening to music or smoking opium. He uses extended static shots, allowing his performers to slide indistinctly in and out of character, both performing and just being themselves, until any such distinction becomes academic.
Warhol's spirit informs other formal choices, such as Garrel's inclusion of end flares and his unfashionable use of 1:33 ratio (just barely wider than 16mm film). But it's the freedom he allows himself and his performers (go ahead – call it indulgence if you must) that most clearly harks back to the late-60s zeitgeist. If the film eventually careens toward a somewhat clearer narrative trajectory, or ends on a note of absolute closure, this hardly mitigates stunning poetic sequences like the 68ers dancing to the Kinks, or Clotilde Hesme chipping out someone else's sculpture in a foundry. This is Garrel getting mad, taking back the May '68 that he experienced (and calling Bertolucci out in the process), and, in the casting of Louis as Antoine, fashioning one of the most touching father-son aides memoires the cinema has ever seen
[SPOILERS] I'm finally starting to understand what people see in Chéreau. Starting out in black and white, Gabrielle introduces us to Jean Hervey (Pascal Greggory) as he steps off his daily train, explaining in self-assured voiceover that making money comes easily to him, and his wife Gabrielle (Isabelle Huppert) is steadfast and reliable. But you see, it's a trick. Chéreau uses this hoary filmic shortcut, the omniscient narrator, to represent the very smugness that the rest of the film will demolish. When Jean discovers the fateful letter from Gabrielle, the film bursts into color, and although it would take a careful second viewing to be certain, it seemed to me that Chéreau only reverted to black and white at moments when Jean retreated into old, inappropriate habits, attempting to hold back the deluge with logic and rationality. But at the same time, I would not be at all surprised to discover that no, it's never so simple. Chéreau may want us to think we can mark through Gabrielle with clever signposts but in fact he's always ready to shatter the gentile period veneer with a surprise sucker-punch. This is most evident in the extended portions of the film that seem to serve as an actor's showcase, with Chéreau modestly getting out of Huppert and Greggory's way. But then the director will subtly highlight a hidden class relation, or a false social assumption about sexual desire, and throw the well-manicured, period-piece mechanisms out of whack. Sometimes it's a little too direct -- I'm honestly not sure about the textual inserts -- but overall, I doubt I'll see a more agile film this year.
[MILD SPOILERS] The last thing I want to do is resume the old debate about the value of "humanism" in cinema (and for the record, I too think humanism for its own sake is overrated). But I will say that after several excursions into bitter misanthropy (Bully, which I liked, and Kids, which I loathed), it's pretty great to see Clark focusing a project on a group of young people for whom he has unbridled affection. The "rockers" are Latino skate-punks from South Central L.A., and the first part of the film is a combination of semi-fictionalized observation and non-narrative montage work. It resembles classic skater videos, although Clark's version is, well, a lot less white. The boys skate, drink, make out with girls, and play some pretty mean hardcore. It's a lot of fun (especially the obligatory skateboard wipe-out sequence), and Clark's sneering hatred of humankind only returns in the second half, when the boys take a bus to Beverly Hills. Naturally, they encounter asshole cops, bitchy debutantes who want to bed those hot Latin stallions, and a wide variety of unsavory Hollywood types (drugged-out "supermodels," slimy gay photographers, and Clint Eastwood). It's all played way over the top, and this kind of goofy lowbrow humor is definitely a better fit for Clark than the multi-character arthouse posturing of Ken Park. Sure, it's shallow, and it's entirely possible that Clark is projecting his fantasies onto these kids just as much as those he's lampooning. But it's also been a long time since Clark has had this much fun while working in his signature style. In short, he took the lessons he learned from his B-flick genre detour (Teenage Caveman, still his finest), and brought them back to the Barrio. And despite the fact that Wassup opens with an interview (a device Clark quickly abandons), there's not a hint of smarmy anthropological tourism. Well done.
Delivering on the promise of A Good Lawyer's Wife (a promise it seems only I saw), Im performs a high-wire act and manages not to stumble. In the first reel or so, Last Bang moves deliberately, putting the game pieces in place for the compelling plot mechanics that will dominate the rest of the film. I worried at first that Im was trying too hard for that elusive black-comic tone, what with Korean CIA Chief Kim constantly checking his breath, the too-defined thickheadedness of his underlings, etc. But these outsized quirks evaporate once the assassination is underway, and Im's commercial instincts serve him well. He moves gracefully between different perspectives on the event (Kim and his team, President Park's cabinet lackeys, the two ladies who were picked up to service the president on The Wrong Night), providing an economical sense of time and place. And yes, there are moments of irreverent humor, but mostly it's of the same variety that dominates, say, a briefing by President Bush. You shake your head at a tragic, thoroughgoing stupidity in which you're powerless to intervene.
What I saw was some broad comedy about a family saving money by turning off the electricity, and some budding friendship / rivalry around a judo team. Not compelling enough to stick around, but not awful either. It seems I bolted a few minutes too early and missed the hot sex promised by Noah Cowen's catalog blurb. Sorry, Antony, by this point in the festival I was looking for a quickie.
Dear Ms. Dargis,
Hi. We've never met. But no matter. I'm writing to let you know that upon further evidence, I am increasingly certain that you are right about Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook. He is a slick hipster and a reactionary presence in world cinema, and his ascendancy must be curbed.
I was troubled by your piece in the Times around the time of the BAM's Park retrospective. You claimed (I'm paraphrasing here – your original piece is available for inspection here) that Park was shallow and possessed of few talents beyond a willingness to shock. You felt his violence was brutal and stylized but held no implicit critique. Instead, he made a fetish out of extreme cruelty, essentially tossing out red meat for the Asia Extreme fanboy crowd.
At the time I found your objections wrongheaded and perhaps even a bit priggish. I considered (still do, I think; the past tense is a tad premature here) Park's first film in the "vengeance trilogy," Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, to be an exceedingly accomplished work. Formally, Park displayed a remarkable facility with editing and composition. From moment to moment, the film felt almost sculptural in its construction. The pieces locked into place with a breathtaking power. Moreover, Mr. Vengeance's violence was more the stuff of obligatory ritual than bloodlust, and I felt quite confident that the sorrow with which punishment was administered bespoke a statement on the futility of revenge. As with Irreversible, I felt that you and the other highbrow critics had missed the boat.
But maybe I was wrong. My first inkling came with seeing Oldboy, a crass, ugly film whose metallic grayness and overbearing, faux-operatic extravagances made me feel browbeaten. Its plot twists were as Byzantine as they were idiotic. Just an off outing, I reassured myself. But then came his horrid, Fincher-on-overdrive short film "Cut," the weakest link in the Three...Extremes omnibus. And now, the final film in the vengeance trilogy confirms your perspicacity, and my poor judge of character. Park is a callow, opportunistic filmmaker who will do anything to goose his target audience.
Miraculously, some are calling Lady Vengeance Park's best film. It was even accepted by the NYFF, whose selection committee is typically more amenable to the likes of Claire Denis and Tsai Ming-liang than cheap Korean ultra-violence. Are people simply dazzled by the blank, dispassionate beauty of Lee Yeong-ae? Or are we to understand that victims'-rights grandstanding and reactionary, revenge-as-human-right bullshit are made more palatable by a woman's touch?
It's not just that the film is a right-wing screed posing as a philosophical inquiry into ethics. (I'm sorry, but I defy anyone to explain to me how Geum-ja's elaborate torture plan is mitigated by her lost innocence, her difficult interactions with her daughter, or her burying her face in the ceremonial tofu. The audience's bloodthirsty exhilaration is not problematized in the least.) It's not just that Park has essentially rehashed Kill Bill, only making that smart film infinitely stupider. It's that Park is so eager to please, to dazzle, that he sacrifices not only rigor but coherence. Why are we introduced to each of Geum-ja's fellow convicts, as though they will play a role in the plot later on? What becomes of Jenny's Australian parents, once their comic-relief function is exhausted? And why oh why are viewers seduced by the surface of a film so unremittingly hideous? Park manages to make natural sunlight a jaundiced yellow, render every interior a pallid green, and process and reprocess every single image out of existence.
I will need to see Mr. Vengeance again to be sure I wasn't wrong the first time. (Maybe my low expectations made it seem more vibrant and masterful than it really was.) But in any case, Ms. Dargis, I was wrong about you. You hit the nail on the head with Park Chan-wook, a charlatan who must be denounced for being such. We shouldn't allow him to be feted on the false premise that he has pulled off some sort of pulp / arthouse transubstantiative magic trick, at least not without exercising our lungs in healthy dissent. You called this one in the air, Manohla. Good job.
Sympathy for Lady Vengeance is a repugnant piece of shit.
Th. Ac. Hack
POSTSCRIPT: So this festival review ended up drawing some fire on the Filmbrain blog, quite apart from my own participation in the discussion there. And although I stand behind my opinion of the film, there are some points that I'd like to take the opportunity to clarify. But first, a correction: it has been corroborated by a number of sources that in fact, each of Geum-ja's fellow inmates plays a specific role in her capture of Choi Min-sik's kidnapper. I thought I was watching closely, but in fact I only saw two of them involved in the plot later on. I apologize for the error. So, in fact, Park is adept at plot construction, or at least much more so than I initially thought. And although it is disingenuous for me to hold to my opinion in the face of information that I failed to process the first time around, the fact that Park did in fact pull off a coup of clever genre mechanics doesn't leaven the crass, bloodthirsty tone that set me so against the film in the first place. Now, in answering some of Filmbrain's charges here, I prefer to think of it as taking an opportunity to think a bit more about a film that, in some ways, brought out . . . it's an exaggeration to say "the worst" in me, but honestly, my reaction to this film was so hostile that I can't claim to have been willing to cut it any slack whatsoever. (Obviously -- I was seeing flaws in it that it didn't even have.) So quickly, allow me to elaborate on a few vague points above.
(1) While Filmbrain thought that my remark about Park's abandonment of Jenny's adoptive parents "cheapened" my review, in fact I was citing an example of Park's fast-and-loose narrative mechanics, not because I was trying to catch a "continuity error," like some freshman Film 101 student feeling smugly superior to the object before him, but because Park's fans claim (endlessly) that this is not just a revenge flick, that there is oh so much at stake in Lady Vengeance. And yet, when it suits his narrative drive, Park abandons characters and situations that, if explored properly, would at least gesture toward the emotional heft his supporters claim to find in this film. I suspect Filmbrain may have rankled at the fact that I was asking after the film's sole white people. So, I could just as easily ask, does this film care about Jenny? Does the coda even begin to address what she would be going through, as a double orphan plunged into a world of bloody retribution? I realize that Filmbrain found it untoward of me to compare Park to Tarantino. (Although why? Clearly the two are aware of one another and consider each other as colleagues, whether Filmbrain does or not.) And while I downgraded Kill Bill Vol. 2 for the same reason -- the happily ever after coda is too tidy, considering The Bride's daughter has witnessed the murder of the only parent she's ever known -- earlier in the film Tarantino at least attempts to grapple with the problem of the child's place on the periphery of a bloody spree. Park, sorry to say, not so much.
(2) It would take longer than I could reasonably spend in this space, plus a second viewing of Lady Vengeance, to properly explain how I see "fanboy" sexism undergirding Park's approach to Geum-ja's character. If we look at the Vengeance Trilogy as a whole, we can see that Park has given us two silent or near-silent killers, bracketing an incessant motor-mouth. It's possible that Geum-ja's laconic posture is for Park just a genre preference, like the silent types one finds in classic Westerns. Nevertheless, I contend that Geum-ja's relative silence, combined with her capacity for extreme and, at times, comedic violence serves to make her a fetish character. She is "hot," Park ensures, because his presumed viewership can project their fantasies onto her with minimal interference. This, actually, is very typical of sci-fi, manga, and other subcultural genres, and the latent sexism of this approach (which is paradoxically supposed to be empowering for women) has been elaborated elsewhere by feminist critics of pop culture. Should I have the chance to review Lady Vengeance in more depth, I could articulate exactly how this functions in the film. And if it's a cheap shot to claim that this is a sop to "fanboys," well, sorry, but nerd fantasies can sometimes be spotted a mile away. Besides, it's not the audience I'm reviewing, but Park's indulgence of their presumed proclivities.
(3) Filmbrain takes issue with my characterization of the film as "right wing." First of all, let's be clear: it doesn't matter what Park's actual politics are. This isn't an argument about Park or his intentions. Furthermore, Filmbrain reasonably posits that not everything contained in Lady Vengeance can necessarily be assumed to be endorsed by Park. But to me, this obviates the question of form. The final 45 minutes of Lady Vengeance are a protracted accumulation of audience identification for Geum-ja and the victims' families. We see Mr, Baek constructed as pure evil which must be eradicated. Moreover, Park's articulation of this sequence -- a one after another, sequential affair -- combines the comforting habits of genre with the primal pleasures of counting and repetition. (Why not have them all hack away at him at once? Not as protracted, not as satisfying.) This, especially when juxtaposed with the film's rather limp excuse for introspection -- the "after-party" and Geum-ja's tofu cry -- shows us where Lady Vengeance is coming from. Park votes with his tropes, his pacing, his close-ups, his filmic grammar. Once you find the appropriate target, vengeance is fun, riveting, and, even if perpetrator or viewer succumb to slight tinges of guilt, it's justifiable. I'm simply aghast that anyone could see Park's film as a critique of mob violence. Everything we've learned from how to read the cinema (and Park, like Tarantino, is clearly more of a movie brat than a freethinker) tells us the opposite. Sure, it might be hard sometimes, but a (wo)man's gotta do what a (wo)man's gotta do.
(4) True, I do not yet know Ms. Dargis's specific position of Lady Vengeance. That's not at issue here. It's that I think her NYT piece, which I'd initially found off-base, gets to the heart of the problem I have with Park's new film. Keep in mind, I went into Lady Vengeance with high hopes. Anyway, I can't really help it if Filmbrain found the epistolary form "smarmy." I understand that, from a rhetorical standpoint, I could be seen as bolstering my own argument with an "appeal to authority," that of Ms. Dargis and the Times. I won't deny that, in the midst of TIFF, I was running out of ideas for how to discuss films that, in actuality, I wished I hadn't even seen. But in fact, I wanted to convey my sense of disappointment in the form of a reversal, a self-criticism (it's the Commie in me) that was also a bitter excoriation of a film that, to my eyes, speaks to the basest human tendencies, ones that hold more and more sway in our world with each passing day. That, and having skipped both a nap and the Dardenne brothers' L'enfant to witness it, made me just a wee bit cranky.
9/16 -- Although I'm writing this several days later, this was the day that I received an email informing me that avant-garde filmmaker Mark LaPore had passed away. He was a relatively young man, and a truly unique voice in the often-homogenous world of experimental cinema. Truthfully, I never really felt like I understood LaPore's work; after seeing three medium-length films of his I recognized their sensual beauty but found them frustrating, intractable. They seemed to want to push through certain problems in the history of film and its representation of non-Western "others," but to my eyes they fell prey to those very problems. I'm not at all sure of this now, and think I probably misjudged their intent. As I was watching Ute Aurand's "intuitive" travel diary, my mind wandered back to LaPore films like The Five Bad Elements and Depression in the Bay of Bengal, recalling how his interminable Bazinian stare would eventually break down the false typicality of his subjects, reveal their discomfort with the camera eye, and sometimes serve as an occasion for lighthearted play between cinematographer and subject. These are films I very much want to revisit, since I suspect there is considerably more room for them in my viewing than there used to be. Regardless of my subjective impressions, one thing is certain. Nobody else made films like LaPore, and he offered a significant new avenue away from the well-worn paths that experimental film has followed in recent decades. He let the outside world reshift his footing, as well as that of the viewer. He will be missed.
Sure to impress viewers who are partial to "isolated microcosmic world" pictures, and certainly not without merit, Iron Island just seemed to me to fail to exploit its premise. "The Captain" (Ali Nasirian) holds dubious claim over an abandoned oil tanker in the Persian Gulf, renting "rooms" onboard to a village's worth of ragtag tenants. It's never made clear that he really doesn't own it, but inspectors from the mainland show up periodically to give him and the renters grief. Rasoulof's approach is observational and follows only the most nominal narrative framework, so holding the director accountable for loose ends may be missing the point. But still, why are these people living on the ship? Are they criminals, or lower-class undesirables red-lined out of mainland housing? What does this community offer than a more conventional one can't? Likewise, Rasoulof has a striking, built-in mise-en-scène at his fingertips. One need only look at Potemkin to see what you can do with hulking steel silhouetted against the sky, or the well-composed aerial shot of the bow against the ocean. But Iron Island seems to hit upon these visual delights only by accident, here and there, mostly concerning itself with its vague string of incidents. The conclusion implies that we should have gleaned more about The Captain's relationship with his charges over the course of the film, but I certainly didn't.
This is my first encounter with the films of Kelemen ("the world's most depressing director," a friend quipped privately), and it was certainly disappointing. I assumed that even if the narrative proved to be a bit schematic (which it did), the black-and-white cinematography and use of water and landscape would be sumptuous enough to merit my attention. In fact, Kelemen clearly shot this film on DV, and it's one of the worst video-to-film transfers I've ever seen. Straight lines in the distance vibrated like a PAL-to-NTSC conversion, or a blue-screen map behind a local weatherman. I tried to overlook this, but considering the fact that the rest of Fallen is an unwitting parody of the Humorless Eastern European Art Film, I spent most of the 90 minutes cringing. After Matiss (Egons Dombrovskis) witnesses a woman's suicide and fails to intervene, he tries to investigate who she was and who she left behind. (It's a bit like a bad Bergmanesque version of Permanent Record, actually.) Matiss manages documents at the Latvian national archive, so I'll leave it to stronger minds than my own as to whether Matiss's inactivity is intended as some sort of national allegory. But soon he meets a police detective who delivers an impromptu disquisition on suicide and societal decay. Durkheim himself would fidget from the boredom. As things progress Matiss becomes entangled in highly improbable relationships, but it isn't narrative implausibility that cripples Fallen. Kelemen doesn't earn his dour worldview. Rather, he assumes a moral bankruptcy, seems to be asking us to fill in our own assumptions about post-communist malaise in Riga, and builds a flawed treatise around this void. Perhaps the largest single problem here is that Kelemen's beat is already covered by a master filmmaker, Béla Tarr, and by comparison Fallen feels both undernourished and misguided.
I know no one's going to believe this, but Barney's latest cinematic thingamajig makes perfect sense on paper. If we follow Barney's lead and consider his films "sculptures," or more plausibly as extensions of his sculptural project, DR9 picks up certain threads from Cremaster 3 but places them in a more ritualistic context, delving into unfortunate Japanoiserie. Barney has long been in dialogue-cum-Oedipal-struggle with the minimalists, who wanted to create industrial objects from unadorned forged metal, repeatable motifs that reduced the obvious hand of the artist and seemed to just pop into the world with a certain inevitability, the way concrete culverts and steel reinforcements get installed along the highway. (Robert Smithson, for example, wrote a classic aesthetic treatise about how the unfinished expressways in Passaic, New Jersey should be regarded for their sculptural rigor.) Given that the Judds and Andres and Flavins of the world wanted to forge artistic objects that possessed the affective character of heavy industry, Barney, following Smithson, inverts this relationship. He appropriates a Japanese whaling ship and, using cinematic framing and a set of theatrical gestures (and, as the aficionados among you may recall, minimalism was assailed by art critic Michael Fried as being tainted by "theatre"), tries to convert this hulking utilitarian object into his own symphonic arrangement of metal machine music. The problem here is twofold. One, Barney lacks focus, and his interest in parades and a particular fantasy of taciturn Asian behavior gets in the way of his larger project. Two, this project depends on Barney's ability to describe space in time with the movie camera, and unfortunately he butts up against his own limitations quite dramatically. He can stage a pageant or generate a set of interactions with Vaseline or some other physical material, but he can't execute a smooth tracking shot and he can't really edit. So the failure of basic cinematic language thwarts Barney's apparent aims, and simply shrugging DR9 off as an "artist's film" or a "conceptual sculpture" hardly mitigates its shortcomings. The piece, however, does rally in its final third, as its larger project emerges from the muddle. This passage represents Barney's sustained dialogue with the works of Eva Hesse, a presence who has hovered over his work for years although I confess it never really occurred to me. Hesse's fiberglass constructions of bulbous organic forms or porous netting has historically been understood as a feminist, body-centered corrective to minimalism's hard surfaces and industrial fetishism. Where Hesse used toxic fiberglass that, by many accounts, hastened her death, Barney uses Vaseline, a relatively benign substance typically applied as a balm. Exploring the whaling theme and a fantasy of transformation that owes a debt to David Cronenberg, Barney and Bjork make love / fight / wriggle in a secluded room on the ship, eventually paring away each other's extremities. Meanwhile, a giant steel-and-Vaseline Cremaster logo on deck is allowed to crumble, revealing a Hesse-like form of medicine-ball sized vertebrae, human rigidity giving way to aquatic suppleness. (This is mirrored by the removal of the horizontal band of Vaseline and steel and its replacement by what can only be described as an enormous turd made of igneous rock.) This ceremonial movement from "masculine" to "feminine" forms is the most conceptually rich and purely entertaining segment of the film, but I can't help but feel that Barney is flailing in most of the material that precedes it. (And it doesn't help that Bjork's music doesn't create a mood nearly as chilling as Jonathan Beppler's Cremaster scores. Her style is just too warm and familiar.) I'm certain DR9 will make more sense in the context of the larger Drawing Restraint exhibition (earlier efforts in this series involved a naked Barney climbing the gallery walls, certainly worth a look), but as a stand-alone film, it feels distended, a globule of petroleum jelly spread far too thin.
I hate to say it, but the exclamations of "masterwork" on this one may well be the result of Puiu exceeding very low expectations for his national cinema. (Personally I much preferred Pintilie's last film, but that's neither here nor there.) Last year the highbrows flipped for the French "Judge Judy," and this year it's the cruel Romanian "ER" episode, although there's nothing inherently wrong with that. In fact, there's no denying Puiu's supple observational direction. His handheld camera always manages to land up in the right place, and his fluid orchestration of the film's extended sequences (often in nearly real-time) is impressive without undue showiness. Some I've talked to found the film's deliberate pace somewhat frustrating, but I had the exact opposite reaction. From moment to moment, Lazarescu is crammed with incident and detail. Its observational pace is pitch-perfect, since it not only mirrors the blend of tension and boredom unique to the emergency-room experience, but filmically it allows Puiu to slowly escalate the situation, leaving us to watch helplessly as the mythologically-burdened Dante Remus Lazarescu (Ion Fiscuteanu) devolves from a slow burn to a complete fadeout. But the film’s problems are ones of scale, approach, and misjudged means. As Lazarescu is shuttled from hospital to hospital by a beleaguered but sympathetic ambulance driver (Luminta Gheorghiu), the medical neglect increases exponentially, and eventually beggars belief. Unless Romania is home not only to the most overworked and understaffed health care system on earth, but the pettiest physicians ever to mutter the Hippocratic Oath with their fingers crossed behind their back, the world of Lazarescu simply makes no sense. Now, the estimable Lee Walker has called me out for ultra-literalism on this point, retorting, “Yes. And surely some government official would have told Josef K. what the charges against him were.” Fair enough, but Kafka’s very language allowed him to create a world and a context in which the full force of institutional indifference was foregrounded. It’s the basic human problem in Kafka. Others are clearly seeing a similarly convincing comedy of horrors in Puiu’s film, but his fly-on-the-wall approach (which some are comparing to Wiseman, for good reason) implicitly asks us to see in Lazarescu a universe at least tangentially related to ours. Instead, we’re stuck in a kind of horror film with no persuasive premise. Its juxtaposition of mythic grandeur and ordinariness is admirable but unconvincing. It stacks the deck by tormenting a helpless stroke victim and asking us to be angry at tormentors (doctors? alcohol? The Gods?) too vague to identify. And even as I write this, I recognize that I may just be predisposed against Human Condition films, and this one is just whizzing past me as I stand adjusting myself at the plate.
9/17 -- Bloggy comment #5: At this point I had seen more than enough amazing work to have made the trip worthwhile, but I was still pretty much sick of cinema. Or perhaps it's more appropriate to say, this particular method of consuming the cinema, guzzling it like a camel at an oasis. Because of numerous changes in my life, to say nothing of shifting priorities overall, I simply can't see another nine-day TIFF trip in my future. Maybe a year off, maybe a five- or six-day dip into next year's offerings, I don't know. But this experience, gratifying as it was, made it clear that getting back to a place where daily life offers me similar choices, spead out over the course of the year, is more of a priority than I thought. Also, now I think back on the films I had tickets for and skipped, wondering if I cheated myself out of a top-tenner, or even just an experience pleasant enough to sacrifice sleep for. Banlieue 13, Duelist, Everlasting Regret, Shanghai Dreams, Heading South, A Perfect Day, Evil Aliens . . . yeah, I suspect I didn't really miss much. The only one I'm really sad about, actually, is Virgo's Lie With Me, a film most people seem to dislike but could be "up my alley." You never know, and that's what TIFFing is for -- the random celluloid hook-up that just might be The One. Until next time, whenever that may be, I wish my readership (snort) bon cinema, that elusive zipless TIFF.
By far the strangest and most fragmented entry in Tsai's unusual filmography, The Wayward Cloud manages to continue the preoccupations and narrative threads that have woven in and out of Tsai's world from the beginning. Whereas The Hole and The River found Taipei struggling with a surfeit of water, Cloud takes place in the midst of a drought. All water is bottled, and watermelon is all the rage (a cheap and available way to replenish your precious bodily fluids). In the opening scene we see Tsai bringing all of these strands together in a stunning setpiece whose sheer visual invention actually surpasses that of the film's three musical numbers. One way to make sense of Cloud's departures from Tsai's usual visual framework – and perhaps the most obvious one – is to think of the film as a raunching-up of the squeaky-clean world of Jacques Demy. But Cloud owes just as much to avant-gardist Robert Nelson and his 1965 classic Oh Dem Watermelons, in which he and the San Francisco Mime Troupe perform a visual compendium of increasingly fucked-up things you can do with the big green gourd. (Of course, there's a big difference too, since presumably watermelons have no racist connotations in Taiwanese culture. In fact, Wayward Cloud goofily proclaims them to be part of a signification of unspoken desire practically on par with gay hanky codes.) Eventually though, the water shortage and watermelon-oriented behavior fall by the wayside, as Tsai fixates on the Lee Kang-sheng character's double life as loving boyfriend and porn star. In a way, the watermelon fetish is continued by other means, since the film's grand topic – the detour of sexual relationships through a third term, and the question of whether desire is thereby derailed or intensified – takes up again right through to the final scene, a bracing interrogation of pornography and ethics. The fact that I come away from The Wayward Cloud ultimately unclear on Tsai's stance in the porn debate is to his credit, up to a point. The film drops one hell of a bomb, then walks away. Nevertheless, there is a frustrating lack of focus here, both on a formal level (Tsai's trademark deeply-recessed compositions lack the crispness that usually gives his films the feel of otherworldly emanations) and in its navigation through its set of variables. Mike D'Angelo asks where Tsai can go from here, and I get the sense that this most rigorous of directors has painted himself into a very bizarre corner. Perhaps this explains the frisson and befuddlement The Wayward Cloud delivers in nearly equal measure.
[MAJOR SPOILERS] After seeing so many recent films whose visual impact far outstrips their thematic or writerly skill, it was certainly odd to go fifteen rounds with Memories in the Mist, the latest from Bengali director Buddhadeb Dasgupta. While watching (and considering walking out several times) I kept recalling the old joke, "Well, it was in focus." Most of the time this film isn't in focus, and other technical problems abound – the acting tends to be either wooden or cartoonish, and aside from a few surprisingly lovely pans across the landscape (very much in Angelopoulos mode), Dasgupta never really finds a coherent visual style. It's serviceable, but his stiff blocking and negligible use of color give the impression that either his heart's not in it or he just doesn't know what he's doing a lot of the time. And yet, the film impresses by ending up somewhere much richer than its wobbly beginnings would indicate. It's a story of Sumanta (Rahul Bose), a doormat-cum-holy-fool who is summarily abused by his wife, his employer, and life in general. What's worse, this gaping hole of a personality is explicitly cemented by his daddy issues; his father cheated (sort of) and was kicked out of the house never to return. Dasgupta tries to play this for comedy, and it never really works (although I'm certainly not the best judge of humor that hinges on the cruel humiliation of an innocent). But instead of following the predictable path of Sumanta coming into his own, Dasgupta eventually recodes our implicit agreement with his tormentors. Sumanta has a more complex sense of self than we'd imagined. Overall, Memories ends up as a kind of Bengali Six Feet Under episode, with Nate and David combined in one character. It's not as bad as that sounds, actually, but it isn't entirely convincing either, and even if Memories eventually won me over, I still wouldn't recommend it. If Dasgupta is a Master, Bengali cinema is in desperate straits indeed.