51 weeks in the sticks, 1 week at the epicenter. It's the



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)


NOTE: You can skip all this crap and get to the film reviews by clicking here.


Hit the North (Part One) -- Following up on a perhaps ill-advised micro-effort in last year's coverage to provide daily bloggish asides before launching into purely film-related content, I'm adding this little introduction this year. I assure you, it's completely skippable; just hit the above "here" link to avoid this rambling mess. But as I go into my third year of TIFFing (and overall my fifth year of Canadian festival spelunking), I thought I'd start out with some ruminations about this year's line-up, the direction of the festival, and the sort of stuff that might help me get a jump on that year-end commentary I almost never seem to find the time to actually compose.


There's been significant excitement brewing around this year's TIFF, pretty much since the Auteurist All-Star Cannes line-up was announced. Granted, a lot of that excitement evolved into wary optimism when the Cannes reports started hitting the streets. You didn't have to be a perennial prophet of gloom and doom (just kidding bud) to conclude that the selection was a mixed-bag at best. As it happens, eleven of the 21 Competition titles were deemed worthy of inclusion at TIFF, a number that's all the more impressive when you consider that three highly-regarded American films (Broken Flowers, Last Days, and, um, Sin City) had already opened commercially by TIFF-time. So the Toronto crew's verdict on Cannes 2005 was an overall thumbs-up, a more positive reaction than the broader critical consensus. Of course, things are never that simple, and the weird festival politics can start to be read off the surface of the Cannes-to-Toronto microcosm. Sure, there are inclusions of films that were critically lambasted (Free Zone, Don't Come Knocking), because they held the promise of red-carpet glitz (Natalie Portman, Jessica Lange, Sarah Polley, Sam Shepard). And sure, those of us wanting to make up our own minds about some widely-slagged entries (Johnnie To's Election, Masahiro Kobayashi's Bashing, and above all, the Larrieu brothers' Paint or Make Love, the most friendless film in competition this year) were denied a crack at those left-field selections. But of course, they can't include everything, and a certain amount of energy does have to channeled into those pre-Oscar season Galas. Like any big cultural organization, TIFF serves many masters, and high-profile premieres with glamorous celebs in formal wear provide the return Air Canada and AGF want on their investment. Ergo, Walk the Line and Elizabethtown. [POSTSCRIPT: I hadn't even noticed that Wenders' Don't Come Knocking has been quietly dropped from the line-up. Granted, I wasn't looking for it on the schedule, since I'd already planned to skip it. Anyhow, thanks to MovieMartyr for drawing my attention to this.]


Less-than-cinephilic inclusions are understandable, but some exclusions are utterly inscrutable. The big mystery among the people I've talked to is why A Tale of Cinema, Hong Sang-soo's latest bifurcated disquisition on male dysfunction, failed to make the cut. Granted, it slipped in and out of Cannes without much of a splash, but those who did see it gave it mostly positive notices and deemed it a worthy addition to Hong's resolutely single-minded corpus. (Moreover, there seemed to be widespread agreement that it represented a significant step up from Woman Is the Future of Man.) I haven't seen A Tale of Cinema yet, and so I can't say whether it really does fall flat, or whether Hong has been unconsciously designated the scapegoat for world-class auteurs who make the same film over and over again. Sadly, I'm going to find out in a few weeks, when my Korean import DVD arrives. (True cinephile purism? Thing of the past.) Less glaring omissions also hit me where I live. Kornél Mundruczó's Hungarian corpse opera Johanna, João Pedro Rodrigues' Odete, and Ilea Khrzhanovsky's 4 would have been first-tier treats. (Then again, few recent films were as divisive as Rodrigues' last film, O Fantasma; I know many critics are elated that this year they get to dodge this particular queer Portuguese bullet.)


But perhaps this kind of bitchy nitpicking is inappropriate. Why can't I just delve into the amazing line-up below, luxuriate in it and say "thank you, sirs, may I have another?" Well, partly because I'm not there yet, so I write this rambling overview from the cinema-starved crankiness of everyday existence. (I'll be there in a few days.) And of course, part of the problem is that know-it-all, armchair quarterbacking pose that the Internet breeds in isolated bumpkins like me, the grumpiness of knowing I'd do things a little bit differently even though I have no real idea of how any of this organizational moving and shaking actually works. (I've planned a few university film series, some syllabi, and a few soirees in my apartment. Who the fuck am I? etc.) But mostly it comes back to my firm believe that criticism is above all an act of love. I love you, TIFF. Even when I kinda sorta hate you, I still love you.


Now, let's see if you love me back....


seen prior to the festival


-Midnight Movies: From the Margin to the Mainstream (Stuart Samuels, Canada / U.S.) [7]

See review here.


screening schedule


9/9 -- Bloggy comment #1: I had a brief exchange with Ryan Werner in the Cumberland men's room. We didn't discuss his feelings regarding Palm's dismissive treatment of acquisitions left over from his tenure, or his recent move to IFC, but we were both distressed by the dearth of liquid soap. Also sweet jesus is the festival trailer atrocious. Worse than horrible, it turns out, is the painfully avrich.



Three Times (Hou Hsiao-hsien, Taiwan) [7]

Why you tryin' to play me, Hou? After some initial rumors of "new cut" following the Cannes premiere, reliable sources concluded that it was all talk. Sad in a way, since some minor tweaking could probably make this film a flat-out masterpiece. But who am I kidding? I seem to be one of the only Hou fans who isn't already swooning over this film, which is indeed absorbing and conceptually rich but a bit troublesome. The general consensus is that this is the quintessential Hou film, a summation of themes, textures, and tones already explored elsewhere in his filmography. This certainly isn't wrong -- Taiwanese history is a dominant framework, as it was in A Time to Live and a Time to Die, and the second section revisits Flowers of Shanghai's rule-governed concubine culture -- but to me this reading of Three Times as the über-Hou occludes some fundamental homages and stylistic borrowings. (In this regard the film is a more logical follow-up to Café Lumiére than at first meets the eye.) The first section, "A Time for Love," which takes place in the 60s, is the loosest-limbed and by far the funniest piece of filmmaking I've seen from Hou, and this is a welcome new direction, up to a point. While the visual style is all Hou (static shots of active environments, a controlled yet breathing frame, and a color palette pitched between Wong Kar-wai's urban saturation and Jia Zhang-ke's peeling-latex, late-Communist look), the use of music and the mocking exploration of love at first sigh (the beauty and the stupidity of courtly love) is all Nouvelle Vague, and the looseness indicates that Hou is trying on this echt-60s mask for size. A complete feature in this mode might better show how Hou could fully make it his own. As engrossing as the results are here, they do feel second-hand. This problem only deepens in the second part, "A Time for Freedom," set in 1911 and probably one of the only full-color silent films ever made. The supple grace and bobbing camera, not to mention the muted psychological battle, that made Flowers a masterpiece is here replaced with overly explanatory intertitles and a series of truncated Mizoguchian tracking shots, ping-ponging across shallow medium close-ups. The silence is an admirable gambit but it doesn't work at all, and ultimately it doesn't resemble a Hou Hsiao-hsien film nearly as much as Three Times's partisans would have you believe. This is driven home all the more forcefully by the concluding 2005 section, a mini-masterpiece of urban ennui. Operating within a melodramatic framework in order to come to grips with its historical obsolescence, "A Time for Youth" revisits the spirit if not the letter of Millennium Mambo but expands it, lends it a melancholy and a torpor borrowed from Goodbye South, Goodbye. The result is a restless stalemate, a triangle whose heterosexual side may be consummated physically but emotionally is every bit as hopeless as its thwarted lesbian component. After dabbling with being Godard or Truffaut, and then Mizoguchi or Griffith, Hou not only finds his own voice again but expands his vocabulary, pushing his long-time preoccupations into radical new territory. Three Times is ambitious but inconsistent, ending on a superlative note. Perhaps the real fire will be next time.


Through the Forest (Jean Paul Civeyrac, France) [m] [6]

It's easy to see from this evidence why Civeyrac has commanded attention, since I can't think of anyone who is making films quite like this. Ozon in serious mode comes closest, but whereas he subsumes performance values into a carefully modulated whole, Civeyrac places performance front and center, to the detriment of visual values or narrative construction. And this is accomplished in an incredibly strange way; I never figured on seeing a featurette composed of ten unbroken takes wherein the elaboration of space is pretty much a non-issue and the camera movements, which stumble into grace on occasion, are mostly utilitarian. A fragmented, elliptical story of a young woman trying to find emotional her way through the accidental death of her lover, Through the Forest assays big themes and big, unwieldy prose, and while at first it seemed clunkily declarative and artless, eventually the film's formal unity and conviction succeeds in generating a context in which this awkward verbosity makes sense. Bergman works this way, but Civeyrac makes no appeals to conventional spiritual or theological thought, and he is much closer to Strindberg -- a world in which the soul in crisis invests the quotidian with the otherworldly, the magical, and the ruptures of the unconscious. If only it weren't so damned digital-looking, with its flat images and its willingness to stake its claim so exclusively on the subtle fluidity of the human visage across the span of a long take. (Apparently it was shot on 35mm, but it certainly fooled me.) Bazin has won, and I'm surprised by how little I approve of the result.


Instructions for a Light and Sound Machine (Peter Tscherkassky, Austria) [s] [6] [revised to 7]

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?]


fugitive l(i)ght (Izabella Pruska-Oldenhof, Canada) [s] [4]

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.


Close Quarters (Jim Jennings) [s] [10]

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.


Pyramid Lake Piaute Reservation Exposure (Lynn Marie Kirby) [v/s] [8]

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.


Black Belt Test Exposure (Lynn Marie Kirby) [v/s] [8] [tentative grade]

...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.


site specific_ROMA 04 (Olivo Barbieri, Italy) [s] [5]

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.


9/10 -- Bloggy comment #2: I can't believe it's taken me three years to realize that the TTC subway "doors are closing" chime is the jingle for Campbell's Soup. "Mmm-Mmm-Good!"



Takeshis' (Takeshi Kitano, Japan) [8]

Jeremy Heilman told me before I saw this film that it was essentially Kitano's 8 1/2. This is true enough, but whereas Fellini is self-indulgent and trying to bolster his subjectivity against outside threat (particularly the female variety), Kitano is allowing the other to deconstruct him completely. The self-critical artist's film is a kind of modernist cliche, but Kitano wisely adopts this hoary chestnut as a framework, to give himself room to explore impressionistic gestures and textures that would be harder to parse in a less familiar set-up. Takeshis' is a film as open-form in its way as No Rest for the Brave. And while critics like to pat icons on the back for taking the piss out of their iconic status ("Look! Clint's flabby ass!"), Kitano is doing more than this. He borrows scenes and images from his filmography in order to place them in a new, and somewhat unflattering context. His endless gun battles are borderline ridiculous here, but he is pitting them against amazing dance sequences, or graceful intrusions of the feminine. It is as though Kitano is showing us true poetry, and then forcing us to at least consider the possibility that by comparison, his bullet ballets are sadly impoverished. He really could be working at a convenience store, and maybe he should be. Also, this film is often very, very funny. Not theoretically funny, but ha ha holy shit look at that kind of funny. The lukewarm reception this film's gotten around these parts boggles my mind.


The Sun (Alexander Sokurov, Russia / Italy / France / Switzerland) [8]

I had a strange feeling that this film might represent a breakthrough in the Hack / Sokurov relationship. I've liked each film of Sokurov's better than the last one, culminating in Father and Son's integration of complex shot constructions and more typical Sokurovian longeurs. Well, now ol' Sasha's gone off the deep end, and I kinda like it. There are some key elements of the classic style -- washed-out color, a certain way with wide framings, and a meditative pace. But if any one of those components were missing I would go on record here and now that Sokurov did not really direct the film, that some young upstart had stepped in while the Master was in the john. All silliness aside, this film is entertaining in some of the most conventional ways possible. It has multiple laugh lines. It enters a scene's space and edits around it, providing standard coverage. It parses the emotional life (stunted though it may be) of a single character at a moment of decision. It's a movie, folks, and it's pretty freakin' great. Issey Ogata is marvelous as Hirohito, a sheltered but not unwise gentleman-emperor, politically naive but not without his rationales for seemingly inscrutable behavior. The performance is muted and deliberate, but it edges past stylization into a believable rhythm, as does the film as a whole. Sokurov has been criticized for possibly romanticizing Hirohito, but unlike the Hitler of Moloch, the emperor was born into his station, and any personal will to power is somewhat beside the point. This becomes clear in his two key scenes with MacArthur, the American general attempting to hold Hirohito accountable and the emperor seemingly regarding his own decisions as regretfully inevitable. This is the paradox of a man who has to pretend to believe he is a god, only to find that history has caught up with him, turning beatitude into indefensible quietism. It's a film of great power, and in the end my only serious reservation about it is that it doesn't feel like Sokurov. (Weird, since the early films so saturated in the signature style strike me as tedious bordering on creepy.) Perhaps the film's core structure, that of conventional editing and an only somewhat relaxed pace, could be read allegorically, as the form befitting a Japanese surrender to the Yanks?


Battle in Heaven (Carlos Reygadas, Mexico / France / Germany / Belgium) [7]

First off, following the scenic isolation of Japon, Reygadas surprised me with just how urban this film is. Mexico City isn't a "character" in this film, the way critics like to describe locales which impress their uniqueness upon the storyline. But Battle in Heaven does seem to stem in part from the day-to-day facts of living in one of the most economically stratified metropolises in the world. And whereas Japon partook of the physical world in order to generate elemental metaphors for its protagonist's mental anguish -- Remember the helicopter shot with the dead horse? I thought you would. --, the follow-up takes leaves from the book of Bruno Dumont, fixating on the sweaty carnality of the material world. Marcos and his wife are lower class and corpulent, and Marcos is exploring various faulty avenues by which to escape his station. This is not only economic; through his relationship (of sorts) with rich young Ana, Marcos appears to want to overcome not only his status as a social undesirable, but the basic rules of decorum. Reygadas seems to be taking the Dumontian fixation on the body into the Catholic realm, exploring its one-way insistence on the flesh as an instrument of suffering. Thematically the film is undoubtedly muddled, although its "shocking" final minutes are of a piece with its overall thrust. But Reygadas' primary accomplishment is his seemingly effortless generation of striking images. It overreaches, certainly (the last shot prior to the epilogue is the Mexican flag being lowered!), but it never fails to provoke. [SECOND VIEWING: My basic opinion of the film remains guardedly high, but this time around I think I see Reygadas' strategies a little more clearly. With his non-actors and general lack of affect, he's dipping into Bresson, but placing that approach in an incongruous context. Mexican religiosity is different, to say the least, from Bresson's chilly Jansenism. Plus, Reygadas (by admission) is equally in thrall to Herzog's expressionist gestures. So, when Marcos climbs the hill and stands, Caspar David Friedrich-like, against the sky, he can't have a Herzogian commune with nature and its sublimnity, since the adjacent hills have already been claimed by Christianity. Barring any spiritual or material satisfaction in this life, Marcos, naturally, prepares for the final battle in you-know-where.]



9/11 -- Bloggy comment #3: I have forgotten what real food tastes like. Also, the volunteers really are awesome, but the infrastructure is a little but shaky this year. Why have every conceivable ticket transaction (picking up out-of-town orders, buying single tickets, exchanges, T-shirt and totebag sales) all happening in one location? The lines are astonishing.



Familia (Louise Archambault, Canada) [W/O] (0:31)

Even the lovely, precise lensing by DP Andre Turpin couldn't save this one. It's a train wreck and he's just rubbernecking. So first-filmy it hurts. I began to be offended by the manner in which it proffered cliche upon cliche, firm in its conviction that it was revealing deeply felt truths. Naturally when a woman's husband is on a business trip, he's fucking around, and when the wife calls the mistress is in the room, finger to lips, shhhh, etc. Stuff like that. And while usually this sort of thing is attributable to the director's inability to live beyond the confines of cinema, I start to wonder if it goes deeper than that, and people like Archambault perhaps live their daily lives as if they were in a schematic, hackneyed movie, where nothing surprising is even perceived.


Manderlay (Lars von Trier, Denmark) [6]

First things first: compared to the rigor and precision of Dogville, Manderlay is simply shoddy. This is evident in the first ten minutes; the camerawork is lax and indistinct, and the edits seem designed to cobble sequences together out of multiple takes rather than interacting on a shot-by-shot level. The John Hurt narration is nowhere nearly as well-written, drifting into the omniscient background just as conventional third-person tends to do. You can forget to listen to it at all, whereas Dogville absolutely hinged on it. Second things second: Bryce Dallas Howard, I hear, is a wonderful young actress, but she was not right for this role at all. Kidman's Grace evinced noble bearing and a soulful, beatific charisma, whereas Grace 2.0 often comes across as a petulant Bonnie Franklin, perkily cheerleading our misbegotten slaves into freedom and democracy. But make no mistake, Howard's task is largely impossible since von Trier has reinvented the Grace character beyond recognition In fact, Manderlay sees Dogville's avenging angel reborn as . . . Tom Edison, the pedantic voice of white privilege and highfalutin liberal idealism. (Is Lars implying that all Americans will become this in time?) Yet despite all these caveats, and the fact that so many of them could have been avoided by abandoning the trilogy concept a bit earlier, I can't deny that Manderlay's midsection pummels along with a righteous power. Buoyed by uniformly strong performances and a careful narrative escalation, Manderlay's middle gets down to business -- the whole post-Civil War slavery trope is a bracing, politically incorrect armature for an allegory on nation-building in Iraq. In fact, Manderlay is jarring because of how brazenly didactic the present global situation has made von Trier. Brecht himself would either applaud scenes like the voting sequence, or perhaps find them a bit too overdetermined in their meaning. This makes it all the more fascinating, and troubling, that near the end of the film von Trier de-allegorizes the American blacks and demands that we take them at (fractured, horrifying) face value. This results in a muddle, since the very specific historical circumstances of American slavery are abstracted, then concretized again, without the requisite intellectual substance. In dealing with material this volatile, von Trier needed to be scrupulous and unerring, lest he come off as a lazy provocateur. To his credit, he avoids that trap, but he doesn't exactly "stick the landing" either. Consistently compelling and not without jaw-dropping moments of radical insight, Manderlay feels underdeveloped, like something he may have hastily arranged since he had a few more weeks' rental on the soundstage. Still, few semi-squandered opportunities are this engrossing. Lars with half his brain tied behind his back is worth twenty Todd Solondzes operating at full capacity.


The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes (Timothy and Stephen Quay, U.K. / Germany / France) [3]

There are two major problems that torpedo this film, and they glom onto each other like viral cells, replicating and mutually mutating in an exponentially expanding wretchedness. The Quay brothers (I refuse to capitulate to their self-congratulatory mythmaking by calling them "the Brothers Quay" -- this is not the Victorian era) are filmmakers accustomed to the short-form, and they lack the most basic sense of humor. Piano Tuner is clearly attempting to function as an evocative but unresolved mood piece, providing enough information to imply a dreamlike narrative, with multiple presents and temporal reversals and spatial ambiguity. But as short filmmakers, what they actually accomplish is the stringing together of discrete and unrelated ideas, in little five to ten minute bursts. There's a music thread, an automaton thread, a stop-motion "uncanny" thread, and much much more. The only thing tying any of this together is a wispy, soft-focus, oh-so-Victorian fear of female sexuality. Poor Amira Cesar is reduced to a doe-eyed hysteric in need of mental fine-tuning by the titular rationalist, and there's never a sense that the Quays are critiquing these antiquated stereotypes. Instead, they clearly take them, as well as themselves, with a deadly level of seriousness. They have created something sui generis -- the only reasonable comparison beyond their own work would be Guy Maddin's worst film, Twilight of the Ice Nymphs -- but the result is suffocating and precious. At the end of the screening I wanted to boo, but didn't feel like it was worth getting into.


Essex Street Market (Ernie Gehr) [v/s] [8]

These four new works by Gehr are interrelated components of a NYC "city symphony" film began in 1972. Although they're presented as separate works (Gehr world premiered them in November 2004 as part of the MoMA re-opening), they clearly bear the mark of having been extracted from a larger overall schema. This in no way diminishes their individual power (except possibly in one case), and in fact each piece is organized around a particular subject and the formal approach Gehr finds appropriate to it. Essex Street Market is perhaps the most absorbing of the four works, since its nearly 30-minute running time permits the viewer to familiarize him- or herself with the visual world of its subject. Each view is held for between 20 and 30 seconds, and Gehr's framings of vegetable stands, fishmongers, and other fluorescent-lit stalls of small-time commerce are unerringly graceful. The time Gehr takes allows us access to a surreptitious portraiture, lingering images of shopkeepers and their finicky customers. Originally shot on black-and-white film (like all but the last part of the series), Essex Street Market explores the thick, hazy film atmosphere of this environment. Scales and buckets possess a black metallic sheen under the harshness of artificial lighting, stark presences against the pitch black sky. The richness of this registration of light on celluloid is in turn complicated by its transfer to video. The swirling grain of the film image makes contact with the slightly larger grid of the video raster, the two playing against one another. If there is any nostalgia lurking in this film (and really, Gehr's clear-eyed matter-of-factness admits of very little nostalgia), the presentation on video absolutely kills it. It insists on the pastness of what we're viewing, not as tragedy or wistful loss but as a flat fact. This impact is echoed in a procedure Gehr employed when creating the original material. Since he was shooting with a small 16mm camera with a flat bottom, he tended to set it on a surface, let it roll, and then pick it up when he was done. This ends nearly every shot with an upward swish pan, a jarring coda to the sturdy fixed frame compositions comprising Essex Street Market. This diagonal exit, together with the extended time of each individual shot, gives the impression that the shots are not sequential but simultaneous, simply excerpts from a grid-like bank of co-temporalities. (In fact, this impression is heightened by the use of video, a medium typically more amenable to multiple installation views than cinema.) Essex Street Market seems less like a series of snapshots than a human-scale, documentary Cubism. But unlike the Vertovian approach that description implies, Gehr's film retains the unity of this space across time. It's the space itself, over time, that changes.


Noon Time Activities (Ernie Gehr) [v/s] [6]

Since Gehr began this project over thirty years ago, it's hard not to see it as more in line with his work of the Seventies than with his recent efforts. Part of what is fascinating about these video-films is the way images created in the past are processed in the present, by filmmaker and viewer alike. Noon Time Activities is a lovely miniature comprised of short passages at a lunch counter, as well as extended segments of pedestrians' shadows on NYC sidewalks. Given the arrival of Noon Time Activities in 2004-5, it's difficult not to compare to Jim Jennings' very similar 2000 film Miracle on 34th Street. Jennings' film has the benefit of being shown on film, but even more than this, Miracle exhibits an arrhythmic editing pattern and use of the negative space of the movie screen that Noon Time does not. This is the one work of the quartet that feels a little too underdeveloped to function as a stand-alone. Here, it serves as a logical transition between parts one and three, and I assume it would have operated similarly in the longer piece Gehr originally conceived.


Workers Leaving the Factory (After Lumiére) (Ernie Gehr) [v/s] [8]

Whereas Noon Time Activities compares somewhat unfavorably with a similar later film, Workers anticipates a later film and exceeds it. This film uses the same basic technique in 1970s NYC that Taiwanese filmmaker Hsiao Shuo-wen employed in this 2000 experimental short Intrude Sanctuary. A low-angle shot situated on a moving subway train explores the deep space down the "hallway" of the aisle and coupling gaps between cars. The stability bars and arrangement of lights create a steady frame of reference that comes slightly unmoored with every twist and turn of the track. And, since the camera axis avoids direct confrontation with the passengers, we spend time with them as they ride, wait, stare ahead and think. The camera position places us "on the train," but prohibits our blending in with the other riders. We're placed in an identifiable but uncertain space, just as the projection and viewing of the film itself does. We're with the passengers, but completely anterior to them. Hsiao's lovely film, shot in color and in the specific bustle of late 20th century Taipei, has a rigor of its own, but Gehr's version studiously avoids any anthropolgical undercurrent. This train is like a mobile version of the hallway in Serene Velocity: abstract, alien and, despite its being filled with human beings, eerily vacant.


Greene Street (Ernie Gehr) [v/s] [9]

This five minute coda to the series is an odd one, since unlike the other three works Greene Street's content is almost completely subsumed within a formal procedure. Not only is the piece in color, but its use of color, time lapse and slowly racked focus are as aesthetically dominant in Greene Street as black-and-white and the fixed frame are in parts 1-3. It's as though Gehr opts to bring his series to a close by providing the total opposite of all the effects we'd hitherto experienced. Shot from a window overlooking the street, the film's shallow focus and bright red surface (a curtain? a painted screen? a trick of the light?) produce an all-over flatness reminiscent of a Paul Klee painting. Unevenly distributed red is interrupted by thin shadows and slowly materializing forms. The canvas-like weave of the window screen gives way to a deeper space. We see abstract forms "become" buildings and the sun quickly winds around them, elongating the shadows on both the street itself and the window frame. The effect is mesmerizing, and Greene Street feels less like a city-symphony fragment than a long lost prelude to Gehr's masterpiece untitled (1977). Whereas the 1977 film gives us a deep space traversed by diagonal motion, becoming more and more shallow, Greene Street is an opening-up of a flat painterly field, revealing the horizontal motion of natural light. As with the other works, the presentation on video adds a sensual barrier that bears consideration as a formal element, but more than the others, Greene Street feels like a true film trapped in video against its will. Gehr acknowledged during the Q&A that money is the primary reason for finishing these works in video, and this is a damn shame. (Is there a filmmaker working today more deserving of, say, a MacArthur "Genius" Grant than Ernie Gehr? Discuss.) But even on video, there's no denying that Greene Street is a work that finds Gehr at the height of his creative powers.



9/12 -- Angry retort #1: Don't argue with me. I understand the subway. In the interest of time, it's sometimes necessary to go south to get north. On the Yonge line, up is down. Don't you see?



Sa-kwa (Kang Yi-kwan, South Korea) [5]

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.


Time Off (Paréntesis) (Francisca Schweitzer / Pablo Solís, Chile) [W/O] (0:32)

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?


Caché (Hidden) (Michael Haneke, France / Austria / Germany / Italy) [7]

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.


Half-Moon for Margaret (Ute Aurand, Germany) [s] [6]

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.


India (Ute Aurand, Germany) [m] [3]

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.


Bangkok Loco (Pornchai Hongrattanaporn, Thailand) [W/O] (0:17)

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.



9/13 -- Honest question #1: How much do you tip the hotel maids upon checkout? I've never really been certain whether leaving a $20 is adequate. Opinions welcome.



Something Like Happiness (Bohdan Sláma, Czech Republic) [6]

Good job NYFF. This isn't a film I'm prepared to make any great claims for, but it's pretty obviously the best Czech film in ages. (See what I mean?) I'm not anywhere near as allergic to national allegory films as D'Angelo, but it's refreshing just how little this film relies on delving into the dark heart of Czechness. Instead, it's all about families as constellations, breaking apart and reassembling in new configurations, sometimes chosen and sometimes forced. Slama has a fluid but unobtrusive style, mostly handheld close-ups but conveying a concrete sense of place nonetheless. His compositions are always in the service of the drama, and even though the film coaches the viewer not to notice stylistics very much at all, he knows exactly what he's doing when you really stop and look. When it's shambling and observational it's at its peak; however Slama's narrative strategy (stealthy though it is) is to drop melodramatic occurrences into a naturalistic framework. This results in artificial shifts in trajectory, like how a pinball hits a bumper. It's better when Slama just rolls with it.


Mary (Abel Ferrara, France / Italy) [5]

[MILD SPOILERS] With moments of brilliance adrift within a sea of half-baked ideas and occasional outright idiocy (see Modine' s shoddy, showboating Walken impression), Mary feels unfinished. Most of the film is gorgeous, with Ferrara employing deep blacks and the tentative golds of candlelight, played off his usual NYC-at-night electricity. One of the main themes seems to be the redemption of Forest Whitaker's agnostic theologian, learning to experience God rather than ponder Him as an abstraction. And the film's finest moments -- the car attack, the sex scene, and the bombing -- formally emphasize the idea that states of psychic extremity bring us closer to holy revelation than everyday religiosity can. But paradoxically, the dry academic theologians Whitaker's talk show host interviews provide some of the most fascinating material in the film. In the midst of this, Ferrara can't help throwing in some of the crassest cross-cutting since Griffith, and whatever beef he has with Gibson is well-nigh incomprehensible. A fascinating botch, and I'd expect any other director to re-cut it. Ferrara? Full speed ahead and fuck 'em all, naturally.


Backstage (Emmanuelle Bercot, France) [5]

How frustrating -- for the first fifteen minutes of Bercot's film I was certain I was watching a top-ten finisher, if not a flat-out masterpiece. The film opens with Lucie (Isild le Besco) coming home to find a camera crew preparing to document her surprise visit from Lauren Waks (Emmanuelle Seignier), a vaguely Madonnaesque pop singer. Lucie is a mega-fan and the film adopts the stylistic tropes of reality TV to show the young woman's emotional devastation upon stumbling into what should be the happiest moment of her life. In short, it looked as though Bercot was doing what no American director thus far has had the guts to do -- plunge into the psychological ramifications of reality TV and the larger cult of stardom. (This E! channel starfucker culture is, when you think about it, the public relations arm of our oligarchy of millionaires, training us to love the rich and consider them our betters.) Sadly, the film departs from Lucie's stricken subject position and considers the developing relationship between her and Lauren. In addition to morphing into a fantasy piece in which a superstar welcomes an unbalanced fan into her entourage (shades of All About Eve are not coincidental), Backstage lapses into well-trod naturalism and familiar amour fou gestures, becoming the umpteenth iteration of the intense-female-friendship movie, with its Borderline Personality Disorder as narrative propulsion and its usual lesbianism-by-proxy. And the politics of fame? The naturalism naturalizes it away. Also, aside from a few striking sequences of Paris at night, you'd never know this was shot by Agnés Godard. Getting her for something this visually negligible is like hiring Claude Monet to whitewash a fence.


The Forsaken Land (Vimukthi Jayasundara, France / Sri Lanka) [6]

Why I Am Not Dan Sallitt: a Brief Study in Contrasting Aesthetics: As with Backstage (although lord knows, this is where the comparison ends), The Forsaken Land appeared as though it would be a masterpiece but eventually disappointed me. Whereas Bercot's film quickly lost focus, Jayasundara's film could be said to gain focus, especially in the second half. But as it becomes more thematically driven and unidirectional, the formal disorientation that I found maddening and kind of thrilling gave way not just to coherence but a very familiar trajectory. I'm fairly certain this isn't just a case of my learning how to make sense of the film over the course of watching it, because really it was like a very identifiable corner was rounded at the 70-minute mark. Before this point, The Forsaken Land struck me as discombobulated, with one shot seeming to deny any knowledge of the next, like strangers in an elevator. But as I watched more closely, it became apparent that Jayasundara was deliberately withholding traditional filmic coherence. One shot would be a left to right pan across the lansdscape; the next would be a still shot of a tree, with a slow zoom in; the next would be a close-up; etc. We were obviously receiving multiple views of the same space, but Jayasundara's procedures prevent the viewer from establishing exactly what this village looks like. We have no clear idea of where we are. (I wondered, actually, whether a second viewing might reveal The Forsaken Land to be a "compendium film," using every available filmic code but allowing none to dominate. David Bordwell has pointed out that Dreyer's Gertrud works like this, and the effect is similarly disorienting.) The objective contents of the image are rather familiar (a desolate, wartorn developing country) but their expected meaning was being defeated by form. Sadly, The Forsaken Land begins to establish not only spatial coherence, but a rote (though honorable) political thrust. Relationships between characters become deterministic, and this once-strange film conforms to the expectations of austere international humanism. It works reasonably well on those terms, but I can't help feeling as though something truly unique was domesticated.


Lapse Lose All (Kathryn MacKay / Alexi Manis, Canada) [v/s] [4]

A disappointingly straightforward film, Lapse Lose All depicts the high-speed unpainting of an interesting-looking collage work by MacKay. The soundtrack was comprised of semi-random party murmuring, although the credits indicate that a poem was read. I confess that I missed this. This is the sort of work one sees a lot of these days (cf. Frankly Caroline, Flip Film, Fast Film) that has less of a relationship to experimental film than to commercials, promulgating one single idea through a formal gimmick. This isn't as neo-structural as it may sound, since the result isn't phenomenological. It's a pre-digested concept. This sort of thing is contagious (cf. Instructions for a Light and Sound Machine), partly because it tends to yield its own brand of ghetto-success.


Ruby Skin (Eve Heller) [s] [7]

At first blush this is quite a bit different from the other Heller film I've seen, but on further reflection it does reveal certain affinities to last year's Behind This Soft Eclipse. Both films are primarily concerned with surface and texture, and in Ruby Skin Heller is exploring / exploiting the reddening of 16mm color films from the 60s and 70s. The film begins with a witty sound / image disjuncture. A training film shows a secretary typing away while we hear crashing piano chords. After this prelude, Heller gives us more industrial footage interspersed with science film material, all subject to metronomic editing disruptions. A jarring rhythmic hiccup is introduced into the original films, impeding our cognitive ability to see through to the image, throwing us back to the filmstrip itself. This decay, which eventually overtakes all unpreserved color film, becomes a lingua franca, allowing Heller to assimilate disparate material under a single formal aegis. Reminiscent of recent work by Julie Murray, Ruby Skin nevertheless clarifies Heller's unique preoccupations.


Shape Shift (Scott Stark) [v/s] [7]

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.


SSHTOORRTY (Michael Snow, Canada) [v/s] [7]

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.


The District! (Áron Gauder, Hungary) [5]

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.



9/14 -- Bloggy comment #4: A lot of young ladies in Toronto are wearing T-shirts with some extremely idiotic slogans on them. (E.g., "I'm no longer with Stupid." Are you sure, Miss?) Also, burnout's a bitch. Saw two, skipped three. Couldn't be helped.


Tideland (Terry Gilliam, U.K. / Canada) [6]

[SPOILERS] When you consider Gilliam's complaints about the Weinstein brothers' pervasive interference on the set of The Brothers Grimm (e.g., threatening to close down the production if Gilliam fitted Matt Damon with an ugly fake nose), Tideland practically begs to be read as a perversely anti-Hollywood gesture, a systematic flipping-off of the system Gilliam so resents.  One of its stars is dead by the end of the first reel, and the other one spends the majority of the running time playing a slumped corpse. And Gilliam found another use for his prosthetics; Janet McTeer is practically unrecognizable. Still, in the midst of these smart-ass maneuvers, Gilliam has fashioned the most sustained examination of female subjectivity in his entire career.  The film locks onto the mature but fantastical worldview of Jeliza Rose (Jodelle Ferland, in a stylized but preternaturally controlled performance) as she produces the adults she requires to raise her in her head.  Gilliam's protagonists have always been stranded in magical thinking, but never before has he given them such a thoroughly feminine framework for the exercise of the imagination.  Jeliza Rose's interactions with her severed doll heads, her beautification of her "vacationing" dad, and eventually her awakening desire, all serve to create a context in which the sinister or disturbing aspects of an unsupervised childhood become stolen moments of asserted selfhood.  Even when the film veers into forbidden sexuality (in a way, Jeliza Rose ends up having her own thwarted version of The Blue Lagoon, although Gilliam invests it with the appropriate psychological depth), Jeliza Rose maintains control. It is not remotely a victimization scenario.  Sadly, Gilliam can't restrain himself and injects the film with some needlessly literal leftovers from the Grimm playbook, including an outright wicked-witch and an amplification of the Freudian fear / desire of parental carnality.  It goes too far.  But the fact that some folks at TIFF were walking out or declaring it the worst film in years . . . well, I'm at a loss.  One final note: after so many overbearingly closed-off Gilliam films with their dark oppressive industrial-past-as-dystopian-future mise-en-scène, what a joy to see what the man can do with light and landscape.  The exteriors are stunning, and Gilliam manages to invest this found world with the same sense of wonder as those he builds from scratch.  It's a bit like a mash-up of Wild at Heart and The Straight Story, if you can even imagine . . .


Regular Lovers (Philippe Garrel, France) [9]

The rumors are true; Garrel's latest represents an artistic breakthrough for this most ornery of French cineastes. The films of his I've seen have always been grounded in autobiography and personal memory, and Regular Lovers is no different. However the loose framework of May '68 – not even the events as such, but the battle over their cultural legacy – has allowed Garrel to organize his impressionistic directorial style into a broad-swath symphony of sorts. In keeping with Garrel's style, the new film is still sprawling and agonized and latches onto the spectator with a forceful nowness that obviates easy explication or even coherent retrospection. But like a piece of classical music, Regular Lovers operates in textures and contrapuntal cadences. The first thing we see is a ten to fifteen minute passage of a nighttime battle on the barricades. A group of young people is held in long shot as they outflank the police, lobbing Molotovs and overturning cars. At the end of this sequence, Garrel inserts one of the only overtly metaphorical shots in this most materialist of films. We see young revolutionaries in the garb of the Ancien Regime peasantry, wheeling a stolen cannon into position.

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

9/15 -- Angry retort #2: Don't get huffy with me. Yes, you have the right to walk out of Philippe Garrel's masterpiece at the emotional pinnacle of this wrenching three-hour monument to lost dreams and misguided ambitions. But you don't have the right to disturb me when you do it. And I told you so to your prunish bourgeois face. Why doesn't Stephen J. Mavilla have anything to say about that, or slamming the door on your way out? Oh, speaking of Mavilla, I have just learned that he is a recent graduate of the Humber Institute for Weight Loss and Nutritional Fitness. Congratulations Stephen!



Gabrielle (Patrice Chéreau, France / Italy) [7]

[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.


Wassup Rockers (Larry Clark) [7]

[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.


The President's Last Bang (Im Sang-soo, South Korea) [7]

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.


Cold Showers (Douches froids) (Antony Cordier, France) [W/O] (0:35)

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.


Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (Park Chan-wook, South Korea) [3]

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.



Iron Island (Mohammad Rasoulof, Iran) [5]

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.


Fallen (Fred Y. Kelemen, Germany / Latvia) [4]

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.


Drawing Restraint 9 (Matthew Barney) [5]

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.


The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (Cristi Puiu, Romania) [5]

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.



The Wayward Cloud (Tsai Ming-liang, Taiwan) [7]

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.


Memories in the Mist (Buddhadeb Dasgupta, India) [5]

[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.