You got your hamaca paraguaya in my opera jawa. It's the
You got your hamaca paraguaya in my opera jawa. It's the
2006 TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL
All films from U.S.A. unless otherwise specified.
(- seen on video; [v] video piece; [s] short, under 30 minutes; [m] medium length, 30-69 min; * grade changed upon repeat viewing)
NOTE: Bypass the super-tedious preview essay and scoot down to the reviews by clicking here.
The Super-Tedious Preview Essay, or, Five Preliminary Bloggy Asides
1) When last we left our intrepid protagonist, he was so burned out that he could be heard swearing up and down Bloor Street that he'd never, ever do another whole TIFF. Inhuman, he said, trying to cram months of filmgoing into one No-Doz fueled 10-day blur. But a funny thing happened on the way to the Great White North. The family and I have moved from Ithaca back to Syracuse, which is great for the work commute, but sucks for movies. Plus, I find myself taking fewer chances on unknown or dubiously pedigreed films, since there's always something more pressing to do, and after a long day of whatever, it's tough to get my ass out of the apartment to see the crap playing locally. It's grim, folks. So in the final analysis, if I can't do five or more movies for ten days, what good am I? And considering all the films from 2005 I'm still waiting to catch up on (Heading South, Time to Leave, Workingman's Death [coming to Ithaca this weekend!]), more and more if I don't see it at TIFF, it just may not happen.
2) Scheduling was tough this year, mostly because, on paper at least, this year's line-up is all killer, no filler. Of course, some days are all jammed up, other days are sparse, but I find myself with practically nothing in my schedule that's simply plugging up a timeslot. I'd resolved to only see films I was genuinely interested in (a novel idea, huh?), but this didn't lighten my load any. And that's a good thing. Some films just didn't fit -- L'Intouchable, Invisible Waves, 12:08 East of Bucharest, Summer Palace, and Election 2 are only the toughest losses to bear. [Note: and, to make sure I get a good seat for the Tsai, I just dumped the Kore-eda. Hmph.] And, for the second year in a row, circumstance finds me skipping this year's Palme d'Or winner. But, um, would you lose too much respect for me if I admitted that I wasn't all that torn up about it?
3) Maybe I'm over-interpreting, but it strikes me as telling that the press release announcing TIFF 06's inclusion of Hong Sang-soo's Woman on the Beach began with the words, "Korea's most critically-acclaimed director." Could the festival brass be calling someone out for snubbing Tale of Cinema last year, an oversight that can only be described as a big honking embarrassment? Every year there are films whose failure to make it into TIFF hits me where I live, and this year is no exception. I suspect Wang Chao opted to hold Luxury Car back for Tony Rayns and the Vancouver IFF. [UPDATE: Nope! Turns out the film's a no-show at VIFF. Let's just say that neither the programmers nor Wang himself had much say in this.] The lack of Otar Iosseliani's Gardens of Autumn is a bummer, especially considering how thin this year's Masters section is. Perhaps most surprising is the fact that David Lynch's Inland Empire will be going straight from Venice to the NYFF with no Canadian stopover. But still, as I said to some of my film-buff friends, who can honestly look at this year's schedule and lodge any serious complaint? Let's face it: awesomeness abounds.
4) All we heard from this year's Cannes was how mediocre the Competition slate was. (Remember Film Comment's cover tagline? "World Cinema Lays an Egg.") But hey, check it out: 13 out of 20 Comp titles are at TIFF, up a bit from 10 out of 21 last year. If there were no flat-out masterpieces, it seems like there was a lot of solid work from reliable auteurs. What's interesting is that aside from Paolo Sorrentino's highly divisive The Family Friend (I know nothing about the guy), it was the big budget American films and the French industry product that got the heave-ho from TIFF. Granted, it was always a big if whether Richard Kelly's Southland Tales, geeky, garrulous punching bag that it was, would actually summon the courage to show up to the prom. (And now apparently Sony wants to shave an hour off its running time. Ouch.) But who really expected that Fast Food Nation and Marie-Antoinette wouldn't be Galas? Granted, the Sofia Coppola film will face a different kind of scrutiny at NYFF (fewer films, but also fewer international journos), but one wonders whether the studio divisions responsible for these films, films which at best garnered mixed response at Cannes, decided to skip another high-profile tango with the press. With all the garment-rending think-pieces about studios' increasing arrogance, bypassing the critics altogether, maybe this festival-phobia is a less obvious node in the same sad network.
5) I will only be seeing two (entire) Wavelengths programs this year. (Depending on how tight my schedule is, and how adept I am at hustling from venue to venue, I may duck into W3 to see the Lawrence Jordan.) On principle, I do hate to be less than completely engaged with the series, since despite my generalist cinephilia, the avant-garde is my first love, my bread and butter, the salt in my stew, etc. But while I'm sure there will be notable discoveries that I'll hear about and regret not experiencing first-hand, the competition for slots in my schedule is too fierce, and something had to give. That's all I can really say about it at the present, but I do wish the new curatorial duo success in filling Susan Oxtoby's estimable shoes. She's a tough act to follow, and I look forward to seeing the new team strike out in exciting new directions, while remaining mindful of the vital ongoing contributions of those avant-garde masters Oxtoby championed so consistently.
And now, as Casey Kasem would say, on with the countdown, and enough with these bloggy asides that don't mean diddly shit.
seen prior to the festival
-Abeni (Tunde Kelani, Nigeria / Benin) [v] 
See review here.
-Election (Johnnie To, Hong Kong) 
See review here.
In Between Days (So Yong Kim, U.S. / Canada / South Korea) [v] 
See review here.
-The Top of His Head (Peter Mettler, Canada, 1989)
Since Mettler is the recipient of this year's retrospective at TIFF, I thought I'd take the opportunity to watch the one film of his I've had in the video cabinet for years. The Top of His Head is a rather wobbly introduction to the man's work, an echt-Canadian selection in that it's little more than a stylistic and thematic puree of early Cronenberg and early Egoyan. The plot, best as I can figure, has a satellite dish salesman extending his brief dalliance with a guerrilla performance artist in his imagination. The air is thick with paranoia and dread, to say nothing of the alienating effects of modern telecommunications. The penultimate scene, one of the worst conclusions in recent memory, strives for haunting ambiguity but instead provides laughably tedious art-film nonsense, an escape from a police interrogation room leading to a backstreet Cirque du Soleil knockoff. On the bright side, Mettler is an impressive cinematographer, editor, and sound designer, clearly steeped in avant-garde aesthetics. He's a true spatial-imagist, etching both the chilly isolation of suburbia's liminal zones and (perhaps more impressively) bringing out the constructivist potential in natural spaces such as forests and beaches. So, as far as TIFF goes, I certainly can't write Mettler off, but if I have the time to delve further into his filmography, it'll most likely be with a documentary, such as the highly-regarded Gambling, Gods, and LSD.
-When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (Spike Lee) [v] 
See review here.
Also, among the oldies being screened, I've seen Lipsett's Very Nice, Very Nice [it is, although I still need to see it again since I feel like aspects of it went over my head on a single viewing]; Kassovitz's La Haine [I've never understood the love for this film; it's skillful and diverting enough but also rather overbearing in its coolness]; Haynes' Velvet Goldmine [hands-down my least favorite Haynes film, although charming in its own way, like watching your geeky intellectual friend suddenly trying on fancy clothes and a new hairstyle and it doesn't feel right but you're not sure exactly why; hope this isn't the template for the Dylan film]; and pretty much all the McLaren films [he was easily at his best when he allowed rhythmic abstraction to reign; sacrilege though it may be, some of his more pointed classics, especially Neighbours, can be cloying in a faux-naïf sort of way; Jim Henson, obviously influenced by McLaren, actually improved on his forebear's work by making it explicitly, you know, for kids; also Pas de Deux is the only film I know of that's directly influenced by the motion studies of Étienne-Jules Marey, which is worth something in itself; flat-out masterpieces: Blinkity Blank and Begone Dull Care].
9/7 -- No festival action, just a travel day topped off with Idiocracy. I will say, the train is pleasant even though it was nearly two hours late getting into Toronto. Still, I enjoyed looking out at some Southern Ontario backwater towns. Also, for you budding contrabandiers, rail Customs is the way to go. Like, zero inspection.
9/8 -- I'm having some laptop trouble, so let's just see how far we can get without major web disaster (or an impromptu switch to blogging). Also, good tiffing job keeping the festival trailer down to a lean, mean nine seconds. I guess the universal outcry about Barry Avrich's hand-dance wankery got someone to take notice. Also, did you know that B. Ruby Rich wears sunglasses that say "RICH" on the side? When a pass on a lanyard just won't do . . .
Big Bang Love, Juvenile A (Takashi Miike, Japan) 
This is a visually startling film, often reduced to some breathtaking, minimalist images and a pervasive sense of dread. But at other points Miike seems to want to follow through on its police-procedural trappings. The result is an internal battle between pure abstraction and conventional narrative clarity, which I suppose makes sense coming from a man who can make both Izo and One Missed Call. Apart from its hazy videography -- sometimes evocative in its sharp, bleeding hues but at other times merely indistinct -- BBL works with repetition and ritualized gesture in order to make its basic plot (an ambiguous prison love story) into something properly mythic. In fact, more than anything here, Miike seems to be engaging with the great works of Oshima. BBL not only employs Oshimaesque distancing techniques (especially the replacement of spoken dialogue), but delves into one of the his major problematics -- the channeling of homoeroticism into violence. Powerful stuff while it remains elusive, but a little under-thought when its metaphors are brought to the surface. (The pyramid vs. rocket ship material is particularly overt.) Anyway, I can scarcely claim to have kept up with Miike's output, but this is certainly the finest work of his that I've seen since Audition. And it's far more ambitious to boot. [Addendum: My apologies; Mike D'Angelo has pointed out that Variety confirms Miike's use of Super-16 on this picture. I am really starting to have my doubts about my eye for these things.]
Lights in the Dusk (Aki Kaurimäki, Finland / Germany / France) 
Masters on Autopilot, Part 1: Frustratingly, almost deliberately minor material from Aki K., Lights feels padded out even at 80-sum-odd minutes. It's possible that the title means to cue us to the prominence of formal over narrative concerns, and if so this would probably allow for a more generous and fully-engaged reaction. The mark of a master, I suppose, is the ability to operate almost effortlessly with the medium, and Kaurismäki certainly does just that. His interstitial footage of Helsinki's industrial ports and highrise penthouse districts is ravishing, in its own odd, downbeat, humbly composed fashion. As a cityscape film, Lights has significant virtue. Could this be why the plot itself is so negligible? Rather deterministic from the get-go, and not in a particularly compelling or philosophically searching way. Instead, it's a second-hand noir riff that recalls mid-period Hal Hartley but without the emotional stakes. There are notable bits of humor, and any time spent in A.K.'s company, to my mind, can never be considered wasted. But ultimately this feels rather rote, even empty. (On reflection, however, I did fondly recall the multi-stage tracking shots, locking into place, holding, then going mobile again. Kaurismäki makes stuff like that look so easy, which is why I'm voting 'mixed,' despite my irritation.)
Climates (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey / France) 
Recent world cinema (not to mention your average American sitcom) is chock-full of inept, ineffectual men. (Hong Sang-soo is the reigning champion of this domain.) So it comes as something of a shock to find Ceylan delving into the problem of male over-effectuality in the form of unbridled patriarchal prerogative. Utterly blistering in its (self-?) excoriation of a cruel, even violent asshole, Climates harks back to an earlier moment in art cinema, especially the Italians -- the Rossellini of Voyage to Italy, the Antonioni of L'Avventura. In the midst of an architectural ruin, we begin to observe the dissolution not only of a relationship, but of a man's capability to relate to the human race as anything more than standing-reserve, as Heidegger put it. But what's even more frightening, to the very last, is the manner in which the women in his life seem to have internalized his abuse, as if being emotionally and even physically battered is somehow what one deserves for letting him in in the first place. I confess to being deeply moved by Climates in part because I saw reflected a familiar portrait, sides of myself in my worst, weakest moments that I would prefer to disavow. Ceylan's film -- a considerable step forward from the overly-mannered Distant -- refused to let me look away. Also, the film's use of deep space represents a giant leap for digital video. The shallow space of the final tryst, on the other hand, is ravishing, and could easily be excerpted as an avant-garde film in itself.
Brand Upon the Brain! (Guy Maddin, Canada / U.S.) [p/v] 
Masters on Autopilot, Part 2: I'll be honest. I'm still pulling for Guy Maddin, and I'm quite confident that he's still got some truly visionary work ahead of him. And I really don't want to sound like one of those types who hates it when his favorite band garners some MTV rotation, privileging the early work as some sort of badge of honor. Having said all that, Maddin's spinning his wheels here. Partly this is by design, since by all accounts Brand was just a short-film project that grew. The problem isn't so much that the project lacks the seriousness of The Saddest Music in the World or Careful. It's that Maddin seems to be devolving into cheap postmodern comedy of the worst sort, treating grand 19th and 20th century topics as sly in-jokes for a public that no longer has any faith in them. Why should Freudianism, in itself, be instant fodder for sniggering? Are incest or lesbianism really that funny, beyond the third grade? Similarly, Maddin's films used to treat the dead languages of early cinema with a kind of reverence, as though we'd hurtled forward too quickly, failing to adequately explore the emotional and sensory charge of Expressionist visuals, or the elevated diction of Dickens and Bronte. Now, he seems content to trot them out as creative anachronisms, comic simply because they're "old." Everything degenerates, I suppose, but Maddin's finest achievements (as well as his public statements) make it clear that his gestures, however playful or ironic, are grounded in a heartfelt, whizbang sincerity, which makes it all the more frustrating to find him coasting and, as a result, garnering cheap laughs that are, frankly, beneath him. Come back, Guy! I'll be awaiting your return, high in the Proustian lighthouse of your memories.
Chronicle of an Escape (Israel Adrián Caetano, Argentina) 
In an era when everything from the Iranian Revolution to the life of Pope John Paul II can receive comic book treatment, there's nothing surprising about Caetano's approach, which is essentially to film a fragment of the Argentine junta's reign of terror in garish comic book style, all canted angles, heavily foregrounded faces dappled in sweat, and a 70s mise-en-scène fixated on tacky wallpaper patterns and anachronistic facial hair. This is the visual shorthand that communicates with absolute immediacy but implicitly militates against depth, throwing the viewer again and again into a cordoned-off past whose violence, now that it's over, can be safely enjoyed, even fetishized. Note Caetano's insistence on the low-angle shots of the tormentors, a grammar that places the spectator in the position of the victimized. And, since unlike the prisoners themselves, we have elected to spend our time subjecting ourselves to this abuse, the proceedings take on the character of S/M roleplay. Make no mistake: I'm not claiming that the only ethical way to make a film about the abuses of the Argentine military state is to forego narrative convention. A stodgier approach might've at least been edifying. (Cf. Indigènes.) But by processing the past through the canned ominousness of your average C.S.I. episode, Caetano turns his historical excavation away from the realm of testimony and into the sad psychological space of Stockholm Syndrome. And no amount of knotted blankets will permit us to shinny out of that window.
The Host (Bong Joon-ho, South Korea) 
I admired many aspects of Bong's previous film, Memories of Murder, but I stopped well short of loving it. It was obvious that Bong was a skilled directorial surgeon of the Hitchcock / Kubrick variety, chilly, ruthless, and fat-free. But that damned Korean tonal inconsistency just got to me. Why should such an unrelentingly grim police procedural be "leavened" with stupid cop humor? But now, oh boy does Bong get the balance right. Instead of taking a serious project and lowering it, he's taken a goofy, utterly disreputable genre (the monster movie) and elevated it with moments of familial strife, genuine loss, and eventually [SPOILER but I mean come on] a sense of human triumph. Song Kang-ho is spot-on as a doofus pressed into service by incomprehensible circumstance. To Song's credit, he manages to let the character of Gang-du transform without ever exactly getting wise. Instead, he becomes a fully functioning component of the family unit without much thinking; it's called rising to the occasion. And in fact, that's what Bong does as a writer-director. He becomes the very conductor of the monster-movie ethos, transmitting it effortlessly as though it were an inevitable part of all our DNA and all he had to do was gently tap on our pressure-points. Any serious student of pop cinema owes it to him/herself not only to see The Host, but to absorb it through the pores. Also, Bong is wise to resist concrete allegorical resonances, but let's hear it for a giant mutant tadpole movie that finds the time to acknowledge that the Kwangju massacre happened. Honestly, name any populist U.S. director who would make one of his protagonists a student protester whose Molotov-chunking skills would be vital to the survival of the human race? (Okay, besides Joe Dante.)
9/9 -- No bloggy asides, apart from noting that the Al Green seats offer what's probably the least comfortable back support this side of the ROM. Also, the $30 TTC week-long pass, why didn't I think of that years ago?
Bamako (Abderrahmane Sissako, France / Mali / U.S.) 
I expected I wouldn't think much of this film at all. In fact, I figured that all the aspects of Sissako's previous films I'd found so engaging -- his patient observation of village life, the unforced tapestry of Malian culture in action -- would be sunk by, or worse, pressed into service for Bamako's political agenda. The shock isn't so much that Sissako goes in a different direction than what I'd anticipated. In fact, he does exactly that. It's the stunning level of skill and passion with which he accomplishes his task that, frankly, floored me. I doubt I'll see a better film all year. In a way, we could think of this as Sissako's I'm Going Home. Like Oliveira, Sissako is consciously retaining most aspects of his signature style, but deliberately placing them in a more accessible context, reaching out without leaving his old admirers behind. How could a series of African citizens denouncing the WTO and the G8 for economic neo-colonialism actually be cinematic? The very assignment seems insoluble and yet Sissako employs his signature style as a formal container, demonstrating through poetical means precisely what is at stake in the African question -- nothing short of life itself. And the film's achievement is not merely a thematic one. Sissako's rhythmic editing schemes always start from the trial and gradually outward, cubistically, to place every aspect of village life, including explicit politics, into harmony with every other aspect. Brecht couldn't improve on this, and whereas a fine film like Moolaadé opts for explicit demonstration and eventually even uplift, Sissako wisely lets the jury remain out. (It's our job to provide the verdict.) If there is one major flaw in Bamako, it's that Sissako's funereal coda is too deterministic, giving the game away after it's already been so resoundingly won. The true final image, one for the ages, finds the electric fan that's been oscillating in the background throughout the trial silently returned to its rightful owner. She's the future, and Sissako asks us in this late scene to consider what she, and Africa, have borrowed, what we have lent, and their utter incommensurability. A near-masterpiece. (Addendum: in my bleary-eyed haste, I failed to mention that Bamako's sound design is nothing short of miraculous. The trial, and other ambient elements of day-to-day activity, move in and out of the foreground, providing a sense of place that is palpable as well as frequently comic. Listen for the squeaky shoes.)
Manufactured Landscapes (Jennifer Baichwal, Canada) 
Baichwal and cinematographer Peter Mettler deliver a tight, visually acute documentary that operates as a dialogue with the photography of Canadian artist Edward Burtynsky. I had never heard of Burtynsky, but his large-scale images of toxic recycling dumps, Chinese mega-factories and overcrowded urban Shanghai are notable re-inventions of the landscape tradition. The artist could be likened to Andreas Gursky, but without the digital manipulation, or Sabastião Salgado without the irksome fetish his portraiture makes of the working people of the developing world. In its construction, Manufactured Landscapes owes much to structural film, documenting both the constitution of Burtynsky's imagescapes and their documentation in cinematic time. As with most such artist documentaries, Landscapes eventually wears out its welcome as it has little else to reveal by the final half-hour. But perhaps its most useful and informative aspect is the way it shows Burtynsky demurring at politics and embracing the Kantian aesthetic when it suits his purposes -- i.e., when Chinese capitalists object to his depiction of what they do and how they do it. In these cases, beauty becomes a potent weapon.
Indigènes [Days of Glory] (Rachid Bouchareb, France / Morocco / Algeria / Belgium) 
Conventional, yes. Bound in the thick rhino-hide of genre, absolutely. And yet, Bouchareb can be forgiven on two counts. One, he is using cinema not only as a social-justice pulpit but as a kind of time machine, making exactly the kind of film that would have been made about the Arab battalions back when it should have been made. Not only did France forget these heroes; classical Hollywood and the golden ages of Gaumont and Pathé forgot them as well. (And naturally, Bouchareb's decision to tell this story, in this utterly familiar manner, is a calculated political intervention into the present. Duh.) But the other virtue of Indigènes is that is a skillful, compulsively entertaining war picture, made by a consummate craftsman. Why are we demanding more? (Who'll demand more from Clint Eastwood, when Flags of Our Fathers uses the exact same conventions to tell a story everybody knows, and one that flatters the Allied forces at our present less-than-heroic juncture?) The coda admittedly, is quite unnecessary, but Mike D'Angelo correctly countered my objection by noting, "Those kinds of movies do that." Yes, they certainly do.
Woman on the Beach (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea) 
Somebody back me up on this: beneath the surface of Hong's (allegedly) most accessible comedy of manners, there's a total weirdness thrumming throughout. Maybe I'm just thrown off a bit because Hong's last film, Tale of Cinema, represented an undeniably bizarre set of formal procedures fairly thrust in the viewers' faces as though Hong were grabbing us by the face with both hands. Some see Woman as a turn in a different, more straightforward direction. (Victor Morton, no slouch on the interpretive front, saw this is a clever riff on directorial self-reflexiveness and male foibles, with some structural doubling thrown in -- Hong's 8 1/2 with a dash of Vertigo.) But what I'm seeing (and what I'd really need a second or third viewing to make sure I see) is the tactless, almost autistic bluntness that was Tale of Cinema's productive irritant becoming the dominant rule of law in Woman's world. Yes, there is a light, breezy structure of coupling / uncoupling and Rohmerian MENsonges. But in the first half-hour, our mismatched threesome are speaking truth to the detriment of any recognizable social fabric, until eventually poor Chanwook is sidelined, Joonrae and Moonsook free to form a sort of alternative sex community based on candor. This, of course, eventually doubles and doubles back into repetition, empty gesture, and brazen deception, but all of this is mostly legible by watching the action unfold. If, instead, you try listen to anyone talk about what they're doing, Woman borders on aphasic cinema. Are Moonsook and, eventually, Sun-hee, speaking an allusive, vaguely figurative language of desire? Or does the film simply stop making sense at the point when, narratively, its trajectory could scarcely seem clearer? I enjoyed this picture, frequently found it hysterically funny, but I also feel like I don't get it. To me, it's like Hong starts going all Richard Foreman and no one else seems to have even noticed. Have I gone insane, etc.
9/10 -- Today was the day I took some leaps into the void, and found a fair amount of void. Still, Malaysian films named after Tom Waits albums are always worth discovering, and TIFF's the place to do it.
Rain Dogs (Ho Yuhang, Malaysia) 
[MILD SPOILERS] The first half-hour was a frustrating bumpkin-in-the-city riff of the sort we've all seen umpteen times. After Tung (the stoic Kuan Choon Wai) returns home following a tragedy about which everyone but he got the telegraph, we finally get the title card ("It isn't just for Thai films anymore!") and the film opens up considerably. Tung is such a reactive non-entity that once Rain Dogs starts bouncing other, more lively characters off of him, Ho finds an easy, observational groove, not unlike a junior Yi Yi. Plus, the videography, tight but tentative in the opening segment, eventually becomes confident and continually striking. (A bluish night shot of kids lighting fireworks on a railway platform is sure to be one of the key images I'll take home from the festival.) Ho's articulation of domestic space is a particular joy. It more evaporates than ends, but not before having generated significant goodwill. One could certainly argue that this is the type of "minor" film the Hubert Bals Fund frequently underwrites, and yet it clearly displays a developing talent. Ho is someone to keep an eye on. [Sidenote addendum to Dan Sallitt: I did like it. Sort of.]
Kinshasa Palace (Zeka Laplaine, Democratic Republic of the Congo / France) [v] 
Garden-variety first-person diary piece; the disappearance of Laplaine's kid brother becomes the opportunity for some family skeleton-rattling, mostly tied to tough parental decisions in the face of Lumumba-era unrest. Serviceable but never compelling, even though the Mexican side of my family shared certain traits with Laplaine's. A few lovely images but mostly PBS.
Opera Jawa (Garin Nugroho, Indonesia / Austria) [W/O] (0:32)
The first walkout of the fest is always the hardest, and honestly it should have been the previous film. Nugroho is to be given some credit for taking the Mozart assignment to heart far more than it sounds like his New Crowned Hope compatriots have done. Still, there's very little here beyond exotic eye candy if you don't have a deep abiding interest and even some background in Javanese folklore. (For what it's worth, I saw little of the trancelike intensity that so captivated Artaud and Brecht; mostly it was just, "you should dance again, because I cannot be a musician forever," etc.) Gamelan and on and on . . . (Addendum: the latest issue of Cinema Scope features a close-up on the New Crowned Hope films by Christoph Huber. He thinks very highly of the Nugroho, and I think very highly of Christoph, so I may have dismissed Opera Jawa too hastily.)
Schuss! (Nicolas Rey, France) 
Peaked early and went downhill fast! (rimshot): So what we have here is the content one might find in a Harun Farocki documentary sort of blended with the poetic repetition of images I'd associate most closely with a film like Jack Chambers' The Hart of London. It doesn't entirely work, since both approaches cancel each other out. I'd been led by the program guide to expect an ostensible film about skiing that digresses in quirky, essay-film kinds of ways. But Philip Lopate won't find his centaur here. It's largely concerned with skiing, and the digression pertains only to the history of aluminum and its place in the postwar economy. Farocki would've taken this issue (which involves Nazi slave labor) and hit it out of the park, but Rey remains firmly on the surface. Meanwhile, his image bank -- 9 1/2mm amateur ski footage, a family vacation documented in early color film -- is too unvaried, and the repetitions reveal little about the footage other than Rey's joy in manipulating it. There's a vague feel akin to that of Larry Gottheim's films, but his circular patterns widen the scope of the material. Michele Smith also came to mind, but she's far more obsessive about her pictures, fussing over them like pen sketches beside the telephone during a particularly tense conversation. Rey actually seems to want to communicate on two levels (or more?) at once, and gets in his own way far too often.
9/11 -- A rather light day, capped off by a masterpiece. No complaints. Also, Best Director's Intro so far goes to Joachim Trier: "In Norwegian, 'tiff' is a slang term meaning a girl you only sleep with if you're really drunk."
Reprise (Joachim Trier, Norway) 
Dig, if you will, a picture. The sensibility of Cuarón's Y tu mama tambien (verbalizing the characters' private mindscape; spinning off into the future ramifications of various small moments) is brought to bear on the youthful European-intellectual milieu of, say, Desplechin's My Sex Life (creativity's collision with ambition for its own sake; competitive male posturing in the academic or para-academic realm). Sounds great, so far, yes? Well, throw in the hip stylistic shallowness and dick-joke laddishness of Guy Ritchie. See the problem? However, to be fair, part of what's interesting about Reprise formally and thematically is that it represents a locked-horns battle between lyricism and laddishness. Young writers Erik (Espen Klouman Høiner, the stronger of the two leads) and Phillip (Anders Danielsen Lie) hover between the Oslo intelligentsia and the dudes they grew up with, a post-punk klatch loath to take very much all that seriously. Erik is the more sensitive, semi-primitive author, whereas Phillip enjoys more of a command of form, as well as possessing the basic shmoozing capability Erik mostly lacks. Trier takes their creative and romantic struggles seriously but on some level feels as if he shouldn't, undercutting them with needless hipster trickery. As a debut feature, Reprise is quite impressive, but there's an overriding sense that it perceives the often-smug gamesmanship around ideas as being more compelling than the ideas themselves. A conditional-tense coda, in particular, feels like an attempted shortcut to gravitas, and mostly feels like a Hail Mary. Laddishness wins, but genuine emotional danger goes down swinging.
Transylvania (Tony Gatlif, France) [W/O] (0:35)
This was a total slot-filler. I hate the films of Tony Gatlif, a self-exoticizing ethno-hack who, to my eyes, couldn't direct his way out of a paper bag. As with the other features of his I've seen, Transylvania is content to let the raucous pageantry of Romany culture do his heavy lifting, while "shape" is given to the film by resorting to instantly recognizable narrative clichés. Nevertheless, he has found a pair of sumptuous muses in Asia Argento and Amira Casar. This is clearly a bad film, but these actresses' pure sex appeal (which Gatlif is mining for maximum effect) threatens to make it a compulsively watchable bad film. Had I not been concerned with securing a ticket for Still Life (just added today), I could've hung in there, drinking it all in, sensually, even pruriently.
Fay Grim (Hal Hartley, U.S. / Germany) [v] 
Not exactly the complete return to form Hartleyites had been hoping for, Fay Grim does hark back to the visual style and meta-performance approach found in the features up to Henry Fool. The new sequel is Hartley's most confident effort in quite some time, and is certain to be his commercial comeback. As it happens, however, this confidence comes at a cost. There is very little at stake in Fay Grim, which isn't to say it fails as an entertainment. Hartley's recent work, especially The Girl From Monday, found the filmmaker lurching in new intellectual directions but struggling to find narrative forms adequate to their ambition. The sculpted quality of Hartley's best dialogue began sounding like clumsy sociopolitical declamation. Here, there is a surfeit of ostensibly political material (most every American foreign-policy adventure since the Reagan era is namechecked) but the very excess of international-espionage signification (to say nothing of the fast-paced, almost screwball delivery -- Hartley as a comic Mamet) results in no element bearing much weight. This is all the more frustrating since Fay Grim comes out of the gate seeming to serve as a political counterpart to Henry Fool's aesthetics. What's more, Hartley's recent efforts have distinguished themselves by their concern with the specific formal properties of digital video. Fay Grim, apart from a few freeze-frame interludes, looks exactly like the early features. Then again, Hartley's camera is at a canted angle in every single shot, alternating between left and right tilts. While there is no clear reason for this, it certainly doesn't detract from the film. Make no mistake: overall, Fay Grim is a highly effective comedy. It is anchored by a strong performance from Parker Posey, her flustered exasperation channeled into pitch-perfect comic timing. The rest of the cast acquits itself quite nicely as well, particularly Jeff Goldblum who easily integrates himself into the Hartley universe. But Hartley has attained this success by returning to well-worn formal territory and foregoing the emotional depth characteristic of his finest work. In short, shallow, effortless fun, and it's still a pleasure to have Hartley back on the map.
Circa 1960 (Chris Curreri, Canada) [s] 
Apparently a one-off cinematic work from Curreri, primarily a still photographer, Circa 1960 demonstrates its maker's facility with the language of minimalist avant-garde practice and is quite rewarding in its simplicity. A single shot of a photographic image (of sorts) of a hilly landscape, Circa 1960 uses pinhole points of light to suggest the hint of a natural form. Curreri rotates a single light source around the filmed object, just as Hollis Frampton did in his film Lemon, so that what we're seeing is the subtle evolution of light around the image. But the Lite-Brite factor ("making things with light") also recalls the pinboard animations of Alexieff and Parker. A strong, simple, confident film.
The Zone of Total Eclipse (Mika Taanila, Finland) [s] 
For this 16mm double projection, Taanila uses found footage of a failed scientific experiment whereby cinema was to be used as a tool for measuring distances during an eclipse. The two rolls are positive and negative to one another, and if you have a dual projection of an eclipse, there are a few obvious things to do with said footage, and Taanila does them. The overlap does on occasion produce unique, bleeding forms and subtle interpenetrations that recall the best of recent Austrian experimental cinema. Zone offers up several moments of sensual engagement, but overall the work felt somewhat undistinguished, covering ground already trod in superior works by Paul Sharits and Luis Recoder.
Silk Ties (Jim Jennings) [s] 
Jennings' latest is a dense chiaroscuro NYC citysong, although rhythmically Silk Ties finds the filmmaker mining new possibilities. Whereas Miracle on 34th Street and Painting the Town are true camera-stylo films, using the gestural qualities of handheld 16mm with utmost grace and fluidity, Silk Ties uses staccato (in-camera?) editing to lend his images a jaggedness that (as Lee Walker mentioned afterward) recalls abstract animation. Street scenes, thick and dark and shot with the f-stop way down low, alternate with shots of skyscrapers and the negative-space sky between them. The jumps in editing seem to make the buildings dance, and create little jumps in the life of the streets, strangely enough lending this activity a kind of stately poise rather than heightening its implicit kinetics. But in addition to the paradoxes of stillness and movement, Jennings constructs a kind of disjuncture between past and present. Certain aspects of Silk Ties, especially the architectural compositions, recall the classic city-symphonies of the 1920s and 30s, especially Manhatta. Furthermore, the exaggerated darkness of much of the film gives it a distant quality, like something excavated from another time and place. But Jennings' image selection forces the viewer's consciousness back into the present. A perfectly "timeless" New York scene is sent forward to the present by, say, a Taco Bell Express sign, or (more pointedly) the predominance of African-Americans in the film. The cultural makeup of New York is much different than it was 70 or 80 years ago, but Silk Ties' representational approach lends today's Manhattan the historical inevitability, and the grandeur, we associate with images of earlier times. In short, Jennings has made a film that can be regarded as a document of who and how we were, right now.
Seascape # 1 Night, China Shenzhen 05 (Olivo Barbieri, Italy) [v/s] 
This is a shift away from the miniaturized cityscape pieces that garnered still-photographer Barbieri attention as a filmmaker, and although I've had my doubts about the film in that series which I've seen, the new work (shot in black-and-white video) doesn't look like a very promising direction. Comprised of smeary step-printed shots of nightswimmers enjoying the beach, Seascape #1's major formal divergence from straight documentation (apart from the slowing down) is the use of filters to render the available light ambiguous and searingly high-key. Figures in the landscape glow hot-white against the ocean and the sky, and Barbieri maintains a mid-ground focus that turns nearby subjects into abstract blurs. And that's really all this video does. This piece dovetails with many other artists' explorations with the properties of video (cf. Leighton Pierce, or even Hal Hartley) without really elaborating on those techniques, so ultimately Seascape #1 feels like an only slightly experimental ethnographic-observational short.
Song and Solitude (Nathaniel Dorsky) [s] 
Without a doubt, Dorsky has produced his best and most visually enthralling film since Variations, the masterpiece that placed him at the forefront of avant-garde cinema. Song and Solitude is instantly recognizable as a Dorsky film, however it marks a new direction, away from the present-tense, anti-associational montage work he began with Triste and Variations. Although I have yet to see Dorsky's previous film Threnody, Song is jarring in that Dorsky is engaging in a new, thoroughgoing level of visual abstraction. Instead of clearly depicting isolated elements of the everyday world, and asking his viewer to encounter them as pure form through their rhythmic juxtaposition, Dorsky is here entering a nearly exclusive realm of light and color, using modulated focus and spatial density to produce concrete images of the sort the naked eye can typically register only fleetingly. In this regard, Song and Solitude resembles Brakhage's Arabic Numeral Series, although the dazzling, variegated palette of yellows, greens, and burnt oranges is unique to Dorsky's vision. (Small moments, however, did call other makers to mind; there is a flat, plasticky green sequence that recalls Lewis Klahr, and one shot of tactile red-and-gold light was reminiscent of Hou Hsiao-hsien.) Song and Solitude, according to the program notes, was made for a friend of Dorsky's in the final year of her life, and although I lack the basic information to adequately divine the specific circumstances of her death, I must say that the film struck me deeply as a visual poem on the temporality of terminal illness. That sounds maudlin, I fear, so let me be specific. One always hears, and knows to be true if you have been with someone at the end of their life, that there are "good days and bad days." The hovering degrees of abstraction in Song and Solitude, its tendency to pull back into pure disintegration of the visual field, then move back into semi-distinct images and forms, put me in the state of experiencing the pain, but also the beauty, of the world coming close and slipping away. This is, without question, one of the most beautiful films I have ever seen, not at all a rage but rather a whisper against the dying of the light.
9/12 -- Sorry to have fallen behind on the writing; yesterday was a 6-film day. Hope to catch up Wed. afternoon. Also, good job Venice. And thank you, thank you to Mr. Shelly Kraicer for what sound to me like heroic efforts on behalf of the stellar new Jia.
Summer '04 (Stefan Krohmer, Germany) 
In tone and sensibility, Summer '04 is a little like the loose-limbed, nearly Dogme-style version of a Michael Haneke family-breakdown film. True, this sounds like a contradiction in terms and to an extent it is; Krohmer allows his actors and script to occupy the foreground. The film details, with surgical precision, the chilly results of a haute-bourgeois family's ill-advised sailing vacation. All internecine fighting, slurs muttered under the breath, and the barely-suppressed struggle to live with other human beings, Summer '04 resembles Claude Chabrol without need of Hitchcockian power moves. Ironically, this willingness to keep out of the way allows him to display far more compassion for his characters at the same time as he destroys their fragile detente. Add to the mix "Bill" (Robert Seelinger), a stranger too naively blunt to understand that hitting on the son's 12-year-old girlfriend Livia (Svea Lohde, quite the composed young actress) is, you know, creepy. The film belongs to Martina Gedrick, one of Germany's leading actresses who invests her character with a rather tentative middle-aged lust without ever making it look desperate or false. (Her Miriam is the type of hot-to-trot soccer mom whose pert nipples are always poking out through her Gap tanktop, carrying herself with downcast modesty as if she didn't want you to notice.) The film ends with a rather implausible coda, implying that the least likely character (or maybe second-least, after husband Andre) was conducting everyone's affairs all along. Are we to take this at face value? Or is it a pubescent fantasy that retroactively assuages guilt, since everything was apparently decided long ago?
Offside (Jafar Panahi, Iran) 
Or, Judith Butler Goes to Tehran: While certainly not as formally audacious as his last film, Crimson Gold, Panahi's latest continues the director's winning streak. He displays one of the deftest hands in cinema when it comes to making protest films, and this is all the more impressive when one considers how far he's come in this area. 2000's The Circle contained notable passages of beauty and intensity, but by and large that film was an overdetermined broadside meant to grapple with the oppression of Iranian women in direct yet sprawling terms. Almost in answer to The Circle's admirable but self-diluting generalities, Offside focuses on one problem in one place and time. Women aren't allowed to go watch football matches in stadiums, and although the official reason is Islamic decorum ("women might hear men using swear words," the halfhearted official explanation goes), Offside makes it clear that the law mainly serves to keep women in the home and give men yet another space to let it all hang out, away from their wives' and mothers' eyes. Offside is a relatively simple film, using an actual live football match as its set and as such allowing Panahi a bit of gonzo realism amidst his usual control. And, as with Crimson Gold, Panahi humanizes the functionaries of the Islamic Republic, showing that they too are hamstrung by laws they consider silly but are compelled to enforce. But Offside has a deep political value quite apart from its surface target, the stadium laws. Operating from a premise drawn from real life -- young female soccer fans dress as men in order to sneak into the games -- Panahi subtly demonstrates a kind of Foucaultian truism about desire and repression. Some of the women in the holding pen are conventionally feminine underneath their men's clothing, but others are androgynous and one of the women is downright butch. Although no one can address this directly, least of all the stadium cops, it seems clear that designating certain potentially co-ed activities as exclusively male potentially has the unintended consequence of making women who want to participate in those behaviors "unwomanly" by existing social codes. Make no mistake: neither I, nor Panahi I believe, is arguing that division of the sexes in any realm, least of all the relatively insignificant one of going to watch a sporting event, has the potential in itself to "make" lesbians. However, the imposed divisions do serve to generate drag-kings from the otherwise "proper" Iranian populace, and this allows for unintended prospects once one's simplest desires edge one into transgression. Think I'm reading too much in? Consider the scene in the middle of the film where a nervous stadium guard hears mysterious moaning sounds in the men's room and begins casing the joint in search of a vice that, in official terms, is not even imaginable. But there it is, crossing the State's panicked mind. These disciplines, and the divisions they create, only make it that much more powerful when, at the conclusion of Offside, social and sexual barriers breaks down, pandemonium becoming utopian.
[ADDENDUM: Something I'd meant to mention in the review, that actually occurred to me during the Toronto screening, slipped my mind while writing. Although Panahi is too socially-engaged a filmmaker to dabble in undue navel-gazing, there is an autobiographical allegory lurking in the margins of Offside. What could be more natural than football fans wanting to go see a game? Well, how about a world-class director wanting to shepherd his new film around the festival circuit? But while Panahi was a welcomed guest in Canada, he isn't allowed to enter my [retarded] country, because my [retarded] country treats all Iranians a potential enemy combatants. Panahi refuses to submit to fingerprinting on the grounds it violates his human rights. As a result, he is barred from entering the U.S. Maybe if he dressed up like a Saudi . . .]
Shortbus (John Cameron Mitchell) 
You digthebus, I misthebus; de gustibus . . .: This is one of those films that comes along every so often, where my reaction is so off the track from that of most everyone I know or regularly read that I think I owe the film a second look. Don't get me wrong; I'm quite confident about my contention that Shortbus is dull and silly, and I won't be changing my grade any time soon. After all, I wasn't entirely sure what to expect from Mitchell's film, but I was utterly shocked that, of all possible reactions, my predominant one was boredom. Still, in the midst of a busy festival, it's possible I missed something. But as it stands, I found Shortbus to be little more than a slightly more hardcore version of Rent, a smugly uplifting, warm-fuzzy humanist roundelay that shows that even in the big city, we're all alone. [Sniff.] We all just want to connect, to feel something, you know? Not only do I find this message trite and cloying (reminding me of all I resented about Hedwig, especially its conclusion); in a film such as Shortbus it begins to feel like an implicit apology for the explicit sex. True, Mitchell sticks to his guns where heteronormativity is concerned. Shortbus is here, it's queer, and it doesn't take much getting used to. But the film, ending as it does with a sing-along only slightly more confrontational that something from "Sesame Street," feels like it hedges its bets in every arena besides sexuality -- in narrative convention, in character construction, in its view of the nature of human interaction. Not to mention, its overly sculpted bon mots ("It's like the 60s, but without any hope;" "Now I just want to leave the room with a little dignity") and bits of humor feel like ventriloquism, every actor a kind of ideational stand-in for Mitchell and his point of view. Not a problem in itself -- the auteur theory exists to parse movies like this -- but kind of a stumbling block in a film ostensibly celebrating diversity of desires. In the end, I'm reminded of a review I read years ago of VH-1's "RuPaul Show," in which the writer complained that the show's star was just too sweet and eager to please ("Everybody say love!"), thereby rendering the talkshow's own ostensible transgressions strangely toothless. Put another way, how do you square a film's cheap irony of a sex therapist who can't cum with its fearlessness in showing a guy jerking off into his own mouth? And what does this partially pandering discrepancy say about Mitchell's view of his audience? (Are we retarded enough to ride the Shortbus?)
Falkenberg Farewell (Jesper Ganslandt, Sweden / Denmark) [W/O] (0:33)
The program guide compared this to Gus Van Sant, but it looked to me more like a mid-90s Volkswagen commercial.
Hamaca Paraguaya (Paz Encina, Paraguay / Argentina / The Netherlands / France / Austria / Germany) 
I often have difficulties with feature films attempting to adopt techniques more commonly associated with the experimental avant-garde. This isn't so much due to purism on my part. It's just that frequently, filmmakers fail to take into account that the collision of narrative with formal experimentation will usually reduce the formal properties to mere window dressing, since, on a cognitive level, narrative information tends to predominate in our attention. This explains why I cannot fully embrace Hamaca Paraguaya, despite my having a great deal of admiration for it. In a series of long takes, Encina gives us a glimpse into the lives of an elderly couple waiting in vain for news of their son, ostensibly off fighting in the war with Bolivia. The dominant structure of the film finds the couple setting up and sitting in a hammock in the trees, almost always in a fixed long shot, rendering their faces indistinct. Dappled across the running time are medium and close-up shots of each of the lead characters, although apart from the hammock scenes they never appear at the same time (best as I can remember). Individually, we see them working the land or interacting with outsiders who give each of the protagonists a vital piece of information that they withhold from the other (regarding the fate of their son, naturally), resulting in a kind of "Gift of the Magi" mindgame. If I had to cite a significant point of comparison for Hamaca, it would be Marguerite Duras, actually. As with Duras, all the dialogue is obviously dubbed, setting up a formal tension between sound and image. Visually, Encina's film recalls the fixed-frame landscape studies of artists such as Sharon Lockhart and Tacita Dean. But unlike those experimentalists, Encina never makes a convincing argument for why her tale had to be told with these stock-still visuals, and in fact she eventually deviates from this format. (In addition to the inserted close-ups, the final shot slowly zooms into the midfield, for no clear reason.) Comparisons to Beckett have been drawn pretty frequently, and not without good reason. As in Godot and Endgame, Hamaca is characterized by repetitive, comically incantatory dialogue demonstrating an utter stalemate. Some found this irksome, but in fact it's Encina's best move. Anyone who's ever been in a long-term relationship can well imagine that by the time you and your partner are in your sixties or seventies, speech itself will most likely have become redundant. (This is another likely metaphorical reason for having the old couple "talk" to each other without having the actors actually speak on camera. Both are practically telepathic in their ability to anticipate the next bickering sentence.) Despite this well-considered formal conceit, and the film's stark sylvan beauty, I still came away feeling ambivalent about Hamaca, since its visual style connotes rigor without ever impressing any overall shape on the viewer.
Still Life (Jia Zhang-ke, China) [v] 
I seem to be one of the few people (in my immediate circle, anyway) convinced that Still Life represents a major breakthrough for Jia. From the opening shot slowly panning across all manner of activity onboard a riverboat, through its many masterful orchestrations of human action within a shifting spatial frame, Still Life retains all the directorial skills evident from his previous features but invests them with a new subtlety and a less deterministic sense of purpose. I confess to having never fully embraced Jia; up to now Unknown Pleasures has been my favorite of his recent works, largely because his keen eye and willingness to allow the viewer to spend undirected time in his characters' presence gave that film a sly yet downbeat quality. (My favorite overall is Jia's debut Xiao Wu, which goes deeper with one character and prevents allegory or historical zeitgeist from enveloping the greater whole.) But unlike The World, which had glorious moments but represented a slide back into grand, almost mechanical metaphor, Still Life to my eyes finds Jia getting the balance just right. In an A-B-A structure, we spend time first with a man looking for his wife and child following a 16-year absence, and a woman comes around looking for the husband who may have abandoned her for his wealthy industrialist boss. Although we spend great amounts of time with these characters, Jia doesn't give us a clear progression so much as tiny observational moments, a fragmented sense of who they are. This is frustrating to some; we never get the definitive picture of these people as "rounded" beings. Rather, we watch them in disconnected interactions, or along their travels, and slowly accumulate a tentative sense of their personhood. In the midst of this, Jia shows us the demolition process surrounding the Three Gorges Dam, a massive public works project that has flooded entire towns out of existence, for the presumed greater good of China but largely due to encroaching Western capital. We see buildings and towers slowly demolished, and sometimes crumbling before our very eyes. Of course Jia is interested in how these seismic shifts in Chinese life will impact its citizens, but instead of going big and subsuming all figures to the altered landscape, the director hits a careful dialectic. We see the individual toll taken by this major intervention in the landscape, the scars it leaves not just on their world but their memory and identity. Although no one will ever mistake Jia for a psychological realist, Still Life is a true leap forward for this highly political filmmaker. Instead of mere puppets at the mercy of greater social forces, Jia's protagonists move through a shifting landscape, registering these changes on their bodies and their psyches.And yet they are never totally constrained by the history to which they are bearing witness. They feel, and act, and live. Still.
9/13 -- Geocities sucks ass. I save my page, and then it just vanishes. Luckily Dreamweaver doesn't suck ass, and everything gets saved inside the program. Can't do much about it now, but I'll be moving to a different server very soon. Like, immediately after TIFF.
Congorama (Philippe Falardeau, Canada) 
While watching this exceptionally deft but highly self-conscious comedy, I was reminded of Mike and Theo's Cannes comments regarding Belvaux's The Right of the Weakest, a film I hope to actually see one of these days. Congorama trades in coincidences, familial inheritance, and multiple perspectives of the same key events. As I watched it, most everything it did felt utterly familiar ("one of those movies") but Falardeau signals each and every move so deliberately as to make the path of the journey completely obvious to all but the most obtuse observer. At the same time, he doesn't make it feel like irony or genre-oriented scarequotes. Rather, Congorama is both precisely what it appears to be (a sweet-natured comedy) and a sort of X-ray of its own mechanics. Thematically, it's about how invention takes place, built on earlier breakthroughs and sometimes outright stolen, or "reverse engineered" from something else. Every single moment of Congorama feels -- how can I put this? -- like a repetition that you're experiencing for the first time. Also, Olivier Gourmet brings the funny. Who knew?
Bliss (Sheng Zhimin, China) 
Utterly compelling as a purely visual experience, Bliss takes place in Chongqing, referred to as the "fog city." (San Francisco's Chinese cousin?) Almost every shot is suffused with a hazy emerald green tone, lending the film an all-over ambiance. And it helps that Sheng has a preternatural directorial eye. His camera set-ups unobtrusively break spaces up into frames within frames, little domestic Mondrians or large-scale structures (highway overpasses, cable cars, the cluttered skyline) carving up the image into flattened zones of pictorial activity. But the film's narrative is less controlled. Bliss is crammed with incident, many "big things" happen, but everything moves so quickly as to make these events (cancer, complicated love, etc.) seem glib. There was potential here; Sheng has created a family bonded by remarriage, something that adopts the Ozu familial template and modifies it for our times. But it would take a much longer film, or really a whole season of television, to do adequate justice to this material. As it is, it feels like an underdeveloped riff on early Hou or recent Yang. Sheng is a filmmaker to watch, but Bliss is essentially one over-extended shortcut.
August Days (Marc Recha, Spain) 
NYFF explain. This is the first of Recha's features I've seen, and there's no denying, the fellow has a great eye. His patient treatment of the Catalan landscape is remarkable, often using just slightly oblique angles to make a seemingly placid natural space ambiguously forbidding. At the same time, Recha's use of natural light suffuses the entire film with a golden glow that I have never really seen in any other film I can think of. The problems arise when the voiceover begins. We're introduced to brothers Marc and David through the words of their unseen sister, and through bizarre images of fraternal tenderness that verge on the incestuous. (These are the weirdest familial images since Sokurov's Father and Son.) Their road trip is accompanied by cloying Windham Hill guitar music, still photographs presented in slide-show format, and the narrator's increasingly tortured poetic reverie. This is not a good film, but it is one of a kind. It's galling, though, that this New Age fraternal weepie gets festival play, whereas the far superior features of James Benning get shunted aside as too avant-garde. Mostly, though, I spent the screening chuckling to myself about its NYFF inclusion, since that means Mike D'Angelo will have to watch it. [ADDENDUM: He sort of didn't mind it. Color me shocked, etc.]
Zidane, a 21st Century Portrait (Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno, France / Iceland) [W/O] (0:40) [now a 5]
I probably could've stuck it out, but it's fairly clear from the beginning what the film is going to do, and it never deviates. A few thoughts: 1) ironically, the film demonstrates that Zidane's talents are hard to gauge in isolation; it's his cooperation with teammates that makes him great. 2) kinda sorta watching a soccer match on film is weird; I kept getting into it and expecting people to react to it like a game. 3) Mogwai were a terrible choice to score this film, since their brand of slow-churning dread implies some sort of dramatic release that the film is designed not to really deliver. Interesting, but by halftime I was happy to give myself a red card.
[COMPLETED VIEWING, 10/25/08: All in all, I suppose I bailed a wee bit early, since I missed some significant formal / dramatic events which serve to give Gordon and Parreno's film its primary shape. However, these elements don't change my evaluation of Zidane's quality, just the reasons for my evaluation. There is, it turns out, a very deliberate, almost hamhanded narrative structure to the piece. Just after my original walkout, at the 45 minute mark ("halftime"), there is a rather ridiculous montage of other global events happening on the same day as the documented Real Madrid / Villareal match. (Elian Gonzales speaks on Cuban TV; an Asian-African summit finishes up in Indonesia; frogs explode in Germany, etc.) I suppose this interlude has its place in a sports film geared to an audience unaccustomed to considering the implications of global recordability and transmissibility of banal spans of time. But are they going to want to watch a Zidane match in this manner anyway? Maybe. Who's to say? Later, at the one-hour mark, Zidane sets up a fellow player for the first goal of the night. (Even in replay, you can't see who it is, proving the myopia of Gordon and Parreno's all-Zidane, all-the-time method. Maybe this was the point. Anyhow, based on context and observable player position, I'm pretty sure it was Ronaldo who scored.) There's a second goal, a joke that falls flat (the camera goes to the bathroom), and then a dramatic finish well in keeping with the Legend of Zidane. Just before the end of the film, its subject can finally be seen cracking a smile.
As I finished this film, I considered the ill-fitting phrase "experimental film," and how it always implies that some given film work, like a scientific experiment, is an exploration of some hypothesis, one which may succeed or fail to accomplish a given end. Zidane strikes me as a true experimental film, since it sets forth an idea, follows its implications, and lays out the results. And, for the most part, they don't yield as much in the viewing as the concept might have promised. There are several fascinating moments. Zidane reacts in close-up to a downed Villareal player's injury with a mixture of concern and skepticism. A few extreme close-ups of Zidane in motion serve to turn the backdrop of the crowd into a swirling Ben-Day abstraction, the sort of sports-modernism that few would ever attempt. But so much more of Zidane exemplifies a paradox. There's a conceptual rationale to showing this in movie theatres as a bounded text, rather than employing the walk-in / walk-away spectatorship Gordon's work usually engages in gallery situations. It's based on a single game, so it has a time-bound logic. But too much of Zidane is unfocused and ambient, inviting distracted viewing at best. Sure, that's how most of us watch sporting events. There's down time, we take a drink or talk to our buddies or whatever. But is this what Gordon and Parreno have in mind? The film is "interesting" because it falls between cultural chairs, drives a wedge between high and low reception modes, but big deal. It just demonstrates that not everything can be excised from the fabric of life and held up as a "text."]
Opera Jawa (Garin Nugroho, Indonesia / Austria) 
So I gave this one another try, and it worked out much better. The first time I made the mistake of trying to view it as a "film." As a director, Nugroho appears to be serviceable at best; he does little of note with the frame or with editing. But actually this doesn't matter, since Opera Jawa is what we might call a "container film," not unlike, say, Matthew Barney's filmic sculptures. It's all about the performances (song, dance, gesture) and the sculptural objects, allowing multiple artists to pick up the mythological through-line. Looked at as a set of manipulations of things within a performance space, Opera Jawa is still a mixed bag, as any film of its kind would have to be. But, to continue the Barney connection, it's fascinating to see how a sculptural form like the woven wicker cone functions in different contexts throughout the film. One minute it's a mask, the next minute poor Sinda is being chased through a frond-and-tamarind maze by eight giant cones, ghosts to her Pac-Man, until one of them triangularly envelopes her like the meat filling in an enormous samosa. Over time, the red scarves in the natural environment (shades of Christo's Gates) or the carved heads of melting wax (Bruce Naumanesque) accumulate meaning apart from their storytelling function. Likewise, the music frequently conveys the fragmented rhythms of the Rama / Sinda tale even if (like me) you stop reading the subtitles here and there. Also, it occurred to me that gamelan music, at least as performed in this film, often sounds like glitch-techno -- another interesting collision of traditional and modern in a film quite full of them. So sorry for the partial reversal on this, but I'm glad I gave it a second look. (Festivals -- they wear ya down.)
9/14 - After two successive walkouts, I remembered that hey wait a minute, I hate reggae, so I went instead to the Art Gallery of Ontario to see the Warhol show David Cronenberg curated there. Little did I know I'd end up spending two solid hours sitting on the floor watching DVD projections of Screen Tests. These were amazing. Also, stopped by the Eaton Centre, finally, to see Michael Snow's Flight Stop, which is indeed pretty cool. Honk if you love Canada Geese.
Daratt (Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, France / Belgium / Chad / Austria) [W/O] (0:46) [finished on DVD, now a 6]
I enjoyed Haroun's previous film Abouna, with its careful but casual-looking color sense and easy-going narrative style. Here, it looks like the New Crowned Hope assignment got the better of him, since his treatment of the revenge vs. atonement theme, and the film's overall formal approach, is not so much spare as rudimentary. Perfectly average.
[ADDENDUM 1/07, WITH SPOILERS: So I went back and finished Daratt on video, and in fact I should have hung with it since it actually builds in complexity. Yes, there's still a parable structure in place, since Atim (Ali Barkai), in setting out to find Nassara (Youssouf Djaoro), the man who killed his father in order to exact revenge, discovers that time has produced a different man. Nassara is older, a gentle baker providing much-needed bread for the people of his village, and he takes Atim on as an apprentice and eventually wishes to adopt the boy. The simplicity of the plot is embellished by Haroun's exceptional direction which really hits its stride in the second half. The film attends to the hands-on minutia of breadmaking, including Atim's personal triumph upon making his first solo batch. The arid yellows of the desert are offset, as in Abouna, with a startling color palate, bright greens and reds searing the frame and often segmenting the onscreen space. And, basic as the story might be, Haroun's resolution of Atim's conflict (he must answer to his grandfather, who initially set him off on the murderous errand) is undoubtedly touching, since he takes something precious away from Nassara even as he spares his life. Visually and dramatically, this is a major leap forward for Haroun, and it would be a solid achievement were it not for one key flaw. So much of the film's emotional power rests on the shoulders of Atim, and as an actor, Barkai just pouts and grimaces and is generally about as expressive as Nick Cannon in Drumline. Apart from this, Daratt is elegant humanist cinema, and I'm anxious to see what Haroun does next.]
Dans les villes (Catherine Martin, Canada) [W/O] (0:28)
The catalogue notes promised a story told in static tableaux but actually the camera moves all over the place. That's not the problem, though. Martin opens the film with gloved hands of blind museum patrons feeling a bronze sculpture and describing what they "see." Sadly, this kind of irony appears to be the guiding metaphor for Dans les villes. And let me just say another thing. I am sick to death of artists or just plain folks who insist on perpetuating the idea that cities are inherently lonely or alienating. They're not. I can strike up a conversation with a reasonably intelligent person on the subway every twenty minutes if I'm so inclined, whereas in the shitty overgrown suburb of Syracuse almost everybody is frightening and moves way too slowly and acts like they result from a shallow gene pool. That's alienating. And Texas is even worse. Thanks, glad to get that off my chest. Moving on . . .
-It Will All End In Tears (Jesper Just, Denmark) [p/s] 
No, just embarrassment, mostly. TIFF's first foray into film-based installation art is not only misrepresented in the catalog (it's specified as a 35mm presentation but the installation is obviously video projection); it's a bad choice, one of the Vizzoli / Crewdson / Müller school of high-gloss Calvin Klein ads. Just's film is a three part paean to ambiguous homoeroticism, with a lumpy-looking middle-aged Dane exchanging silent, meaningful looks with a younger man. His secret desire? His younger self? Who knows or cares. Just's style favors high-key "cinematic" lighting, close-ups, and lots and lots of swirling smoke-machine fog. If TIFF really wants to get into the art game, how about some screenings in conjunction with the AGO's Warhol show?
The Caiman (Nanni Moretti, Italy / France) 
[SPOILERS] Nanni Moretti's Berlusconi takedown. I can't say I wasn't a little bit pumped for it, since even the fact that the Italian electorate wisely removed Silvio the Slimebucket from public life hadn't eased my desire to watch a careful, comic, possibly even poetic demolition of the man. But it sounds like the film I was hoping for may have been Paolo Benvenuti's 2003 film Secret File, which I unfortunately missed that year at TIFF. And although I've had an inconsistent relationship thus far with Moretti's cinema (having seen three other films of his, mildly liking two and finding quite a bit to admire in the third), somehow I'd gotten the wildly off-the-mark idea that The Caiman would at last be a Moretti film that I could unreservedly embrace. As it happens, it's the worst of the bunch, a ramshackle tribute to Italian B-grade cinema that seems to want to solve the problem of its own low ambitions by adding "serious" parallel plots and allowing them to not gel. Now, I cannot refute Theo Panayides' intelligent defense of this film as an examination of failures both personal and political. The question(s) becomes, why should Moretti try to play these failures for laughs, and even within questionable frame of reference, why are they so damned unfunny? The major problem with The Caiman is Moretti's actorly stand-in, Silvio Orlando. Like some sort of tic-ridden stereotype of the manic, gesticulating Italian, Orlando belts his performance up to the cheap seats, alternating downcast, what-a-shlub-am-I shuffling with wild-eyed hysteria just shy of the Begnini Zone. Orlando and Moretti seem to think that going big will disguise a paucity of actual humor, but perhaps more damning is the fact that occasionally The Caiman stumbles into a good idea or a moment of lyricism only to step on its own feet. In the divorce story, we find a poignant, original coda, wherein Bruno and Paola (Orlando and the lovely Margherita Buy, lending the film a true touch of class) keep driving alongside each other after signing the papers. They wave, smile awkwardly, and fight back tears -- a truly poetic, recognizably human moment. But Moretti smacks a maudlin pop ballad over it, like he just can't leave well enough alone. Likewise, Bruno's manic, borderline-offensive response to the discovery that his film's screenwriter (Jasmine Trinca) is a lesbian, or the final Irma Vep-like sequence from the Berlusconi film (Moretti himself starring in a kind of Costa-Gavras parody), all find Moretti the director flailing about, looking for any and every possible tone in the hope something will stick, or that these rapid-fire shifts will divert attention away from the film's overall lack of focus. There are only two sequences that, for my money, actually work by any standard (the not-telling-the-kids group hug and the orchestral interruption), and they themselves are so divergent in approach (one a small, sad domestic moment, the other a grand gesture a la Bellocchio) that they each belong in different, better films. Moretti has delivered a film characterized by a collision of cloying sentiment and undercooked political broadside, one that can't decide whether it should be scrawled on a subway station wall in Magic Marker, or spilled forth behind the closed doors of a therapy session. Maybe scaling his performance time back in favor of more intensive direction turned Moretti into an inveterate futzer. But whatever the reason, The Caiman is the work of someone who has lost his way.
Coeurs [Private Fears in Public Places] (Alain Resnais, France / Italy) 
Well, that was weird. But again, I'm talking "weird" like Hong's Woman on the Beach -- comic, accessible-on-the-surface auteurist fare that could scan as a perfectly normal, even middlebrow entertainment provided you aren't a viewer predisposed to examine the spatial relationships in every shot. Once again Resnais is adapting an Alan Ayckbourne play, and once again (cf. Smoking / No Smoking) the film is hobbled somewhat by Ayckbourne's novice-level gamesmanship and lazily plangent, stiff-upper-lip sensibility. He's basically the British Neil Simon, with a few insights into human nature dropped in like bitter dollops amidst the sweetness. Resnais seems to like this fellow because, as with Not on the Lips, Same Old Song, and even back to the formidable Mélo, the play Private Fears in Public Places is conventional enough to allow the director to take certain odd formalist liberties. In the case of Coeurs, Resnais segments nearly every space of action as though he were slicing off cheese. A dense beaded curtain, a wire partition, a pane of frosted glass -- people and things are divided from one another by translucent force fields. Some, like the garish hotel bar, electrify the screen. (Even candy-colored Ozon is subdued by comparison. You'd have to go back to the Goodson-Todman game shows of the 1970s to find equivalent mise-en-scène.) Elsewhere, Resnais' characters' apartments are crammed with inscrutable paintings and anachronistic objets d'art. All this, and bright yellow or orange walls to boot. (It's like a cross between a mid-scale antiques shop and the lacquered domiciles of later-period Michael Snow.) In the midst of all this geographical and aesthetic fragmentation, Ayckbourne's words seem quaint, optimistically anchoring the world in good old fashioned common sense -- an odd role for language in a play even somewhat beholden to the rules of farce. Oddly bungled missed connections, old-time religion morphing into porn, and, strangest of all, what appears to be a May-December open marriage so chaste, I honestly thought they were brother and sister, and I'm still not 100% sure they aren't. Coeurs is, without a doubt, beautifully acted by Resnais' ensemble. (Sabine Azéma and André Dussollier are particularly fine.) Like your favorite relatives, it's never not wonderful to see them every few years. There's no question that the film is a joy, as well as the work of a true master. The only thing that gives me pause in all of this is that the material just seems too shallow, and that isn't just a niggling hesitation, even when the formal gift-wrapping is this exquisite. One final thought: why's this Resnais film getting full-on festival treatment (Venice / Toronto / New York) while the equally accomplished (I would say better) Not on the Lips got the shaft?
Severance (Christopher Smith, U.K.) 
Snarky British gorefest trying to work a tone similar to that of Shaun of the Dead, but it's not in the same class. The jokes don't exactly come fast and furious with this one (the first thirty minutes are a pretty grueling set-up), but when it hits, it hits hard. (The leg in the fridge gag represents everything right about British comedy -- subtle, a little priggish, all about being resourceful at times of crisis.) Looks super-cheap but without funneling "super-cheap" into any aesthetic orientation. Instead, it just looks like ass. And the whole "'The Office' meets Deliverance" tag is deceptive. Apart from a few early, unfunny stabs at corporate satire, this Character Types Isolated in the Woods with Murderous Inbred Retards approach could've employed any premise to put these "people" together. Still, there are some really nice plant-and-payoffs, one that is set up in the first reel and not revealed until the last. I think even the horror fans will find this one a light diversion; cult following about as improbable as another Tony Blair term. Also, nice theme song selection, fellas. I'd forgotten how awesome "Itchycoo Park" is.
9/15 -- A six-film day quickly pared down to "only" three. Sorry folks, I'm just exhausted. Also, I want to have all my faculties present for my encounter with the reportedly-magnificent new Joe film.
As the Shadow (Marina Spada, Italy) 
This should've been a walkout, but somehow I kept thinking it would reverse itself, at least on the narrative level. Spada appears to be an anomaly in contemporary Italian cinema. She tends to use the fixed-frame as well as consistent midrange focus, with objects and spaces gelling indistinctly in the fore- and background. It's sort of like Austrian-engineered formal precision shot through with an Asian sense of light and color. Problem is, Spada is using some seriously ugly-ass DV. Everything is just a series of fuzzy blobs and wavering straight lines, like watching a Diebenkorn painting on a scrambled porn channel. Why would someone with Spada's eye allow this nonsense to stand? Still, I don't want to give the impression As the Shadow is some sort of significant work of art undone simply by formal failings. Her ponderous, preposterous plotline finds restless travel agent Claudia (Anita Kravos, a startling dead ringer for Rachel Griffiths) hooking up with the Ukrainian substitute teacher from her Russian class, only to have him spring on her the most jaw-dropping level-jump in the history of budding relationships. Hey, my hot blonde "cousin" just got into Italy, can you put her up for a week or two? Naturally this leads to yet another of Western Europe's hand-wringing confrontations with the post-Soviet influx. But mostly Claudia mopes and looks for Cousin Olga after she goes missing. Why is she so concerned? Well, Olga left her suitcase at Claudia's place! So we begin to ask around the immigrant communities of Milan, put up flyers, etc. (Um, throw the fucking suitcase away and change your locks. You been played.) Lots of staring, lots of blurry stock-still shots of buildings and trains, and to top it off, a cloying score that sabotages Spada's attempts at Euro-rigor. (What is it with Italian cinema and overbearing musical accompaniment? The twin legacies of grand opera and dubbing?)
Syndromes and a Century (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand / France / Austria)
Wow, was I tired. But it was evident from the get-go this one was a bold new direction, and something sui generis. Had to give it another go. (New Crowned Hope sure got a lot of my pocket money this year.)
Belle toujours (Manoel de Oliveira, Portugal / France) [m] 
Masters on Autopilot (Sort of) #3: A trifle, but an intellectually reaching one nevertheless, Belle toujours is my least favorite Oliveira film since Party, but it does have the virtue of being short. Oliveira's stylistic stiffness, especially with respect to actors and line delivery, adds some interest value to Belle, Oliveira's tribute to Buñuel and Carriere, partly because their approaches to cinema are so divergent as to barely make sense in relation to one another. The passkey to understanding Belle toujours is perversity, a concept Oliveira has Michel Piccoli's character discuss ad infinitum, to awkward effect but not without a certain conceptual rigor. Piccoli's character Henri regales a chummy young bartender with tales of the limitless masochism of Belle, a woman driven to thwart her relationship with the man she genuinely loved. Henri makes no attempt to disguise his relish at recounting Belle's Buñuelian exploits, displaying himself as a dirty old man with his second-hand memories, indulging a fetish for narrativizing the salacious past. Meanwhile, Oliveira himself is unable to convince Catherine Deneuve to reprise her role and yet persists in completing the project anyway, substituting Bulle Ogier as though the women are interchangeable. This points to a different level of male perversity, the free exchange of women as commodities (and the main reason, psychoanalytically speaking, that prostitution carries such erotic force for its consumers). As with Buñuel's original, Oliveira demonstrates that male sexual deviance saturates our social world, setting its rules without having to interrogate them as such. So MdO has basically made a perverse work of art about the perversity of narrative desire, in the erotic sphere, certainly, but in the realm of cinema as well. (This makes Belle toujours of a piece with Oliveira's larger project of working with language and performance in an almost sculptural manner. We treat narrativity in the cinema as if it were the most natural thing in the world, whereas for years Oliveira's primary aesthetic charge has been making it deeply strange.) This is, like so many other Oliveira films, "a talking picture," but if talking here is sex by other means, Piccoli and eventually Ogier move in circles to no climactic aim. If the film has any notable flaw, it's that it spells out its themes so precisely and overtly that there's little left for the film (or the viewer) to do. Unless we "like to watch." [ADDENDUM: I cannot for the life of me understand why I initially gave this picture a 6, other than perhaps kneejerk auteur brownie-points (my own brand of perversity, I suppose). My review, as well as my memories of the picture itself, all point to a 5/10 rating. So at the risk of looking kind of flaky, I must correct myself.]
Fantasma (Lisandro Alonso, Argentina) [m] 
I've generally been on the fence about Alonso, whose first two films are the work of a sophisticated artist fascinated with representations of the primitive and ethnographic. His two prior protagonists – Vargas from Los Muertos and Misael from La libertad – were stoic and near-mute, Alonso seemingly attempting to offer them up as some sort of alternative to civilization as we know it. I found quite a bit to admire in those earlier films, even though their reception was irksome. They weren't particularly rigorous, and Alonso's use of static, minimal visuals never provided the force that would've argued for their necessity over more traditional camerawork and pacing. It seems that the play's the thing, with Alonso more interested in recording and containing these men's rituals, rather than trying to give them an overall shape, and yet Alonso's champions often made bold claims for him on formal grounds. Well, the jig is up, my friends. Ostensibly a tribute to Tsai Ming-liang's featurette Goodbye, Dragon Inn (although to my knowledge this wasn't officially stated as his intent until numerous critics had made the unavoidable comparison), Fantasma is all about lonely, isolated bodies moving through (and getting lost in) modern rectilinear urban spaces. But when Alonso pares everything down to just his compositions, we quickly see how lacking they are. He sets his camera up for extended static takes, and yet he does this will little grace or intra-frame relationships. It's mostly a point-and-shoot affair. This shoddiness is trouble enough – it makes for tedious viewing – but Alonso's self-deprecating humor barely disguises his sense of entitlement. Fantasma jokingly documents the Buenos Aires premiere of Los Muertos and the empty house to which it's playing, but it's a thin joke indeed. Alonso is paying homage to his own films, implying that he repeatedly casts his pearls before swine. Meanwhile, his two found-object primitives, Vargas and Misael, are lost like little Tatis in the truculently modernist arts complex. Alonso treats them like homeless people (they spend a lot of time clumsily freshening up in the men's room)playing them up for fish-out-of-water hijinx. This might be partially forgivable if anyone concerned possessed the slightest comic timing. Instead, Alonso implicitly likens his non-professional performers' marginality to his own. The recognition that eludes the artist in his home country is suddenly treated as though it were equivalent to the earlier films' hunts for food.
9/16 -- A strong day out of the gate, where even the film I didn't like was clearly accomplished and provocative. Then, sadly, back home Nola's fever spiked into the 105 range and I abandoned the Tsai so I could be in less-variable touch with the family. Nola stabilized so I attempted the midnight show, which was mostly a blur. Yes, indeed, it was high time I got back home. It was fun, but I fell a bit short of my goal of 48 films, seeing only 41. Still, the sheer number of good to great films is kind of ridiculous. For us non-Cannes types, TIFF '06 ruled.
Colossal Youth (Pedro Costa, Portugal / France / Switzerland) 
I wouldn't be surprised if the grade went up on a second viewing; since the final two reels were subtitled in French and my reading comprehension isn't what it should be, I'm hedging my bets with an 8. This is the second Costa film I've seen, and whereas Ossos seemed to make more dramatic use of Costa's penchant for stylization (or perhaps I should say, managed to harness it for more explicitly dramatic purposes), Colossal Youth elevates this style to the level of an epic tone poem, an extended visit to the slums that uses masterful lighting, framing, and modulated non-professional performances to allow us to see the urban underclass with fresh, radiant eyes. At first I found that Youth didn't look as striking as Ossos, or its own publicity stills for that matter. Costa uses grainy video to enter the world of the dilapidated Fontaínhas projects just prior to their demolition, and although I'm not sure what celluloid might have brought to the film, soon enough it's clear what video adds to it. Just as Colossal Youth is in large part about the location of beauty amid the anguish of slum life, the creative adaptation necessary for coping with a paucity of options, Costa's formal approach is first and foremost about adjusting our eyes to video, to its lack of definition and its strange registration of movement, so that we can eventually come to see its unique way of capturing low-light situations, or its advantages with respect to duration and shooting ratio. Costa's film implicitly asks us to give up certain seductive qualities of celluloid so that we can come to appreciate video's own special properties. Above all, video allows Costa to spend a lot of time in the company of Ventura, Vanda, and Lento, giving them the space to articulate their unique characters with minimal interruption. Ventura, for example, with his air of a depressive street patrician, given to pensive observation and (to the chagrin of the film's detractors) incantatory repetition, usually remains stock still in the frame, burning his luminous black frame into the pixels and impressing himself upon our consciousness. Over time, and through Costa's patient, insistent observation, Ventura "comes to presence," in the Heideggerian sense. He is allowed to transcend the categories that both well-intentioned liberal cinema and the social bureaucracies have slotted for him. Colossal Youth bathes him in shafts of almost heavenly light, bringing him forth and challenging the imposed, even ritualized invisibility that society has typically imposed. Likewise, Vanda, the garrulous single mother and former heroin addict, gets to launch into a manic monologue that, over time and through the cluttered verbiage, allows us to see who she might really be -- a scattered thinker, a loving but distracted mother, a fighter, an effortless comedienne. This isn't to say that Costa idealizes his subjects. We clearly perceive Vanda's mania, just as Ventura's endless repetitions of the poem following Clotilde's departure speak to his traumatized frailty. But Costa and his film embrace these contradictions as part of the human tapestry, and nothing to fear. (Likewise, Ventura's run-ins with the museum guard, himself a former slum-dweller, are socially charged, but Costa refrains from judging the guard's obligation to give Ventura the bum's rush.) Like Straub and Huillet before him, Costa practices a cinema of exacting materialist rigor, and this allows him to re-see the world for us in ways that have significant consequences for how we, his audience, might behave in the world. After all, as I watched Colossal Youth, I had to think about my own reactions and where they came from. I had to wonder why I was surprised when Lento dished up a plate of food and, instead of digging in, passed it over to Ventura. I had to remember that part of the reason that Costa's hieratic lighting effects were possible was the fact that his subjects were living with holes in their ceilings. They must let the rain come in, but Costa challenges us to remember that they let in sunshine as well.
[ADDENDUM 7/30/07 -- Although I have not yet had the opportunity to view Colossal Youth again, I have been able to catch up with one of Costa's earlier films, 1995's Casa de Lava. Unlike Youth, Lava features professional actors in its main roles, and mostly takes place on the island of Cape Verde rather than amidst the Cape Verdean community in Portugal The film certainly has its strong points, but it shows a youngish filmmaker still finding his way, and in terms of both cinematic craft and qualities of seduction, cannot compare with the other Costa efforts I've seen. (The quantum leap in confidence and approach between Lava and Ossos two years later is particularly striking.) At any rate, I mention Casa de Lava, because of two key moments in the film. First, Leão, the injured laborer played by Isaach de Bankolé, has an unsent letter in his pocket at the time of his accident. Later in the film, his nurse Mariana (Inês de Medeiros) reads the letter and, lo and behold, it is the exact same poem Ventura will endlessly recite in Colossal Youth -- "I wish I could give you a hundred thousand cigarettes, a dozen fancy dresses, a car, the little lava house you've always wanted . . ." And later in the film, young Tina (Sandra do Canto Brandão) is shown dancing in the street, at which point she exclaims, "Juventude em marcha!" (The subtitles translate the exclamation literally, as "Youth on the march!")
So, what does this all mean? Is Costa given to little intertextual drop-ins and remixes from previous works, or are these master tropes all worked out well in advance, intended to form a kind of private mythology? Perhaps, but this isn't nearly as precious at it might seem at first, and in fact serves a very deliberate aesthetic function, one I was unable to appreciate having only seen Ossos and Youth, not thinking in these terms at the time. The poem, it turns out, isn't really Ventura's, or Leão's, or even Costa's. [NOTE: In the moments after posting this, Chris Stults helpfully provided the actual reference -- Robert Desnos' "Letter to Youki." Costa, however, makes a few key changes to the text.] The poem, positioned in the film as heartfelt testimony, is partially that (Ventura's character expressing his feelings with the words of another), but partially something else -- a highly mannered, bardlike refrain, a poetry reading in the slums. In this regard, Costa subverts the presumed documentary / anthropological dimensions of his work in Fontainhas by giving it an artificial shape. What's more, this makes Ventura, Vanda, Lento and crew co-conspirators in generating a highly formalized work of cinema. To what end? Well, for one thing, this means that when I conjectured that Costa's shooting ratio allowed his performer-subjects to gradually reveal themselves, I was falling prey to the kind of liberal assumptions Costa and company are out to thwart. Colossal Youth is a movie, so why are Ventura or Vanda required or expected to provide any more of a glimpse of themselves as human beings than, say, Natalie Portman or Bill Paxton? Because they're poor? By channeling Ventura's seemingly genuine pain into a preexisting text that Costa used in it multiple films, the film actually finds the performer committed to obscuring his "true self" through artistic means. It's cinema, nothing more or less.
So part of what Colossal Youth accomplishes -- and what I now see as an integral component of Pedro Costa's project -- is the activation of faulty assumptions. Somehow, the very act of going into Fontainhas and collaborating with its residents to create a rarified aesthetic object -- something much more like Pickpocket or Mouchette than The Shame of the Cities or You Have Seen Their Faces -- feels wrong, and that feeling-wrong is precisely what is wrong. If we're ever to really understand who Ventura is, or who Vanda is, it is mandatory that we stop seeing them as derelict, as fringe-dwellers, as "the homeless." The political dimension of Costa's work, then, is inseparable from the aesthetic, because the transformation of subjects -- whose very being has been coded as a "political issue" -- into actors (in all senses of the word) affords them the necessary space to explore creation as a non-subsistence endeavor. Likewise, Colossal Youth asks its viewers to consider it and its performers beyond the base business of scratching out a living. (Costa affords his troupe the luxury of "wasting" our time! Ironically, the homeless and itinerant seem to have more time for matters of composition and painterly effects of light than their bustling, "productive" counterparts.) Costa's aesthetic, finally, is one that collides fits of Cassavetean performance with ritualized modernist poetics and the dense, vibrant colors and volumes of classical European painting, perhaps because all are equally "indulgent," "wasteful," "profligate," and stubbornly unwilling (rather than "constitutionally incapable"!) of getting to the point, harnessing their energies to the productive dictates of a purely communicative documentary art. The joke, of course, is that the "waste" Costa and his friends produce requires infinite patience and hard work. Likewise, as any drifter can tell you, you really have to bust your ass to live outside the official strictures of capital. Being a bum ain't what it used to be.
Flanders (Bruno Dumont, France) 
[PRETTY MAJOR SPOILERS] I was originally a 4 on this, and although my grade change is partially due to an engaging post-TIFF discussion with Flanders partisans like Jeremy Heilman, baaab, and Alex Fung, it was also due to the fact that I had to acknowledge its formal accomplishments, even though I thought (and still do) that they are harnessed for wrongheaded ends. Shockingly, Dumont has managed to make his signature style more accessible without significantly altering his neo-Bressonian approach. In terms of pacing, both overall and within its key scenes, Flanders is a compulsively watchable film, and certain to be Dumont's North American breakthrough. (The Grand Prix at Cannes is certainly a harbinger of things to come.) Although there are a few awkward, even dubious stylistic decisions (most notably Dumont's use of sudden fades to black in the opening third of the film, which give way to straight-cuts later on), Dumont's unerring eye for landscape, the textures and heaviness of the natural world, and his knack for figure / ground relationships, are all in evidence here, demonstrating why he is widely considered one of French cinema's leading lights. And I still count myself among his fans, despite my formal misgivings about Twentynine Palms and the fact that, as an aesthetic intervention into the real world, Flanders strikes me as unconscionably simpleminded. Young men (Samuel Boidin, Henri Cretel) in rural Flanders (which looks very much like Dumont's native Lille) work the land, grunt, hang out, and periodically have rutting al fresco sex with Barbe (Adélaïde Leroux), the town "slut." Dumont presents them as people of the land, so ensconced in their environment as to respond to it almost reflexively, with little or no space between thought and action. They are animals, but as opposed to the intermittently communicative sex fiends in Palms or downcast olfactory detective Pharaon de Winter in L'humanité, their animalistic approach to life bears no traces of strangeness or dissonance with their environment. They are unthinking functions of their world, and as depicted by Dumont, this makes them little more than macho, mouth-breathing rednecks. Barbe, meanwhile, has so internalized her place in the community's (anti-) social system that she seems to drop her pants and offer up her privates to the menfolk the way one might undress in front of your doctor -- unthinkingly, functionally. (Only later in the film does she actually attempt to withhold sex on the basis of her own preferences, and the outcome is highly uncertain.)
Once Dumont sends his shlubs off to fight in an unnamed desert war, we see their xenophobia emerge, slowly and almost fraternally at first (the hazing of a black Muslim recruit), and eventually as full-blown viciousness. Cribbing more than a few scenes from Full Metal Jacket, Dumont provides a portrait of his low-intellect Frenchmen as capable of almost casual barbarity. But unlike Kubrick, who spent the first half of his film depicting the systematic dehumanization of Jacket's Marines, Dumont just assumes that his characters were always capable of rape and torture, and that in fact the skills they honed back at home prepared them for this arid proving ground. The film's midsection cross-cuts between Home and Away, one minute showing "our boys" assaulting an Arab woman or picking off a sniper, the next minute showing Barbe subject to all manner of male manipulation. In the end, Barbe's sort-of boyfriend Demester (Boidin) comes home scarred, possibly more sensitive to Barbe's existence as an autonomous human being, but Dumont leaves this an open question. No doubt, war changes all but the most hardened psychotic, but Dumont's coda is odd, since it seems to be at odds with his larger point. Redemption may be possible on the individual level,Dumont suggests, but as a species we seem to be hopelessly screwed. And this is where Flanders veers into intellectual dishonesty bordering on stupidity. The major thrust of the film seems to be one of two theses, or a combination of the two. (1) Women and the ethnic Other are structurally equivalent, and Barbe's status a subhuman fuckhole is directly mirrored in the men's ability to go abroad and kill, kill, kill. (2) The human animal has been and always will be warlike, or at least retain that potential, so brutality of one form or another is inevitable. The first proposition is so basic as to be witless and uninstructive. Dumont the former philosophy professor will have to do better than that. The second, however, is both ahistorical and rather offensive. Although Flanders' champions note that Dumont is exploring the universal and pointedly refuses to call his war "Iraq" or "Afghanistan," there is no denying that the problems in the Middle East, particularly the U.S.'s cowboy interventionism and the increased bellicosity of Israel, are the pertinent frame of reference into which Dumont's film acts as a commentary, willingly or not. If he is trying to avoid making a statement about the wars of our time, his film would require an intellectual apparatus for negotiating between the general and the particular, which Flanders certainly lacks. If he is engaging, however obliquely, with the topics of the day, his view of human (or really, male) life as a kind of perpetual battlefield is one that plays into the hands of those whose actions Dumont would probably wish to denounce. What's most frustrating about Flanders is that it demonstrates a keen directorial intelligence dedicated to laboring under false premises: the idea that history never changes, that violence is in our DNA, that peace can be achieved only privately, after the dastardly deeds are done. Furthermore, this attempt to transcend our battles of the moment, to examine the wider scope of human existence, is a philosophical move that always promises greater insight, but usually takes us further and further from the material world. Dumont is a true Bressonian, and deeply committed to the tangible. He may believe in transcendence, but a highly mitigated, embodied version of it. (Flanders even includes a visual rhyme with L'humanité, with Barbe standing on her tiptoes, struggling and failing to levitate.) Given this orientation, the muddled thinking of Flanders is all the more disappointing.
/Syndromes and a Century (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand / France / Austria) 
[MINOR SPOILERS] The latest from Apichatpong is both stranger and far more normal than his previous films. On the one hand, the film is Joe's extrapolation of the lives of his parents prior to their meeting at the hospital where they both worked. Seemingly using his familiar bifurcated structure, Joe first provides the story from what appears to be his mother's point of view, from a rural hospital setting, and then repeats a few key incidents from the point of view of his father, stationed at a modern urban hospital. But nothing is this simple. At first Joe hints at this "he said / she said" division, which allows him to explore connections and disjunctures between the country and the city, as well as providing the opportunity for the director to try his hand at outright comedy. (Cf. the personality test: "What does DDT stand for?") Eventually the film drifts away from this structural split, concluding with a series of abstract, almost Kubrickian images of smoke and medical instruments, a kind of meditation on modern medicine as an environment rather than a practice. Finally, aerobics in the public square. Make sense? Whereas Tropical Malady and, to a lesser extent, Blissfully Yours partook of rather clear contrasts between the mythological / sensual and the realistic / intellectual, Syndromes adopts a much more open, fluid form. Moments of character-based weirdness (cf. the prosthetic leg lush) recall the comic surrealism of David Lynch. A late-in-the-film encounter with a young man suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning provides the opportunity for Joe to engage in an oblique disquisition on homosexual desire (not alluded to directly here, but channeled through a fractured discussion of reincarnation trouble, and living a life that is not quite "human" in the accepted senses). Even material that Joe adapted directly from his parents' life stories, such as the monk who wanted to be a DJ and now plays folk guitar, wander into Syndromes and leave a ghostly emotional impression that reverberates throughout the film. There is little in the way of a through-line, and if there is any true way to compare Joe's new style to something out there in the film world, it would have to be a Southeast Asian version of the rigorous fever-dreams of Raul Ruiz. If there is any single theme binding it all together (and I'm not sure there is, or perhaps it's better to say, not everything in the film is reducible to this theme), it is a free-form consideration of the body and its mutable states of desire. Whether it is inchoate homosexuality that lacks its proper explanatory framework, or the modern doctors' attempts at successful prostheses, or just Joe's camera circling statues of Thai medical pioneers, once living and now reduced to inert objects, Syndromes and a Century represents a new phase in Joe's career, a willingness to (momentarily?) suspend gamesmanship in favor of tonal echoes, halting repetitions, and unstructured reverie.
I Don't Want To Sleep Alone (Tsai Ming-liang, Taiwan / France / Austria) [W/O] (0:23)
Called away on family emergency. What I saw looked quite promising, although it was evident Tsai's trying to turn his trademark style to explicitly political ends. (He returns to Malaysia for this one, and appears to spend the film in the company of illegal Asian immigrants and the alternate-family structures they build to survive.) I hope I get to see it all the way through, but its lukewarm reception could spell trouble. Still, if nothing else it'll probably turn up at San Francisco '07
Sheitan (Kim Chapiron, France) [ZZZ] [re-watched on DVD while alert, now a 6]
Apart from the maniacal grinning mug of Vincent Cassel (who is pretty funny in this, from what I saw), I remember so little about Sheitan that a write-up would be dishonest. I recall the awesome opening DJ, and some herky-jerky cinematography and the predominance of the color red. Plus, I was awake for the conclusion, ripped off just a little bit from Lucky McKee's May. But yeah, it seemed reasonably fun even if all Wild Bunch product is beginning to look the same.
[SEEN IN FULL, 1/21/07: In essence I got the whole thing the first time despite nodding off, but what I missed were the little bits of business that add color and texture but go nowhere in themselves. Example: Bart's tale of the camping hookup that ended in "coldcuts." Sheitan is rather predictable and very stupid, drunk on its own DJ-style mash-up logic (everything from Rosemary's Baby to, believe it or not, Wedding Crashers -- "dude, we should leave" / "I'm still trying to seal the deal, bud, don't cockblock me"). But because Chapiron understands not to take his project very seriously, Sheitan is never less than campy genre fun, and certainly worlds away from the grim xenophobia of Hostel. Also, the multi-culti Parisian youth are just sort of left there as an Easter egg for some enterprising, sociologically-inclined critic or scholar. That wouldn't be me.]
[SEEN IN FULL, 1/21/07: In essence I got the whole thing the first time despite nodding off, but what I missed were the little bits of business that add color and texture but go nowhere in themselves. Example: Bart's tale of the camping hookup that ended in "coldcuts." Sheitan
is rather predictable and very stupid, drunk on its own DJ-style mash-up logic (everything from Rosemary's Baby to, believe it or not, Wedding Crashers -- "dude, we should leave" / "I'm still trying to seal the deal, bud, don't cockblock me"). But because Chapiron understands not to take his project very seriously, Sheitan is never less than campy genre fun, and certainly worlds away from the grim xenophobia of Hostel. Also, the multi-culti Parisian youth are just sort of left there as an Easter egg for some enterprising, sociologically-inclined critic or scholar. That wouldn't be me.]
The Super-Tedious Conclusion, Plus a Note to Myself About Stuff I Missed:
The Super-Tedious Conclusion, Plus a Note to Myself About Stuff I Missed:
I wrote A TIFF Wrap-Up piece for GreenCine Daily that can be found here. It covers most of the films that made a significant impression on me, except two. Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Climates I didn't discuss because even though I stand behind it as a beautifully constructed film, I think my reasons for being so moved by it are probably too personal and idiosyncratic to properly convey in the essay format I chose. The other film, Syndromes and a Century, I want to hang back a little on, allowing sharper minds to parse it first. Two viewings and a still feel like I've only scratched the surface.
I wrote A TIFF Wrap-Up piece for GreenCine Daily that can be found here. It covers most of the films that made a significant impression on me, except two. Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Climates
I didn't discuss because even though I stand behind it as a beautifully constructed film, I think my reasons for being so moved by it are probably too personal and idiosyncratic to properly convey in the essay format I chose. The other film, Syndromes and a Century, I want to hang back a little on, allowing sharper minds to parse it first. Two viewings and a still feel like I've only scratched the surface.
Also, I ended up skipping about ten films. Need to work on that. Maybe less website work . . .
Also, I ended up skipping about ten films. Need to work on that. Maybe less website work . . .