This year, I'm reporting on TIFF for GreenCine Daily. You'll find those dispatches here:


1) Wavelengths Preview / 2) My First Dispatch / 3) My Second Dispatch / 4) My Third Dispatch


and here is an alphabetical guide to the coverage:



Who knows? Maybe this year I'll stick it out for a full 24 hours. It's the



All films from U.S.A. unless otherwise specified.

(- seen on video; [v] video piece; [s] short, under 30 minutes; [m] medium length, 30-69 min; * grade changed upon repeat viewing)


NOTE: Jump over the preview essay and head on down to the reviews by clicking here.


This Year You Lucky People Get a Teeny Tiny Little Preview Essay


Regarding 2007, I'm reminded of what Alec Baldwin's character in State and Main said after the car flipped over: "So. That happened." That's to say, the almost cataclysmic bounty of Cinema 07 is something I personally am still sifting through, and in a lot of ways I'm hardly prepared to flip the calendar, even at this late date. (Still trying to track down: Go Go Tales and A Pitcher of Colored Light. All leads appreciated. All tips confidential.) As far as whetting an appetite for TIFF 08, reliable reports of a dismal Berlin and a middling Cannes certainly don't help matters any. Not to mention that TIFF can't necessarily be counted on to deliver the goods, when they are good. As of my writing this, the entire film list has not been announced, and I'll drop in an addendum when all the facts are known. But will the G&T class of Berlin (Hong, Eimbcke, Zonca) make the show, or will it just be Mike Leigh's grinning idiot idiotic film with its major-distrib backing? [POSTSCRIPT: I was wrong about Poppy; more on this below.] Will the drab disappointments of Cannes -- nobody taking any real chances, even the greats content to just refine their brand -- yield new surprises when held up in a different light? Also, the less said about the Venice Comp line-up, the better. Just hold an L to your forehead and move on.


This time around, I'm also getting the chance to advance-screen most of the Wavelengths slate, which will certainly help me face what's always my single biggest challenge during the festival -- affording avant-garde works the concentration and analytical attention they deserve. I can say already, based on my prior familiarity with many of the filmmakers involved, that the program(me)s that Andréa Picard has assembled this year will all be impressive and eye-opening, even if (as is always the case in group-show situations) some fluctuation in quality is inevitable. It's obvious that Picard's found her curatorial voice. (To grossly oversimplify, she's a keen-eyed formalist with an active globalist-political sensibility.) As TIFF continues to drift toward unapologetic supply-side economics (goodbye Directors' Spotlight, Canadian Retrospective, and other industry non-imperatives), Wavelengths is a niche that cinephiles should hold as sacrosanct, lest we find outselves red-carpeted right out of the equation altogether, reduced to some sad salon des refusés over in Brampton.


Enough with the blathering. Now, time for more blathering, but with number-grades. (Although I have decided, following my Views coverage tradition, that I will not post experimental film grades on this page. Interested parties can find them elsewhere on the site.)


seen prior to the festival


-Black and White Trypps Number Three (Ben Russell) [s] [7]

March 2007. See review here.


How to Conduct a Love Affair (David Gatten) [s] [7]

Views 2007. Review here.


-O'Horten (Bent Hamer, Norway / Sweden / Germany) [5]

April 2008. Review here.



films previewed prior to the festival


-Trypps #5 (Dubai) (Ben Russell, U.S. / United Arab Emirates) [s]

After producing one of the most joyous non-narrative films of 2007 (that would be Trypps Number Three, also showing in Wavelengths), Russell turns in a brief tone poem that, on first glance, appears utterly different. Actually, though, both films are united by a distinctly musical sensibility. From a fixed frame position, we see a large fragment (it appears to be almost the entirety) of an outdoor neon sign. The middle of the sign looks to be anchored by the word 'HAPPY,' although the H and the Y are not completely visible, and so, following from the rules of context and Gestalt, we're forming conclusions based on inference. (Above the Western alphabet letters, there is smaller but complete Arabic script. So a more knowledgeable audience can "read the signs," but I and many others aren't in on the code.) The neon is in startling pastels -- hot pinks, baby blues, sea greens -- which contrast with the fire-engine red of the block letters. Within this photographic scheme, Russell gives us just enough time (not quite two minutes) to watch as the sign lights up in myriad ways. The neon tubes illuminate from left to right; they alternate; they play pianistic chords; they divide the sign in half and blink; and on and on. When I said that Trypps #5 had a musical quality to it, I was thinking very specifically of the modernist compositions of Anton Webern or Milton Babbitt, composers who would organize a set of parameters and then exhaust virtually every possibility within the framework. Russell prepares you for a pop-like trifle of a film ("HAPPY"!), and it is, without a doubt, extraordinarily buoyant. But the thing is, you see a sign like this, and you think you know what it is you're seeing, and what it is you're going to see. In a very short time, Russell shows just how many surprises there can be within things we mistakenly treat as mundane phenomena. Isn't that exactly what experimental film is supposed to do?


-Flash in the Metropolitan (Rosalind Nashashibi / Lucy Skaer, U.K.) [s]

Strange, seeing this immediately after Trypps #5, since in certain ways it's the exact inverse of Russell's film. So it is very canny programming to have them on the same Wavelengths program(me), where they can bounce nicely off one another. This is my first exposure to Nashashibi's work, although she has been making quite a splash in the British art scene over the last few years (don't know her stats, or if she's technically a "YBA"), and I can see why. Flash is exceedingly simply, but oddly effective, one of those rare "theatrical" mood pieces that straddles the grammar and attitude of experimental and narrative film but sells neither short. (For a failed example of this model, see the work of Müller and Giraudet.) Nashashibi and Skaer basically move through the antiquities sections of the Met, providing a collision-montage of pre-Columbian, African, Greek, and Roman artifacts in display cases. The formal rhythm results from the fact that the directors film in complete darkness, then pulse a powerful spotlight on the objects before the lens, making the room, and the film, "breathe" with an arresting sense of drama and suspense. Movements across the space are generally smooth tracking shots, although the darkness also conceals edits which "cheat" the integrity of the space, but make for jarring head / mask interfaces. I confess, my appreciation of Flash is formal and formal alone. Apart from a museum in-joke regarding the prohibition of flash photography on delicate specimens, I have no idea what the film "means." It strikes me as pure impact, and as such, it's surprising just how much visual interest Nashashibi and Skaer generate from their single idea before the lights come up for good.


-Chocolate (Prachya Pinkaew, Thailand) [6]

[MILD SPOILERS] We may as well get it out of the way: Jija Yanin kicks major ass. Frankly, I think she's far more agile and balletic than Tony Jaa, but of course she's probably not quite as strong. So we don't see her picking up vending machines and throwing them around like Jaa did in Ong Bak, but we do get an altogether more graceful, dare I say beautiful martial arts throwdown. As it happens, Prachya has risen to the occasion, since he's become a much better director than he was in 2003. I found Ong Bak an almost excruciating sit, largely because the inept filmmaking tended to get in Jaa's way. Now, okay, sure, Chocolate is not the finest directorial work you'll see this year. The first half hour plods, certain compositions are fussy and contravene the action, and even within the fight choreography, there are some pretty obvious errors. (Watch as one anonymous fighting guy crouches and holds so Jija can glide efficiently across his back.) But for the most part, Prachya and Jija work in concert, devising more and more elaborate ways to display her mindblowing Muay Thai. (The under-the-ducts fight is particularly impressive, since it provides spatial impediments one normally wouldn't even think of.) I can't say there's much purpose for the autism angle. It doesn't pull any heartstrings (Jija's Zen character is too self-sufficient), and it adds a slight discomfort in terms of gender politics, as though a young Thai girl can only whupp ass if she's somehow absolutely guileless about it. Still, I'd say to anyone bemoaning the absence of Ong Bak 2 on this year's schedule, I think Midnight Madness Airways probably gave us an upgrade.


-The Parable of the Tulip Painter and the Fly (Charlotte Pryce) [s]

Pryce's latest nature study has suitably lovely passages, but it's somewhat hobbled structurally and thematically by a rather overdetermined metaphor. The film consists of a loose fugue of two dominant elements, direct photography of the natural world (in the form of the titular tulip and fly, and the sunlight that plays against them) and various forms of flattened artificial representation of those selfsame actors. The opening shot is of a still life painting distorted by undulating anamorphic waves, followed by an extreme close-up of the end of a paintbrush piercing the surface tension on a globule of clear turpentine or resin. Pryce plays with the paintbrush motif throughout, juxtaposing the movement of the live fly with its "dead" painted counterpart. Later, she underscores the real / Memorex concept by showing the hard geometric swath of a painted reflection against the brilliant glint of sunlight in clear liquid, the threads of the edge of a glass jar providing an Alice Neel / Joyce Wieland study in quotidian radiance. In time, Pryce's play with the plastics of cinematic light emphasize her own film's additional layer of flattening and artifice, and the results are often lovely. But from moment to moment, the progression of images is unclear.The thematics at work are too deliberate by half, but strangely, Pryce's montage doesn't seem to add to the persuasive power of the process. And although Pryce does achieve some pleasing effects, there's a nagging feeling that even her finest images operate within well-trod boundaries of avant-garde aesthetics: phenomena / noumena; flatness / depth; painting / photography; all wrapped in a tight little bundle, complete with rack focus and end flares.


-Lossless #2 (Rebecca Baron and Doug Goodwin) [v/s]

One of the bugbears of "conceptual art," especially where film and video are concerned, is the claim leveled by skeptics that hearing the work described is just as satisfying, if not more so, than actually seeing the piece in question. (Or, as Laurie Anderson put it, "Language is a virus from outer space, and hearing your name is better than seeing your face.") In most cases, such quibbles are simply untrue, the province of philistinism and lazy spectatorship, so when it does in fact prove to be the case, it's particularly disheartening. Lossless #2 is a Work of Art in the Age of the Mechanically Reproduced One-Liner, and once you grok what it has to say about new media interfaces, the unexpected collision of information from one era and format with a foreign and rather unamenable context, and the promiscuity of the post-Internet film image, all you can do is wait for it to run its course. Baron and Goodwin downloaded a bit torrent file of Meshes of the Afternoon, and began the playback before the download was complete, resulting in smeary, digitally mashed-up images that bled one shot into the next. Yep, that's what happens when you play a torrent too early.


-Dig (Robert Todd) [s]

[SPOILERS] This film strikes me as one of those attempts to internalize the language of experimental filmmaking but somehow make it less forbidding, to bring it (literally) down to street-level through a simpler form of organization, more readily recognizable imagery, and a flat, accessible sense of humor that treads into the territory of an almost sweet, avuncular corniness. One thing I can say for Dig, which is not a particularly interesting film, is that it seems genuine, and that it exhibits none of the hipster posturing characteristic of a lot of other deliberately "inviting" non-narrative film, especially from Portland. But, like Todd's Office Suite performed certain unnecessary revisions on Ernie Gehr, Dig strikes me as a very simplified riff on Robert Breer. The film consists of close-up pavement shots, looking down on spray-painted arrows that utility companies use to mark their excavation plans. The dancing performers of this semi-rapid animation are instantly recognizable, so the viewer is flattered -- an obscure part of my world is now put before me, and I am now attending to it with aesthetic concentration. But Todd's manipulations are extremely basic -- usually the arrows simply circle quickly around the frame, but occasionally they flash opposite one another. In the only break from pavement imagery in the four-minute film, Todd gives us a short Rose Lowder-like interlude of flash-frame flowers, a gag on what might've been found had you "dug" somewhere else, I suppose. Overall, the film actually provides the germ of an idea -- the painted marks are an uncommon part of city life, usually unseen even in the most abstract city-symphony films -- but instead of elaborating on that promise, it seems to want to get in, land a jab, and get out, resulting in lackluster, uninspired form.


-Garden/ing (Eriko Sonoda, Japan) [v/s]

[SPOILERS] Sonoda's tricky little video sneaks up on you, initially coming on like a rather bland landscape diary -- my camera will describe a single arc around my back window several times over, recording the micro-transitions in my garden over time -- and gradually lowering the boom. The less said about Sonoda's technique the better, since the conundrum of trying to find your place within its ever-shifting spatial parameters is part of the fun. What I can say is that Sonoda shows us black and white images of a rounded track across a turret window looking out onto the backyard. We see the same four trees, over and over. Sometimes we see laundry hanging, sometimes not. Sonoda interrupts the arc with an uncomfortable staccato, turning the curve into about eight distinct planes. As the video progresses, getting into its second and third movements, photographs start to interlope into the scene, resulting in multiple intersecting arcs and a space that becomes increasingly bent and illegible. Suffice to say, Garden/ing, like Pryce's Parable, is an examination of the problematics of representation, but where Pryce told us a story about the issue, Sonoda provides an object lesson that pretty much rides your skull to work, And although Garden/ing does this with beauty and precision that belies any "aggression," per se, it's also a video piece that isn't afraid to genuinely tax its audience's perceptual hardware. It's a welcome break from placid contemplation. In both approach and attitude, Garden/ing is a film that echoes Michael Snow's best work (in photography as well as cinema), and so its rightful place in a program(me) called Wavelengths is fairly incontestable.


-Tziporah (Abraham Ravett) [s]

I'm embarrassed to say, this is actually my first encounter of Ravett's work; he's obviously a filmmaker of note, and although I've been aware of his films, I haven't had the chance to actually see one until now. I mention this because I think this may be a substantial problem here. Tziporah is rather difficult to access, and I suspect that it would carry much more force when seen as a small component of Ravett's overall long-form project of documenting and memorializing the Jewish experience. As noted in the accompanying materials, "tziporah" is the Hebrew word for bird, and in a sense the film itself, or the particular vision it instantiates, could be likened to some kind of metaphorical avian consciousness, although one oddly at rest. The film is purely serial in its organization. One after the other, Ravett shows us close-ups of flowers stitched onto handmade garments or quilts, or printed flower patters on swaths of fabric whose style and condition seems to mark them within a general 1930s-50s period. This is a transitional era, the gradual move to suburban living serving to curtail a great deal of domestic handicraft and home sewing in favor of impersonal retail. (When's the last time you saw a Simplicity pattern around anyone's house? Kind of sad, really.) In any case, Ravett's flat, one by one presentation offers sewn blossoms to the camera eye, false bird meeting false flower. (Again, like in the work of Pryce and Sonoda, nature and its representation are a major theme this year.) But beyond this, Ravett's simple array, which turns the space of the screen into something of a craft fair display or a quilting bee show, instantly transports viewers of my generation to the homes of our grandmothers, prompting us to contemplate their subject position and the creativity they expressed through the limited means society permitted them. Again, I suspect Tziporah in and of itself would have far more resonance seen in the wider context of Ravett's historical reclamation project, but that's something I'm not qualified to say.


-Happy-Go-Lucky (Mike Leigh, U.K.) [4]

[MAJOR SPOILERS] I will be the first to man up and admit, I misjudged this film from a distance, and as Leigh booster Mike D'Angelo correctly notes, that may well be a big part of the point. Shortly after H-G-L debuted at Berlin, I viewed an extended clip online (the first encounter with Eddie Marsan's driving instructor) and out of context, it certainly seemed as though Leigh and Sally Hawkins had created in Poppy a wholly irksome creation, and that the film was like some kind of strange, condescending paean to working class female mediocrity. At first blush, Poppy scans like a misbegotten combo of la-di-da ladette affectations with the sad forced optimism of a crying-on-the-inside middle-aged desk clerk, counting down to the weekend and piña coladas with the girls from Accounts Receivable. As it turns out, Poppy is really pretty cool, a funny, well-adjusted grade school teacher who's a bit tasteless but, as they say, is "high on life." (And frankly, if we need anyone on earth with a disposition like this, it's elementary school teachers.) The trouble is, Leigh has dropped Poppy into the most jerry-rigged, deterministic social universe he's ever created. From the opening scene in the bookstore, where guys are pointedly rude for no apparent reason, it becomes clear pretty quickly that H-G-L is, at best, going to hold a somewhat distorted mirror up to reality in order to make some rhetorical point about happiness, and what we can really know about other people's. (The disco scene, when Poppy and her gang dance to Pulp's "Common People," leaves little to interpretation.)


But as it progresses, the film bears less and less resemblance to actual human existence on Planet Earth. The most egregious examples are Marsan's Scott, whose preposterous hostility soon reveals certifiable insanity, but of a uniquely stylized sort that allows for peculiar right-wing rants and perverse sexual insecurity that smacks of the Actors' Workshop. (Did Leigh come across some old anti-immigrant tirades by Gary Numan in Melody Maker and recall that he felt safest of all 'cause he could lock all his doors in cars? A character is born!) But aside from a few key relationships (Poppy's flatmate Zoe, her flamenco-dancing co-worker, and her social worker boyfriend), nothing in this film rings true, not the family relationships, not the TMI dance instructor, not the stilted chat about poor parents' responsibility to get their kids off the PlayStation, and certainly not the sudden, pseudo-Beckett interlude with Homeless Dude. Each and every interaction is a contrivance, seemingly designed to inject "drama" into what should be a character study. Leigh and Hawkins (who is phenomenal here -- her love scene alone completely shifts one's sense of Poppy's emotional capacities as a human being) really have something here, but Leigh apparently didn't trust it, or his audience, and decided to crush it under leaden, incoherently didactic comedy. And a lot of critics and festivals are taking the bait! I'm dumbfounded.


-Suspension (Vanessa O'Neill) [s]

Everyone will tell you that the greatest pleasure you can experience in the context of a film festival is a new discovery, the joy of a major talent jumping out of the crowd and forcing you to take notice. I'm happy to report that Vanessa O'Neill appears to be such a talent, based on the evidence of Suspension, a dual-projection seascape abstraction that takes essentially familiar elements and weaves them into an entirely unique, transportive visual field. In describing what she's done, it will sound fairly simple. The two single film images represent significantly different spatial effects, and the spatial differential results in a hovering, luminous painterly image that mutates across the running time. Much of the film operates as a sort of optical contest between a sharp, Yves Kleinian cobalt blue and the pure white of the projector lamp. Against this action there is the tension between shifting water images. Sometimes we're deep in the drink, with waves filling the frame a la the end of Wavelength; sometimes they're offset with a white sky managing the top half of the frame. But time and again, the secondary filmstrip contains active film grain in motion, so that seemingly static images seem to zoom forward like oncoming traffic, or form and disintegrate like atoms. What's more, at key transitional moments, O'Neill washes the film frames out to the bare minimum of information -- a blue horizon line or a hovering edge. In one significant moment midfilm, a gaping blue cut opens and retracts from left to right, turning the screen into a Lucio Fontana canvas, opening itself in time. O'Neill is a relative newcomer on the film scene, having only recently earned her MFA from the San Francisco Art Institute. What good news for us. We should keep an eye out for whatever she does next.


-Public Domain (Jim Jennings) [s]

According to program notes, Jennings made Public Domain in response to Michael Bloomberg's (failed) initiative to levy prohibitive costs on those seeking to film in New York City. In a sense, Jennings' film is an ideal demonstration both of what would be lost if NYC imagery were restricted, and, perhaps more importantly, of how any such law would be meaningless, since a world of fleeting fugitive images exists beneath the radar, well below the ken of even the most intrepid "independent" filmmakers whose aspirations chain them to 35mm film crews. Jennings, as a one-man band and total mobile unit, can move undetected through the bustle of the streets and collect fragments of life that the Woody Allens and Spike Lees of the world wouldn't notice. Now, having laid out what I take to be the thematic justification for the shape and form of Public Domain, let me say that no precis can express the sheer exhilaration, the formal precision and nonstop observational inventiveness of the film itself (I'm not sure if such a concept -- observational inventiveness -- isn't an oxymoron. But Jennings attunes himself to what's around him, and achieves such varied results in the process, that I sense he continually finds new ways to observe the spaces he moves through, a sort of active passivity.) Jennings has been one of the un(der)sung heroes of experimental cinema for decades now; his body of work clearly shows him to be equal in stature to acknowledged masters such as Ernie Gehr, Ken Jacobs, Nathaniel Dorsky, and Warren Sonbert.


There are highly compact formal micro-dramas that characterize Public Domain's overall montage logic, in which brief quotidian gestures are glanced, then shown either on their side or right side up, so as to emphasize both the pure movement and rhythm within the frame and its human / geographical content. That is, when we see the distortion of buildings as reflected in the side of a moving bus, Jennings presents it twice or in some cases three times, with different orientations, so that we can quickly apprehend the formal information while the subject matter retains its denotative connection to the life of the city. What's more, within this overall bustle (less city symphony than string quartet, a set of sharply articulated scherzo maneuvers) Jennings even seems to expand on the theme of the "public domain" of the unrestricted cinematic image, with moments that recall other great avant-garde films and filmmakers, an entire tradition that didn't wait around for permits. We see Dorsky's floating bag, the wobbly buildings of Manhatta and N.Y.,N.Y., the upended pedestrians of Gehr and the urban grunge of Jacobs and Jack Smith. Jagged moments in the editing, shuttling us from the pavement to the sky, strike me as Warren Sonbert moments. And yet, in terms of color, lighting, tone, and pacing, everything is of a piece, and unmistakably organized by Jennings' unique sensibility, one which eschews detachment in favor of complete beatitude in the face of urban chaos. Public Domain, like all of Jennings' New York films, are records of the pleasure in being bumped into when you stop to think. Far from marking the cessation of thinking, that jolt simply occasions another, newer thought.


-Rodakis (Olaf Nicolai, Germany) [s]

Within the context of Wavelengths, Nicolai's film is a lovely little palate-cleanser, but this sells it short, and I fear it's the kind of film that could get lost in the shuffle of a group show, particularly when some of its neighbors' aesthetic procedures are rather more aggressive. It's slightly difficult to place, other than to say that it's very European in terms of its sources. Nicolai, a multimedia artist of considerable note, has produced a sly conceptual work which is not exactly the experimental documentary that it at first appears to be, although as a work of conceptual art, it is in fact the document(ary) of an unconventional research procedure. On the one hand, next to nothing is known about 19th century builder Alexis Rodakis (a forerunner of modernist architecture), and so Nicolai adopts the fundamental modernist stance: examine the work itself. In a series of beautifully composed, relatively static shots of the Rodakis home and its island environs in the bold Mediterranean sunlight, Nicolai provides a part / whole architectural photo-essay in time, patiently examining this key site. Visually, Nicolai's style owes everything to a spatio-realist avant-garde: Straub-Huillet most clearly, but also Heinz Emigholz, and the Greek-influenced holistics of Robert Beavers. Against this approach, we get a voiceover delivering a basic timeline of events in Rodakis's life, which, contrary to modernist tenets, we start to measure against what we see of his extant work. Eventually, Nicolai reveals this drive toward art-as-autobiography, or the demand for Lives of the Artists, to be a far more problematic issue than we thought, but to the film's credit, Rodakis doesn't just turn on a "reveal." Instead, the facts resonate as a set of new creations and desires, not incompatible with those needs that the Rodakis House satisfied for Le Corbusier or Adolf Loos. That is to say, we all find the Rodakis we demand, or perhaps deserve.


-Parícutin (Erika Loic, Canada) [s]

Loic's film is an admirable attempt at a documentary / avant-garde hybrid whose elements simply fail to gel. The title refers to the location in Mexico of a volcano whose birth and eventual retreat into dormancy has been observed and recorded, making it the only volcano to be charted over the course of its "life cycle." Loic combines footage from the field with pure graphic cinema -- mostly flickering black triangles against a white background, although other geometric forms emerge as well. She also incorporates hand-painted passages (mostly fresh-lava reds) and a piercing electronic drone. The specific movements of Parícutin are punctuated by texts in Spanish and English, providing both historical background on the site and testimony by indigenous villagers, who have various strategies for explaining the natural process that is so dramatically impacting their lives. Loic, a student of R. Bruce Elder, is to be commended for originality of approach, since I cannot think of another nonfiction essay capacious enough to incorporate methods gleaned from sources as disparate as Chris Marker, Stan Brakhage, and Oskar Fischinger. Alas, these elements sit side by side without mutually illuminating one another, and at times (as with the vibrating triangles) edge too close to naked literalism. Although more interesting than a hypothetical, straightforward documentary on the same subject, no doubt, Parícutin is an experiment that doesn't work.


-When It Was Blue (Jennifer Reeves, U.S. / Iceland) [m] [rough edit preview disc]

I really don't want to say too much, since I'll be seeing and reviewing the live performance. But for now, I will say that this piece is less of a film and more like a deep headspace you enter, a very intelligent person's private image-diary.If there's a theme to pull out of it (on first viewing, at least), it's a play on the idea of "blue." There's a great deal of nature imagery, and the overall mood is one of ecology in jeopardy. But at the same time, there's a personal anxiety about this very world.Whoever is seeing this fauna and flora is not unproblematically embracing it. So there's a tension between loving the world and cowering before it, of being afraid of and for it. The competition between the dual images conveys this like a fight to the death. Based on the single-screen combination preview disc, there's no way the live performance won't make my year-end top five. When It Was Blue Live is not to be missed.


-Mosaik Méchanique (Norbert Pfaffenbichler, Austria) [s]

It seems as though Austria has a bottomless supply of interesting experimental filmmakers, and all a programmer needs to do is phone Sixpack Films and ask about the Daily Special. I don't mean to sound glib, but anyone who follows the scene seems likely to notice the sudden appearance of a really compelling film every so often, by a filmmaker about whom you've probably heard very little if anything at all, but who upon further research has a filmography at least ten works deep. Such is the case with Pfaffenbichler, whose Mosaik Méchanique strikes me as a bold conceptual work, one that bowled me over completely upon first viewing. Now, I must admit that a second viewing tempered my enthusiasm somewhat, although this in no way diminishes Pfaffenbichler's intellectual and formalist accomplishment. It's just that the first time one encounters Mosaik, the sheer preponderance of possibilities it seems to open up can feel like a veritable expanding of the mind. [SPOILERS COMMENCE] To wit: what the film is is a gridlike arrangement of every individual shot of a 1914 short film starring Charlie Chaplin and Fatty Arbuckle, entitled A Film Johnnie, each shot playing out as a loop within its place in the grid. The original film is a somewhat self-reflexive, behind-the-scenes one-reeler, so Pfaffenbichler's selection is hardly random. (It also contains certain silent-era chestnuts, like the waterhose gag.)


But as the whole film pulsates before you in one giant Cinemascope panel, one's entire sense of film time kind of explodes. Think of the implications! Is this what it looks like inside the mind of David Bordwell when he watches a film? Now we can observe tonal and spatial differentials and anomalies imperceptible when actually viewing the film, such as patterns of light and dark, or preferred gestures and directions! The narrative impulse is hereby defeated, resulting in a cinema of tabulation, one much more akin to database treatments of literature, so-called "distant reading" wherein computations tell us which words and phrases recur in Joyce or Flaubert! Finally, all vestiges of humanism have been purged from structuralist cinema, and the mechanistic character of the silent comedians, their brute surreal power, has been summarily displayed! But the thing is, all this mental hellzapoppin' can occur, in part, because the film is a semi-static object existing in time before you, allowing the viewer space to ruminate. Although Pfaffenbichler cites Kubelka and Léger as primary inspirations, Mosaik most resembles the gallery-hung filmstrip arrangements of Paul Sharits. And like many of his films, there is an unforgiving, slablike quality to Mosaik, almost like the cinematic equivalent of a Richard Serra Cor-Ten steel wall. And so, naturally, a second or third viewing will never yield as much raw power as the initial contact. But neither does it blunt the film's undeniable acuity. This is a major work, and, as is the case with all great structuralism, this film was completely inevitable.


-Tell Me On Tuesday (Astrid Ofner, Austria) [s]

Here is a perfectly pleasant, perfectly lovely, semi-narrative poetic essay film that doesn't really belong in an avant-garde showcase, but most likely has no other place to be, given the current configurations of film festivals and the marketplace. And if my opening sentence sounds as though I'm damning with faint praise, I probably am, because I can't help but feel like I've seen many other films like Tell Me On Tuesday, each just as lovely and unassuming, each quite capable of passing your time like a soothing cup of film-tea. But indeed, there is a distinct lack of frisson here, a sense that all the elements are working so harmoniously because harmony for its own sake comprises the lion's share of what Ofner is putting onscreen. The film consists of a narrator reading love letters from Franz Kafka to his beloved Malena, set to a variety of Super 8 images of Vienna on expired stock (many of which look as though they might've been shot through a pinhole camera, or at least with altered lenses), supported by the music of Anton Webern. So, with these players on the field, Tell Me On Tuesday simply couldn't be an unappealing film. And yet, if you look more closely at Ofner's editing choices, they exude no compositional urgency, no structure unto themselves. Likewise with the sound / image relationships. As with, say, the otherwise very different films of Wes Anderson, Tell Me On Tuesday uses music cues and an overall narrative / emotive thrust to lend itself a coherence that the film itself, from a strictly formalist standpoint, often lacks. This, again, isn't to say that Ofner's work is less than enjoyable or even emotionally edifying at times. Her Super 8 shots in particular, when blown up to 35, swirl with a hot grain so instantly satisfying it may as well have come out of an Uncle Ben's box. But there is a certain aesthetic shorthand at work, resulting in a swoony fog with no discernible center.


-Block B (Chris Chong Chan Fui, Malaysia / Canada / Japan) [s]

[MILD SPOILERS] In its own way, Block B might represent a perfect combination of strict formalism and socio-anthropological content, but oddly enough, the result is that the two tend to impoverish one another, each seemingly like a mutually justifying stunt. Comprised of two identically composed camera runs each nearing ten minutes long, Block B is an extreme long shot of the titular apartment building in Kuala Lumpur. Block B is the sort of high modernist structure that punctuates the urban centers of Asia; the West, by and large, has rejected the Brutalist dreams of Le Corbusier and Louis I. Kahn ("piles of concrete," one noted critic has called them) but megacities like Shanghai, Mumbai, and KL still rely on them. Chan Fui's composition is a basic elevation on the balcony side of the building, resulting in a facade with identical modules up both sides and an elevator shaft up the middle, encased in a jutting cement rectangle that makes the entire residence resemble a dingy Barnett Newman painting. We see tiny moving denizens on the balconies, and hear conversations very high in the sound mix, as though we were right there in the communal bustle. Only when one woman remarks that she has accidentally dropped a bedsheet off her balcony, and we see it fly down several stories on the left hand side, do we realize that we are, ostensibly, watching a real-time social event, whose tactile aural character is matched by its spatial miniaturization. The second part shows the same building at night, as tenants discuss a party brewing on what looks like the twelfth floor from the top, as fluorescents cast all activity within an electric halo. But Chan Fui's most significant intervention here is that we can see inside each apartment. It seems that for the second half, every room may have been shot as a separate video channel which was then laid over the building-grid in post-production. Perhaps this isn't the case, and Block B simply enjoys a degree of transparency that would have made even Jeremy Bentham blush. (And if Chan Fui somehow employed actual film for each individual room, the technical achievement makes the head swim.) At any rate, the final 35mm film doesn't provide enough sociological material to transcend its limitations as a formalist coup de théâtre. We just don't spend that much time with these folks, even at a distance, so we get a kind of mash-up of Big Brother, Pedro Costa, and Greenbergian aesthetics. And in fact, Chan Fui's chief gimmick has already been trumped by HBO's on demand / side-of-a-building miniseries "HBO Voyeur," which was admittedly ridiculous but had no pretensions of avant-doc hybridity.


-Horizontal Boundaries (Pat O'Neill) [s] [2008 version]

Or, following Wong Kar-Wai (also in the festival this year), Horizontal Boundaries Redux. I really be entirely trusted about this one, since there were glitches aplenty in the DVD screener. And, although apparently O'Neill has so thoroughly reconstructed and re-scored this film (with the help of composer extraordinaire Carl Stone), now, I believe, in its third overall version, that it constitutes a whole new film, I, never having seen the original(s), cannot authoritatively say. What I can say, however, all throat-clearing now out of the way, is that HB08 is a highly inconsistent film, sort of a "container" work more than an integral effort with a single set of structural principles evenly applied. (Think of such Michael Snow films as *Corpus Callosum or Rameau's Nephew, but more compact.) From the opening moments, we get a taste of what O'Neill is up to. rapid-fire segments of highly processed SoCal imagery -- beaches, bungalows, car life, palm trees -- stuttering across each other vertically as a horizontal line bisects the frame. Basically, the title refers to a kind of intentionally faulty registration, wherein images slip into and onto one another on the horizontal axis, as though film and projector were not the same gauge. Against this is a chugging, humming, Steve Reich-like soundtrack with occasional fragments of film noir dialog. This is, in essence, an echt L.A. film, turning superimposition, bad registration and solarization into formalist metaphors for a kind of sunbaked, distracted Angelino consciousness. But not everything in the film works this way. Sometimes O'Neill goes into the woods, for passages that move in vertical wipes. There are long blackout portions, including one with Irish ceili music. (Why?) There's a slow, hazy zoom into what looks like a building across a runway, in glassy videography. Large portions of HB08 don't really coalesce into a singular film-entity. And, having now seen four films by O'Neill (two shorts and two longer works), I'm finding that this is an O'Neill hallmark. The man has an absolute mastery over the manipulated image, combining the tactility of sculpture and collage with the frenetic fly-away chaos of DJ culture and live-mix video. I see how it all comes together "across the page," but not necessarily "from cover to cover," if you know what I mean. At any rate, I'll soon see it properly on film, and I'm sure that will help.


-The Biggest Chinese Restaurant in the World (Weijun Chen, U.K. / The Netherlands / Denmark) [v] [W/O] (1:08)

I gave this one an extended look-see based mostly on the fulsome praise Chen received for Please Vote For Me, last year's mid-length doc about a student body president election in China. And, as you'd expect, Biggest Restaurant does in fact provide a glimpse at the complex workings of the West Lake restaurant in the Hunan Province, which in fact is the largest restaurant in the world, period. We meet the woman who owns and runs the place, Qin Linzi, who describes the failure of her first marriage and its inspiration to become an independent success. We see a shlubby guy and his golddigging Bridezilla prepare a lavish wedding at the West Lake, while others discuss changes in Chinese wedding traditions. But the whole thing (or the more than half I saw) really skates over the surface. We learn little tidbits about high-end Imperial cuisine, but not much about the mechanics of the restaurant business. Mostly, it's just a series of portraits that -- SURPRISE, SURPRISE -- show us the fragmented complexity of 21st Century China, a nation in transition. Why spend time with fundamentally unexceptional ("typical") people, captured with negligible videography, for the sake of such a basic thesis, when an actual filmmaker like Jia Zhang-ke can offer all that and so much more? Sorry, but this Chinese Restaurant just didn't deliver. [rimshot]


-El Greco (Yannis Smaragdis, Greece / Spain/ Hungary) [W/O] (0:47)

Is it Sister Wendy's fault? What's with the recent rash of Lives of the Artists films (Girl With the Pearl Earring, Modigliani, Klimt) that insist on treating painting as a fundamentally narrative pursuit, one that always sublimates sexual desire in the most mundane manner possible? El Greco is compulsively watchable, partly because it hits all its marks like clockwork. But it's also fascinating as an almost laboratory-hatched specimen of a particular kind of middlebrow Euro-pudding object, from its unremarked-upon toggle from Greek to English in the first five minutes, to its wall-to-wall explanatory narration, to its generic firebrand cad (Nick Ashdon) representing the forces of freedom and modernity against the oh-so-repressive hypocrisies of the Church. Naturally, in an early scene, sexy El Greco catches the eye of the hot-to-trot daughter (Laia Marull) of the leader of Italy's occupation government in Crete, with the least furtive glances in the history of the eyeline match. Of course Greco's family is part of the resistance (factually true), but dear old dad won't let Junior take up arms, because "your weapon is your paintbrush." Need I mention that the painter has an early friend in a progressive priest (Juan Diego Botto) who maybe, just might end up stabbing our hero in the back at a pivotal moment? (In case you had any doubts, Smaragdis helpfully kicks things off with a flash-forward.) The existence of this sort of film, with its well-appointed art direction and featherbrained take on the act of creation, no doubt contributed to Peter Greenaway's baldness. I was ripping out my hair just watching it. Anyone still unconvinced that 2008 represents a nosedive for TIFF should take a look at this utterly useless film, which has no business holding down a slot in any festival, no matter how capacious.



screening schedule


Wednesday, 9/3 -- Pre-festival previews, including one unexpected surprise: Air Canada's in-flight movie selections from Houston to Toronto included Assayas's Summer Hours. Boy howdy.


-Tale 52 (Alexis Alexiou, Greece) [5]

Shortly after posting my capsule review on El Greco, a critic friend of mine sent me an email with the final line of the above review, with the subject line, "get ready to copy and paste." Tale 52 is a perfect example of what he was warning me about, since in and of itself it's a film that has no real business being in a festival, short of maybe San Jose Cinequest or some other mid-level slick-indie enclave. It's more of an advertisement for Alexiou's potential than a forceful statement per se, since its portrait of a troubled relationship as refracted through a troubled mind treads no new ground formally or intellectually. But from shot to shot, Tale 52 does traffic in an off-center beauty, schizophrenia as edgy perfume commercial. There is a blunt but undeniable Lego-logic to the way shots link in the editing, or the way space accumulates around Iosonas (Giorgos Kakanakis, kind of a damaged, smut-puppy Lars Rudolph) and Penelope (Serafita Grigoriadou, who is probably packing for Hollywood as we speak) as they struggle to organize themselves in semi-linear time. The film is compulsively watchable because its form is oddly aggressive and swaggering and yet haunted, as though implicitly apologizing for its own shallowness. The cinema du look was supposed to be fun, but here surface affectation folds in on itself like a kind of stylish cancer, and by the end you might feel slightly dirty if you felt anything at all. A kind of adolescent Alain Resnais film for sensitive misogynists, Tale 52 is probably headed straight for IFC's Festival Direct channel, like so much near-art.


-Summer Hours (Olivier Assayas, France) [7]

Apparently this film is now disavowed by the very Musée d'Orsay commission project that spawned it (the same one that gave us Hou's Flight of the Red Balloon), and if this is in fact the case, it's not without good reason. Inevitably critics and audiences are going to praise the very fine Summer Hours as a return to form for Assayas, or even a return to reason, following alleged follies like Boarding Gate and demonlover (a film about which I myself am very ambivalent). Visually, Hours has the "look" of great French cinema al fresco, sun-dappled and bustling with so much boisterous life and casually sculpted chatter that the frame can barely contain it. This looks more like a Téchiné film, really, but operates in a highly writerly register, not unlike Sentimental Destinies and especially Late August, Early September (with which it almost shares a spot on the calendar of life). Summer Hours is "about something," it is a film with a capital-T theme, and virtually everything that happens in the film, and certainly everything that's overtly discussed, is relevant to the exploration of that theme -- cultural versus familial legacy, and whether art objects that have a function, even if only as sentimental family heirlooms, become existentially damaged when they turn into cultural commodities. In a family of three adult siblings, only the stodgy intellectual (Charles Berling) wants to retain the family's holdings. The designer (Juliette Binoche) and the venture capitalist (Jérémie Renier) are in favor of selling.


But there's a little more going on than meets the eye, since Assayas is in essence taking museum money in order to critique the basis of museology and its object-fetishes. By the end of the film, we are asked to bear witness to a "death" of precious, meaningful things, the material residue of both love and intellection. It's to Assayas's credit that his commitment to taking vases and furniture as seriously as the fine art of Corot and Degas results in a wide-ranging consideration of the emotional stakes in the problem. Summer Hours is more like Statues Also Die and, yes, Toy Story 2 on this front than, say, an essay by Bourdieu. But even more than this, Assayas seems to turn the tables on his own place within the project, since he is making another kind of precious object. Part of the narrative structure of the film's inheritance question hinges on whether or not he family's children will even want the old summer house, these old paintings from two centuries ago, this clunky old furniture. That is, the issue isn't will we pass culture down to the next generation, but which one do they want? (It's not for nothing that the film opens with a direct citation of Cold Water and eventually finds the young people treating the old place, and this rather tasteful Assayas film, as a hip-hop party zone.) And so, this sigh of relief that Assayas has returned to the fold is very much missing the point. He has, in fact, produced the outward shell of a particular format, the pastoral bourgeois French film. It, too, is a museum piece of sorts, and by the time we've moved through Summer Hours, its cozy use value has also begun to feel rather like cottage best closed down.



Thursday, 9/4 -- Got a bit of a late start, since I overslept. But after wandering from station to station in the press office, I got most things taken care of. I seem to have blundered, thinking there was a nonexistent screening of Lorna's Silence, so I'll have to reconfigure the sked a bit. Also, had my first confrontation with the AMC @ Yonge and Dundas. It was . . . okay, for what it is.


Liverpool (Lisandro Alonso, Argentina / France / The Netherlands / Germany / Spain) [8]

Alonso is a major figure in world cinema who has come to prominence in the past decade, and as with Petzold, I’ve never been as fully convinced regarding Alonso’s project as many of my peers. I’ve admired aspects of La libertad and to a much greater extent Los Muertos, but it seemed to me that the Argentinean director’s style was often at odds with itself. A certain austerity and avant-garde sense of control was either undone by, or unsuited for, films that had a Romantic streak and an uncontainable primeval force.  With Liverpool, Alonso has achieved a new confidence and a sense of purpose that has lost none of its mystery despite having become as clear as crystal.At the center of Liverpool is Farrel (Juan Fernandez), a shipworker and a drunk who appears to have left his frozen hometown and his family behind many years ago. In the opening scenes, Alonso shows us something rather new in his world – a worker in the confines of a world almost completely manmade. True, we see the ocean rushing by, but the presence of Farrel in his steel bunk or working the boiler room provides a claustrophobic and also a comforting, cradling new environment for an Alonso protagonist. Compositions can settle around the figure without undue agitation, and the ship’s hull allows for totally new qualities of light that have previously been absent in Alonso’s work, such as the collision of fluorescent and incandescent bulbs at dusk as Farrel offboards the ship to begin the journey home. The obviousness of Alonso’s structure here, from an enclosed metallic world into an open, snowy landscape, takes nothing away from the visual and spatial experience that Liverpool creates within this structure, and in fact, as with many avant-garde projects, Alonso’s benefits greatly from the imposition of this objective shape.


Alonso’s previous films have all featured non-professional actors, and while many of the people who populate Farrel’s old village are clearly played by non-pros, I am not at all certain about Juan Fernandez. His bearing throughout the film as Farrel is also something that strikes me as radically new in Alonso’s cinema. He is more expressive of interior psychology, of the toll the years of guilt have taken. The film itself has the objective movement of a spatial rearrangement, from seascape to rough, unkempt landscape, but Farrel’s downbeat quest provides something additional, a level of narrativity that the landscape itself seems to reject. Whether or not Fernandez is a professional actor, his comportment and even his face and body represent a certain phenotype of the art-cinema male. He looks like Jean-Pierre Leaud and Vincent Gallo. As he finally arrives home, Farrel discovers that – corny, I know – “you can’t go home again,” but more than this, that there is a rhythm of life in the village that is more in keeping with the rest of Alonso’s cinema than Farrel or the nautical world he came from. So, one of the things that is most fascinating about Liverpool is that it is a subtle self-examination on Alonso’s part, a dialectical rethinking of his own project. Many have praised Liverpool for being a more conventional film than La libertad or Los Muertos, but this misses the point a bit. Farrel, as the agent of that conventional narrative thrust, is ultimately outcast. He isn’t just a drunk or a bad father; he also brings with him a certain self-consciousness and artifice that, in the best of circumstances, we call art, and in the worst of times there’s often no space for the life observed rather than lived. But as the final shot indicates, we, the characters, and Alonso have been changed for having undergone this quest. Liverpool is certainly a far more difficult film than Jerichow, and in the current unfavorable distribution climate, it’ll be a tough sell. But I sincerely hope more viewers get the chance to see it. It is one of the year’s best films, and ought to cement Alonso’s place in world cinema’s top echelon.


Dernier Maquis (Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche, France / Algeria) [6]

This is a film that I found extremely difficult to make heads or tails of days afterward, which is really telling. In retrospect, Dernier Maquis is quite transparent, and I now believe it is only the film's unreconstructed Marxist optimism that threw me off. That's to say, here we have a piece of leftist countercinema that dares to be unfashionably pro-worker, that often refrains from stereotype or caricature but also isn't going to get bogged down in a floppy humanism determined to provide even the exploiter with his best possible argument. No, Dernier Maquis features a Muslim yard boss nicknamed Mao (the director himself, interestingly) who uses Islam as an opiate for his "people." He won't raise wages or insure workplace safety, but he will construct a makeshift mosque in an old hotel adjacent to the worksite. Although Ameur-Zaïmeche organizes the film in a deceptively loose, episodic manner -- ideas pop up and don't recur, like the self-circumcision or the mysterious rodent in the mechanic's pit -- but as we eventually discover, the film has a definite trajectory. All those shocking red pallettes are more than a visual motif or an internal pop-art / minimalist principle for organizing filmic space. And what's more, once the "maquis" is in place, Ameur-Zaïmeche has taken his own, somewhat unpopular stand as to who they will most likely need to be. They are the skilled workers, not the rank and file. Again, this is a theoretical stand so out of step with current thinking that it confused me at first. But for crying out loud, at least it's a stand, something worth chewing on. This isn't perfect film, but it's a smart and provocative one and I'm very glad I saw it.


Delta (Kornél Mundruczó, Hungary / Germany) [4]

Talk about a Bridge to Nowhere. Gov. Sarah Palin's got nothing on Hungarian second-rater Mundruczó and this turgid, graceless fiasco, a film that resembles nothing so much as an undergraduate's idea of an abstruse art film. It's got all the elements: a mysterious stranger comes to town, who turns out to be the prodigal son of a fragmented family. His mother barely recognizes him, his stepfather is a drunken tyrant, and his sister, who he barely remembers, is kind of cute. Hm, let's retreat to a small island in the middle of the bay and build a house where we can get away from the barbaric locals and have incestuous sex. Although Delta thanks Tarr and Hranitzky in the opening credits, that's really where any meaningful comparisons should end, except to say that the film's final sequence, an extended island housewarming party wherein Brother and Sister learn the hard way just what the locals think of them, is the only part of Delta the even begins to come alive. Are rape and savagery the only things that truly capture Mundruczó's imagination? This isn't even a slow, pretentious, lugubrious object of visual rapture, of the sort that even, say, Andrei Zvygintev's detractors had to admit The Banishment was. Sure, there are long tracking shots and long passages of landscape and water imagery, but Mundruczó's use of color, space, and editing are klutzy and rudimentary. His crane shots are particularly awkward. It's not just a risibly stupid and self-important film; it's an exceedingly shoddy one. To think that Mundruczó landed a Competition slot at Cannes over Claire Denis, Lisandro Alonso and Hirokazu Kore-eda just boggles the mind.


Two Legged Horse (Samira Makhmalbaf, Iran) [W/O] (1:15)

Well, sad to say, Samira too has gone the way of the rest of the Makhmalbaf Film House [chime!], which means, graceless and virtually self-parodic. Say what you will about At Five in the Afternoon, but at least it had more than one governing metaphor, and an actual character at its center, rather than a mewling placeholder on the socioeconomic ladder. I can't even see this film functioning as a didactic tale, since from what I saw (far more than I cared to, all told), Makhmalbaf has exactly one point to make and beats it mercilessly, over and over again, like, well . . . So, rich kids, if you ever have your feet blown off by mines, and you have major daddy issues, don't hire destitute boys to be your human horse. (Cf. Richard Pryor in The Toy. No, really.) The worst part of it all (and why I kept hanging on) is that 2LH occasionally showed little flashes of spunk or even just minimal non-sameness, falsely hinting that the film would burst to life in another direction, only to have Destitute Boy-Horse lose a race or fall over in a squared-circle schoolyard fight, at which point Richie Footless Rich would begin whipping him and chunking rocks at his head once again. A mystifying bellyflop from a genuine talent.


Zift (Javor Gardev, Bulgaria) [3]

"Anyone still unconvinced that 2008 represents a nosedive for TIFF should take a look at this utterly useless film, which has no business holding down a slot in any festival, no matter how capacious." Macho bullshit, Commie style. The less said about this carbuncle of a film, the better, except that I don't recall the last time I've encountered a piece of cinema that so clearly considered itself art operating in such an unreconstructed misogynist register. Also, witless, ugly, has the gall to swipe a scene from Gilda, as unconsciously homoerotophobic as a fraternity hazing ritual, thinks that having a glass eye pop out and roll around is high comedy, you get the idea. Truth in advertising; "zift" is both a tarlike substance chewed as gum, and a slang term for shit.


Friday, 9/5 -- If it wasn't for disappointments, I wouldn't have any appointments. Drive-by remarks will be replaced with actual reviews in a day or two.


Acné (Federico Veiroj, Uruguay / Argentina / Spain / Mexico) [4]

Pop that sucker. Films which are presumably exploring the interior worlds of characters mired in typical adolescent-boy urges should, in theory, be capable of staking out a bit of directorial or writerly distance from their protagonists or subject matter. Sometimes you hear certain critics complain that this or that filmmaker isn’t “generous with [his/her] characters.” Well, be careful what you wish for! Federico Veiroj’s Acne is an unfunny Uruguayan-Jewish comedy about Bregman the insensitive sensitive rich kid whose parents are divorcing, who borrows money to treat his friends at the brothel, and thinks about going to a kibbutz because “Israel’s got tits.” Veiroj is so enamored with the Bregman character (he was also the focus of his debut short, As Follows) and the young actor who plays him, Alejandro Tocar, that he will let the film stand or fall on cutesy American Pie charm and smarm. (Sample gag: guys sullenly wait for their turn at the whorehouse, like they’re at the dentist. Ah, you know it's hard out there for a pimple.) The frustrating this is, Veiroj is pretty clearly going for Truffaut territory, or Wes Anderson's approximation thereof at the very least. Acne moves at a slow, lolling pace, showcases the awkward pangs of the first crush, displays Bregman's bitterness when the adult world lets him down, etc. But there's much more to the Truffaut Romantic adolescent than [SPOILER] getting a mercy fuck from the maid. In fact, these things have very little to do with one another, since class relations scuttle all potential warmth, without replacing that warmth with any trenchant commentary. Y tu mama tambien, to cite only the best example, fully situated itself in the realm of young boys being boys, coming of age, fucking around and being sweet. But Cuarón also maintained a directorial attitude apart from adolescence, one that wasn't judgmental or unsympathetic, just at a slight enough distance to avoid immature thinking in the construction and ideology of the film itself. Veiroj, by contrast, made a film for teenage boys that feels a lot like it was made by one, a filmed wet dream of endless sex-for-cash and finding out you and your frizzy hair are so geeky you're actually cool. Acne feels like a film by someone who would like to get in a time machine and go back to high school, but "do it right this time," because now he knows all the angles for free beer and pussy. I suggest detention instead.


Fear Me Not (Kristian Levring, Denmark) [5]

Ohhh, no. Be afraid. While I sat out The Intended, I did find quite a bit more value in Levring's The King is Alive than many other viewers I spoke with at the time. The melodramatic contrivance -- a bunch of bourgeois know-nothing tourists waiting for certain death while stranded in the middle of the desert kill time by staging King Lear -- said a lot about civility (a Danish, if not a Scandinavian preoccupation) as a thin mask for barbarism, as well as allowing a brutish sexism to express itself in rather baroque ways. (To wit: by the time all is said and done, Jennifer Jason Leigh's corpse gets peed on.) But Fear Me Not, which I suppose could be said to play like a black comedy, almost works in an opposite direction. (This isn't entirely shocking, since gender politics have taken something of a global about-face in the last decade.) Something of a crypto-remake of Nicholas Ray's Bigger Than Life, Fear Me Not focuses on Mikael (Ulrich Thomsen), a civil servant on extended rest leave from work. After puttering around the house and irritating his architect wife Sigrid (the peerless Paprika Steen, given little to do here but "be blithely imperious," then "be in peril") and teenage daughter Selma (Emma Sehsted Høeg), his brother-in-law gives him a chance to take part in a clinical trial of a volatile new antidepressant. Other folks on the pills start beating the hell out of each other, and the trial is cancelled, but Mikael, feeling like a new man with a bold, Nietzschean clarity of purpose, secretly continues taking the freaky miracle drug. (There is a twist here you can probably sniff out a hundred kilometers away.) Stylistically, Levring's film is pitched somewhere between the chilly, absurdist bugs-in-amber tone of von Trier and the antiseptic, soullessness architectural modernism of Haneke, but Fear Me Not lacks the precision or clear sense of purpose of either director. Haneke would avoid metaphor and achieve the Kafkaesque, whereas von Trier would put the pedal to the metal where the woman-hating is concerned, just to force us to take a side with or against the film. But Fear Me Not has it both ways. Mikael's increasing delusion that Sigrid is a castrating bitch who has ruined all facets of is life is shown to be the cruelty of a midlife breakdown writ large. And yet the film implicitly aligns itself with Mikael's point of view, since it never shows us an outside to that perspective and in the end [SLIGHT SPOILER] allows him the freedom to behave like a homicidal maniac with no repercussions other than the loss of the family from which he clearly yearned to be free. Fear Me Not is, in the end, casually sexist, a kind of male fantasy that, on the surface, condemns macho selfishness as psychopathology, but finally comes down on the side of brash, even sadistic existential choice-making. Seems Levring believes that we're never going to survive unless we get a little bit crazy. Watch your back, ladies.


24 City (Jia Zhang-ke, China) [v] [7]

[MILD SPOILERS, ALTHOUGH YOU'RE BETTER OFF KNOWING THIS STUFF GOING IN.] Mark Peranson kind of hit it on the nose when he described 24 City as the ultimate auteur film. In it, we not only find all of the major driving forces of Jia's cinema starkly present. We also find them reshuffled into a new, complex, some might even uncharitably say convoluted new framework. Like advanced modern music or poetry, the cinema of Jia has by this point started to develop into a closed set of maximal values and a continual reorganization of the constituents of that set. Or, at least that's the distinct impression I get from 24 City, a work beyond reproach in every way but an almost geometrically lateral move from Jia's masterpiece Still Life. Actually, 24 City is almost the obverse of Still Life in terms of the fiction / documentary blend. Whereas the earlier film conducted the open-air music of two narrative strands against the very real backdrop of the Three Gorges Dam project, resulting in a permeable, Rossellinian diegetic approach, 24 City functions much more like traditional documentary, at least on the surface. Highly stylized, composed-tableaux interviews comprise the majority of the film's running time. 24 City is an excavation of the echoes of the past in the new-investment, modernizing present. In Chengdu, 24 City, an all-mod-cons high rise, is being built on the site of Factory 420, a major industrial hub of the older Maoist China. Jia and d.p. Yu Lik-wai provide glimpses of both the final days of production at 420, the disassembly of the now-decommissioned machines, and the immediate construction of the rather kitschy new housing. The precision of the factory interior sequences, with the sharpness of HD video wedded to Jia's patient eye for the craggy surfaces of rust belt life, are simply superb. Jia never fails to tap into the unique rhythms that industrial production imposes upon the lives around it. But the interview segments are the heart and soul of this new work, and this decision does make 24 City something of a challenge. Without extensive prior access to Jia's dominant concerns, it would be rather difficult to lock into this material viscerally. By the same token, one learns a great deal more hard factual information about the rapid transformations in Chinese culture and policy from the 50s onward than from any previous Jia film, especially his documentaries. And so, once Joan Chen appears and cancels all doubt that some of these interviewees are in fact actors (four out of the nine to be exact; regular Jia viewers will also recognize Zhao Tao from Platform, The World, and Unknown Pleasures), the film's shell game with documentary truth raises some questions, but not all that many. Whereas a film like Trinh's Surname Viet Given Name Nam (which 24 City superficially resembles in its use of the device) was a salvo in debunking the myth of documentary's claims to authority, Jia seems to be far more playful, interested in the instability of memory in China's mad dash toward hypermodernity. Foucault famously called history a "fiction," in the sense that it was a deliberately fashioned object, collectively forged and put to work as society needed. With 24 City, Jia seems to imply that a "usable past," or even just a halfway coherent one, may end up being the province of our fabulists.


Winter (Nathaniel Dorsky) [s] [7]

Sarabande (Nathaniel Dorsky) [s] [7]

While all of Dorsky’s work demands and rewards repeat viewings, these new films took me somewhat by surprise since they reflect a subtle shift in Dorsky’s imagemaking, one for which I wasn’t quite prepared. The films have taken their time seeping into my mind and I am starting to gain a toehold with them, I think. But these comments should be taken as highly preliminary and speculative, if not outright scattershot. One of the hallmarks of Dorsky’s filmmaking in the phase that began with Triste and, to some extent, may have ended with the magnificent Song and Solitude, has been a meticulous montage style that actively worked against ideational associations or, in many cases, obviously formal or abstract ones. Instead, each shot in a Dorsky film always seemed determined to retain its individuality and absolute presence on the screen. It wasn’t there to move you ahead or refer you back to an “elsewhere” in the film, but to co-exist as a unique intensity of light, color and shadow. Within this overall scheme, of course, patterns and themes emerged, and there was always a discernible logic as to why any given series of individual shots comprised a single film. Recalling Arthur Peleshian’s theory of “distance montage,” Dorsky’s editing would keep obvious correspondences apart while yielding a broad, total impression that unmistakably expanded in the consciousness of the attentive viewer. Active intuition, rather than logical assemblage, was the primary spectatorial faculty these films requested.


Winter and Sarabande function somewhat differently. Although this is a crass simplification of the two films, it is nonetheless fair to say that Winter is a study of the bisection of the frame by diagonals, while Sarabande takes the previous film’s color palette into a realm of heightened movement, specifically focusing on twisting and torquing forms as they reflect and diffract light. Within avant-garde film production, centering one’s film on such abstract forms as perceived in the world is a grand tradition, but it’s one that up to now Dorsky seemed to have actively abjured. Certain shot combinations within Winter recall the finest films of Ernie Gehr, which of course is some of the highest praise I can dole out. I do not think that these new films are fixated on abstract structure. Like Gehr’s films, they are too alive, too attentive to what’s happening in the world around them. But it does seem that Dorsky is perhaps no longer working so assiduously to avoid the perception of structures, or suppress their emergence. Likewise, there are singularly stunning reds and greens, or layered multiple reflections, but more than in any of Dorsky’s previous works there are not singular standout shots in Winter and Sarabande. Rather, they function as all-over compositions with a relatively stable timbre and pitch. This was an instance when Dorsky’s admiration for Ozu and Bresson, two modernists dedicated to construction from elements of equal weight, struck me as important for accessing his own work.


Winter is, as you might expect, a film largely characterized by blues and grays, however from the opening shot Dorsky shows us an aspect of the film’s treatment of light that will recur at frequent but irregular intervals. Against black shadows on pavement, a short diagonal shaft of hot sunlight draws and undraws itself on the right hand side of the frame, presumably as an unseen door opens and closes. Winter is frequently about intensities of light characterized by their fragility or near-disappearance. Although like all of Dorsky’s work, the film is firmly material and unshackled by needless metaphor, the jagged diagonals did strike me as somehow apposite as an objective correlative to the snowless San Francisco winters, a sharp, biting cold you cannot really see. This is only my interpretation, of course. But reducing Dorsky’s films to narratives and symbols is always to miss the point and to undercut their power. On the other hand, as is often the case with Dorsky’s work, there is a bone-dry wit at work. One shot in Winter features a poodle cocking its head, another variation on the diagonal but one with concrete resonance.  And at the conclusion of both films, Dorsky provides a radical departure from the rhythms and forms to which everything up to that point had been getting you accustomed. In Sarabande a series of sunlit blossoms begins vibrating, the stillness of the camerawork suddenly shattered. At the conclusion of Winter, the varied images in depth give way to a compact montage sequence featuring beads of rain on a black car hood, glinting in the sun. The multiple views and angles of this flat field, bedecked with jewels of light, was gorgeous and immediately called to mind the paintings of Ross Bleckner. Dorsky follows this, by the way, with a flattened, perpendicular shot of windows and a wall, about the least diagonal thing to could photograph. There’s not only a clear sense of play at work here, but (please pardon the expression) an “exit strategy,” the indication that Dorsky has taken us somewhere and is easing us back into a more neutral visual world.


Le Genou d'Artemide (Jean-Marie Straub, Italy / France) [s] [7]

After spending almost a decade grappling with the films of Straub / Huillet, I still sometimes feel like a neophyte. Part of this has to do with the range of erudition their films encompassed, particularly when dealing with some of the less traveled byways of European modernism and the texts of the classical tradition. But in a strange way, Straub's first film since the death of his partner clarified one of the paradoxes that has characterized, if not all of their work, at least my reception to it. There's a sense in which their very unique method represents a model for a "public sphere" in cinema. Straub / Huillet didn't do this in the way alexander Kluge has, by creating film and television in the Brechtian vein, designed to allow social discourse and debate within the structure of the text. Rather, Straub and Huillet worked to radically demystify the material procedures of cinema. Their use of natural light, limited camera movement and highly selected set-ups, and above all direct sound recording, all served to generate a cinema that was a guarantee, a kind of contract. There is virtually nothing in a Straub / Huillet film that exceeds the human sensorium's natural capacity to perceive. No special effects, no creative geography, and only the slightest, most patently artificial hints at historical time. What you see and hear is what you get, and more importantly, what they got. So, their model of a public cinema is one that is also radically private. It is about making recordings of thought processes and textual interpretations in near-real time, as a record of the filmmakers' own engagement with that text, and the cinematic apparatus itself, across time. (No wonder Morgan Fisher is such a Straub / Huillet fan.)


Le Genou d'Artemide is in some ways an impenetrable film. It relies on some degree of foreknowledge of its Pavese text, which isn't easy since he is not an author in the North American canon. The film is also trading somewhat on foreknowledge of the last long Straub / Huillet film, and their last Pavese project, Quei loro incontri / These Encounters of Theirs, which in turn harks back to 1979's From the Cloud to the Resistance, the couple's first Pavese adaptation. So in a way, again, Straub is extending this idea of a private public sphere. Le Genou is open to all, but a self-selected few, lovers and fellow-travelers, will understand a kind of private, intimate speech the film has to offer, Is this elitist? Straub has said on numerous occasions that he and Huillet made films for a type of audience that does not yet exist. Point being, the films help to form that audience, as a community of learners. And so one of the most elusive and yet powerful aspects of Le Genou, an element I could not at first understand, is that Straub's private goodbye note to his life partner must be difficult to hold onto. Not only is it a film about not wanting to say goodbye or let go; the separation of its elements -- the Pavese dialogue, the Mahler lied over a black screen -- is in part about that community the films created no breaking apart. But also, it's about Straub speaking very directly to "the family," a kind of absolutist auteur gesture at the most crucial moment a filmmaker faces with his audience. (This is the unique position of being a filmmaking couple. Few directors get to speak to their viewers beyond the grave, as it were.) So, the final shot may or may not be Huillet's tomb (I rather doubt that it is), but it is raised up like a sign in the forest, calling the film, and our long relationship with this body of cinema, to a halt. Le Genou d'Artemide is a film for the faithful flock, but in a way they all were. In retrospect, Le Genou hints that the private public sphere we've all been a part of has been a very private dialogue, a lover's discourse to which we've been given generous permission to eavesdrop.


Unspoken (Fien Troch, Belgium) [5]

"Strength disguised as vulnerability"? Emmanuelle Devos is becoming as much of a typecasted icon as John Wayne. Troch doesn't leave much unspoken when it comes to clunky symbolism. (Cf. dripping crack in the ceiling; pacing panther in a cage; man trapped under bookshelf, etc.). Also, hey, can anyone else think of another film in which a tax auditor father copes with the loss of his daughter by going to see strippers? No? Me neither. Actually, in all seriousness, Unspoken (for some reason the original title was in English) is an almost explosively communicative film about repression, so much so that it moves beyond comic and into the realm of frustration. Initially Troch seems to be showing you how two adults (Devos and Bruno Todeschini, playing Grace and Lucas) can coexist while finding new methods for avoiding direct interaction. But eventually, actual drama flares up, in the form of an affair, and an eventual (second) disappearance. This is actually when the film threatens to become interesting, since it is then, and only then, that Unspoken foregrounds Grace's subjectivity. But it's the final twenty minutes and too little too late. The whopping majority of the film is comprised of Lucas's increasingly cruel avoidance behaviors, ones he seems to mistake for catharsis. In keeping with this year's theme of unexamined misogyny, Unspoken kind of takes Lucas's actions at face value, even when they are at their most preposterous. Basically, Lisa's death or disappearance has expressed itself as a midlife crisis, but one to which the film feels it must afford a significant degree of dignity. The end is phony rapprochement, just, "hey guys, we need to end this film."



Saturday, 9/6


Jerichow (Christian Petzold, Germany) [9]

While word out of Venice was quite strong on this one – in fact, it has generally been cited as one of about four films in the Competition lineup that had any real business being there --, I still wasn’t prepared for the phenomenal leap forward that this new film represents in Petzold’s filmmaking. I should point out that I’ve been a bit of a skeptic regarding Petzold. While I have appreciated his two previous films, Ghosts and Yella, for their intellectual agenda and Petzold’s rigorous style, particularly his ability to transform natural landscapes in the former East into vacuum-sealed, surrealistic non-spaces, I also found those earlier films rather obvious in their aims. By contrast, Jerichow finds the director now capable of fully occupying his character’s emotional worlds while also, when necessary, maintaining a critical distance. This distance is no longer clinical; we’re no longer watching specimens under glass.As some reviews have already noted, Jerichow is in essence a reworking of a specific film noir classic, one that I will refrain from naming to avoid needless spoilers. (You can find the information elsewhere quite easily.) We have a love triangle between Thomas (Benno Fürmann), a petty thief looking to start over, Ali (Hilmi Sözer), a wealthy Turkish immigrant Thomas meets by chance, and Laura (Nina Hoss), Ali’s attractive German wife. Ali operates a chain of snack bars but has his driver’s license revoked due to a DUI, and hires Thomas as a driver. Soon they become friends, but the attraction between Thomas and Laura, natürlich, is instantaneous. 


As with Yella, but to far greater visceral impact, Petzold plays with semi-misdirection. That is, it’s never clear that either he or the film is actively trying to deceive you in the manner of classic Hollywood plots. Rather, Jerichow layers the typical structure of the noir onto the seething, unspoken resentments created by years of German racism against immigrant Turks. This could have been clunky and artificial but, due in large part to Sözer’s heartbreaking performance as Ali, Petzold is able to turn our sympathies and our entire history of spectatorial identification inside out. Certain anomalies that may look like flaws at first, like some shockingly florid trysts and especially some highly wooden acting by Hoss and Fürmann, gradually reveal themselves to be integral weapons in Jerichow’s emotional and political arsenal. The result is a film that picks up the Sirkian project from Fassbinder in a way that seems, for the first time, completely logical, as though we’ve finally found the heir apparent. In any case, I doubt I’ll see a finer film this year than Jerichow.


JCVD (Mabrouk El Mechri, France / Luxembourg / Belgium) [7]

Can someone actually find his "true self" while stranded on an unintended pilgrimage through the DVD bargain bin? Apart from the silly, self-enfolding loop-de-loop pleasures of JCVD, this question of the anguish of faded celebrity, and whether or not to take it seriously, and more importantly whether or not we are supposed to take it seriously, is the deeply satisfying intellectual crux of Jean-Claude Van Damme's new art thriller. Now, I should state outright, I have not seen The Wrestler yet, but by the sound of it, there are similarities in theme. And whereas Aronofsky and Rourke expect us to take the plight of a down-and-out WWF has-been and regard it with genuine pathos -- some sort of Greek tragedy version of Heavy Metal Parking Lot --, Van Damme gives us much, much more than an ironic out. On the one hand, there is the surface text, with its catalog of indignities present-day Van Damme faces: snotty young directors, a venal agent, near bankruptcy, and a vicious child custody battle. Then, there's the inside-the-post-office crime plot, which I found fun and serviceable but which Van Damme and El Mechri mostly utilized to demonstrate reality TV / celebrity meltdown as the last gasp of faded fame. Still, none of this is in any way new. It's all pretty standard-issue fame-kills claptrap, even if by my lights it' delivered with a great deal more wit that usual.


No, where JCVD scores, transcends itself (and himself) and becomes something fairly sui generis, is in Van Damme's fourth-wall-breaking monologue. Suddenly levitating out of the diegetic heist, over the top of the set and into the light, Van Damme looks into the camera and delivers what can only be described as a confession, if not a last testament. I could not do this scene justice with random quotations, which would fail to capture its halting diction, its baffling, fragmentary character, and the overall disheveled nature of Van Damme's thinking. This monologue is not only the formal and emotional crux of the film; it's clearly revealed itself as the deal-breaker, determining how audiences will feel about JCVD as a whole. Is it sincere? Are we supposed to find it deep? Funny? Well-acted? (Van Damme cries!) But I would argue that the monologue is precisely the point when JCVD stops being "about" the conundrum of celebrity and transcends itself, kickboxing its way past quaint notions of sincerity and performativity. What if this really is Van Damme baring his soul, and all we get is more bad acting? That not only says more about him and the system that made him than any mere treatise on the fraudulence of the movies. It's also genuinely heartbreaking. The monologue connects as a celluloid slab of pure trapped affect, because nothing real can ever escape. What's more, anything that's really inside this man, when stripped of all accoutrements of fiction, will most likely be so laughably banal that we'd be embarrassed to share that moment. Luckily, that's a moment the cinema will never allow. In the final moments of JCVD, we get something like that banal, anguished moment, one that too many fathers have had to endure (and have created for themselves) under a variety of circumstances. The film wisely cuts, resulting in a perfect ending. That's because it shows "the real" Van Damme, as real as any of us can ever be, condemned as we are to those overwhelming moments which words can only reduce to the theatre of self-defense.


Gomorrah (Matteo Garrone, Italy) [7]

Of the three Garrone features I've seen to date, Gomorrah is unquestionably his "best," but it's also his least adventurous, thematically and cinematically. The Embalmer was uneven and shambolic, but also saturated with an open, post-Fassbinderian outsider poetry. In another register altogether, Primo Amore displayed Garrone experimenting with social drama as chamber work, moving his anorexic masochist and her bullying, starvation-obsessed sadistic husband out of the larger world and into a warped soundscape of mental disfigurement. Although Garrone may not have completely found his voice with those earlier efforts, he displayed an attentiveness to the plastic potentials of the medium that Gomorrah doesn't so much ignore as place on the back burner. Of course, cinema qua cinema isn't everything, and Garrone has accomplished something quite remarkable here, taking the cross-cultural sprawl not only of the Saviani text (at which I've only glanced) but of the gooey tiramisu of Napoli's stratified yet all-of-a-kind social structure and presenting it onscreen in a manner both legible and compelling. For specific insight into what sets Gomorrah apart, I can't really improve on Christoph Huber's appreciation, with which I'm in fundamental agreement. It's true that Garrone removes the vicarious excitement and forward propulsion that almost all mob movies rely upon, abjuring storytelling and film-grammar commonplaces that glamorize the subject regardless of the filmmakers' actual opinions on the Mafia. (In fact, if one needed evidence that the cinematic treatment of the Mafia has traditionally played into the criminals' hands however inadvertently, just consider how rare it is to have this discussion at all, as compared with Holocaust cinema, where such talk is de rigeur.) Garrone does lay out connections, but mostly he doesn't have to. He assumes a lot based on atmosphere and the cesspool of a palpable zeitgeist; everyone's obviously up to their eyeballs with respect to the Camorra, living in hock and in fear. So, rather than some interlocking-story sleight of hand, Garrone tends to lay Gomorrah out in semi-modular slabs of narration, the various plot lines retaining relative independence. Some, like Vadim Rizov, have found fault with the fact that Gomorrah could, structurally speaking, "start and end anywhere." But this is crucial. Not only does it avoid the false-Aufhebung, magical-thinking cinema that's Arriaga's stock in trade. It demonstrates, in concrete cinematic terms, a society whose foundation is an all-pervasive, sporadically explosive force to which there is no outside. In many key stories, such as the tailor's tale and the toxic waste exposé, Garrone doesn't even articulate any mob connection. He doesn't have to. It's just assumed that the Camorra is a shadow government with its blood-stained fingers in every pie in the shop. And yes, Gomorrah could go on and on, unless some action outside the film itself is taken. This is a situation which will require a lot more than a director calling "cut."


I'm Gonna Explode [Voy a Explotar] (Gerardo Naranjo, Mexico) [4]

If Federico Veiroj's Acne is a kind of misbegotten coming-of-age riff of a certain Truffautian stripe, I'm Gonna Explode could be considered its equally off-base pseudo-Godardian opposite number. Naranjo displayed a great deal of promise with his previous film Drama/Mex, which had a lot to say, with a subtle hand, about Mexican class relations. What's more, his close association with American ultra-indie Azazel Jacobs would seem to indicate a close attention to actual human behavior beyond the hollow posturing that lights the marquees in Park City. But what we have here is a phony-to-the-core outcast story. Two young friends-into-lovers stick it to the rotten Mexican establishment of hypocritical Catholic schools, crooked politician dads, and the mealy-mouthed, deferential poor, and into each other, by lighting out on a gun-toting fake-kidnapping that [SPOILER] never actually happens. Roman (Juan Pablo de Santiago) is a snotty little prick who enjoys getting himself kicked out of school after school as an embarrassment to his right-wing pol dad. Also, he blames his dad for mommy's death. Maru (Maria Deschamps) is a Goth girl whose mom is a cipher and whose dad is an illegal in the U.S. Naranjo dresses up this plot-heavy, originality-free construction with extreme close-up inserts of Maru's cursive-written diary, scrawled across the screen in reds and blues as a kind of JLG maneuver. In terms of plot movement, there's a definite Pierrot le Fou aroma to the enterprise, but despite a genuinely gripping performance by Deschamps, who locks onto the teen romanticism that the film demands for any success, there's nothing to Naranjo's vision here except a cool-remove plunge into designer angst. His fast cuts, mobile camera, and eventual in-the-street, cri de coeur bloodshed are patently second-hand, the shuck and jive of Mexican New Wave hipsterism borrowing the guilelessness of adolescence as a front. And, lest we think Naranjo just can't handle his would-be volatile material, the snarky "satire" of the scenes with Roman's dad, his trophy wife, and Maru's useless, weepy mom, erase all doubt that the guy's trying to have it both ways. This stuff plays like bad, bad early Almodóvar, adding tonal inconsistency (not Godardian "intertextuality") to the bitch's brew. Not exactly sure what it's doing in the New York Film Festival, other than taking up valuable space.


Still Walking (Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan) [7]

It seems as though festival reports are always in need of an angle. Usually there’s some urge either while or after having seen a whole bunch of films to note commonalities and make some sort of statement regarding a Zeitgeist. Even though, from a philosophical standpoint, this is a Hegelian idea that the Continental, post-Nietzsche crowd roundly rejected, it retains a certain appeal. We all want to feel like we’re in the middle of something bigger than just a mess. But where cinema and the arts are concerned, it’s less common for critics to acknowledge that where we’re coming from, as viewers and as people, has as much to do with how we’re grouping and patterning and responding to all these movies coming at us. No one would claim to be objective about interpreting the arts, but no one wants to seem like the sum total of his or her profession hinges on a series of shifting, unquantifiable moods.


So, one the one hand, lots of critics have noted since way back at Cannes that a lot of films this year explore not just “family” (what kind of a big deal would that be?) but the specific foundations of family, various angles of attack, or excavations on conventional ways of both being family, and representing family in film. I’ve certainly picked up on this too, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t rather predisposed to see a great deal of life through that particular lens and/or projector at the moment. Not only have I recently moved back to my hometown of Houston after nearly twenty years of living away; I’ve been spending the summer living in a house with my parents, my wife, my two-year-old daughter, my sister, her husband, and a yippity little pug. It’s, um, been lots of fun. Actually, it’s a bit like a movie.


So, amidst the umpteen French films on the topic (the Assayas, the Denis, the Desplechin) and other Euro efforts (the Dvortsevoy, arguably the Serra), two Japanese films have taken rather different approaches to examining the changing cultural attitudes surrounding family life, and while one of them has been coded as the more accessible of the two, I’d submit that it’s also the subtler, more complex piece of cinema. (I’ll discuss Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Tokyo Sonata further down the page.) Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Still Walking looks as though it may turn out to be the sleeper hit of the festival, garnering almost uniformly positive notices and apparently strong response from paying audiences. But admiration has been tempered. True, it’s a “minor” film in that it’s a comedy centered around a brief visit by the grown children of an elderly couple, with their own spouses and children in tow. In the opening moments, the matriarch (Kirin Kiki) tries to carefully teach her daughter (singer-actress You) how to prepare a daikon radish side dish. “Oh, don’t worry,” she replies, “I’ll never do it.” Still Walking throws you off immediately if you are familiar with Kore-eda’s work, since its fast pace and preference for subsuming visual stylistics to its punchy script place it in an entirely different class from Maborosi, After Life, Nobody Knows, and his severely underrated Distance. Still Walking can appear frivolous precisely because it hits so many universal truths about sibling rivalry, fear of failure, the resentment bred by inexpressive fathers and the like. But look closer, and Kore-eda actually has a stealth project in place. From its Tokyo Story plot to its intergenerational squabbling right down to its spatial arrangement of railroad tracks, Kore-eda is calling forth the spirit of Ozu. But he isn’t adopting the master’s form. Rather, he’s brushing Ozu’s specific concerns against a classical-popular Hollywood film style. Still Walking is constructed like a madcap home-for-the-holidays comedy, right down to its (regrettable) at-the-buzzer tendency toward needless sentimentality. What’s more, it could be that this pop-cinema approach is the director’s analog for his own lack of certainty regarding which generation “has it right” in the end. Nevertheless, Kore-eda’s shockingly steely comic chops shouldn’t detract from his achievement here, which is smart and substantial.



Sunday, 9/7


Under The Tree (Garin Nugroho, Indonesia) [5]

After the fascinating New Crowned Hope series two years ago, I was determined to keep an eye on Garin Nugroho, even though I had a fair degree of ambivalence about his contribution, Opera Jawa. Of those tapped to direct features for the series, Nugroho was the only director I'd never heard of, so discovering that he had five other feature films under his belt by that point, and a passel of documentaries besides. Needless to say, I had some catching up to do with Indonesia's most prominent international auteur. So, Under The Tree. This is a film of frustrating contradictions, given that it ostensibly has a complex, three-protagonist structure but ultimately arranges those elements in a very simplistic manner. Nugroho gives us three different women, at three distinct stages of life. Dewi (Ayu Laksmi) is a 40-year-old radio host whose husband is constantly away on business; her pregnancy has terminated but she continues carrying the dead fetus. Maharani (Marcella Zalianty) is a young woman from the city, and apparently the child of a shady adoption, who has come to learn traditional Balinese performance as a mystical, indirect means of learning the truth about who her real parents are. Finally, young Nian (Nadia Saphira) is the daughter of a corrupt politician (there's a lot of that going around: see I'm Gonna Explode) who hovers around the mystical outskirts of 'polite" Balinese society in search of a more suitable father figure. Nugroho's press materials, and a brief title card at the beginning, refer to these women as three "seeds," but nothing of this concept is explored.


What's more, concrete social connections between the women are implicit at best. If there's an argument about women's place in Indonesian society, or the friction between traditional or modern modes of living, Nugroho fails to articulate it in any meaningful way. This is particularly irksome since, as best as I can parse the film, Under The Tree finds much more powerful roles for women within the traditional mysticism of Balinese culture, particularly its ritual theatre, than in its ostensibly more advanced civil society. (The harassment Maharani experiences at the hands of the local cops is hideous, and a jarring shift in the film from the vague to the thuddingly specific.) What's more, Nugroho's point-and-shoot digital video style treated all visual phenomena as equally flat and brown, just the muddy muddle the director had to throw at you in order to push his story along. Under The Tree's aesthetics, such as they were, felt grudging, which is all the more indefensible considering the fact that one of the film's primary tenets is the transformative power of art. Opera Jawa received such widespread attention that Nugroho should have had some sense that a whole hell of a lot would be riding on the follow-up to solidify his international standing. This was the Big Show, and he pretty much blew it.


Teza (Haile Gerima, Ethiopia / Germany / France) [W/O] (1:35)

I could've stuck it out, actually, but wanted to get into Tulpan. The only other Gerima film I've seen, Sankofa, is one of my all-time most hated films ever, so needless to say my expectations going in were pretty low on this one. And in a lot of ways those expectation were met. But there's also an undeniable fascination this film exerts, even as part of your conscious mind is coming up with reasons to resist it. I think I get why it nabbed a couple of prizes at Venice. Essentially another prodigal-son story, this one about a European-educated Ethiopian leftist (Aaron Arefe) returning to his village in the midst of civil war. The film flits back between his present-day predicament (resentments, not fitting in, impotence to act to save his people) and PTSD-instigated flashbacks to his life in Germany, the early days of the Socialist revolution in Ethiopia, the rise of Stalinists, and other sad episodes. (I left before he loses a leg.) This is one of the only period pieces I've ever seen that looks in every way like a dug-up artifact from the 1970s, from the film stock and lighting to the mise-en-scène and haircuts. But more than this, Gerima's bizarre editing syntax, music cues, and stilted camerawork often make Teza resemble a cross between Fassbinder and an early 70s 16mm industrial safety film. Part of the "sucess" of Teza is due directly to Gerima's stunted directorial style, one which evinces no self-awareness whatsoever. So this is a rare case where maybe, maybe, a film is actually so bad it's good, but that designation has nothing to do with camp. Actually this film is really weird.


Tulpan (Sergey Dvortsevoy, Germany / Switzerland / Kazakhstan / Russia / Poland) [5]

Tulpan is one of those films that comes along every one in a while that not only garners praise way out of proportion to its actual achievements, but that actually irks me just a little. That's because it's such a patently harmless, even toothless film that it makes no sense to get mad about it, and doing so makes you (well, okay, me) look like an irrational extremist or a bully. But I am a little pissed off. This film could've been so much better, with just a few wiser decisions and the employment of some directorial restraint. But, judging from the Camera d'Or at Cannes and the slots at Telluride and NYFF, I seem to be in the minority on this one. The thing about Tulpan is, Sergey Dvortsevoy has created an often-lovely, highly promising debut feature. But as a first feature, it displays a good number of rookie errors. Dvortsevoy's transition from documentary to fiction has a study basis, and this seems to be the foundation for all the good notices. I agree, that's Tulpan's strong suit. When Dvortsevoy captures the harsh weather conditions on the Kazakh steppe, or the real-time drama of something as everyday-monumental as the birth of a sheep, Tulpan displays remarkable poetry, an elemental grace that simply asks its spectator to sit alongside and consider it as an unspoken end in itself, something beyond mere cinema. But the narrative fabric Dvortsevoy and crew opt to weave around this fact-based footage too often smacks of garishness and caricature, and, in its quieter moments, the pedestrian motions of conventional family drama.


Asa (Askhat Kuchinchirekov) is at times a dynamic, versatile protagonist, but his conundrums are too often played for outsized effect, as though Dvortsevoy worried that his presumed audience wouldn't know how to identify with people leading lives so vastly different than their own. The "hook" of Tulpan's non-appearance, or the Kusturica-like, one-man carnival of Asa's friend Boni (Tulepbergen Baisakalov), with his pornmobile and his blaring Boney M, feel like comic sops to a viewership Dvortsevoy doesn't entirely trust. Or at least I hope he's being patronizing, because if he thinks he's actually being funny, the man's taste is way, way off. But like I say, even Tulpan's more subdued fictional passages, centered on Asa's rivalry with brother-in-law Ondas (Ondasyn Besikbasov), and the question of whether or not Asa can manage a sheep herd without a wife, are orchestrated with an argumentative artifice that virtually announce, "And here's the dramatic conflict." It's all rather remarkable when it sticks to ground-level detail. That Dvortsevoy would display more confidence in this area comes as no surprise. (I haven't seen any of his docs yet, but will seek them out immediately.) But the tonal disparity between the observational grace notes and their narrative container is kind of surprising, and begs the question, why make features at all? [And, literally hours later, I realize . . .] See? Tulpan has me writing circles around myself, trying to pan it oh-so-tastefully, when the fact is, Dvortsevoy pretty much sells himself out, diluting his film's greatest power with broad, Kazakh-Gatlif ethno-kitsch. No matter: if Zeitgeist doesn't nab it, Kino will, and it will play continuously at the Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley until the night before its DVD release. Flow on, Rivers of Babylon!



Monday, 9/8


Che (Steven Soderbergh, U.S. / Spain) [5]

Without a doubt, this year’s grand test case for the future viability of any form of large-scale political cinema, if not for outsized American auteur cinema in general, is Steven Soderbergh’s Che. Divided into two full-length films, each slightly over two hours, Che could be the ultimate sinkhole for our day, a giant leftist vacuum into which someone’s money vanished without a trace. How can this film even exist, and who is its presumed audience? To Soderbergh’s credit, there seems to have been little consideration of this question. I would like to be able to weigh in passionately on the debate around Che, but the sad truth is, there’s little onscreen to justify passions in either direction. Its champions have claimed that the bold dialectical structure, first showing the rise of Ernesto Guevara (Benicio Del Toro) as a leader in the triumphant Cuban revolution, and then showing the demise of his troops, ideas, and eventually his person in the failed Bolivian adventure, results in a deeply critical, intellectual project. Soderbergh’s achievement, some have claimed, is that the valor and worth of Che’s ideas, and the full-blooded romance of his early success, is gradually taken away, so that we are left, in a sense, in a post-Guevara world. That is, Soderbergh has created, depending on the interpreter, an internal leftist critique of the degeneration of Guevara’s project, or a rise-and-fall lament. (This can even be seen formally in the film, since the first half, The Argentine, is in widescreen, and the tragic second half, Guerrilla, reduces aspect to near-televisual claustrophobia.)


On the other side of the aisle are those who find the film a travesty, since it allegedly drains Che of all romance, all power, presenting his travails in a flat, declarative, perversely anti-dramatic mode. In fact both camps have some points to make, and that’s because in the end Che is a giant muddle, a perfectly watchable docudrama that is in fact flat and declarative, and does adhere to the rise and fall trajectory, but does so with such even inflection as to produce very little beyond history-buff engagement. There seems to be some question as to the relative accessibility of this film. Personally, I found that I could hook into it without caring, partly since I know the material quite well, but Soderbergh’s style and approach is anti-everything. No discernible personality, no clear take on the subject, no avoidance or deployment of Hollywood technique. For a time, the film’s lack of distribution (a matter soon to be resolved, apparently) [NOTE: IFC Films ultimately bit] resulted in talk that Che would become an HBO miniseries, and as I watched I found the film entirely suited to that format, alongside John Adams or another such plodding, anonymous effort. Even when Soderbergh deliberately breaks the glass surface for a joke, like Guevara’s attendance at a New York cocktail party, or a strange genre riff like the final, bizarrely B-Western shootout in a Bolivian village, these moments stick out as glitches in the system rather than thought-provoking formal strategies. There is more genuine political outrage (to say nothing of revolutionary joy) in the throwaway dice-factory uprising scenes in Ocean’s 13 than in all 260 minutes of Soderbergh’s Che Guevara film. And so, as a piece of political cinema for our age, I find Che an “interesting failure” only in theory, not in terms of the results. It isn’t fascist, as one major critic has claimed. Fascism requires clear aims, marching orders. Che leaves its viewer in a miasma of deadening procedure. It is not even an apolitical film about Che, which would certainly say a great deal about our times. It obviously believes in what it’s trying to do, but cannot convey that ideological conviction in any meaningful way. Ultimately, Che is hermetic, even autistic.


The Burrowers (JT Petty) [W/O] (0:35)

Nothing will sink a marginal B-movie talent quicker than outsized ambition. This "horror Western" required someone who could mnage the unique formal demands of both genres, and in Petty found someone who could swing neither. Editing, pacing, camera movement, music cues, all just embarrassingly incompetent. One lead character was named Coffey, and he met an African-American who made a joke about who was blacker, him or "Coffee," but this was several minutes after Petty had already had someone refer to the guy as "Mr. Coffey," a laugh line he apparently failed to notice. Also, William Mapother is venturing dangerously close to Clint Howard territory in terms of his talent / stature ratio.


Tokyo Sonata (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Japan / The Netherlands / Hong Kong) [6]

[SPOILERS] In terms of pacing, story structure, and well-distributed dollops of accessible (not to say broad) comedy, Tokyo Sonata is the most accessible film Kiyoshi Kurosawa has made in nearly a decade. Really, I can't think of anything he's done other than Seance, which I find rather bland but others hold in reasonably high esteem, that operates in such a straightforward register. This, I fear, is probably the reason for a large part of Sonata's disproportionate acclaim. In the same way that Regular Lovers is a Philippe Garrel film for people who don't like Garrel films (good call, Kent Jones), and I'm Going Home is the Oliveira for non-Oliveira fans, Tokyo Sonata will appeal to many who've grown tired of Kurosawa's vague, moody games with hordes of jellyfish or multiple Koji Yakushos in robotic chairs. In essence a salaryman comedy about a man too proud to admit that he's been downsized, and the repressed family that mostly plays along, Tokyo Sonata plays with the kind of tonal dissonance most customary in certain Korean comedy-dramas. Amidst obvious gags of debasement, such as a job interviewer forcing our high-strung protagonist Ryuhei (Teruyuki Kagawa) into some impromptu karaoke, or unemployed school chum Kurosu (Kanji Tsuda) setting his cellphone to ring every hour to look busy, there are moments of intense angst and outright violence, mostly centered on Ryuhei's loosening grip on male authority within his family. So, in a sense, Kurosawa has an ideal filmic structure for exploring the social toll of unemployment. The careening from broad comic exaggeration to explosive rage both characterizes the psychological struggle to cope, and the continual failure of that struggle. And, as a narrative device, it allows for a tension and release pattern that instills semi-regularity while maintaining a macro-resemblance to "real life." Of course, if you look too hard at any given situation within Tokyo Sonata, comic or tragic, its verisimilitude starts to fade, and that's ultimately the problem with the film. It wants to delve into sociology but can't avoid goofy digressions and oddball humor -- Kurosawa's weakness for the weird-for-its-own-sake -- so by the end, the film has painted itself into a ridiculous corner. Yakusho's appearance promises a veer into Teorema territory but is just a diversion. Ryuhei's disintegration is incomplete, and his redemption allows for an almost supernatural, recuperative coda that effectively pretends that none of the broad comedy ever happened. What's more, taken on its own terms, son Kenji's discovery of his preternatural gift for the piano seems to efface Kurosawa's sociological concerns altogether, providing only a cosmic skyhook as the provisional solution to a very real economic problem. It's the jellyfish in the room.


/Suspension (Vanessa O'Neill) [s] [8]

Although the DVD hardly did the film justice, it did provide an accurate picture of the piece as a whole. What the live version added most dramatically, aside from the stark electric charge of the swirling grain and the icy blue film tint, was the very different registration between the two filmstrips than that in the DVD run. Here, spatial dislocations began almost immediately, whereas before they were a slowly building, hovering presence. Suspension made a compelling argument for the two-strip process, since even though there is a narrow parameter of movement between the two start times, this slight aleatory element results in a high degree of affective shift.


When It Was Blue (Jennifer Reeves, U.S. / Iceland) [p/m] [9]

One of the regrettable truisms that has developed around experimental cinema is that it is too difficult to describe in words. A certain strain of criticism falls silent in the face of non-narrative forms, which is particularly odd when you consider that where cinema is concerned, the fundamental basis of the art is not about narration or diegetic time per se, but the physical materials in between. Even in narrative film, it is the conjunction between images, or the visceral impact of this image colliding with that sound, that comprises the mortar of the film under discussion, and any story motility that arises from this foundation is, relatively speaking, an epiphenomenon springing from these plastic non-moments. Articulating that deep structure, how it works and how it makes things appear to move, is the basis of our job, and it's strange although not surprising that much experimental film and video strikes its viewers mute simply by foregrounding this very structure. It should become easier to talk about, or generate some sort of meaningful ekphrasis that can describe the effects that, separate from the narrative impulse, are all the more patently themselves.


Jennifer Reeves' new film performance is a devastating, body-throttling masterpiece, and it has prompted these basic ruminations on experimental film and criticism precisely because it has thrown me into a state of disarray. When It Was Blue is, at its core, relatively simple to describe. The performance is comprised of two separate, superimposed film rolls whose overlap is highly synchronized. (I tried to witness deviation in the live show from the static digital-bipack Reeves achieved for her preview DVD, and the sync looked exactly the same to me. She does not appear to be interested in aleatory slippage effects, which prompts the hypothesis that the two-strip process has more to do with the precision and complexity of layering and light control possible on one film roll as opposed to two, particularly with respect to hand-painted imagery.) The film is accompanied by, and was composed in consultation with, guitarist Skúli Sverrisson, whose minimalistically theatrical post-rock cascades over the images and through the venue, frequently hitting tense, quavering high notes and then gently running tremolos down the scale. Reeves' film in and of itself largely consists of seascapes and other accumulated imagery from the natural world, either pressed against or alternating with rich hand-painted passages, densely woven skeins of color against crackling emulsion or encrusted fixer. On occasion, contrapuntal images from the "developed" or industrial world would appear, such as an early sequence in Part One that pitted high contrast bridge and factory material (in a rather Vertovian, heroic-materialist vein) against an isolated soaring bird or a swatch of aquatic life. These are the nuts and bolts, if you will, of When It Was Blue.


And yet, I feel as though I've told you nothing. Reeves has created a landmark film that not only changes the terms of a particular kind of avant-garde practice, but expands our sense of the poetic and thematic possibilities, as well as the sheer phenomenological vibrancy, available to advanced cinema. I have written elsewhere that following the relatively humble, doggedly anti-epic cinema of the 1980s and 90s (what Tom Gunning called "minor cinema"), we are seeing a resurgence of confidence in the expansive power of avant-garde filmmaking, its visceral reach and unfettered orchestration of emotive effects. After several false starts and misfires, wherein the language and history of experimental cinema seemed to be plundered and cheapened for essentially empty purposes (in which, even in the best case scenario, you get an unrigorous, smoke-and-mirrors spectacle such as Decasia, a kind of Andrew Lloyd-Webber version of mythopoeic cinema), we now find artists like Phil Solomon, David Gatten, and Jeanne Liotta, staking out bold territory and creating films that, regardless of length or subject matter, dare to command the sweeping vision we'd been told to consider extinct, the grandeur of Dog Star Man and The Text of Light, of Quixote and The Hart of London. When It Was Blue immediately called to mind the scope and ambition of those films. But I mention this not only to place Reeves alongside her colleagues as another fearless visionary artist, but to directly assay the nearly-indescribable process of undergoing Reeves' film, of allowing it to wash over you, to transport you to the inside of a living mind, churning in feverish activity right there on the screen, with its own independent will. When It Was Blue is a contemporary epic masterwork, a throbbing slab of visionary cinema of the sort we're told to no longer expect, or that we're told that we as a culture no longer deserve.


To watch When It Was Blue is to enter a deeply private mindspace whose contents, whose palpations taken from the atmosphere, have shared social ramifications. Reeves' methods are not without precedent. There is a caressing, sculptural eye at work in her black and white cinematography which, both in terms of individual tonality and associative montage, recalls Su Friedrich's best work. And above all the hovering spirit of Stan Brakhage presides over long movements of Blue. Brakhage was a great admirer of Reeves' work, and her own work displays a deep connection to his own inimitable way of seeing as well. But Reeves manages to adopt an element within the master's style and completely make it her own, bending the expressionistic approach to her evocative needs. Reeves' hand-painted imagery tends to have a clearer, more surface-based organization than Brakhage's mature work, resulting in Reeves harnessing cleaner, brighter light without the impasto that would swallow any and all other impressions onscreen. Reeves recaptures the stained-glass character of paint on film, and when layered with photographic images or another strand of painted film she achieves a ghostly luminosity that paradoxically imposes its physical presence. This ghosting, almost mournful but actually a space of great warmth within a highly anxious film, was unspeakably moving to me, not only because of the unexpected beauty of its effects. Somehow it struck me as a kind of intuitive farewell canto from Reeves to Brakhage, a song of praise as well as a statement of quiet defiance, almost a resurrection of sorts, that the bold, unbridled filmmaking he exemplified would not be quelled in our decidedly mediocre age. (In retrospect, I detect traces of Peggy Ahwesh's influence as well, her concrete, para-Freudian feminist surrealism serving as the "open eye" that coaxes hypnogogic vision out into the natural light. Reeves' vision is capacious.) Or, perhaps returning to that private mindspace once again, these patches of semi-human, relatively objective beauty -- the properties of light and paint asserting themselves -- serve as a touchstone for Reeves amidst the greater uncertainty exemplified by the more concrete, outward-looking portions of the film. They certainly functioned that way for me.


When It Was Blue, as I said above, is a deeply anxious work. It compiles and assembles a panoply of footage depicting our planet and its denizens, emphasizing both the grandeur and fragility of the natural world. But Reeves' associative mode and the frequent oceanic drift the seascapes create in the film's overall mindscreen generate a loose dialectical vision, providing a sense of uncertainty and loss of self in the face of nature's blank return-gaze. When It Was Blue is a mood document conveying both fear for our environment, and in some equal degree a fear of it, its lack of human regard evoking vague, unspecified threat. It would be easy, and facile, for Reeves to make a "green film" along the lines of Godfrey Reggio or Ron Fricke. These filmmakers risk nothing of themselves, and speak from an external position of the utmost confidence. Ironically, that pose, even when in favor of the environment, replicates the post-Enlightenment, anthrocentric world-picture that aids and abets the onward roll of commerce. Reeves acknowledges, in the form of a highly rigorous audiovisual 'breakdown," that real engagement with the world outside ourselves entails near-total dissolution, an often agonizing penetration of the skin-thin boundaries of who we are, so that we may return from that brink with new, deeper insight. When I Was Blue is shattering, because it is a fragile composition, a firm but tentative, time-bound organization of non-being. The mythopoeic tradition is alive, like a slight, pre-seismic tremor deep within the folds of the earth. Can we hear it?


-Eden Log (Franck Vestiel, France) ["W/O"] (0:47)

Colin Geddes says, forget the Almond Roca, try the Eden Log! The Fountain + The Island + Metropolis + Cube + Eraserhead + a whole buncha Merhige's Begotten, all wrapped up in silver paint and mud. It's one of those futuristic "dirty ducts" movies, if that means anything at all to you. There's some cockamamie plot regarding a life-sapping tree, an organic prison pod, a secret biochem lab, and Clovis Cornillac looking bu-uff. Who likes this stuff?


Tuesday, 9/9


A Christmas Tale (Arnaud Desplechin, France) [7]

Desplechin's films seem to be getting harder and harder to peg. After the centripetal free-for-all that was Kings and Queen, a film I found it much easier to admire than to like, I didn't expect that the director would perform a kind of fake-out about-face. But I think that's what he's done here, since the new film's more conventional trappings actually just provide a firm outline for a lot of even less predictable experimentation. The very idea of making a "Christmastime family film" runs counter to all good taste, but that seems to be the point. Desplechin is drawing the circle somewhat narrower so that his suckerpunches might land with greater force, rather than the intermittently thrilling pointillism of K&Q. (Whether he's ever going to make anything are radical as Esther Kahn again, however, is another matter.) Beginning in a kind of sinister Wes Anderson mode, Christmas Tale uses children's drawings and a storybook structure to provide a grim backstory for our clan. Young child dies, rest of siblings hover in the shadow of the dead older brother enshrined as pure potential, until he himself becomes a mere harbinger of things to come. See, blood ties have been literalized here to an almost comic degree, since congenital disease is the narrative prime mover of a story in which most participants would be more than happy to remain mired in their long-nurtured hate. Desplechin's mode, then, is one of pushing against the limits of the obvious, largely through a project of roving erudition. A sliver of Nietzsche here, a dash of Greek mythology there, Christmas, like K&Q and My Sex Life before it, is a film that not only flatters the intellect of its audience, but implies that the feverish minds of genuine intellectuals (for better or worse) will always grasp at available ideas and cultural signposts for some sense of how to live in the day to day. Our problems are fleeting and deeply individual, but Desplechin shows his greatest appreciation for those intrepid souls longing to understand their own plight within some grander, transhumanistic narrative. So, on the surface, we see seething animosity beyond all reason. But at the core, there is a grudging bond and indeed love, one that refuses to circle the wagons on "family" as conventionally defined. Like his discursive directorial style and wild abandon with respect to allusion and reference, Desplechin seems to see family as a beautiful, tragic joke, but one that can never be restricted to blood ties. In specific terms, he demonstrates this impeccably when, after many excoriating scenes with the siblings, we're introduced almost in passing to the late matriarch's longtime lesbian partner, a joyful, sparkle-eyed old dame given pride of place in this dysfunctional clan. But more generally, Desplechin recognizes that anyone with a fully formed sense of self never feels "at home" in his or her family, and naturally strikes out into the larger world to begin making a new one out of odd friends, lovers, images and ideas. A family gathering means a tense but active negotiation between these dual impulses, the very dialectic from which adult subjectivity is formed. A Christmas Tale ultimately achieves something far in excess of its passing ugliness, because in fact it's a demolition of bourgeois pieties about what love relationships really are. When all is said and done, the truths the film leaves smoldering in the ruins may be lacerating, but they're the basis for a new beginning, a rebirth, and a salvation.


Serbis (Brillante Mendoza, The Philippines) [7]

The going line on Serbis from those who don't like it, and who aren't simply grossed out by its frequent dip into squalid conditions, is that there's no there there. Nothing much is at stake, we don't learn enough about the family at the center of the film, Mendoza doesn't open the frame enough to place his characters' situation into a larger sociopolitical framework, and basically we're just running around a dirty porn theatre with a large, vague Filipino clan as they clamor to make ends meet. Little else. As Mike D'Angelo succinctly put it, "Here's an environment. Do you like my environment? Immerse yourself in the environment I offer you. That is all." Speaking for the Immoral Minority, yes, I do like the environment, and even though I suppose you could say that that's all (I disagree, but see the point), Mendoza creates such a sensual, almost body-enveloping membrane of a film that my attention never once strayed from either its minutiae or the broad sweep of its goings-on. At times Serbis does feel like filth that you don't necessarily want on your eyeballs, but Mendoza creates this false impression, all the better to surprise you by how lithe and airy it actually feels to move around within, and to be moved around by Serbis. It is graceful and kinetic, pausing on something awkward and then resolving it with a naughty whip-pan, then off we go down the stairs into some faux-tense familial situation organized through piercing eyeline matches, and then it's off in another direction, possibly into someone's bedroom or maybe the porno theatre's plugged-up john.


Complaints that we don't learn enough about the family at the center of Serbis, who not coincidentally run the Family Porn Theatre (Mendoza gets away with cheap irony precisely because so little rides on it, and it's always a flick-of-the-wrist throwaway), strike me as fundamentally misguided. Serbis is as devoted to the family at its center, and as expansive within its own small parameters, as Desplechin's A Christmas Tale. I mean, first of all we're only with them through one day, and even then that day is rather artificially crammed with incident. If Serbis were more plot-driven this contrivance might undercut its grungy amiability. But we observe tantrum after tantrum by grande dame Flor (Gina Pareno, the sole gravitas), or witness the comparatively subtle, inward longing and middle-aged, how-did-I-get-here disappointment of Nayda (Jaclyn Jose), with the kids and cousins and husbands and in-laws in and around the theatre all having spotlit moments in relation to these two anchor-characters. For a film as loose and free-wheeling as this, Mendoza has actually given it a pretty short leash. But the fun, the comedy and the splatterpunk insouciance of Serbis is its willingness to color badly within these lines, so we get a bizarre, out-of-nowhere purse snatching fiasco, or a raunchy sex scene in the theatre getting disrupted by a goat in front of the screen. ("Suppose you're watching The Playboy Channel...") Mendoza's high-glint videography is spotty and flexible, but every so often captures a miraculous effect of light, such as fluorescent haze reflected off a dirty bathroom floor, or Flor's preparations in the mirror in which she suddenly appears illuminated and limitlessly dignified. Serbis gazes into the shit and finds random snatches (and waggling dicks) of fugitive beauty, but you have to catch them as they whiz by.


Il Divo (Paolo Sorrentino, Italy / France) [6]

Il Divo is a portrait of titanic Italian politician Giulio Andreotti, although the film strives to be a portrait in negative space. Not only does Sorrentino avoid depicting Andreotti uttering certain of his infamous quips, such as “Power wears out those who don’t have it” or his reply of “Of which?” when told that the government was investigating the Mafia and that as its representative he’d need to speak to the press. Such restraint is admirable, and certainly nothing we’d expect from Sorrentino based on his previous work. (I confess, I’ve only been able to watch The Family Friend and The Consequences of Love in small bursts. I find Sorrentino’s slam-bang, dipsy-doodle, Oliver Stone-cum-Coens approach in these films to be migraine-inducing, as well as just plain hideous.) But more to the point, Sorrentino depicts Andreotti as a kind of absent center around which political mega-power practically organized itself, as if, in the man’s own words, it were the Will of God. This is the joke, of course. There’s nothing holy writ about Andreotti’s rise, which is the result of manifold social forces and key players, all of whom Sorrentino thrusts onto the screen in rapid succession, as if to simultaneously demystify the halls of power – it’s just a bunch of thugs and Mafiosi – and boggle our minds all at once.


Part of the problem, though, is that Sorrentino wants to play this for black comedy and he frequently overplays his hand. Virtually no mention of Il Divo fails to cite Toni Servillo’s passive, awkwardly in-turned performance as Andreotti, and while it is the crux of the film’s rhetorical operations base, I submit that it ultimately doesn’t work. Servillo’s Divo becomes a kind of cartoon, with his exaggerated, stooped gait and hands clasped in tight priestly fashion as he waddles through the halls of high government. (Yes, I’ve seen Andreotti, and he’s not that much like Droopy the Dog.) If we place Il Divo in its proper lineage of recent valiant but inadequate cinematic stabs at the second half of the Italian century, Il Divo holds its own alongside Nanni Moretti’s The Caiman, a film which couldn’t even bear to countenance Berlusconi in the end, and the best of the lot, Marco Bellocchio’s Good Morning, Night, which cast Andreotti’s frenemy Aldo Moro as a sacrificial lamb before forces well beyond his comprehension. Il Divo has a smart agenda. It designates Andreotti as a kind of functional non-person, continually framing him as though he were part of the vaulted ceilings of the Parliament building, both pillar and shadow. But Sorrentino, a true postmodernist, can only face the banality of bureaucratic evil (or, if you prefer, the evil of bureaucratic banality) with ludic bemusement. (The film ends, tellingly, with that Euro-anthem of barely articulated emotional ambivalence, Trio’s “Da Da Da.”) Moretti and Bellocchio are leftists largely impotent before history, but they still insist that it bears the gravity of a tragedy. Sorrentino, meanwhile, sees only farce.


A Perfect Day (Ferzan Ozpetek, Italy) [4]

I’ve been following Ozpetek’s work on and off for years now, because certain aspects of his work – a performance here, a tracking shot there – suggested that he was a filmmaker who would come into his own one day. Hamam, Ignorant Fairies, and Facing Windows were deeply flawed films but they showed a man who kept threatening to become interesting. But with A Perfect Day, I’m now prepared to close the book on Ozpetek. In most every discernable respect, this film displays a mature vision, one that is as misguided as it is pedestrian.  At its heart this is a social problem film, even a “women’s picture” in the unreconstructed mold of 1950s Hollywood. But Ozpetek demonstrates why the industry used to use that term with scorn, and it was up to a few daring visionaries like Douglas Sirk to reverse that opprobrium. A Perfect Day is the story of Emma (Isabella Ferrari), a battered wife who has recently left Antonio (Valerio Mastandrea), her abusive bodyguard husband. As the film’s main action begins, Antonio is shown stalking Emma, who feels helpless to fight back. They have two kids; older daughter Valentina (Nicole Murgia) resents her mother’s decision to break up the family, while introverted younger son Kevin (Gabriele Paolino) is too shy to make his feelings known. Throughout the film, Emma is subject to various humiliations. She receives a dressing-down from Valentina; she’s downsized at her call-center job (which, cruelly, is tied directly to her middle-age – “We like to run a young office.”), and after finally relenting and meeting with a frantic Antonio, he beats her up and calls her a whore. Ozpetek amply displays the impact of years of physical and psychological abuse, as Emma’s dignity is in shreds. She cannot stand up for herself effectively, no matter how hard she tries.


But the director’s stylistic decisions are also a form of abuse, or at least unwitting condescension. Usually Ozpetek’s staging of scenes consists of breaking his well-appointed but uninflected Italo-Hollywood realism with broad, sweeping gestures – swelling strings and unsteady camera maneuvers. The overall impact may be a vain attempt at Sirk / Fassbinder / Pasolini surface rupture, but the results are more in keeping with a woman-in-peril Movie of the Week starring Kate Jackson or Valerie Bertinelli. By the final act, Ozpetek has so veered off the deep end that it’s no longer apparent whether he has has lost all tonal control of his film (my personal vote) or is lurching into black comedy. In an example of cinema-giveth / cinema-taketh-away, Emma finally connects with another human being, Valentina’s lonely teacher Mara (Monica Guerratore, whose character in the source novel, interestingly, was a gay man, according to Variety). The two women wander the city talking while the kids are with Antonio. As the film demonstrates through cheap, sub-Griffith cross-cutting, Emma’s momentary sense of self arrives at the same moment that a catastrophe is altering her life forever. (“Ladybug, ladybug . . .”) It would take a filmmaker working on the level of Mother Kusters / Merchant of Four Seasons Fassbinder to wring genuine pathos and social relevance from the conclusion of A Perfect Day. Instead, Ozpetek left his audience laughing at balls-out incompetence.



Wednesday, 9/10


Wendy and Lucy (Kelly Reichardt) [7] [changed to 6, 12/17/08]

To place Reichardt's "small" achievement in context, let's consider it as a political intervention, alongside those of Soderbergh and Sorrentino. The differences, and the successes, are rather obvious, but are worthy of note. One major contrast between so-called modernist and postmodernist political strategies, both in terms of artistic representation and more traditional forms of direct action, has been in the different ways that each discourse locates power. While modern forms usually look to the nation-state or to some form of direct revolt against it, postmodern strategies have been described (by theorists such as Michel de Certeau, Henri Lefebvre, and Guy Debord) as “tactics,” a set of smaller, more human-scaled gestures that may actually prove to be a more effective way of shifting power relations in the long run. Whether or not this is good political science, this year’s TIFF seems to demonstrate that it makes for better filmmaking. While the Che Guevara and Giulio Andreotti films are ambitious but deeply flawed, other films on display show far more modest goals and achieve them.


Wendy and Lucy, is just such a film, a poetic realist portrait of a young drifter (Michelle Williams, in what I suspect will be an Oscar-nominated performance) and her dog, breaking down in a small Oregon town en route to some seasonal fishery work in Alaska. (By the looks of her clothes and bank account, I doubt Wendy Carroll is the type of person Gov. Palin wanted wandering into her great state anyhow.) A film of tiny moments and instantaneous, unplanned decisions that reverberate in crushing ways, Wendy and Lucy is the rare American film focusing on a no-income female itinerant. Although far more stylistically subdued that the nerve-fried films of Lodge Kerrigan, Reichardt’s work shares with Kerrigan’s a penetrating concern with marginal individuals who are slipping through the cracks and going down for the count right before our eyes. Wendy shoplifts, gets nabbed by a self-righteous young store employee (John Robinson), is booked and held, and loses her dog as a result. A few times Reichardt overplays her hand somewhat. (When store clerk Andy announces, “If you can’t afford dog food, you shouldn’t have a dog,” or when Larry Fessenden turns up to deliver a menacing homeless-guy soliloquy, the film loses its sure footing.) But Reichardt’s careful, sensitive work with Williams results in a gut-level, affective politics. The painful conclusion hurts because of its social inevitability, and because Wendy and Lucy has made us care about the human being whose basic dignity is being erased for no reason other than a $2,000 shortfall.


[ADDENDUM: I will be expanding on my second-viewing objections in a longer piece for Cineaste, so I won't go into great detail here. But I began to see just how Reichardt stacks the deck against Wendy, not only by conflating for the viewer those misfortunes resulting from her material circumstances and those resulting from bad decisions. There is also the question of how the film inadvertently romanticizes Wendy, partly because of the fundamental limits of the American liberal imagination. What is a female itinerant worker? She is probably not the "drifter" of Wendy and Lucy, someone I recognize all too well from my undergraduate days (as, I'm sure, does Reichardt -- part of the problem), for whom "dropping out" is a kind of lifestyle choice. What if she were black, or an illegal Latina immigrant? How would she have been treated in jail, or even by the Walgreens guard? Reichardt's obsession with trains, right down to the final shot, kind of gives the game away. As with Old Joy, Reichardt has a dubious preoccupation with a certain strain of Americana, to the detriment of providing a clear picture of how disenfranchised people in our country actually exist today.]


35 Shots of Rum (Claire Denis, France) [7]

A bit of a cross between the usual tone-poem atmospherics of Denis’ mature works and the more concrete narrative organization of Chocolat, 35 Shots of Rum has kind of taken everyone by surprise. Everyone, that is, except for the selection committees of three major film festivals, all of whom had the opportunity to spend some time luxuriating in the film’s rich textures and render judgment. Cannes and New York rejected the film, and Venice shunted it into a non-competing slot to make room for thuddingly obvious Haile Germina and Ferzan Ozpetek films. Granted, I suspect that when all is said and done, 35 Shots will look more like a minor work in Denis’ oeuvre with the benefit of some distance, but I’d say the same thing about L’Intrus, actually. Both films are thrilling in fits and starts, but structurally they gravitate toward a kind of leveling that cannot accommodate each discrete element with equal success. Nevertheless 35 Shots represents a surprising new turn toward humanist openness and an exploration of very basic connections between people whose lengthy histories in one another’s lives permeate their every visible interaction. The lengthy opening passage, which finds train conductor Lionel (Alex Descas) steering through the yards and into the city, provides a lyrical passkey to the film as a whole. It’s the film’s single genuinely non-narrative sequence, rolling us gently through the landscape, but it also emphasizes connectivity and movement, but of a circumscribed nature. This is Denis’ most family-centric film since Chocolat, but here she is zeroing in on both the deep comfort of familial bonds and their stultifying limitations. Lionel lives with his adult daughter Jo (Mati Diop) in a small but very lovely urban apartment with all mod cons. In fact, Denis begins with a sly bit of melancholy humor. We see that Jo has bought her dad a new rice cooker, but Lionel has already bought one, resulting in an unspoken deadlock. Should she return hers, and when will she get around to it? This small stalemate is a microcosm for the film’s primary relationships which, as Mike D’Angelo astutely pointed out just moments after the screening, are all stuck at a protracted endpoint. Lionel has had a long-term relationship with Gabrielle (Nicole Dogué), a woman in the building, a relationship that has clearly run its course but still lingers as a potential hook-up. Jo’s old boyfriend Noé (Grégoire Colin) also comes around as a semi-part of the family. The two have split up but neither has moved on.  Although Denis wisely allows much of this backstory to remain implicit, each interaction is laden with the weight of a collective past, one from which the joy has long since evaporated. But Denis is incredibly attentive to the small gestures of love that display the positive side of body memory within families, the way in which something as simple as a daughter dishing up rice on her father’s plate can be a tender event worthy of cinematic consideration. By the same token, the body can just as easily betray the fugitive emotions that no one dares give voice to. The dramatic pinnacle of 35 Shots, as most reviewers have already noted, is an impromptu barroom dance to The Commodores’ “Nightshift,” during which years of love’s dissolution flood wordlessly to the surface of the fingertips as they graze and then depart a shoulder, as eyes connect and then instantly avert. Denis missteps when she overplays her hand, indicating that perhaps she was still trying to figure out how to speak her own language more directly. The subplot involving Lionel’s fellow conductor and his post-retirement malaise is an unfortunate inclusion, and the title metaphor – social drinking as legendary achievement, the triumph of oblivion as the height of direct expression – is equally unworthy of Denis. But no one can evoke the spaces between language, where longing and inchoate anticipation reside, quite like Denis. Even a turn toward less oblique storytelling cannot dispel this fundamental power.


7915 KM (Nikolaus Geyrhalter, Austria) [8]

Unlike many -- dare I say most -- contemporary documentaries (and, by the looks of things, unlike much of this year’s Real to Reel slate), Geyrhalter is as deeply concerned with cinematic aesthetics as he is with his factual subject matter. In fact, 7915 KM demonstrates the degree to which form and content must be considered inextricably linked for any advanced notion of documentary to succeed. The film follows the path of the Dakar Rally, a yearly off-road race down the northwest coast of Africa. Geyrhalter’s crew visited towns and villages along the path of the race after the racers had already been through, usually finding that the crazy Europeans and their fast cars had torn up local roads, acted disrespectfully to the local citizens (in one case, even to a young, somewhat Euro-identified Senegalese woman who participated in the race security crew), and that the whole event cuts an oblivious swath through some of the most inhospitable, and most politically contested and war-torn sections of the region. But beyond this, Geyrhalter takes this somewhat random linear organization as an opportunity for an open, patient form of cinematic listening. Much of the film consists of strikingly composed interviews in which local citizens hold forth on matters of concern, from their own personal work histories, to their religious practices, to their views on Europe. “How rich must the Whites be that they can just drive around all day,” one man in Mali observes.


But what makes 7915 KM remarkable – easily one of the three or four best features I’ve seen at this year's TIFF – is its fragmentary, cumulative approach to contemporary geopolitics. It is a ground-level project that also attempts to engage with its African subjects with a renewed, self-critical humanism. The film doesn’t gaze at “the Other,” nor does it try to make its subjects appear “just like us,” nor does it throw up its hands and abjure the work of cross-cultural understanding altogether. Instead, Geyrhalter uses his determinedly Western framework – the cinematic apparatus, a highly stylized aesthetic approach, the deep space of the Renaissance perspective – to demonstrate distance from his subjects, but a meeting in difference, a mutual listening and engagement. Had Geyrhalter simply turned on a camcorder and walked around, all the same old unconscious habits, for filmmaker and spectator alike, would most likely come rushing to the fore. Instead, 7915 KM insists on its status as a Western construction, but one that provides a small subset of Africans with a megaphone, to ay nothing of a place inside a project of handsome polyethnic portraiture. Geyrhalter’s globalist approach owes much to the late Johan van der Keuken, and perhaps as well to certain works by Harun Farocki. This is especially evident in the film’s concluding moments, when Geyrhalter lowers the boom. After detailing the wild exploits of wealthy Europeans and Americans traipsing all over the Sahara at will, we see a group of Senegalese refugees trying to make it to Europe by boat. They are intercepted by a European Coast Guard vessel, because not just anyone can move freely about the world.


\Revanche (Götz Spielmann, Austria) [6]

A film written and directed with absolute precision, Revanche consistently impressed me without moving me all that much. In fact, it's possible that this was the point, that Spielmann was interested in constructing a kind of abstract string quartet from the basic elements of the crime thriller and the melodrama while slicing away almost all of the Sturm und Drang one would expect from a more conventional iteration of the revenge theme. This is not to say that Revanche is bloodless, or that nothing is on the line, exactly. But perhaps one way to think about Spielmann's rather unusual project is to hypothesize that the story's two major inciting incidents -- a bank robbery and a peace officer's attempt to thwart it -- both rely on order. In the one case, there has to be meticulous planning, and in the other, rigorous training and practice to the point of automatic reflex. But in the brief moments when plans must be activated, rash decisions and split second reactions take hold, and things fall apart. No surprise there: the collapse of the "perfect crime" has been a staple of the genre from the very beginning, and was perfected to a science back when the Hays Code demanded that crime never pay. But from a formal standpoint, it's after chaos takes hold that Spielmann's own master plan starts to become increasingly apparent. In fact, there is a certain grinding inevitability to the way in which many narrative events and character relationships unfold. Even though Spielmann's exacting directorial style is never as ostentatious as, say, Michael Haneke or Joel and Ethan Coen, he does cross every T and dot every I, on the level of both script and visual construction. Framings are lock-tight, edits slide together like Legos. (The shock-cut from a dinner table to a close-up of a falling axe is one for the ages.) Dramaturgically speaking, the trains all run on time in Revanche. Spielmann coaches his performers to sublimate until it's time for the reveal. Johannes Krisch, who stars as failed-crook Alex, spends much of the second half of the film chopping wood in near-silence, but his body language blares his anger and mourning. Cop's wife Susanne (Ursula Strauss) is an utterly opaque helpmate until Spielmann activates her, like a sleeper cell, and she becomes a flitty sexpot ready to get busy with the Perfect 10 Woodsman. It's all too consistently amusing, and well-acted and shot, to ever collapse under the weight of its contrivance. But Spielmann ("playing man," ahem) keeps Revanche so perfectly tidy that its dual denouements, which gesture toward emotional catharsis or at least a humanist ripple in the fabric of things, don't provide much punch. More like a nod of approbation. Revanche is masterful filmmaking but feels a bit like a ship in a bottle.


Martyrs (Pascal Laugier, France / Canada) [2]

Given that this film's 18+ near-ban in France has made it a de facto censorship case, I hate to have to place myself on the "wrong team." But (at the risk of making matters worse) I'm reminded of Dennis Miller's remarks following the 2 Live Crew verdict. "Now that it's over, come on, that album sucked. Couldn't we have gone to the wall over 'Layla' or "Purple Haze'?" The sad thing is, exactly half of Martyrs is a scarcely competent but rather excoriating piece of gut-bucket cinema. It's not feminist, exactly, but the sad tale of Lucie (Mylène Jampanoï, going right to the edge of feral but always retaining an all-too-human vulnerability) works as a visceral, agonizing glimpse of the human cost of child abuse, particularly how the welfare state can never intervene where relief is needed the most -- within the deeply damaged soul. Lucie may have dispatched her tormentors, but as Laugier shows us, the demons will never die, and that is the human tragedy, the unspeakable repugnance that makes the child abusers on display in Martyrs -- people who are not mentally ill, but simply get off on bullying the powerless -- the lowest form of life. But, then, Laugier, quite by accident I'm sure, completely loses control of his own film. Once Lucie is gone and the focus shifts to the ordeal of her friend Anna (Morjana Alaoui), Martyrs becomes every bit as morally repugnant as those it purported to condemn. Now, I'm sure all concerned with making this film are perfectly nice people, and not warped religious nuts who intended to make a film that implicitly condones child abuse, but that's what they did. I realize that horror cinema, from The Exorcist through Dario Argento, even way back through the Dracula cycle, often relies on a certain degree of pseudo-Catholic hooey. But you've got to keep that shit cordoned off from the real world, lest you end up with Martyrs, a deeply reactionary film whose endless abuses -- woman-beating, flaying, skull-puncturing -- are all in the service of finding young girls who, in the film's universe, actually do exist, martyrs who can see God before dying. That's to say, the torturers are not crazy, they just have a particularly nasty omlette to make and are busily cracking some fragile human eggs. Instead of peeling flesh from bone, someone, please, peel the emulsion from the base and rid the planet of this revolting piece of shit film.



Thursday, 9/11


Pontypool (Bruce McDonald, Canada) [7]

What kind of emotional investiture are we capable of making, when we feel as though our world and our person may be in jeopardy? No film I saw exemplifies this quite as much as Bruce McDonald’s Pontypool. McDonald is one of Canada’s leading filmmakers whose international profile hasn’t been as high as it probably should be, and he has been enjoying a small renaissance lately, heralded by last year’s Ellen Page film The Tracey Fragments. Now, with Pontypool, he solidifies the comeback. Based on a novel which in turn became a radio play – the film displays this, to no detriment whatsoever --, the film takes place during one late winter’s morning, Valentine’s Day to be exact, at a radio station in the Ontario hinterlands. Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie, a character actor in a commanding star turn) is an AM shock-jock apparently run out of Toronto on a rail. After catching wind of a bizarre riot outside a doctor’s office in town, and a very disorienting visit from a local singing troupe, Mazzy and his two-woman crew (Lisa Houle and Georgina Reilly) discover that a mysterious virus has overtaken the town, reducing the infected to mindless, chanting zombies.


However – and spoilers commence here – this is no ordinary virus, and Pontypool is no ordinary zombie flick. The virus is transmitted in person, and over the phone. A Quebecois health advisory, en Francais, warns against speaking in English, and in particular the use of terms of endearment such as “honey” or “sweetheart.” Once the virus takes over the cortex of the brain, a rhyme-based glossolalia gives way to the endless repetition of one word. In time, Mazzy, his producer, and the besieged doctor (Hrant Alianak) deduce that the virus is transmitted through the English language. Mazzy, given to quoting Roland Barthes in his jock talk anyway (“Trauma is a news photo without a caption”), recognizes that the only cure for the virus is the avoidance of sense, an active deconstruction within English, or what the Russian Formalists called “making [language] strange” through poetic devices. He saves Sydney the producer by recoding the word “kill” as “kiss,” saying, “I’m going to kill you,” and planting one on her. We all left Pontypool humming the same tunes. Language is a virus. Stop making sense.


Pontypool falls short of absolute genius, mostly because it is so resonant with intellectual ramifications it fails to explore. Instead, it abruptly ends, with no conclusion at all. But this “semiotic zombie film,” as it's correctly been called, has both a political and a socio-sexual dimension. Or, following the likes of Kristeva and Lacan, it shows the two to be one and the same. The compulsion to use language, or to allow language to use you, is a kind of internal colonization. Pontypool never names this, although it makes an implicit parallel to the colonization of French Canada by the Anglophones. But more than this, the zeroing in on terms like “sweetie” and “darling” on Valentine’s Day is particularly suggestive. For Lacan, the most psychologically damaging form of language, that which puts our sense of Being most at risk, is what he called “empty speech.” Lacan described empty speech as a series of worn-down tokens passed from person to person, gesturing toward meaning but actually bearing none. In this case, these terms of endearment are the hollow signifiers of “love” that are in fact stand-ins for the much more difficult work of active love, which, in Lacan’s and Kristeva’s philosophy, must always forge its own unique language. Pontypool calls on these heady ideas, with unrelenting wit and verve, without wearing its book-learning on its sleeve. Although certain aspects of its humo(u)r may be “too Canadian” to translate into a stateside release, I sincerely hope an adventurous distributor like IFC at least gets this wonderful film out on its VOD platform. 


Birdsong (Albert Serra, Spain) [7] [a very tentative grade] [changed to 8 based on further information]

Even under the best of circumstances, Serra's achingly beautiful, phenomenally self-effacing little film would demand, and reward, a second viewing, something that simply wasn't possibly during the frantic, choc-a-bloc screening frenzy of TIFF. But, as it happens, Birdsong was my final screening just prior to returning home to Houston to prepare for Hurricane Ike, and my thoughts occasionally wandered into worry as to whether I'd be able to make the last flight out or if it would be cancelled. This is a shame; Serra's works come around about as frequently as Halley's Comet, and are just as dazzling if you look at them with the proper equipment. But even though I'd have preferred to give Birdsong my undivided attention, there's no denying that it's a film, like many avant-garde works, that permits a certain drift in and out of consciousness. Quintín has compared Serra to Alonso and Costa, but in terms of his open, expansive approach and unfettered appropriation of the textures and procedures of experimental cinema with in para-narrative context, I think that Apichatpong is his closest cousin. As with Tropical Malady and especially Syndromes and a Century, Honor de Cavalleria and Birdsong generate an atmosphere for the viewer, one that is diffuse and heady, indubitably imbibed in those elements that comprise the aesthetic realm. However there is also something else, a supplement that is related but quite distinct in these films, a direct sense of love and community, the loose-limbed attitude of easy comradeship that includes the viewer rather than keeping him or her at arm's length. These are tactile, haptic worlds, and not just because they favor landscapes and surfaces. They invite a handshake, a warm hug, but also a loose grip.


Birdsong is one of the most startling feature films I've ever seen in terms of its use of absolute silence. Long passages of the film unfold in either deep darkness or bright light, in active, swirling grain, with its Three Wise Men (Lluis Carbó, Lluis Serrat Batlle, Lluis Serrat Masanellas) traversing seemingly great distances in expanded, almost palpable longeurs. Eventually their effort does become comic, as does Serra's cavalier (ha ha) flouting of basic narrative filmmaking convention. Certain "critics," completely incapable of even trying to understand the film before them, complained about passages of rich darkness in which the finest gradation of shadows -- coffee against ink -- defined all available form. This is Serra pushing celluloid, and vision itself, to its limits. But even most avant-gardists are afraid of the stark emptiness of Brakhagian silence, where the screen stops feeding you the lifeline of distraction and throws all phenomenological awareness back onto the surrounding situation: you, the film, the room, the air conditioning, the tapping and fidgeting, the agonizing slowness of image upon image in near-real time. Naturally this places even greater importance on the dialogue sequences, so when the Wise Men lay on a hill and can't grouse about how they get comfortable, or when Joseph (a surprisingly stately Mark Peranson) and Mary (Montse Triola, whose unique luminosity subtly reinterprets art history's most popular role) discuss the play of sunlight, or the fact that the sheep has peed on Mary, the Beckett-like waiting for a deeper significance becomes the joke. Is Meaning perhaps to be found in bodily movement, the silence of shifting girth across sun-baked sand, the sheer phenomenon or raw Being? In the end, we see Three Wise Lluises, three fools, some elderly, some portly, all beautiful, simply bobbing around the forest, not quite dancing, not quite convening -- just ambling without clear purpose. And we are with them.


[ADDENDUM: I almost never raise a grade based on external information, like another writer's review or a director's comments in an interview. I usually wait until I get to see the film for myself a second time. But Birdsong is a special case, since (a) I was right on the cusp of an 8 anyway; (b) given the state of U.S. film distribution, I may literally never get to see it again; (c) as I note above, my concentration was not what it should have been, so I am more than willing to give Serra's film the benefit of the doubt; (d) my niggling concerns really, in the end, came down to the final shot, which struck me as somewhat random and oddly uncomposed. On reflection, though, this has everything to do with my own aesthetic biases toward linearity / angularity and against curvature. Once I read a statement Serra made at a subsequent screening, explaining that the final scene, in which the Three Wise Men are gathered in an undulating circle, is meant to mimic the form of a chalice, I not only got what he meant, but pretty much cursed my own obtuseness. Serra's right, Hack is wrong. Birdsong, a great and at times magnificent film, convinced me that the "significant flaw" was mine, and not the text's. The grade goes up.]


The Memory of Angels (Luc Bourdon, Canada) [v] [W/O] (0:24)

I realize that based on my 24 minutes I gave this rather less than a fair chance. But somehow I got the impression from reading about it that it was something along the lines of Montreal Plays Itself. Instead, it's a pretty mediocre approximation of Davies' Of Time and the City, but without the "trenchant" commentary. (Sorry, haven't seen the Davies yet.) In fact, there's no commentary at all, just a lot of music cues and a rather Oscar-clippy fantasia of street scenes and industrial glimpses of greater Montreal, once upo a time. I'm sure it has more of a charge if you have the built-in nostalgia factor working for you, which I obviously don't. But I'm a sucker for Kodachrome, bygone-days urban imagery, and even on its own terms this was just a poor, pseudo-experimental music video, not even good for a pre-airport time killer. As a foreign champion of Canadian culture, I hate to bag on this kind of thing by saying you'd have to be Canadian to care, but the positive notices in a few local papers make me wonder.


Dioses (Josué Méndez, Peru / Argentina / France / Germany) [W/O] (0:35)

Granted, I would have had to bail on this film in any case, since I had to meet my airport shuttle. (Although in truth, I didn't, since I ended up just sitting at the airport for three-plus hours. This happens every year, and I don't know why I keep listening to alarmist concierges who go on about the requisite two-hour lead time for international flights. Please, just shut up. Anyhow . . . ) I would have certainly walked out on this grueling exercise in stultifying "social commentary" before too much longer. With its blank, dead-eyed visual style and choc-a-bloc editing scheme, both of which border on outright directorial incompetence, to say nothing of its broad-as-a-billboard performances (check out that seeeeeeeeeething incestuous desire among the decadent classes!), there is absolutely nothing to recommend here. Unless the brother and sister eventually get it on (doubtful), and that sort of thing gets you off (which, whatever).


-Singh Is Kinng (Anees Bazmee, India) [6]

Watch me zoom by, make it boom by, what up to all the ladies hanging out in Mumbai [This is cheating a bit, since I watched this on my computer at Pearson Airport while waiting for my flight back to Houston. On the other hand, the festival was still going on, and besides, the inclusion of this film as a "Special Mumbai Matinee Gala," with no second screening or press screening, after the film was already in commercial release, and apparently singlehandedly sponsored by Dr. Ajay K. Virmani, makes me feel like I'm not the only one playing fast-and-loose with the rules here. So.] As always, the trouble with even the finest Bollywood films (and I'd call Singh one of the best in several years) is that, rather like Arnaud Desplechin films, they are so sprawling and capacious that they almost always make room for a whole host of stuff that just doesn't work. Singh, however, is highly unusual in that all the lame stuff is concentrated in the first half-hour to 45 minutes, when the plot and locale are centered on Happy Singh (Akshay Kumar) in his small-time Punjabi village. In addition to the usual "peasant moms in saris dancing by the river" business demonstrating the simple lives of the village folk, the first act of Singh hinges for its entertainment value on Kumar's excruciatingly unfunny slapstick. I don't really know much of anything about Kumar's star persona. But the "comedy" on display, which centers on Happy trying to help out but, gosh darnit, always lousing things up, smacks of desperation. (Apparently he's primarily an action hero.That explains a lot.)


So, once Happy is dispatched to Australia to go retrieve native son Lucky (Sonu Sood), who has become a crime kingpin, and a series of odd, genuinely comic mishaps result in Happy becoming the new "Kinng" of the underworld, the film kicks into high gear. This is partly, no doubt, because Kumar slips into a role with which he's a bit more at ease, but also the customary machinations -- the girl, the marriage to the wrong guy, the elaborate lies to protect an elder down on his (or, in this case, her) luck -- are all handled with unusually aplomb. What's more, Happy's reign as crime boss (of course he's a benevolent benefactor, a la Johnny Dangerously) results in honest-to-god plot twists. (There's a double-reversal involving a jealous member of Lucky's posse that actually took me by surprise. When's the last time you were caught unawares by a Bollywood plot point?) Bazmee keeps the action and mise-en-scène functional -- he's no Yash Chopra, much less Mani Ratnam -- but again, there are unexpected grace notes, such as Sonia's (Katrina Kaif) "heroes mask collection" being hijacked by the Happy Gang, that appear for no reason than to provide the pleasure of sheer visual invention. In the end, it's no surprise, really, that Bazmee got Snoop Dogg to rap the title track over the end credits. He's obviously a guy thinking outside the Bollywood box. Final note: I'm not sure what that extra 'n' is doing in "Kinng;" I'm sure it has to do with an odd translation issue. But damn if it ain't bad ass. [ADDENDUM: Girish just informed me that the extra 'n' is there because of numerology. How lame. Thanks, G.]





24 City

35 Shots of Rum

7915 KM


The Biggest Chinese Restaurant in the World


Black and White Trypps Number Three

Block B

The Burrowers



A Christmas Tale


Dernier Maquis



Il Divo

Eden Log

Fear Me Not

Flash in the Metropolitan


Le Genou d'Artemide


El Greco


Horizontal Boundaries [2008]

How to Conduct a Love Affair

I'm Gonna Explode [Voy a Explotar]




Lossless #2


The Memories of Angels

Mosaik Mechanique


The Parable of the Tulip Painter and the Fly


A Perfect Day


Public Domain





Singh Is Kinng

Still Walking

Summer Hours


Tale 52

Tell Me On Tuesday


Tokyo Sonata

Trypps #5 (Dubai)


Two Legged Horse


Under the Tree


Wendy and Lucy

When It Was Blue