Like wild grass tied with white ribbon made of white material. It's the
Like wild grass tied with white ribbon made of white material. It's the
2009 TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL
All films from U.S.A. unless otherwise specified.
(- seen on video; [v] video piece; [s] short, under 30 minutes; [m] medium length, 30-69 min; * grade changed upon repeat viewing)
I'm really not much for lengthy introductory essays this year. Maybe when it's all over I might return to this space with some valedictory wrap-up commentary. But for now, well, 2009 is shaping up to be a very uneven movie year. From Cannes, most of the big guns misfired. Venice looks like a mixed bag, with many of my least favorite (and more of my shoulder-shrug-inducing) auteurs filling out the line-up. I would not be surprised if the Jarmusch film, which almost everyone dislikes, proves to be my year-end top five, not because it is so stellar -- it isn't really, although it is very good -- but because the field is lackluster, and I, having limited resources and mobility this time around (only doing four days of TIFF), will probably have a few potential / eventual top tenners slip through my clutches until well after year-end listomania.
On y va!
Updated thoughts, 8/18/09: My original plan for working through pre-screening was that I'd dispatch the Future Projections material first, then get through the Wavelengths, program(me) by program(me). This may prove untenable, as the FPs are, for the most part, rather dismal. I feel like I'm eating through a wall of greasy Jack in the Box tacos to get to the Tojo's hamachi nigiri inside, and by the time I get there, I'll be ill.
Updated thoughts, 8/21/09: Going through the Wavelengths, in order, program by program. Hard not to get bogged down here and there. Trying to keep apace.
UPDATE 9/8/09: For myriad reasons. had to back out of the festival this year. Sorry, readers.
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seen prior to the festival
-Une Catastrophe (Jean-Luc Godard, Switzerland / Austria) [v/s] 
December 2008. See review here.
-City of Life and Death [Nanking! Nanking!] (Lu Chuan, China / Hong Kong) 
June 2009. See review here.
-Let Each One Go Where He May (Ben Russell, U.S. / Suriname) 
July 2009. See review here.
Phantoms of Nabua (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand / Germany) [v/s/p]  [changed to 9, 8/25/09]
February 2009. See review here.
[Phantoms is part of Future Projections, and will be on view Sept. 10-20 at the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art, 952 Queen St. West. Go.]
preview / pre-fest screening
Future Projections / Wavelengths 1 / Wavelengths 2 / Wavelengths 4 / Wavelengths 5 / Wavelengths 6 / Other Films
-Speak City [excerpt] (Lisa Steele and Kim Tomczak, Canada) [v/s/p]
A deceptively subtle and rigorous videowork that directly engages issues of site-specificity, Speak City is worth seeking out, especially in a setting like TIFF where it could easily get lost in the shuffle. On the face of it, all Steele and Tomczak have done is shoot static footage of Toronto street signs, fading one into another in the editing process. The blue street signs are shot in close-up, dominating the entire middle third of the frame in most cases, sometimes even a bit more. The choice of fades is careful but not at all overbearing in its formal language. Although there are frequently homologies from one image to the next -- the position of a telephone pole, the direction of swaying foliage, the relative position of the waterfront, etc. -- sometimes these visual rhymes are so subtle as to elude perception, and on multiple inspections I can attest that in other cases they are not there at all (although bear in mind, I was given a preview disc that simply excerpts the final piece). But what the conjunctions of the two streets usually do accomplish is the drawing of a specific linear form through mapping. If, for example, you Mapquest some of the instances when street numbers as well as names are given, you will find that Steele and Tomczak's start and endpoints are very close to one another, but actually driving between the two points entails an out-of-the-way Big Dipper shape around several city blocks. In addition to offering a wry commentary on the foibles of automobile traffic vs. pedestrian life -- "you can't get there from here" -- Speak City also seems to have a purely formal element, using these pairs of addresses as mapped components of a prospective public drawing assignment, reorganizing Toronto according to interlocking minimalist units not unlike Sol Lewitt open-cubes. Steele and Tomczak would seem to understand that most of this will be hard to grasp even for the locals, but virtually lost on out-of-towners. When one considers not only the underlying cultural politics of TIFF -- its necessary relationship to film industry interests vs. its struggle to maintain its key role in Canadian cultural identity, as well as the larger film industry's ever-expanding effort via tax shelter to turn Canada's major cities into "any-space-whatever" -- Steele and Tomczak are to be commended for using their commission to consider Toronto itself.
This Transition Will Never End #2 (Jeremy Shaw, Canada) [v/s/p]
Ain't that the truth. Shaw, a Canadian artist whose press materials consistently allude to his devout interest in the psychedelic, has taken the opportunity to install a 20-minute looped projection at the Bell Lightbox that, quite audaciously, kicks off with the "Stargate Corridor" sequence from 2001: A Space Odyssey and thereafter kicks into less hallowed ground. Through all the trippy tubes and light-granulated atom blasts and fantastic intracellular voyages through conic forms zooming into a doughnut-like Z-axis, what Shaw is giving us is a continual, one-after-another montage of transitional passages from sci-fi and other genre films. Just as credit sequences give everyone, from Hitchcock and Fincher to the average DGA numbnuts, "permission" to locate his inner Brakhage or Fischinger, Shaw's point seems to be that Space 1999 and Flash Gordon and the like have smuggled in some moments of Harry Smith / Jordan Belson peyote-fied grandeur. Seen together, though, this collection really just offers an implicit argument regarding the relative tackiness of most 1970s and 80s Hollywood genre product. These sequences say more about their makers' bad taste than any hidden affinities for the avant-garde. Shaw does take a notable gamble in displaying This Transition in total silence, which admirably forces these awkward Frank Frazetta / H. R. Giger motion-paintings to stand or fall on their own formal power. But the truth is, Shaw's piece casts its lot with a narrative bias whether or not he means for us to recognize it. The inescapable suckhole at the center of his screen, like the original source material from which he drew, can treat light and color only as a way to get from Point A to Point B. At the end, you half expect Jake Gyllenhaal to greet you with a bunny mask. [IMPORTANT NOTE: Although Transition #2 was provided for preview, Shaw's work for the Lightbox will be a new work, Transition #6. Based on description, the procedures will be similar enough to make the piece I reviewed adequately representative. Nevertheless, please be so advised.]
-The Shape of Things (Oliver Pietsch, Germany) [v/s/p]
This is the sort of wretched, pseudo-experimental pap that gets programmed, without fail, as a frivolous amuse-bouche at film festivals with no serious commitment to avant-garde film. In other words, there's a good chance you'll be seeing more of The Shape of Things, despite the fact that it is nothing more that a sub-Chuck Workman clip reel from a hundred or so instantly recognizable film-history moments, all "cleverly" organized around the motif of sleeping, dreaming, and waking in fright. Do we have Caligari and Nosferatu, you may ask? Why, yes, yes we do! Thanks for asking. But would any film be so crass as to move, in sequence, from Buster Keaton in the projection booth in Sherlock Jr. to the silent-film interlude in Talk To Her, and then right along to the Mena-Suvari-in-rose-petals jerkoff reverie in American Beauty? Well, sure! I mean, it's all just one long dream of a dream of a dream. Every clip Pietsch selects is excruciatingly obvious and he offers no new perspective on the cinema / dream connection, an idea that some really great minds have pondered over the years. What he really adds to the mix is a crass channel-surfing aesthetic that treats great works of art like little postcards you'd tape up in your dormroom. There's lot of this work out there -- Virgil Widrich and Müller / Girardet come immediately to mind -- and it never fails to appeal to those whose sympathies reside squarely with narrative cinema but whose exalted positions require them to at least behave like aesthetes. So this stuff isn't going away. It's the shape of things to come.
-Civilization (Marco Brambilla, U.S. / Italy) [v/s/p]
An overbearingly gaudy work that slowly betrays a welcome sense of humor, Civilization is a Bosch-like amalgam of images from film history that scrolls upward, a vision of ascendancy from a teeming, fiery Hell to a green, candy-coated Heaven. Brambilla's vision is frankly silly, and that's the point -- the composition, its slow, momentous crawl up the (presumably massive) wall where it's projected, and its low, rumbling classical soundtrack imply a grandeur and import that even the slightest attention to the actual images will immediately deflate. (Is that the Sta-Puff Marshmallow Man in the upper left hand corner of Purgatory?) While there's virtually no disputing the hideousness of Civilization (although I'm sure somebody out there finds these molten reds and icy orifice-forms appeal to someone -- what does it say that this is the second time in my 2009 TIFF report that I'm citing Frank Frazetta as an obvious aesthetic touchstone?), Brambilla does a pretty marvelous job constructing mobile, compound images from the cinematic collage materials he's assembled. The dominant motifs are what Kracauer called "mass ornaments," long shots of large-scale deployments of human beings in choreographed formation. Brambilla uses these seas of humanity as almost Cubist puzzle pieces to construct a synthetic, undulating panel effect, drawing attention inward to a group of preposterously luminous, lacquered deities at center stage. It's.....something. And considering the care Brambilla lavished on the internal relationships, it's rather astonishing how poorly conceived the loop is. He just reattaches the bottom of Hell to the top of Heaven, with no sense of compositional purpose. Still, there's something impressive in Brambilla's representation of the movies as a mirror of civilization which strives for the sacred, would settle for the profane, but most often achieves the ludicrous. (Wish it weren't so damned ugly, though.)
-"In a City" (Mark Lewis, Canada)
This three-film installation by Canadian media artist Mark Lewis (now based in London) is one of the festival's must-sees (and, along with Apichatpong, one of the Future Projections' two unquestionable highlights), if only because one of the single works is among the year's best. However, the other two films are vastly improved as imaginative touchstones (and formal endeavors) when the three works are taken as a unit, and I am confident that seeing Lewis's work large and well-projected in an installation context would only increase their power. The three works, all from 2009, comprise 3/4 of Lewis's contribution to the Canada Pavilion at this year's Venice Biennale. (the omitted fourth, older work, a Jeff Wallish effort entitled The Fight, is fortunately the weakest of the bunch.) Each of these works pertains to the spatial specificity and urban realities of Toronto, and the vast differences among the three films is highly productive, since they jostle against one another for a kind of supremacy of temperament and access. The most breathtaking of the group is Nathan Phillips Square, A Winter's Night, Skating [s/p], a trick film that is also so much more. In the initial moments of viewing Nathan Phillips Square, there is a lagtime wherein one's sensorium struggles to understand exactly why the scene before us is so bizarre and oneiric. Is it the crystalline Eastern Canadian night sky? The gentle pivot of the steel arcs of the bridge above as our skaters describe slow pirouettes and figure-8s on the ice below? In time we realize [SPOILER] that Lewis is using back-projection, and that the two ice-skating lovers in the foreground are completely outside the scene we have been watching. Once this disjunction is discovered, we become aware of the magnificent grace of Lewis's camera as it skates along through the Phillips Square area, generating a grainy, hovering tone-poem to winter's suspended light. The skating pair, meanwhile, are impressive enough dancers that it becomes hard to tell whether or not Lewis even has them on ice in the foreground. (By the end, their turns would indicate that in fact he does.) The teasing, frozen eroticism between the pair is heightened, of course, by their total separation from the world around them. In all respects, this is a magnificent film. And at first, it would seem to have little connection to Cold Morning [v/s/p], a single-shot, static camera take at street level, wherein we observe the early morning rising of a homeless person. As cars whiz by on the street that dominates the upper left diagonal of the frame, the foreground finds this individual carefully folding his bedroll, organizing and reorganizing what appear to be pudding cups, having an unclear interaction with a newspaper machine, and moving along. Although Lewis shows us numerous disruptions of the frame, Cold Morning is notable for just how much room, and space, it provides for its subject. Shot like a Lumiére actualitè, the film seems to depict homeless life in Toronto as just part of the overall landscape, which it is. Rather than presenting it as a problem, Lewis shows that the "problem" is the fact that it isn't a problem at all, and that our current social arrangement accommodates homelessness, just as it allows our (middle-class or better) skaters to separate themselves from the social altogether. A clue to all this, via an utterly impersonal point of view, comes in the last film, TD Centre, 54th Floor [s/p]. Lewis's camera simply tracks from one end to the other, and back again, across an observation deck high above Toronto. The camera view permits the bottom of the steel wall to show, like a track within which the camera support might move on its own, some remote surveillance tool. The window views are rather predictable: the tops of smaller buildings, miniaturized streets and cars traversing the well-planned city conduits. (In fact, TD Centre resembles a far less complicated version of Ernie Gehr's Side / Walk / Shuttle.) The only break in the panoptic action comes when the camera stares down at the building's vertical girders. The foreshortening produces images of these beams, at regular intervals, that form thick black inverted triangles, like Richard Serra thunderbolts cast down into the frame from on high. Lewis is giving us total vision, marred by periodic blind spots. How this vision might relate to homelessness and middle-class bliss, particularly as it issues forth from atop a megabank, surely requires no comment.
["Mark Lewis: In a City" will be showing at the Justina M. Barnicke Gallery (on the University of Toronto campus) from September 8 through October 26. Additional Mark Lewis works will also be on display at the Art Gallery of Ontario from September 9 through January 3. The standalone screenings of Backstory and Cinema Museum are single-ticket events, on September 10 and 11 at the Varsity Theatre; consult the TIFF schedule for details.]
-"Green Porno" [excerpts] (Isabella Rossellini / Jody Shapiro) [v/s]
I kind of rankled when I learned that Rossellini's series of Sundance Channel eco-themed shorts would be part of this year's Future Projections series. It just seemed like a craven attempt to grandfather in some star power, in the section of the festival least likely to provide it. Now, having seen six of the Season Two Green Porno shorts (now available for viewing on the Sundance Channel website), I feel rather ashamed at my snobbery. These films are really pretty wonderful -- a glimpse at what contemporary, no-nonsense science films for kids might look like, were we ever to achieve an unpatronizing attitude toward young people and their education. There's a whimsy here that's just delightful, as Rossellini shows up, decked out as the Catch of the Day, providing teasing, come-hither factual commentary on the mating habits of barnacles, limpets, anglerfish, and other oddballs of the deep. (More charismatic megafauna, such as whales, get some facetime as well.) When Rossellini portrays a starfish, she describes their asexual reproductive potential, her segments popping off one by one. Each becomes a replica, with a photographic Isabella mask slapped on it. It's impossible to see this kind of playful edu-vivisection and not be reminded of Georges Méliès, and the project as a whole strikes me as carrying on the spirit of Jean Painlevé, but replacing his Surrealist creep-factor with an openhearted embrasure of nature's variety of penis shapes and vaginal contours. And yes, given the bright, quasi-Asian paper-and-fabric style of the costumes and sets, it makes perfect sense to make a museum show out of this, where the objects can be enjoyed for their own sake. All in all, it's hard not to think that this frankly pedagogical endeavor, channeled through broad post-Freudian humor and open artifice, displays Isabella Rossellini taking two major influences in her creative thinking -- her father, of course, and more recently, Guy Maddin -- and making them completely here own. So, yeah. Green Porno is pop-science and pop-art of a high order. And I really need to get the highfalutin art-film stick out of my ass. [Note: The catalogue stills indicate that either additional, or entirely other, Green Porno shorts will be featured in the Future Projections program. Although I am confident that the ones I have discussed here are representative, and that my review stands as valid, the reader should be so aware.]
-Titan (Klaus Lutz, Switzerland) [s]
This film represents my first encounter with Lutz's work, which has been well-received in the art world. In galleries, Lutz installs his projections with spherical screen-planes and displays the drawings that become incorporated into various stages of the films themselves. All of this is intriguing in theory, but based on seeing Titan as a stand-alone, I fear that Lutz's forced sense of wonder (clearly meant to evoke the early days of cinema, Méliès in particular) would turn grating in short order. Titan actually begins strong, with Lutz deftly negotiating multiple planes of attention. In the foreground we see the little man in white (Lutz) crawling on a strange wire-sculpture whatsit that seems to be part moving-sidewalk, part space vehicle. Zooms take us slightly closer to this activity now and then, but for the most part Lutz is a tiny gremlin toddling about on a wire hanger in outer space, a refugee from the planet Calder. Early on, Lutz superimposes this scene with filmed backdrop material, such as people on the street or engaged in labor. (Images include dancers, a construction site, and a lily pond.) The camerawork, cutting and use of zooming and perspective in this "ground" material is freestyle and hand-held, but provides a jarring, almost disorienting bedrock against which Lutz's "figure" can play. In time, however, this B-roll element drops out, and soon all we see is Lutz trying to propel himself from left to right in the miniaturized field, with inserts of the man, life-sized, manipulating sculptural objects with which to fashion new flight costumes. In addition to being repetitive, Titan is obviously undercranked, its fast-motion lending a rather obnoxious manic energy to the film. At a mere nine minutes, Lutz's effort overstays its welcome.
Two Projects by Frederick Kiesler (Heinz Emigholz, Austria / Germany) [v/s]
By now, there should be little question as to what Heinz Emigholz does in his "Photography and Beyond" series. The filmmaker uses cinema (digital video in this case) to expand the notion of architectural documentation, exploring buildings and the built environment not as static facts, objects d'art plopped down in the landscape, but as living entities that interface with nature and human inhabitants. This ongoing "life" in the land provides them with a unique phenomenology that requires the fourth dimension -- the time element -- in order to approximate full documentation of the work of an architect. However, one of the decisions about Emigholz's work that has sometimes struck me as strange is that, generally speaking, he refrains from traveling shots. Instead, he shoots individual static shots, usually lasting around five seconds a piece. He then edits them together in a manner that follows the organizational thrust of the building or buildings under consideration, looking at the structures in parts. But he doesn't create an actual walk-through. Rather, his editing tends toward the Cubist, building a synthetic mind-structure out of the physical fact of the buildings themselves. Emigholz also favors slight Dutch angles for some reason.
Two Projects by Frederick Kiesler marks a departure from Emigholz's usual m.o. This short film, examining the Ukrainian-born Austrian avant-gardist, is broken into two segments. The first is an extended perusal of Kiesler's model for "Endless House," a 1959 proposal for a hypothetical living space that would provide total continuity between inhabitants and surrounding nature, and appears to have as its goal the dissolution of boundaries between rooms, or even between walls and floors. As some have noted, Endless House is essentially a Surrealist bio-form in three dimensions, postulated as an open pod for living. As if aiming both to honor Kiesler's theories of flow and continuity, and to compensate for the fact that this project was never realized, Emigholz films the model on a pedestal with a close, swooping camera, hugging the structure's curves and voids. Part of this approach, no doubt, is pedagogical as well; over time Emigholz allows us to see this object as the building it was supposed to be. In the longer second part, we see one of Kiesler's two realized projects (and the only one currently in use), Jerusalem's Shrine of the Book. We see the structure's sharp play of monolithic edges against its central form, a white pointed dome that serves as a glistening fountain. Emigholz shows us how the dark interiors and blank, steely modernist walls are continually juxtaposed with craggy beige brick. The awarding of the Shrine project to Kiesler and another, more conventional architect, Armand Bartos, was controversial, and Emigholz emphasizes how the final structure combines De Stijl and older, Holy Land elements, compromises of the sort that have defined religious commissions through recorded history. However the final form of the building, which houses the Dead Sea Scrolls among other priceless artifacts, also represents The War of the Sons of the Light Against the Sons of the Darkness. By showing us the Shrine of the Book after a close examination of the Endless House, Emigholz implies that a clear-cut division between these opposing forces was probably anathema to this complex thinker in stone.
-010101 (T. Marie) [v/s]
A work of extreme simplicity and mindboggling complexity, a work that is difficult to categorize but indubitably belongs in the realm of experimental video, 010101 is a gorgeous conundrum. In fact, its title, mimicking the off / on toggle of binary code, seems to play with that awareness of hybridity, the sense that Marie is making something that fits uneasily into production and exhibition categories as we presently understand them. But the title has a specific meaning -- Marie's video lasts exactly one minute, one second, and one frame. What we see in this all-too-brief window of time is, in fact, a window of sorts, but a fully digitized one, one that exists as an electronically generated scrim that, as far as we are permitted to ascertain, has no "behind," but can be engaged only as surface. And what a surface! In a 16x9 arrangement, Marie has produced an ever-shifting motion painting comprised of vertical rectangles of permeable edges, overlapping on the surface like thick brushstroked impastos. These bricklike forms are staggered, and each has a relative autonomy with respect to the continual waves of saturated color Marie uses to bring light into, and out of, the "painting." In its pure shape and construction, the piece resembles certain efforts by Jasper Johns or (especially) Robert Ryman, but Marie's palette is what sets 010101 apart. She is pushing the spectrum of digital video in the direction of (and against the limits of) the expected color array of paint on canvas. Her cerulean blues, searing scarlets, and deep pthalo greens are shocking to the video-eye, and their translucent, hovering character -- the fact that they slot themselves into a membrane-like compartment, alter the hues around them, and then become something else, in a matter of seconds -- only heightens the visceral impact. So, in essence, what we have here is the most visually succulent shower curtain in recorded history, and you may find yourself frustrated (as I was) that Marie's telecanvas was gone in 60 seconds. (Okay, 61 and change.)
-Hotel Roccalba (Josef Dabernig, Austria) [s]
What's a festival without a major discovery? And what kind of a provincial New South-dwelling yokel would I be if that "discovery" weren't a major European artist that much of the larger world was already hip to long ago? Apparently over two years in the making (the artist displayed the script in a gallery exhibition in 2007, with suitably Structural / Conceptual directorial commentary), Hotel Roccalba is a small wonder, the sort of film that somehow manages to astonish with its precision while at the same time allow enough basic human breathing room to permit limitless discovery. Like the best formalist efforts -- Gerhard Richter paintings, Anton Webern compositions -- you can naturally learn Dabernig's film by heart because it does observe a kind of schematic organization. But it continues to unfold, with a warm, enveloping humor all the same. The basic set-up: Dabernig had his family act as non-professional performers in a not-quite-ten-minute film in the run-down titular inn in the Italian Alps. Roccalba begins with quick bursts of human industry: an older gentleman (Dabernig, Sr., I believe) chopping wood in the yard next to two middle-aged women in lawn chairs working on some very rapid knitting. Over on the sidewalk by the building, a younger man tinkers with his upturned bike. Inside the rooms of the hotel, there is a haircut, the application of make-up, and a very standoffish bartender / drinker interaction. But what makes Hotel Roccalba so remarkable is Dabernig's unerring sense of composition, editing and blocking. At first, we don't know what we're seeing, so we don't realize that these scenes are staged. When that's the case, Dabernig's ability to break a single scene into multiple fragments -- long, medium, and medium-CU shots, 90° and 45° angles, overhead shots -- all within seconds, is enough to leave you a bit dumbfounded. (One of the few contemporary filmmakers I can think of who works in this manner is José Luis Guerín.) For example, Dabernig shows the haircut (a woman cutting a balding man's head from behind), and we see what looks like a mirror at a diagonal. It looks like a salon. The next shot is of a celebrity gossip magazine on an end table, its images divided into squares on the exact opposite diagonal as the mirror edge (which, it turns out, isn't.) The film is full of these gentle misdirections. There is a kind of flange-like X shape to the whole thing; Dabernig's formal flourishes become a little trickier as the goings-on move from industry to torpor. But this isn't exactly right. What really defines Hotel Roccalba is a bizarre, thrilling sense of the disorganized, random stuff of life being invisibly, imperceptibly choreographed, a God-like aspect that is gradually revealed, becoming a kind of Cubist hysteria. The final image, viewed from above, is of an older woman (Dabernig's mom, I think), wandering from person to person, asking what they're doing. The film's parting shot, then: active, almost aggressive non-productivity. (Did I mention this is a comedy?)
Puccini Conservato (Michael Snow, Italy / Canada) [v/s]
In a long and storied career, which has included the creation of some of film history's most singular and groundbreaking works, Michael Snow may have produced his strangest moving-image work to date. Commissioned to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Giacomo Puccini's birth, Puccini Conservato ("conservato" meaning "conserved" or "preserved" in Italian) is, to my mind, Snow's first fully Conceptual film or video work. By "Conceptual" here, I mean in the strict art-historical sense. Snow's short video offers very little in the way of overt sensual pleasure on the visual track. Instead, the images in Conservato are baldly functional and awkwardly assembled, serving to direct our attention away from their surface textures, for the most part, and toward other meanings. First, to state the obvious: this is a work about music, and Snow clearly has no intention of trying to upstage the seductive beauty of La Bohème, which plays as a recording on the soundtrack. Instead, Snow uses the visual field to draw our attention, in initially perplexing ways, to the opera's status as a recorded artifact. Snow, ever the materialist, has chosen to commemorate Puccini by reminding us of precisely how his legacy is preserved and conveyed to most listeners -- through recording technology. So, the first image in Conservato is a shiny beige weave pattern, which the camera pans over in small increments, in a very herky-jerky fashion. As Snow pulls back a bit with the reverse-zoom and moves a tad to the right, the Panasonic logo enters the screen. Snow is showing us stereo speakers. Soon the image will be filled with close-ups of the volume button, the cassette deck, the equalizer, an MP3 jack, and other parts of the stereo equipment playing the Puccini recording. But in these images, Snow uses harsh lighting and very primitive tripod work, as if it were his intention to bring out some of video's worst qualities. So again, it appears that we are supposed to reflect on the music, and all the barriers (some of them aesthetically neutral, some deleterious but unavoidable) between the music and our ears. Toward the end of the video, Snow drops in brief flashes of external imagery, such as garden exteriors, or waves in a choppy sea (just to make sure we're all on the same you-know-what). These drop-ins are more visually seductive that the equipment shots in every way, and evaporate all too quickly. Again, this decision points toward a Conceptual approach, since these eye-salves seem to approximate the associative leaps of a mind under music's thrall, "going where it takes you" as it were. So in this regard, Snow's last word on the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction may well be that, if it's powerful enough, it can reach across the distance and move us, regardless of what stands in its way.
-Lumphini 2552 (Tomonari Nishikawa, U.S. / Thailand / Japan) [s]
Nishikawa is one of the more impressive filmmakers to have arrived on the scene in recent years, due in large part to his sensibility. A graduate of the Cinema program at Binghamton, Nishikawa is not a form-buster. All three of the films of his I've seen fit very comfortably within historically available avant-garde procedures. And yet they are always fresh and original, owing to Nishikawa's poetic, off-kilter approach to the assembly of images. Lumphini 2552 is no exception; working off of concepts that call to mind Brakhage's Mothlight or certain frame-based works by Kurt Kren and (especially) Rose Lowder, the film is nevertheless something altogether new, a workout for the optic nerve that somehow manages to be both overwhelming and strangely relaxing at the same time. Nishikawa has produced a slightly widescreen film composed of horizontally-oriented, black-and-white still photographs of a variety of flora, taken in Bangkok's Lumphini Park. The images are generally shot in close-up, although toward the 4/5 mark Nishikawa introduces medium-shots of the tops of trees. As composed, the majority of the photos depict a dense thicket of leaves, stems, or branches, all in extremely high contrast. As arranged in the film, and as they cycle past in rhythmic overdrive, these images tend to provide a sense of an all-over weblike composition, expanding and contracting around the center of the frame. At times, Lumphini 2552 turns its leaves outward, jabbing the outer reaches of the frame, especially in the tree segments. But the dominant sense is one of living, breathing continuity produced through individual, independent segments of life, as though Nishikawa were using his lens(es) to organize a set of microscope slides for the examination of organic processes invisible to the naked eye. I had the luxury of slowing the film down on DVD for a second look, and it's clear that the filmmaker took extreme care in determining how one plant led to another. And so, like those great artists I cited about, Nishikawa is using the tools of his trade for true animation, giving movement to that which may be fixed in its place but is very much alive.
-Pro Agri (Nicky Hamlyn, U.K.) [s]
A perfectly simple film but no less elegant for that, Hamlyn's Pro Agri is just a fixed-frame timelapse image of a collection of silos, from the relatively invisible activity of its daylight hours, through its eventual enshroudment in twilight and finally, near-total darkness. By film's end, only the structure's green neon sign -- PRO AGRI -- and a parking lamp on the lower left, can be seen at all. While one could examine the film for possible sociopolitical meaning, Hamlyn implicitly discourages this. I don't want to say that Pro Agri cannot or should not be read as, for example, a brief cine-tract on collective farming. Nor should we refrain from ascertaining exactly what we're looking at -- an agricultural co-op, a storage unit in a factor farm, etc. But Hamlyn's film, with its structuralist tone-poem approach, chooses a procedure which accelerates the hours while showing us, not the earth moving, but the sun and sky moving around a stationary object. So in a way, Pro Agri is "about" problematizing the distinction between that which is lasting and that which is transitory (including daily cycles), and this challenges most conceptions of the political as such, without by any means disqualifying them. Not to get too Heideggerian about it, but Hamlyn uses cinema's unique capabilities to let us see heaven and earth caressing human endeavor.
Cordão Verde [Green Belt] (Hiroatsu Suzuki and Rossana Torres, Portugal) [v/m]
Frequently one encounters works that we could ideally give a pass to, just on the merits of their chosen subject. Cordão Verde, by first-timers Suzuki and Torres, is a sincere, heartfelt effort to evoke the complexity of a specific place -- in this case, Serra do Caldeirão, in the rural northeast of Portugal. But from the opening shot, a hesitant pan across rolling hills in blotchy consumer-grade video, accompanied by a rather stentorian poetic narration, it's fairly clear that much of Cordão Verde will be clumsy bordering on inept. What's most bothersome about the film is the fact that Suzuki and Torres constantly provide hints that they implicitly understand what "this kind of film" looks like. That is, we are given fragmentary, narration-free glimpses of shepherds, women at sewing machines, a baker using an old-style stone oven, and other such mosaic elements of rural life. The non-didactic, panoramic ethnography has become another style to approximate, so we watch Cordão Verde thinking about the film that it should have been. As is, shots aren't held long enough for us to really examine the processes of labor the film is ostensibly examining, and the editing scheme fails to draw discernible geographical or conceptual relationships between one thing and another, resulting in borderline incoherence. By the time the filmmakers have repaired to the hillside to allow the shepherds to sing a folk song, we have been subject to so much piecemeal "poetic" information that the gesture feels forced, like the sort of trump-card of authenticity Cordão Verde had been seemingly struggling to avoid. By the final shot, any seasoned festival-goer knows from the very first second that the stock-still frame of a rolling meadow will gradually be filled with sheep. The shot will be held for as long as it takes the flock to fill the frame, like beans pouring into a jar. And there will be a straggler. It's clear that the filmmakers, imitating a shopworn idiom, feel this is their money-shot. But the truth is, thirty minutes on, we know only enough about the Cordão Verde to understand that the picture we're getting is one riddled not with structured ellipses but with design flaws.
-Tamalpais (Chris Kennedy, U.S. / Canada) [s]
Tamalpais is a work that sneaks up on you a little bit, partly because the inherent pleasure its images provoke can initially distract you from more . . . I don't want to say "substantial" questions. What could be more substantial than beauty? But Kennedy's technique is one that confronts, and conflates, the landscape as visible from atop the titular peak in Marin County with its registration through an optical schema. What Kennedy does, essentially, is shoot through a standing 5x7 grid, forcing the focus through each of the sliced-out frames of reference, before stepping back to present the entire view of the landscape, including the standing wood-and-wire grid (with sandbag support to compensate for the Bay's wind factor). Kennedy's editing, then, presents these modules of space, one after another, in the grid pattern, which always moves us top to bottom and left to right. The resulting close-ups yield sequences that start with patches of sky and end with individual blades of grass in the extreme foreground. In between, rolling but supremely flattened grass-covered hills. Now, this description of what Kennedy has done is relatively complete, only to reiterate that his attention to color and light is dextrous and seductive, in a very plainspoken kind of way. But the experience of watching Tamalpais is something altogether different, or at least it was for me. It seems to me that Kennedy has used structural means that eventually defeat any comfortable way of viewing the film itself. Quite different from the old-school rap on structural film, Kennedy's work isn't "teaching you how to watch it" over the course of its running time. Rather, it's slowly becoming apparent that "watching it" is in some profound sense impossible. If you're trying to put the grid back together in the viewing, you're missing the earthly information Kennedy's camera has actually registered. You're failing to respond to what's actually on the screen. Meanwhile, if you simply examine Tamalpais as a set of landscape views or natural forms, you'll soon discover that Kennedy's use of the grid technique (in particular its play with distance and focus) has flattened out the filmed material in ways that imply but withhold a painterly engagement. Because of the time element, but also because the forced-compression of these images is just, well, odd, any kind of Cézanne / Picasso push and pull in the picture plane is pretty much nipped in the bud. So, on the phenomenological and the intellectual level, in terms of cinema's confrontation with both time and space, Chris Kennedy has created a film that destroys its object of inquiry. And yet, Tamalpais is in no way a mere plaint against "formalism" in favor of some Romantic immediacy. The film looks so sunny and placid on the surface, but it's actually a sort of plunge into structuralism's heart of darkness.
-Käfig [Cage] (Karl Kels, Germany) [s]
Kels's film represents a slice of optical ultraformalism that pushes at the bounds of understanding. Although Käfig certainly reflects a high degree of effort on the part of its maker, and may well demonstrate a good deal more organizational prowess than is immediately legible from the screen, it nevertheless seems to me to serve as an example of structural cinema's pitfalls. You can, in fact, glean the pattern in a matter of minutes, and it does not waver over the remaining twelve or thirteen. Although it appears on the surface that no actual progression occurs, and in fact there is no progression on the level of form, Kels has slyly provided a kind of noteworthy progression -- "narrative," one could argue, in the strict sense of A morphing into B. Basically, Käfig consists of an arrangement of seven black-and-white light-patterns or intensities, from pure-positive to pure-negative, of footage of a rhinoceros pacing in its enclosure, with a background of two differently-shaded square panel doors against the far cage wall. As Kels flashes from one quality of b/w reversal or surface stress to the next (approx. four per second), the placement of the rhino jumps around, since the passages of film footage were not shot continuously, nor did Kels process the same identical camera roll in seven different ways. So, at about the seven-minute mark, the rhino disappears from the frame in all but the positive roll. Eventually, he/she becomes scarce in that 1/7th as well, allowing the film to play out by focusing attention on the differential of the two rear panels. But basically, Kels has set up a single idea, a rather limited one on both the sensual and the intellectual levels, and bangs that drum for all it's worth. Is the title a pun? Is formalism itself the "cage"? Was the film organized by chance, as a tribute to John Cage? Look, I'm dying over here.
-In Comparison (Harun Farocki, Germany / Austria) [m]
On the face of it, Farocki's latest documentary effort is about the most materialist project one could imagine undertaking for the cinema. A true "grundrisse," In Comparison is more basic than a landscape study or an examination of the ways in which different peoples construct their worlds through architecture. No, instead it is a panoramic study in brick manufacturing, showing how members of different societies in different parts of the world -- Austria, India, Burkina Faso, France, and many other places -- go about the business of shaping, baking, and stacking their most basic raw material. Eschewing overt commentary, aside from brief textual inserts and white-on-black graphics representing the shape and orientation of the bricks being made, Farocki prefers to watch labor in action, setting the more tactile, communal efforts in the developing nations alongside mechanized processes in the West. And this leads to several moments of startling beauty. One notable example arrives near the end of the film, when Farocki shows us a domed live-kiln method that holds heat in with mud, baking both the building structure itself and the additional bricks inside it.
Strangely, though, the comparisons do not illuminate all that much in themselves. This is partly a result of Farocki's distanced observational method, which certainly abides by rigorous codes but also has unforeseen pitfalls. Watching groups of men and women work together to shape bricks by hand in India, for example, as they know full well what they will mean to the community -- i.e., the antithesis of alienated labor -- is rather odd when we do not hear them speak. In fact, the relative silence they maintain as they toil is so unnatural as to feel coached for the purposes of the film. Similarly, watching a computerized robot generate an undulating brick wall according to a mathematical schema is fascinating, and, coming as it does near the end of In Comparison, could serve as a slight rejoinder to the impression that Western factory production is almost always the enemy of basic human expression. But like all else, Farocki drops it in without commentary. On the one hand, the very construction of In Comparison -- image after image, place after place, side by side -- does in fact mirror the typical deployment of the subject matter. Farocki lays down information like a stonemason, not like a rhetorician. But at the same time, this approach seems to confound the very comparisons the film asks us to make. So I wonder. Can bricks break dialectics?
A Letter to Uncle Boonmee (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand / Germany / U.K.) [v/s]
In addition to being a magnificent work all its own, A Letter to Uncle Boonmee also has the distinction of playing against the equally great Phantoms of Nabua as half of a mutually redefining diptych. Although Phantoms impressed me greatly on its own (it being the second of the two works, I nevertheless saw it first), it takes on radical new meanings when seen alongside its companion piece. A Letter to Uncle Boonmee finds Apichatpong having first one, and then another speaker read the opening text, which states the filmmaker's intention to make a film in which a monk addresses his Uncle, a man about whom he has but scant memories. In fact, Boonmee's own son (or is it his nephew?) has trouble remembering all that much about the man. What we soon discover is that Boonmee has been subject to numerous reincarnations, and so pinning down his identity will be a very slippery business. What Apichatpong and the film know for sure, however, is that Boonmee has always been in the village of Nabua. Nabua was an occupied town from the 1960s to the early 80s, when military forces considered it a stronghold for Communist farmers. It was a scene of intense brutality and repression, and many of those who were not executed by the government forces had to flee to escape a similar fate. In a stunning act of political avant-gardism, Joe has adapted Thai Buddhist tenets regarding reincarnation as a means for excavating the hidden history of a troubled landscape. As his camera slowly creeps and pans through darkened, abandoned homes, Apichatpong is displaying the remnants of a repressed past, in an assertion of ghostly, vertical time. Frequently, these slow pans will tilt in a slight arc, resulting in multiple depths of field, multiple barriers to vision (broken walls, overgrown foliage, window panes) sliding alongside each other, creating fragmented, differential vision within the landscape, an objective correlative to the problem of history's haunting spirits. What's more, Joe's dominant visual cue throughout Boonmee is the depiction of dark, illegible interiors whose porous walls and broken-out windows allow the bright green of the jungle to puncture the once-domestic space with light and texture. As beautiful as the effect may be, it is also chilling, since it represents the breakdown of human effort's separation from natural encroachment, the dissolution of basic boundaries. (Not for nothing is Joe's new major work, of which the Nabua pieces are a component, called Primitive.) But in addition to Boonmee's visual tropes, the film employs narration, reflexive storytelling, and the power of myth, harnessing Thai popular modes for the sake of a trenchant volley against official amnesia. And, where Boonmee is the more mythic / literary version of this project, I can now see that Phantoms is its sculptural equivalent, drawing on modernist idioms (Beuys's ritual as art; the projection textures of Jacobs / McCall; Flavinesque illumination; Walter de Maria's Lightning Field) to convey the fractured phenomenology of Nabua's occupation, and the trauma is left behind. Primitive is shaping up to be Apichatpong's greatest achievement. [NB: Phantoms of Nabua is part of Future Projections, and will be on view Sept. 10-20 at the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art, 952 Queen St. West. Check it out.]
-Snowing Chestnut Blossoms (Ute Aurand, Germany) [s]
More than any other single film that I have seen so far in this year's Wavelengths programs, Ute Aurand's achingly lovely Snowing Chestnut Blossoms is a paradigmatic example of programmer Andréa Picard's unique vision. Perhaps too personal, too domestic, to register with certain other tastemakers, Snowing Chestnut Blossoms is precisely the kind of "small" film too often overlooked because of the fundamental modesty of its approach. In trying to identify existing analogues for what Aurand's film accomplishes, I find myself coming back to grand names, like Brakhage and Nathaniel Dorsky. Like Brakhage, Aurand is zeroing in on the absolutely singular, exquisite textures of the daily life around her -- her loved ones' hands, the glare through a window pane, a tabletop crisscrossed by a perpendicular shadow, the dust halos encircling individual strands of hair twisting out of a braid. Separated by white flash-frames, individual moments pop like fleeting revelations, the seconds whose very preciousness is defined by their ineffability. And yet, Aurand's cinematic inner sanctum is radically different from Brakhage's. It is a community of women, a multi-generational network of mothers, daughters and grandmothers, passing wisdom through gestures and glances, time shared at the table, in the garden, skating on the frozen pond. Similarly, Aurand shares Dorsky's focus on slices of present time, the unique play of light across the hand of a woman in her sixties, or the sundappled impression of muted color when the light of midday hits a bedspread. But Dorsky's films are inimical to the formation of social worlds, at least ones that are immediately legible from the film itself. Snowing Chestnut Blossoms is, in some way, a diary film, but one that records sensual phenomena rather than narrative event. Or, perhaps more properly stated, Aurand generates flashes of illumination, collecting them from the slow drift of everyday existence, allowing them to achieve a hieratic character. And yet, in their filmic arrangement, in the assembly and temporal re-experience, they become a different kind of narrative, a story of us all that insists on absolute particularity, insisting that these images only mean anything because they are of these people who Aurand has deeply loved.
-Polterabend (Friedl vom Gröller Kubelka, Austria) [s]
-Passage Briare (Friedl vom Gröller Kubelka, Austria) [s]
Although the preview copies I received of these two delicate film-portrait miniatures were clearly fragmentary (entire shots seemed to flash by in a digitized haze), I do feel that I gained a fairly clear sense of vom Gröller Kubelka's approach to film, which is one poised between an offhand, gestural mode and something more reminiscent of the classical Old World sitting. Polterabend (which translates as "Hen Night") depicts the filmmaker's female friends in a loosely assembled cluster, their gazes set off in skewed, desultory directions that belie the general pyramid construction of the composition. After setting up the shot, another woman comes around into the left side of the frame, who you'd think to be Kubelka herself. But it isn't; she's the one on the center right. Passage Briare is an ultra-brief street encounter between the filmmaker and a jolly middle-aged man, who appears to be chatting her up. The noteworthy aspect of vom Gröller Kubelka's small, jotty works is their delicate, silvery photgraphic texture, a play of light and shadow that provides substance to these fleeting images. They are, however, smallish squibs, and it is difficult to judge vom Gröller Kubelka's overall project simply from two single films. Not unlike the micro-films of French avant-gardist Helga Fanderl, it most likely takes an entire array, a medium-length solo presentation, to fully appreciate what Kubelka is up to.
-FM/TRCS (Coleen Fitzgibbon, 1974) [s]
An interesting and actually quite fun selection for this year's sole retro-pick, FM/TRCS is a restoration by filmmaker Sandra Gibson, whose own abstract work displays something of an affinity, although Fitzgibbon's work is oddly funky and very much of its time, in the best possible sense. The program notes might lead one to expect a rediscovered structuralist. In fact Fitzgibbon's film plays much more like the sort of trippy "Expanded Cinema" efforts Gene Youngblood wrote about. While there are surface similarities to the work of filmmakers such as Jordan Belson, James Whitney, and especially Scott Bartlett, FM/TRCS begins with a somewhat more domestic bent, appearing to abstract its visions from ordinary scenes and semi-recognizable objects, even if only at a glimpse. Granted, the molten-hot color palette, which implies some sort of early computer processing but does not necessarily require or guarantee it, turns all forms into plasmatic billows and undulating voids of shockingly hot reds and electric blues, helio-viscuous yellows and grainy black negative space. In time, however, all semblance of real-world reference is gone, and Fitzgibbon's "images" become pure blissed-out blobbitude, but in a far more spatially coherent manner than many of her late-60s / early-70s compatriots. Kudos to Gibson, and Picard, for leading the charge on rediscovering this intriguing, unjustly neglected historical figure. Peace, dude.
All Fall Down (Philip Hoffman, Canada) [v] 
Hoffman is a figure who's too often taken for granted in the world of experimental film, greatly appreciated but not quite given his due. The best of his works -- What These Ashes Wanted, ?O, Zoo! -- employ a method of construction that seems at first to follow the darting patterns of immediate human thought. But over time, the visual sketch-pad mode reveals itself to be something very different, a centripetal / centrifugal motion that Hoffman organizes around a few central ideas, always pulling the "digressions" back into the overall fold. This is why All Fall Down is a bit confusing at first, possibly owing to Hoffman working at slightly greater length. All Fall Down is partly a family investigation, Hoffman trying to grapple with a past which could hardly be nearer to him, but from which he is at the same time profoundly excluded. The primary subject is George Lachlan Brown, the father of Hoffman's stepdaughter, a man whose disheveled, desperate existence unravels over the course of Hoffman's film. Brown is present primarily through a series of answering machine messages, in which he negotiates with Hoffman's partner Janine over parenting matters (emotional and legalistic), and in which he is calling out for help in rambling, self-absorbed monologues detailing his dire straits. To Hoffman's credit, Brown is never demonized. In fact, All Fall Down displays a high degree of empathy for a man who, it becomes clear, was constitutionally incapable of serving as a stable force in anyone else's life. As is always the case in Hoffman's work, the incorporation of home movie and other visual textures -- faded super-8; sumptuous, high contrast black and white; warm, rich Ektachrome passages -- serves not only as a catalog of anterior moments but as a physical representation of the faculty of human memory, the variegated tenors and tonalities with which we choose to imbue the past.
As All Fall Down introduces more strands of inquiry, however, the film becomes a bit muddled. Hoffman's plan is to concretize his act of memory by making it site-specific, excavating layers of history that have accrued around the 19th century farmhouse in Normanby Township, Ontario that was the locus of the personal material. This leads to recurring discussion of Victorian-era aboriginal land-rights activist Nahneebahweequa, which, strangely enough, often feels as though it is floating alongside the Brown content. That's to say, the intersectionality of the common geography ought to ground these threads, but as All Fall Down gets deeper and deeper into its own procedures, the opposite is true. Layers do not touch all that much, even within the filmwork that could have generated active dialectics. More suggestive by far is Hoffman's work with a third strand, using "found" footage from a Canadian heritage film. In this chintzy TV-funded reenactment piece on the Scottish settling of the North, Hoffman shows us a fraudulent layer of rural Canadiana that, in a way, demonstrates the possible inadequacy of cinema to "make" a landscape tell its tales. What's more, Hoffman's (re-) appropriation of the footage, to exact payment due, is a shrewd materialist running gag. In a sense, All Fall Down is a tough nut to crack, because it seems to me that a good deal of its project really is to articulate the limits of narration (even highly digressive narration) to explain how a relationship, or a set of relationships, goes South. Hoffman's film does end up rambling its way into a murky ditch, but never fails to observe every last glimpse of doomed roadside beauty along the way.
[SECOND VIEWING: I've come around a bit, largely because the second viewing allowed me to see all of the connective tissue I missed the first time. There is in fact quite a lot Hoffman does with Nahneebahweequa; large unbroken passages of All Fall Down are devoted to articulating her story and the fraught political history surrounding her land claims. What Hoffman still doesn't exactly do, except in wholly implicit ways, is articulate the Brown material with the surrounding / supporting ideas. Although it's clear that the negative space of the Southern Ontario landscape -- that is, the strife its magnificence conceals -- is the ostensible ground that holds All Fall Down together, there is still an awkwardness in the film's construction. This is largely due to Hoffman's relative absence compared to his previous films. His "voice" is purely editorial and occasionally present as onscreen text; the spoken words are given to others. This, combined with the relatively straightforward documentary elements of some aspects of the film, show the stretch marks of a new phase in Hoffman's career coming into being. And even if they don't exactly gel, the different components of All Fall Down are deeply engaging on their own terms.]
-Cinema Museum (Mark Lewis, Canada) [m] 
Fairly different from anything else I've seen by Lewis, this extended curio "captures" (co-choreographs, really) a winding tour through a private collection of film and film-related memorabilia (and plain old junk) in London. Lewis follows his female guide, who is the museum's hired caretaker, into various jampacked rooms and attic spaces, to examine massive files filled with stills, lobby cards, posters, and (eventually) pallet-high towers of film cans themselves. Also in the mix are less explicable inclusions, including every conceivable scrap of lobby signage, artifact of seat configuration, boxes filled with dusty, unmarked projector and camera guts, all arranged with the dubious care and "I have a system" organized chaos of an obsessive-compulsive packrat. There is a tension at work within Cinema Museum between forms of movement and free attention. The tour guide leads Lewis through a clearly preordained set of paces, which themselves are highly ambiguous from a spatial standpoint. As I watched, I kept feeling like one of those befuddled parents following Willy Wonka in the original Gene Wilder film, exiting the same door you entered only to find a new arrangement of stuff. By contrast, Lewis's Steadicam often pulls away from his guide in order to focus on something that catches the filmmaker's own attention. Although Lewis's seven unbroken tracking shots imply a kind of order, and the curatorial assistant seems determined to draw one out of thin air, Cinema Museum inevitably conveys an overwhelming disarray of semi-indiscriminate historical detritus lining a bunker, about to fly apart but holding on to its conceptual moorings as an "archive" by the skin of its metaphorical teeth. Sadly, Cinema Museum is far too low-key and dull -- here's some more stuff, box of lenses here, Sylvester Stallone stand-up there -- to make its dialectic worth the 35 minute slog. By now, most of us have imbibed the lessons of Borges and Benjamin sufficiently well, so that merely broaching the topic of museality isn't really enough to cover the cost of the ride. I mean, you'd at least expect to come away from a film like this with a favorite bit of wacky ephemera, and I'd be shocked if you did. Nothing gains traction.
-Max Manus (Espen Sandberg / Joachim Roenning, Norway / Denmark / Germany) [W/O] (0:33)
It's ironic, if not tragically stupid, that many of Max Manus's opening twenty minutes center on the problem of Nazi propaganda. In providing World War II resistance fighter Manus with the full-on biopic treatment, Sandberg and Roenning veer well past the usual mode of Greatest Generation high-fivery. Instead, the directors allow the camera to faun a little too blatantly over their star (Aksel Hennie) and his chiseled, blonde-haired, blue-eyed buddies. It's outright counter-Aryanism, and the bald hero worship on display (regardless of the real Manus's actual anti-Nazi accomplishments and genuine heroism) goes so far that it permits Manus the film to pass over in silence some rather obvious problems visible to anyone not blinded by the Norwegian bad-ass. (A nurse helps facilitate Manus's escape from guards outside his hospital room. He becomes a legend for jumping out the window; she's left to the tender mercies of the Gestapo.) Some of this might be excusable were Max Manus any good, but it's tedious hackwork, from its unselfconscious Third-Reich-on-the-march title sequence (told, yes, with progressing newspaper headlines) to its hackneyed sub-English Patient flashback structure and narration. Even what promises to be a thrilling set-piece (the squad's first nighttime sabotage mission), simply in terms of the rote vernacular of WW2 waxworks pageantry, delivers precisely nothing. The whole thing plays like an extended extra from the Inglourious Basterds deluxe edition 2-disc DVD.
-----> NON-TIFF EXTRA!!! <-----
-Covered (John Greyson, Canada / Bosnia) [v/s] 
Greyson's film has garnered considerable attention since the filmmaker pulled it from its TIFF slot (buried in Short Cuts Canada, a kind of living death) to protest the festival's City To City spotlight on Tel Aviv, which Greyson (correctly, in my view) considers to be uncritical boosterism if not outright propaganda. (I'll have more to say on the Greyson / Bailey debate elsewhere.) But the film Greyson pulled (now made available throughout the festival's duration on Vimeo) shows the filmmaker's action to be a deeply personal one, and in certain ways inevitable. Covered is an experimental documentary about the ill-fated Queer Sarajevo Festival, the first of its kind, and what should have been a milestone in celebrating Bosnia's still-new status as a free, secular state. Instead, religious fundamentalists banded together with football thugs and other homophobic scum and, using Ramadan as an excuse, unleashed violence that the police were unwilling to defend against. Due to safety concerns, and with several festival participants severely wounded, Queer Sarajevo was curtailed. In Covered, Greyson uses the hackneyed image of dead birds (cribbed from a Rufus Wainwright charity single) as a counterpoint to the actual anti-gay violence experienced in Sarajevo, demonstrating the inadequacy of the former as an expression of the latter. Using split-screen and juxtaposing taxidermy exhibits with amateur YouTube performances of favorite songs, Greyson enacts a dialectic between official, institutional culture and the way actual individuals make things matter on a visceral level.
There's always a hinge concept in Greyson's work, and here, the image of dead crows (an idée fixe from sappy liberal reportage on the Bosnian War) is placed alongside other bird imagery from popular music, some equally meaningless in its mushy liberalism (Nelly Furtado's "I'm Like a Bird"), some random (Soulja Boy's "Bird Walk"), and other examples seemingly capable of transforming the cliché into something meaningful (Leonard Cohen's "Bird on a Wire"). Drawing from the procedures of Scottish artist Phil Collins, Greyson demonstrates the awkward power of amateur cover-versions of these songs, since they both pay homage to fame and shadow it with rank normalcy. In its overall scope, Covered also bears comparison with William E. Jones's work, since it manipulates found-object iterations of popular material, creating a context in which its potential for internal self-critique can reveal itself. Greyson presents internal analysis of his own ingredients (Sarajevo, cover songs, bird-laced lyrics) with intra-film texts attributed to Susan Sontag who, it soon becomes apparent, did not actually write what we are reading. By placing all of this discrete material into active dialogue, Covered engages fundamental questions regarding art and culture, and their relative health and worth. When can a film, a song, or a culture be said to be dead or alive? Are dead birds in the street more of a violation of the natural order than half-dissected carcasses lacquered, labeled, and hung on the wall? And, most importantly for Covered and for the situation in which it and Greyson now find themselves, are the elements that comprise the "life" of an artwork intrinsic to it, or largely if not wholly determined by the situations into which it enters (or from which it exits)? [For further coverage on Covered, I direct you to the always-insightful Michael Guillen at The Evening Class.]
-Antichrist (Lars von Trier, Denmark / Germany / France / Sweden / Italy / Poland) 
[SOME SIGNIFICANT SPOILERS] Okay, first things first. Antichrist is not a joke. Or, if it is, it's a damned spectacular one. My 7 grade is a tad misleading; it's really more like a 6.5, with the painterly, attenuated first half getting a 9 (I thought the film was a lock for my year-end top ten), and the infamous second half bloodbath getting a 4, but a 4 based in grudging admiration. Von Trier, of course, said a lot of insane things during his tour of duty with the Cannes press corps ("I am the greatest director in the world!"), but one thing to keep in mind is that Antichrist, by von Trier's own admission, was a labor of deep sadness, an attempt to shake himself out of a crippling depression. This is the sort of biographical tidbit one doesn't want to lean upon too hard, but it may go some way towards explaining the film's bizarre combination of the sublime with the mundane and the crass, its seeming obliviousness to the canons of good taste while providing unexpected glimpses into one woman's breathtakingly beautiful world of sorrow.
From von Trier's cheeky, asshole-grin title card, which marks the final "t" in Antichrist with the O+ symbol of femininity, through the film's extravagantly sadistic harpy-with-a-hacksaw coda, the question comes up again, as it always does with von Trier's work. Is this film misogynist? I've always been on von Trier's team with respect to this question, which hasn't been an easy position for a progressive to play. I've contended in different contexts that von Trier is sincere when he states that he generally identifies with his female protagonists, and that while they sometimes clearly evince a troubling masochism (Breaking the Waves), usually the abuse they suffer is representative of von Trier's perspective on the fate of the oppressed. If there's a streak in von Trier's thinking that could (erroneously, in my opinion) be characterized as conservative (or, if you prefer, "fascist," as one of my editors once laid it down), it's his undiluted Nietzscheanism. Von Trier has no use for liberal pieties, which are more often than not self-serving camouflage for classist and patriarchal values, but are at best frequently beset by a naive idealism that actually crushes liberty when it's imposed upon actual lived conditions. I contend that it's because von Trier refuses to play nice when it comes to the "good intentions" of Stoffer (The Idiots), Tom Edison (Dogville), Grace 2.0 (Manderlay), not so much critiquing these figures as eviscerating them, that the director come off to so many as a pedantic bully.
So, with Antichrist, von Trier tackles the misogyny question from a highly unusual, intellectually dangerous angle. "She" (Charlotte Gainsbourg, in a performance that, in almost literal terms, veers between exposed wire and open wound) is an academic of some sort -- art historian? medievalist? -- who has been struggling to complete a dissertation on images of "Gynocide." Her husband, "He" (Willem Dafoe), is a therapist who, we discover early on, has previously dismissed her work as "glib." These throwaways are important; they set the terms for the admittedly broad but still rather startling codes of gender discourse von Trier will lay out as Antichrist transitions into the second half. In the prologue, von Trier shows us, in slow motion step-printing and scored to grand opera, the couple's son Nicky climbing out of his crib in the middle of the night, glimpsing his parents having intense sex, and then crawling out a fifth-story window. As von Trier shows us in almost preposterously gorgeous detail, little Nicky drops to his death at the very moment his mother achieves orgasm. Yes, this is silly post-Freudianism. (And von Trier even has He make a cheeky remark about the new century's rejection of Freudian concepts.) But as She's trauma topples over into madness, it actually moves well past a psychoanalytic reaction-formation, into the realm of a Nietzschean "transvaluation of values." Although the slow, patient near-mysticism of the first half of Antichrist works hard to conceal it, there is something rather straightforward in the logic of the woman's psychological trajectory. Of course, the unfortunate collision of agony and ecstacy provokes all manner of anxieties but above all, She has a gradual revelation. What if everything those superstitious patriarchs have been saying about women through the ages is actually true?
For She to descend into this idea and its attendant madness is not some sort of twisted thought-crime against feminism, so much as it is the final breakdown of all her defenses against the piercing images of woman-hating. (As these images, many from the Medieval period, became visible in the film as She's obsession, I recalled the work of art historian Aby Warburg, whose massive assemblage of superstition and depravity, called Mnemosyne, was a massive, lifelong project that some say eventually drove him insane. If we agree that one can never fully immerse oneself in a body of images or texts without being effected by them in some way, and that total intellectual detachment is a fiction, then it stands to reason that this mother carries her biggest sorrow from a moment when, rather than "acting like a mother," she was taking a "masculine" pleasure to which, in psychoanalytic lore, she was not entitled. (According to Freud, the clitoris is historically coded as a "little penis," with clitoral pleasure being categorized as immature and overly male, as opposed to the "mature" vaginal orgasm. Yeah, I know.) So, in a way, Gainsbourg eventually becomes everything that Western culture has viciously characterized women to be: murderous, irrational, at home in the filthy arms of nature, closer to Satan than to God. Dangerous, but at the same time, strong.
This Nietzschean reversal of values represents a response to enforced helplessness and the cruel pedantry inflicted upon She by her husband. Dafoe's character, who unilaterally removes She from a psychiatrist's care in order to "cure" her himself, is a dangerous clod, in the Tom Edison vein. It is his arrogance, his attempt to essentially colonize this woman in the name of helping her, that eventually provokes She's transformation into the crazed wraith of the final two reels. Gainsbourg's character is deeply disturbed by He's inability to display grief for their son, which appears to fall under the auspices of "therapeutic neutrality" but may speak to greater hidden pathologies. Of course, her "pathologies" are the only ones being attended to. But perhaps even more distressing is He's willingness to have sex with his "patient" during her periods of greatest turmoil, only to turn around and blame her for provoking the act. ("You should never screw your therapist...no matter how much he likes it.") No doubt about it, He is the idiot in Antichrist, and his hubris is deeply toxic. So when he eventually chides She about her newfound embrasure of negative stereotypes of women through the ages, He tries to talk some feminist sense into her, explaining that the paintings and etchings are about hatred of women, and that her project was to debunk the patriarchal nonsense they embodied. At this, another pivotal moment, Dafoe is actually lecturing Gainsbourg on how to be a good liberal feminist, because that's what he signed on for! Not life with a homicidal maenad. So while it may be easy to dismiss Antichrist as a justification of every Western prejudice against the female sex, von Trier is actually showing us how He's rationalistic distancing of her as a crisis to be solved, not as a human being to be loved and understood, unleashes its repressed opposite. He's paternalistic, overly prescriptive pseudo-science left only one escape route by which She could retain any power. This is something she learned from her scholarship, which she suddenly sees in a new light.
Above, I say that the first half far exceeds the second, but thus far I have made Antichrist sound like a fully integrated whole. In fact, the differences between the two halves of the film are telling, since they may well reflect which member of the couple has emotional control of the relationship at the moment. But I am not sure of this. What I am sure of is that for the first 45 minutes or so, von Trier and d.p. Anthony Dod Mantle's images are simply breathtaking. Whether it's a slow zoom into a detail of the mise en scène in order to turn the screen into hazy bands of colored light, or the stunning long shots of the Eden cabin amidst thick layers of fog and mist, these meticulous visual choices, together with a high-pitched whirring sound that often accompanies transitions between sequences, create a ravishing sensory envelope for the viewer, a place truly apart from the nattering incompetence of most cinema. Although apparently the hostile audience at Antichrist's Cannes premiere laughed when they saw at the end that von Trier had dedicated the film to Andrei Tarkovsky, it is virtually impossible to think of any other filmmaker while watching the first half of Antichrist. This is due to its externalizing of psychological turmoil, its tendency to proceed according to a logic of pictures rather than plot per se, and above all its resolute determination to explore the epic and the mythic as it is to be found in small, individual lives.
Is this even an acceptable position any longer? Other commentators have noted other similarities between Antichrist and the work of other great filmmakers. The warped movement of the trees surrounding Eden, just prior to She slipping away into the forest, recalls the anamorphic distortions of Alexander Sokurov, and the fraught, emotionally raw two-in-a-room confrontation recalls some of Ingmar Bergman's better films. But today, in a world highly skeptical of myth, grand narratives or overarching truths, there is a great deal of skepticism about the vision-quests of Tarkovsky, Bergman and Sokurov. If anything, von Trier taps directly into that mythic energy and salvages it for an age of skepticism. Part of this attempt, then, is to make Antichrist a horror film, since genre pictures, by announcing their own basic modesty, receive greater leeway than obvious "white elephant" films, which signal their outsized ambition. But even more so, von Trier injects sly humor into Antichrist. (Come on. A cabin called Eden?) Just because every moment of it is not supposed to be taken seriously does not mean that the director is having a laugh at our expense. If anything, von Trier's moments of over-explanation ("Nature is Satan's church!") and macabre comedy grant inadequate credit to the viewer.This is why the second half suffers so. It's just too declamatory, clear as crystal when it would have been better served by a turn toward the oblique. Maybe this is part of the humor.
But above all, no matter how seriously or dismissively one ultimately regards Antichrist, von Trier is more than willing to sacrifice his own ostensible mastery over the medium. He'll show us sequences that stand alongside the most beautiful the cinema has yet produced, on the one hand, and then veer off into extreme violence that resists any aestheticization. The very act of structuring the film this way foregoes a kind of universal acclaim in favor of divisiveness, accusations of charlatanism, and of course, misogyny. Any and all of these claims can be refuted, as I've tried to show, but the bottom line is this: Lars von Trier is no Tom Edison, and certainly no "He." As Mike D'Angelo noted shortly after Antichrist's debut, von Trier isn't afraid to look silly, and doesn't care if people laugh at him. Some may call this self-sabotage, but I think it's a bold tendency to set up premises only to take them apart, constantly keeping himself and his audience out of control to varying degrees. And part of what makes von Trier such an important artist is that he thrives on provoking hatred, maybe even within himself.
-The Damned United (Tom Hooper. U.K.) 
Useless little timewaster. this, but it'd be needlessly crabby to deny its basic watchability. And it's good to see The Damned reunited. Here, as with every other Peter Morgan script, we have a bit of British footnotery redesigned to fit the broad-swath parameters of Shakespearean tragedy. 1970s Derby County football coach Brian Clough (Michael "The Preen" Sheen), our Dave Vanian figure, shoots his mouth off, can't shed basic feelings of unworthiness, and torpedoes several key moments in his career (notably, for the purposes of this film, a 44-day stint at Leeds United) because of an obsession with Leeds coach Don Revie (Colm Meany). Revie, the Captain Sensible of this lot, has a no-nonsense coaching style, isn't above "the rough stuff," and has the gruff, paternal respect of the Leeds players that Clough will never have. (In a way, he's Nixon, Clough is Frost. The final title cards even tell us that Revie was charged with financial malfeasance!) In between is Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall), Clough's right-hand man, the sort of Stu West holding it all together behind the scenes. (Watch for a truly bizarre turn for the queer at the 90 minute mark, one that starts out steeped in manly irony but goes somewhere else. Touching, but odd.) All who know anything about the real men depicted herein say this film is a pack of lies, and the whole thing drips with manufactured Big Moments, Clough pumped up into a man undone by his own hubris or whatever, only to receive his comeuppance and end up on top, properly humbled. A movie so formulaic it should be called Infamil, but it'll do for a rental some Pizza Night in November.