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

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


COVERAGE CENTRAL!! 1) Wavelengths for Mubi Notebook 2) Capsules for Cinema Scope, from me and the gang 3) tiff Blogging for Cargo


NOTE: Bypass the super-tedious preview essay and scoot down to the reviews by clicking here. And you can get right down to Wavelengths previews, if that's your wont, by clicking here.


A Supposedly Fun Thing . . .


I originally had a mindblowingly tedious (even for me) three-paragrapher about how I was working too hard to even enjoy TIFF anymore. (I even went so far as to attempt to locate some sort of childhood etiology for my 'anhedonia'. Rough month!) And while it's true that I'll be doing more TIFF-related critic work before, during (oh, yes, during...), and after the festival than ever before, this is merely the cost of, you know, being a critic. Nobody ever said that actually occupying this longed-for professional legitimacy ("Make me a real boy, Blue Fairy!") would result in peaceful naked traipses through Elysian Fields. (Ew, gross.) No bitching. It's good to have a job, or two or three.


What got me going down this ranty road (as well as the one not taken, or taken and then wisely deleted) was the uncharacteristic ennui surrounding TIFF for me this year, despite a plethora of fine films worth seeing. Time was, when the Press & Industry Schedule went online, I'd then stay up all night hammering out my tentative screening plans for festival week, giddy with the thought of the film-orgy just around the corner. This year, the schedule was out three and a half days before I got the chance to sit down with it. And whereas I used to genuinely agonize about films I'd have to "sacrifice" to see other films (due to simultaneous screenings or other TIFF chicanery), I feel eerily sanguine about it all this time around. Sure, there are movies I very much want to see that I won't be able to, owing to scheduling conflicts. (Tarr's The Turin Horse is a big one. The Dardennes' The Kid With the Bike, Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method, and Lynne Ramsay's We Need to Talk About Kevin are others. Luckily they all have U.S. distribution in place.) But I figure I'll see everything I need to, by the by. [NOTE: It's been so long now, I don't even remember what I'd planned on seeing and skipped that allowed me to catch the Tarr. Alas, if I can't even remember, it was obviously no big loss.]


Shouldn't I be more, I dunno, pumped? Or frazzled? I have every confidence that once I'm heading up or down that comically long escalator at the ScotiaBank Theatre (or whatever the venue will be called once we arrive -- I'm pulling for Tim Horton's Timbit™ Movie Palace), the fun will kick in. But for now, it all feels like one part of the overall fabric of nonstop busyness, the large agenda item that I'm moving my smaller ones around. It feels strangely natural. I guess I've become a real boy. It's just what I've always wanted . . .


seen prior to the festival


Ars colonia (Raya Martin, The Philippines / The Netherlands) [s] [7]

February 2011. See review here.


Slow Action (Ben Rivers, U.K.) [m] [7]

March 2011. See review here.


Space is the Place (Eriko Sonoda, Japan) [v/s]

May 2011. See review here.


preview / pre-fest screening


Las acacias (Pablo Giorgelli, Argentina / Spain) [4]

This is a perfectly "respectable" Camera d'Or winner, in the sense that more than anything Las acacias gestures toward a concentrated nugget of inchoate talent and a high degree of promise -- that is, what is to be, not necessarily what is right now. The opening reel of Giorgelli's film is a bit deceptive. Before it begins in earnest (and I do mean "earnest"), Las acacias displays a sharp and considerably abstract formal rigor that provides a sense of startling open-endedness. We begin in medium long-shot watching men at work in a forest felling trees (not unlike a collectivist riff on Alonso's La libertad). Then, as Giorgelli isolates and introduces his protagonist, truck driver Rubén, Sr. (Germán de Silva), the tight,fixed-frame lateral framing from the passenger side, with the reverse landscape rolling back through the side mirror, evoked a slightly more humane version of Gallo's Brown Bunny. Even when Rubén parks his truck at a weight station, Giorgelli almost effortlessly erects geometrical compositions with buildings and shadows. As it happens, all of this flies out the window when Rubén, through paid arrangement with his boss, picks up Jacinta (Hebe Duarte), a young unwed mother planning to emigrate from Paraguay to Argentina to find work. Much to the chagrin of the curmudgeonly Rubén, she's got her infant daughter Anahí (Nayra Calle Mamani) in tow. From this point on, apart from some road-movie longeurs, Las acacias begins heading down the Humanist Pap Highway and never veers off the main line. Immigration issues are nominally addressed, but mostly the film serves as a slow-thaw character study for the wounded Rubén. Really, apart from Giorgelli's shrewd use of a very charismatic baby, this is pure formula that should have both Sony Classics and Similac pulling out their wallets.


Arirang (Kim Ki-duk, South Korea) [v] [3]

[BIG SPOILERS] How KKD Got His Groove Back This semi-essay film is Kim's solution of sorts to a three-year dry spell following his 2008 film Dream. (I should note that I am one of the millions who did not see Dream. After the risible right-wing dances-with-wallpaper kitschfest that was 2007's Breath, I wasn't going back to the well.) Apparently there was a guillotine accident on the set of Dream which almost killed the lead actress, and this trauma sent Kim spiraling into depression and "director's block." Arirang is Kim's bizarre and mostly unwatchable testament, a rambling, unstructured confession / rant that begins promisingly enough but rapidly devolves into cringeworthy solipsism, a cinematic drunk-dial from a depressive acquaintance you don't even know well enough to screen on caller ID. We see Kim in his Fortress of Solitude, a hilltop cabin in which, strangely enough, he must take a pot and collect snow for water, and sleep in an indoor tent for warmth (the Sports Authority version of the Brakhage "mountain man"), but then has a full editing deck inside the tent (electricity!), a sweet homemade espresso machine, and other random mod-cons. Don't get me wrong; the place is a dump, and KKD is seriously unkempt. But the discrepancies make it hard to know what's a put-on and what's indicative of a man coming unglued. Still, it's hard to work up a lot of sincere interest, since the main body of Arirang (named for a mournful classic Korean folksong, which Kim croak-warbles three times) consists of the man using direct address and various self-interview manipulations (light Kim vs. dark Kim; Kim vs. his silhouette) to give himself pep talks, designed to insist to Kim-1 that he owes it to himself and the world to return to making movies. ("They're waiting for your films, buster!" is my single favorite exhortation.) What does this mean for us? Kim giving "himself" (i.e., us) list after list, litany after litany, of his awards, his festival screenings, his 13-strong filmography, his honors from the South Korean government, and his status as a director of international stature. (As if seeing the "trophy room" weren't enough, near the end of Arirang we get slow superimposed stills of every Kim movie poster in sequence.) He's making his own tedious documentary, but it's also a deeply personal rant, with crying, recriminations over perceived slights, preparation of nasty looking ramen, incoherent aesthetic theory that makes Kiarostami's 10 on Ten sound like The Eisenstein & Bazin Variety Hour, and a lot of drunken camera confessions. It's tough to select a lowlight from this fiasco, but a leading candidate would certainly have to be the extended sequence near the conclusion when Kim, in his videotheque cocoon, watches the millstone-mountaincliming scene from Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring and, identifying with his protagonist's travails, blubbers like an infant. By the very end of Arirang, Kim is shown applying his machinist's know-how to build a handgun. Having accomplished this task, he is able to leave his hovel and face the world in a manner very much in keeping with the worst excesses of his filmography. ("Don't get Zoloft, get even!") Ladies and gentlemen, your Un Certain Regard winner, ready to kick some petty-grievance ass.


Elena (Andrei Zvyagintsev, Russia) [8]

[MILD SPOILERS] Although I have been consistently impressed with Zvyagintsev's films, I haven't exactly been immune to the claims of his detractors that his work exhibits some of the worst traits endemic to the post-Tarkovskian Russian art film. By this I refer to a turgid, humorless transposition of the grim fatalism associated with the national literature into plodding images and doomed, nonverbal masculinity. I greatly admired Zvyagintsev's debut feature The Return, which won the Golden Lion at Venice, in spite of a tendency toward glowering wordlessness and dank, rain-soaked landscapes, largely because the director's preternatural ability with editing and rhythm produced a formalist electricity that belied any potential self-parody within the subject matter. The way in which Zvyagintsev orchestrated this story -- the tale of an absent, possible-gangster father infiltrating the lives of his estranged sons with renewed prerogative -- is precisely what made it matter. To many observers, Zvyagintsev moved even further in the direction of pseudo-mystical Russo-blather with his follow-up, The Banishment. Ostensibly a contemporary story of a family torn asunder by suspicion of adultery and a subsequent pregnancy, the film is meticulously organized around Christian symbols and the royal blue of the Virgin Mary, as well as exquisitely composed shots of the family home within a sun-dappled landscape, images designed to explicitly recall moments from the history of Western painting. The Banishment is a film that I appreciated in its deliberateness, especially since I, for one, found it an implicit critique of outdated Russian narratives of patriarchal right. In time, Zvyagintsev opens the frame and lets the contemporary world flood into his film, once it's too late. I found The Banishment sumptuous and stifling in equal measure, a complex film in need of reevaluation given that it was quickly dismissed as a failure within the hothouse environment of Cannes.


Elena, it must be stated right off the bat, represents something radically different. There is no hint of mysticism or allegory in this film. In fact, while Zvyagintsev presents a complex web of characters, most of whom have as many virtues as foibles, Elena is a bracingly clear-eyed, materialist film, in which everything is exactly what it is, and can hardly be said to represent much else. As with The Return and The Banishment, Zvyagintsev makes masterful use of slow, creeping camerawork and especially an extremely subtle rack focus technique. That is, things don't leave the field of vision most of the time; we shift our perspective around them. (The device, as Zvyagintsev uses it, is not as abstract as Hou Hsiao-hsien; Tarkovsky and to some extent Sokurov are relevant touchstones.) The very first shot begins outside of the broad picture window of the spacious modernist apartment that Elena (Nadezhda Markina) shares with her husband Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov). We are focused on winter branches of a tree outside the second-story window, a tangle of bare wood. Slowly, the lens refocuses, taking us through the branches and into the shadow-box world inside the apartment. It's dark; Elena is just waking up and before this we see the cool lines and sleek Mies / Corbusier style wealth the space and its furnishings represent. Zvyagintsev is masterful in slowly doling out narrative information about Elena and Vladimir through small but pregnant observational details. They are an elderly couple, probably in their sixties. They sleep in separate bedrooms, which implies estrangement but in time is revealed as a concession to elder creature comforts, like Vladimir's preference for blackout curtains and his tendency to fall asleep watching soccer whereas Elena prefers lifestyle programs. Although the two of them have conflicts in the relationship, such as their treatment of their respective adult children, they share an easy rapport, all the more notable because (another major difference for Zvyagintsev, and for much contemporary Russian cinema) Vladimir expresses genuine friendship with his wife. "The porridge is perfect," he remarks at breakfast; later he inquires, "what have you got going on today," with honest interest.


Eventually, we learn more about these two and their respective families, and this becomes the crux of the conflict at the heart of Elena. Vladimir and Elena have only been married a few years; he is the one with the money, and she draws a pension from her previous job as a nurse. Elena's adult son Sergey (Aleksey Rozin) is an unemployed ne'er-do-well living in a shitty public housing block next door to a massive nuclear reactor with his layabout wife, flunky son and their new baby. Essentially, Elena is supporting this family of losers, who smoke around the baby, play XBOX all day and never want for liquor even as the fridge is completely empty. They need even more money, since the grandson has grades too awful to attend university and is therefore facing induction into the army (which apparently means heading straight to the Chechen front). With a big wad of Vladimir's cash, Sergey can bribe the kid's way into college. Understandably, Vladimir doesn't see this as his problem. Elena counters with the fact that he has willingly subsidized his own daughter's life of partying, alcoholism and drug abuse. At this point, Elena is nearing what could be called the film's major decision point, and one of only two elements in the entire film that would register as conventional "drama." What makes Elena remarkable is the manner in which Zvyagintsev operates in dual registers as a filmmaker of the mundane. On the one hand, a key plot point such as Vladimir's heart attack at the gym could be understood, through conventional narrative grammar, to be telegraphed in advance. However, Zvyagintsev so underplays the event, through averted looks and finally a matter-of-fact floating shot of Vlad in the pool, followed by an extended interaction between himself and Elena in the recovery room (the real action). Elena's choices are made out of duty, and while we are given the space to question her view of things, we are never asked to judge her, an attitude which extends to Vladimir, his daughter Katya (Yelena Lyadova), and to some extend even Sergey's low-class family, who are as enabled in their poverty-culture mindset by Elena's indulgence as they are hamstrung by the post-Putin economic cesspool. Zvyagintsev's camera examines Elena's universe with a clinical eye, seeing it as a function of buildings, landscapes and vehicles (shades of "Berlin School" cinema), but also allows for a casual, unaffected compassion, befitting people jostling within economic and emotional entanglements in which so much is at stake. Yes, there is a crime, but Zvyagintsev considers that the least of his worries. No one is reducible to their class position, but no one can escape it either. Everyone has his reasons. It's "Renoir noir."


Free Men (Ismaël Ferroukhi, Algeria / France) [W/O] (0:33)

Anyone who complains about Rachid Bouchareb's "dull," straight-ahead studio pictures about the Algerians' difficult 20th century are advised to have a brief look at Free Men. You'll thank your lucky stars for Bouchareb's basic skills as a filmmaker. Days of Glory and even Outside the Law have a certain old-school verve, despite their foursquare earnestness. Ferroukhi's film, by contrast, is an exercise in cine-edification so starched by duty and rectitude that it never even threatens to entertain or surprise. The topic of today's white paper: Algerians fought in the French Resistance. Despite the presence of Michael Lonsdale and Tahar Rahim, the thing just kind of sits there on the screen. (I bailed when it was revealed that a key Resistance figure, probably the greatest singer of sacred Islamic songs in all of France, was . . . [wait for the shocking revelation] Jewish.) Rahim, by the way, plays a petty crook who becomes radicalized by witnessing the violence around him, and being inducted into Freedom Fighting by a learned elder and a devoted peer. The fact that Free Men's plot explicitly evokes The Battle of Algiers is almost comical, considering just how much more Pontecorvo accomplished than Ferroukhi, with so much less.


Good Bye (Mohammad Rasoulof, Iran) [7]

Ever since Iron Island, Rasoulof's work has been characterized by an incisive visual style, modulated acting in the realist mode (but well outside the usual non-professional confines of so much Iranian cinema), and deep political conviction that has tended to remain on the level of allegory, although is none the more unmistakable for that. Rasoulof's methods have remain consistent, even as his films have been rather different. Iron Island is a largely about containment. Head Wind is guerrilla documentary. And his most ambitious film, The White Meadow, is magic realism saturated with barely suppressed rage against the abuses of the Islamic regime. Considering what has happened to Rasoulof -- arrested along with Jafar Panahi, interrogated, potentially banned from working legally in Iran, his entire future a looming question mark -- we'd expect that his latest film, Good Bye, to be quite unlike anything else he's made up to this point. In fact, we'd probably have trouble even imagining what it might look like, given the sheer miracle of its even having been made. Remarkably, Good Bye is another exquisite turn in Rasoulof's still-evolving career where we might've expected a mere stopgap. Claustrophobic and shadow-laden where The White Meadow was expansive and grayish-white, Good Bye plays out almost entirely within middle-class interiors, private spaces that are nevertheless crisscrossed with the ever-present paranoia of Islamic totalitarianism. It's a virtually first-person story of Noora (Leyla Zareh), a disbarred lawyer living alone in Tehran while her husband is working on a pipeline far from the city center. We see her in her sparsely furnished apartment, dark and painted in deep midnight blues. (Eventually her mother comes to visit unexpectedly, because she hasn't been able to reach Noora on the phone.) Noora is perpetually nervous and quiet, and leaves the apartment only for very secretive errands whose mystery Rasoulof maintains for a few moments even as we view them. In time, we learn that Noora and her husband were left-wing (or perhaps just anti-Ahmadinejad) activists, and her husband is in hiding due to articles he published. Noora is pregnant, and trying to wheedle her way out of Iran by gaining permission to present at an academic conference, and going into labor while abroad. Where The White Meadow and even aspects of Iron Island displayed the fantastical visual imagination (within an oppressive overall social landscape) that we might associate with Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Good Bye is very much of a piece with Darioush Mehrjui's middle-class kammerspiels. (The achingly apposite final shot shows the State thundering down into private life, in no uncertain terms.) Nevertheless, the complete desperation, the poly-tendrilled reach of the regime -- which would be absurd were it not potentially life-ending -- is very much an expression of Rasoulof's own view of contemporary Iran, up and down the social strata. That the director, who may have narrowly escaped a sentence as harsh as Panahi's, would turn around and make Good Bye with his tenuous freedom takes some serious guts.


Gypsy (Martin Sulík, Slovakia / Czech Republic) [6]

Gypsy is a film characterized by a certain predictability, even a patient rolling out of foregone inevitability. Although such a statement risks being mistaken for faint praise, it really does take nothing at all away from Sulík’s meticulous film to note that any attentive viewer understands where it is going almost instantly. Essentially a retelling of Hamlet set within an impoverished, highly insular Romani community on the outskirts of a Slovakian village, Gypsy is upper-middlebrow cinema at its most skillful and high-toned, consistently managing to negotiate between its genre operations and its narrative particulars. Adam (Jan Mizigar) is a quiet, thoughtful “gypsy” in a scrappy, extroverted community. His father is killed and his mother soon remarries his brother Ziga (Miroslav Gulyas), the local loan shark. Repeatedly visited by his father’s ghost, and drawn to various non-criminal options – the local (white) priest (Attila Mokos) tries to teach Adam to box; condescending liberal anthropologists offer to help him get into college – the conflict between Adam and Ziga is inevitably mapped onto the meaning and maintenance of Romani identity vs. selling out to the white (Slovakian) world. And, lest Ziga’s pride in Roma self-sufficiency and/or theft seem misplaced, Sulík is careful to display the array of racist indignities to which the Roms are subjected, from tragicomically banalities (a city bus blatantly bypasses Adam and his friend) to systematic oppression (a police interrogation scene). Performances and direction are exceptional, indeed reinvesting one of Shakespeare’s Greatest Hits with surprising freshness. Sulík’s visual approach, in particular, is unusual for such a character-driven film. Adam’s dislocation is reflected in desolate yet subtly evolving landscapes; scenes abruptly fade to black, like clipped punctuation; and Sulík provides jarring chapter-heading shots that feature Adam in medium-close-up, staring directly into the camera, daring us to disengage.


Michael (Markus Schleinzer, Austria) [4]

Here comes a little bit of possible hypocrisy. Earlier, I bailed on the limp but clearly well-meaning Spanish incest drama Don't Be Afraid, primarily because it had nothing to offer but its therapeutic rectitude. Now, on the flipside (and I do mean 'flip'), we have a debut feature by casting-director / supporting actor Schleinzer. (He's worked with Haneke, and was the parole officer in Heisenberg's The Robber.) Despite its highly formalized, rectilinear abstraction -- two dinner table place settings framed at precisely opposing diagonals; stock-still long takes depicting the antiseptic suburban interior as mechanized metal window shades slowly descend -- Michael lays its cards on the table in the first ten minutes. It's a sensationally anti-sensationalized, day-to-day procedural about a nebbish insurance agent (Michael Fuith) who has a boy of about 8 or 9 years old (David Rauchenberger) locked in his basement. The credits list his name as Wolfgang, although I'm not certain he is ever called by name in the film. Michael has held him prisoner for many years, for the purposes of regular molestation. This, too, is presented in a matter-of-fact way, although not directly. (Just before the title card, we see Michael washing his penis in the sink, post-"sex." Later, after Michael gives Wolfgang an Ikea bunk bed and they put it together, Michael lies lasciviously on the mattress, pats his groin and beckons the child to come hither.) In between scenes at home with the child, Schleinzer shows us the deeply awkward but functional Michael out in the world, at his job, with his older sister, at the supermarket, etc.


Michael is a difficult film to dislike, since doing so threatens to mark you out as a prude or a moralist. There are many legitimate ways to examine the topic of molestation through representation. It is not "hot material" that absolutely demands a social-realist treatment. As I mention above, when I call Schleinzer's style "sensationally anti-sensationalized," there is a patent self-congratulation, bordering on smugness, that permeates Michael, in terms of its formalist approach and its attitude (or lack thereof) toward its theme of child abuse. Part of this is just the result of Schleinzer's second-hand, festival-ready "Austrian" cinematics. Clean, linear, blanched of warm color values, limited camera movement, one can see traces of Haneke, Seidl, Spielmann, Albert, Heisenberg, and other recent auteurs from Schleinzer's country of origin. But even apart from direct family resemblance, the point stands, there is nothing in Michael's construction that will be jarring to anyone who has seen, say, 25 art films in the last decade. What Schleinzer does "add," or at least emphasize to the point of utter perplexity, is rampant tonal confusion bordering on black comedy. Much of this has to do with the fact that keeping a missing child in your basement entails a maniacal degree of precision that, by and large, Michael lacks. He keeps fucking up, to increasingly jarring degrees. Schleinzer seems to understand that we instinctively hate this man, but the extent to which we watch him suffer and fail veers somewhere between Buster Keaton and the Grand Guignol. Is Michael a child molestation "comedy," in stolid art-film clothing? Are we looking at a stealth version of something we might expect from, say, a less humanist version of the Farrelly brothers? (Mark my words: Michael will be one of John Waters' top ten films for 2011 in Artforum.) By the time Michael is nearing its (cruelly protracted) conclusion, there is no sense of what sort of response the film ever hoped to elicit from us, what it meant to show us, or even why it existed. Even taken as a first film, Michael is a failed stunt.


Mushrooms (Vimukthi Jayasundara, India / France) [6]

My take on Jayasundara's impressive debut The Forsaken Land was essentially that it came out of the gate as a full-on avant-garde effort and eventually domesticated itself into a well-appointed if somewhat generic international art film. I have yet to catch up with his sophomore effort, but on the basis of film #3, I can't say I'm in that great of a hurry. There's absolutely nothing wrong with Chatrak. It's a solid family drama in the muted, unspecific manner of so much Southeast Asian auteur cinema, wherein the combination of close attention to a select few members of a clan with an odd lack of deep psychological characterization produce the spectral sense that a myth or an allegory may be hovering just beyond comprehension's grasp, even though there are no actual clues to indicate its presence. In this case, Jayasundara turns his attention to an architect named Rahul (Sudip Mukherjee) who has just returned to Kolkata from Dubai. This reunites him with his younger girlfriend Paoli (Paoli Dam), but also produces strife. He finally decides that he must locate his brother (Sumeet Thakur), who went insane years ago and has been missing ever since. He lives in a forest, playing naked in the trees. We see him tormenting / seducing a European border guard (Tomás Lemarquis) in the opening moments of the film. (The soldier seems equally unbalanced, haunted by the one hundred men he has killed.) So Jayasundara has the basic thematic elements in place -- modernity vs. the primitive, borders and their breakdown, the eruption and suppression of the past as a nation's untidy unconscious. (Mushrooms, which don't factor into the film at all, could be said to be metaphorical I suppose. They spring up unbidden in the shit. Some are yummy, but some are poisonous. There! An allegory!)


Nevertheless, there's an unnerving feeling that Jayasundara works his way through all of this with minimal fuss, as though there were "stakes" in inverted commas, but not really. Part of this is formal. The aforementioned opening sequence, with two historically-burdened lunatics frolicking in the forest, owes virtually everything to Apichatpong -- the stilted homoeroticism, the play of light through foliage, the movement of the camera through a thicket whose verdant expanse is sliced by the tonal incongruity of human flesh. In the first twenty to thirty minutes, VJ also throws in some nods to his betters -- some Claire Denis here (isolated military man clinging to a faded regime), some Jia Zhangke there (imposing, late-capitalist building sites intercut with the exploited workers who erect them), but mostly it's a Joefest until, like The Forsaken Land, Chatrak starts playing it all too clean. But this film becomes even more normal, almost obsessively constricted, not unlike its protagonist. Chatrak is the sort of film I feel like I'm overrating at a [6], but it's never less than "compelling," in a by-the-numbers way. (Sony Classics or the Weinsteins could pick this up. Really.) More than anything, it's as though Jayasundara set out to make the world's politest Ritwik Ghatak film. Whether the tenor of the film is shaded by the fact that he made Chatrak as a Sri Lankan in India, invited by Indian producers, I cannot honestly say, but it's certainly worth considering.


Outside Satan (Bruno Dumont, France) [7]

I'm starting to think that Dumont is the unholy arthouse cross between Robert Bresson and M. Night Shyamalan. How many times have I been completely on Dumont's wavelength, prepared to defend his ideas and artistry against all gainsayers, only to have him pull some ridiculous last-minute "twist" that not only recodes all that came before it, but practically defies you to organize it into any meaningful interpretation? Granted, I have quite a bit more faith in Bruno Dumont than I do in latter-day M. Night, and I am being (somewhat) tongue in cheek. Dumont's films, of course, bear certain ineluctable commonalities of style and worldview, but I don't think for a minute that the man has self-consciously turned himself into a "brand." If anything, I believe Dumont's philosophy relies too heavily on a kind of sudden jolt of nihilism as a way to shake loose of an otherwise deterministic universe, one forever buoyed by our animalistic drives and the pull of gravity on our flesh. But, as it plays out in the actual dramaturgy -- see Twentynine Palms and Flandres, and to a lesser extent Hadewijch -- these reversals come to feel like deus ex machina devices for a thoughtful director who has effectively painted himself into a corner. (L'humanité remains Dumont's masterpiece in part because its finale is both conclusive and utterly open-ended, an image-event that can only be read on the symbolic plane.) And so it was with Outside Satan, a film nearly as brutal, graceful and uncompromising in its rendering of the tie between the spirit and the earth as L'humanité, and even more aggressive in its unwillingness to assign firm identities among its main characters. This was essentially the case, anyway, until the final ten or so minutes of the film, when [SPOILER] a fairly straightforward Christian miracle confirms that we have been in the presence of someone or something, if not Divine, then at least sent from Somewhere Else, all along.


David Dewaele plays an unnamed, unkempt outsider who lives on the periphery of the local village. He seems to have some kind of connection to the land, as he encamps behind a particular rock as though it were his home. Similarly, he frequently goes down on his knees in prayer before various natural features and vistas, not in an obviously pagan manner but more along the lines of an ascetic St. Francis, witnessing God's glory in His creations. The man, who resembles Vincent Cassel if his features were elongated like pulled taffy, has a young companion / acolyte in the similarly unnamed "Elle" (Alexandra Lematre). She has short black hair, pale skin, and a vaguely Goth aspect, marking her out as both visually and socially at odds with her rural surroundings. Early on in Outside Satan, the self-styled mystic helps this girl in trouble (although Dumont has not yet revealed anything by this point) by taking a rifle and murdering her stepfather. The mystic is a sniper. He is also flatly uninterested in pursuing sexual relations with his young charge, despite her occasional come-ons. By contrast, a local boy pursues her quite aggressively, with disastrous results. Up through the vast majority of Outside Satan, I found myself rather more entranced with Dumont's formal approach -- his patience, his post-Bressonian hypnosis mode, his brute physicality -- than I had with anything he'd done in years. Given the fact that Satan was, for most of its running time, not clearly "about" any particular moral framework or firmly identifiable social structure (e.g., the fog of war, or the existential drive of fervent belief, or even, as in the case of Twentynine Palms, the world-canceling power of raw lust), I found Dumont able to let us think. Should this charismatic drifter be understood as a holy man, or a psychopath, or is there a meaningful difference therein? Presuming the absence of feminist empowerment, does a young girl's sexual awakening necessarily entail an index of possible repressions, from which she must select the most benevolent, or the most seductive, or the one which holds out the most hope for the subversive exercise of will? And what of the sheer materiality of bodies, the pull that earth and sky exert upon our physical selves, or the way we cup our hands and "collect" the rays of the sun as we sit and pray, knowing that we are more than just our thoughts alone? The girl's repetitive gesture of sticking her hand out of her door and presenting the older man with a daily sandwich is a perfectly Dumontian emblem: cyclical, humorously mundane, concentrated on minimal action as a synecdoche for broader social interaction.


So, when all of this philosophical "white space," this nearly plotless meditation on companionship (as opposed to "sociality," and its implied scripts and constraints), becomes, finally, a sort of Evil-Angel-Teorema-Ordet affair, I sort of want to slap Bruno upside the head. But I'm pretty sure that's the point. So there you go. Consider me properly punk'd.


Page Eight (David Hare, U.K.) [4]

Here we have the rare film that manages to evoke tedium through much of its running time, only to evoke genuine interest at the home stretch in direct proportion with an increasing level of ire and disbelief. What putters along as an overwritten, tight-assed BBC teleplay about the twilight of Cold War relics serving Her Majesty at the MI5 eventually mutates into a crass apologia for the New Geopolitics, wherein any attempt at maintaining ethical consistency, much less a global vision, is hopelessly passé. Bill Nighy, for my pounds sterling one of the most overrated thespians on the contemporary scene, is Johnny Worricker, an old spy so wrongheadedly devoted to The Company that he neglected his wife (Alice Krige), who then married his ostensibly more humane desk-jockey supervisor, Benedict Baron (Michael Gambon). Trouble begins when Baron comes into possession of an intelligence file relating to American “black sites” for extraordinary rendition. According to the titular p. 8, the Prime Minister, one Alec Beasley (Ralph Fiennes, channeling Tony Blair as a Hugo Boss model), knew about it, but kept it from his Home Secretary (Saskia Reeves), MI5, and the entire British intelligence community. At this point, Page Eight is pitched between an unfunny In the Loop and a junior-grade Ghost Writer. It seems that Blair’s bum-licking of the U.S. is a trauma the U.K. is still working through, many of its liberal artists apparently every bit as obsessed with sovereignty loss as Nick Griffin. But, as various characters, including rival Jill Tankard (Judy Davis) keep informing Worricker, “It’s the 21st century,” and rational-actor flexibility is where it’s at. So by the end, he sacrifices all his grand ideals for a kiss from the young woman across the way (Rachel Weisz). Alas, the end is Nighy.


Smuggler (Katsuhito Ishii, Japan) [7]

Those of us who thoroughly enjoyed Takashi Miike's recent 13 Assassins but were a bit nonplussed by its overall normalcy may well consider Smuggler something of a transmission from an alternate universe, a place where the basic ingredients of a solid-state studio picture can exist side by side with bugfuck lunacy. (For the record, I haven't seen Miike's Hara-kiri remake, but by all accounts it's played even straighter, despite the 3D.) Ishii has been just on the verge of becoming a major Japanese filmmaker for the last several years. His talent has been unmistakable from the start, but his idiosyncrasies have thus far displayed a certain difficulty coalescing into a clearly defined auteurial stamp. His debut feature, 1998's Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip Girl, was quite well-received, and another successful Tadanobu Asano star vehicle. It seemed to hit all the right violent-hipster notes to make it click with the Extreme Asian contingent. But 2000's Party 7 was widely lambasted as a total failure, a semi-Lynchian / Japanese gameshow inflected quirkfest besotted with its own oddities. (I liked it.) Ishii's goofy sense of humor ("I am Captain Banana!") ran at odds with the cool posturing Shark Skin Man had promised its fanbase. Then, to further complicate matters, Ishii delivered what many consider to be his masterwork, The Taste of Tea, a gently paced rural shomin-geki with semi-mystical, somewhat outsized fantasy elements woven into the fabric of the everyday. It's a film that surprised everyone when it premiered at Cannes in 2004, and seemed to mark Ishii's arrival in the big leagues of Japanese auteurs. Alas, another curveball: Funky Forest: The First Contact, a 150-minute no-holds-barred sketch comedy movie that by all accounts (I haven't seen it myself) conforms to and exceeds every Western idea about bugfuck-crazy Japanese TV. Of course, a hypothetical "Tim & Eric Awesome Show" movie would be just as psychotic . . . Anyway, point is, Ishii has been all over the map, but he's never been dull. (As far as his profile in North America, Ishii's fortunes weren't helped by the fact that Shark Skin Man, Taste of Tea,and Funky Forest all received commercial releases some three to four years after their initial debut.)


With Smuggler, all the pieces are in place for a complete breakthrough, and one can only hope that the stars will align for Ishii this time. It's a film characterized by extreme violence, but placed in the context of a genuine story arc -- fierce and unremitting, but never gratuitous, never an obvious sop to fanboy sensibilities. Based on a manga series by Shohei Manabe, the story concerns ne'er-do-well Kinuta (Satoshi Tsumabuki), a self-professed slacker, deaf in one ear, a guy who wanted to be an actor but just gave up. After racking up massive gambling debts, he's forced by mob enforcers to work for a ruthless banker (Yasuko Matsuyuki) as a part of a smuggling team. Basically a group of no-questions-asked long-haul truckers, the smugglers typically move dead human freight for whichever yakuza or triad is paying top dollar that day. This scenario allows Ishii to set up two basic tonal poles for Smuggler, ones which he keeps in near-perfect balance throughout. There's a sort of cowboy-inflected bildungsroman centered on Kinuta's mentorship from long-term smuggler Jo (Masatoshi Nagase). The older man initially finds Kinuta worthless but, over the course of several unexpected events, comes to see himself as a kind of sensei to the lost young man. This thread, not without its dark humor, is played relatively straight, as a kind of Kurosawa / Leone inculcation into self-sufficient, existential masculinity. Against this aspect, and fully complementary to it, Ishii introduces a yakuza world as outsized and hyperviolent as anything found in comparable manga-derived cinema. The main perpetrators of the mayhem are a pair of indestructible assassins (and maybe lovers -- it's left ambiguous) called Vertebrae (Masanobu Ando) and Viscera (Ryushin Tei). Much of the "secondary" plot hinges on possible betrayal of Vertebrae at the hands of Viscera; an up-and-comer (Tsuoshi Abe) wants to break up the team and make an opening for himself. But eventually Vertebrae, due to earlier transgressions against the yakuza hierarchy, becomes the smugglers's "cargo," resulting in a fateful meeting between himself and Kinuta, two types of men who should probably never have even known the other existed, but discover surprising common ground.


Yes, there is torture and spatter. Park Chan-wook would be more than satisfied, although Eli Roth would probably find it all far too . . . intellectual. (Ishii does organize Smuggler with chapter headings, though, much like Roth's benefactor, QT.) But what makes Smuggler such an impressive piece of work is the fact that Ishii manages to convincingly articulate the style and form of Asian "extremity" with certain sturdy, classical cinematic values, without ever making this articulation seem calculated. There's no condescension here, no tsking tone that would indicate, as would some "humanist" tastemakers, that violence (like sex, or cigarette smoking) must "earn" its place in the cinema by some diegetic necessity. Ishii isn't taming anything, or cleaning up the underworld for festival bourgeoisification. (Although I must admit, I wonder how Toronto's midnight crowd will react to this film. It's really more of a Vanguard selection.) Instead, Ishii has found a way to bring all of his strange and disparate interests to bear within an odd but fully convincing universe, one characterized by both ugliness and compassion. As a result, Ishii's vision will reach a wider audience. And we can just call that smuggling.



Wavelengths previews / pre-fest screening


Loutra / Baths (Nick Collins, U.K.) [s]

This brief and deceptively breezy-looking landscape study by Collins (a filmmaker which whom I was not previously familiar) is an exceptionally intricate mosaic whose construction largely hinges on the interplay of what we might call “subjectless reverse shots.” Or, if you prefer, the camera itself is the subject, and since Collins refrains from assigning that point of view, seemingly even to himself, it becomes an experience of pure natural vision. An ancient Roman bath, and all the natural overgrowth around it, is spatially delineated through interiors and exteriors, light and dark passages, as well as rhyming negative spaces in the foliage and decaying architecture. When Collins shows us a view toward a cave, he then takes us inside, giving us the parallel view right back out, and this symmetry, in addition to describing this chosen space with an ideal cinematic cognition, also places us, Collins’s viewers, in a kind of dialectic between the present of the film image, and the movement through time and history that the semi-preserved space itself represents.


Edwin Parker (Tacita Dean, U.S. / U.K.) [s]

Of the films I was able to preview, I can say without hesitation that British artist / filmmaker Dean’s film portrait of the late American painter Cy Twombly is far and away the standout in this year’s Wavelengths program. If you’ve seen other work by Dean (for example, her 2002 portrait Mario Merz), you may have some clue as to what to expect. But even still, the quiet, tremulous audacity with which Dean hovers (like a mad-scientist’s cross between a housefly and Mark Lee Ping-bin) around Twombly’s office / studio in Lexington, Virginia, slowly pulling focus across thick vertical blinds, observing the midday Southern sun through the front window as cars whizz by, and using extreme close-up and hazy shifting lensing to observe the aged hands of Twombly, fumbling through his beige slacks pocket for his glasses. The scene is hushed and banal, Twombly resembling nothing so much as an elderly insurance agent in a neighborhood firm about to close up shop. Were it not for the presence of a few of the man’s inimitable plaster sculptures standing about on the desks, there would be little to distinguish Edwin Parker from a scene in an early effort by a regionalist like Ira Sachs or Kelly Reichardt.


And this is precisely the point. Dean very pointedly titled her film “Edwin Parker,” Twombly’s given name rather than his nom de peinture. It’s not just that we’re being given access to one of the greatest American artists of the 20th century, at the dawn of the 21st and the twilight of his years, in a purposely demystified manner, although it’s true that watching Twombly and his assistant take an Italian curator to lunch in a workaday Virginia diner makes for a scene of pure joy. (Some of those sloppy, “food fight” canvases take on a new meaning after watching Twombly lustily tuck into a bowl of applesauce.) What Dean demonstrates with Edwin Parker, and what this time with Twombly demonstrates as well, is in perfect concert with the Twombly we’ve been “reading” right off the paintings and drawings for fifty-plus years. As the ultimate “my kid could do that” artist, Twombly’s grand gesture has always been the active normalization of the erudite, bringing the Gods down to Earth with the dead seriousness of child’s play. When, near the end of Edwin Parker, Twombly picks up a Keats book and briefly talks poetry, it’s both a surprise and an inevitability. Twombly, the great palimpsestic artist, allowed Tacita Dean to uncover a few more layers, just before the last great erasure. We’re all the richer.


99 Clerkenwell Road (Sophie Michael, U.K.) [s]

A purely formal film that does manage to evoke a significant sense of play (you’ll think you’re seeing planetary movement and other symbolic, not-just-spherical things, and you’ll be right), Michael’s experiment harks back to the 1920s and 30s work of the geometrical abstractionists and “visual musicians” – Oskar Fischinger, Len Lye, Hans Richter, Mary Ellen Bute – but with a harder, 21st century edge. This isn’t to suggest any computer-generated malfeasance; by all appearances Michael is generating her images with old-fashioned tools, and in fact the title refers to a defunct toyshop where she located the basic materials for the film, it seems. (Can’t say I’m entirely clear on how that works. It Clerkenwell partly a ray-o-gram?) More than other purely geometrical films, Clerkenwell exhibits a palpable manipulation of space; the solid-colored round “discs” that swirl into the foreground pop out into sphericality quite often, enacting a groovy, almost Sesame Streetish tension between polka-dot action and planetary orbit. Dark field, saturated hues, all in your face like it’s neo-geo party time.


Empire (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand / Austria) [s]

Unlike the other festival trailer on this program (see Ars colonia, above), Apichatpong’s submission for the 2010 Viennale is a lovely but surprisingly slight entry, especially considering the fact that Joe is the rare feature filmmaker who can produce work of equal strength in the short form. Empire is a brief, slowly unfolding exploration of an undersea grotto, its bulbous stalactite formations hanging down like udders or vampire bats. (I was reminded more than once, actually, of the Mugwumps from Cronenberg’s film version of Naked Lunch.)The organic forms are no doubt beautiful, made all the more so by Apichatpong’s spotlit underwater cinematography, which excises these hidden objects from the darkness quite casually, with none of the portent you might expect from, say, an accompanying Werner Herzog narration. The seeming appearance of great mystery (a long root or tail) is rapidly replaced by the banality of the human form, a hand examining snail shells. But why the title? If every shell is a home, is the explorer no better than a conqueror, annexing the sea in scuba-assisted Anschluss? Hard to say, and hard not to feel like I’m over-interpreting a probable Uncle Boonmee outtake.


Sack Barrow (Ben Rivers, U.K.) [s]

The recent shift in Rivers’s work has been quite fascinating indeed. The artist has expanded beyond the poetic crypto-ethnographies that justifiably made his reputation and is now exploring multiple genres and modes of address, without entirely leaving behind the creative nonfiction procedures that instantly set his work apart. His film Slow Action, in the Future Projections section, resituates Rivers’s frequent concern with geological time within a quasi-fictional context. On the other hand, Sack Barrow is a spectral, multi-part tour of a plating factory in its final days of production. That is, rather than considering the temporality of sediment layers in the earth, divorced from their direct interaction with human beings, Rivers’s latest film revels in a material process that can only transpire when skilled humans engage with metals, salts, the thick bubbles, smoke and residue of production. Many of the shots in Sack Barrow display the shop floor as an empty relic, with its impasto of hardened metallic froth over the edge of basins, or lingering pin-up girl postcards about three decades out of date. But Rivers also shows us women and men at work, stationed independently, not on an assembly line. This is clearly high-quality, inefficient labor that maximizes time over both productivity and managerial oversight, the buzzwords that drive contemporary manufacturing (and drive it right on over to China). Rivers, it should be noted, maintains medium to medium-long shots of the workers, never showing exactly what they do. Like the smelting smoke, they’re more like an organic part of a fully functioning entity, not “at” or “inside” it. And now that organism is gone.


Found Cuban Mounts (Adriana Salazar Arroyo, Costa Rica / Germany) [s]

Another highlight of the series, Salazar’s film nestles in at a perfect conjuncture of formalism and political history, neither one ever gaining the upper hand. Found Cuban Mounts is a slightly rough, seemingly in-camera graphing of various revolutionary monuments and civic squares throughout Havana and environs. We see, for example, bas-reliefs of Guevara and Marx, broken into single-image segments, presented one after the other in a makeshift grid pattern that Salazar imposes through her segmented cinematic looking. At times, as with a monument featuring the words of Castro, this patterning results in an implicit request that we read the text, broken up across a series of mini-“plaques” of fixed frame imagery. Salazar’s method is polyvalent. It prevents touristic gawking at her subject. It emphasizes both positive and negative attributes (both internally and externally defined) regarding the Socialist state – seeing becomes labor, but it is also subject to management and restriction – such that neither attitude becomes “right.” Like many structural films, Found Cuban Mounts has a back-story (or a back-formula) that explains how and why it’s built (Salazar’s rhythm corresponds to cadences in Castro’s “History Will Absolve Me” speech), but as is usually the case, knowing or not knowing this fact makes little difference in the appreciation of the film itself.


I Will Forget This Day (Alina Rudniskaya, Russia) [s]

One of the few outright duds of this year’s series, Rudniskaya’s quasi-narrative short employs half-hearted serial technique to drive home a message of de-individuation of young women in contemporary Russia, but I Will Forget This Day is so stranded in equivocation that it almost refuses to make a mark. In hazy black-and-white 35mm (so washed out it resembles video, not unlike a distaff Sokurov in its own way), woman after woman dons a hospital gown and goes behind the double doors of the clinic’s private area. Then, woman after woman is wheeled out on a gurney. Are they having plastic surgery? Abortions? Lobotomies? Turns out the answer is (B), and we hear a craggy counselor harangue the women who are in late-term. The only shots outside the hospital are repeated long shots of a bridge in the snow, presumably taking woman after woman from the miserable hospital back to their miserable lives. Rudniskaya’s method never allows any woman’s plight, or the Plight of Woman, to have much impact. Everything remains a gauzy, half-considered veil of general woe. I will forget this film.


Sea Series #10 (John Price, Canada) [s]

One of the consistent pleasures of the Wavelengths programs under Andréa Picard’s leadership has been her championing of John Price, a really fine Canadian filmmaker whose work doesn’t get shown in the States nearly as much as it ought to. His films tend to straddle a line between diaristic, private affairs and something bigger, gesturing outward from the very personal. Unlike others who work in this vein – the small-scale, almost notepad approach to filming daily life – Price’s films never feel precious or even geared to elicit what we typically think of as empathy. Instead, they isolate within the everyday a kernel of formal or intellectual distance, which is then subsequently reflooded with the rush of the quotidian.


The latest film in Price’s Sea Series is, on its face, a three-part “trick film” about visiting the lakeside beach. The first part finds Price’s camera trained out on the water as sailboats come in and out of view. Oddly, the boats just seem to appear on the screen, without entering from the side of the frame. Price must be exploiting a low cloud cover. Next, we see the water again, then pan ¼ turn and see what the frame had been concealing: Toronto’s Pickering nuclear power plant. It dominates the background of the “beach,” and produces anomalies in the sky (“funny clouds”). In part three, Price uses black and white to gaze down the beach at the activity (and inactivity) on this stretch of coast. What this home movie is looking for, however, is more complex. The title card gives the date (May 21, 2011) and Pickering’s distance from Fukushima, Japan. Price and his family are spending the day out by a nuclear reactor, thinking about those less fortunate living near the Daiichi plant, its core in meltdown following March’s deadly tsunami. But why May 21st? As Price reminds us (and sadly, even I’d forgotten), this was the day so many American Evangelicals told us the Rapture was coming. (Here in Houston, a non-evangelical religious group posted billboards on the 22nd which read, “That was awkward.”) So Sea Series #10 uses the vast waters to display connection, rather than the usual sense of separation, and to remind the more impressionable among us that, as time and history move us along, the world “ends” a bit every day.


Sailboat (Joyce Wieland, Canada, 1967) [s]

This year’s lone catalogue classic in the Wavelengths line-up, and it’s a fine if ineluctably odd film from one of experimental cinema’s underappreciated greats. Like her from 1933 from the same year, Sailboat is a kind of cognitive game in which the pure sensual information of the image is pitted against the honking semiotic stamp of language. For just under three minutes, we see a blueprint-blue whirl of grain, an ocean expanse on the screen with small sailboats drifting placidly across in the diegetic time of their own travel. Along the top of this image, dominating its top third, is the word “sailboat” in white serif font. A cinematic cousin to the paintings and sculptures of Joseph Kosuth, Wieland’s film is wry conceptualism that also remembers to address the eye.


A Preface to Red (Jonathan Schwartz, U.S. / Turkey) [s]

There is an openness and curiosity about the world that characterizes the films of Jonathan Schwartz. It is often the case, when describing a filmmaker, that too much emphasis can be placed on where they studied and with whom. It’s the kind of background information that easily mutates into a lazy shorthand or empty factoid. But in applying one’s eyes and ears to Schwartz’s unusual films, it’s hard not to consider (if only as a starting place) that he worked with both Saul Levine and the late Mark LaPore while at MassArt. Most of Schwartz’s films are relatively short but dense, sometimes edited in-camera, and almost always organized more according to associations of color and shape than any obvious argumentative rhetoric. And many of the films document Schwartz’s international excursions, particularly to the Middle East. We can see throughout Schwartz’s work the tension between the two approaches to the world exemplified by his masters -- Levine’s exuberance and LaPore’s caution reticence.


As a result, Schwartz’s work exists as a dialectic all its own, with a kind of wry fascination with things and a tinkerer’s yearning to take them apart and put them back together again. A Preface to Red exhibits this attitude, while at the same time displaying a rather unexpected level of formal aggression from the usually sedate Schwartz. Beginning with the nighttime taillights of a traffic jam, Red soon enters daylight with a series of bright forms in the titular hue. Many are composed against the hot color temperature of the Turkish sun, and before long, the Constructivist beauty of Schwartz’s semi-ethnographic fragments (not dissimilar to Warren Sonbert in their brevity and aesthetic exactitude) is being overpowered by a violent, ear-damning sound design wavering somewhere between white noise, stadium cheering, and the cyclical whinny of an unseen factory machine. (According to Schwartz, it’s a field recording from inside a tunnel near a harbor.) Schwartz is to be commended for having the chutzpah (so rare today) to generate pointed, rigorous discomfort, and as Red progresses and concludes, the purpose becomes clear. In the final shots, we see people filing onto a bus, and a close-up of a loudspeaker (perhaps indicating that this otherwise everyday occurrence has become “news”). Some lives, some places, exist under the squall of permanent pressure. And sometimes, the perspectives we try our best to bracket out just hang with us, like a ringing in our ears.


Resonance (Karen Johannesen, U.S.) [s]

Blown up from Super 8, the gauge in which Johannesen customarily works, Resonance is a lovely, amber-toned abstraction that initiates a set of essentially painterly values and then sets to work pumping, popping and thrusting them about in a shadowbox of deep, miniaturized space. Taken as purely optical information, Resonance consists of vertical black bands interrupted by shifting golden stripes, which themselves are traversed by thinner horizontal black stripes. The golden stripes move forward and back, and sometimes seem to whirl around each other as different frame-by-frame “sets” blend in the eye. The more you look at it, the more you see “what it is.” (The yellowish forms are parts of a brick wall; the black stripes are negative space possibly produced in the processing, or maybe actually by some actual object like vertical blinds.) But space and motion overtake any sturdy resolution into “thingness.” Johannesen’s film is there strictly to vibrate, to open up a gap in vision – a literal hole in the wall.


Optra Fields VI-IX (T. Marie, U.S.) [v/s]

Late last year I had the pleasure of presenting a selection of works by video artist T. Marie in a festival program entitled “Pixel Painting,” alongside works by Phil Solomon and others. Sadly, it was to an assembled audience of five. But nevertheless, we repaired to a coffee shop and had a wonderful discussion about the screening, particularly Marie’s pieces, which fascinated by their unique application of painterly principles (particularly color mixing and the organization of the frame) to the video raster. Likewise, the pieces in question – 010101 (2009) and Slave Ship (2010) – represent a complex intersection between two distinct temporalities, which we might call “screen time” and “painting time.” We know that screen time is a duration determined by the maker of a work. But the beholder typically controls “painting time”, even though he or she may not consciously comprehend how a (still) picture unfolds before him or her in the looking mind. T. Marie’s practice, in addition to pushing individual pixel work to a highly defined level of aesthetic control, is also a deeply original and challenging investigation into this problem. And having said all this, I hope I can be understood when I explain that Marie’s latest works, Optra Fields VI-IX, strike me as rather disappointing. Although these three “canvases” are clearly as meticulous as Marie’s earlier efforts, the decision to explore the black and white lines and forms of Op Art seems redundant, if not wrongheaded. Op Art, with its almost neurological play on the standard sensorium, is already functioning “in time.” Setting forth an electronic Op field and then gradually shifting it is, in some sense, gilding the perceptual lily. In fact, this activation, together with the light quality and pixel shifting of video (as opposed to the latex matte of actual Op Art painting), threatens to place the spectator in a position so passive as to cancel “painting time” altogether. I deeply admire Marie as an artist and as a pioneer, but I simply feel that she’s barking up the wrong neurons this time around.


Chevelle (Kevin Jerome Everson, U.S. / Canada) [s]

No Really, Get Out of the Car – One of the simplest and most elegant films in this year’s program, Everson’s short, structural mini-documentary has bounce, crunch, and . . . well, I was going to say “a chassis that just won’t quit,” but as a matter of fact, Chevelle is a fixed-frame, real-time observation of the flattening of two junkers in a junkyard in Cookstown, ON. (The first is a green Grand Am, the second the Chevelle of the title, in Mary Kay pink.) Everson takes his distance from the rectilinear, ground-level smasher, giving his composition the distinct feel of a proscenium (In fact, it strongly resembles one of Robert Wilson’s postmodern opera sets – the CIVIL warS as populated by the John Chamberlain sculptures of the future.) Coming in from frame right, like an open-armed Shiva, is the forklift, sliding the cars onto the smasher like Pietàs. The plate comes down; the whole apparatus bounces. Pressure increases. Glass flies out midway to flatness. And there you have it: metal on metal, that’s what we crave. Program it alongside Thom Andersen’s latest. Yeah, we bust the windows out your car.


349 (for Sol LeWitt) (Chris Kennedy, Canada) [v/s]

Kennedy is one of a number of filmmakers who, to my mind, have returned to the lessons of structural film in recent decades, but with a difference. Whereas that tendency (don’t call it a “movement”!) eventually became anathema due to perceptions of academicism and an anti-humanist bent, this newer generation of film- and videomakers (including Scott Stark, Lynn Marie Kirby, Tomonari Nishikawa, Daïchi Saïto, and folks on this year’s program, like Recoder / Gibson and Blake Williams) understand “formalism” as a toolbox rather than a crusade. Having moved through that history, and others as well, it can serve as an opportunity not only for playfulness but even sly self-expression. 349, like Kennedy’s Tamalpais from two years ago, takes an external set of terms and organizes them according to a sequential grid. But unlike the earlier film, which segmented a landscape into a syntagmatic chain, 349 takes the elements of a Sol LeWitt wall drawing (one of the artist’s conceptual works, created as a series of directions for gallery employees to “perform”) and runs through them in such rapid succession as to practically layer them into one animated semi-solid. The primary structures of minimalism, when combined with the accelerated time element of digital video, results in a comical new form of “primary,” a bright, electric play-object that would not look out of place in between more conventional segments of Sesame Street or Yo Gabba Gabba! (And in this regard, Kennedy’s piece offers a hat-tip of sorts to the late avant-animator Robert Breer, whose films did in fact end up in children’s television.)


Black Mirror in the National Gallery (Mark Lewis, U.K. / Canada) [s]

In its single, semi-remote-controlled shot, Mark Lewis’s Black Mirror manages not only to raise certain questions about the nature of art spectatorship. (To call them “probing questions” would be to pun too hard to request clemency.) The film also accomplishes the noteworthy secondary goal – intended or not, I can’t say – of being frightening as hell, easily the scariest film in Wavelengths (not hard to do, typically) and a likely candidate for Horror Film of TIFF 2011. With a nod or more to Michael Snow’s classic La Région central, Lewis has outfitted a tall black mechanized arm (although I think we may catch a glimpse of human control – not certain) with a flat reflective disc. This robotic mirror-man is on dolly tracks moving straight ahead toward the camera, and it moves ever so slowly through two rooms of paintings in the National Gallery. On its central axis, the mirror dislocates the wainscoting, playing angles off each other to realign the gallery space, bringing some paintings closer, sending others further away. Views from the far room are enfolded into the nearer chamber. But this creepy giant eye isn’t just for spatial games. It really is an artificial “looker,” a kind of A.I. art-thinking machine. It pointedly bypasses canvases it isn’t “interested” in. At one point it uses its mirror reflecting capability to “compare” two paintings side by side, in the Heinrich Wölfflin style. And indeed, it zooms in on “us,” the camera eye, before retreating into itself. Much as Snow’s film demonstrated the landscape’s bald existence apart from any human life, Black Mirror seems to postulate a hermetic world of self-sufficient masterpieces, a forest of signs that “makes a sound” even when our eyes are averted.


Untitled (Neïl Beloufa, France) [s]

In many respects Untitled is the closest thing that this year’s Wavelengths has to a narrative work or “calling card” short. Even Rudniskaya’s film has more in the way of looping and non-characterization – hallmarks, after a fashion, of the avant-garde’s customary non-psychological approach – than Beloufa’s film, with its unity of place and time, symphony of consistently assigned voices, and exploration of a particular social / emotional complication. However, there is absolutely nothing conventional about Untitled, or about the films of Beloufa, one of the more interesting figures to come onto the scene in recent years. The “story” of an Algerian villa occupied, and ostensibly abused, by guerrilla rebels, Untitled is a surreal quasi-stageplay about trying to repair a massive rupture in the colonial membrane, a vulnerability displaced onto a building continually referred to as “her” and “she.” We see and hear the servants, neighbors, and the elderly master of the house, all as turned backs or truncated torsos. We never see them straight on. And “she,” the house “herself,” is also never seen in a straightforward manner, largely because the home’s existence is manifestly a projection, a physical fantasy. Look closely, and every vista is a photographic blow-up. The walls are cardboard and veneer. So what does this tell us? For one thing, the trauma of colonialism's protracted end is staged like a drama; everyone has his or her role to play, including the scenery. What's more, there's something vaguely unconvincing about the trauma, as though everyone understood that this rupture and loss (in the form of expropriation) was coming, and yet the participants felt an obligation (perhaps out of national pride?) to be stunned into a state of mourning.


Young Pines (Ute Aurand, Germany) [m]

Aurand’s film Hanging Upside Down in the Branches, an intimate film-portrait of women friends and relatives young and old, was a high point of Wavelengths in 2009, and she returns this year with a medium-length film that, while quite different in subject and approach, maintains the same tactile curiosity with the world in front of the camera. Young Pines records Aurand’s movements during a stay in Japan from May 2009 to November 2010. Her hand-held, staccato jump cuts (the result, it would appear, of in-camera editing) instigate a kind of “breath” in the images before us, a mark of the watching woman who maintains a respectful distance but nevertheless remains fully engaged. This is no “empire of signs” (to borrow Roland Barthes’s term); Aurand never reduces Japan to stock signifiers, even when examining such cultural markers as ink and brush calligraphy or Shinto shrines. In fact, Aurand’s formal approach could be said (if you can imagine it) to reflect a kind of dialectical position between the placid, timeless emanations of Nathaniel Dorsky and the vibrating, restless inter-frame fluctuations of Rose Lowder. (They’re both on this year’s program, so see for yourself. Oh, Andréa, you sly fox!)


But actually, Aurand does possess her own unique rhythm, one that becomes clearer as the film unspools. Young Pines has a macro-structure that, while hardly “narrative,” does mark definite shifts in perception and stance toward the locale before the lens. The shots become less jagged, and Aurand’s images are less murky, more vivid and (for lack of a better term) “involved” as the film goes along. (A turning point of sorts comes when Aurand observes a couple of elderly farmers harvesting cabbages. She hands them to him; he pitches them into the basket on his back, over and over, in a series of NBA no-look alley-oops. Growing old, lest we forget, means mastery.) Young Pines is mostly silent, but there are occasional passages of sound, Aurand providing a sustained sense of depth in these moments. The general arc of the film comes full circle, as nervous train-window shots indicate another uprooting, the end of hard-won belonging. But we also see the gorgeous, imposing normalcy of the natural world – bright flowers, red peppers on the vine, some kids unearthing a sweet potato. Only once does Aurand introduce text, and the 30 minute mark. A title card reads, “Matsushima, ah!” It’s at this instance, perhaps, that Young Pines evinces a melancholy recognition that belonging has its limits, beyond which lay only empathy.


Coorow-Latham Road (Blake Williams, Canada) [v/s]

There’s something afoot in the seeming long take down the long road in the Australian outback in this highly attenuated (in more ways than one) new work by newcomer Blake Williams. After a few seconds of possible cringing (festival veterans may initially think there’s a projection or digital rendering problem), it becomes fairly evident what Coorow-Latham Road is up to. It’s the mirage-like gaps that give it away; they almost imply that we’re entering some other dimension, like those shimmering portals Walter Bishop opens up on “Fringe.” Or maybe it’s just a wall of heat. But of course, what we’re seeing (pace Eric Morecambe) is “the join,” not an entry into another space but a mismatch-up from another time. Williams has created this “tracking shot” artificially using Google Earth, and so we’re witnessing the record of multiple passes, a kind of spatial average that refuses to smooth out into faux-singularity. For his part, Williams is able to reduce the older tropes of structural realism – duration, physical presence, the flat correspondence of time with space – to a desktop procedure. For his part, it isn’t perfect, and I’m not sure it’s meant to be. (I have trouble figuring out why Williams pans left when he does; his move into reverse-shot is anything but smooth.) But Coorow-Latham Road does adhere, in its problematized 21st century way, to the early dream of the Lumières, to bring the distant closer. The smeary trees, meanwhile, remind us that this proximity is a form of distance.


tentative screening schedule


Thursday 9/8:


The Turin Horse (Béla Tarr, Hungary) [7]

Drop It Like It's Hot -- Oddly it seems that the first and the last films I see at TIFF are almost always the ones I feel least confident in evaluating in retrospect. This probably has to do with the specific exigencies of the festival experience -- getting settled in, and then getting prepared to go. In any case, The Turin Horse is one of a few films with which I feel most in need of a second viewing, and part of this has to do with the character of the film itself. Tarr has claimed that Horse will be his final film, a declaration made on rather admirable grounds. He has stated in interviews that he fears he could spend the rest of his life making "Béla Tarr films," that is, generating variations of a signature style until it becomes utterly dead. (I'll spare you the pun you're already hearing in your head. Dear Reader, you are welcome.) Whether Tarr intends to retire from creative life altogether, or to explore new avenues, such as literature or theatre, he has yet to say. The irony of this decision, however, is that The Turin Horse is a clear demonstration of just how much potential there is for change and development within the so-called "Tarr style." While I think it's entirely fair to look at his previous effort, The Man From London, and question whether it may be little more than a compendium of empty formal gestures (although I liked it more than most), Turin Horse adapts certain of Tarr's existential concerns to a dramatically new spatio-temporal arrangement. The film begins with an extended shot of the old horseman, Ohlsdorfer (János Derzsi) roughly negotiating his horse and cart from the village to the isolated hilltop home he shares with his daughter (Tarr regular Erika Bók). In some senses this long take, which describes both a space and the slow, deliberate action necessary to traverse it, is common to the Tarr repertoire. It calls to mind similar sequence-shots from Werckmeister Harmonies, Damnation, and of course Satantango. However, this is not typically how Tarr begins his films; what's more, Fred Kelemen's camerawork maneuvers our point of view away from the lateral (i.e., identification with Ohlsdorfer's spatial movement) and down to a low angle, underneath the horse's muzzle. As the horse's head bobs and tugs, pulling the cart with some difficulty, Tarr's opening shot ennobles the creature, casting its form against the light gray sky.


After this, Turin Horse gets down to its real business. We spend almost the entire rest of the film either inside the Ohlsdorfers' dank shadowbox proscenium of a cottage, or immediately outside of it, where the wind achieves gale-force levels which can only be described as Biblical or mythological. In purely narrative terms, the old man faces a crisis, since his livelihood depends of being able to operate the cart, and his horse is becoming less and less fit to serve. What's more, Ohlsdorfer has one paralyzed arm, so his own capacities are duly limited, and mirror those of the horse. Tarr's screenplay, co-written as usual by Hungarian literary master László Krasznahorkai, seals man and horse in a Beckettian deadlock of mutually-assured mortality, with only one bearing the burden of this consciousness. (The daughter, meanwhile, acts as a kind of internal witness to time's fundamental cruelty.) Inside the hovel, Tarr stages the lives of the father and daughter as a kind of dour, Kafkaesque structural film, Jeanne Dielman without the tension. There is the struggle of dressing and undressing over the bum arm, the preparation of the meager dinners of boiled potatoes, and the both of them sitting down to eat their food -- exactly one potato each -- without silverware. They burn their fingers on the scalding hot potato. To let the searing bastard cool would be to somehow deny the fundamental hell of existence; better to chase it one-handed across the plate. The Turin Horse presents these Sisyphus-like trials of daily existence, within the cold comfort of the Ohlsdorfer home, as a respite from the ravages of the howling winds outside. The exterior shots are all brutality, all the time, the dry hurricane threatening to suck these pathetic humans right off the earth.


It is easy to see that an unsympathetic viewer could make a mockery of The Turin Horse's allegorical hell-on-the-German-soil quite easily. In a sense, Tarr is representing the horrific Janus-face to the kind of Volk-ish land-and-peasant worship one finds in the Germanic tradition. Heidegger exemplifies this, and it is no coincidence that the germ of the idea for The Turin Horse comes from an anecdote about the final days of Friedrich Nietzsche's life. Nietzsche was (and to some extent still is) the philosopher who upended that lineage, looking at the German people -- all people, really -- and seeing only savagery and despair. However, he also found a dark humor in this cesspool, an absurdity that all we could ever do was plow ahead in the face of our own tragicomic misery. Needless to say, Béla Tarr is an auteur sympathetic with the Nietzschean view of life. If viewers somehow fail to observe the humor in The Turin Horse -- which admittedly is far more abstract than in his previous films, filtered through formal repetition -- then the man has little more than po-faced miserablism on offer. However, it seems hard to argue with the fact that Team Tarr has fashioned a swan song in which the titular horse is a putative hero simply by dint of his refusal to budge. The "Turin horse" is the anti-Balthazar," meeting a putrid world with absolute intransigence.


Back To Stay (Milagros Mumenthaler, Argentina / Switzerland / The Netherlands) [5]

Fairly bland, just bland enough to be an award winner (Golden Leopard at Locarno), this is a well-crafted enough three-hander that picks up in the immediate aftermath of the death of an elderly professor, the grandmother two three sisters and their only other living relative. The women have, essentially, lost their sole remaining non-sibling tie to the world. While almost the entire film takes place in the woman's home, the last bastion of family normalcy (and a open yet symbolically smothering professorial environment -- Gran was a noted anthropologist, and none of the sisters exactly followed in her footsteps), there is a kind of sunny, even breezy visual sense to Back To Stay, quite different from the usual "trapped with the ghosts of the past" mise-en-scène with which such films usually saddle us. The bright, airy environs are quite deliberate. The original Spanish title, Abrir puertas y ventanas, translates literally as "Open Doors and Windows." The substituted English title refers to a song -- in Inglés -- that the three sisters sing while sitting together on a cramped davenport, in a dead-on frontally composed single shot. This was clearly intended to be an emotional pinnacle of Mumenthaler's film, but instead it scanned mostly as shorthand for "how art films generate 'emotional momnents'." There's nothing particularly wrong with Back To Stay. I'm sort of surprised no U.S. distributor has picked it up yet. But it isn't particularly memorable. It's noteworthy mostly for avoiding the HBO sitcommish female byplay that the scenario continually hints at. "A promising debut film." [Next...]


Pina (Wim Wenders, France / Germany) [5]

Usually when a film doesn't quite work, especially due to structural deficiencies, I have no compunction about zeroing in on those "failures" and, if possible, articulating as best I can how the filmmakers involved might have avoided them. That's what formalist-minded critics tend to do, and it's one way to try to offer some kind of concrete knowledge about the film at hand, rather than just flailing around in a miasma of generalities of taste. But of course sometimes this gets tricky, and Pina is one of those instances. Wenders's film -- a document of several pivotal dance works by the late German choreographer Pina Bausch, as restaged by the members of her company, the Tanztheater Wuppertal -- is both a vital historical record and a technical marvel. In addition to providing the most comprehensive and detailed documentation of many of Bausch's most important works, which have been performed specifically for Wenders's camera, Pina represents the first use of current 3D cinema technology for a dance film. From conception to execution, Wenders and the Tanztheater have done everything possible to translate the live, four-dimensional time-sculpture of modern dance into a digitally recorded format.


The results are frequently stunning. Wenders sets the bar sky-high by beginning Pina with Le sacre du printemps, a stark, primal group dance conducted in a black box proscenium layered with mud and soil. Male and female groups are separated into semi-hostile tribes, cornering one another, slamming the ground in war-drum formation, and simulating nothing less than collective hypnosis, executed in rigid pairs and triads that coalesce and separate like atomic clusters. Wenders's steely direction and the cinematography of veteran d.p. Hélène Louvart render this ritual with an optical logic that remains implicit and in no way diminishes the fundamental anxiety Bausch's choreography evokes. Pina naturally has a basic charge to demonstrate the range of Bausch's work with Wuppertal, and so somewhat less compelling work follows -- the more narratively oriented, hetero-nostalgic Café Müller, with its ragtime, vernacular play with barroom chairs; and Kontakthof, an outdoor, multi-generational splice-piece whose democratic approach to bodies and their differential capacities becomes one fluid set of gestures under Wenders's gaze. But for the final setpiece, Vollmond, Pina locates both a dramatic and conceptual equal to Le sacre, as another element -- water -- takes center stage. The Bausch dancers thrash and thrust in and upon a nearly flooded black box floor, sending sprays of glinting water-light in every direction as their weight returns to the ground. Vollmond and Le sacre form something of a Heideggerian diptych, water and earth, placing Bausch's legacy in the German avant-garde squarely in line with the likes of Beuys and Kiefer.


So, why isn't Pina a better film? The problem, alas -- and it's genuinely hard to express this without sounding insensitive -- is that Wenders and the members of the Theater Wuppertal clearly made the documentary too soon after Bausch's death. Pina was originally intended to be a collaboration, and was halted when Bausch passed away. Wenders resumed the project at the behest of Bausch's company, and it's a good thing they did. Nevertheless, Pina is needlessly weighed down by unenlightening remembrances (almost every dancer in the company gets a talking-head segment), reflexive discussion about the difficulty of making Pina without Bausch, and a host of clips and / or second-hand reports of epigrammatic injunctions or words of wisdom from Bausch the Master, none of which tell us nearly as much about dance, or the world for that matter, as her choreography. A tighter, more ruthless film could've accommodated a fifth major work. And that would've been a far better tribute. "Dance, dance, or we are lost," Pina tells us. Well, yes: and the more dancing the Theater Wuppertal preserves for us, the more Pina Bausch remains.


Hotel Swooni (Kaat Beels, Belgium) [3]

Well, it’s 1-2-3-4 take the elevator at the Hotel Swooni, I’ll be glad to see you later. All we got inside is six characters from different walks of life, different ethnicities and rungs of the European socioeconomic ladder who, amazingly enough, find that their lives intersect in unexpected and edifying ways in this pat, well-meaning but hackneyed roundelay from first-time feature director Beels. (Unsurprisingly, she has mostly worked in television.) In case you’re curious, here’s the scheme: Anna (Sara De Roo) is bored with her predictable husband Henrik (Geert Van Rampelberg), so she’s having an affair with a slightly younger man. Meanwhile, hotel maid Vicki (Natali Broods) has to deal with her estranged mother (Viviane de Muynck) moving into the luxury suite so she can be closer to her daughter, for “unknown reasons.” (Hint: she smokes like a chimney and wears a wig.) Meanwhile, young refugee-from-unspecified-African-country Joyeux (Vigny Tchakouani) was separated from his father Amadou (Issaka Sawadogo) in transit, and he was told to go wait for him at the Hotel Swooni. Is Amadou dead or alive? Will Vicki become a surrogate mom? Will Henrik become less henpecked and confront Anna? Will Hotel Swooni turn out more Grand, or Century Hotel-ish? Say, whatever happened to David Weaver, anyway? Oh yeah. He’s working in television.


The Return (Nathaniel Dorsky) [m] [8]

This review is too long to re-post here. Please click to read it at MUBI. But here is an excerpt:


Apart from the general depth of tone, The Return finds Dorsky exploring specific relationships of light and darkness within the frame, as well as multiple planes of focus and layers of ambiguity. The opening two shots are characterized by extreme darkness, pierced and anchored by a bright light on the left side of the frame. (The second time it grows larger and more colorful.) This maneuver recurs a few more times in the film. Dorsky, then, introduces the aesthetic “problem” of celluloid blackness not only through internal contrast, but also by easing us “into” the film frame from the side (not unlike Straub / Huillet’s real world-film world edge play). The “lighter side” is the boundary of our world, and we are gradually nudged into The Return’s dark spaces.


This is not, however, to say that The Return is a comprehensively black-filled film. Dorsky continually introduces contrasts, both within and across shots. Inside individual shots, the play of light and dark tends to be exaggerated through a masterful manipulation of flatness and depth. Sometimes, as with the street scene window reflections, this movement is rather obvious, engaging our eye almost immediately. But at other times Dorsky’s subtlety practically combines the painterly push/pull of Cézanne with the time-based misdirection of Tati. In several shots Dorsky fills the screen with an all-over pattern of gray puddle or pond water with light and movement, including reflected treetops. Then the “painterly” field will separate and divide, showing us that somehow we are viewing a double reflection of the water, or an upward reflection of an optical “event” on the ground, resulting in a tripled or even quadrupled plane of activity. Recall that even with the attenuated sunlight (triangulated from god-knows-where), this is a dark gray field, and so Dorsky’s image is registering micro-shifts between gradations of medium gray, again exploring the new film’s potentials for differentiation between darks.


Generation P (Victor Ginzburg, Russia / U.S.) [4]

A sort of How to Succeed in Advertising for the Glasnost era, Ginzburg's Generation P is a would-be satire on the somewhat misapplied doctrines of market research and Madison Avenue hucksterism suddenly introduced into a nation unprepared for commercialized thinking. (The 'P' stands for Pepsi, one of the very first Western products to officially penetrate the Iron Curtain.) Based on a 1999 novel by Victor Pelevin, the film is clearly an independent, auteur effort but comfortably occupies a particular tendency in recent Russian cinema away from anything leaden or ponderous ("Tarkovskian" would be the watchword here) and headlong into zippy youth culture, with fast-paced editing, digital effects, and a laddish (but still Slavic-mordant) sense of humor. (I'll freely admit to finding it personally offputting.) Babylen (Vladimir Yepifantsev), a drifting, no-prospects intellectual and "poet" selling cigarettes on the side, meets an old chum who's like, "Hey, there's a new game in town called 'advertising.' Wanna write some ad copy?" Babylen joins up, continuing his LSD habit, and helps firms tailor their messages to the Russian market, mostly with large dollops of sexism, machismo and xenophobia. (Sample: a Harley-Davidson ad showing disgusted Russians watching Jews riding Hogs. "How long will we let the Sons of David take our Russian Harleys?") Eventually, the ad group teams up with / becomes part of / is hired by / is taken over by (sorry, I honestly couldn't tell) a governmental group who want to create a Perfect Angry Russian, called "Smirnov," who will run for office. (Shades of Meet Vladimir Doe.) I'm certain all of this worked better as a novel, if for no other reason than the unique historical circumstances that would allow for these machinations could be more fully articulated, instead of just lobbed around as in-jokes and hollow gestures. (To be fair, I'm sure it plays better to the locals.) But Ginzburg is also just all over the place, too besotted with his arch tone to ever really score meaningful satirical points beyond the most glaringly obvious. I'll bet he and Richard Kelly could really chew each other's ears off in an airport lounge.



Friday, 9/9:


Play (Ruben Östlund, Sweden / France / Denmark) [v] [W/O] (1:30) [but saw the rest later, so...] [4]

Play For Today: Festivals often display odd confluences of themes, ideas and anxieties that seem to be exerting pressure on the Zeitgeist. But one never knows just how far to push this without it sounding forced, or like the insular ravings of someone who is (let’s face it) taking in far too many movies while functionally detached from the outside world. But making generalizations that are supportable only upon the flimsy scaffolding on the Venice / Toronto fall festival season is virtually a professional obligation. So here goes. Even more so than usual, international directors – and European directors in particular – are in a deep funk about African immigration. Many of them are scared shitless. Some of them are, if I might purloin a phrase from Tropic Thunder, going full-retard, if not full-fascist. At least that’s what has been said by several reliable sources regarding Belgian installation artist Nicolas Provost’s The Invader, which I have not yet seen myself. I’ll have that pleasure in a few days. (Frankly I can’t wait. It’s been described as a Fatal Attraction-meets-Mandingo miscegenation "thriller.")


But Ruben Östlund’s Play certainly fits the bill as a meticulously constructed right-wing fantasy, even as it takes real events as its basis. Exurban Sweden, it appears, is being overrun by wild hordes of black kids, all too happy to intimidate, isolate, and outnumber their white European counterparts. Thing is, all those "native" Swedes, according to Play, are bringing this horrid situation on themselves. Generations of liberal democracy and political correctness have produced a polite, docile populace whose good manners make them complicit in their own oppression. Play centers on five black boys tormenting three white ones, and quite pointedly, every time there’s a chance to ask for help, the boys are too conditioned against racism to explain to a grown-up that they’re embroiled in a racial conflict, a reticence the African-Swedes exploit. Play is the perfect tonic for anyone who has ever decried a Haneke or von Trier film as reactionary claptrap. It’s the real deal. [Mostly reprinted from Cargo]


Goodbye First Love (Mia Hansen-Løve, France) [7]

The longer I've spent away from Goodbye First Love, the harder it has become to write about it. Hansen-Løve's film is so simple and direct in so many respects that this "problem," this near-total dissipation of the film from my memory, has been something very frustrating, something I could chalk up only to my failing brain-power, the encroaching symptoms of middle-age. (Naturally I'd love to give GFL a second look, but I don't have cable TV, and Apple / iTunes, in their wisdom, pretty much offers only IFC's English-language fare for sale through their VOD platform. Apple! So progressive! Anyway...) But going back and reading a synopsis to refresh my memory, I recall a great deal, of course, but I also start to understand that it isn't just the passage of time or my own poor recall that's at issue here. Having seen all three of Hansen-Løve's features now, I think that the question of recollection is more of a formal trait within the assembly of her images and the structuring of narrative time, a matter of compression and dispersal, if you will. The issue of whether films are designed to "stay with us" in terms of their cognitive patterning is a fairly common one when talking about avant-garde cinema, but not quite as common with respect to films that tell stories. At a screening recently, filmmaker Phil Solomon summed this up perfectly when talking about Nathaniel Dorsky's films. He called them "local," meaning that their anti-associational editing patterns and present-oriented play with light and shadow generated a kind of site-specific situation when screened, a phenomenon of nowness, that was difficult to retain. (This is very true.) But I contend that there are cinematic storytellers who manage to accomplish the same thing, through editing rhythms, diffuse narrational cues, and a hard-to-place oneiric vibe, an alpha-level connection between film and spectator wherein the broad movement of people and forms onscreen -- the "big sweep," if you will -- is foregrounded as much if not more than the accumulation of story information. The three filmmakers with whom I have tended to experience this personally, most often, are Robert Bresson, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and Philippe Garrel. I need to see their films multiple times, or I might as well have dreamed them.


GFL is, I've come to realize, quite a lot like these films, which has a lot to do with why I responded so strongly to it when I saw it back in September and also why so much of it seemed to slip away. And, although no one seems to actively dislike the film, those reviewers who have their reservations about it tend to remark on how "indistinct" and formless it can be. Hansen-Løve's earlier works, All Is Forgiven (about father-daughter relationships in a family of divorce) and The Father of My Children (a thinly-veiled version of the Humbert Balsan suicide story), were both open, poetic films, organized around youthful female subjectivity. Hansen-Løve tended to accomplish this on a narrative level, certainly, through a restrained but centralized seismic calibration around the emotional fluctuations of the girls in question. But it was material as well, as though her films captured Paris from a rapidly shifting mid-height viewpoint, space itself organized around girlhood. The films had firm centers (and central characters), and didn't lapse into wanton romanticism; the influence of mentor / partner Olivier Assayas was legible in these films, but Hansen-Løve, if anything, seemed more grounded, less given to flights of fancy. GFL, by contrast, locates tendencies toward expansiveness and emotional centrality within those films and detonates them, resulting in a work much more openly romantic, more steeped in the vicissitudes of longing as a formal principle, than anything Hansen-Løve has given us before. More than Assayas, GFL is in Garrel territory. But more than even that, it plays like a latter-day cinematic version of French Feminism's écriture féminine, not in the sense that it foregrounds absolute corporeality, in the manner of Irigaray or Kristeva (we have Catherine Breillat for that), but in that the film itself proceeds not by logic but by the drifts and pulsions of female desire. Camille (Lola Créton) is 15, she has a good solid family life, but all at once she knows nothing but that this incredible new boy, Sullivan (Sebastian Urzendowsky) is her consuming passion. We see her cope with attempted interdictions of the Law of the Father, the cruel arrogance of Sullivan himself, and, in time, Camille's adjustment of her passions to the Reality Principle. And, of course, Sullivan returns to disrupt Camille's independence. But this skeleton of a plot is filled out with an internal battle that, to Créton and Hansen-Løve's credit, is made visible, yet never nailed down through plot point or convenient indication. Goodbye First Love is a film that is a bit like entering a cloud. Aesthetically and theoretically, this is perfectly appropriate, since we're watching a set of frayed nerves and conflicting impulses gradually take shape as a woman.


Miss Bala (Gerardo Naranjo, Mexico) [4]

Articulating my objections to Miss Bala would be the correct, "criticly" thing to do, but it's hard not to feel as if I've missed the boat in terms of relevance. I mean, there were three different takes on the film in The House Next Door alone. (Pro, mixed, and con.) But arguing about Naranjo's film to its devotees, I've found, is an utter waste of time. You will never convince Miss Bala's champions that it is anything less than a demonstration of unbridled cinematic mastery. The only real distinction one finds among its biggest boosters involves the political issues grazed by the text -- the Mexican drug war, representations of women and gender, the role of civil society under a corrupt government. Some, like Mike D'Angelo, have claimed for instance that Naranjo's ostensible commentary about the ravaging of Mexican society by the Narcos is mostly a cover for his true topic: the oppression of women and their relegation to objects and appearances, pawns and chattle. This is a fairly convincing reading, inasmuch as it justifies Naranjo's treatment of his protagonist, Laura (Stephanie Sigman) as a passive victim (practically a parcel in a bikini, handed off repeatedly among thugs and cops). On the other hand, there's a formalist contingent so impressed with Naranjo's organization of space, his movement of Laura through a landscape of shootouts and imposing hallways and one-on-one subterfuge and high-wire paranoia, that they simply aren't interested in Miss Bala's social or political aims, much less its potential missteps. (Alejandro Adams, if I recall correctly, likened Naranjo's meticulous long takes to Antonioni, although I can't recall the Italian master subjecting Monica Vitti to a backseat rape in the middle of the desert. Naranjo does, however, employ the slow, backwards-tracking shot a la The Passenger.) So this film has been debated to death. My stance has been a modified 'con' position, since I do think Naranjo makes some tactical errors in terms of his political aims. (I am assuming good faith; I think he has genuine concern for the topics Miss Bala broaches.) Treating Laura as a chit shuffled among competing, violent interests produces some cognitive dissonance that I don't think Naranjo can fully manage. In many respects, she is fairly emblematic of the average Mexican citizen struggling to navigate daily existence in a political structure thrown off balance by the shift from the old PRI and Fox to Calderón / PAN. The cartels' implicit ownership of the country has burst forth into outright display of civil war, with every common Mexican caught in the crossfire between the Narcos and the Federales. So Laura's abduction and sudden "ownership" by drug lord Lino (Noe Hernandez) is only somewhat tied to gender. But then, of course, Lino is attracted to the young woman, and her desire to become Miss Baja California seems to Lino like a good investment as well as a lark. By the time it's all over, Lino has forced Laura into serving as a highly placed mole and would-be assassin, her beauty being her asset, her "weapon," and her chief vulnerability. Miss Bala, then, marks Laura as both uniquely female (and young), and deeply typical (in the Brechtian sense) of a socio-political formation. Problem is, Naranjo doesn't protect his protagonist from wanton sexism when it suits his film for cheap thrills, nor does he place her in Everyman situations when the scoring of broader points is necessary. Miss Bala cannot control of take responsibility for its multi-leveled allegories, and as a result ends up making a fetish out of Laura (and Sigman) when a much more careful approach was what was called for. But hey, cool tracking shots, and a lot of shit goes boom boom boom.


Porfirio (Alejando Landes, Colombia / Spain / Uruguay / Argentina / France) [6]

Should we read up on films before seeing them, or try to go in without preconceptions? This question is directly applicable to Landes’ film but could well be generalized as a broader one regarding appropriate spectatorship. An accomplished and engaging film in every way, Porfirio nevertheless induces a degree of déjà vu from a strictly cinematic standpoint. A sunbaked observational piece about a paraplegic (Porfirio Ramirez Aldana) living a modest life with his layabout son (Lissin Ramirez) and girlfriend (Jasbleidy Santos Torre) selling phone minutes to area residents, Porfirio minutely chronicles his daily struggles: maneuvering in and out of his wheelchair, getting open-air baths, grabbing hard-to-reach objects. He’s also struggling to get a hearing from the Colombian government, since he is clearly owed a settlement and getting the bureaucratic runaround. (An innocent bystander caught in the drug-war crossfire, Porfirio was accidentally shot in the spine by a policeman during a shootout.) But Landes also shows us more graphic scenarios. We see Porfirio taking a shit, having graphic sex, and being shirtless and sweaty pretty much all the time, like a cross between Cheech Marin and a Butterball turkey, all in hard, unforgiving medium shots. Suffice to say, there is a spectre haunting Porfirio, and it’s Carlos Reygadas. Having said this, a final-buzzer revelation arrives which undoubtedly recodes all that comes before it, and, if known ahead of time, would produce a radically different viewing experience. [SPOILERS AHOY.] Porfirio is a true story, re-enacted by the actual participants. In fact, Ramirez’s attempted skyjacking has made him a modern Colombian folk hero, a people’s outlaw in a nation overrun by, well, outlaws with causes far less just. Landes (Cocalero) does not obviate all stylistic concerns with this quasi-docudrama approach, but he certainly complicates matters, and compellingly so. [Reprinted from Cinema Scope]


Low Life (Nicolas Klotz and Elizabeth Perceval, France) [7]

Squatters’ Rights: When faced with a film that refutes our understanding of how cinema works, how narratives gel or scenes are articulated with other scenes, we either fight it or ride it out. Like Faust, Nicolas Klotz and Elizabeth Perceval’s Low Life is a tough sit -- critic/ friend Vadim Rizov, an admirer of the film, called it "undistributable" -- but one I ultimately found much more rewarding. It’s a film that writhes in its own form of timeless decadence, seemingly recreating the fin de siècle of La Bohème until at last several characters open up cellphones and the present-day setting is confirmed. On its most basic level a film about squatters in Lyon, Low Life is also a philosophical film about the urgency and dangers of youth and insularity, both chosen and enforced. The situation of squatting brings together, in essence, two “types” of people, although (as an early scene makes explicit) to make such a statement – what are types of people? What is an artist? What is a war? Etc. – is already to pose a specific view of the world. We have bourgeois dropouts, like the passionate Carmen (Camille Rutherford) and the foppish Charles (Luc Chessel); and members of the illegal immigrant communities, including Afghan refugee Hussain (Arash Naiman), who meets Carmen following a clash with police during a raid on one such immigrant enclave. Low Life opens with Sophie (Mathilde Bisson-Fabre) racing through the streets at night declaiming theatrical lines about blood and suicide – a rather Rivettian introduction to a film whose dominant spirits will, in fact, be the post-Nouvelle Vague poetic decadents, especially Garrel and Carax. However, Klotz’s direction, with deep, saturated night shots and painterly illumination, frequently recalls Pedro Costa, and with good reason. Low Life is largely an “incoherent” film about social incoherency, how overly articulated ideals of love and the state become circular babble when forbidden participation in the larger conversation of so-called legitimacy. When someone in the film is served papers of deportation, they refer to it as their "death certificate." But even more jarring, the denizens of the "low life" burn the papers in a voodoo ritual, to try to "ressurect" the dead man. Klotz and Perceval play these acts, as with most other acts in the film, at a high dramatic pitch, but there is no implication of exaggeration or empty adolescent melodrama. The members of this enclave of lovers are indeed risking everything in order just to be, trapped as they are within a world-system that has the power to confer, withhold or strip away Being. If you are declared “illegal,” the penalty is incoherence. It is to be locked away as unintelligible. [Mostly reprinted from Cargo]



Saturday, 9/10:


The Silver Cliff (Karim Aïnouz, Brazil) [7]

A lovely, somewhat modest film that ends up accomplishing quite a bit more than it might seem at first. In description alone, The Silver Cliff is slender at best. After some rather sweaty late-morning sex, early-middle-aged married couple Violeta (Alessanda Negrini) and Djalma (Otto Jr.) part ways. He's going away on a business trip, allegedly, and she's heading off to work. (Like a certain "headless woman," Violeta is a dentist.) She unthinkingly listens to her messages and receives a whopper from Djalma. [SPOILER AHOY!] He's been thinking about it for a long time, and is going away and never coming back, toodles! Violeta plans to get a plane ticket and go after him, but there are no planes from Rio to Porto Alegre until morning, so she's sort of stuck, trying to keep it together until then, knowing full well that the world in which she has had every confidence has just shattered. Aïnouz and screenwriter Beatriz Bracher have set up a premise, of course, and one that seems rather hoary on the face of it. (The universe swirls around you like normal, while you are in a silent free-fall. "Don't they know it's the end of the world," etc.) But the reason why The Silver Cliff works so well is because this massive disruption in Violeta's life becomes a sort of experimentalist's instigator, permitting Aïnouz to explore his truer interests -- urban textures, the way HD collides with neon at night, the crunching sonic contrast of silent streets and throbbing nightclubs . . . Negrini, for her part, moves through Rio At Night like a receiver, meeting strangers, hurting herself, absorbing an ordinary beach as if she were an alien anthropologist. Oscar Moralde is correct when he describes Violeta's behavior as a "fugue state." But the reason this works so well for The Silver Cliff is because her shell-shock is both relatable and banal enough to demand no real engagement. We get it, and we care for Violeta as a protagonist -- we want her protected from the night -- but we are able to shelve her ostensible tragic throughline so that we can absorb her as a formal function, a point of view. Here's another way to think about it. In other of his films, like Madame Satã and Suely in the Sky, Aïnouz asked us to identify with social outcasts and margin-dwellers. (In I Travel Because I Have To . . ., the point of view was the camera itself.) But with The Silver Cliff, the director aligns us with what is our presumed spectatorial class position, and then moves us through spaces and events that marginalize both our own subject position and, to a large extent, narrativity itself.


Faust (Alexander Sokurov, Russia) [5]

Sokur-Punch: How can an art film be idiosyncratic to the point of impenetrability, and at the same time seem utterly without a human perspective, a kind of pseudo-classicist slog that issues from some dusty corner of an antiquarian bookshop? We can begin with this year’s freshly-minted, rather unexpected winner from Venice, Alexander Sokurov’sFaust, yet another in an increasing line of Cannes rejects that have gone on to become Golden Lion awardees. In some respects Sokurov’s straightest, most linear effort, its touches of the fantastic and the grotesque are almost all directly occasioned by Goethe’s text. Nevertheless, there is a urine-colored ugliness saturating the very texture of the celluloid – call it Piss Faust – that speaks quite directly to the film’s base, bodily orientation. (Sokurov opens his film with Dr. Faust [Johannes Zeiler] ripping entrails out of a cadaver.) There’s a weird buddy-film vibe between Faust and Satan (Anton Adasinskiy), whose hypnotic hoodoo is frequently accompanied by Sokurov’s trademark anamorphic warping. Nevertheless, there’s a grueling, attenuated pre-modernity right down to the marrow of Faust, as though narrativity itself were being etched in acid before you rather than simply performed and recorded. Since seeing Faust and adamantly disliking it, it is growing in my memory, but this could well be because its glorious moments stick with me in ways its agonizing ones do not. I cannot dismiss Sokurov’s film by any means, but it absolutely feels like a damnation of the eyes and ears. And, a few final sidenotes that should -- no, must -- be considered utterly beside the point: my awkward, sullied feeling, the having come away from Faust as if having undergone an only half-digested cinematic ordeal, has been corroborated far and wide, in particular by critics who typically count themselves among the auteur's fans. There is something "different" about this film, and it both turns our memories of it into disspating pea-green nightmare shards from the previous evening, and it prompts Darren Aronofsky (!!) to whisper, "masterpiece." [Mostly reprinted from Cargo]


House of Tolerance [L'apollonide (Souvenirs de la maison close)] (Bertrand Bonello, France) [8]

Hey, Big Splendor: L'Apollonide, Bertrand Bonello's patient, heartbreaking representation of the final days of a Parisian brothel at the twilight of the 19th century, has proven quite divisive since its debut at Cannes this past May, although I’m hard-pressed to understand why. There are plenty of films currently on the scene that exploit the female form, even purporting to care about the plight of women, while essentially using them as agency-free punching bags. (Miss Bala, anyone?) True, the sort of decadence Bonello marshals with such absolute conviction here – the flesh, yes, but also the mahogany interiors, the gold inlays, the amber light caressing every crease in a cotton slip before it falls to the floor – has been largely verboten onscreen outside of Asian cinema for decades. (Bonello has repeatedly cited Hou Hsiao-hsien’s masterpiece Flowers of Shanghai as his chief inspiration, and he nearly equals that film in formal control and romantic anguish.) During the course of time spent within the brothel L'Apollonide, we, like the patrons who visit the ladies, but also like “La Petite,” the new girl, get to know each of them quite personally. They are not an anonymous gaggle. Bonello insures that our identification remains with the women always, even as they are forced to make choices within the narrowest pathways of social freedom. Although L'Apollonide is not a Marxist film per se, the women’s indentured servitude to the madam (Noémie Lvovsky) is never forgotten. And though it is not a feminist film per se, their sexual fantasies and their desires for normal lives are respected, even as they represent a degree of delusion. They never compete, they never backbite, and they remain sisters until the very end. In our century, with far greater freedom, they might have become the real live ladies of Mattieu Amalric’sOn Tour.


In coexisting with the women in the "house of tolerance," what we learn is that, until the film and the house are nearing their end, L'Apollonide is a sisterhood. The women are mutually supportive, and show genuine affection for one another. Even though the accessories of their trade put them in debt to the madam, they still share. They swap stories about strange or irksome clients. They discuss their hopes and aspirations. And yes, they brush each other's hair and scrub each other's backs. In Bonello's construction of the brothel as a community rather than simply a space of oppression, the depiction of Madeleine (Alice Barnole) is probably the single most crucial element. Madeleine's complicated life in L'Apollonide instigates the film's most complex formal interventions; she is at the center of several flashbacks and a looping time structure that entails the opening 10 or so minutes of the film repeating in the middle, dispersed across other scenes. At first, Madeleine is called The Jewess. She has an encounter with a trusted regular client (Laurent Lacotte) in which she describes a joyful dream of being so (ful)filled with semen that she secretes it through her tear ducts. The man ties her up, with permission, and begins teasing her with a straight razor. Eventually he mutilates her face, slashing her mouth open at both sides. Bonello selects Madeleine's predicament as a kind of linchpin for the collapse of the cloistered commerce that the 19th-century house of tolerance represents. Throughout the film, we learn that the madam, Marie-France, never throws her out. She stays on, keeping house, doing laundry, cooking and cleaning. While this is no ideal life, it is clear that only an economic system that retains some degree of gentility and honor, rather than the coming Gilded Age, would find an employer taking responsibility for Madeleine's well-being, having been injured due to "company" negligence. But more importantly, Madeleine, as far as the other women in the house are concerned, is family. While she jokes about being a "freak," the others will not brook such talk. By contrast, as the house enters financial straits and the laws begin to change, Madeleine is forced to take work outside the house, to try to help Marie-France and the others. An odd client (director Xavier Beauvois) spies her at L'Apollonide and recruits her, dubbing her The Woman Who Laughs. She is hired for a sexual tableau, alongside a little person; she is ogled by aristocrats, who describe her as a "giant doll" or a "puppet," and strip her down for sport.


However materialist and Foucauldian he may be, Bonello is still enough of a humanist to provide Madeleine with true redemption. The last night of the brothel, a Bastille Day masked ball, permits her a measure of sexual ecstasy, complete with tears of milky white cum. (For their part, her friends take delicious revenge on the man who attacked her.) But overall, Madeleine's fortunes outside the house are a small taste of what the 20th century has to offer these women. Sex work, under the tolerance system, was labor, with all its attendant dangers and exploitations. These women were not free. The system's collapse was not a cause, or an effect, but one node in an overall shift to a modernity characterized by greater repressiveness, shifting modes of social surveillance and control, and (in Linda Williams's terms) an "implantation of perversions." The clientele becomes more furtive and increasingly violent; the slashing of Madeleine's face is a harbinger of male attitudes to come. As L'Apollonide's precautions break down, Julie (Jasmine Trinca) contracts syphilis and slowly dies. (Her wake, at which her sister-workers dance to the anachronistically placed "Nights in White Satin" by The Moody Blues, is probably the film's defining scene, a send-off for an entire way of life.) In L'Apollonide's controversial final shot, Bonello jump-cuts to the present day, and ugly consumer-grade video. We see streetwalkers near an overpass, one hopping out of a Renault hatchback. There are three or four of them out on the street. They don't even look at each other. [Partly adapted from Cargo; mostly reprinted from my Moving Image Source essay on Bertrand Bonello]


Twenty Cigarettes (James Benning) [v] [7]

Smoke ‘Em If You Got ‘Em: On the one hand, it would appear that formalist rigor is the exact opposite of luxuriant decadence, since rigor usually connotes a kind of parsimony and rectitude, a good behavior and a “waste not, want not” mentality in keeping with the enforced frugality of a global economic meltdown. (And why shouldn’t economic attitudes find their way into aesthetic expression? They almost always do.) But on the other hand (sorry, couldn’t find a one-handed economist….), some will always claim that formalist experimentation of any sort entails a degree of libidinal expenditure (as opposed to proper harnessing of the pleasure principle), and certain kinds of long-take formalism (the post-Warhol school) is as profligate as it comes – the shooting-ratio equivalent of spilling your seed. In light of this, Twenty Cigarettes, the latest feature by James Benning, could hardly be more oriented toward waste, even though it makes extremely careful use of your time. Benning’s titles are “Snakes on a Plane” direct, and this one consists, as you’d expect, of 20 shots of individuals smoking a single cigarette. The shot lasts however long it takes the given participant to mow down that cancer stick. As Benning explained (although the piece makes it fairly obvious), the ciggie is but an excuse for sustained time-based portraiture; each shot is a close-up, and the action, much more so than the smoking, is the subject forgetting his or her self-consciousness and existing as a face. Some are more engaging than others. The next to the last participant, an older, upper-class woman in her well-appointed home, is exquisitely framed against gallery-white walls. Filmmaker Thom Andersen, one of the slowest smokers, relaxes almost to the point of repose. But comparison is pretty much the point. Well, that, and watching Benning’s film induce nic fits in certain members of the audience.


Bouquets 11-20 (Rose Lowder, France) [s] [7]

This is another work for which I composed a longer essay at MUBI. Here is an excerpt dealing specifically with Bouquets 11-20:


While the earliest works in the series tended to zero in much more intently on flowers and plant life, with other elements (such as barns or pastures) serving as the contrapuntal backdrops, Bouquets 11-20, completed between 2005 and 2009, were filmed at places Lowder terms “ecological sites” throughout France, Italy and Switzerland. (The list of filmed sites is available here.) As is evident from the films themselves, Lowder is providing much more space within this set of Bouquets to the material between the flowers, and much of it is surprising. We take actual pauses to see cows, goats, and farm cats moving through the farmscapes and gardens, claiming them as their own even as Lowder’s trademark frame-by-frame (re)animation allows the plants and flowers to “reclaim” the earth for themselves.


This, in a sense, could speak to a dialectical view of ecology and the Green movement’s insistence that human engagement with nature be a role of stewardship rather than dominion. When one looks at the earlier Lowder films, there is an energy almost verging on anger, as though “pretty” flowers were demanding their say in an image-world that had relegated them to the status of brute matter. (Capitalism only considers the natural inasmuch as it functions as a “resource”—what Heidegger called “standing reserve.” But even Marx wrote of the natural world as inert matter, waiting to be transformed by human labor.) Now, in 11-20, there is a commensurate adequacy of the camera gaze to multiple perspectives on the environment, the nervous vibration coexisting with a placid, even loving look of protection.



Sunday, 9/11


Almayer's Folly (Chantal Akerman, France / Belgium) [8]

Swamp Things: Almayer’s Folly, the long-awaited return to fiction filmmaking by Chantal Akerman, is a film whose mastery and cumulative power equals that of Kaurismäki’s, which is not something to take lightly in what, on the whole, has proven to be a weak year for TIFF. However, Akerman’s film exhibits a considerably more pessimistic view regarding the possibilities of overcoming the legacies of European colonialism and, perhaps just as significantly, rewriting the laws of kinship. From Sophocles through Freud and Lévi-Strauss, family and blood ties have been understood as the foundation of the social contract, but in recent years some philosophers, Judith Butler in particular, have tried to reconceive kinship from alternate premises. Following Alain Badiou, we could see the expanded family as being one of workers’ solidarity, the sort on display in Le Havre. But there is something deeper, more primal and psychoanalytic churning at the center of Almayer’s Folly – not surprising, given that it is an adaptation of a Joseph Conrad text. And for Conrad, of course, racial and national identity is a constitutive wound, a variant of the Lacanian “Real.”


In the stunning opening scene, we see Nina (Aurora Marion), the mixed-race woman of Dutch and Southeast Asian descent (Akerman filmed in Cambodia, but the locale is never specified), on stage performing a poppy song and dance number with several other girls. Her role is unclear, except that she is somehow working for or with her boyfriend, political rebel Daïn (Zac Andrianasolo). An assailant lumbers up on stage and stabs Daïn to death, sending the other dancers into a panic. But Nina, almost hypnotized, stares straight ahead and sings on, defiantly. This is her moment to claim subjecthood for herself, and against both Daïn and her father, the domineering Almayer (Stanislas Merhar). Almayer, a Dutch trader who married a “native” (Sakhna Oum) who he holds in contempt, tries in vain to rear Nina as a Westerner, as “civilized,” even though his hatred of their tropical outpost borders on mania and virtually insures a boomerang-effect. Through languor, halted movement, drunken paralysis, and the sheer physical effort of wading through the dense jungle foliage or negotiating the steep banks of the river, the characters in Almayer’s Folly are stranded in a sort of colonist’s nightmare projection of “the dangerous Orient,” the Dutch East India Company as Samuel Beckett bug-box. Akerman shows the stresses within the family unit as always having been those present among unequal political powers, and gradually allows those power relations to inscribe themselves across raced and gendered bodies. Almayer’s Folly, which inexplicably received a mixed reaction at TIFF, is without a doubt one of the best films of 2011. [Mostly reprinted from Cargo]


Fable of the Fish (Adolfo Borinaga Alix, Jr., The Philippines) [v] [4]

I try my best to take the pulse of contemporary Filipino cinema when I can, since it’s clearly one of a number of national industries that has been flourishing of late. (What’s more, we all know that film festivals are notoriously fickle when it comes to their designated hot spots. This year, there was not a single Romanian film in TIFF. Yesterday’s news!) I’d have loved to devote a whole screening day to Lav Diaz’s Century of Birthing, but I say that every year about Diaz’s films, and I never do. One day I will lock myself in a hotel room and stage my own private Lav-a-Thon. Apart from Raya Martin’s wonderful one-minute short Ars Colonia, showing in the Wavelengths section, I explored Filipino film by seeing Adolfo Alix, Jr.’s Fable of the Fish, which was an ill-advised choice. A shoddy exercise in digital widescreen, it was in fact about middle-class couple Miguel and Lina (Bembol Roco, Cherry Pie Pichache) forced to move next to a dumpsite in Catmon where, for reasons unknown but no doubt allegorical, the heretofore-barren Lina gives birth to a large fish. Much uninspired magic realism ensues, with the main questions being whether skeptic (and audience stand-in) Miguel will ever accept his, um, spawn. All in all, I think most of us would have rather been watching Martin’s curiously AWOL new feature, Buenos Noches, España. / In retrospect (and without the semi-dubious, semi-legitimate aim of considering Alix's film primarily in relationship to the broader scene in the Philippines), it's pretty clear that Fable is an example of what we might call the broader or more commercial side of local independent filmmaking, with a tone and pacing pitched somewhere between telenovela and Nollywood. Granted, Alix lacks the moralism of the latter, but he doesn't quite tap into the hot-cha sexiness of the former. As for the fish-birth, is it purely allegorical? Did Lina experience a hysterical pregnancy, the underwater "birth" of which corresponded to a catfish slithering between her legs? (A maternal version of the Freudian fetish?) If Fable had a more compelling surface, perhaps we'd be more inclined to dig. Plus, when Apichatpong Weerasethakul, one of the five or so greatest filmmakers on the planet, has already done the big fish / ladyparts motif, you'd best tread lightly down there. [Mostly reprinted from Cargo]


/The Return (Nathaniel Dorsky) [m] [8]

No additional notes, really, except that my MUBI essay owes just about everything to the wonderful Kate MacKay, who generously took her time in the midst of festival insanity to arrange a "press screening" of sorts. The ability to see The Return twice during the manic blur of TIFF was the only thing that allowed me to ground my fleeting perceptions in semi-coherent prose. Thanks, Kate.


Aberration of Light: Dark Chamber Disclosure (Luis Recoder / Sandra Gibson / Olivia Block) [s]

Although I have seen individual films by both Recoder and Gibson, this was my first experience with the duo (plus Block) as paracinematic / multimedia performance artists. I continually found myself looking back to the booth, trying to observe their process to see how they did what they did, how the shapes and forms were coming into being. (I couldn't really see, although I know a wheel of colored gels was involved.) The piece worked with both linear forms and organic shapes that tended to "lift off" the screen, as though liquids were being introduced on an overhead projector. They also had loops (or passages at least) or representational film, with a figure who expanded and contracted in a beige haze. It was rather like a ghostly visitation. Although the threesome achieved many novel effects, I had a hard time discerning any overall shape to the performance. Processes and motives seemed to come and go with a semi-randomness, and while the hour-long length of the performance served to create a fully immersive environment, it also felt drifty and expansive, "oceanic" and not necessarily in a good way. I often felt lost, and my attempts to locate compositional logics across the piece just felt thwarted. However, this might just be the result of my thick skull, and not the centrifugal light system the artists had so meticulously crafted.



Monday, 9/12:


Shame (Steve McQueen) [4]

Even since spending half of my TIFF screening of Shame wincing at the misbegotten thing, the other half laughing out loud at its (literally) cockeyed self-importance, I've been at a loss for how to write about the film, or whether it was even worth it to do so. Not only is McQueen a visual artist whose work I greatly admire; his first feature film, 2008's Hunger, remains one of my very favorites of the decade so far. So despite the fact that Shame is an almost unwatchable travesty, I've been in no real hurry to join the lynch mob, nor to I particularly want to watch the thing kick and dangle. I will say that the overwhelming sense that has remained with me, since that screening six months ago and every time I watch a clip, is one of an utterly baffling lapse in taste. How could an artist like McQueen honestly think, for example, that Sissy (Carey Mulligan), the drugged-out, wayward dishrag sister of Shame's protagonist, would melt the coldest of hearts -- both diegetically and within the film's audience -- with her slo-mo sprechstimme version of "New York, New York"? Leaving aside the fact that no "jazz club" in the largest city in the U.S. would hire such a rank, tuneless amateur, do McQueen and screenwriter Abi Morgan (who also wrote The Iron Lady) truly believe that the old Sinatra chestnut retains any emotional valence for anyone, regardless of delivery? The entire grueling, grinding scene, with its Falconetti-at-the-mic framing and frequent cross-cut to Sissy's emotionally remote brother Brandon (Michael Fassbender) wiping away tears, is designed to be Shame's "big scene," the cathartic tell. Anecdotally, I can report that it worked for some people. But it strikes me as a scene that is much more revealing of its makers' complete lack of organic connection to their characters or their material. Somewhere, on a Post-It note, you could probably find the script comment, "take standard / subvert thru irony."


Shame is a film about sex addiction, and in this regard it shares with Hunger (which was about an IRA prisoner's hunger strike) a primary concern with the body. This is something that actually carries through much of McQueen's artwork. But what went wrong? I was thinking about this, actually, a few weeks ago while teaching a college class. We read Jonathan Crary's book Suspensions of Perception (2001), and in the first chapter there is a brief but potent passage in which the author refutes the existence of Attention Deficit Disorder. This proved controversial; several of my adult students identified as having ADD. But what I realized is, Shame is a film about an addiction or a disorder that is similarly open to debate. There are certain accepted patterns for the representation of alcoholism, drug addiction, or even compulsive gambling. But when we see Brandon take to the cruel, cruel city, all Fassbender can do to display "the illness" early on is to evince a chilly, lacquered ("metrosexual") exterior (his red scarf a virtual dividing line between body and head), fucking in alleyways, making women wet on the L train, and so on. Somehow, Brandon could walk down your street and girls cannot resist the stare, and McQueen's "job" is to make every guy's (temporary) fantasy look like what? A living hell?


And so, with Sissy as the outside irritant, Brandon's relationship with porn becomes red flagged as moral turpitude. He has to be both a well-paid professional but a complete dumbass, incapable of activating "private browsing" on his work computer (or keeping it in his pants until he gets home -- oops, I guess that's the "addiction" part). But mostly, Shame accepts Brandon's inability to connect with others (particularly a co-worker he tries to date, played by Nicole Beharie) as a pathology that is, somehow, going to rankle the young urban professional who has up to now successfully built his life around it. Why does Brandon suddenly feel "shame"? What flips a mainstream-morality switch inside him? Sissy's distress and suicide attempt? By the time Brandon is cracking up, trolling for sex, sex, anywhere, SEX, the musical score is throbbing, his scarf is mussed, and he's reduced (this is key -- the film makes this clear) to accepting random blowjobs from men. So what is this world that Brandon and Sissy inhabit, in which hackneyed music cues tell you when you've done wrong, and soulless orgasms make you cry like you're witnessing your own funeral? (Is the vagina a grave, Brandon?) It seems to be a world that relies on several key stipulations. If we agree that there is "sex addiction," then the sex addict, like any other slave to dependency, can and must hit rock bottom. What's more, this "disorder," in order to achieve the status of tragedy (and believe me, Shame plays Brandon's plight as high tragedy, to the point of cum-covered farce), must apparently be a crisis in patriarchal prerogative. Brandon abuses his phallic power; women can do nothing but comply. He must be saved, brought back into the fold of male decency (starting with taking care of Sissy). After all, who cares about the female sex addict? She is a commodity, and there is always, always a place for her in the system of exchange.


ADDENDUM: In response to a query from a trusted reader, Erin P., I wanted to make a crucial clarification. By placing the term <sex addiction> in quotation marks above, I did not mean to imply that the addiction does not exist. I am not an addiction specialist; this is not a judgment that is in any way mine to make. What I hoped to argue with regard to McQueen's Shame is this. The film is constructed as though it either does not itself fully believe in sex addiction, or needs to work overtime to convince its viewership that sex addiction exists, or is a problem. Why else take us from Brandon's preternatual Lothario power -- an ubermale fantasy -- to homosexuality-as-degradation (highly problematic) and the menage-a-trois as overacted Death of the Soul? It is as if Shame were running up against a crisis of representation, trying to show something that could not be seen. So Fassbender pulls faces and the orchestra swells, to make sure we get the point. But the larger point is this. As with my comparison to ADD, we find ourselves in a cultural and medical moment wherein conditions and syndromes proliferate which become discursive, in the sense that (unlike alcoholism, or cellular disorders) their very existence can be subject to debate. Then we find ourselves in a highly curious position. A film, such as Shame, and its very subject, sex addiction, become entangled as competing narratives. Both the referent (the bodily crisis, the addiction) and its filmic representation both demand, on the part of a wide segment of the viewing public, a suspension of disbelief. Shame radically fails to account for this complex narrative interlacing. So it falls back on an older story: the restoration of appropriate (control-oriented) masculinity.


The Cardboard Village (Ermanno Olmi, Italy) [7]

Despite the presence of so many European films this year which evinced such stark panic regarding the new African and Middle Eastern diaspora, shifting demographics and the changing face of the workforce (call it Griffin-LePen Syndrome), TIFF did screen a film from Venice (where it was Out of Competition, naturally) that exhibited a stark humanist response to so-called illegal immigration, and a Christian one at that. Leave it to an old master to strip a complex question down to its basics, leave aside all the anxiety and handwringing, and discover compassion as a basic reflex, a core value of a Europe few seem to recall. Ermanno Olmi’sCardboard Village stars Michael Lonsdale (fresh from his turn in Xavier Beauvois’s Of Gods and Men, another great film about Christendom at its most Christly) as an elderly Italian priest in the final days before his retirement, watching as his church is deconsecrated, the pews pushed into a corner by a forklift, Christ deposed from the cross by a crane. In the night, the priest takes to the pulpit and addresses the absent congregation. "Where have you all gone?" he asks? Unbeknownst to him, the town’s North African immigrants, hunted by the carabinieri, take up in the back storeroom. Eventually they build a tent city in the empty nave. The younger priest (Rutger Hauer) tries to convince the old man that it is too dangerous to harbor the refugees. "When charity is a risk," he says, "is precisely when it is necessary to offer charity." Olmi stages arguments among the immigrants as well, with some advocating violent revolt, others peaceful resistance. It’s clear, however, that the empty church of Londale’s clergyman is Western humanism itself, a faith that men like Olmi have seen replaced by nihilism and xenophobia. Since its premiere in September of last year, The Cardboard Village has languished without distribution. It should be seen; it is not only the plainspoken cinematic testament of one of Italy's enduring greats, but an all-too-rare work of art that addresses contemporary crises with a hard-won, life-affirming faith. [Mostly reprinted from Cargo]


Dark Horse (Todd Solondz) [6]

Depending on your general outlook about le cinema Solondz, the fact that many of the misanthropic auteur’s usual champions (including the New York Film Festival) have had little use for his latest could be taken as either a warning sign or a boon. On the level of pure technique, Dark Horse is indeed Solondz’s cruddiest-looking film ever, his customary matte lighting and offhandedly Constructivist suburban non-spaces replaced by a blobby digital ugliness that, sadly, doesn’t allude to or comment on The Ugly. (“It’s not Cinema. It’s HBO.”) What’s more, the plangent hall-of-mirrors formalism that made Solodz’s previous film Life During Wartime something of a breakthrough is barely in evidence here. We just see supporting characters popping up here and there, as memories or ghosts. All the same, Dark Horse could be Solondz’s best picture in years. The story of Abe (Jordan Gelber), an aggressive, abrasive nobody who blames everyone but himself when he inevitably fails to deliver the goods, this film is in many ways the obverse of so many other Solondz joints, wherein misfits and lonelyhearts are beaten down for sheer sport. Abe is given more opportunities than he has coming to him, and he pisses them all away, bitter that the world isn’t rolling out the red carpet for his sorry ass. Although Solondz can’t resist one left-field sucker punch (a disease-related spoiler), Dark Horse is primarily about the perils of self-destructive behaviour, combined with misplaced “positive thinking.” [Reprinted from Cinema Scope]


A Funny Man [Dirch] (Martin P. Zandvliet, Denmark) [5]

The diverting but shallow Dirch, helpfully retitled A Funny Man for non-Danish audiences, is a fairly straightforward biopic chronicling the key career years of pivotal Euro comedian Dirch Passer. The film is fairly nondescript apart from serving as a solid star vehicle for veteran character actor Nicolaj Lie Kaas. He captures Passer (whose work, admittedly, I did not know beforehand) as fully as Jim Carrey embodied Andy Kaufman in The Man in the Moon, and in point of fact it’s exactly the same kind of movie – a series of meticulously recreated YouTube clips and infamous highlights, with standard creative-struggle narrative cartilage. In particular, the film details Passer's love-hate struggles with his depressive, alcoholic comedy partner, straightman Kjeld Petersen (Lars Ranthe). Due to Passer's lack of profile outside of Europe, Dirch is virtually unreleaseable in North America and probably in much of Europe, so I'm quite glad to have seen it. (Not to mention that his brand of physical humor is too often mistaken for actual infantilism by TV-and-movie weaned unsophisticates. Take a look at this "notice" from the always-wrong-about-everything David Nusair.) But Zandvliet (whose most recent film, Applause, was a star vehicle for Paprika Steen) is a self-effacing director of the highest order, adding very little to the biopic roadmap. For the real deal -- the best of the Dirch Passer classic bits recreated in the film, just look here, and here. Subtitles would help only just so much. [Mostly reprinted from Cargo]



Tuesday, 9/13:


The Loneliest Planet (Julia Loktev, U.S. / Germany) [7]

Not as rigorous as Loktev's previous effort Day Night Day Night, but neither is it intended to be. In many ways The Loneliest Planet arrives at some of the same intellectual conclusions by an almost opposite route, which in itself is a very impressive move, and shows that Loktev is a shrewd, capable artist whose exciting career is just beginning. (And I echo Mike D'Angelo's frustration -- she should've been included in the Cinema Scope "Best 50 Under 50." But I digress.) Where the previous film is, at its root, about a disturbed individual's desire to narrow the big (bad?) world down to a tiny ideological blot, The Loneliest Planet is a story about the outward-bound, expansive desire to connect. At its core is a couple, Nica (Hani Furstenberg, outstanding) and Alex (Gael García Bernal), unmarried but clearly deeply devoted to one another, possibly engaged. (They seem to have been together for three or four years.) The structure of their relationship is fully interwoven with a shared commitment to travel. They backpack, sleep rough, and make it their charge to see the "real" side of the cultures with which they interface -- to be travelers, not "tourists." For them, experiencing the world beyond their own corner is an act of cosmopolitanism and curiosity, and The Loneliest Planet characterizes this as a true virtue. However, the lurking underside of the dialectic that Loktev explores, and that slowly (and then quite suddenly) emerges as the film's chief conflict, is this: can a relationship thrive when it has no real home? Or, to put it in less metaphorical terms, when the emotional bedrock of a love affair is a shared passion for placing oneself as far outside of the comfort zone as possible, throwing oneself into the void of Otherness in order to continually destabilize one's sense of being, what is there to rely on when things fall apart? If your partner is always as off-balance as you are and vice versa, where can the both of you turn in the last analysis? The heart of Loktev's film is a trip through the Georgian countryside, with Nica and Alex being led by Dato (Bidzina Gujabidze), a slightly older, charismatic guide. Over the course of the long journey, the Alex / Nica relationship is strained, we learn more about Dato (whose past represents a kind of warped version of his charges' future), and, well, everything pivots on one utterly unexpected moment, wherein a chance event provokes an instantaneous, reflexive response on Alex's part that threatens to permanently drive Nica away, and with good reason. (I won't tell, but seriously, calling your lover the wrong name in bed? That's like a singing telegram compared to Alex's gaffe. Like, whoa.) For the most part, Loktev does a fine job of articulating what is predominantly a literary conceit with wide-angle landscape cinematography and broad vistas that emphasize the shifting emotional states of the couple and, eventually, the triad. And, as I said before, The Loneliest Planet is a film that begins with "the world" at its disposal and necessarily narrows its ideational iris. This is a smart inversion of DNDN, which insistently zeroes in on, essentially, the loneliest young woman, who enters Times Square with the intention to explode.


Wuthering Heights (Andrea Arnold, U.K.) [W/O] (1:00) (changed to [5] after complete viewing)

Moors the Pity: What better way to explore our current racial conumdrums (and the recent resurgence of British nationalism) than by gaining some much needed perspective. This stripped-down take on Wuthering Heights removes us from the immediate present and returns us to the 19th century. Or doesit? That’s the issue with respect to Andrea Arnold’s allegedly radical rethinking of Emily Brontë’s classic, which tends to strip away poetic language in favor of close-up, texture, and the windswept heather along those infamous moors. Opening with a jarring curved font that resembles the logos from 1970s disco albums, Wuthering Heights appears fairly desperate to announce its stark difference from stodgy British period dramas. Its boldest stroke, or so it would seem, is recasting Heathcliff (Kaya Scodelario) as an Afro-Carribean rather than a Roma ("gypsy") boy. But this begs several questions. Why revisit Heights now? Arnold’s strategy allows Brontë’s story to make a more contemporary form of sense – Catherine’s fascination with Heathcliff and Hindley‘s hatred of him are both far more legible when read across a black body. But Heights 2011 also provides a kind of spectatorial surrogacy that is deeply troubling, even as it thinks it is progressive. The first half of the film not only provides the constant spectacle of a young black male being mercilessly beaten (with loving visual attention to his bloody wounds). Arnold offers this pleasure with impunity, since we know that Heathcliff with have his revenge in the second act. So this newWuthering Heights appears to, as it were, serve two masters. Apart from being a stifling attempt to replace language and logic with the unmediated stuff of the senses (i.e., implicitly aligning Heathcliff with the Noble Savage, or even the "untutored vision" of infants described by Stan Brakhage), the film also plays a cinematic fort / da game, offering a means to manage the anxiety of real black bodies currently populating British culture and demanding their place at the table, as opposed to "in the barn, with the animals." As is so often the case with political efforts that restrict their vision to liberalism, xenophobia on the part of the power base is placated on the way to presumed redeption. (Having said all this, let's see how my perspective changes once I force myself to view the second half.) [Mostly reprinted from Cargo]


AFTER COMPLETE VIEWING: Arnold both downplays Heathcliff's triumphant return (he's made a spot of money, which places him a notch or two above the dissolute Hindley [Lee Shaw]), and makes his power as central as it needs to be. The formal dominant of Arnold's Heights, her silent, ill-fitting Heathcliff, never at home in the world or even in his own skin, continues to the very last. He doesn't strut around or lord it over anyone. He barely speaks, as before. It's difficult to pinpoint any turning point at all, really, since Arnold's vision is so defined by the rush of muscular camerawork and the pallid canopy of the gray British sky. It's as though the moors hardly care what human drama transpires across them. In a way, this iteration of Wuthering Heights treats Brontë's narrative as just as grindingly inevitable as a weather pattern, and as hopelessly immune to criticism.


ALPS (Yorgos Lanthimos, Greece) [5]

A thuddingly literal-minded follow-up to the chilling exactitude of Dogtooth, this new effort by Lanthimos seems to have as many admirers as the previous one, although they mostly hail from a different subset. (It would be interesting -- although probably to no one but me -- to Venn diagram the subsets of Dogtooth and ALPS boosters, just to see how much overlap there is / isn't.) Although it wasn't perfect, the previous film succeeded because it traced the progress of a perverse axiom through a closed system. Help captive in their own familial prison since birth, the Dogtoothers both unloosed raw instincts on each other and shared one another's neuroses because they had no other choice. ALPS, by contrast, follows a cult-like squad of psycho do-gooders as they infect the larger world with their psychopathology .(In fact, it just occured to me, the upcoming Whit Stillman film Damsels in Distress functions in a very similar way.) Lanthimos never creates a compelling reason (or even just a functional pretext) as to why anyone would ever let them in to perform their charity-slash-exorcisms. (I just discovered that the astute Phil Coldiron has directly answered my objection. Musicals show song-and-dance numbers breaking out in the "real world," so why not a broadly based surrogacy initiative?)


Who are the ALPS? They occupy the families of recently deceased loved ones and "take their place," eating favorite foods, wearing their clothes, being coached on how to speak with their cadences, etc. The members have code names relating to mountains (although this never really factors into the film in any meaningful way); they are called Alps because "there is no taller mountain range than the Alps. The Alps cannot be replaced by any other mountain." Inasmuch as Dogtooth was in inquiry into language and obedience, ALPS is a multifaceted treatise on simulation. If Jean Baudrillard showed up in one scene as an x-ray technician, or performing a routine on the uneven bars, I would not have been shocked. The odd ways of the Alps go a certain way toward indicating that in this universe, the distinction between the original and the copy has become so thoroughly eroded that it's possible to lose yourself in the process of standing in for the Other. This is the fate of Aggeliki Papoulia's character, a nurse who so completely vanishes into the "role" of a dead tennis champ that she transgresses the group's codes and is violently ejected. (The group leader, a paramedic played by Aris Servetalis, provides one of the film's key moments of black humor when he asks her to choose a hammer.) But unlike Dogtooth, which may have worn its theoretical project on its bloody sleeve but always put method before madness, too much of ALPS seems orchestrated simply to generate left-field comedy. Much of the plot strand involving an overworked gymnast (Ariane Labed) and her stringent coach (Johnny Vekris), both Alps members, hinges on the usual young athlete / old mentor struggles being exaggerated to the point of semi-sadomasochistic excess. ("You're not ready for pop!") If ALPS mostly falls flat, it's because its intellectual agenda is too obvious, and that in turn leads to half-formed jokes and subplots, none of which exhibit Lanthimos at his sharpest.


Alois Nebel (Tomáš Luňák, Czech Republic) [4]

One of the least worthwhile films I saw at TIFF '11, the Czech animated effort Alois Nebel is an adaptation of a graphic novel detailing the daily life and psychological travails of the title character, a train dispatcher working in a rural backwater. His meticulous timekeeping and repetitive schedule helps him to keep at bay his traumatic childhood memories of World War II. Nebel means “mist” in German; backwards, leben,“life.” This pretty much exemplifies the film’s literal-mindedness. In the same vein, director Tomáš Luňák exploits none of the fantastical potential of adult animation. I sat drumming my fingers, recalling visionary masterworks (A Scanner Darkly), problematic yet undeniably original films (Persepolis, Waltz With Bashir), and even putrid, hateful films that at least had the courage of their convictions (Sin City). A set of Expressionist woodcuts come to life, drawing on both film's and the early Czech avant-garde's unique capacity for exploring memory and its plasticity, should not have been so damned inert. [Reprinted from Cargo]



Wednesday, 9/14:


The Island President (Jon Shenk) [7]

That Sinking Feeling: But in order to conclude on a somewhat positive note, and to return somewhat to my original (attempted) theme of home and the global, it perhaps makes sense to address one of the more surprising films I saw at TIFF ’11, Jon Shenk’s documentary The Island President. To say, however, that concluding with this film is to end on a “positive note” is to reveal something of my own mordant sense of things, given that The Island President could only, at best, be considered a cautionary tale, and so leaving Toronto behind (as I did – it was my next-to-last film) with its images and frustrated Cassandra bulletins echoing through one’s mind is surely to return home with the sense that all is not, has not been, and will not be well for quite some time. Shenk’s film is a profile of Mohamad Nasheed, the president of the Maldives. The Southeast Asian nation, comprised of over 1,200 individual islands, only achieved democracy in 2008 following an election that was the direct result of massive popular uprising against the regime of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who ruled through violent autocracy since 1978. Nasheed, the frequently-imprisoned opposition leader, beat Gayoom to become the first elected president of the Sunni Muslim nation.


Upon his election, in addition to working overtime to locate the missing funds that Gayoom and his cronies has squirrelled away as graft, Nasheed and his cabinet began seriously listening to local and international scientists, as well as coastal farmers, and had to face the inevitable. Global climate change was raising sea level; the Maldives were rapidly being claimed by the ocean. From this point on, Nasheed became a leading voice in the international community in the fight against climate change. Much of The Island President centers on Nasheed’s preparations for and eventual presence at the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Summit, where he was a key player in the major negotiations. This is a tricky decision on Shenk’s part. Nasheed’s finest hour though it may be, the final results were sufficiently ambivalent that one can’t help but wish that the documentary afforded equal time to, say, Nasheed’s early pro-democracy activism, or the specific challenges of being a (seemingly) liberal Muslim, leading an (apparently) center-left Muslim nation, in an historical moment when the Islamic states are in flux, some in the throes of revolution, and the future face of their democracies is uncertain. But Nasheed, who afforded Shenk incredible access throughout the making of The Island President, is a politician who understands media. (His “underwater cabinet meeting,” in which he and his ministers donned scuba gear and sat at a submerged conference table, certainly made a, um, splash.) He knows the value of a well-chosen image, and clearly wanted this film to have a particular focus. And as these things go, “My country is beautiful and vibrant, and it is getting swallowed up by the ocean” is a perfectly reasonable take-away message. And it works. It’s formally conventional, obviously leaves many key questions unasked, and has an agenda from which it rarely strays. (Not unlike TIFF itself, actually.) But I haven’t stopped thinking about The Island President. [Reprinted from Cargo]


[ADDENDUM: Since I submitted this review to Cargo, of course, world events have shifted dramatically in the Maldives. President Nasheed has "resigned," although he was forced to do so at gunpoint. He was deposed by a coup, said to be led by Gayoom loyalists. They have claimed that Nasheed has forced the nation into financial crisis by disrupting Western tourism, and that his anti-global warming initiatives (and other pro-democracy reforms) have left the Maldives in a state of economic and military insecurity. After numerous street protests and clashes between rival factions, the pro-dictatorship forces prevailed, with, apparently, a high degree of tacit approval by the general populace. This is crushing, although (1) there are undoubtedly many political nuances within the history and situation as it stands that outsiders cannot fathom, and are not being reported in enough depth to properly evaluate' (2) while it easy for Westerners, and especially non-Muslims, to sit by, tsking about how former subjects of a dictatorship "aren't prepared" for democracy, there are mitigating factors in terms of basic stability -- food supply, functioning schools, etc. -- that many of us never have to consider. In any case, it is my opinion that all available evidence indicates that Pres. Nasheed is good for the Maldives, despite the possible roadblocks to progress. I hope for the safety and well-being of all citizens of the country.]


The Deep Blue Sea (Terence Davies, U.K.) [7]

[The following is an excerpt from a longer piece on Davies and The Deep Blue Sea that will be forthcoming in Cinema Scope. I will link to the full piece when it goes online.] g


In Davies’ two most “mainstream” films, the two literary adaptations, he has gravitated to material with one very significant common aspect. In both The House of Mirth (2000) and The Deep Blue Sea, women who are very clearly circumscribed by prevailing social conventions choose to flout those conventions and act as independent agents; in contemporary terms, they take feminist initiative. In Davies’ achingly beautiful film of Edith Wharton’s Mirth, Lily Bart (Gillian Anderson) tumbles in status, from a widely desired and appropriately “useless” socialite to a scrounging labourer and, eventually, a pauper dead from consumption. She misses, or more accurately squanders, I suppose, her chance at both happiness and social standing with Lawrence Selden (Eric Stoltz) by choosing to withhold evidence that would damage his reputation—evidence that would at the same time have reversed the misperception that Lily was a trollop and a homewrecker, a lie that forced her out of high society in the first place.


In a distinct but related manner, the crux of The Deep Blue Sea pertains to a woman’s existential commitment to an ideal, even unto death. In the period just following the end of World War II, Hester (Rachel Weisz) is the wife of William (Simon Russell Beale), a somewhat older judge. But she has an affair with and soon after leaves William for a young ex-flyboy, Freddie Page (Tom Hiddleston). As Hester makes clear to William and to the viewer, her drive to be with Freddie is overwhelmingly carnal; she is taking it upon herself to act not unlike a man in the proverbial midlife crisis. In time, Davies shows us that her decision was not only impulsive but foolish: Freddie is an insensitive lout who goes drinking and golfing with his mates, forgets her birthday, and is so utterly uncomprehending about what Hester has sacrificed for him that it pushes her to attempt suicide.


By contrast, William is shown to be a thoroughly decent man, even up through his and Hester’s final goodbye. Granted, it’s not surprising to find that an artist of Davies’ intelligence affords his film’s “Baxter” considerably more dignity than your average American rom-com. But there’s more to it than this. Hester’s decision, made from a place of personal passion, is one that Davies appears to respect but ultimately reject. The filmmaker’s viewpoint is typically complex, and cannot be read simply from the film’s plot or characterizations. However, The Deep Blue Sea ultimately does seem to have much more sympathy with William’s straitlaced, practical Britishness, his struggle to convince Hester that their relationship is worth saving, even if it consists chiefly of warm conversations, muddling through the day’s agenda, and periodically steeling each other against the horrors of William’s mother (Barbara Jefford). But if any one scene or statement in the film stands out as Davies’ (or Rattigan’s) ultimate judgment, it’s most likely that of Mrs. Elton (Ann Mitchell), the working-class proprietress of the low-rent boarding house where Hester and Freddie have shacked up. “A lot of rubbish is talked about love,” she sternly lectures Hester. “You know what real love is? It’s wiping someone’s ass, or changing the sheets when they’ve wet themselves, and lettin’ ‘em keep their dignity so you can both go on.”


Like Lily Bart, Hester holds fast to her unconventional ideals, but Davies shows these women to be fatally crippled by the sin of pride. Rather than accepting small, occasional happinesses within their circumscribed roles, they thought that they had the right to lead extraordinary lives, that they themselves might be extraordinary. While neither The House of Mirth nor The Deep Blue Sea take any pleasure in the downfall of their heroines, both of whom are depicted as bright, sympathetic, and possessed of an uncommon integrity, the women’s placement of the passions of the self over and above the cohesion of the social order cannot stand. This is Davies’ conservatism as it manifests itself in his art; his cinema primarily values the social fabric, even as it mourns for and even identifies with those it can never accommodate.



Thursday, 9/15 - Sunday, 9/18:


The Kid With the Bike (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Belgium / France) [6]

There is just so much of The Kid With the Bike that failed to stick in my memory the first time I saw it. With over six months' distance, I started to doubt my own perceptions and in fact believe the thousands of others who swear up and down that this is, in fact, top-drawer Dardennes. But a second look confirms my initial skepticism. If some naysayers found Lorna's Silence to be too plot-driven and incident-heavy (which I think is a bum rap, but never mind), Kid could be construed as a wobbly mix of the brothers' earlier, more organic methods of observational drama and whatever means of narrative contrivance you might divine by slathering their surface affectations onto a more conventional socially-conscious type of realist filmmaking (say, Ken Loach or Joshua Marston). (For what it's worth, The Child veered dangerously close to this problematic as well, although very few commentators seemed to notice or care.) The initial moments, when we are introduced to Cyril (Thomas Doret) -- struggling with his counselors at the children's home over calling his AWOL father's disconnected mobile phone, then trying to make a break for it to find the guy -- exemplify what's unique and exemplary in the Dardennes' filmmaking. "Character" is illuminated through close, careful attention to automatic responses within an externally generated situation, the circumstantial box that a social system builds around its members. Cyril bolting, refusing to listen to reason, is all reflexive, and though his youth makes his denial more comprehensible, it also serves only to make its fundamental humanity more transparent. Cyril's fits of antisocial behavior all fall in line with this physical, outside-in approach to characterization, much in the same way we come to understand Rosetta, or both Francis and Olivier in The Son.


As if to signal that Kid With the Bike is a multi-act narrative creation, or perhaps a tone-poem of sorts, the Dardennes punctuate particularly anguished moments of Cyril's life with the same string passage from Beethoven's "Emperor Concerto." The first is when he discovers that his dad (Jérémie Renier) has indeed moved away; the second after his foster parent Samantha (Céclie De France) takes him to visit his dad, who tells him he never wants to see of hear from him again, etc. This formal maneuver, in and of itself, informs us rather obtrusively that Kid With the Bike is, well, a "moving" thing; that is, it has a trajectory, and the Dardennes are hitting certain points. But it is only with the introduction of drug dealer Wes (Egon Di Mateo) and his gang that the delineation of character, environment, and social circumstance abandon any organic flow. Instead, Kid begins racing from plot point to plot point, with Cyril suddenly going from a complete psychological meltdown (clawing at his face and banging his head at being rejected by his father) to sidling up to an instant "big brother" figure and [SPOILER] committing a violent crime for him at the drop of a hat. It is as though the very presence of Wes permits a complete psychic reorganization of the deeply troubled Cyril virtually overnight. (This isn't even to get into the post-crime revenge denouement.) Cyril's relationship with Samantha, the most affecting and believable aspect of the Dardennes' film, gets sacrificed in the second half, in large part because the extreme rapidity of incidents take us away from who Cyril and Samantha are, and channel us into a schematic social-problem tale about what they are. Even their final-act bike ride by the canal is little more than a set-up for a plot point. By its conclusion, The Kid With the Bike feels oddly domesticated, even though by its own reckoning, its subject has become no less of an enfant sauvage.


The Mountain (Ghassan Salhab, Lebanon / Qatar) [v] [4]

Salhab's film is certainly not without its merits. This brooding, existential effort, which is almost entirely wordless, is anchored by an appropriately charismatic performance by noted Lebanese actor Fadi Abi Samra, recently seen in a prominent role in Assayas's Carlos. He has the gruff, chisled look of a George Clooney forged in a blast furnace; his visage, obviously worn down by hard living, would never be star material in a Euro-American cinematic complex grounded in fantasy. The Mountain is also distinguished by its rich, inky nighttime digital cinematography (by Sarmad Louis), which helped the film recall the likes of Philippe Garrel, both pictorially and in terms of the deliberate description of space. (When Fadi, driving along the isolated mountain road, encounters the car accident which ultimately results in a fire and explosion, the undulating white form of the flames, slicing and cancelling the enveloping blackness of the dominant frame, is an image that would be impressive enough in itself. That Salhab and Louis achieve the effect digitally is all the more striking. Given The Mountain's aesthetic and performative strengths, it is all the more frustrating that the film ultimately fails. It does so because Salhab, in his themes and glacial pacing, has produced a sort of parody of art-film moroseness, the troubled artist embarking on his long, dark night of the soul. After a friend drops him at the airport, Fadi instead rents a car to go on a secret trip to a mountain hotel where he can lock himself up and sulk. We can be grateful that there is no apparent allegorical freight attached to this isolation. No suicide, no contemplation of the plight of a people, no exploration of sexual escapades secretly longed for. But at the same time, there's really not much of anything. (Writer's block?) Perhaps Salhab was attempting a plotless, avant-garde spatial exploration of a confined space, but The Mountain relies too much on the cognitive cues of plot (and its gaping absence) to really succeed on those terms.



September 19 - 30 post-TIFF catch-up:


Le Havre (Aki Kaurismäki, Finland / France / Germany) [8]

I tell you, I've written about this film three+ times already, and (for reasons I'm not at liberty to divulge quite yet) I'm about to have to write about it again. So you'll forgive me if I have nothing much to add at the moment. Here's the link to my Cinema Scope review.


i am a good person / i am a bad person (Ingrid Veninger, Canada) [v] [5]

Wherever You Go, There You Are: Although Canadian indie auteur Veninger’s film is undoubtedly far more personal than Dirch or Nebel, it shares with them a troublesome approach. Good person / bad person represents a definite “type” of film, one that slots into the broad swath of film festival offerings quite easily (as easily as the “Danish biopic” or the “Czech animation”), but does not distinguish itself particularly well within its given set of procedures. Veninger plays Ruby White, an autobiographical filmmaker making the festival rounds with her latest low-budget opus. (As in Lisandro Alonso’s Fantasma, the turnout is lousy.) We see her at Q&As, after-parties, and with her family, in various (quite deliberate) states of solipsism and cluelessness, tempered with a good-hearted openness to the world around her. The chief “conflict” in this relatively open-form film is Ruby’s failure to put her film promotion on hold to adequately parent her 18-year-old daughter Sara (Hallie Switzer). So thematically, what Veninger is after is rather evident – the artist as the parent who is more like the child; the diaristic filmmaker whose attention is so channeled through the viewfinder that she cannot she her own life as it surrounds her. In other words, good person / bad person flirts with certain David Holzman level existential crises, but Veninger tends to sidestep their more daunting implications with a Miranda July-type cutesiness, which is in turn “problematized” by her Caveh Zahedi-esque, “I am a courageous artist playing a navel-gazing cad, or courageously displaying myself as same” ouroboros stylistics.  In the end, there’s a coyness here that just feels like a filmmaker hedging her bets, and making sure that her creation fits neatly within available art-film models. [Reprinted from Cargo]