50 films . . . 25 granola bars . . . 10 days . . . 1 black backpack. It's the
50 films . . . 25 granola bars . . . 10 days . . . 1 black backpack. It's the
2004 TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL
All films from U.S.A. unless otherwise specified.
(- seen on video; [v] video piece; [s] short, under 30 minutes; [m] medium length, 30-69 min; * grade changed upon repeat viewing)
seen prior to the festival
Lenten Light Conversions (Lynn Marie Kirby) [v/s] 
Lenten Light Conversions (Lynn Marie Kirby) [v/s] 
See review here.
See review here.
Poised for Parabolas (Lynn Marie Kirby) [v/s] 
Poised for Parabolas (Lynn Marie Kirby) [v/s] 
See review here.
See review here.
-Sissy-Boy Slap-Party (Guy Maddin, Canada) [v/s] 
-Sissy-Boy Slap-Party (Guy Maddin, Canada) [v/s] 
See review here.
See review here.
Tomorrow We Move (Chantal Akerman, France / Belgium) 
Tomorrow We Move (Chantal Akerman, France / Belgium) 
See review here.
See review here.
seen at the festival
9/10 -- Festival off to a rocky start, logistically. I won't be writing general commentary everyday, but I just have to get some stuff off my chest. Last night I verbally tussled with Abdullah the Customs Dick, who must be the inspiration for Ararat, or else he just likes fucking with Americans. ("So you live in New York, but you drive in California?" "What do you mean you don't drive? How did you get the license?" "Film festival, huh? Do you prefer the short films or the features? I find short films more impactful.") Missed an allegedly shitty Hungarian film since my pre-ordered ticket for it was locked up in the College Park box office as the film began. I could have gone to my grave without ever having experienced the Paramount Theatre, or the throngs of dumbasses camped out on Queen Street hoping for a glimpse of puffed-up celebrities. And it's not a good idea to schedule anything after a Wavelengths screening. It's a vortex.
The "hell" section is something like an 11. Godard's montage has never been so abstract, so rhythmically flawless as this. It manages to mount a coherent condemnation of the representation of violence, without the slightest pomposity. And he accomplishes this almost entirely through form. (Passages of pure light and texture resemble hand-painted Brakhage frames until you realize that you're looking at pictures of dead bodies.) "Purgatory" is a space out of time, the zone of negative-dialectics, where we're condemned to hash things out endlessly without resolution. There are a few missteps in this section (having Olga bequeath JLG the DVD is a major one; the old "this is the film we are now watching" trick?), but Godard hasn't been this lucid in ages, and I say this as a big booster of late Godard. Whereas In Praise of Love adopted the trappings of narrative but really functioned like poetry, Our Music mostly abandons narrative, but its poetic resonances communicate with jarring directness. (Like Homer, but with action replaced by thought.) And has nobody else noticed that the Native Americans are coaching a young Palestinian woman on how to perform the rhetoric of indigenism? "Hell" is a coda too strange to be conventionally powerful, what with U.S. Marines guarding its shores and girls in bikinis playing pantomime volleyball. But Jeremy Heilman pointed out to me that the boy that Olga sits next to might be Palestinian. He and the Israeli woman share the fruit of knowledge, but not before she makes him yield his seat to her.
A compendium of jejuneness. Tedious French crime thriller wherein a MacGuffin is void of content and furthermore everyone we meet in the film is randomly concerned with it. This is because no one who is not directly involved in the criminal machinations ever appears in the film, resulting in a slick, empty fantasy world of unnoticed public gunplay, traumatic childhood flashbacks that suddenly stop impinging on the plot, and enough quirky affectations to fill the next seven Sundances. Also, the years have not been kind to Irene Jacob.
Come on, guys, this is all a little too familiar in the first half (Tsai / Haneke / Wong) to get that excited about. Nevertheless, it's the strongest of the four Kim films I've seen, mostly because of where it ends up. Kim's formal contribution to the formulae of his forebears is a sickening green pallor that hangs on the film like soap scum, and it clearly serves to tweak the tacky Korean petit-bourgeois interiors just enough to reveal them for what they are. Assault-by-golfball seems somewhat random. And even if at first, the mute protags had me wondering who opened the can of expired pineapple, by the end it achieved something much different. Their behavior turns the domestic / quotidian into a zone of ritual, and this level of engagement allows them to transcend.
A surprisingly compelling, seductive abstract video, almost despite its inscrutable tendencies. Noren shoots sequences of highways and window-striated cityscapes, rendering them in high contrast two-tone that turns them into quivering fields of shifting negative space, while never actually resolving into flatness. (This is due in part to the pulse he introduces at the point of shift from black to white, yellow to blue, etc. The shapes are always a few millimeters away from clean registration.) There's an indescribable rhythm Noren achieves; every image locks right into place with the next one. And it's this unerring sense of musicality that compensates for the frequently off-putting, if oddly charming old-school video techniques he deploys (kaleidoscoping, squash-and-stretch, flipping, inversion, whorl-wipes). Aside from being distractingly reminiscent of video-art's baby steps, there seemed to be no rhyme or reason to their appearance, so an overall precision in the work becomes encased in haphazard "intuition."
9/11 -- Massive projection fuck-ups and piss-poor crowd control. What has happened to this festival?
Not as soul-transporting as Blissfully Yours, but then, this one has a harder job to do. The first half is simply flawless filmmaking, with nary a framing or an edit out of place. The ease with which laddish male-bonding evolves into homoeroticism is both pointed and resolutely non-polemical. Joe is examining desire that doesn't quite fit in its cultural context, but somehow doesn't come into conflict with it, either. (This theme haunts the previous film too, but there it stages the lack of conflict as a narrative disruption.) The second component of the diptych is bewildering and elemental, and yet on a formal level, the batting average slips a bit; only four out of every five or so shots feels quite so metaphysically ordained. The disconnect is probably by design, since the shift from the everyday to the mythic or holy is there to signify its own impossibility. Culture's frameworks for animalistic passion are breaking down at this point. How can any film adequately depict this? I can't quite fault Joe for providing only a tentative answer. [NOTE: Shame on the projectionist at the Bader, who left the blue video-projector light on, and screened Malady OVER it. The deep blacks all turned green, and in a way I feel like I still haven't really seen the goddamned thing.] [NOTE 2: Chris Stults independently confirmed that the actual problem during this screening was far more prosaic -- they failed to close the balcony doors, letting the mid-morning sun stream in.]
A gorgeous-looking piece of cinema, with Assayas's direction assuming the guise of something offhand and informal but always landing up with the perfect shot, flattened and grainy, with hovering light in the distance. Sadly it's all in the service of a tiresome script that often veers into the language of the public service announcement. "You can't trust her, she's a junkie," that sort of thing, ad nauseam. Never really cared about Cheung's Emily character. I mean, at least Courtney Love's balls-out hijinx make her a lovable loser. Here, we're supposed to care because film-syntax tells us so. Nolte, however, radiates wounded dignity.
Absurd, sure, but also absolutely fearless. The words rank about a 4. (As an Irigaray-inspired feminist philosopher, Breillat is strictly, um, bush-league.) But the images in this film veer from the bemusing to the audacious to the surreal and ultimately into the singularly jaw-dropping. No one else would dare commit the steeping scene to celluloid. (An elderly woman ran out of the theatre gagging.) Certainly not a fully successful film -- it's too silly to be -- but as a piece of sensationalistic visual art, a study in the female nude defiled, it's some kind of sick, crazy masterpiece. Oh, as for Breillat's premise: for what it's worth, I quite like vaginas.
There's a gently grinding inevitability to this film. Nothing that happens in it ever really surprises, and I even found myself thinking I'd seen an English-language treatment of the story somewhere long ago. (I have a vague image of a middle-aged bohemian Daryl Hannah as the neglectful mom, but it's possible that the actress here simply suggested an endlessly re-assignable role.) Kore-eda's "lyrical realism," I guess you'd call it, never connected with me. It felt noncommittal, sometimes Cassavetes-loose, sometimes Imamura-tight, with no clear reason from moment to moment for the shapes it assumes. Overlong and exhausting, but not in a way that takes us closer to the existential situation of the characters (cf. Eureka).
Undistinguished K-horror with hints of Kiyoshi Kurosawa, it's not awful by any means but it never engaged me at all, and I gave it more than a fair shot.
9/12 -- Six screenings, one day, plus I barely made it to the Wavelengths presentation and discovered they wanted me to say something about Lynn Kirby's work. It was a pleasure to do so, but I was utterly unprepared, had a mustard stain down the front of my pant leg, and was caked in sweat. Hope no one noticed.
Ghobadi is coming on as a significant director, generating simple, striking images and negotiating tricky tonal shifts. But Turtles falls prey to what's becoming this year's overall festival theme: strong formal treatment of shallow or hackneyed material. War zone, embattled kids, silent female suffering -- it's not that these issues aren't profound, but they require something more than the shorthand we see here. The lead character cuts an odd figure, sort of an Iranian Max Fischer. Also, the film grates for one major reason. The mise-en-scene is organized to insure that almost every character is screaming at the top of his lungs, all the time. (All the better to impress the little girl's enforced introversion upon us, right?)
I mean this mostly as a compliment: this could serve as Desplechin's audition to make a big budget Hollywood prestige picture. The two-and-a-half hours fly by, and again, there's ample directorial mastery on display. It's all in the service not only of a handful of rather empty ideas, but ideas that clearly do not realize how empty they are. Emmanuelle Devos delivers a sturdy performance but her half of the film (the "dramatic" plot) is too rote to be effective. Tragedy piles on tragedy, and the opera gets a wee bit soapy after a while. (E.g., what was with the final-act letter from the father? Was there anything in the earlier parts of the film to justify this turn?) Amalric's "goofy" plotline elicited a few chuckles, but as many groans. Sorry, the convenience store scene is not awesome. It is stupid. But again, it waves a flag regarding Desplechin's competence in staging such things. But is that what we really want him to do? It was cool seeing Amalric breakdance, and the film afforded me ample opportunity to contemplate Devos' faintly Piccasoid, inward-folding features.
Not the masterpiece I'd been promised by the advance hype. But Depardon's strength, from what I've seen, is his ability to contain documentary material in a sturdy formal framework. The limited camera set-ups and the subtle, seemingly non-hierarchical organization of chronology (the film taking shape, of course, through what he chooses to leave out) lend a rigor to the film, like a less supercilious Errol Morris. (In fact, Depardon's low-angle framing of the defendants tends to lend them a little extra dignity, even when they say ridiculous things.) The film ends up feeling suspiciously conservative; nearly everyone's guilty, and the defendants' quirks and inconsistencies tend to be played for laughs (or at least my audience thought so; they were rolling in the aisles). Basically this is the sort of thing that TV makes millions of dollars on but can never get right.
Biggest surprise of the festival so far. Went in on a lark, with expectations lower than a late-night limbo-stick after The Man Who Cried. But this is the Potter of old, of Orlando and The Gold Diggers, going to work on Big Ideas in an Artistic Manner and not worrying about who gets left behind. Clearly it's not going to work for everyone. Like Dogville, its power derives from a massively risky formal conceit (one which, I'm ashamed to admit, I didn't pick up on until about one reel in). Beautifully written, with a bevy of strong, complex performances (Joan Allen makes a great Tilda Swinton here), which makes it all the more irritating that Potter mucks the film up with bizarre, pointless visual decisions -- frequent step-printing and endless canted angles. Sure to be a divisive conversation-piece when it gets a general release.
That's actually 6 for the first and 8 for the second. Lowder's m.o. hasn't changed much with the Bouquets series -- single-frame photography of natural features, two distinct views interpenetrating for a pulsating, almost assaultive engagement with "passive" environments. I've long been a fan, especially since her work with gardens yields popping color you just don't see that often in film. In No. 26 the filmmaker collects a few more frequent flower miles, for a well-crafted yet familiar piece. No. 27, however, flickers between gardens and seascapes, initiating a new play between flatness and depth. I'm excited by this new direction.
More than any other film in the festival, I want to see Hutton's latest again. (I was a bit distracted with trying to figure out what to say about Kirby's piece.) Hutton's Iceland film is, of course, astonishing in its pictorial beauty. Lots of experimental filmmakers can wrest wonderful images out of landscape, but nobody else working in cinema right now so completely captures the sublime. (In fact, Hutton's only peer in this regard is Werner Herzog.) Using his grainy, oddly distanced style, Hutton makes the most of the mist, fog, and striated land formations of Iceland, creating banded horizontal images, glimmering sunlight on water, solid shafts of light through clouds . . . I think his recent work amazes me so much because in being absolutely attentive to the material existence of nature, he manages to present images of the world as we see it in Turner or Rembrandt, a glowing universe that appears saturated with the warm presence of God. Mind you, I'm a dedicated atheist, but when watching a film like Skagafjördur, the possibility of divine order sort of makes sense. I will say that, one first viewing, the organization of the film itself eluded me somewhat, particularly compared to the clear pictorial progression of his recent Study of a River. But like I said, the fault is probably mine. Unrelated sidenote: While some avant-gardists remain willfully ignorant of contemporary world cinema, wearing that apathy like a badge of purity, I overheard Hutton remark that while at the festival he was excited to catch the new Kiarostami and Akerman. My already high esteem for the man grew substantially.
Line Describing a Cone (Anthony McCall, 1973) [m]
I've been told that so-called structural film is boring, that no one cares about it anymore, and that it's a topic we'd all do well to avoid in the future. That's funny. McCall's film installation -- a film of a slowly drawing circle with a diameter the size of the screen, so that the projector beam makes a solid cone of light in the gallery -- generated what can only be properly called a party. The rare masterpiece that fully delivers on its canonical stature.
"Maoist gay porn" -- now here's a guy who's making some sense. Thoroughly enjoyable, trashy fun for the dirty leftist mind. True cine-revolutionaries should acquire prints of this, and a bunch of guns, and forcibly show it to audiences waiting to see The Motorcycle Diaries. Jigga who, Che what?
9/13 -- I came back to the hotel for a nap and am doing this instead. Haven't slept more than four hours yet. I will hit the wall any minute now.
I know I'm in the minority, but I dug this picture. (Granted, Izzy in whorish-MILF territory is pre-sold as far as I'm concerned.) Its best move is its refusal to embalm Bataille's sex-and-death games in frigid ritual. Instead, incestuous longing, bodily excretions, and casual depravity are presented as social facts in an upper-class but otherwise everyday milieu. Honoré is an exceptional director, slyly blending non-complementary techniques for some serious sucker-punches. His dominant strategy is to adopt the standard neo-Pialat observational style (although his characters are far more psychologized); then, within this overall scheme, he'll perpetrate a sudden Fassbinder zoom, letting desire shatter the placid surface of the visual field. Ultimately it's all a bit broad, but so's Bataille. (It's the power of repression that makes it so much fun getting dirty, blah blah blah, Mr. Bubble in the tubble, etc.) Final scene almost hits its transcendent mark, but not quite. The character of Rea I will simply call "the Slutty Esther Kahn."
Perfectly undistinguished, but it manages to create a palpable enough environment out of tall dead grass and rusted-out factories. With more developed ideas, I suspect Omarova could blossom into a notable director. (Why do so many first-time directors go straight for the heist picture?) Don't mean to sound sexist, but there's nothing at all in this inconsequentially violent film that even hints at a "woman's touch;" instead, vaguely Central-Asian-Jarmusch.
Having seen previous Angelopoulos features only on video, I wanted to give his style the chance to work on me on the big screen. Sadly, this latest feature is a hollow compendium of gestures, themes, and compositional habits derived from the director's prior filmography. If someone set out to parody an Angelopoulos film, they might arrive at something close to this. On an thematic level, I take no pleasure in pointing out the fact that with this summary work, Angelopoulos proves conclusively that he's been making exactly the same film for nearly 25 years. The disaster that is 20th century Greek history, like the horrors of World War II or Vietnam, must indeed be honored and observed. But The Weeping Meadow conveys nothing so much as the shell shocked, umpteenth iteration of a traumatized subjectivity, so bound up with the need to repeat, to try to recover and master the past, that the film slips into a non-communicative solipsism. A thick fog of immobilizing world-weariness envelops this picture, so much so that it hangs like a curtain in front of the audience as we wait in vain for it to rise. On a formal level, the film is equally dead. Patterns of ships on the water, figures in a landscape, or white sheets hung Christo-like on the shoreline -- all of these motifs refuse density or depth. Instead they are flat and even, repetitive like fleur-de-lys wallpaper. Angelopoulos' sequence-shots either begin tight and zoom or pan outward, or they start wide and take us into the frame. But these "revelations" are stillborn. A pan or a zoom in this film never delivers on the promise of movement in time, of the accumulated wisdom of spatial unfolding. These stagnant allegorical sawhorses are the same from close up or far away. And in the middle of it all, our presumed figure of identification, Ireni, is a pure placeholder, nothing but the "designated mourner" (to borrow Wallace Shawn's phrase) for her husband, for her soldier sons, for the radical elders who defended the Popular Front, for the whole of damaged male history. Ireni, who speaks maybe five lines during the entire three hour running time, doesn't matter to this film, or presumably to Angelopoulos. She is the passive receptacle for symbol and allegory, not a woman but Woman, and as such, a nearly-silent sufferer. (Imagine The Marriage of Maria Braun, if the movie did not care one iota about Maria Braun herself.) With its pallid interiors and overcast, crumbling exteriors, The Weeping Meadow is not a film about death; it is cinematic death itself. As such, I afford it a grudging respect. But I come away utterly nonplussed, concluding that Angelopoulos is now a man bereft of ideas or imagination, clinging only to rotting slabs of time, the very absence of life. Also, this film is boring.
--- ------ (Thom Andersen and Malcolm Brodwick, 1967) [s]
A jagged, Jaggered, knotty little masterpiece, a structuralist rock-and-roll fantasy that's firmly grounded in material(ist) reality. Andersen's visuals show people rocking out, and then vinyl 45s being manufactured. Brodwick's audio collage is like The Rolling Stones playing Anton Webern. Hard to believe they hit upon this way back in '65. I'm pretty sure John Oswald was listening.
One of those miraculous little films that blows you away by its very inevitability, by an overwhelming sense that it was always there for the taking. Fisher's first film since Standard Gauge collects inserts from all manner of B-flicks, industrials, a few commercials. (For those Christian Metz fans in the audience, we're referring to the "bracket syntagma.") In addition to close-ups of letters and signs, we see disembodied hands moving objects around (mostly roulette markers and big stacks of money). We see truncated body parts, isolated movements and gestures. In Q&A, Fisher modestly shrugged off any credit for the film's tight rhythms and contrapuntal montage, attributing all such outcomes to a predetermined editing schema. But it's Fisher's game all the way, and the film's sensual and intellectual pleasures stem from its perceptible rigor. Like all great artists, Fisher knows when to get himself out of the way and follow an objective structure. The result: Fisher dives into the dross of a functional, negligible cinema and liberates its latent Bressonianism. [NOTE: I am being conservative with the grade. I would like to see this film again immediately, as I am 90% sure it is in fact a solid 10.]
I have never been a huge fan of Müller's work, which has always struck me as, yes, gorgeous, but too concerned with tones and textures implying a seriousness they could not actually sustain. Part of the difficulty for me has been his soundtracks, which seem to borrow liberally from the Wagnerian-industrial side of pop-electronica. Here, the filmmakers opt for some of this, but the aural landscape is altered by jarring electrical zaps and crackles, corresponding to highly atmospheric light play and a fort / da of disappearing performers. Impressive, and somehow incomplete, seeming to imply a gallery installation or motion-activated light show. It seems related in spirit to the film-installation-performances of James Coleman, as well as Pat O'Neill's 35mm ghost-opus The Decay of Fiction. But the reliance on rather conventional cinematic mood-generators and glamorously iconic, well-dressed bodies ended up calling to mind the photos of Gregory Crewdson, which to me signify nothing so much as the opulent conditions of their production.
A nice formal premise (images of women manipulating curtains), sent hurtling into overkill with unnecessary clutter, both visual (making the screen image appear to flap in the wind added nothing, except to force the issue of the piece's identity as video) and aural (a droning electro-Goth soundtrack that swallows the images whole). Also, veils are not really curtains, so their inclusion here is a category error, and opens a useless can of worms.
This is sort of a one-liner. Shots of audiences from mainstream movies, edited in a facile sequence, from full to empty auditoriums, with each new idea (awkward pauses, or strange glances between spectators, that sort of thing) clumped together in blocks, followed by the next grouping. No rhythm builds, and the jokey content is all there is to carry the viewer through. Much like a Chuck Workman montage, and as such, pretty workmanlike. Also, I was irritated by the realization that at the end, since it's expected that we will clap for the piece, we're cynically drawn into it as an extension of the motif.
9/14 -- At the midpoint, nerves are jangled. Frustration with venue-hopping and needless line-ups hit a minor flashpoint today, with a volunteer at the Cumberland scolding me and a middle-aged couple for going straight from Mondovino in 3 to Shadows of Time in 2. Apparently, in the interest of "fairness," we were supposed to exit the building and go get at the end of the line outside. When I pointed out that this was patently unfair to anyone seeing more than one film a day, she muttered something about prioritizing "normal patrons." Whoo! That hurt. Also, the homeless are getting more aggressive, no doubt wanting their sidewalks back. Oh, and to the headsetted door volunteer who scowled at me for walking out of Shadows of Time: did the little boy and the little girl ever get together? I'm dying to know.
. . . but let the record show that this is in fact a '5' film, and it receives a 6 from me only because Nossiter's sloppy handling of the subject matter (it's practically Fahrenheit Vintage 1911) failed to blunt its inherent interest value. Given the left's constant interrogation of the problems of globalization and capitalism's flattening of culture, Mondovino takes the bold step of framing the same debate within the wine world -- certain to seem hopelessly elite, a rich man's plaint, to the Battle of Seattle crowd -- and shows that the very same problems obtain. Wine consultant Michel Rolland and Napa mogul Robert Mondavi, along with some well-placed critics at Wine Spectator, are controlling what your refined palate is allowed to taste. (This film could accurately bear a Rosenbaumian title like Wine Wars, or more properly, Mondavi-No!) It's compelling viewing, nearly wrecked by Nossiter's inscrutable directorial decisions, and some basic failures with respect to documentary practice. On the latter end, Nossiter always goes for the cheap shot when he has an easy target in his sights. When uncultured Americans appear, he cuts the silence with some blaring, obnoxious OMD song. But more importantly, he saturates the film with a smug Europhilia, without directly answering the major question that I, as a minor aficionado of California wines, felt Mondovino kept raising in a sidelong manner. Is the terroir of Napa and Sonoma too shallow to produce great wines? Does Nossiter categorically think Cali wines are for shit? On the formal front, Nossiter's handheld digital video work usually looks crappy, but he'll force the issue of aesthetics in bizarre, meaningless ways -- sudden zooms in and out of an interviewee's face, or a sub-Markerian fixation of dogs. The only thing I can make of this is, this is Nossiter's attempt to make the connection between wine and cinema explicit, that he will not standardize his highly personal, idiosyncratic filmmaking. I fully support the principle, but for me, Chateau Nossiter has a rather corky finish.
Sure, I didn't give it much of a chance. But basically it's United Cinema of Benetton, wherein poor little children from the developing world are abused, the festival audience feels bad for them, and then feels good about itself for having felt so bad. Sidenote: it's certainly a positive development that so much recent German cinema has been dealing with that country's immigrant population (Fatih Akin's films, for instance, or Otomo), or like this film, deals directly with life in India. However, it's troubling that this seems to offer a liberal end-run around any continuation of the New German Cinema's exploration of white German culture, its guilt and dysfunction, as well as the ongoing legacy of fascist thinking in the present day. In fact, the duty to explore these themes seems to have befallen Austria, letting Germany largely off the hook. And, um, that's a problem.
Or 24 Hour Pecker People. So here we have a film that's nothing more than the stunt a cynical festival-goer would expect it to be from the catalogue description, leaving the faces of those of us stupid enough to give Winterbottom the benefit of the doubt smeared not so much with egg as stale, coagulating semen. (It's all protein, in any case.) The big attraction: this sex is "unsimulated"!! But I use those scare-quotes to make a point. Even though a real penis is spending time inside an actual vagina, an honest-to-god mouth, etc., the sex remains a simulacrum. These performers (a male cipher and the most annoying female presence committed to celluloid in eons) are too self-aware to engage in sex that resembles anything anyone who was a real person would actually do. It's too exhibitionistic and calculated, especially the Lisa character's dirty talk, improvised / formulated (who knows?) all too deliberately to surprise us with this uninhibited filthy woman, almost masculine in her Penthouse blatherings. How unexpected and transgressive! But here's the other side of this sad coin. While these performed sex acts are too stagy to connect as documentary reality, they are too self-absorbed and solipsistic to be good porn. These actors are indeed having sex, but they don't know how to display their pleasure for a voyeur, how to open up the private and make a place for us. They're all moaning and writhing and, in the truest example of the actorly cliche, all "in the moment." And so, stranded between the anthropological and the prurient, these scenes accomplish only tedium. Oh, and the 9 songs? The bands are okay (especially Franz Ferdinand and the Von Bondies), but the visual record is exactly the slightly-better-than-bootleg quality you'd get from any MTV crew. Sure to please folks like Jared Sapolin who think concert films should make you feel the sweat of the crowd, but those looking for any level of aesthetic engagement will remain unmoved. [And the next morning, he realized that he totally forgot to mention] When the film isn't feebly fucking or rocking, our male protagonist kindly regales us with endless possibly-symbolically-loaded factoids about Antarctica.
I fully expected to enjoy Chow's latest, but I was blindsided by the formal mastery, utterly impeccable comic timing, and total commitment to old-school martial arts cinema (despite its satirical exaggeration). Easily one of the greatest comedies of the past few years, Kung Fu Hustle is a tender, madcap riff on Shaw Brothers chop-socky, but it's also capacious enough to incorporate elements of The Shining, Bugs Bunny / Roadrunner cartoons, even Popeye-era Altman. After an introductory dance sequence that's part Warriors, part West Side Story, Chow brings us to the village of Pigsty, a multi-tiered spatial creation on par with Jerry Lewis. In classic form, some unlikely supporting players reveal themselves to be secret kung fu masters, but Chow's willingness to shuttle his most peripheral characters to the forefront delivers shocking comedic surprises, as well as bespeaking a thoroughgoing generosity. Chow and his sidekick are minor players, part of the tapestry like Tati in Playtime. In fact, the whole film is a bit like Tati-on-PCP, a whirlygig of misdirection and outlandish ass-kicking. But Chow's most impressive formal achievement is probably his exacting, innovating use of CGI. Instead of using it as a filmic shortcut in order to avoid engaging with the physical world, Chow intensifies and explodes his action sequences, creating live-action cartoons that remain grounded in what real, athletic bodies can do. The fighting is classical, and the graphics just blast it through a megaphone. And did I forget to mention this film is non-stop, wall-to-wall, gut-bustingly funny? By any measure, Kung Fu Hustle is a major artistic triumph.
9/15 -- The extra sleep did me some good. Filmwise, it was up and down (and no, I am not seeing that stupid Czech movie).
Hello. I am Todd Solondz, and I have a problem. I have become one of the United States' pre-eminent auteurs, even though my films are visually negligible, not all that well written, and painfully unfunny. Up to now, my stock in trade has been cheap provocation, filling my films with shocking subjects like child molestation, acquaintance rape, and white America's racist fantasies about the sexual prowess of black men. The thing is, I have never really had anything of substance to say about these issues. Instead, I just drop them in, with a jarring casualness, or create some sort of vile character and then throw these issues at him or her in the narrative. Since most filmmakers avoid these topics altogether, my tackling of them head-on has won me substantial acclaim, despite the fact that I have nothing to say about those topics of any intellectual substance. So, how long until the jig is up? Wait! I can make my latest exercise in pointless cruelty seem even more incisive and rigorous by adopting some unusual formal strategies. Well, I won't really adopt the strategies. I'll just make it look like I'm going to do these things, for some complicated cinematic reason, even though there actually is no reason for me to do so. So I'll call it something vaguely formalist, like "palindromes," even though the film will not exhibit that sort of formal structure. (I can't do that sort of thing! Jeez, I can barely put the camera in the right place.) Also, I'll borrow a stunt from Buñuel! I hear that in one of his late films, he [SPOILER ELIDED HERE]. Well, what if I did that, but times six or seven? Wow, I'll look like one of the United States' preeminent auteurs, even though my films are visually negligible, not all that well written, and painfully unfunny. Whew, safe for another two years. Oh, I'll also bash evangelical Christians. People dig that. Okay. I know what to do. Now the problem is yours.
Despite Pryce's title, I wasn't expecting five individual films, and even though they do share one significant visual conceit (images of insects in flight), the styles of the segments are so distinct as to compromise the coherence of the project. But it's possible that I was thrown off by the fact that the first film is so beautifully wrought, with vibrating wings played against the rhythmic flicker of hand-painted frames, all white light save for a few strokes of bluish markmaking reminiscent of Chinese calligraphy. The other segments lacked this power, relying chiefly on the textural juxtapositions of different strands of found footage, and Martin Arnold-like optical printing of wings held in mid-flap. Very promising, but to my eyes, not fully realized.
It's wonderful to witness the return of one of experimental cinema's true masters, and by and large he's returned to his signature style without missing a beat. One of the fascinating things about Jordan's work is how his manipulation of Victorian-era cut-out engravings always implies some form of narrative, even though his "performers" are invariably stuck in a non-progressional, dreamlike temporality. In this new film, Jordan uses the music of Mahler and images of Arthurian knights, squires, and maidens, to present a near-static picture of a dead way of life, one that exists as a set of cultural fixations and legends. Jordan's scenes invariably use a single engraving as a whole environment, where the human figures are part of the setting, a kind of tableau mort. The animated portions of the images are animals, birds, and the occasional celestial creature. Here, human time is the absence of motion. And form most of the film, this languorous stasis, along with Mahler's slow, plangent accompaniment, conveyed the broken remnants of a lost culture of honor. (I was thinking throughout most of the film that it would serve as the ideal epilogue to Bresson's Lancelot du Lac.) Oddly, Jordan spends the final minutes of the film in an operatic finale, with soaring music, rampant sparkling of the characters' eyes, and a bevy of animation activity. In terms of rhythmic organization, I suppose it makes sense to vary things, but in my viewing of the film, the final minutes broke the mood and the thematic consistency.
Flushing Meadows (Joseph Cornell, 1965) [s]
A lovely enough film composed of static views around a cemetery, but it's pretty undistinguished, especially compared to Rose Hobart, which is probably one of the seven or eight greatest films in all of the avant-garde.
What a subtle film! Martel's directorial skill has expanded exponentially, revealing her to be a major talent. Whereas La Cineaga pinned its subjects down inside overbearingly perfect compositions (all the better to reveal their baseness), The Holy Girl adopts the outer appearance of uninflected realism, and it's with her orchestration of movement through the frame or her use of judicious close-ups that the film's mastery sneaks up on you. Consistently, what looks at first to be a straightforward camera set-up, simply delivering narrative information, comes alive as an actor adjusts her position in the frame, or bobs in and out of view, or when one of the performers opens a cabinet door or moves a foregrounded object that we didn't even notice before. In terms of story, I am slightly less convinced. Amalia's pursuit of her calling never stopped feeling like a thematic conceit to me, even though Martel renders it in the most graceful manner possible. Wonderful performances, particularly from the two teenage girls. It was great to see several actors from Rejtman's The Magic Gloves reappear in very different circumstances. And the conclusion, which forestalls inevitability in favor of a turning-away that allows all to maintain their dignity, is a smart, generous move by any standard. But again, when compared to the slamming-shut of La Cienaga, it's pretty much a Christian miracle.
While it's sort of easy to see why Cannes didn't go for this, it strikes me that Fremaux was simply punishing Hou for backsliding. This Ozu tribute is Hou's most self-effacing effort in years, having much more in common visually and thematically with late-80s / early 90s Hou than Mambo or Flowers. And this raises a bit of a question -- does it really make sense for Hou to create a deliberate Ozu homage? The current generation of Asian masters (especially in Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea) are so steeped in Ozu that self-consciously aping his moves feels a bit redundant. Still, this is a gorgeous film that is at its best when it revels in its purely compositional concerns, and it is a tad less successful when it tries to tell a story. Whether he knows it or not, Hou's trying to make an avant-garde landscape film, bringing the sturdy visual rigor (sorry, couldn't avoid the word any longer) of Dust in the Wind and A City of Sadness to bear on urban and suburban Japan. As for the Ozu thing, it yields mixed results. The first shot is a dead ringer for classic Ozu; a low angle shot of an exterior at dusk, a residential no-place on the outskirts of town, immediately bisected by a commuter train. After that, the relationship gets a little more attenuated (not to say "dialectical," Ryan!), since the camera movements struck me as hamstrung throughout the film. We don't get Ozu's static camera, nor do we get the sumptuous gliding camera of Mark Lee Ping-bin that's the secret weapon of late Hou. Instead, we're stuck in between, with cramped, boxy little camera adjustments that reframe mostly according to the needs of character movement. What this does accomplish, though, is a concrete relation to the films of the Lumière brothers, whose actualities almost inevitably set up perfect pictorial compositions which would then be disrupted by the motion of people, cars, and trains through the frame. (This makes sense if we think of their work as a transition from still photography to cinema; the messiness of life obviates a lasting compositional perfection.) In addition, Hou's shots of his protagonist, her male friend, and her family also borrow the Lumières' foreground / background relations. As legend has it, their "Feeding the Baby' film shocked audiences because of the unintended sight of trees swaying in the wind behind the family. And here, the ostensible narrative arc (a young woman wants to have a baby without marrying the baby's father, and must acclimate her parents to the idea) is almost always a skeleton on which to hang formal information. The question becomes, why did Hou feel this need? Apparently Kiarostami, working in the same series, felt no such obligation, and if this is Hou's interpretation Ozu's own way of working and coping with studio demands (the first "shot" of this film is actually the Shochiku logo), then Hou's homage is somewhat misplaced. His master's logic is so much a part of him that such reserve reads as outright supplication. Final note: if you have never liked Hou before, you will not like this film.
A willfully unpleasant and needlessly overbearing viewing experience, Old Boy has such an intelligently conceived premise that I'd actually have preferred to see it tackled by another director. I have no prior experience with Park, but his overly mannered visual style (washed-out purplish grunge with fluorescent light so blanched that it ceases to be blistering or even striking, and just recedes into the overall mud) and his idiotic "operatic' gestures (hyper-caffeinated camerawork that makes City of God look like Edward Yang; needlessly assaultive, oh-so-contrapuntal use of the most obvious compositions from the classical canon) tend to undercut the story's inherent power at every turn. And this is the case in terms of character motivation and actorly behavior as well. Example: the big third-act revelation is so nerve-jangling on its own, that we need to just sit with it, to roll it over in our minds and let its full horror sink in. But no, the Old Boy has a psychotic freak-out that Pacino would reject as blowsy scenery-chewing. He barks like a dog, licks things, severs his own . . . well, you get the idea. And this non-stop hypertensive tone just becomes, against all odds, boring. Also, isn't anyone else bothered by the script's ridiculous reliance on hypnosis as a deus-ex-machina? Twice?
9/16 -- I finally have seen the third AGF trailer, but I still haven't seen Theo. Hey bud, if you're reading this, I have a tape for you. Come out and play in my opinion. [NOTE: Just caught up with Mike's site and learned that you're not feeling well. Sorry bud, feel better, see you next year in my opinion.]
The first third of this film was a mild pleasure, since it carefully constructs a callow, vain, self-involved jerk-off who avoids making the obvious gestures of kindness toward his fellow man that any normal human being would make. (In my head I found myself reflexively speaking the lines he should have delivered -- "No, ma'am, it's okay, you have nothing to be ashamed of;" "I'm sorry, but I really don't feel the same way about you;" "You seem like a great guy, and I'm sorry she left you;" etc.) And when you need a vacant pretty-boy who is not nearly as talented as he thinks he is, who lolls in the shallow end because he thinks he's swimming with the big boys, your go-to man is Laurent Lucas. The film pretty much falls apart when its horror-movie clichés are revealed. It adds nothing to them. And its eventual stylistic destination leads me to fear that Gaspar Noé will serve for young Francophone director-dudes in the same was David Fincher does in the States -- someone from whom to swipe cool surface affectations, while absorbing none of the philosophy. Also, the film looked good. I couldn't tell if it was good 16mm or bad super-saturated video,which was frightening in itself. The change has come, I'm under their thumb in my opinion.
I had been warned by several sharp critic-friends going into this one that is doesn't make a lick of sense. So, settling in for a semi-coherent collection of striking images, I was quite surprised to discover that it's just an art-damaged genre flick, albeit an incredibly accomplished one. In fact, the preceding description fails to convey just how compelled I was in the midst of the film, for image to image and scene to scene. It's just that it all adds up to a little less than the sum of its parts. Basically [SPOILERS BEGIN HERE] what we have is a "spy who came in from the cold" narrative, quite linear in its organization. What it doesn't do is engage in any real exposition. We get a lot of moments in between events, a series of actions whose meaning isn't available until much later. However, that meaning isn't doled out in a plant-and-payoff fashion. It's more like poetry, where we're seeing all the negative space around a problem or an event. This is most notable with respect to the Michel Subor character's son and daughter-in-law. Their sole function is to register their disengagement from his life, and to come into harm's way despite their blatant rejection of Subor from their lives. We don't get a narrative explanation, and I think this is because Denis trusts that the story she's telling, in its broadest strokes, is familiar enough to cinema audiences. (It's like how in Intolerance Griffith didn't bother fleshing out the Christ story. He knows we know.) So this freedom allows Denis to focus instead on texture, long passages of world travel, and several iterations of the theme of intrusion. We begin the film at the France/ Switzerland border. Later, the border guard and her husband play a kind of sex game relating to her work role. And the biggest intruder of all is the lead character's heart; his body rejects the transplant. Still, Denis's gambit relies on the familiarity of the tale, and at several points it just felt leaden and obvious. (At base, it's actually a story about a "change of heart.") But as I said above, it was never less than engrossing, and as an intellectual experiment in the conditions of cinematic storytelling, it successfully outweighs theoretical gamesmanship with pure plastic sensuality. Think of it as the most elliptical episode of Alias ever made, focusing on Jack Bristow instead of Sydney.
Definitely not a quality / interest level walkout; just bad timing. As for the half I did see, I will say that while Varda's commentary was engaging, she is essentially just riffing on Roland Barthes' book Camera Lucida, grounding his generalities in the specifics of the teddy bear project. (If you've never read it and dug this short film, please, check it out. It's just marvelous.) I ducked out of the Cinevardaphoto compilation so that I could get a good seat for . . .
I liked the half of Crane World I saw on TV, and really dug El Bonaerense. Here, Trapero pretty much flies off the deep end. I give it grudging props, I suppose, for its technical skill. It's the most spot-on evocation I've ever seen committed to celluloid of what it's like to be trapped in a closet-sized space with your yammering, idiotic extended family. And you know what? It's a sensation I really didn't want evoked. The comedy is what I'd call "hyper-middlebrow," all claustrophobic camerawork and rapid-fire dialogue and endless yelling and cacophonous interruption. It's like a cross between Agnes Jaoui and a skewer through the eyeball, and all your favorite National Lampoon's Vacation moments are in full attendance. Oops! Kissin' cousins . . . Yikes! In-laws gettin' frisky on the sly . . . Ouch! Rural dentistry . . . Whoops! An encounter with the asshole boyfriend, and on and on and fucking on. The last shot, which retroactively turns the whole preceding film into a set-up for a grand-summation punchline, thinks it's redemptive when it's really just stupid and obvious ("'cause it feels so good when they stop"). Half the audience was rolling in the aisles, the rest of us were banging our heads on the backs of the seats in front of us. When this opens commercially -- I guarantee Miramax or Fox Searchlight or somebody is snapping it up as I write this -- avoid it like the cinematic psoriasis it is.
A well-made short about a boy in Uruguay on the day of his bar mitzvah, with a twist that's all the better for being completely unremarked-upon. A trifle to be sure, but Veiroj (a friend of Rebella and Stoll) has the chops and the sense of humor to go places.
A little troubling at first, since its factory-bound rigor and Kaurismäki-lite visual repetitions prepared me for a film in the official, world-cinema festival mode. But a great deal of Whisky's success has to do with its middle, which is all about opening up. What appears at first to be a story of Jacobo the sad industrialist soon reveals itself to be Marta's story, her blossoming under bizarre circumstances. The film maintains its rigor at these moments, but in a more offhand, lived-in way. This is a wonderful "small" film, a character study that slowly gets under your skin.
9/17 -- Day of exhaustion and bum cinema (with one minor exception). Seriously planned to go see When Will I Be Loved in release, but went back to the hotel room, laid down, and couldn't get back up again.
Engrossing but problematic. The film is essentially an extended performance by Damian Lewis, an actor with whom I wasn't very familiar before this. (He resembles a redheaded Martin Donovan with less articulated features.) Kerrigan gives his star the Rosetta treatment, with a dodging follow-cam that isn't so much claustrophobic as consistently threatening to pierce right into his skull. It's far and away the most formally bold American indie I've seen in quite some time, and as with Claire Dolan, Kerrigan defiantly eschews star-fucking Sundance prestige-cinema in favor of a close examination of a marginal character, the sort who slips through the cracks of urban America. We enter flophouse residence hotels, take cover under highway overpasses, and spend an unnerving amount of time at the Port Authority bus terminal. Lewis's performance is best at conveying William Keane's schizophrenic nightmare in his silent moments, his sad face slowly tensing up like he's receiving unwanted alien orders. But Keane's most extreme freak-outs are a bit too literate and well composed, relying on an almost incantatory repetition. This is where the film stumbles. Kerrigan cannot externalize the paranoid solipsism of mental illness with complete success, and the resulting disparity between true insanity and Keane's soliloquies of the insane falls prey to unintentional artistic dishonesty. Also, the inconclusive ending felt very conclusive, almost officially so. Challenging art films have their conventions, too.
What the hell's happened to Johnnie To? This film has a few engaging moments (mostly in Mr. Yip's apartment), but overall it's incredibly lazy. How about that opening sequence, which advertises its own presumed virtuosity, while ruining its effect completely with herky-jerky camera movements. What, there's no WD-40 for the crane? The whole media angle was a pointless conceit, and even though the occasional bit of inspired gunplay would peek through the blinds, it would be squelched by the farting cop or the convenient character inconsistency hot on its heels. (So the little boy won't eat with criminals, but he'll hop on the Internet to patch in their webcam?) Remember when we got to see Tsui Hark films at festivals? That was awesome.
My enjoyment level was actually well below that probably indicated by a 4, but it did have a few strengths, particularly Michelle Williams' performance. Preachy, simplistic and graceless, Wenders' latest is anything but a return to form, and I strongly suspect its co-producer, IFC, will quietly send it right to the cable channel. Besides its unfunny "gentle humor," wherein the John Diehl character's goofy, paranoia-lite Arab stalking makes him a lovable Archie Bunker for the post-9/11 era, the film's most obvious failing is its conclusion. Rapprochement comes at the expense of depth or even the staging of any actual disagreement, with family values and "why do they hate us" garment-rending filling in for leftist analysis. And so, in the end, Land of Plenty (which I saw, incidentally, shortly after learning that Bush leads Kerry in the polls by a whopping, probably insurmountable margin) just leaves me deflated and sad. It's kind of a badge of the impotence of the Left, a gaping hole instead of the incisive, humanistic protest art we need right now. As I told Victor Morton privately later that evening, the Right keeps winning because they've tapped into some primal myths, and they consistently tell a better story. The best that Wenders can muster ("Arabs and militia-nutters are people too!") just won't cut it.
[MINOR SPOILERS] A desultory, defiantly minor affair whose overall quality forwards the argument that that's exactly what first-films should be. Eimbcke's funky, elastic black-and-white character study sends Mom out of the house and lets two junior Y Tu Mama's boys hang out, meet up with Pizza Man and Cake Girl, play videogames, get stoned, discover inchoate sexual longing, dream of better lives, and poignantly bear up in the face of divorce. Amazing in its Zen-passive ability to let its characters slowly emerge through offhand actions and minor details, generous to a fault without all the usual warm-fuzzy humanist claptrap that "generosity" typically implies. Hard to pin down, it wafts through the air like the smell of homemade brownies. Sure hope it gets released, but sadly I could see the usual suspects thinking it's too small (Lions Gate) or trifling (Wellspring, Zeitgeist) to bother with.
9/18 -- Overslept. Woke up in time for the Kiaropastrami that I actually wanted to see. Ran into Gabe Klinger at the last possible moment, which was nice. Sorry I missed ya, Theo. Feel better bud.
The breakdown: first one so-so, second one overly familiar, third one teasingly ambiguous, fourth one a silly comic sop to the presumptively bored spectator, and the fifth one a flat-out masterpiece. It's encouraging to see Kiarostami inching closer and closer to the experimental avant-garde; I've argued before that anyone who appreciates The Wind Will Carry Us should enjoy James Benning's films and vice versa. But here, Kiarostami makes film-student blunders by avant-garde standards, the most egregious being the bumper-music between segments. Five introduces compelling problems for how festival programming, context, and reputation will condition audience self-selection and response. In spirit, this piece belongs in Wavelengths as much as Masters, just as Peter Hutton's film has as much business in Masters as in Wavelengths. But what would the experimental audience have made of it? Is Kiarostami being kept away from his harshest, most qualified potential critics? Sidenote: the second segment, which consists of a straight-on shot of a bridge with people walking back and forth across the screen, reminded me of Steve Paxton's minimalist dance piece Satisfyin Lover, except that Paxton was able to modulate his walkers for maximum compositional effect. Sometimes "real life" is seriously overrated. Also, unlike Hou's film, this videowork has absolutely no discernable relation to the films of Yasujiro Ozu. It may as well have been dedicated to Spiro Agnew.
Those festival programmers sure are cunning, holding this film back until the end of the festival when we're all sleep-deprived and vulnerable, all our steely discernment worn down until we just let loose with a collective "Awwww...." From a critical perspective, making a film about the life cycle of a cute little doggie is dirty pool, like competing with the aid of a performance-enhancing steroid. But despite this, I must say that Sai gives the material if not the best possible treatment, certainly a skillful and intelligent enough overall structure to obviate needless mawkishness. His depiction of Quill's relationship with his blind owner, a forceful, no-nonsense activist for the disabled, is particularly well conceived. (Watch for the moment at the rec center when the man is speaking to his wife with a group of his friends, and he replies to her question both verbally and in sign language.) The movie hits its emotional pivot points like a machine, but the highest compliment I can pay Quill is that it manages to manipulate without being ruthless about it. It's a deeply humane film, and I felt no need to harden my heart against it. I.e., I wept like a little baby. When this gets released -- not if, when -- I suspect it'll become the most successful Japanese film since the 60s. It can't miss. Slap the Sony Classics logo on this puppy and watch him go.
[MINOR SPOILERS] A strong festival closer for me, since it eschews some of the sloppy faux-rigor of La libertad in favor of a slow-boiling, ambulatory landscape film with a vague, enigmatic central character as our guide. Argentino Vargas thinks like an animal, terminally incapable of making distinctions. (Q: "Do you always get your hair cut this way?" A: "Sometimes yes, sometimes no." Q: "Weren't you the man who killed your brothers?" A: "I barely remember any of that, I don't know anymore.") He just smokes, drinks maté, and rows, rows, rows his boat. The advantage to this indistinct approach is that it doesn't allow the physical environment to be relegated to some sort of metaphor for Vargas's subjectivity. It's presented as a natural fact, and Alonso's attention to the jungle thicket and surrounding village life is wonderful. The last shot sort of squanders this, though, neatly closing the film with a rather unambiguous emblem of homecoming. And luckily, Alonso keeps my favorite affectation from the last film, ending his nature idyll with grinding European-sounding techno. Finally, the goat. Yes, I too have big problems with violence against animals in films. But Alonso's fiction / documentary hybrid style complicates matters quite a bit (the main performer is actually named Argentino Vargas and clearly knows his way around the killing floor), so I can't just wag my finger at the filmmaker. It's shocking, but it doesn't strike me as gratuitous. More than likely, the film is creating a narrow fictional context around an activity Vargas would perform from time to time even when the cameras weren't rolling. And besides, as long as I'm a consumer of animal products myself, I'm in no position to judge.