Saturday, September 17, 2011

TIFF '11: Take us to the river

Gentle yet spry, shot on especially murky but not unpleasantly hued video in the Sertão region of Northeastern Brazil, from which many aspects of its narrative were derived, Swirl (Girimunho), the feature debut of directors Clarissa Campolina Helvécio Marins Jr., opens with images of bodies moving in dark streets to polyrhythmic drums and spirited singing, and it ends with a reedy, mischievous voice speaking to us softly over the image the film’s octogenarian protagonist (the source of that voice) standing some distance away from the camera, knee-deep in a river under soft daylight. In between is much diegetic music—characters play guitar and trumpet and sing improvised songs about what they’re doing in the moment, and later there’ll be a big band taking a small stage, with insanely gorgeous dancing girls in micro-skirts—serene memories of youthful love, a haunting, some travel, and the singularly lovely vision of a dead man’s clothes adrift in rippling water. “Time doesn’t stop,” Batsu explains to her granddaughter. “It’s us who stop.” Or do we? Batsu’s husband has passed on yet she hears noises in his workshop when no one is there to make them. She initially tries to persuade her husband’s ghost to let her be, with words, and perhaps her old pistol, but when these tactics fail she packs his tools and clothes in a suitcase and searches for a rightful resting place. Swirl is an unassuming work that generates all its charisma from the people it depicts, but elderly Batsu’s adorable demeanor and curious platitudes conceal lingering questions about how to proceed through life, even in its latter stages. The film is about finding one’s own rites of passage, seeking out ways of saying goodbye when one doesn’t weep—vivacious Batsu one made a pact with her husband that neither would ever cry—and granting peace to both the living and the dead.

Friday, September 16, 2011

TIFF '11: Fueron con dios

The 1917 Mexican Constitution featured a number of severe restrictions against demonstrations of faith. The opening scene of The Last Cristeros, which consists of only voice-over and a black screen, gives us the rundown—one year imprisonment for ringing a church bell, for example—and efficiently provides all the context needed to comprehend or at least intuit all that follows, even if you’re unfamiliar with post-Revolutionary Mexican politics. The government’s war against the Cristeros—those who took up arms to defend their right to worship—officially ended in 1929, but the film takes us into the mid-1930s, following a small group of hold-outs as they make their way across gorgeous, arid and unforgiving northern terrains, where the occasional bullet comes seemingly out of nowhere, where nights are long and cold and food and water in short supply, and doubts blossom.

Directed by Matias Meyer and co-scripted with Israel Cárdenas, who co-directed the tender and memorable Cochochi, The Last Cristeros is a beautifully photographed and edited modern-Mexican take on the anti-western (if the term suits). Not unlike Meek’s Cutoff, it depicts an arduous journey through wilderness where danger looms quietly and everyday tasks are depicted with great accuracy and empathy. But the film also recalls Of Gods and Men, in that this is a story, peppered with many songs and prayers, about spiritual integrity and acts of bravery in a situation where such acts have arguably lost all practical purpose. Meyer’s Cristeros, their faces deeply lined under massive sombreros (some of the actors are actually descendants of Cristeros), clearly have no chance of making any difference in Mexico with regards to religious intolerance. And it’s equally clear that they will not survive. Which is why the last scene is so poignant—this isn’t The Wild Bunch; isn’t going to end in thrilling slaughter, so instead opts for a final moment of tranquility, the Cristeros in Christ-like loin cloths, in the face of looming death. The film is one of only two Mexican films at TIFF this year, and a major highlight of my Festival thus far.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

TIFF '11: The sound of silence

Islands, Stefano Chiantini’s third feature, stars Asia Argento as Martina, a woman living on a small, ruggedly beautiful Italian island, a woman so traumatized by loss that she’s resolved to stop speaking and devote herself to caring for bees and an old priest who’s suffered a stroke. Martina is most often clad in baggy pants and boots, a shapeless old ski jacket, and a plaid shirt. Quite a different ensemble than the foxy little dress and six-inch black heels Argento wore to the premiere screening of Islands at the Toronto International Film Festival last night. Islands tracks the convergence of Martina, the priest, and an undocumented foreign labourer who winds up getting stranded on the island and helping take care of the old man, as well as fend off the old man’s sister, who seems fiercely protective of his welfare mainly so she and her husband can get in on the inheritance. Anyway, the three central characters form an archipelago of sorts, and of course Martina and the foreigner, each damaged in their way, gradually move toward romance while facing nominal resistance. Islands has some captivating images of stark landscape and stark interiors, but the illegal immigrant angle is basically incidental and the love story exceedingly familiar. In all seriousness, you almost have to admire how utterly lacking in subtext this film is (especially considering the central character is mute): the sister’s husband actually comes out and states their ulterior motive; Martina fondles photos of some child clearly absent and achingly missed; Martina pulls her nightshirt tight to her breasts before bed, the foreigner having re-awakened her sexual longings; the foreigner sucks honey from Martina’s fingers; and, big-big-big foreshadowing with this one, the foreigner echoes that bit in L’atalante about dunking your head in water to see the ones you love (might Martina have lost someone to the sea?). Yes, Islands is a triumph of exacting story editing. Anyway, it was a perfectly tasteful way to pass a couple of hours on a Wednesday night at TIFF, the point by which everyone is totally fucking exhausted. During the Q&A after the screening someone asked Argento about playing a mute (“It was a relief. Most of the time you have to learn all that dreadful dialogue. It’s so long.”) and about why Martina doesn’t speak. “I tend to remember the great silences in my life,” she replied. “I find that silence is very sexy.” As people shuffled out of the theatre I tried going up to Argento and not saying a single word. Didn’t seem to work.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

TIFF '11: The roles we play

In the last few years I’ve been able to interview Werner Herzog several times in connection with his Toronto International Film Festival premieres, and as much as I enjoy these experiences—Herzog is nothing if not entertaining company—our conversations, if you can call them that, along with his public appearances, have made me increasingly suspicious: Has the filmmaker become too much of a showman? Has his schtick become too wrote, his eccentricities token, a put-on, an extension of the sort of too-recognizably Herzogian branding that threatens to over-burden films like My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?, converting them into a sort of check list? When I speak to him I feel less like he’s responding to my questions than he’s launching almost randomly into his prepared anecdotes, which are part of his hard-sell. (“Herzog always delivers!”) But I’ve just seen Into the Abyss, his new film about two inmates in Texas—one on death row, one serving a sentence that wouldn’t see him up for parole for another 40 years—and the families of those inmates victims. It has no trademark Herzog voice-over, and features no exotic landscapes (unless you consider rural Texas to be exotic). And watching it I realize that, while Herzog the public figure may seem less than engaged with an honest and open exchange, Herzog the filmmaker is in fact more invested in people at this point in his career than at any other. In Encounters at the End of the World he was as interested in the people who filter down to the bottom of the world as he was in the Antarctic undersea strangeness. In Cave of Forgotten Dreams he was as curious about the scientists at work in the Chauvet Cave as he was in the cave’s astounding Stone Age art. Into the Abyss is an extraordinary film precisely because of Herzog’s faith in his subjects, all of them struggling to come to terms with different kinds of murder, to supply the film with its wonder and meaning. He listens exceedingly well. He provokes, he seeks out quirk at every chance, but he also exudes real compassion without flamboyant sentiment.

On a somewhat similar note, Alps, the latest from Yorgos Lanthimos, which had its TIFF premiere to some very enthusiastic fans last night, echoes Dogtooth, its predecessor, in its obsession with role-playing and heavily constructed modes of behaviour: the film is about a group of people who rent themselves out as surrogates to people who have lost a loved one, pretending to be the dearly departed for as long as it takes to get over the loss. Of course, it’s kooky and formalist as all hell. It’s also fascinating, and surprisingly poignant. A potential point of contention for some will lay in the fact that while the flat performance style of Dogtooth was contained within a cloistered family unit, Alps opens up the canvas to the rest of the world—and it turns out that everyone else acts like that too. But this filmmaker, so drawn to intricate, rule-laden systems and the process of how they inevitably break down, is not as schematic as the oppressive patriarchal figures he creates. As rigorously Bressonian as his films’ now apparently de rigueur performance style is, there is still room for spontaneity. There are moments when his protagonist—beautifully played by Aggeliki Papoulia—becomes so immersed in the people she’s temporarily resurrecting that emotional or guttural responses break up, or rather transcend her deadpan. There are real people with real feelings in Alps—it’s just that they’re placed in situations that interrogate the very notion of how feelings are expressed.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

TIFF '11: We we came from

My first report from the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival is coming shamefully late. My only excuse is that I’ve been traveling, sort of all over the place—Tijuana, San Diego, Denver—and not every stop was strictly voluntary. Yet this sense of steady movement was not inappropriate for what constituted one of yesterday’s highlights, the Mavericks session at the Princess of Wales Theatre that included the world premiere of Jonathan Demme’s Neil Young Journeys, followed by an onstage discussion between programmer Thom Powers, Demme and Young, whose endearingly dry humour and utterly relaxed demeanor charmed the hell out of everybody.

Neil Young Journeys is both a concert movie and a road movie. It shifts between pleasingly unfussy coverage of Young’s pair of recent solo performances at Massey Hall—just a few blocks away from the Princess—and Young’s journey in a Crown Victoria from Omemee (“...a town in North Ontario...”), where he spent part of his childhood, to Toronto for the show. Along the way are amusing recollections of youth, like the one about the kid named Goof who gave Young a nickel to eat tar or tell an old lady she had a fat ass, some very pretty scenery, and Young’s confession that, despite his career-long obsession with maximum sound quality, the car is still his preferred place to listen to music.

No car stereo has anything on the sound system at the Princess however, which Young tweaked so that we listened to Journeys at 96 kilohertz—the first time in history a film was exhibited so thunderously. Given his subject, Demme most often smartly opts to hold images a long while rather than try to impose excitement through a lot of needless cutting. So we get extended shots of Young’s little beak of an upper lip perched on the edge of his harmonica and the tear in the pinch of his beat-up white fedora, or, just as memorably, Young’s face as seen through a psychedelically lit gob of spit clinging to his microphone micro-cam. The songs were mainly culled from Young recent Daniel Lanois-produced Le Noise and from his breakthrough period of 40 years ago. Young’s murder ballad ‘Down By the River’ ends with a wonderfully spooky and hushed “There is no reason for you to hide...” There’s a stirring rendition of ‘After the Gold Rush’ performed on pump organ and harmonica, and an industrial-strength ‘Ohio’ on a Les Paul. The show ends with a terrifically feedback-operatic ‘Walk With Me.’ But among the newer material the song that made the biggest impression on me was ‘You Never Call’—a song that cries out to be covered by Willie Nelson—in which Young repeats a line that evokes death as “the ultimate vacation with no back pain,” and spots a dead friend’s car in the parking lot outside a hockey game.

The onstage Q&A was a little too brief. It featured a very funny story from Demme about how he and Young first met, the happy revelation that Young is writing a memoir, and one-too-many old schoolchums in the audience who just wanted to say hi. Still, the atmosphere was palpably affectionate, imbued with the feeling that each of us has a road of differing lengths behind us, and we were all of us sharing a very memorable stop.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Riding for the feeling: Road to Nowhere

Road to Nowhere begins with an unidentified man pushing a DVD-R—the words “Road to Nowhere” written on its face—into a laptop. “Velma was always my window into the story,” the man says, and as the disc begins to play, we see a woman—Velma?—seated on a bed, blow-drying her nails. The body of the laptop constitutes a “window” all its own, until the camera pushes in and the window falls away, and the woman on the bed is suddenly compelled to blow-dry her face, as though some arctic chill was overtaking her. The image of her doing this holds for a long while, virtually static, but oddly riveting—she’s preparing for something. Soon a man drives up to the woman’s house, and enters; soon we hear a shot; soon after that the woman departs. She drives the man’s car to a lake, where, in another initially serene moment, a Piper Cherokee falls from the sky and crashes into the water.

What’s going on? What sort of movie is this? Neither question is easily answered. Road to Nowhere, written by Steven Gaydos, is a movie about the making of a movie about a blog about a real crime, one involving suicide, murder and money, and whose facts remain elusive. It’s about a filmmaker (Tygh Runyan), teasingly named Mitchell Haven, entranced by an beautiful inexperienced actress (Shannyn Sossamon) who may or may not be connected to the woman she’s been contracted to play. (“I don’t act,” she tells him. “That’s perfect,” he replies.) Drenched in mystery, blurring demarkations between what’s rehearsed, what’s improvised, and what’s genuine, it’s about how illusion overtakes all attempts to capture the real, and contains enough stories-within-stories to make it more Paul Auster than any of Auster’s movies. In some ways it’s also a tribute to actress and photogrpaher Laurie BIrd, who gave such arresting, indelible, troubling performances in Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) and Cockfighter (1974), who Hellman fell in love with, and who killed herself in 1979 at the age of 25. Road to Nowhere is Hellman’s first movie in over 20 years and, after a single, delightfully baffled viewing, I’m already willing to call it one of his best. It’s now available on DVD and blu-ray from Entertainment One.

Comparisons to Mulholland Drive are inevitable and useful too, given the movie industry milieu, the unresolved enigmas, and the implication that role-playing is both inherently dangerous and quite possibly a wayward route to revelation. But Road to Nowhere, shot in mostly in North Carolina, is more a chamber piece, and also less coy with regards to its knowingness about Hollywood and the spell cast over filmmakers by the work of those who came before them. There’s also a marvelous a cappella performance in a bar from Bonnie Pointer, and a subtextual running commentary about the allure of new digital technology and how it further complicates the ontologies of filmmaking. Road to Nowhere is, in short, very rich, smart, utterly puzzling, hypnotic, and easy on the eyes and ears. I can’t wait to see it again. I don’t know that I’ll be able to make any more sense of its plot afterwards.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Dreaming of deep history

A landslide hermetically sealed what would become known as the Chauvet Cave some 20,000 years ago, preserving its contents in a sort of natural time capsule. Among these contents are paintings which carbon dating tells us are roughly 32,000 years old—by far the oldest works of art in the world. The cave was discovered in 1994 when explorers found air shafts along its nearby cliffs. Because of the delicate atmospheric conditions needed to maintain the integrity of its contents, access to Chauvet has been restricted to a handful of scientists, with very few exceptions. It is our great fortune that one of those exceptions was made for Werner Herzog and his skeleton crew.

It is difficult to put into words why so much in Cave of Forgotten Dreams is so immensely moving. Obviously, that we’re seeing manmade images of such unfathomable vintage is itself deeply impressive, but the sophistication of the paintings goes far beyond crude representation: they elegantly envelop the undulations of the cave’s walls; they convey decidedly personal impressions of the beasts they depict, and sometimes imply movement through repetition; one image of a cave lion is drawn with a single, six-foot-long brush stroke. The genuine artfulness of these paintings prompted Herzog to make his film not merely a document of some extraordinary discovery, but to use it as a platform for speculating on the dreams of its Stone Age authors, whom he imagines as envisioning “the landscape as operatic event,” and whom he aligns with both the German Romanticists and cinema’s forefathers.

One of the most remarkable works Herzog encounters is a palimpsest, with one layer being painted some 5,000 years after the first. In a sense, Herzog’s film is another layer to this collaboration that stretches across millennia, evoking a poetry and sensuality unique to its form, and making the most relevant use of 3D technology I’ve ever seen. Organ and cello music heighten our sense of having entered an ancient cathedral. Spotlights from the crew’s headlamps move like fireflies across stone and stalagmites and the places where calcites have rendered the cave floor into a rink of glistening wax. In the most spellbinding passages, Herzog’s informative, characteristically eccentric running voice-over falls silent, leaving only Ernst Reijseger's haunting score on the soundtrack, and his light panels move across the paintings like a caress, echoing the torches held by those who came before. The result is a feeling of intense intimacy.

There’s more, of course, to Cave of Forgotten Dreams than just the cave itself. As with Encounters at the End of the World, Herzog is also very interested in the people who have gathered from many places and disciplines to work in and around Chauvet. Most memorably, he speaks with a scientist and former circus juggler who confesses that during his initial visits to Chauvet he had alarmingly vivid dreams of lions every night and needed time away from the cave to recover. It’s one of those things you might imagine the mischievous Herzog scripting for his subject, but the truth is that, after seeing this film, it’s actually hard to imagine spending time in Chauvet and not being haunted by primordial visions, by things lodged deep in the psyche, rarely awakened, and beyond language. Do see this movie.