Thursday, September 27, 2012

Every mind a battlefield

A lot of guys came back from the war a little messed up, but what messed up Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) must have started long before he went to sea. He father died from drink and his mother wound up institutionalized; now Freddie boozes with an uncommon passion for oblivion and responds to the world with equal parts naïveté and rage. In early scenes of Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master we see Freddie drain something out of a torpedo and a little later get creative with darkroom fluids. He’s poisoning himself—and others—for shits and giggles. He can make some kind of barely digestible homebrew out of just about anything; this is one of Freddie’s genuine talents, the other being portrait photography, though he loses his first postwar department store job when he gets into a fight with a customer for no apparent reason, other than the acceleration of the inevitable. The Master is, among other things, a portrait of Freddie; so much of this picture is made of portraits, haunting images of eyes and mouths, heads and shoulders, necklines and hairlines, captured by cinematographer Mihai Malaimare in gorgeous, dizzyingly detail-saturated 65mm images, that at times mirror the softening gaze of its deranged central character, that render every wrinkle, blink and lip-tremble as dramatically as the movement of armies across a battlefield. Indeed, faces, and the minds behind the faces, are battlefields upon which wills are bent and self-realization is a merciless, violent endeavour.

Always in a gorilla hunch and cradling his injured kidneys, Freddie moves from job to job, place to place. He may have killed a man who looked like his father. He’ll never know for sure; he ran from the scene. So he shambles; he is a shambles. Until, in 1950, he meets Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), author, self-declared scientist, what we now call a New Age guru, a fictional figure many observers have pegged as a stand-in for Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. Freddie stows away on the borrowed yacht on which Dodd is marrying off his daughter, and Freddie is immediately taken under Master’s wing. Freddie and Dodd recognize each other as the unlikeliest of kindred spirits (literally; they’re sure they met in a another life), chosen father and chosen son, another of Anderson’s surrogate families (see Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, There Will Be Blood, et cetera; families sprout like fungus on Anderson’s broad canvases). Dodd likes Freddie’s hooch and psychic malleability; Freddie likes Dodd’s paternal attention and fraternal, vaguely (or not so vaguely) homoerotic affection and apparent belief in his untapped potential. Freddie submits himself to “processing,” to answering Dodd’s standardized questions, many of them bringing up painful memories, a bastard hybrid of psychoanalysis and past life-regression hypnosis. (This scene, the two men below deck, a few swigs of hi-test swill already in their bellies, with only a microphone between them, with the focus so shallow that all there ever is on screen is one furiously alive face, just the surface of a face, is itself one of the most riveting pieces of cinema you’ll see this year, I promise.) Central to Dodd’s theories is the idea that man is not an animal, but Freddie is about as animal as any man can get. He’s also devoted to Dodd, at least until he can’t take it anymore, or until he feels abandoned. These men need each other, and this dark, fluid and captivating film is about the intensity and eventual collapse of their codependency.  

There’s so much to The Master, its fusion of classicism and narrative idiosyncrasies ,some akin to literature than cinema per se; its very noir protagonist (imagine Robert Ryan in the Nicolas Ray version); its shifts in rhythm, its silences and now-cantering, now-shimmering music, from Radiohead’s spindly genius Johnny Greenwood; its commentaries on religion, state and commerce; its slips into reverie (the moment when every women becomes naked, when phones are brought to you while sleeping in movie houses); its sensual beauty and monumental sadness; its performances, perhaps most of all: Hoffman’s mesmerizing, Wellesian convergence of hysteria and colossal confidence; Amy Adams’ pedagogical tones and velvet-iron control as Dodd’s wife, the master behind the master; and Phoenix’s go-for-broke yet unnervingly real embracing of alcoholic derangement, childish longings, internal bleeding, and broken masculinity. (A key visual motif: the image of Naval Officer Freddie on some beach in the Pacific, snuggling up to a woman sculpted from sand, all generous breasts and spread-apart legs, Freddie’s feminine ideal—until the tide sweeps her away. Watch his fellow officers looks of growing discomfort as Freddie engages in too elaborate, protracted play-sex with her. ) The film will draw different ratios of unease and awe in different viewers, but I feel no reservations about called The Master a masterpiece, with all the provocations and points of contention that term implies. 

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

TIFF '12: "I wanted to make something like a ghost film...": Miguel Gomes on the two faces of Tabu

Phantoms in the African veldt, a melancholic “intrepid explorer,” a haunted crocodile: these are the enchanting ingredients of a film watched in a cinema by Pilar (Teresa Madruga) in the opening moments of ‘Paradise Lost,’ the first part of Portuguese director and co-scenarist Miguel Gomes’ gorgeous, seductive and strange Tabu. Pilar is in her 50s; she lives alone in an apartment complex in Lisbon. Her neighbour, Aurora (Laura Soveral), is in her 80s, seems to be suffering from dementia, indulges in gambling binges, recounts elaborate dreams featuring monkeys, and is paranoid and abusive toward her stoic African housekeeper Santa (Isabel Muñoz Cardoso, so memorable in Pedro Costa’s Colossal Youth).

Aurora’s health takes a turn for the worse, and once divested of her clothes and sunglasses and grooming she begins to take on a very different air—there are close-ups of her in hospital that recall Dreyer. She asks Pilar to track down an old man she’s never mentioned before: Ventura (Henrique Espírito Santo), the name itself laced with the idea of adventure. Pilar finds Ventura, and Ventura tells her a story, something that happened 50 years ago, in an unspecified African country, involving Aurora and him. From here we enter Tabu’s second part: ‘Paradise.’ Young Aurora (Ana Moreira), a birdy beauty and an excellent shot with a rifle, is married to a wealthy expatriate plantation owner who can do a nice waltz, becomes pregnant with his child, but falls in love with young Ventura (Carloto Cotta), a moustachioed, leather hat-wearing, womanizing drummer in a band that specializes in Phil Spector covers and for a time found it profitable to play private gigs for the Portuguese colonial elite—Ventura wants Aurora to be his little baby, but she’s about to have someone else’s. There are many parties where firearms are always handy. There are many secret rendezvous, and separations full of love letters. Riddled with decadence and desire, ‘Paradise’ is as rapturous and fevered, at times frenetic and tumbling forth, as ‘Paradise Lost’ is meditative and methodical, resigned, with characters often introduced with their backs or profiles to camera. ‘Paradise’ embraces elements of silent melodrama, literary monologue and pure montage: there is no audible dialogue, but we hear select sounds—the sounds Ventura remembers?—along with a dreamy piano score, and we are guided through all of it by Ventura’s wearied memories of doomed love.

Miguel Gomes

Appropriating the title and reversing the diptych structure of F.W. Murnau’s 1931 south seas romance, Gomes’ third feature is stunningly photographed, formally fascinating, critically engaged with history—he likes to describe Tabu as a dysfunctional version of Out of Africa—and, despite the solipsism and cruelty of the lovers, it is unspeakably moving. It premiered at Berlin, where it won the FIPRESCI and Alfred Bauer Awards and was nominated for the Golden Bear. And it was one of my favourites at the Toronto International Film Festival, where I had the opportunity to speak with Gomes at the friendly offices of Films We Like for a too-brief but very enjoyable interview. Tabu is currently showing in Toronto at TIFF Bell Lightbox and is about to start a full theatrical run in Edmonton, courtesy of Metro Cinema.

JB: What was the initial inspiration for Tabu?

MG: Someone in my family told me about her neighbor, a senile old woman, like Aurora. She had a strange relationship with her African housekeeper. Some of the scenes in the first part of Tabu come directly from stories told to me by this relative. These kinds of characters, older, lonely women, don’t tend to have very romantic lives. So we have this story about neighbours doing relatively everyday things, and then, halfway through, in contrast to this, we have the second part, the intrusion of a completely different space with completely different characters. One character, of course, was in the first part, but now we see her 50 years before, doing what feels almost like the opposite of what she did in the first part. In the first part there is no mention of Africa; it’s almost a hidden thing. You can see some masks in Aurora’s house, but she never talks about Africa. She only discusses Africa when she gets confused. That’s when she starts to talk about the crocodile, and people probably think she’s just crazier than ever. I think Africa is the taboo of the first part, this colonial past. It exists in the Portuguese society nowadays, but it’s underneath, in the social subconscious.

JB: Given the nature of the second part—the nature of the story and especially of the storyteller—it makes perfect sense to me that African characters are largely relegated to the background. But I wonder if this was ever a concern for you, telling an African story in which black Africans play what is largely an accessory role.

MG: I wanted to make something like a ghost film, a ghost film about an extinguishing society, dead or on the verge of being dead. So we have these white people having fun and killing each other, and at the end of the film, at the melodramatic climax, Africa takes over. Literally. The Phil Spector songs disappear and you hear only African music. From that moment on all the white characters disappear. One of the problems I have with fiction about colonial times is that it is too often didactic, inventing characters who come out and say, “Hey, these colonials are not good guys. They lived in a completely wrong system.” Of course, I share these opinions, but I don’t think I’m obliged to put things that way. I need to tell a story with the confidence of knowing that people have some sense that the colonial system was an unjust system. I think Tabu in any case makes very clear that something is wrong. This guy is making parties, playing Russian roulette—the people are kind of deranged. But I don’t have to spell it out for you by having a guy beating an African kid or something. Too many films make a big effort to say things that to me seem pretty obvious.

JB: It says something about the tone of Tabu that every act of ostensible intervention in Africa undertaken by the Europeans seems either ineffectual or doomed, whether it’s Pilar and her altruistic pursuits, your intrepid explorer, who really just seems to be searching for a place to die, or the lovers, who, solipsistic as their actions are, seem to have sealed their fate to some degree by coming to Africa in the first place. It’s like a curse.

MG: Yes, though I think these are different things. Pilar’s activities don’t go very far. She can’t fix the world and neither can Obama; neither can the stupid politicians that are in charge nowadays in Europe. The world doesn’t seem to be going anywhere nice. There’s a kind of impotence to what Pilar does. But this curse that you have in the explorer story and also in the story of the lovers… You know, I made this film-within-the-film at the beginning of Tabu, romantic, almost baroque, as a way of signaling what we will eventually return to later.

JB: I admire the structure of Tabu very much. I wonder if the structure itself helped galvanize you.

MG: Honestly, making a film for me is so organic that maybe I’m lying when I try to answer these questions after it’s been made. The script was in the garbage can by the midpoint in the production. We couldn’t afford to film the things we’d written. So the second part was improvised. We knew that we’d have these lovers, that Aurora would be at this plantation, that she would get pregnant—things like this. We knew the basic story, but we couldn’t shoot the scenes we’d wanted to for lack of money. What we did then was create a smaller group from within the original crew, which was already very small—it was me and three people—and we called ourselves “the central committee.” The job of the central committee was to come up with something like a menu of scenes. Like in a Chinese restaurant: “Number 122: Pool Scene.” It was very abstract. They actors didn’t know what any of this meant. We simply proposed activities, and made up scenes all the time. We’d complete a day of shooting and then come up with some scenes for the next, reacting to what we had filmed before. So I can say that from the beginning there were two parts, working with oppositions: old and young, loneliness and love, everyday life and a very cinematic life, dialogue and the absence of dialogue. We had that structure in place, but how it progressed to the final thing we have now came about largely through the process of making it. The voice-over in the second part, for instance, was only conceived during production. I worked with my co-writer and my editor at the same time; we would edit what we’d shot while at the same time writing and reading out the voice-over. Something that would normally occur at the beginning of the process—writing—occurred only at the end of the process.

JB: That’s so interesting, because Tabu ultimately feels like an homage to oral storytelling—something very rare in movies. Ventura’s voice-over narration changes how we absorb everything. I think of that scene where Aurora and Venture are hiking in the jungle and then stop and gaze directly at the camera. You feel as though the young Ventura is looking at the old Ventura as he tells his story. There’s the feeling that memory and the process of narration is changing how everything unfolds.

MG: You’re a very good viewer.

JB: Thanks. It’s a pretty fascinating movie to view. And listen to. Do you feel invested in this idea of oral storytelling?

MG: I enjoyed having Ventura tell his story in this kind of strange way. It’s suggested that he might be a little senile too. He tells the story like it was in a book. It’s strange because he’s telling the story to two women, the other women from the first part of the film, but in a way it’s like he’s speaking to himself. Or to the viewers. You don’t know. But this idea of oral storytelling also comes out of having Santa reading Robinson Crusoe. I guess in our lives we have a need for stories and romance. So the second part of the film feels like a gift to the characters in the first.

JB: Ventura doesn’t really enter the film until after Aurora dies, so in a sense it’s like he’s taking the baton from her.

MG: He’s reinventing Aurora. At the start she just seems like this old woman with Alzheimer’s and probably not very interesting. And then she becomes a starlet, a character from an American film or the ’40s or ’50s. Only the narration by Ventura allows for this. That was there from the beginning, the desire to take an old lady that no one cares about and then turn her into Katherine Hepburn.

JB: Which is part of what allows Tabu to give us both a generous dose of romantic cinema and a critique of romantic cinema.

MG: Yes. You can do these things at the same time. To have this fatigued world and this exotic world. It’s nice to have both of those things, no? 

Monday, September 24, 2012

Playing for keeps

There was a long stretch, particularly after the empty whiz-bang bravura of Panic Room (2002), when I felt instinctively leery of anything directed by David Fincher. This attitude changed completely with Zodiac (2007), one of the great American films so far this century; Zodiac made me reconsider everything of Fincher’s, both before and after. So along comes Criterion’s new DVD and Blu-ray release of The Game (1997), and I’m very interested, even though I remember feeling underwhelmed by the film upon its debut. It remains in my estimation a work that’s far from Fincher’s most accomplished, either in terms of his command of craft or thematic heft. It isn’t the most serious or elegant or arresting of Fincher’s movies, but it is immensely intriguing—the set-up is the best piece of this puzzle—entertaining, and possesses several elements that bounce nicely against those in Fincher’s other films, right from those opening home movies, which feature eerie ghost faces from the past and flicker with the promise of something vaguely sinister, looking forward to the haunting flashbacks in Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011).

The Game’s protagonist is the obscenely affluent, cold-hearted, megalomaniac, controlling, toxically lonesome investment banker Nicholas Van Orton, played by Michael Douglas, by then the Hollywood embodiment of white American wealth and guilt—and Van Orton’s secretary’s grooming is conspicuously similar to that of Alex, Douglas’ femme fatale in Fatal Attraction (1987). For his 48th birthday Van Orton’s long-estranged little brother (Sean Penn) gives him a gift certificate for some mystery service rendered by a company called CRS. They promise their clients an undefined but singular experience, the fulfillment of desires you didn’t even know you had, some sort of adventure full of revitalizing thrills—the promise of the movies, in other words, but delivered as something overwhelming and experiential. Van Orton only knows his game has started when he finds clowns in his driveway and the TV news starts speaking directly to him. Soon he’s running from guard dogs, going through a lot of monogrammed shirts, having unnerving encounters with a clumsy but very attractive waitress with an aversion to panties (Canada’s own Deborah Kara Unger), escaping from drowning cabs, and watching his offshore accounts become suddenly, inexplicably drained. Suddenly everything that happens in the world is happening to him. Whether intentional or not, one of the ironies of The Game is that while its meant to humble the nasty, self-absorbed and insulated Van Orton, it actually only accentuates the feeling that he really is the center of the universe.


Parts of The Game feel too fussed over; there’s more incident than feels necessary, too many cutaways, too much overly indicative atonal piano-tinkle scoring, and too many low-angle shots of Van Orton’s car. Indeed, in the audio commentary accompanying Criterion’s disc, Fincher confesses that parts of the film are much cuttier than he would have liked. But there’s no denying that the film clips along: it is a veritable suspense machine. It’s easy to imagine Hitchcock being attracted to this material. It’s like a Wrong Man movie except that the hero is unmistakably the Right Man, the target of so much mega-financed, vertiginous mischief. There’s a darkness under all this—Van Orton’s father was 48 when he suicided, and it seems possible that Van Orton may follow in dad’s footsteps—but that darkness evaporates under the cheerful glow of the film’s risible but not inappropriate resolution. Van Orton is offered a fresh, if far more modest proposition in The Game’s closing scene. We leave Van Orton in a moment in decision, starting over, newly shaken awake, ready for a future of tantalizing uncertainty. And we leave Fincher on the verge of a period of uncertainty with regards to his career path, still some years away from mastering his own destiny. 

Thursday, September 20, 2012

TIFF '12: True stories of people and animals

Once Upon a Time Was I, Veronica

Hotel rooms and bars, coffee shops and offices, street corners and many different screening rooms. In long lines. Every once on a while, at my desk. Here and there, in my own warm bed. It was a good TIFF for ol’ JB, busy, largely free of the runaround, free booze, too much coffee, too little food, movies movies movies, including several very good ones, some of which will make their way toward the regular sorts of cinemas, many of which will recede into the vast film festival fog. In that former, happy category, keep your eyes peeled for an expansive post here in phantom country about something we like to call Tabu, from Portugal’s Miguel Gomes. In that latter, frustrating category, a great discovery for me was a character study entitled One Upon a Time Was I, Veronica, from another Gomes, this one a Brazilian named Marcello. It’s a sensual, wise film I knew nothing about going in. Its eponymous heroine (Hermila Guedes) is a young doctor who lives with her ailing dad, whom she loves—seemingly to the exclusion of others; the film belongs in that small niche of sensitive, complicated films about fathers and daughters, a niche which also includes Claire Denis’ 35 Rhums and Ozu’s Late Spring. Veronica has good friends, loves to swim and to dance. She has an active, often fulfilling sex life, vividly captured in several memorable scenes, often full of laughter and happy fumbling, but she feels no great urge to get serious with anyone. Using a handheld recording device she undertakes some amateur self-analysis; she conceives of a movie of her life where she gets a happy ending of her own idiosyncratic design. Refusing to force any artificial resolutions upon Veronica, Gomes helps her find that ending, which became only more satisfying to me the more I thought about it in the hours and days afterward.

Something in the Air

More likely to garner a proper theatrical run in the near future—one would hope, anyway—is Something in the Air (Après mai). Set in the early ’70s, the latest from Olivier Assayas, the prolific writer-director of Irma Vep, Summer Hours and Carlos, is an autobiographical portrait of the artist as a young dissident, trying to forge a political identity while struggling to come to terms with a calling as suspiciously bourgeois as painting (Assayas’ métier before he got into cinema). The film moves fluidly from one extended scene to another, through demonstrations, nocturnal vandalizing, ideological powwows, travels abroad, brushes with mysticism and drugs, trysts with likeminded lovers, hellos and farewells with sundry friends, art classes and film sets. Elegant and inquisitive, rich with period detail, Assayas keeps just the right distance at all times, never judging his characters, however young and zealous, never over-emphasizing a single scene to give us a false sense of sudden realization: self-discovery is an ongoing process, and Something in the Air simply lets us drift along with its teenage protagonist for a while, long enough to sense the great changes that occur both in his own psyche and in that of an entire generation trying to make sense of the world in the wake of that titular turning point of May, 1968.

Ginger and Rosa

Sally Potter’s Ginger and Rosa takes a somewhat similar tack, tracing the collapse of a friendship between two teenage Londoners in the early ’60s, one of whom (Elle Fanning) becomes increasingly devoted to the cause of nuclear disarmament, the other (Alice Englert) to finding some bohemian-traditonally domestic hybrid life with her best friend’s handsome writer father (Alessandro Nivola). The film ends rather too neatly, but the lead-up is utterly engrossing, and the supporting cast, which includes Timothy Spall, Annette Benning and Christina Hendricks, is marvelous.

Post Tenebrus Lux

Family life may seem wildly fraught in Ginger and Rosa, but those aspiring adolescent radicals and their lusty, misguided dads ain’t got nothing on the violent, neglectful, doomed patriarchs of Mexican writer/director Carlos Reygadas’ Post Tenebras Lux. Like Something in the Air and Ginger and Rosa, the film is very much grounded in autobiography, though when refracted through the prism of Reygadas’ (often beveled) lens, personal memories and anxieties blend with fantasies and dreams, visions of radiant demons carrying toolboxes (a archetypical fatherly accessory if ever there was one) and spectacular acts of self-destruction. There’s little in the chronologically amorphous Post Tenebras Lux that lends itself to easy synopsizing; let’s just say that the young family at its center, living in beautiful rural Morelos, move through a series of crises both banal and mythic: the sexual dissatisfactions of life after kids, substance abuse, betrayals, attempted thefts, and petty acts of revenge. The kids are played by Reygadas’ own children, and give some of the most natural and mesmerizing performances I’ve seen this year from humans. (See below for non-humans.) Just watch that gorgeous, eerie opening bit, where little Rut, just old enough to walk, scurries through a dusky valley where all sorts of livestock get restless and the sky darkens and thunders. Tenebras, indeed.


Of the Canadian titles I caught, Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell (yet another fascinating, formally engaged, autobiographical work) and Peter Mettler’s smart but deeply groovy hypno-essay film about the nature of time, The End of Time, are both strong works that will be dealt with in this here country soon enough. But my favourite Canadian film this TIFF? Bestiare, from Quebec’s ever-inventive Denis Côté, auteur of Carcasses and Curling. As the streets of downtown Toronto were stampeded by fans, stargazers and nut-jobs clamouring like wild beasts for a closer view of, say, Shia Leboeuf, I was tucked away in Lightbox, delighted and mesmerized by the many animals on display in Côté’s observational, but also witty, playful, maybe political (but probably not), quietly provocative and beautifully crafted study of four seasons of life at the Hemingford Parc Safari zoo. For all the big stars striding the red carpets in expensive clothes over the last week and a half, I confess that I was most drawn toward the hairy ones, the four-legged ones, the odorous ones, the inarticulate yet inherently cinematic stars that graced Bestiare. Here’s hoping you get a chance to see them yourself soon.