Monday, September 25, 2006

Toronto: Jia Zhang-ke, etc.

Of the eight TIFFs I’ve attended, I think this year’s was probably the strongest. Unlike last year, I took my laptop with me and fully expected to blog the fest, but it turned out that many of the films I saw were not so casually bloggable. I’m still trying to figure out how to think about many of them.

Of the twenty-five films I saw in Toronto, there were two flat-out masterpieces: Jia Zhang-ke’s Chinese diptych Still Life/Dong; and Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Syndromes And A Century from Thailand. Other favorites: Pedro Costa’s Colossal Youth (Portugal); Alain Resnais’s Coeurs (France); Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Climates (Turkey); Abderrehmane Sissako’s Bamako (Mali); Sophie Fiennes’ The Pervert’s Guide To Cinema (UK); Hong Sang-Soo’s Woman On The Beach (S. Korea); Bong Joon-Ho’s The Host (S. Korea); Jafar Panahi’s Offside (Iran); etc.

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Jia Zhang-ke’s Still Life appeared in the Venice line-up as a last-minute ‘secret’ film, won the Golden Lion there over a weekend, and was added to TIFF mid-festival the following Tuesday, causing much (deserved) excitement. The film is set in the Chinese town of Fengjie, soon to be submerged as part of the Three Gorges hydroelectric dam project. There are two storylines, both having to do with spouses trying to reconnect after years of separation.

But the stories feel suitably casual, dwarfed by the breathtaking setting of the river and the mountains which nestle the town and its perpetually sludgy roads. Everywhere we look, the process of demolition is underway as the town prepares for its own disappearance.

Dong, which screened as part of the documentary program, follows one of China’s leading figurative painters, Liu Xiao-dong, as he paints two sets of multi-paneled portraits: one of laborers at the Three Gorges dam (thus its connection to Still Life—we see these laborers and occasionally the same footage in both films); and then of models, probably prostitutes, in Bangkok.

The filmmaker Jia and the painter Liu seem like kindred spirits, and Still Life/Dong is a two-paneled work that is rich in internal resonance. Though it showed on separate days in separate programs, I’d claim that these two films should always be shown on the same bill—they belong together. They also mock the fiction/documentary boundaries we erect around film-works. Yes, Still Life has a plot (however loose), and some professional actors, but most of the faces and all the settings we see in the film are as ‘real’ as in any documentary. On the other hand, as Darren pointed out, Dong has a sequence, in a ‘sub-plot’ involving one of the models watching television and rushing to the train station afterwards, that could easily have been scripted. There’s also the exact same shot of a tumbling wall in both films that is applied to entirely different ends, the exact same event meaning two different things in the two films.

Jia is fascinatingly drawn to the juxtaposition of ‘reality’ and ‘artifice.’ His last fiction film, The World, was set in a Beijing theme park with brazenly fake replicas of the Taj Mahal and the Eiffel Tower. The wind-beaten cliffs and weathered faces of Still Life could not be less fake, but there’s plenty of artifice tucked into the film if you look. Out of the blue, the two stories of the film are bridged not by a normal cut but (I kid you not) a CGI flying saucer that glides from one narrative to another like the bone-turned-spaceship in 2001. (Jia used a similar surprise CGI touch in The World, the candy-colored animations that can be seen in this trailer to the film introduced by Jonathan Rosenbaum.)

Going hand in hand with Jia’s penchant for blatantly—even joyously—inserting these markers of artifice is an attraction to performance. We saw actors mount spectacles in both The World and Unknown Pleasures, and Still Life opens with a gorgeous unbroken panning shot of the passengers on a ferry which includes magic trick acts and a palm-reader. A bit later, four prostitutes step out onto the balcony of a half-destroyed building, posing for a prospective client. A character makes like Chow Yun-Fat the way Michel Poiccard did Bogart in Godard’s Breathless. In Dong, a slow pan across the rain-splattered windows of a van on a ferry shows passengers in a variety of poses: sleeping, worried, reflective, as if each window were a little movie screen. We see the Three Gorges not just in its awesomeness but also in diminutive representation as a painting on a ten-yuan note. Finally, the laborers and prostitutes perform as models for Liu’s paintings in Dong, and Liu himself is performing for Jia as the subject of the film itself.

Jia’s great visual coup here is the use of high-definition digital video, the colors popping like firecrackers: the brownish-red rust of old machinery, the blazing green of grass, etc. In addition, he employs an almost agonizingly beautiful slow pan that tells stories by simply including new information in the frame as it crawls across the landscape or a room. Rob Davis pointed out the amazing depth of focus of high-definition video in these films (I had no idea DV by nature had significantly higher depth of field than film), and Rob’s wife Lorraine Vendrely remarked that the figures of the workers in Still Life were often pitched below the horizon line, with the mountains or the ruined buildings towering over their heads; their body postures even reminded her of the stooped gleaners in Millet. (As I've said before, it's rewarding to 'festival' with friends.)

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Argentine director Lisandro Alonso’s Fantasma takes place entirely in a large building, the Teatro San Martin complex in Buenos Aires. The lead actors of his two previous films, La Libertad and Los Muertos (both set in the Argentinian rural wild), wander through the building looking for a screening of Los Muertos. The former gets lost, the latter (Vargas) makes it to the screening, which is attended by him, the security guard and only one other person, a woman who is a sort of stand-in for us, the cinephile audience.

One way to view this film might be as a piece of conceptual art, in that the ideas generated by the film are as important—perhaps even more so—than the actual art object itself. The film is the third and final part of a closed circle trilogy which includes La Libertad and Los Muertos. The very subject of this film is (allegorically, humorously) the state of art cinema in relation to multiplex cinema. The fact that the screening is almost empty and that even the director doesn’t show up for the screening is sadly funny. After the screening, the cinephile walks up to Vargas and tells him how much she enjoyed the film. Vargas says, “I was entertaining myself….watching myself.” (Apparently, this was the first time Vargas had ever seen a film!) Another in-joke that resonates well at a festival: the building in the film is the setting of the Buenos Aires International filmfest, the Toronto equivalent being the Manulife Centre, where we spent most of our days.

I can do no better than point you to some great thoughts on the film by Harry Tuttle, including his assessment of it as “….a dichotomy opposing rural and urban, ancestral forest tradition and cold city anonymity, the personal and the industrial, and even, why not, Alonso's lonely Avant Garde cinema and the indifferent commercial mainstream industry.”

People fled our screening in droves, and afterwards I saw Alonso hanging about outside the theater by himself. Like the woman cinephile in Fantasma, I approached him cautiously and then wound up chatting with him for about fifteen or twenty minutes. Possessing none of Michael Guillen’s admirable interviewing skills, I rambled through some questions and forgot to take notes. Alonso said that his two favorite filmmakers were Tsai Ming-Liang and Apichtapong Weerasethakul and that Fantasma was a comedy and a sort of tribute to Tsai’s Goodbye Dragon Inn. I made the mistake of (albeit gently) bringing up the words ‘documentary’ and ‘fiction’ in the same sentence in a question. He asked me if I liked the films of the Lumière brothers, and when I said yes, he said sternly: “They didn’t worry about whether their films were documentary or fiction, right?” Right.

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The new Tsai film, I Don’t Want To Sleep Alone, takes place in Kuala Lumpur and contains more than a few connections to Jia’s film. In Still Life, the town of Fengjie is half-destroyed but the large, ruined building in the Tsai film is only half-constructed, and then abandoned. In both films, migrant laborers are key characters and they have difficulty with spoken language or dialect. Partly as a consequence, there are long stretches of silence in both films. There is a stunning shot near the end of the Tsai film of a building upside down, and when a ripple starts to streak across the image, followed by a floating mattress, we realize that we're seeing the reflection of the building in water. Suddenly, this behemoth structure looks as if it were submerged, exactly as the buildings in Still Life will be....any day now.

Now, a critic’s gotta be honest and true to himself, right? So let me just say this. The Tsai film is terrific but there’s a part of me that misses the productive dissonances of The Wayward Cloud. (To get an idea of what wonderful thought such dissonances can produce, see Adrian Martin et al.’s brave grappling with the film’s ending in Rouge and Harry’s five-part exegesis.) Good though the new film is, it is unlikely to produce such rich critical thought. It feels like an aesthetically safer and more familiar work. But really—next to The Wayward Cloud, what film wouldn’t look safer and more familiar? So, please: ignore my nit-picking and see the new one. It’s a strong film, and I look forward to seeing it again.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Toronto Journal 1: Climates, etc.

I’m quickly realizing that a great highlight of this year’s Toronto International Film Festival is the chance to meet up and hang out with more filmbloggers than you could shake a stick at. So far I've had a chance to see: Doug Cummings of Film Journey; Rob Davis of Errata; Michael Guillen of The Evening Class; Darren Hughes of Long Pauses; Russell Lucas of Attorney/Wastrel; Ken Morefield of All Things Ken; Jason Morehead of Opus; J. Robert Parks of Framing Device; and Michael S. Smith of Culturespace. It’s like a filmbloggers convention over here, and we've been convening in restaurants, subway trains, and sidewalk ticket lines.

Ten of us shared a communal Ethiopian meal the other night at a restaurant off Yonge Street. And when I say communal, I mean it literally—no individual plates, but instead large circular pancakes the size of a small coffee table, shared by all.

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Climates, the fourth and latest film by Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan, was a solid kick-off to the fest. I’ve seen and enjoyed Ceylan’s first three features, The Small Town (1998), Clouds Of May (2000), and Distant (2003), especially the last. In Climates, a man breaks up with his girlfriend but can’t shake her from his mind; he’s an architecture prof unmotivated to finish up his thesis and she’s an art director working in television.

Because Ceylan himself plays the man and his wife Ebru plays the woman, it’s easy to imagine this film, sight unseen, as a cathartic Bergmanesque exercise in relationship-autobiography. But instead the movie is more distanced and observational, pulling away from (specific) character psychology and heading instead towards evoking a (universal) free-floating existential malaise and alienation reminiscent of Antonioni. The universal quality is underlined by the film’s three-act structure—summer, fall and winter—which echoes the film’s title.

Ceylan’s lead characters, both here and in Distant, are photographers, and the best thing about this movie is its impressive visual sense. There’s a pair of love scenes—one of them is animalistic, rough and funny; and the other is wispy, oblique and mystical—that is a little tour de force in contrasts. And it’s been a long time since I’ve seen a film that dwells long and patiently on faces; the story of this film is written not in dialogue and not even as much in its mise-en-scene as on these faces. The image above is the long-held opening shot of the film.

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In the Romanian film 12:08 East Of Bucharest, by Corneliu Porumboiu, we see a TV talk show in real time shot from a single fixed camera position for nearly forty-five minutes. The host has rounded up two guests, a history teacher and an elderly villager, to recall the end of Communism in Romania, which occurred when the Ceausescu regime fell at 12:08 pm on December 22, 1989 (thus the film’s title).

The two guests on the talk show relate their accounts of that fateful day but then the phones start ringing and callers begin to flagrantly contradict these accounts. By film’s end, we are left hopelessly confused—in a good way—about that day of revolution, wondering if there was a revolution, the meaning of that historical moment destabilized by faulty memories colored by personal emotion, age, or even plain old alcohol. While much of the film is played as amusing but unexceptional comedy, it is these slightly unsettling (and unanswered) questions about history, time and memory that linger in the mind afterwards.

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If someone wants to mount a defense of Aki Kaurismäki's Lights In The Dusk and shed light on the film—open it up for me—I can tell you that I will be eagerly suggestible. As a Kaurismäki fan, I want so badly to get and like this new film. But from what I have to go on so far, it's frustrating.

The good news first: Many of the familiar and well-loved Kaurismäkian touches are quietly on display. The tone is deadpan but with a light romantic tug; the mise-en-scene is precise and droll; the cutting is crisp; there is his usual deep affection for the socioeconomically discarded and disefranchised. Also present is his typically unerring use of music, everything from opera to rock n'roll, including a rock band performing a tune in its entirety (I always like this about Kaurismäki), the intruments recorded live, played by the performers themselves, not dubbed in the studio.

But the story, of a security guard ensnared in a film noir heist plot, is treated in a bafflingly abstract, spare and diagrammatic manner. The film's main purpose is to check off all the points that form the character's grindingly inexorable downward trajectory. What's missing is the plethora of little character touches that made the previous films of this loose trilogy (Drifting Clouds, The Man Without A Past) so poignant and complex in their affect. Is this a Kaurismäki lab experiment in draining the narrative of the 'false complexities' of a pseudo-manipulative, traditional 'humanistic' character-driven narrative? Is Kaurismäki trying to prove some narrative theorem? Is this an essay film about narrative? As you can tell, I'm dying to give him the benefit of the doubt, but so far...I got nothin'.

Still, it's like seeing an old and dear friend you see every two years or so—as we do with so many contemporary filmmakers we cherish—only to discover that he's turned up for the lunch date hung over, in a laconic and slightly foul mood, not willing to say much; but it feels good to see him anyway. You shake hands afterwards and hope that at your next reunion, two years later, he'll be better and slightly more scrutable company.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Pedro Costa

A few quick notes about Pedro Costa’s 1997 film, Bones (“Ossos”), which I’ve seen twice in the last week.

  • A vivid setting: the Fontainhas district of Lisbon, a slum populated by Cape Verdean immigrants. A young woman becomes a mother and can’t or won’t take care of her baby. Without the mother’s permission, the father takes the baby out of the slum and into the city. But the lead character in the film is neither the mother nor the father but a housecleaning woman, Clotilde, played by Costa regular Vanda Duarte. The actors are nonprofessionals that Costa found living in poverty in that neighborhood.

  • Bones is the first film of a loose trilogy. In the second film, In Vanda’s Room (2000), Duarte plays herself, a heroin addict. Much of that three-hour film takes place in her ten-foot-square room, and is shot on DV. Soon afterwards, the Fontainhas neighborhood was demolished, and the residents relocated by the government to a low-income housing project. The third film, Colossal Youth, deals with this displacement. It shows next week in Toronto.

  • Bones is both documentary (‘real’ people living in ‘real’ settings) and fiction (it’s carefully scripted and rehearsed). The Fontainhas homes are underlit, with cracked walls painted in severely faded green and blue. Clotilde works cleaning houses in a far-away middle-class neighborhood, where the walls are white, and the homes are brightly lit. Ironic: Clotilde—and her physical features, her clothes, her gestures—are more clearly visible to us in these homes of privilege than in her own dingy bedroom and kitchen.

  • The movie is aggressively elliptical. The assembling of the film seems to be based on some private, enigmatic logic. The cuts sometimes seem like non-sequiturs, as if they were connecting nodes (shots) in an open diagram. J. Hoberman on Costa: “a Straubian neorealist.” Mark Peranson on Costa: “a neo-surrealist.”

  • There are extended shots of characters still and posed that seem like acts of portraiture. In their frontal compositions of blank and expressionless faces and bodies, they are reminiscent of Byzantine icons. Also, because of the long takes and temps morts, Andy Warhol’s screen tests.

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Andy Rector at Kinoslang has posted a transcript of a talk given by Costa in Japan to film students. It's a tremendous read, all 10,000+ words of it. I culled a few favorite bits:

[S]ometimes in the cinema, it's just as important not to see, to hide, as it is to show.

For me, the primary function of cinema is to make us feel that something isn't right.

Bones ends exactly like Mizoguchi's film Street of Shame (1956, Akasen-chitai), that is to say, there's a girl who closes a door and who looks at you, and the door is closed on you. That means that you can't enter this film.

I believe that today, in the cinema, when we open a door, it's always quite false, because it says to the spectator: "Enter this film and you're going to be fine, you're going to have a good time," and finally what you see in this genre of film is nothing other than yourself, a projection of yourself. You don't see the film, you see yourself.

Never in my life have I thought: am I making documentary? Am I making a fiction, and what are the ways to make one or the other? They don't exist. We film life, and the more I close the doors, the more I hinder the spectator from taking pleasure in seeing himself on the screen - because I don't want that - the more I close the doors, the more I'm going to have the spectator against me, perhaps against the film, but at least he will be, I hope, uncomfortable and at war. That is, he will be in the uneasy situation of the world. It's not good if one is at ease all the time.

For Bresson to say what he wants to say, then, it's not necessary to use metaphors, MacGuffins, or stage tricks. He goes right to the point, in a very concrete manner. He's very much in the world. This is a very concrete working of the sound and image. Without metaphors, there are only sounds and images. Bresson doesn't use the means of the horror film, or the Western, or whatever, to tell us something, because the horror film, it's already a highly coded form, full of little things that must be done to tell a story. For these reasons, I admire, even more than that, I really like Jacques Tourneur, because he had to do horror films and detective films and Westerns, in order to say the same thing that Bresson says to us. That's difficult, poor guy. He has an idea, I believe it's the same idea that the world is not right, that there's evil, and that we can communicate this idea, and he has to make a horror film to convey this idea. I really admire Jacques Tourneur, because he makes very beautiful things, with a sort of eternity. The themes of Tourneur's films are always important, are still relevant today.

All of this is to say that we can use the cinema to represent things in two very different ways. In Hollywood, we can make highly fictional, adventuresome stories that say exactly the same thing that Bresson says without the same artifice, without needing to use effects. Yet, we can equally love Bresson and Tourneur, even if they stand for two totally different ways of representing the world.

[Bresson] shows our world, and at the same time it appears strange, this world. It's odd how people move in Bresson's films. They walk strangely, their gestures are very fast or very slow. That's the work. It's our world, and at the same time it's very abstract. Cinema is not exactly life. It works with the ingredients of life and you organize, construct these ingredients in a manner different from life. We're going to see them in a different light. It's not life, but at the same time, it's made using the elements of life, which is something very mysterious and sometimes quite beautiful.

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Here's a recently posted Acquarello review of Pedro Costa's Straub/Huillet documentary Where Has Your Hidden Smile Gone?