Friday, September 28, 2007

Toronto: A Few Thoughts

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It’s TIFF hangover-slash-exhaustion, I suspect, but after a week of feeling out of sorts and insomnious, life is thankfully returning to normal. What follow are not ‘reviews’ but instead a few thoughts sparked by a few films…

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I surprised myself in being bowled over by Lee Chang-dong’s Secret Sunshine. Not that there’s a rule about this or anything but the kind of festival film I’m attracted to generally tends to be short on narrative incident or character psychology and long on formal interest. Secret Sunshine isn’t indifferent to form (at all) but it doesn’t really foreground it either. Instead the film makes a sustained play for your complete, naked, gut-level emotional involvement. I ‘bought’ this film; to me, its relentless descent felt true, uncompromised and necessary. If you didn’t buy it (as was the case with a few friends I spoke to), I can see how the second half might perhaps have felt repetitive or redundant.

The film experiments fruitfully with genre and tone. Genre is used not as a grid which guides and directs movement within the film but instead as a catalyst inserted intermittently to set off events within the narrative. The results and consequences of those events, however, are non-generic. In other words, genre moves pop up, MacGuffin-like, simply to seed the narrative from time to time.

Secret Sunshine reminded me of Todd Haynes’s Safe in a couple of ways: (1) The satire of evangelical Christianity is complicated and nuanced and not at all full-blooded and unambivalent, just as it was with New Age-ism in the Haynes film; and (2) The ‘mirror reflection’ ending both films share. The two stunning performances I saw at the fest this year were by Jeon Do-yeon in this film and Asia Argento in Catherine Breillat's An Old Mistress.

Next: I need to see Lee's Oasis and Peppermint Candy.

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So, here’s a question. The two Red Balloon movies: How do they speak to each other? Specifically, the balloon itself: What function does it perform? What does it activate within the narrative?

In Albert Lamorisse’s film (1956), the balloon is always present, visible to all. On the street, people brush past it in annoyance. To them, it’s a pesky outsider, a trespasser. The streetcar refuses to allow it to board; the schoolmaster turns a malign eye on it; it’s ejected from church; the street kids torture it. The balloon’s function in the film is as a public presence—to detail the consequences of its traversal of public spaces.

Hou inverts this function/purpose of the balloon, and renders it private. The balloon is pretty much invisible. Only the boy seems to notice it. The one scene in which it is visible to all is deliberately played in a comic key: its custodian is a man in a green body suit, green because the man can then be easily effaced by the filmmaker’s software.

Except in the first shot of the film, in which the boy climbs up to capture the balloon (a direct quotation of a shot from the original film), he doesn’t even reach out his hand for the balloon; he doesn’t seem to want to possess it. When he spies it through the window, we see little acknowledgment on his face save a mild enchantment (or perhaps I imagined that too). The balloon’s simply there as a private, personal companion for the boy, a hovering object of calm that watches over him from a distance and counterbalances the storm the boy’s mother (Juliette Binoche) weathers daily in numerous small ways.

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One has certain private traditions with ritualistic events like film festivals. At my first TIFF in '99 I stumbled into an utterly winning teen movie (Lukas Moodysson’s Fucking Åmål, a.k.a. Show Me Love) and resolved to get a teen movie fix each year at TIFF. This year, I scheduled The Babysitters, with John Leguizamo and Cynthia Nixon, about a suburban prostitution ring of babysitters. But Gus Van Sant's flat-out gorgeous Paranoid Park gave me my fix and then some, and I passed on The Babysitters.

Three interesting things about Paranoid Park:

(1) The sense of dialectical play between the polarities of documentary authenticity (nonprofessional teens; video footage featuring skateboarders who had no ‘dramatic’ parts in the film’s narrative) and an intensely lyricized subjective treatment of everyday activity, often rendered in slow motion.

(2) The witty, complex and multipurpose music scoring, which used a broad range of sources (Nino Rota from Juliet of the Spirits and Amarcord; Billy Swan’s “I Can Help”; Cool Nutz; hardcore; swing-era jazz) to express a variety of attitudes and moods at different points (like pathos, irony, playfulness, burlesque).

(3) Despite its scrambled, doubling-back-on-itself chronology, it never felt like a ‘puzzle film’ that needed to be taken apart and put back together in some linear, ‘natural’ order. Instead of feeling fragmented, it seemed to exist and unfold unhurriedly in a sort of long, continuous, ‘eternal present’.

(Sandrine Marques at Contrechamp posts an arresting pair of images, side by side, from Van Sant and the Renaissance painter Raphael.)

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A few links:

-- Shahn at Six Martinis and the Seventh Art offers up a set of framegrabs of film projections within films. Perhaps you'll want to add your own suggestions to her list?

-- Dave Kehr in the NYT on G.W. Pabst's The Threepenny Opera: "Here again is proof of what a fragile medium the movies are, and of how foolish it is for us to condescend to the perceived primitivism of a past that is largely a creation of our own neglect." Also, at his blog, Dave recommends a couple of DVD sources that offer rare films in the public domain.

-- Errol Morris has a blog post at the NYT that has elicited 700+ comments in the last couple of days. It begins: "“You mean to tell me that you went all the way to the Crimea because of one sentence written by Susan Sontag?” My friend Ron Rosenbaum seemed incredulous. I told him, “No, it was actually two sentences.”"

-- Dan Sallitt: "In honor of the upcoming NYC screening of Esther Kahn, here is a list of my ten favorite films whose title consists solely of a woman's full name."

-- David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson's invaluable blog celebrates its first anniversary.

-- Michael Z. Newman at Zigzigger on "White Elephant Television."

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Toronto Overview

Today, as per custom, is Post-Festival Depression Day. After 38 films—25 features and 13 shorts—in about a week, it feels unnatural to have all kinds of time on my hands today. As for the festival, even if the peaks from last year’s TIFF (like Still Life/Dong and Syndromes and a Century) perhaps stood a bit taller than this year’s best films, the average film quality level seemed unusually good this year.

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So, in summary...

A few personal favorites: Dans la ville de Sylvia (José Luis Guerin); Secret Sunshine (Lee Chang-dong); Voyage of the Red Balloon (Hou Hsiao-hsien); Useless (Jia Zhang-ke); The Romance of Astrea and Celadon (Eric Rohmer); and Paranoid Park (Gus van Sant).

I also really liked: The Last Mistress (Catherine Breillat); Four Women (Adoor Gopalakrishnan); My Winnipeg (Guy Maddin); Avant que j’oublie (Jacques Nolot); Fengming, A Chinese Memoir (Wang Bing); At Sea (Peter Hutton); Profit motive and the whispering wind (John Gianvito); and Don’t Touch the Axe (Jacques Rivette).

Two fiercely funny films: My Winnipeg (Guy Maddin); and A Girl Cut in Two (Claude Chabrol).

Great erotic cinema to (ever so gently) knock your socks off: the final reel of the Rohmer film.

While I liked many things about them, others seemed to appreciate these films more than I did: The Mourning Forest (Naomi Kawase); The Man from London (Bela Tarr); Alexandra (Alexander Sokurov); and One Hundred Nails (Ermanno Olmi).

Didn’t work for me at all: Redacted (Brian de Palma); and Christopher Columbus the Enigma (Manoel de Oliveira).

Wish I’d been able to squeeze them into my schedule: Silent Light (Carlos Reygadas); 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days (Christian Mungiu); The Banishment (Andrey Zvyagintsev); I’m Not There (Todd Haynes); Slingshot (Brillante Mendoza); and Happiness (Hur Jin-ho).

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Socially, this was an active festival. I met up with several compadres from TIFFs of old: Darren Hughes, Doug Cummings, Michael Smith, Jim Emerson, J. Robert Parks, Michael Guillen, and my long-time Toronto cinephile pals Andrew P. and Moen M. And I’m really glad I got a chance to see and spend a little time with: Andrew Tracy and Adam Nayman of Cinema Scope; Dan Sallitt; Kevin Lee and Cindi; Andy Horbal and Walter “Quiet Bubble” (both all too briefly); Steve Carlson; Jesse Ataide; and Paul C.

Coming up, if I can get my act together: some actual write-ups (gasp) on the movies themselves!

Tuesday, September 04, 2007


Activity-wise, a customary double whammy arrives in early September with the kick-off to the new academic year coinciding with the Toronto film fest. Given that I'll be juggling teaching and film-festivalling, the prime challenges over the next couple of weeks will be smart time- and sleep-management. I don't know for sure if I'll be able to file any dispatches from the film front, but I will try to check in here every now and then. Do keep an eye on Darren's TIFF blog, 1st Thursday, for impressions and interactions of TIFF-goers during the festival.

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Some recent reading:

-- At the TIFF site, the Future Projections symposium has interesting essays by Andréa Picard, Marc Mayer, and others, on the relationship between film and the visual-arts world.

-- Michael Sicinski on Straub/Huillet's Europa 2005, 27 Octobre; and anticipating TIFF.

-- Dan Sallitt: "I saw Bringing Up Baby 12 times in my first 15 years of film-buffery, and then let 20 years go by before my 13th viewing last week. My first impression this time around is that there are two films in there, fighting with each other."

-- We know that modernism influenced cinema. But did cinema influence the development of modernism? Malcolm Turvey at Artforum reviews two art exhibits that juxtapose early painting and film.

-- Steven Shaviro on Abel Ferrara's Go Go Tales: "As is always the case in Ferrara’s films — and as almost nobody seems to understand — the real libidinal force of the movie lies, less in the (often sleazy, and here somewhat de-sleazified, but still, let us say, “provocative”) content, than it does in the force field of intensities created by set design, lighting, and especially camera movement. [...] Ferrara himself was in attendance. Introduced before the film, he looked out over the auditorium (in which there were many empty seats) and said, “Every empty seat is a knife in the heart of the director.”"

-- At Zach's: post+comments on an essay by Régis Debray called "Socialism: A Life-Cycle" in the New Left Review.

-- J. Hoberman: "Mumblecore’s compulsive navel-gazing, paucity of external references, and narrow field of interest is not for every taste—as Sam Fuller told a French journalist who asked him about Rebel Without a Cause, “I hate these adolescents and their problems.” Like, who doesn’t—although, seeing these films, I regret no one was on hand to fashion art from the stoned blather or communal shenanigans of Viet-era twenty-somethings."

-- Emmanuel Burdeau from Venice at Cahiers du Cinéma: On the new Arnaud Desplechin film; and Wes Anderson's The Darjeeling Limited.

-- Kevin Lee on Sam Raimi's Evil Dead 2.

-- Several recent posts at Jason Sperb's place, Jamais Vu.

-- Steve Erickson on Johnnie To at Gay City News.

-- Several pieces in the current issue of Screening the Past.

-- Online viewing at Expanded Cinema: Alexandr Hackenschmied's Aimless Walk, which "in many ways inaugurated the avant-garde film movement in Czecholovakia, while also proposing early ideas of 'psychogeography' later developed by the Situationist movement."

-- Phillip Lopate at Bookforum: Literary adaptations into film. (via Sachin.)