Thursday, October 06, 2011

A few impressions from Toronto

Here are notes on a handful of films from Toronto. If you have any thoughts on these films or filmmakers, I'd love to hear them in the comments.

THAT SUMMER (Un été brûlant) (Philippe Garrel, France). Ten minutes in, and I find this film, like other Garrel, deeply, unaccountably moving. It’s not the characters, their desires and dilemmas — it’s too early to know what they are just yet. It’s what always gets me about Garrel: his “regard,” his own special deep and intent way of looking. His look is concentrated, still, un-ironic, Romantic, full-hearted. The ordinary, everyday reality of human beings — their faces, movements, gestures, or even just each person’s special immobility — is not just captured but inexplicably and miraculously heightened by this special, Garrelian look. He monumentalizes with his look the most obvious things we take for granted in real life — but he does so without hyperbolizing them. In this film, he focuses on a small number of characters who are lovers and friends, but each time he introduces a new character or when a new person enters the frame, my heartbeat instinctively quickens as if an entirely new and fascinating ‘landscape’ had just come into view. This is how acutely he is able to sharpen the viewer’s attentions — surely some kind of perceptual feat.

THE KID WITH A BIKE (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Belgium). The Greek verb “kineo,” to set in motion, is often claimed to be the root of the word “cinema.” I responded to this film with a primal force because it’s about ceaseless movement. Running, pedaling, chasing, being chased, climbing, falling, ducking, darting, hurrying: the film is a virtual catalogue of these (and other) dramatically urgent forms of movement. There’s a great moment when the kid shows off his prowess on his bike by stopping it and balancing himself to a point of complete stillness for an instant. It’s a quietly humorous moment — an apotheosis — because it tells us that movement is the natural state; it is stillness that must be achieved with the special application of skill.

CRAZY HORSE (Frederick Wiseman, USA). Wiseman’s documentary on the famous Paris strip-tease club left me ambivalent. I loved all the behind-the-scenes stuff: long meetings about creative decisions and club management; bits of rehearsals; auditions; interviews with employees; and the minute-to-minute technical problem-solving in preparation for the shows. Some of the most telling moments expose the “branding anxiety” of the nightclub: it no longer wants to be seen as catering to “Japanese tourists” and wants respect, admiration, and prestige for its “refined art”. It’s great to witness this middlebrow quandary hover over the conversations and decision-making. What disappointed me were the long, repetitive, and relatively unreflective presentations of the dance numbers themselves. There’s a devastating moment in a backstage meeting when the director of the show proposes a restructuring of the stage management staff in order to specialize them, to highlight and take advantage of the special uniqueness of each employee. In the same breath he points out how different the stagehands (almost all men) are from the girls in the show, “les filles,” who are all interchangeable. The critique couldn’t be clearer — but by lavishing long and fascinated attention on the numbers, the film doesn’t further this critique in any way, and in fact only ends up endorsing and failing to question this gendered division of labor. It strikes me as a confused film: clear-eyed and critical in its backstage documentation; and wide-eyed about the abstract, formalist qualities of the strip-tease performances themselves.

HOUSE OF TOLERANCE (L'Apollonide) (Bertrand Bonello, France). This drama about the last days of a French brothel at the turn of the 20th century provides a corrective to some of my issues with the Wiseman film. The prostitutes are imaginatively individuated but — and here’s the film’s true radicality — this individuation is not performed through character development or psychology. In fact, despite spending a full two hours with them, we hardly get any sense of their “inner lives,” their psychological motivations, or their backstories. Instead, these women register as pure presence, as bodies and faces shot frequently in close-up, without the illusionistic need to outfit them with “rich” characterological detail. Some of my favorite scenes in the film are anthropological in nature: the group ritual of the trip to the gynecologist’s office to be examined for disease; and the initiation of a newcomer into the daily regimen — what time the women retire, when they awake, what duties they perform, what protocol must be honored with their clients, and so on.

AZHAGARSAMY’S HORSE (Sureendran, India). Here’s an interesting phenomenon: a festival film is almost always a film of some ambition, a film that in some way seeks a certain regard from the audience. Even the horror or exploitation works that show at TIFF aspire to some level of “art” — or at least to some level of special-ness or cult-ness. In the midst of such films, the Tamil rural comedy Azhagarsamy’s Horse is a “termite” surprise: it’s rude, crude, sentimental, vulgar, broad, joyous — and, I believe, completely unaspirational. Now, I’m not claiming this is a great film — but it’s qualitatively different from most of the films that surround it at the festival, and thus a blast of fresh air. The film also contained the most memorable and shocking image of the festival: the closeup of the rear end of a horse as it squeezes out a large, cylindrical “pooh stick,” which is then immediately caught mid-air by a village charlatan, stirred up with water, and sprinkled on the faithful believers in the village square as an all-promising healing elixir from the gods. Wow! A savagely satirical moment that is played not preciously or with any self-congratulation but casually, unfussily, in passing.

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A few links:

-- A wonderful collection of tributes to Raul Ruiz at The Notebook, by Luc Moullet, James Quandt, Catherine Grant, Joe McElhaney, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, Gonzalo Maza, and others.

-- Miguel Marías on 120 essential films of the 1920s. At Miradas de Cine.

-- David Cairns at Shadowplay on Mark Cousins' The Story of Film, a new 15-episode TV series.

-- Thom Andersen in the new Cinema Scope: "Random Notes on a Projection of The Clock by Christian Marclay".

-- Dave Kehr and Dennis Lim on the latest DVD box set from the National Film Preservation Foundation, Treasures 5: The West, 1898-1938.

-- The indefatigable Catherine Grant helpfully collects links to Maya Deren studies; and to work on sound in Hitchcock's cinema.

-- The latest issue of La Furia Umana includes a round-table on the "post-cinematic" with Steven Shaviro, Therese Grisham, Nicholas Rombes and Julie Leyda; an essay by Joe McElhaney on Terrence Malick; and much more.

-- Adam Nayman's terrific piece in Reverse Shot enriches my appreciation and makes me realize that I may have underrated Asghar Farhadi's A Separation.

pic: Azhagarsamy's Horse.