Monday, November 10, 2014

TIFF 2014, part 3: Short Takes

To conclude my TIFF coverage: some impressions and ideas sparked by ten films ...

National Gallery (Frederick Wiseman, France/USA). One quiet but persistent theme in this film is the tension between the separateness of an artwork—its identity firmly associated with a single art form—and its connectedness and co-existence with other art forms. So, for example, the gallery that Wiseman chose to document is unusually small for its international renown, and focuses exclusively on paintings. There’s a brilliant shock cut in which he transitions abruptly from shots of several paintings seen in close-up, to a shot of bright fluorescent lights. This edit carries a wonderful dissonance: it instantly evokes Dan Flavin’s famous fluorescent-light pieces—and is also an immediate reminder that such work is outside the narrow, focused ambit of the National Gallery. At several other instances, the film pulls away from the exclusive focus on painting. A docent, addressing a group of children, breaks off from the work he is describing to talk about the differences between painting and literature. At another point, Nicolas Poussin is analyzed as a painter who strives for an imitation of sculpture. A surprise musical interlude features a piece played live by a pianist in the gallery; and the film climaxes with a dance performance …

P’tit Quinquin (Bruno Dumont, France). Dumont reminds me (never more so than in this lengthy, sustained work) that cinema is an art form of the exterior: of surfaces, of the visible. In other words, cinema shows us with unequalled vividness and detail that no two surfaces are alike, no two bodies, no two faces. Thus, cinema in Dumont’s hands becomes actualized as a medium of radical difference. But Dumont is not a ‘documentary’ filmmaker; he is a self-described expressionist. Which means that his films accentuate and amplify difference, doing it through deformation of all that is ‘normal’, all that is ‘expected’. In his own words: "I think if there’s no distortion or no alteration, there can’t be expression … The distortion has to be either the way you’re going to design the character, the way you’re constructing the dialogues, the type of the faces of the people, the way they move; this is what I like. I like working on making these modifications. Because only with these alterations reality becomes interesting … that’s how it gains the sense and the meaning and it becomes cinema.”

Pasolini (Abel Ferrara, France/Italy). Nicole Brenez’s study of the films of Abel Ferrara came out seven years ago; I revisit this book more frequently than any other director study in my collection. There are hundreds of ideas, insights, and allusions here—but they have revealed themselves to me only gradually over time. Each year I sink a little deeper into this book. Brenez writes in the opening pages that the stylistic principle uniting Cassavetes, Fassbinder, Pasolini and Ferrara is “the exclusive privilege accorded by these filmmakers to the description of human behavior via gestural, actoral, and emotional invention.” Save a few scenes depicting Pasolini’s domestic life—which I found spellbinding—this film lacked the moment-to-moment ‘behavioral inventiveness’ and surprise that I prize so much in Ferrara. When Pasolini’s death arrives, it is rendered conventionally, without a single unpredictable note in any of its detail. Still, it’s not a movie I dislike, even if it feels a world away from his great run of the 1990s …

Goodbye to Language (Jean-Luc Godard, France). I have very limited knowledge and experience of 3D—confined entirely to commercial cinema—but it came as a surprise to see 3D being used dissonantly here. (In my naïveté, I’ve never thought of 3D as being anything but a consonant effect, one that attempts to ‘enhance’ perception without obstructing or problematizing it.) At certain moments, it hurt my eyes to continue watching, I had to look away, take off my glasses for a few seconds, rub my eyes. This effect is very much intended, of course, which brings the meta-cinematic/meta-3D aspect more sharply into focus. In this vein, there is a great, laugh-out-loud formalist joke when the text “3D” is superimposed over the text “2D”—but the latter is distantly in the back, receding, while the former is vibrantly, over-eagerly upfront, ‘in your face’. There is an interesting interview with Godard’s cinematographer Fabrice Aragno at Film Comment.

Voila L’Enchainement (Claire Denis, France). An interracial couple: he’s black (Alex Descas), she’s white (Norah Krief). The decline of their marriage occurs—as it always does—not at a single instant but as a chain of events, thus the title. In one scene, she wants him to tattoo her name on his body. He patiently explains that he can’t do that. He doesn’t want to be branded—like slaves used to be. This 30-minute short feels like minor Denis because of two reasons: it lacks richness of settings (because of budget constraints it was filmed mostly against blank walls, in bare rooms, and in close-up), and, equally important, it lacks movement.

Tales (Rakshan Bani-etemad, Iran). Jonathan Rosenbaum once wrote that a key function of cinema is to generate and disseminate news reports from different parts of the world. (Alas, I can’t remember the piece from which I’m taking—and paraphrasing—this idea.) Tales is often a blunt and heavy-handed film, but in one electrifying scene that is a single ten-minute take on a bus filled with factory workers, we hear about: inflation, drugs, suicide, AIDS, labor unrest, worker exploitation and male domination. What is shocking is that this discussion takes place in an Iranian film. There are characters and situations in this movie that hark back to Bani-etemad’s previous fiction feature, Under the Skin of the City, from over 10 years ago; here is Laura Mulvey at The Cine-Files on that film.

Eden (Mia Hansen Løve, France). In some respects, this bears some similarities to another biographical work, Olivier Assayas’ Something in the Air. Both feature a flatness of tone, a lack of modulation of emotional register. Eden is composed of short, low-key scenes: one thing happens, then another, then another—but the film accumulates little dramatic impact as it unfolds in time. It makes for a certain monotony, a lack of intensity. But music goes a good way to restoring life to the film. I liked that it wasn’t about dance music in general but garage in particular. As a character puts it, garage is a combination of ‘cold’ (electronic beats) and ‘hot’ (soul vocals). I particularly appreciated one rare but memorable glimpse into an invisible component of dance music creation: the scene in which a series of electronic drum beats are auditioned on the computer, characterized, evaluated, chosen or dismissed ...

Alleluia (Fabrice du Welz, Belgium). The ‘termite-art’ highlight of the festival. Every frame of this film seems to simultaneously carry a fierce awareness of its meager resources and an imaginative response to it. Most of Alleluia (and almost the entire first half) is shot in close-ups of never-ending invention: partially and playfully lit frames, frames divided into zones, expressionist pools of color, bold graphic strokes, starkly inscribed silhouettes. The shots are brief; they don’t linger and flaunt this profusion of creativity. The film is a remake of The Honeymoon Killers (Leonard Kastle, 1969) and Deep Crimson (Arturo Ripstein, 1996); Lola Dueñas, whom I’ve only seen in minor roles in two Almodóvar movies, is indelible as the female lead. In the Q&A, du Welz traced his love of horror to his teenage discoveries of (in the same breath) Hitchcock, Buñuel and Bacon …

The Princess of France (Matías Piñeiro, Argentina). As with its predecessor Viola, I really enjoyed this but feel like I can’t say anything about it until I’ve seen it at least one more time. Piñeiro gave a scintillating Q&A, leaping from one thought, one association to another. He likened his films to constructions such as Alexander Calder’s mobiles (“made of iron but the wind comes in by chance and moves them one way or the other, unsettles their structure”). On the fast-paced rhythm of his films, he said something paradoxical: that the thought of slowing them down never enters his mind, that their speed “provides a freedom to the viewer” because “you [the audience] are at least as smart as the film”. On Facebook, Piñeiro is a voracious cinephile with a broad taste and an eye for arresting frame-grabs, which he posts regularly. Three interviews with him: at Cinema Scope; Film Comment; and Brooklyn Rail.

Horse Money (Pedro Costa, Portugal). The single most beautiful image of the festival was a close-up of Ventura’s nails: long, smooth, delicate and ivory-pink. This film feels like a formidable work—but it resists immediate ‘assimilation’ and ‘critical processing’. Every image here is majestic, unhurried, stone-like: with a silent weight. The stunning opening features a series of Jacob Riis black-and-white photographs of working-class and poor people. In the next ten films I see after I’ve seen a Costa film, I think I am unconsciously more sensitive to the sculptural possibilities of cinema, the way light occupies, models, shows and hides a given space—and it was true here too. Costa gives great interviews; here are some recent ones that allude to Horse Money: at Cinema Scope; Film Comment; and Twitch.

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Recent reading:

-- An exciting, recent personal 'discovery' for me has been the work of British filmmaker Joanna Hogg. All three of her films (highly recommended) are now streaming at Netflix. See: an interview with her by Paul Dallas at Cinema Scope; and Rachael Rakes' piece, "Interior Life: Space in the Films of Joanna Hogg". An interesting detail: the end credits of Hogg's new film Exhibition name-check this issue of the cinema journal Screen with providing inspiration.

-- On the occasion of the release of the Essential Jacques Tati box set, several essays on Tati are now available at the Criterion site: by Jonathan Rosenbaum; James Quandt; David Cairns; and Kristin Ross.

-- The new issue of the journal e-flux is devoted to Harun Farocki.

-- A new Jonathan Rosenbaum essay, "The Future is Here," on science-fiction cinema.

-- Cristina Álvarez López on "second chances" in cinema, at Fandor.

-- Foster Hirsch and James Bell on the "method acting" style at Sight & Sound.

-- A blog post by Steven Shaviro: "Art/Money".

-- The film section of this month's Brooklyn Rail includes pieces on Derek Jarman, the avant-garde program of the New York Film Festival, and the documentaries of Eduardo Coutinho.

-- The entire staff of the Moscow Film Museum has resigned in protest against the newly appointed director who replaced long-time director Naum Kleiman. An open letter has been sent to the Russian Prime Minister.

-- A petition to stop making "smooth motion" the default on all HDTVs. Via Farran Smith Nehme.

-- A short video demonstrating the restoration work done on Hiroshima Mon Amour. Via Corey Creekmur.

-- Blog discovery: Menthol Mountains, via Leo Goldsmith.

pic: Bruno Dumont's P'tit Quinquin.