TIFF ’06 Diary #1

TIFF has been a fine, blustery week, with temperatures hovering in the 60s with occasional showers. After the heat records in Los Angeles this summer, this feels like paradise, and standing in line at midnight for The Host in a torrential downpour with lighting crashing around us was an atmospheric high point of the festival. The films and company have been terrific–I’ve only seen one movie I ultimately disliked, and so far I’ve seen about 20 of them (not including the Wavelengths program of shorts).

Here are my impressions of the films, which I hope to add in six- or seven-film increments over the next few days, although I fully expect to write about my favorites more in depth after seeing them again sometime down the road.

As usual, I’ve done a bit of last minute schedule-rearranging, and added/dropped a couple of films from my initial plan. The biggest surprise this week was the festival’s last minute addition of Jia Zhang-ke’s Still Life to the program. Woo-hoo!

The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema

Sophie Fiennes’ playfully philosophical documentary was the perfect way to begin the festival, with film theorist and psychoanalyst Slavoj Zizek plowing his way through the (often sexual) subtexts in films by Hitchcock, Lynch, Tarkovsky, and many others. For those who have seen last year’s Zizek! documentary (recently released on DVD), Zizek’s infectious mixture of Slavic passion, humor, and the gift of gab won’t come as any surprise, and the film is definitely compulsive viewing for cinephiles.

I’m not aware of other films that unapologetically showcase wall-to-wall Theory–and for that I’m grateful–but, however, I must admit that Zizek’s ruminations on the sexual ideal or the Mother Figure reminded me so much of my university theory classes from fifteen years ago that I wondered if it wasn’t all a bit dated. I don’t reckon it would be easy to make post-theory formalism as juicy a subject as Lacanian subtext (picture David Bordwell armed with a stopwatch standing in front of a wall diagram of camera movements and shot lists). But maybe it attests to how fun Fiennes’ movie is that I wish there was more of its kind representing the broad spectrum of cinematic ideas previously relegated to the classroom. Bravo.

Ten Canoes

Sometimes a cinephile’s imagination can be a quagmire. I thoroughly enjoyed Rolf de Heer’s new film, set in Aboriginal Australia–it’s an engrossing ethnographic drama performed by non-actors, beautifully shot in alternating color and black and white; it contains wall-to-wall narration in English that mirrors and diverges from the visuals in interesting ways, and the dialogue spoken by the characters was unsubtitled. Aha! I thought. So many ethnographic films compromise their subjects by spoon feeding the viewer with text translation, but de Heer’s film presents the Ganalbingu dialect on its own terms, forcing the viewer to engage the words almost musically, grappling with their ambiguity and inflections as a real traveller might. I had to rush out of the film, so I couldn’t stay for the Q&A, but I spent the next couple days thinking about this ingenious narrative technique.

Saturday night, however, I discovered TIFF had exhibited a faulty print–de Heer had subtitled the film and was outraged by the lack of subtitles at our screening. (I’ve been told I missed a lot of good penis and fart jokes.) My film theory crumbled.

Fortunately, Australia has officially submitted the film to the Oscars, which means I will almost certainly get to see it again at the Palm Springs film fest in a few months. Stay tuned…

12:08 East of Bucharest

Corneliu Porumboiu’s film is a modestly wry social examination of the contemporary media and the Romanian revolutionary events of December 1998. It is framed with glorious shots of Bucharest at dawn and dusk and the kind of affectionately dreary social observation that Cristi Puiu raised to the level of art in The Death of Mr. Lazarescu. Various discontented characters eventually meet on a television show to commemorate the revolution but proceed to wreak havoc with the media’s desire to package history in a neat, tidy box of self-flattering rhetoric. The humor is well-observed and the truths that emerge are deserving of reflection. I enjoyed this film and while it wasn’t one of the towering achievements of the festival, it marks an auspicious debut and signals a filmmaker to watch.


Requiem

I haven’t seen the recent Hollywood version of this true story about a religious young woman prone to epileptic seizures and the belief that she’s possessed by demons, but I’m a fan of director Hans Christian Schmidt’s previous Distant Lights (Lichter)–a gripping ensemble film about individual and culture clashes set on the Oder river between Germany and Poland–and this film presents its potentially lurid subject matter with equally admirable psychological complexity and naturalism. Sandra H¸ller has won several European awards for her performance; at times, her struggle is fiercely interiorized (reminding me of a similar effect in Dreyer’s Vampyr) and times uncompromisingly physical. In fact, I was reminded of Dreyer on several occasions, given the film’s ambiguous attitude toward potentially destructive religious authority and potentially life-giving spirit, yet–as in Day of Wrath–certain elements complicate even those labels. It’s a film of numerous paradoxes, and one so aware of–and accommodating to–them that it might even drift into academicism if it weren’t for the its steady emphasis on its protagonist’s emotional state from start to finish, fashioning an intense and compelling meditation on early adulthood, the tensions between mysticism and modernity, and much, much more.


Climates

About the only negative comments I’ve heard regarding Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s latest–apart from those offended or confounded by its minimalist poetry–is that it’s not as good as Distant. That may be true, but at this level of visual and aural artistry, I’m not going to quibble. Ceylan’s previous films (Cocoon, Kasaba, Clouds of May, and Distant) all tell a thematically interconnected story of life flowing from one generation to the next, and while this film doesn’t apparently continue that examination, it suggests a different kind of autobiography: Ceylan and his wife play the lead roles in a story about a fractured relationship slowly coming apart. Amazingly, both performances are superbly wrought examples of understated ambiguity and nuance, save for one extended scene of physical confrontation choreographed in a single disturbing shot. What makes the film so effective is the way it communicates the relational dissolution almost uniquely through Antonioniesque compositional suggestion and a highly crafted soundtrack rather than expository dialogue or plot events. This is a film fraught with tension in which almost nothing happens: a quiet dinner, a lazy afternoon at the beach, a conversation in a van–all are atmospherically transformed into various shifting climates of yearning, antagonism, and despair, rarely articulated but consistently devastating.

The Host

Yes, it has a cool monster–a creature of slimy, malformed absurdity–and several astonishing visual moments. (Unfortunately, most of these can be seen in the trailer.) Bong Joon-ho’s horror film about an aquatic creature terrorizing Seoul is well-timed and efficient, and having once cruised the Han River myself, I can attest to its authentic use of locations. Seeing the film at midnight with hundreds of rabid fans who had just spent the last hour or more lined up in the rain generated heady excitement, where every sentence uttered by the presenter was interrupted by raucous applause.

But unfortunately, I simply couldn’t emotionally connect with this film at all. Like several other Korean blockbusters of late (Save the Green Planet comes to mind), it’s layered with such easily digestible irony and self-ridicule that it undercut all my attempts at genuine emotional investment. Ostensibly the drama revolves around a dysfunctional family, but their grief is played for laughs and it’s difficult to discern who is more inhuman–the lumbering, amphibious beast or the slacker protagonist whose major ambition is to steal a tentacle of smoked squid when no one is looking. The film is an effective roller coaster, but I kept wishing the obnoxious characters and condescending tone would fade into the background so I could simply admire the creative CGI.